There’s No Crying in Screenwriting
Full disclosure: Sometimes my job calls for me to be a hard ass. Luckily for me, most of my writers do their work and plough on forward come hell or high water. But when that’s not the case, when the writer is getting “in their own way,” it becomes my job to step up and call them out on it despite the fact that I HATE being the bearer of bad news. Better me than the industry, right? At the end of the day it’s just part of the job.
A few weeks ago, I met with a screenwriter I’d been working with for well over a year. The screenwriter, who had some success a few years back, just completed a screenplay and sent it to a few producing contacts. But weeks had gone by, and all he was receiving was passes. “The script is well written but… “ “I wouldn’t know how to get this kind of movie done.” “Ultimately it’s just not for us.” Rightfully disappointed when we sat down, the writer lamented: “This industry is so haaaardddd!” “How come – of the 5 people I sent the screenplay to – no one fell in love with it and wanted to buy it?” “Why don’t they get me????” “How come it’s so haaaardddd?????”
Don’t get me wrong: this is not the first time I’ve heard this from a writer. But it’s also not the first time I heard it from THIS particular screenwriter. I know it’s hard. We all do. But for some reason, this particular meeting caused me to question whether this was a writer I should continue to work with moving forward. Now, for someone who dedicates her time exclusively to working with and supporting writers, this is an unusual – and somewhat jarring – reaction. After all, I’ve heard the complaints. I’ve been through the meltdowns. I’ve talked writers off the proverbial screenwriting ledge more than once. So I had to stop and consider: Why this writer? Why this moment? Why had I – who had heard it all and generally had no problem stomaching it – been so turned off?
And then I realized: Over the time we worked together, the writer had been doing more and more crying about screenwriting and the industry and less and less actual, well, writing. I was hearing a lot more about how much he hated the industry, and a lot less about his writing and determination to get his work out there. And his strategic efforts had been minimal at best. He took notes like they were a personal affront and refused to step outside of his comfort zone to expose his work. Instead, he took to sending his script to a handful of producers he had known and worked with in the past, and complaining about the changing nature of the business, all the while bitching about the communication failures of executives, and venting about what he had become: a misunderstood writer who wasn’t getting the reception he was so convinced he deserved. And the longer I knew him, the more dominant the complaints became. My problem was not that this particular writer was having a hard time. Every writer has a hard time. It’s essentially part of the job description. But it’s not – and never should be – the main part of the job description. So what made me reconsider our relationship was the realization that this particular writer was doing a lot more crying than writing. And in this industry, that’s just not the way to make your case.
I asked him to meet me for a “come to Jesus” conversation. There were some basic things that I had to remind him:
- This is not an easy gig. If it’s an easy gig – or an easy path – you are looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. A few days ago, I was at lunch with an industry friend, who was raising capitol for a movie through private investors. We both agreed – and he had made it widely known – that movies have never been a safe or even wise investment. But the people who come forward and invest their money in these ventures do so because of the love of the product and all it represents. For screenwriters, conventional wisdom dictates 5-10 years to break in, and once you do you have to continuously prove yourself, reinvent yourself, contend for the next job. You have to understand the marketplace. To know the trends. To understand how your work fits within it. And I don’t think it ever truly gets easy. You have to not only love the writing; for all its good and bad, you have to love the space.
- Your work does you no good on the shelf. Sure, you can complain about it throughout (though it’s highly advisable to keep these complaints contained to your inner circle), but a substantial part of your job is getting your writing exposed. Showing it to as many people who may have some influence as possible. At the end of the day, five people – even five powerful producers – do not a market sample make. Jewerl Ross, one my favorite managers, is known for getting every script he puts out there in dozens of hands. While he expects a certain amount of people to pass, he knows that in the end it’s a numbers game. If you’ve done your job, delivered on the writing and vetted the work, it is now your job to get it in front of as many sets of eyes as you can.
- If no one is responding to the work… Take your notes and say “Thank you.” If the notes resonate, or if you get the same note from multiple sources, there’s probably something there. Use those notes not to indict the industry for its incompetence, but rather to figure out how to make the work better. Stronger. More market viable. After all, that is your job as a writer. Sure, the hope is that if you get it in front of enough people, someone will see in it the gem which you’ve been so dedicatedly polishing. So if notes are offered up, remember that they are not a personal criticism but rather a genuine effort to help you understand why an executive might not have gone for the work.
- No one will love your script more than you. At least, not until they get their finger prints on it, and even then it will not be their brain child. After all, agents, managers and producers have fallen in love with projects before and brought them to fruition. That is what makes them desirable to you. Expecting them to read the work and fall desperately in love with it to the same extent that you are is just not realistic. Producers and executives in this industry read material all the time. Some of it, they respond to enthusiastically and consequently pursue with passion and zeal, whether for representation or production purposes. They will love the work and prioritize it in their own way should they choose to get involved. But asking them to love the work to the same extent that you do will do nothing but set you up for disappointment.
- It’s not the industry’s job to adjust to you. While I never advocate chasing trends, I do think it’s important to understand what the industry is spending its money on – whether in production dollars or spec acquisitions – and choosing which project to pursue – or not – accordingly.
- You have to love it (more than you hate it). Remember, disdain has a tendency to leap off the page. And desperation has a very specific – and very off-putting – stench. When it comes down to it, this is too rough and too demanding a space to fight for your place in it for any reason other than this is the place that you truly, genuinely want to be in. It’s easy to agree that bad scripts get purchased, that crappy movies get made, that bad people get hired. But then, that happens in every industry. What matters is that this vocation and this industry is your first choice, that you are pursuing it for the love of it rather because you are not sure what else to do, that you genuinely want to put in the work and are willing to take the consequent rejections that are par for the course when fighting to make dreams come true.
At the end of the day, my message to the writer was this: Sure, there will be tough moments. There will be disappointments. As I mentioned earlier, it comes with the job, and happens on every level, whether you are just emerging or are already a working professional. When going down a tough road, not every bump should have the ability to trip you up. You’ve got to pick and choose both your battles and your disappointments. After all, it’s far better to be a writer who embraces the challenges and, more often than not, focuses on enjoying the process. Because you know what they say… There is no finish line. There is only the journey.