Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Always Be Closing, Part 6: They Don’t Want To Be The Money

It’s time to share the most valuable piece of screenwriting career advice I’ve ever gotten. Screenwriter Chris Kelly had just gotten back from a bruising round of meetings in Hollywood and he shared with his class the bitter truth: “Always remember: they would write it themselves if they only had the time.”

Writers and directors tend to think of producers as simply “the money”, but nobody goes into producing for financial reasons. (It’s actually a terrible way to make a steady living.) Producers may have gone to law school or business school, but while they were there, they were always thought of as “the creative one,” so they entered the movie business.

And producing is creative. It’s their job to pick the right material, hire the right people, give great notes, and make sure that everybody sees the same larger vision. But like most bosses, they start to think that they’re doing all the brainwork, and any task they don’t handle directly is simply a part of their job that they’ve delegated out for time reasons. They forget that they hired you to do something they’ve never done (write a screenplay) and couldn’t do, even if you put a gun to their head.

So what can a writer do? As Tina Fey points out in her great book “Bossypants”, one rule of improv also applies to most everything in life: Answer every question with, “Yes, and…”

In improv, two or more people are writing a scene together out loud in front of an audience. Eventually, one of them is going to say something that threatens to derail the scene, but you never say no to any idea once it’s out there. You say, “Yes, and...” then you build on it. If you think their idea was bad, then you try to steer the skit back on track, but you have to do so with an “onwards and upwards” attitude.

This is a great attitude to have when the studio is giving you notes, but you’ll need it before that, too, even when you’re pitching. If they like your idea, they’ll start throwing notes at you before they even buy it. This is good. This is called “buy-in”.

No one is ever going to buy your version of your idea, they’ll only buy their version of your idea. The sooner they start making your idea their own, the more likely is that they’re going to buy it. Of course, the off-the-cuff notes they’re throwing out might sound terrible, but you have to respond immediately with “Yes! And…” Give them their buy-in, then steer it back in a better direction.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wow! "Yes, and..." may arguably turn out to be the secret to world peace. I may have to tattoo it (discreetly) on the inner bend of my wrist, so that I can look down and be reminded of it at crucial points in any discourse, negotiation, debate or other exchange of ideas that threatens to fall apart. Love it!