Hi. I’m Writer Y. I’m an almost-working screenwriter outside of Hollywood.
Within the past five years, I’ve been rejected by all of the top talent agencies in Hollywood. I still have not broken into the business despite having written scores of specs. I paid to have a script evaluated on the Black List, but an average score of seven isn’t much better than an average of zero. So, no one noticed the script, and eventually it wound up back in my drawer like the others, but now I was a hundred dollars poorer. Afterwards, my writing partner and I sold a spec that wound up being produced, but the budget for the whole project was about half a million, and I think that only my friends and family have seen it, remarkable for someone who has been grinding away at it for a decade.
In addition to my spec sale, I’ve made unsuccessful pitches to a variety of fly-by-night production companies and con artists. One of those pitches was to a C-list producer who had one big hit many years ago. I briefly had a kind, wonderful actor attached to one of my projects; he passed away. One time I was in a golf cart on the back lot of Universal Pictures; I waived to Ron Howard as he went by in another golf cart – he waived back.
I’ve also almost nabbed several writing assignments with a number of D-list production companies, meaning that I did a lot of writing and prep work for free, some of which I am sure was incorporated into the final product without any compensation or credit.
And I sold a TV pilot to a production company; that script now sits in their drawer.
A-list actors and directors have never been attached to my work. I’ve been in the homes of the rich and famous, but none of them are from the film industry; they are all boring tech people who don’t like the limelight and always try to avoid the crazy stuff.
Guess what I was doing before I became a professional screenwriter?
I was an Ivy-League educated lawyer working at a large, respected law-firm with a starting salary that was greater than 99+% of earners in the United States.
Despite constant visits to Los Angeles, I still have almost no contacts in the industry (unless you count my buddy who works for the facilities department at Fox, a connection I could parlay into a sweet parking space if I ever worked at Fox). I have multiple degrees, including a law degree and a Masters of Fine Arts (in film production), and before trying filmmaking, I had always had steady employment. It all started with one bad idea – become a screenwriter.
I’ve been given notes by many people, and by-and-large when those notes came from non-writers within the industry, they weren’t valuable. It wasn’t malicious; it’s just that industry people don’t know the next best thing, only what’s worked in the past, something I discovered I can find out for myself by using something called the Internet. Also, non-writers in the industry often don’t have writing ability; if they did, they would avoid the hassle of hiring professional screenwriters. After a while, you start to see patterns in the industry. Certain phrases come up again and again (“I’m calling from my yacht;” “Grab your ankles;” “Think about it from the perspective of a squirrel hidden behind a tree.”) Certain tastes or flavors dominate the town (anything that has made a lot of money in the recent past). You might be writing a spec that seems perfect for today’s marketplace, but in reality, no one really knows what is perfect for today’s market; if they did, they would try to replace writers with computers. Being on the outside, I’ve seen the so-called trends as they materialize or fizzle out. You must ignore these trends and write what brings you joy; it’s the only antidote to the constant poverty and rejection. These things you need to know before you shell out your cash for Final Draft (especially considering there are tons of better, cheaper alternatives). Otherwise you’ll have something that no one likes, not even your mother (thanks, Mom).
People have different ideas about what it is to be a working writer. People think we sit by pools, take meetings at the Ivy, etc. I think it has everything to do with being paid a living wage to write. I did have a meeting once at the Starbucks on Beverly Drive, but never the Ivy (but I recommend the Zebra Mocha at Starbucks if you ever get the chance). As I was walking out of the Starbucks, I saw Ron Howard walking by, this time he was with his producing partner Brian Grazer. I waved; Brian Grazer looked away and picked up his pace, but Ron Howard smiled and waved back.
Breaking in is hard, but staying in the business when you’ve never broken in is even harder.
In this column, I’m going to convey to you the real working life of an almost-screenwriter. For example, I’ll give you hints about making soup from fast-food restaurant ketchup packets. I’ll also tell you how to survive the shark-infested waters. And there are, indeed, sharks in these waters, big ones with big teeth. I’ll tell you about the unspoken dress code (combing your beard goes a long way towards avoiding that “homeless look”) and how to decipher the often “labyrinthian” language in almost-Hollywood. For example, if a himbo posing as a producer just reads your first draft and tells you, “The writing is great,” you think that’s good? Well, it might be. How would I know? I wasn’t there, so I can’t use tools like context, facial expression or voice intonation to read the subtext. Familiar with the phrases “too broad,” “more grounded,” or “character’s arc”? Well, if not and English is not your second language, then maybe you should consider another field. And, I’ll even tell you where the best spots are to hang out if you’re an almost-working screenwriter (hint: late-night dumpster-diving behind Trader Joe’s will yield more potato chips than you can eat). I’ve heard that the social and professional worlds are always colliding in LA, but I don’t have the experience to weigh in on those colliding worlds. This stuff you won’t learn from a writing seminar or one of those countless books about the craft of screenwriting. Instead, my stuff will make those books and seminars seem worthwhile by comparison.
Because there’s no freegan, all-you-can-eat, cheddar & horseradish chips if have that awesome spec that everyone is just dying to read (or if you stick with your day job).
Look out for my next column where I’ll talk about how I quit my lucrative, six-figure job and started screenwriting and what happened after that (including more encounters with A-list director Ron Howard)…