When is it Time to Hang it Up? A Conversation with Screenwriter Eric Koenig
(Eric Koenig sold his screenplay, MATRIARCH, to Paramount for a mid-six-figure deal in 2014.)
A few months ago, a writer I had been working with for some time came to me and told me that despite placing as finalist in a number of high-profile screenwriting competitions over the years, despite getting the semi-finalist call for a few of the TV writing fellowships, and despite, by all accounts, pushing and improving her craft from TV pilot to TV pilot, she was done.
Tired of fighting hard only to get permission to fight harder should she ever land representation or get into a writing fellowship or a writer’s room, this writer found herself, at the end of her tenure in Los Angeles, in a place markedly different than the one she arrived in: Where initially a small one bedroom apartment seemed just fine, now it felt confining, the sort that she would never move out of, and which would prohibit the growth of her personal life. When, upon arrival, she was happy to focus all of her free time on writing, writing friends and writing classes, now she found herself longing for more, longing for family, longing for far beyond the written word and Final Draft.
She came to me to tell me this one fall day, worried that I would be disappointed in her. But this was not the first time I talked to someone who has made the decision to walk away from screenwriting. Not by a long shot. Over the years, I have talked to screenwriters and TV writers, ones who had found success and ones who were just tired of fighting for it, who decide to hang it up.
But it did get me thinking of my friend, screenwriter Eric Koenig, who hung up his dentist’s drill and moved to Los Angeles after the glittery sale of his spec script MATRIARCH to Paramount in November of 2014. After four years of writing, trying and always working hard, Eric, in May of 2018, decided it was time. Time to put away his computer and his Final Draft. Time to move on to the next chapter of his life.
While it is important to draw inspiration from what keeps people fighting for their dreams and their craft, it’s also important to learn from and understand what caused them to let it go, to give it up.
Below is what Eric so generously shared with me when I did ask:
What were the highlights of your screenwriting career?
Oh, numerous. Hollywood and working in the business is very exciting. At least it was for me and there are still so many things that I did not get to experience (I’ve NEVER been on any set!).
Sitting at home and putting in the hours writing scripts? Not so glamorous. But the meetings and phone calls and pitches and getting notes from producers were all highlights for me personally. I crave new experiences, want to learn new things, challenge myself, grow, fail and watch how I better handle the same situation next time. Screenwriting provided these things to me in spades.
For so long, when I had just started writing screenplays and submitting them to various contests, the goal was simply to place in them. Some sort of acknowledgement that my writing, my ideas, my voice was appreciated. I can remember how good it felt when MATRIARCH placed well in a contest and suddenly I was on the phone with my future agent and manager.
Of course, the day Matriarch sold. My agent calling me, telling me which studio had bought it. That was an exciting day. Can anything top that for a new screenwriter?
I can still vividly recall my very first general meeting. You kind of know what to expect, and it was exactly that – all very relaxed, no pressure, let’s be creative and talk ideas. But until you have your first meeting, it’s still just this “thing” you’ve only heard about.
Becoming a member of the WGA was a highlight.
Having a script on The Black List was another.
Lastly, I’ve truly enjoyed being in a position where I could help other aspiring screenwriters who were still trying to break in. Answering questions about the business. Reading friends’ scripts and giving notes. Analyzing (and hopefully improving) others’ story concepts and loglines.
What challenges did you encounter in your screenwriting career, while you were actively pursuing it? How did those challenges affect you?
The #1 challenge I encountered: Writing a script that a studio wanted to make into a movie (or a TV series for the pilots I wrote/pitched).
This is a tough business. Everyone reading this knows that. I certainly knew that going in. Not unfair, which I think is important to point out. Just tough.
It’s really challenging to get stuff produced. Yes, movies get greenlit all the time (Netflix!). And if you’re a writer who’s getting assignment work, that’s ideal, but I wasn’t that writer.
What caused you to finally decide to take a step back from your screenwriting career?
Ahhh, yes. The million-dollar question.
For me personally, it was a simple matter of economics.
Wish I had a sexier answer. Something about me and having a big, dramatic falling out with Kathleen Kennedy (don’t know her), or being wrapped up in some Chinese corruption scandal (never been). Nope. I had bills. Doesn’t get more boring than that. [NOTE: If this were a movie, this is a good illustration of an ending that is not cathartic for the audience.]
I was paid very handsomely from the sale of Matriarch, but I did not have a screenwriting career. Meaning I wasn’t making any money. I was writing spec scripts and pilots. I was pitching my original ideas to producers. I went in for a few open writing assignments. But nothing led to a sale or paid work.
Hard to admit that, but it’s the truth.
I remember submitting the last spec script I wrote to my manager around March 2018 and telling myself, “If this one’s a no-go, you gotta hang it up, Eric. The writing’s on the wall.”
Here’s the logline of the spec I submitted:
Title: The Mignonette
Logline: Based on the incredible true story of the English yacht Mignonette which sank in 1884 forcing her four-man crew to resort to murder and cannibalism in order to survive, and the subsequent criminal case that established legal precedent still used today.
Well, it was a no-go. (To be clear, that script wasn’t the reason I decided to stop writing. That was simply the last one I wrote.)
I was in my 40s. I had gone to school and studied for a profession completely different than screenwriting. It was time once again to pursue that. That was where I was needed more. That would provide me a career and a paycheck. And that’s what I’m doing full-time now.
I politely told my agent and manager I was stepping away from the business and there was no, “What?! Wait, are you crazy?!” They understood.
My passion for movies and telling stories is still there. That NEVER went away.
I still love writing in general. I still think of ideas. I still like to read the trades. Follow spec sales (the few times they seem to happen these days). I still listen to a few podcasts dedicated to the craft (Scriptnotes, On The Page, 3rd & Fairfax).
I just don’t write scripts any more.
Looking back on your pursuit of a screenwriting career, do you have any regrets?
Well, maybe writing a few specs with terrible concepts, but that’s on me. Early on I would charge forward and write an entire script because I loved the story or characters, when I probably should have sat back and really evaluated if it was commercial. Many times it wasn’t.
And maybe I’d take a re-do on a couple meetings given the opportunity. Just try and pitch an idea better. To the producers that were in those rooms, sorry.
I certainly don’t have any regrets stepping away from my previous profession back in 2016 in order to pursue screenwriting full-time. My writing career did not blossom like I dreamt it would, but I’m extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to pursue that dream.
Had I not tried and was sitting here today in the same situation, then without a doubt I’d be kicking myself wishing I had given it a shot and wondering what might have been.
Were there any important lessons you learned, either while pursuing screenwriting, or once you took a step back from it, that you could share with me and my readers?
I guess what I’d like to stress is that everyone’s different. This was simply my journey. The very last thing I want to do is discourage anyone from pursuing their screenwriting dreams. We, as writers, need more encouragement, not less!
If you’re passionate about screenwriting, pursue it with reckless abandon. Or at least with controlled abandon, whatever that looks like.
Trust your gut.
When it comes to story AND when it comes to your career.
Just as we writers must make informed decisions when it comes to creating a great opening scene or a wicked 3rd act twist or an emotionally satisfying ending, we must also do those things with our careers.
And this will look vastly different for everyone. For some, it might be entering a few contests. For others it might be trying for 20+ years to get their all-nude bank heist musical produced.
You’ll know if and when it’s time to ever hang it up. I did. In my gut. And it was a difficult decision for me to make. To use Vegas parlance, where I live now, I was all in, doubling down on Hollywood. I wanted that screenwriting career more than anything. And I wasn’t afraid to put in the hours and work to make it happen.
Yet it still didn’t happen for me.
Life’s a journey. Enjoy it. The rejections and failures along the way only make the successes that much sweeter. So if your gut tells you to keep writing, then listen to it and keep writing!!
You can learn more about Eric in my book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES
For the record, I agree with Eric – writers need more encouragement rather than less. Writers need cheerleaders to root them on on their journey towards their dream, to help power them in what often feels like a Sisyphean task. Writers need to be reminded that they can and they will get there as long as they keep working hard and challenging themselves. Others have done it before them, and while it is, as Eric stated, tough, it very much is possible. And on most days, as many of my writers discovered over time, I am first in line with those pompoms, eager to support my writers in any way that I can.
But when my one writer came to me last fall and told me it was time to pack it up, I didn’t try to talk her out of that decision. My own life has taught me that what we want can, and often does, change over the years, and when it does change, there is no use fighting it. Every screenwriter yet to break in or eager to repeat a past success will come up with his or her own equation: how much to push, how much to sacrifice, when to reconsider and why. And that equation will likely shift, if not change entirely over time. I am a big believer in fighting for that dream as hard as you can, with everything you’ve got. But sometimes, dreams can change. And if you come up with another dream, another road that you think will make you just as happy, well… There is nothing wrong with that.