Monday, June 04, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Part 5: Be Necessary

Yesterday, we talked about the importance of doing a lot of amazing favors, but I cautioned that nobody will owe you anything in return.  This was one of the hardest things for me to learn: nobody really owes anybody anything.  It doesn’t matter what you think they owe you, and it doesn’t even matter how much they actually want you.  The only thing that matters is how much they need you.

Just because you have a great resume, or “paid your dues”, or you’ve been best friends with the boss since childhood, or even if they promised you a job, they don’t owe you anything. Even people who owe you money don’t really owe you that money, unless you made them sign a legally-enforceable paper contract and you kept a copy with their signature on it.  Even then… not really. People who don’t really need to pay you anything aren’t ever going to pay you anything.

Even when someone truly wants to hire you, they often can’t. It’s not their money.  (Even if it seems like their money, it’s not.  Everybody has backers that they are responsible to, even if their name is on the door.)  The only reason that anybody will ever hire you is because you have demonstrated to them that you have something they absolutely need.

No one is going to pay you any of their money.  Instead, they are going to pay you a share of the money that you help them accumulate. And that’s perfectly fair.  It took me a long time to figure out that this is the whole idea behind employment.  The only reason to hire somebody is if they’re going to bring more money in the door each month than they take out of the door at the end of the month.

Trust me: every month that you work, keep a ledger in your head of every dollar that you bring in the door and every dollar in your paycheck.  If the first number is smaller than the second, your days are numbered.  If you want to stay employed, don’t just be nice, don’t just be friendly, don’t just be skillful, don’t just be useful. None of those are going to keep you employed.  Be necessary.  

If you are necessary, they will have to keep you on, at least for a while, even if they despise you.  If you are necessary and a friendly, professional person, then you’re really set, and your whole life will become a lot happier.  We’ll talk about how to do that tomorrow... 


j.s. said...

Isn't this sort of the argument I was trying to make in the comments about all that free work that's going on at the lowest levels? Free writing work developing junk properties or terrible producer-originated ideas is only possible because both the project and the writer are easily pegged as utterly less than necessary. So unless it's a rare opportunity to start a relationship with a great talent, a rare piece of special material or a rare favor that you know you can hit out of the park, isn't it almost always better to be working on your own specs instead -- at least up to that moment when most of your prospective employers begin to see you as abosultely necessary?

Matt Bird said...

This brings us right back to #4: Basically, what I'm saying is that, if you're doing free work for someone, and that certainly includes working "on spec", then you have to do an amazing job. Don't agree to write a free adaptation for someone unless you're prepared to blow them away with your work. If you can't, be prepared to walk away at any time.

This also brings us back to "How to Re-Write": If you're working with crappy producers or getting bad notes, then don't resist their notes and don't simply execute bad notes either-- totally re-write the section in question to eliminate the issue and elevate everything else.

Basically: if you're getting paid, then you have to exceed expectations, and if you're not getting paid, then you REALLY have to exceed expectations. The only difference is that you can walk away from an unpaid job more easily than a paid job (But only if you're upfront with them-- don't just drop contact, or you'll REALLY get a bad name)

j.s. said...

I guess I'm just not as optimistic as you are that every stupid note can be jujitsu-ed into screenplay magic by a writer who's clever enough. Especially when the notes are on the order of "you know that foundational essence of your thing, the entire reason for making it in the first place? yeah, we don't like that anymore."

And that seems to happen more than a little, even when a huge film with a large budget and major stars is in post. I know someone who actually just heard that after a director's cut screening. What the "note" really meant of course wasn't exactly "we hate it because it's a period piece" but something closer to "we're scared that we now have to sell a movie where guys wear funny hats to teenagers so please help us not be scared." Well there really was no way at all to "address" that note except to blow the audience away at the test screening, which it thankfully did.

It's also hard to blow someone away or exceed expectations doing free work when all they want to you work on are so-called "properties" too boring to waste on bankable writers. Or on your own worst -- but, say, more obvious and "commercial" -- specs and treatments. I've seen it happen often that the script that gets someone meetings is respected but feared for its intelligence, subtlety, whathaveyou. And so good writers end up dumbing everything down to try to get their foot in a door that's slowly closing on them because they're complicit in denying what everybody thought they loved about their writing in the first place.