Saturday, June 7, 2008

Top Ten Reasons NOT To Be A Screenwriter

Cool article by genre action screenwriter, Bill Martel.



Screenwriting sucks. It is a brutal occupation. You get crapped on all the time. But I wouldn’t change jobs for a million dollars... I love writing screenplays. So, here we are with more answers to those questions you posted a few month ago...

Question: Can you give us some reasons *WHY NOT* To Write A Screenplay?

I'll start:

1. How to write a Feature Film Script is *elusive*. Unless (of course) you are a glutton for continuous mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical pain…

Answer: Have I ever said it was easy?

2. It's almost impossible to sell a script. There are around half a million scripts in circulation ever year, and a couple hundred films made.

3. Oh, and once you sell or option a script - almost impossible to get it made.

4. And once they make it, they screw it up so bad it doesn't resemble what you wrote.

5. And critics will blame *you* for all of the bad parts, even though all of that stuff was their stupid rewrite.

6. And, as I've said before, if you were to just focus on a day job and work really hard - you'll probably make about as much (if not more) than you will writing scripts. With less hassle and more peace of mind.

7. David E. Kelley is the exception that proves really hot actors/actresses do not sleep with screenwriters.

8. The minute you sell a script and they completely ruin it, someone comes out of the woodwork saying they would have bought it and made it as written.

9. But if you sell a script for less money to someone who says they won't change a word - when they are done, they will point out that *one* word they didn't change.

10. And once you’ve gone through the seven circles of Hell required to sell a screenplay? You are unemployed... and must return to GO and begin the whole process again... Then again... Then again... Then again...

But Wait! There's More!

This is a brutal, difficult business. Someone once said that you can make a fortune writing screenplays, but you can’t make a living. That’s not entirely true, but the point is that when you read about some writer making a lot of money, those are the very very few at the top of the food chain. Every year, half of the WGA membership makes $0 (zero, zed, nothing)... and the median for the other half is around $100k. So, you can kind of plan on making $50k a year as a professional screenwriter - and that isn’t much. Of course, some people make more money... which means others have to make less money. And some people go a couple of years without work, so that others can work every year. There is no regular paycheck, and every time you sell a screenplay... it may be your last. You don’t know. Or, maybe this is the sale that will be made into the hit film that will change your career. You never know.

I just finished the rewrites on movie #20, and now I’m unemployed (I'm good 'til the end of the year, but what about next year?). So I’m running around trying to get someone, somewhere, to read a script and then buy it. Saturday night I had dinner with a producer... which lasted a couple of hours longer than expected... and after all of that time, do I have a job? I don’t know. We talked about potential projects, but nothing that seemed like a contract and a paycheck. May happen, may have just wasted half a day with this guy. There are a lot of time wasters out there. Lots of meetings that lead nowhere. This business has ups and downs - not all rollercoaster rides are in the cineplex. I have had years where 3 scripts were sold... and 3 films were made from them. Other years where I sold nothing and lived on savings from the previous year’s sales. I’ve also had years where I worked my butt off on a project that crashed and burned - I got paid, the film didn’t get made. There’s a stretch of time between credits on IMDB where I earned a living - they just never made any of the films. Problem is, go long enough without something going to screen and you start to go crazy. Am I doing all of this work for nothing? For a check? So that I can pay the monthly bills and at the end of the year have no new credits and no movie to watch with my name on it?

Hey, I could tell you tales of terror from the screenwriting trenches... in fact, some are coming up. The statute of limitations have expired on a couple of stories, so I’m gonna blog about them in the next few weeks... while I’m looking for work.

The amazing thing is - this is my 18th year as a pro screenwriter. I have managed to put together a living for 18 years, now. Through good and bad. You might look at my credits (or my credit reports) and think I'm a failure... I mean, look at all of those bad movies! But I think I'm a success - I am doing what I love, and have been doing it for the past 18 years. Some good years, some bad years - all *screenwriting* years.

Recently all of the “Entertainment News” shows (which rarely contain any actual entertainment news, but lots of celebrity news and scandal stuff) did a story on Anne Heche’s divorce - she’s behind on her spousal support payments and her ex dragged her into court... where she said that her TV show had been cancelled, so she is currently out of work and has no offers, and no idea when (if ever) she will be employed again. This is some sort of scandal! Broke TV star! How can that be? Well, it’s actually fairly common in the entertainment biz. No regular pay checks, no regular employment, no idea what will happen next. Live like a star, and you may end up broke before the next gig. What if you were “flavor of the month” and the month is over? What if that was it?

Because I’m often the guy with the facts and figures about just how tough the job of screenwriting is, people sometimes think I’m a pessimist... or, at the very least, some sort of spoilsport trying to destroy their dreams. Wrong on both counts. I am a *realist* - I don’t live in fantasy land, I live here in the real world, and want to know how to survive in this world. In either STAR WARS or EMPIRE, Han Solo says, “Don’t ever tell me the odds!” I think he’s a fool. If I know how difficult something is in advance, I can make sure I put in enough effort to win. I can prepare myself. I can make plans, do research, find the best method for success... Of course, Han Solo wasn’t really one for plans, so maybe knowing the odds was just unimportant to him. I want to know what problems I am likely to face *before* I have to face them - then I can come up with a solution and not just get beat down. Many people get beat down because they think their dreams will come true if they just keep on dreaming. Problem is - the real world doesn’t care about dreams. It’s hard work and problem solving.

Here’s the thing - once you know that there are going to be a million boobytraps ahead, and that there are 50,000 scripts registered every year, and probably ten year’s worth of scripts in circulation (that is half a million, folks) and that they only bought something like 98 spec scripts last year, and probably made around 10 or something, you may wonder how anyone can *not* be pessimistic... and there’s the key to being a screenwriter. You have to be an optimist. Once you know how crappy the odds are, once you know that your career could be over with one script sale, once you know that even if you have 19 films made from your scripts and they all turned out crap... you still believe you can make it. You still believe that someone, somewhere, will actually make your script the way it was written... or maybe even be a great director who will interpret your script using their directing talent (which has zip to do with writing) and the film will be better than your script. Hey, and maybe some great actor will play the lead and add their talent to your script (again - acting talent doesn’t mean changing the script, it means *performing* it). And the film becomes better than you could have imagined! And you maintain this optimism through crappy film after crappy film... through rejection after rejection. And when your hair begins to gray, you still *love* the writing part of this job. You still *love* coming up with stories and characters and going on those mental adventures for 110 pages.

I love to write. So, even if #20 was it and I end up working in McDonalds for the rest of my life, I will always have writing. I will always be able to do what I love.

Being a screenwriter is just like anything else in life. There are highs and lows. There are days when you think God hates you. Most days, though, you just wonder if He even knows you exist. A few weeks ago, I was standing outside a coffee shop, talking on my phone, surrounded by other people... and a bird shit on me. It didn’t shit on anybody else. Just me. A few months ago, I went to pick up some printing at a copy shop and they told me my credit card didn’t work. What? I called the credit card folks they told me that I had reported it stolen. What? I told them I hadn’t - and they argued with me. Eventually, I got far enough up the chain of idiots to get someone “in charge” who said a mistake must have been made and they would send me a new card... You know, it’s been one thing after another and many phone calls later I still don’t have that replacement card... I'm better off without it... and just use another card, now. Someone spilled coffee on me a few days ago. Burned my leg and stained a new pair of jeans - fresh from the laundry! Things go wrong every single day of your life - and you don’t quit, do you? You don’t give up on living because some bad things happen - because there are obstacles. Hey - same with screenwriting. I can tell you right now - you will have all kinds of problems in your screenwriting career. You will have producers back stab you, you will have agents blow deals, you will have managers cheat you, you will work your ass off on some film... and credit arbitration goes against you and your name isn’t on the film. There are a million things that will go wrong in your career as a screenwriter, just as there are a million things that will go wrong in your life. But if you love screenwriting, you’ll keep doing it....

Just make sure the producers don’t shit on you too much. And when they do, just remember there are other producers - some will probably shit on you less... and some may not shit on you at all. And, if you’re an optimist, some producer somewhere will read one of your scripts and know how good it is... and do everything in their power to turn it into a great film. I’m still waiting for that to happen, but I have faith that it will.

So, I’m working on a new spec... a family film about getting back up on your feet after life knocks you down. Inspirational. Optimistic... and also realistic. In the immortal words of Rocky Balboa, "It ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! Now if you know what you're worth then go out and get what you're worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits."


Brian M Logan

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