Thursday, May 31, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Part 3: They Can’t Buy You, They Can Only Buy Your Material

Connections are great.  Impressing people at parties is great.  Being the most well-liked writer in town is great.  All of these things open doors.  But the whole point of all of this, the whole point of “getting in the door,” is to get them to ask that one magical question: “What else ya got?”  If you say “Nothing yet”, then all that work you did was for nothing. 

A shoe-gazer with a great script will always be worth more than the nicest guy in town with a so-so script.  Stop schmoozing, go home, write. 

If you’re waiting until you get signed to start writing seriously, you’ll never make it.  Reps don’t sign you in order to make you money.  They sign you in order to intercept some of the money that’s about to hit you.  

You can’t fall into the trap of asking, “Why isn’t my agent talking me up so that I get more writing assignments?”  That’s not your agent’s job, and it would be impossible anyway.  Your agent’s mouth can’t sell you, only your material can sell you.  Your agent’s only job is to get your best material to people who will love it, so that they will either buy it or meet with you about writing something else.   

Another reason that you need a lot of good material before getting signed is because it’s a lot harder to write afterward. This is true for a few reasons:
  1. Your new rep will probably send you out right away on some meetings, and some of those people you meet with will want to come up with free ten-page pitches for their own projects, so you’ll be busy with that.  (P.S., That free work usually goes nowhere.  Consider it hazing.)
  2. It becomes much harder to hear your own voice after you’ve been signed.  You’ll be hit with so many derisive “everybody knows” screenwriting “truisms” that you’ll start to doubt everything you think you know. 
  3. Even if your rep manages to sell your sample, then it probably won’t make you much money, because you’re not a name yet.  Once that’s sold, you make your real money on your second sale. 
The good news is that you can stop beating yourself up about not having any representation.  You’re in the prime of your career right now: the period where, without encumbrances, you can write spec after spec.  Those specs are not just your ticket towards getting signed, they’re going to be your ticket long after as well. 

In the meantime, you need to help out your peers, which well get to tomorrow...


j.s. said...

Once again, I'm curious about the point of all that free work. Hazing? Okay, but unlike, say, fraternity life, things weren't always this way. Why is it so now and who actually benefits? I've never known anybody who had anything come of free spec pitches/outlines/treatments for projects that weren't already their own favorite ideas. Everybody working on this free stuff seems not to take it very seriously except the writers at first, who fear they will lose the respect of the people they're developing some half-assed idea with if they don't do a bang-up job. Yet, inevitably the half-assedness of the idea itself is usually to blame for the fact that everyone remains unenthused and it goes nowhere. So I'll ask again: Wouldn't it be better to spend time writing more specs you actually care about until you write something that somebody wants to buy? Isn't money the only real sign of interest that counts? What's the deal with this strange dance where writers and producers collude to do passionless make-work on junk so as to keep their imaginary options open?

Matt Bird said...

Well, things always were this way, except that each draft used to be paid. Now that the money is gone, our zombie-like industry insists on acting just like it always has, despite the fact that it no longer makes any sense.

Amazingly, they've so far gotten away with being just as demanding without pay as they were with pay, because there are hundreds of hungry new Screenwriting MFAs every year desperate for "work".

I certainly have thought, "Everybody on this conference call is being paid for their time today except for me, and everybody on the call can demand the script be a certain way except for me, so why am I the only who seems excited?"

In short, you're right. Something has to give. The zombie will die soon a new system will be born.

j.s. said...

But writing remains the cheapest part of the whole production process. And it's the easiest level at which to correct the mistakes. And if everybody is genuinely excited about something to the point where it is likely to be made won't their be real money or talent involved?

To be clear, I'm not talking about the process of biding for open assignments on real paid work or doing free work on projects you think are great and/or ones you've originated or maintain control of the IP on. I'm talking about being expected to pitch bottom of the barrel remake rights for foreign films, short stories or graphic novels that will never be American movies but that somebody just happened to have a cheap or free option to. And to work them up like it matters. For free.

What I'm talking about is more like pseudo-development or anti-development. Whereby producers with free time in their day toy with writers using material that they can afford to neglect because it's likely already too shitty to treat seriously. There's no downside for them if you somehow spin the poop into gold. But you still don't own the material or have any real rights to it, haven't been paid for your work and could be kicked off the project at their whim.

j.s. said...

Taking the beginning of John Logan's career (yeah, I know was already an established playwright) as an example, I would totally understand him having done a lot of free work on RKO 281 (because it's interesting material that's up his alley thematically and because of the relationship it started with Ridley Scott) but I could definitely not see him wasting more than a few hours on free treatments of TORNADO! or BATS when he could be working on anything else.