Wednesday, January 07, 2015

THIS IS MY BOOMSTICK

Happy New Year, fellow scribes!

If you're like me, you may use the coming of a new year as time to reflect on your successes and failures of the past twelve months. Sure, we may not like some of the conclusions we draw, but I believe personal and professional growth comes from listening, really listening, to constructive criticism, taking it to heart, and -- this is the most important part -- devising a plan of action. I mean heck, that's kind of why I founded Coverage Ink 13 years ago in the first place. 

Thirteen years. Wow!

So if you're like me, one big question likely pops into your head as you assess how effective your efforts to break in have been: "What am I doing wrong?" Heck, we all feel like we deserve success, right?  And yet it proves elusive. Your last batch of queries was met with a collective shrug; the one producer who did request your script never got back to you; you flamed out in the first round of last year's contests, except for maybe one quarter-final slot; and you sent your script in for coverage somewhere and got hit with 12 pages of notes.

It's enough to suck the mojo right out of your walrus gumboot (obscure Beatles reference, BTW. Kanye thinks they may have something.)

So because I have SO been there and have agonized over this stuff to the point of absurdity, allow me to share some observations and conclusions that have come from this often painful introspection -- as well as from knowing a lot of writers. Here are a few things you may indeed be doing wrong without even realizing it.

15 Drafts Don't Mean Done. 

Oh, one of the more painful ones, we know. You do draft after draft, and eventually you get frustrated, say "Good enough," and pull the trigger -- posting the script on BlackList, sending out queries via Virtual Pitchfest, contacting your industry connex. But was the script really ready to go? Were you rocking consistent 'considers' or getting raves from your friends? Were people contacting you to ask if they could help or be involved with the project? Because that's what happens when people really dig something, and that is the momentum you need to see before you send your baby out into the cold, cruel world. 

Irritatingly, progress on a screenplay may not always be a linear forward path. You've heard the expression 'one step forward, two steps back' I'm sure. This is never truer than in writing. What happens is, often when we fix problems, we unknowingly create new issues, or perhaps the fixes cause another issue, which may not have been that noticeable previously, to now be prominent. Over time, the screenplay can become more and more disjointed as the spot-fixes may not always coalesce with the whole. In those instances, it's often better to literally wipe the page and start afresh. 

Yes, this sucks, but great writing seldom appears on schedule, within the timetable we've allotted for it. One has to be flexible enough and secure enough to not pull that trigger just because we're already invested a year in a damn script. Working on several projects at once can help prevent burnout. 

Entitled Ain't Just a River in Egypt (Um... What?)


This is what you call a "first-world problem" a lot of us share -- because we've studied screenwriting and written a bunch of scripts, perhaps invested years in it, we feel entitled to success. We may resent other writers who have broken in and are now making a living while we're still forcing a smile as we ask customers if they want extra foam on their freaking Caramel BrulĂ©e Frappuccinos. This is only natural; we all have egos. 

Now suppose I put it to you like this: how long does a lawyer have to study before they are allowed to actually practice law? Or a doctor -- from college through through internships and certifications, how long does that all take? And these folks are investing big money (if you're a US citizen; of course, this type of education is free in every other civilized country) and likely going into heavy debt. Six to eight years later, after 40-80 hours a week invested in your education, you are now ready for a starting job in that field. 

Now tell me: how many of us have actually invested that much time and/or money in learning our craft? The truth is, very few of us. We just assume that because we're decent writers and we've all read books and seen movies and got an "A" in Creative Writing in college that we can make millions writing for movies and TV. Why should breaking in as a writer be any easier or require any less time or experience than any other high-paying, highly skilled profession? 

Friends, the industry is hard to break into by way of quality control. Hollywood's high castle walls effectively keep out the riff-raff; only the select few -- the crafty, the industrious, the hardy, the indefatigable -- will eventually breach the fortifications.

Sucks, yeah.  But it's all well and proper when you think about it.

How Groan Is Your Valley?

We read a lot of scripts here, and the vast majority of them do not suck. But many of them suffer from what I call Conceptitis, which means -- even in its most ideal form, the premise of the story may not ever get anyone excited. 

"Whiplash"
Truth be told, finding a killer concept, or even a decent one, is about as easy as finding an honest politician. As my old pal producer Dan Ostroff once told me, "I'll take a poorly written script with a great concept over a well-written script with a mediocre concept any day." The reason is, you can always rewrite a weak script, but a mediocre concept may be an insolvable problem.

As the bull's-eye for features and TV scripts grows ever more miniscule, there are certain ideas which are just not commercial at this time or else are currently played out. Dramas are a tough sell, unless -- and this caveat is true of every single genre or idea -- unless you find a really new, fresh, or different take on it. If you blow people's minds, doing something really amazing or unexpected, the sky is the limit. Just look at "Birdman" and "Whiplash," two of 2014's best movies. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, they could have been boring, deadwood dramatic exercises. But smart, intense scripts dialed it up and made them rock. Ensemble dramas especially -- meh. They just don't work as specs. And expensive period pieces (unless they're for TV) are always a tough sell. 

On the more commercial but played-out side, anything with werewolves, vampires, spies, a serial killer, terrorists or superheroes are all basically DOA. Again, there are exceptions, but getting traction on one of these is a Sisyphean task. Finding an awesome, fresh concept may take a lot of brainstorming sessions. But it's better to wait until you have that killer idea than to move forward with a so-so one and waste a year of your life pushing it. 

Can You Will An Alternative Reality Version of Hollywood into Being?

Not Coming Soon.
Continuing with the above thought, we all wish that Hollywood was more like it was in the '70s and '80s, before the studios were gobbled up by megacorporations. In those days, they might take a chance, sometimes, on riskier material. Of course, they churned out a lot of crap, too. But they made way more movies than they make now, and thus there was more opportunities for good storytellers. Too, minimum guarantees on foreign sales meant lots of opportunities from smaller film companies making "programmers," which could always be counted on to turn a profit. All of that meant talented writers could earn a pretty good living -- the opportunity was there.

Hollywood will likely never return to those days; don't expect it to. If you're writing the next "Kramer Vs. Kramer," good for you -- but don't expect Paramount to make it. Instead, one now has to think about independent or foreign financing or self-producing. Awesome movies are still being made; they're just being put together in more creative ways. And if the end result is a great movie, then a big studio might pick it up at Sundance and release it. Way less risk for them. As for the writers, those paychecks are harder and harder to find as the middle has been almost completely squeezed out of the marketplace.

But in case you didn't get the memo, there is a renaissance going on right now, and it's called TV. Premium cable led the charge with incredible content like "The Sopranos" and "Dexter." Basic cable stepped up and gave us "Monk," "Breaking Bad" and "Sons of Anarchy." And now we have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and YouTube creating envelope-pushing original shows with none of the cliches and censorship associated with network TV. 

Truly, it is an AWESOME time to be a writer. Adjust rose-tinted goggles and set sights accordingly.

Dead Horse, Meet Flogger.

The industry expects you to be able to create 1-3 scripts/year. If you're still trying to send out the same script you were shopping this time last year, pardner, that ol' nag is ready for the glue factory. Sure, there may always be new opportunities for an old piece of material, but if the script has been exposed to the town in any significant way -- as in, it's been submitted to a couple of production companies -- you may well be dead from this point forward and not even know it.

The reason is because of tracking. Any script which is sent out in any significant way is tracked; development execs sometimes share coverage as well. Which could mean if you got pass/pass at Disney, you may already be dead at Universal. This is not always true, but in this day and age it's probably best to assume everyone knows everything. As well, once a script has been submitted to a company, any further submissions will inevitably result in the previous coverage being pulled up. People are always looking for an excuse not to read. So even if it's a new draft, you might be dead in that case as well.  Hell, I got busted once even after a title change. Their database actually pulled up the coverage based on writer name. Yep.

Most importantly, agents, managers and CEs hate when you query them the same script you've already hit them up about and/or submitted last year. Heck, sometimes our record-keeping is inept (we are writers, after all) and we forget whom a script has gone in to. But they don't, and they'll hold it against you. One of the biggest pet peeves of agents and managers is writers who don't write. You must expect that the vast majority of your work will be "practice" and put it on the shelf once it hits the expiration date (roughly a year from the time you start sending it out.) Writers write. So get over it and move on. You do have other ideas, right?

Doing the Notes Is Not Really Optional.

I love our clients -- we have so many amazing ones who constantly blow me away. Some of you guys really embrace feedback as a valuable part of your script development process. Take Carlo Bordone, for instance, who has sent us probably a dozen drafts of his script "Wartime Revelations" over a period of almost two years. His latest draft scored a coveted 'consider' as part of Get Repped Now!, thanks to lots of hard work on his part, and we will be sending it to our manager panel this month. 

Carlo Bordone
Yet others reject the notes and fire back several pages of flame-mail vitriol. Sigh. Look, of course not every note is going to be right. Sometimes a reader truly does not get what you're trying to do or flat-out misses something. It absolutely happens. But to reject the notes in whole or even in part is just kinda foolish, and says more about our own egos than anything else. I mean, you're paying for that feedback. Actually listening to it however, that's up to you. Except... it isn't really.

'Cause at the end of the day, there really is no getting around doing the notes. It's a lot easier to reject the reader's comments -- "What a moron!" No one wants to take on all that -- especially since we thought we'd nailed it in the first place. So maybe we'll do a couple of the little easy notes, but the big script-rippers -- like not having a clear protagonist, or the inciting incident not coming in until page 43 -- we ignore those. Because that means WORK.

Look, we all hate doing script rewrites. But isn't that what we signed up for? Isn't that exactly what we hope to be paid for someday -- doing revisions on your script (or someone else's)? But to get there, we *must* learn to not wall-up when we receive constructive criticism. And to do the damn notes.

And finally:

You Do Know the Odds, Right? 

Sometimes we do everything right, yet even then, things go south.  Your friends all love the concept of your new script. You get a couple bites and send it out. Then boom -- another spec with a similar concept beats you to the marketplace. You're dead in the water. Or the script that you've painstakingly ironed the bugs out of is just not a genre that's popular at the moment. Or your manager sends out the script and everyone likes it, but no one buys it. Who the hell knows why? Could be all the companies had already spent their development budgets for the year but didn't feel your script was discretionary fund-worthy; or perhaps it requires a tricky or specific bit of casting, or the budget is just too big... and on and on and on.

It's at times like these that I recall the legendary Ash Williams:  

"You see this? This is my BOOMSTICK!"

Yes, this whole writing thing will beat you down and wear you out and suck all the joy of creation right out of you if you let it. I know I just said you have to temper your ego, but gumption is just as important. Think of yourself as the protagonist in the movie of your life. You will be tested. What you're trying to do is not easy. The stakes are huge. The cost of failure: dire. And vast enemy armies will be doing everything they can to stop you. 

But... we have a goddamn metaphorical boomstick, and best of all, it has INFINITE AMMO. So no matter how many slings and arrows you may suffer, hello, there is always another shell just waiting to be chambered. You just have to reach for it and load that sucker. Then stand up proudly and brace yourself, because another wave is coming at you. But this time you'll be ready. Because you've invested the time and energy into learning your craft and you are a talented, never-say-die son of a gun. 

Lock and load, baby.



Jim C.
www.coverageink.com

www.coverageink.com

"You see this?! THIS... is my BOOMSTICK!!"
"You see this?! THIS... is my BOOMSTICK!!"


1 comment:

jEFF K said...

Right on. Thanks for the pep talk and perspective!