Monday, May 07, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #137: Entrepreneur + Employee + Artist = You?

Whenever the topic of screenwriting gurus comes up, you always get some heckler who asks, “If this guy is so good at writing screenplays, why isn’t he a big-time screenwriter?” (as seen in the fifth comment here).

This seems like a reasonable question, but it doesn’t take into account that you can’t have a screenwriting career unless you have lots of skills over and above the ability to write.  The craft is actually only about a third of the job:

You must be a talented artist...
  • Invent interesting stories
  • Create compelling characters
  • Find meaningful themes
  • Have an ear for dialogue
  • Spend hour after hour, year after year practicing without payment
and be an ambitious entrepreneur…
  • Generate new projects all the time
  • Constantly network and maintain business associations.
  • Be able to make a sale in a pitch meeting
  • Keep track of market trends
  • Pay close attention to contracts and handle you own financial planning
and be an enthusiastic employee.
  • Be eager to please whoever is paying you
  • Happily work to the exact specifications of a demanding boss
  • Pay strict attention to details and deadlines
  • Work swiftly and steadily every day until the job is done
  • Surrender copyright and allow others to totally redo all of your work
It’s the last category that is the crucial difference between screenwriters and most other fiction writers: we are employees: 
  • We work or get fired at the pleasure of our bosses, who own and control our work. 
  • But these days, they get to control our work even if they don’t own it: it has become standard for studios and production companies to demand that you completely re-write your work for free, over and over again, according to their whims, before they even decide whether or not they are going to buy it
  • No, wait, it gets even worse: Even agents and managers now routinely insist that you totally rewrite it over and over to their whims before they even decide whether or not they’ll represent it! 
Obviously, this requires that you be an utterly egoless individual. That’s a rare trait, but it’s extremely rare for an egoless employee to also be an ambitious entrepreneur…And it’s astronomically rare for someone to have both of those qualities and also know how to write a screenplay.  Artists, entrepreneurs and dutiful employees are usually mutually exclusive groups. 

Recently, we’ve had two sources of wisdom from big-money screenwriters, Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s excellent-but-sobering book “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit” and John August and Craig Mazin’s previously-discussed podcast ScriptNotes.  If you look at both of these together, one thing that becomes clear is that none of these four have what you might call artistic personalities, and they don’t pretend otherwise.  They present themselves as entrepreneurs first, dutiful employees second, and artists a very distant third. 

In this episode of ScriptNotes, John and Craig fantasize about what they would do if they got to take charge of a studio.  Would they make fewer sequels? Develop better stories? Treat writers more fairly? Nope, they spend the whole time dreaming up way to cut costs, eliminate divisions and squeeze more profits out of everybody that’s left. 

It’s pretty chilling…and it’s no coincidence that these guys have found so much success.   Moviemaking is a mercenary business, and the screenwriting division is, alas, no exception. 


j.s. said...

None of this is all that surprising or troubling to me. Except perhaps for the free notes stuff, which I've seen mess up a number of my friends. So I'd like to hear from Matt and anyone else with experience if there are any good rules of thumb for when to do this and how much time and effort to give it. I personally can't see the point in doing any free notes that you yourself don't honestly believe will make the project better. Because at the very least you'll end up with an improved writing sample. But if you spend lots of time butchering your script and still don't sell it, you'll hate yourself and have the same script you did when you started instead of a better one or a new and different one altogether.

I've also seen so many bad scripts sell like hotcakes because the reps or producers associated with them smelled money or were in love with one or two elements. You'd think it's kind of an either/or thing for anybody reading your script: Either they think this can make money now or soon with just a few changes or they don't. So what's the deal with endless free notes?

Has anyone ever done (or heard of) something much more than one or two passes of free notes eventually resulting in a sale or a movie getting made?

j.s. said...

Not to mention I guess that if you do free notes you think are too extensive or just plain wrong in order to initiate, preserve or continue a relationship with a rep or a producer then the foundation of that relationship is built not so much on mutual self-interest as on mutual self-delusion. I've seen this happen repeatedly where everybody including the writer is doing unhelpful work sometimes on an uninspiring project just so that everyone in the exchange can keep their imaginary options open. If your reps or whatever producers you're dealing with don't think they can get rich off you quickly it seems to me the only reason to keep things going is a fantasying of hedging their bets. But who ever ends up marrying their fourth choice for a hook-up?

Beth said...

Wow...this really explains why Hollywood loves to turn books into movies.

Beth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.