It’s harsh but true. You suck. You’re not as good as you think you are. You lack talent, craft, and most importantly, good sense. Otherwise you’d stop wasting your time and trying to break into Hollywood, settle down, and get on with the humdrum that is your true existential self.
I didn’t always think this way. I had a more egalitarian view of the writers’ world. Early on, as success was beginning to spark in my career, I’d hear agents and producers whisper to me their secrets to discerning a good script from bad.
“How do you get through all those scripts in just a coupla days?” I innocently asked a development pal, whose backpack was so weighed down with his weekend reading that I worried it would permanently injure his already out-of-kilter back.
“Easy. Read the first ten pages,” said an agent friend. “Then the last five. If those are any good, I’ll double back and maybe read the whole thing. Otherwise, I know it’s crap.”
I argued otherwise. That any man or woman who had the moxie to sit down and scribble, pen, type, or even dictate a movie story into a hundred-fifteen pages, bind it with three brass brads, and submit it to the world deserved a thorough and fair reading.
“They’re lucky they get me to read five pages total,” said a movie exec I used to go on pub crawls with. “Facts are facts,” he went on to say, “and ninety-nine percent of screenplays are crap. And I’m not even talking as if crap means not up to studio standards. I’m talking about bad writing, poorly told stories, not a scrap of anything redeeming.”
“You’re just looking for shortcuts,” I countered, still defending all who endeavored to put pen to metaphoric paper.
“I’m just looking for readable scripts,” he argued. “And they are few and far between.”
I wasn’t convinced. I held on to my optimist’s belief for quite some time. Years. Not that I was naïve. Well, maybe I was to a degree. I just couldn’t believe that the percentages were so tilted. After all, how could so many people be so deluded? Not just that, most of those representing the cynical side of the argument—and by that I mean the readers, development execs, agents, managers, etc.—were reading pre-filtered works. The best of the best as presented by the writers’ reps, near all of whom had turned away thousands in search of the few they thought could deliver on their promise.
Then came an actor pal who had a production deal with HBO. He asked if I would come aboard as a producer on a particular project where he was having trouble getting the story right. This, I understood, was a back door way of getting me to write on it. But at the time I was over-committed on other assignments. So, most likely because my ego had been stroked with such deft finesse, I said yes and—lo and behold—became a producer.
What do producers do? Among other duties, they pretty much read an ass-load of screenplays. Stacks upon stacks of ‘em. And when the stacks are depleted, there’s a moving truck outside the office door piled with pallets of unread scripts. Forests worth of wood pulp turned into writers’ movie dreams.
The writing samples messengered to my home office soon began to mound into speed bumps throughout my house. And as I tried to read each and every one, the excitement of producing, not to mention finding the right voice for the damn HBO movie, began to wane under the onslaught of—yes—lousy bloody screenplays. One after the next. From hackneyed to horrible. Sure, there was the occasional flourish. A script with an ear for dialogue but clueless about structure. Or a draft of decent story-telling but with dialogue so sour I’d have rather stuck my tongue into a light socket.
And worse. As the reading and reading and reading labored on, my standards began to seriously dip in hopes of putting an end to the marathon trek.
To say the least I was aghast at the abysmal lack of quality work. Yet despite that one HBO experience, I still wouldn’t yield myself to the bad rap that the average writer gets from all those gatekeepers who have already prejudged ninety-nine point-nine percent of those who deign to call themselves screenwriters.
Fast-forward a few years and, somehow, that HBO story repeated itself. I’d get invited to produce something, I’d dip my toe into the script swamp, try to read all the screenplays offered from head to tails, only to watch my soul get crushed a little more. My faith was waning in all those fellow word jockeys I’d clock as I ducked in and out of my neighborhood Starbucks. It wasn’t quite the same brotherhood of writing talent as my Utopian self had imagined.
But why? I asked. How could there be so many God awful screenplays clogging the Hollywood pipeline?
Then I started doing the math. I asked myself when was the last time I’d even heard about some wannabe writer trying to scratch out his or her living as a novelist? Or playwrite? Or even magazine writer? Maybe one or two in a matter of years upon years. Yet is seemed just about everybody and his entire familia had a screenplay in a drawer, under the bed, in a file on a hard drive, just waiting to be discovered.
And if not an actual screenplay, who on the planet didn’t have a “great idea” for a movie?
That’s when it gelled. Not just the financials. It was a rather well-known assumption that, pound for pound, screenwriting was and still is the highest paid writing gig, short of the very few who make their living on the New York Times Bestseller list. But beyond that, movies and television have a far greater influence on our social lexicon than plays and novels. As Americans we are, comparatively speaking, mass consumers of both motion picture and boob tube fare. So why wouldn’t one automatically imagine his or her story on screen instead of bound between two covers and parked on some nifty Barnes and Noble bookshelf or a cardboard standee at the nearest supermarket.
In the eighties and nineties there was a significant amount of PR involving spec script sales garnering some unknown scribbler a butt-load of bucks. Penning out a movie began to seem like a better bet than hitting the local 7-Eleven for a bi-weekly Powerball or Megamillions ticket.
Kart Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. Though I would strongly disagree, I might offer a rewrite on his snarky theme. Screenwriting is the opiate of those who dream of being a writer. It promises a great deal of bang for the buck in exchange for what might appear to be a minimum amount of effort.
Essentially, such a large percentage of screenplays suck because pretty much anybody thinks they can pound one or two out of their caffeinated head-hole, cash the check, walk the red carpet, and retire on residuals.
Let me put this in simpler terms. No matter how good you are, it’s hard to get noticed in an ocean full of pretenders.
Not long ago I received a cold-text from stranger who’d somehow gotten a hold of my mobile number. This stranger wanted me to team with him on his bold, movie idea. Instead of my usual polite decline, I got yoked up over who the hell had so cavalierly passed along my phone number to this hustler. He dropped the name of the assistant to a movie director I no longer talk to. Cutting to the chase, I eventually succumbed to the guy’s moxie and suggested he reach me via email. In a matter of hours my inbox dinged with his arriving correspondence. I needn’t waste your time paraphrasing his sales pitch to me. Instead, I will paraphrase my response.
“Thanks for your speedy email. Unfortunately, upon reading it I can understand why you would hope I’d collaborate with you. Is English for your first language? Because before writing a screenplay, being able to form a sentence along with a rudimentary ability to spell would be a good start.”
Like so many, here was a man who dreamed of being a screenwriter. Only he hadn’t the skill or inclination to learn even the simplest fundamentals.
So okay. Maybe I was wrong and you don’t exactly suck in the classical sense. In fact, it’s my deep and abiding prayer that you are the real thing. The next Steve Zaillian or Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. You just may have to work that much harder to invent a way to stand out from that very massive, noisy, and untalented crowd.
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