Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Agent's Hot Sheet: The (Not Especially) Long Haul

The (Not Especially) Long Haul

If you work hard enough and long enough and have no small amount of luck, you may just break in as a screenwriter. But how long will the gravy train run, and what can you do to keep it on the rails?

by Jim Cirile

Reprinted courtesy of Creative Screenwriting

Richard Arlook
The Arlook Group

A.B. Fischer
The Shuman Company

Emile Gladstone
International Creative Management

Ava Jamshidi
International Creative Management

Julien Thuan
United Talent Agency

Jake Wagner
Screenwriter/director John Fasano recently celebrated his 20th anniversary as a working screenwriter. This event was all the more remarkable because of its rarity. Earlier this year, Academy president and former Paramount head Sid Ganis told him, "You're the only writer from back then (the early '90s) who's still working." Fasano attributes his two-decade long career to “being terrified of running out of money.” Seriously, he says his secret is that he always tries “to be sensitive to producers’ and directors’ needs, and to understand what sometimes the silliest frigging notes you've ever seen actually mean.” In other words, embrace the notes, they’ll love you. Give ‘em ego, end your career.

Sounds simple, right? Yet it can’t be, or a lot more people would have multi-decade writing careers. Obviously there are other factors at work. So is it really possible in this day and age to not just break in, but to still have a career in 2030? As always, Agent’s Hot Sheet’s in the hizzy with the 411.

Here’s a sobering statistic. ICM feature lit agent Emile Gladstone asserts that the average life of a writer in Hollywood is about five years. “You have to be very careful how to extend that,” he says. “You have to play chess. It’s not just about being talented. You have to learn how to play the game and be a strategist and not be reactive, which is very, very difficult to do.” In short, just because you break in doesn’t mean you’re in to stay. “Screenwriter” is not (generally) a salaried position with benefits and job security. UTA agent Julien Thuan agrees with Gladstone’s assertion. “I would offer up a couple more years on that, but I don’t think it’s an absurd statement. It’s certainly not long. Any writer who can sustain a career for more than a decade in this business -- it’s a harsh business, obviously -- and find a lot of success, that’s an incredible career.”

It’s important for writers to understand exactly why longevity in Hollywood is measured in nanoseconds. The first has to do with the writer’s ability to deliver the goods consistently. “(A new) writer comes out with a lot of heat,” says FilmEngine manager Jake Wagner, “either off a spec sale or at least a hot sample, and it’s a process of capitalizing on that heat with the open writing assignments or selling more material. If the writer wipes out on assignments or never writes a great piece of material again, yeah, three or four years, it could be all over.” The second factor has to do with writer burnout and the rapacious, soul-sucking nature of the Hollywood development process. “Sometimes people just lose steam,” says Thuan. "Sometimes they get cold because they can’t do it anymore. They’re not excited about taking those general meetings anymore, about being entrepreneurial in quite the same way, or they have other priorities. After taking a little break, it becomes really difficult to come back again.” In other words, they get sick of doing the dog and pony show.

And then, of course, there is the inevitable shooting oneself in the foot. Says manager/ producer Richard Arlook, ““Sometimes you get driven so crazy that at some point, it’s just, like, ‘I’m done.’ The producer wants more work to be done. The writer doesn’t want to do it. We all know how that’s going to end.” The writer will get his delivery money, but the producer will replace that writer in a heartbeat and word of the writer’s attitude will spread like Crisco in a hot skillet. “The smart person is not interested in winning a battle, he’s interested in winning the war. How do I define winning the war? Having a successful career.”

But occasionally writers lose momentum due to no fault of their own. “The town makes decisions about writers,” says Thuan. “They get excited about new people, new voices, new ways of telling stories. Sometimes people who just do good work don’t get quite as much credit. It’s a really tough thing for people to reconcile.” Yes, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, Hollywood is not always a meritocracy. “I’ve seen writers go through a 2-year phase where they (were) up for tons of writing assignments,” says Wagner, “wrote at least one original screenplay or pilot a year, and still nothing. But as long as they were getting close on everything—if the spec almost sold or they almost got the job—then it’s just a matter of time. So then you’ve just got to keep on going and know that it’s a combination of luck and timing and hard work. Eventually you’ll get the luck back.”

Success at screenwriting can yield some big paydays, but it’s often hard for writers to come to grips with the fact that the end of the line may be sooner rather than later. Having a fiscal strategy is a smart move. When you’re first starting out, don’t be so quick to ankle the barista gig. “I have that talk right away,” says Wagner, “especially new writers, because as soon as they sell something, they quit their jobs. You just (have to say,) listen, this could be the only thing you sell for a while. And no one understands how long it takes to get paid.” This is primarily due to wrangling from legal affairs combined with studios simply not wanting to pony up until they absolutely have to. “The guys who’ve been doing it a couple years, they get it. “ Beyond that, figuring out how to manage the capital during both flush and fallow times is crucial. “Part of what you do is talk about how one maintains a living when financially things can change from one year to another,” says Thuan. For example, it may be very prudent for a writer to invest wisely, hopefully to create revenue stream that continues after the writing career ends. “I’m not a financial advisor,” says Arlook. “I give prudent, basic advice. (If a new) writer sells a spec for maybe $350K, $400K, they (will often) behave like they’re going to be doing that twice a year. You have to say, ‘Listen, don’t put yourself under financial pressure. Until you’ve maybe done this three or four times and you’ve got $1 million cash, you might want to live simply.’” His former colleague from Gersh Agency, Sandra Lucchesi, adds, “(New) writers, don’t quit your day job. Don’t live outside of your means. This isn’t a 9 to 5 where you’re collecting your weekly paycheck. You have to protect yourself in terms of how you take care of your finances. It happens to every artist -- you’ll have moments of great success and then moments of not so much.”

Obviously, our panel is most concerned with keeping those careers on track in the first place -- for your sake as well as theirs! “We talk about things that one can do to remain fresh as a writer, in the minds of those people who do the buying or the hiring,” says Thuan. That means always having a new piece of material. “It’s the one thing that’s in your own control, that you can do consistently, and it’s a way to stay fresh and create material free of creative interference.” Wagner agrees, “Pump out at least one piece of original material a year. In this business, staying focused and positive are probably the two hardest things to do. A writer can always write a new screenplay. Directors have it bad. If you direct a poor movie, you can’t just go direct another one. They’re in director jail for five years.”

And if you’ve cracked the assignment game, follow Gladstone’s formula for longevity: “First and foremost, deliver, deliver, deliver. If you sell the script, and (you’re turning in) the rewrite, you want to have something waiting in the wings.” Gladstone notes that one mistake people make is they get hot off a spec and then grab every job thrown at them -- a surefire recipe for career hari-kiri. “It’s very hard to deliver on three jobs simultaneously, and you don’t want to make people wait. They hire you to do a job; they expect you to do it now. So you have to always be creating, always be writing. Hopefully you’ve taken a bunch of meetings, but you don’t want to take the job until you’re on the downhill slope of whatever other job you’re on.”

If all else fails and your career hits a wall, the panelists have one more trick up their sleeves: “Reinvent yourself or rewrite yourself into another genre,” says Wagner. “If you’re the thriller guy and you’re not getting thriller assignments, take a whack at an actioner or a 4-quad(rant) family thing. Jumping genres is a way for writers to reinvigorate a career.” But will the town take seriously a comedy spec from a writer known for edgy thrillers? “If it’s good, they’ll take it seriously,” laughs Wagner. “I’ve seen it happen. All of a sudden, they have a whole new career in this other genre and going to meet all those producers and production companies and are now up for all these brand-new writing assignments that they never had a shot at.”

Good luck, and I’ll see you all in 2030!

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