I haven’t talked about this much on this blog, but I originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue my dream of becoming a screenwriter. I had been accepted to the prestigious University of Southern California Film School (alma matter to people like George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis), and there I became friends with lots of like minded people who loved movies as much as I did. Four years later we graduated and set off to try and make our dreams a reality. A decade plus later I can tell you that some of us made it while others – like me – have yet to get there.
It is hard to explain what it is like in Hollywood to people who don’t live here because they just don’t get it. When I go back to my hometown, for example, people always ask me what films I’ve written that they would have seen. They think, I guess, that everyone who goes to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a screenwriter ends up writing Tom Cruise movies. In truth there are tens of thousand of people here trying to get a very limited number of jobs. It is as competitive as trying to become a rock star, actor, or pro athlete.
Another thing that would surprise people is that just because a writer doesn’t have a credit for writing a known movie doesn’t mean he or she hasn’t been hard at work. There are many writers, in fact, who have made lots of money selling and re-writing scripts for decades but who have never gotten a single credit on a movie. How is that possible you ask? It’s complicated, but it starts to make sense when you realize that Hollywood only makes 5-10% of the scripts it buys or hires writers to write.
So, no, I haven’t written a movie you’ve heard of, but I have been hard at work. Along with getting married, starting a family, and earning a living as a high school English teacher and copywriter, I have giving my all to making the dream happen. I’ve won screenwriting contests, acquired representation with a number of managers, and worked with producers interested in my work. More often than not though it takes a little something extra to “make it,” some kind of luck or fortuitous event – like meeting the right person or writing a certain type of script just as that genre gets hot – and I have yet to find my lucky moment.
It’s not easy keeping a dream like this alive as you get older in life. This is especially true when you can work long and hard on one project, and then, when it doesn’t happen, find yourself right back where you started. Check out this typical time-line of the life of a project:
1. You come up with an idea you think would make a great movie. You then burn the midnight oil turning it into a complete, professional script. Time to complete? At least six months.
2. You set out to find representation. This is a long process of marketing yourself and your script to agents and managers who are very busy and get “hit on” by dozens of writers every day. With dilligence and a great script you finally get a representative. Time to complete? At least one month.
3. Your new rep excites you by saying that he or she thinks your script will sell for lots of money, but has notes for you to address before it is ready for the market. These “few changes” always end up being way more involved than the rep lets on or even realizes. Time to complete? At least three months.
4. The rep is finally happy with the script and “goes out with it” (meaning it is given to the rep’s contacts in the industry to consider for purchase). Up until this point a writer will have spent close to a full year or more hard at work, but if the script doesn’t sell within a couple weeks, the rep will expect you to start all over again with a new idea. Yep. All the way back to square one.
So, as you can imagine, getting that one lucky break is so crucial. Unfortunately, as much as your script’s fate is life or death for you, the writer, it rarely is for the powers that be.
I wrote a comedy script with my college buddy Jason a few years back and got representation with a manager who was very excited about it. One day he called us up and told us that he had good news… the producer for Shawn and Marlon Wayans had read the script, liked it, and though it would make a great vehicle for them! Shawn had the script and was going to read it that weekend, we were told, and we should know more on Monday.
Jason and I were stoked. This could be our lucky break! While chatting on the phone Friday night, I mentioned that I wished I knew what Shawn was doing that weekend so we had some idea what he thought of the script before Monday rolled around.
The next day Jason plopped onto my couch, excited.
“Remember how you wished you could know what Shawn was doing this weekend? Well, you can! He has a Twitter account!”
Jason whipped open his lap-top and started typing.
“Hey,” I said, getting into this. “What if he’s tweeted something like, ‘Just read an awesome script!’ How cool would that be?”
Jason nodded as the Twitter page came up.
“What did he tweet last?
Jason scanned the page, all smiles, then suddenly grew long-faced.
“What did he tweet?”
Jason turned his laptop toward me. Shawn’s last tweet read (something like):
“VEGAS, BOY!!! HELL TO THE YES!!!”
“He’s in Vegas?”
“But what about our script?”
“Maybe he’ll, uh, read it later,” Jason said trying to act positive. “You know, before dinner. Or in the morning. By the pool. That’s it. He’ll be poolside with our script, maybe while enjoying a light breakfast.”
“Yeah. By the pool. I bet you’re right.”
Jason and I sat in silence a long beat.
The rest of the weekend I kept refreshing Shawn’s Twitter page. It went (something) like this:
“DOING SHOTS!!! WHOOO!”
“HOT CHICKS AT MANDALAY. MORE SHOTS!”
“BLACK JACK AT FOUR A.M. SCORE!”
“BRINGING SOME PEOPLE BACK TO THE SUITE TO KEEP THIS THING GOIN’! SUN COMING UP!”
With each successive Tweet I got more and more depressed. On Sunday night Jason called about ten p.m.
“You still reading his Tweets, Mike?”
“Had to stop a couple hours ago. What’s he doing now?”
“A girl from Sweden apparently. They just met at the Hard Rock and are doing more shots.”
“Sounds like he’s having a great time.”
“Sure looks that way.”
“Looks that way?”
There’s a Twitpic.”
“Indeed. Well, I’m off to put my head in the oven.”
On Monday our manager called to tell us that Shawn didn’t think the script was right for him. He must have read it in a cab between casinos, I guess. Or maybe the Swedish girl read it for him and passed.
Oh well. That’s the way it is in this business. I’m still trying my best though, and am involved in a couple exciting projects at the moment. So we’ll see.
I just hope that the next big shot to read my script is far, far away from Vegas!