You’re heard it a gazillion times: it’s not what you know but who you know.
Talent, schmalent, one screenplay is pretty much like another. Don’t oodles of lousy scripts get produced? We’ve all seen movies that were worse than one or another of our own unsold screenplays. How can it be that a bad script gets shot and my superior work remains on the shelf? Clearly, the explanation can only be that what counts in Hollywood is not the quality of writing but the right parties, schmoozing up the right people, making the right connections.
In fact, this is the opposite of the truth. I know personally all kinds of well-connected writers who cannot manage to sell a screenplay. On campus at UCLA in our graduate screenwriting program, on the other hand, I see brand new writers break through every season. The truth about Hollywood, as hard as it may be for skeptics to acknowledge, is that it is a meritocracy. Newcomers succeed on the basis of the worthy scripts they write.
I moderated a screenwriting panel years ago in Maui (am I a lucky guy or what?) in which big shot screenwriters discussed writing issues. The panelists were Carrie Fisher (beyond her career as an actor, she has also substantial success as a writer), Steven DeSouza, James L. Brooks, Ron Bass, and Nick Kazan. I pointed out that prior to their success only one of these writers had any connections at all. That would have been, of course, Carrie, who told the crowd that her connections held her back for years, actually militated against her success, served not as support but obstacles to overcome. All the others achieved what they achieved starting from scratch.
If your writing career at the moment wallows in scratch, therefore, you are in good company.
Every successful writer without exception, no matter how adored, rich, envied, lauded and accomplished, was once as anonymous as you.
Cynics love to quote Dorothy Parker’s timeless line: “Hollywood is the one place on earth where you could die of encouragement.”
My answer appears in my 1999 novel Escape From Film School: “Hollywood is the one place on earth where you start at the top and work your way down.”
Your best credit is no credits. Exactly as movies romanticize and idealize the human condition, so also does the movie business. Producers can project upon a blank slate the romanticized, idealized vision they seek. They cannot do that with a writer who has development deals that didn’t develop, movies that got made that never got distributed, or movies that got distributed but bombed at the box office. This is the only business I know where inexperience trumps experience.
At the first meeting of my regular UCLA screenwriting workshop, in which each student has ten weeks to write a feature-length script, I brag to the attendees about all the movies, not to mention movie franchises, which have emerged from scripts written in these very same classes. Forgive me for bragging, but it’s the writers’ fault; they give me so much to brag about.
After this orgy of boasting, I caution the writers: “Please don’t try to sell the script that you write in this class.” I follow this with what some call my characteristic long pause.
Is it not a contradiction? I brag about The Highlander and Backdraft and Ace Ventura and more, projects that grew out of assignments in my own and other instructors’ classes, and then instruct the writers not to try to sell the work they write in the class.
There is, in fact, no contradiction whatsoever. I do not tell the writers not to sell their work. I tell them not to TRY to sell their work. Indeed, fervently I hope and pray they do sell their work. If they do, I’ll add it to the list of projects to brag about at future such sessions.
There is a Zen line regarding archers: You can’t hit a target by aiming at it.
To sell a screenplay you have to forget totally about the sale and simply wallow in the process. You have to do all those California things: follow your bliss, go with the flow. I’ve never known a writer who was not surprised by a twist or turn in the story, a line of dialogue spoken by a character that emerged wholly by surprise.
Isn’t life like that? The late writer/director UCLA film school grad Colin Higgins (Silver Streak and Foul Play among others) told me years ago that when he was still a film student, he prayed to win first prize in the Goldwyn competition, which would have provided enough money for him to do nothing but write for a year. He would not have to suffer the distraction of a day job. Alas, he won only second prize, which required him to seek part-time work. He chose the perfect job for a writer or actor: working for a swimming pool cleaning company.
At the first house whose pool he cleaned, an upscale home in the flats of Beverly Hills, he noticed a man sitting at the end of the pool beneath a beach umbrella, reading a script. Clearly, this was the owner of the house. Just as clearly, he was a movie producer. Indeed, this neighborhood positively overflowed with producers. Colin got to chatting with him. He told him that he was a screenwriter himself, and persuaded him to read his second-prize Goldwyn-winning screenplay. The producer ended up making the movie. It established Colin’s impressive, productive career.
Some people will remonstrate, “But isn’t that just another example of connections, of meeting the right people?” They focus on the meeting and overlook the fact that the script happened to be Harold and Maude. Had Colin given the producer an unworthy script, we would not be recounting this story.
“Just think, Richie,” Colin said to me, “If my dream had come true, if I had won first prize, I’d be cleaning swimming pools today.”
The lesson: stay open to the surprises. This is true not only regarding the surprises in your screenplay but also your life’s narrative.
It’s not who you know, or even what you know.
Ultimately, it’s what you write.
Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, will be available June 29, 2010. Professor Walter lectures throughout North America and the world and serves as a court-authorized expert in intellectual property litigation.
Source with permission: The Writers Store