I was fortunate enough to launch my career while still in film school. I had written a spec script that one of my instructors, Cathy Rabin, read and liked. Cathy ran development at Meg Ryan’s company and showed Meg the script (this was the mid 90s when she was very much a big star). Cathy called to let me know Meg was interested in the script–and asked who was my agent? I told her I didn’t have one and the next thing I knew big agents from ICM, CAA and William Morris were inviting me to lunch, telling me why I should sign with them. It was terribly exciting as I sat there, eating my chopped salads, secretly counting the millions I was obviously about to earn from the script sale.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. My script didn’t sell because another movie with a somewhat similar idea came out and tanked at the box office, killing off any interest in my screenplay.This is a story I see all the time with my students.It is all too common to write a script that appears to be on a fast track to fame and fortune before some unforeseen event derails the project, usually mere moments before crossing the finish line.I once heard someone say this helps build character in writers.I don’t think this person is very popular or to be trusted.
The fact that it’s so hard to actually sell a spec script is the bad news.
The good news is that the life of a professional writer is less about selling scripts and more about getting paid to write.And if your spec script is original and amazingly well written, it can open the door to such a career.
In my case, the script I wrote in film school got me a bunch of meetings around town.One of them was at Ridley Scott’s company, where I pitched an idea called Metropolis, which Ridley bought in the room.The next week, he flew me to London to work out the story beats with him.It was literally a dream come true. After I turned in the script, it was reported in Variety that Ridley was going to make Metropolis his next movie.Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way, but having Ridley Scott say nice things about your script on page one of Variety isn’t a bad way to be introduced to the industry, and I was able to spend the next ten years working nonstop as a for-hire studio writer.
But things are different now than when I was starting out.The industry is a game of musical chairs with far fewer chairs.
Writers, however, are still breaking into the business.It’s important to keep this in mind. Because the moment we start to listen to the doom and gloom voices in our heads that are shouting, or insidiously whispering that it’s just too impossibly hard to break in, we have lost the game. We will stop writing. I regularly get calls from students and former students who have just received their first-ever paid writing gig. It’s not easy to break in, not by a long shot, but it is being done.The question is, how.I think there are two keys.
There are certain essential skill sets required to write at a professional level. Too many writers continue to crank out scripts without learning and developing these skills. This is not generally a road to success. So what are these skill sets?
The first skill set is the ability to write in compelling cinematic conflict, the kind that truly engages a reader and makes them want to keep reading As David Mamet stated in his memo to The Unit writers, “This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourself to do it.” And it is imperative that writers train themselves to do this, because not being able to write in compelling cinematic conflict is like wanting to be a professional basketball player without knowing how to dribble.
The second skill set is creative integration. Psychologists note some people create conceptually while others create intuitively. Conceptualists tend to write outside-in, starting with concept or situation. Intuitives tend to write inside-out, starting with character or theme. The result is that conceptualists tend to craft well-structured scripts populated by less-than-compelling characters while intuitives tend to write strong characters and dialogue, but their scripts lack structure. Successful writers are able to write both conceptually and intuitively. They get the best of both worlds. While few people naturally do this, it’s an ability that can be developed through exercises designed to strengthen and integrate these two creative approaches.
The third skill set is writing process. I’ve heard many successful writers say they know people far more talented then themselves who do not have careers and never will have careers because of their process. Process is how we write, how we create our work. Too many people unknowingly use a way of writing that prevents them from creating their strongest material. Trying out different processes to find the one that allows you to create your most compelling characters and stories is the best investment a writer can make.
The fourth skill set is structure. Whenever I bring in an agent, manager or producer to speak to one of my classes, they always say they can immediately spot a script written to one of the this-must-happen-by-this-page, paint-by-the-numbers structure formulas, and these scripts never succeed. In order to have the best possible chance at success, writers need to train themselves to be able to create flexible, non-formulaic structure that supports and enhances, instead of destroys, what is unique and original about their stories, characters and writing.
The last skill set is effective rewriting. Too many writers spend enormous amounts of time and energy chasing their tails by rewriting their material without really improving it.
So how does one go about learning these skills?
One way is to take a class, but make sure it’s one specifically designed to teach these essential skills. Another option is to get a mentor. Some experienced writer, producer or manager willing to take you under her or his wing. I had a mentor when I was in film school and probably would never have had a career if not for him. Just about every successful writer I know has benefited from having such a person early in their development.
The second key to successfully breaking in comes down to the answer to this all-important question.
ARE YOU A REAL WRITER?
I’ve recently had several agents and managers come to my UCLA classes to speak about how the industry has changed since the last writer’s strike, and one thing I heard really hit me. One manager said that real writers are still able to break in and stay in the business, but that the pretend writers are now completely out of luck.
I asked her what the difference was between real writers and pretend writers.
She said pretend writers fall into different camps. Some of them are the imitators. They see Juno and try to write like Diablo Cody. Or they see The Hurt Locker or The Hangover and try to write movies like that. They are trying to replicate someone else’s success. Another camp includes those who try to chase what’s hot. They write what they think the industry is buying right now. They don’t write from their passion. They don’t write what they most want to write. They write what they think they can sell, and it shows. She also said pretend writers follow the popular story paradigms and formulas. They knock out predictable, homogenous scripts.
She said that before the writer’s strike the best of the pretend writers could cobble together a career, perhaps even a fairly lucrative one. But not any more.
It’s now virtually impossible to sell anything without a major star or director attached, which is why the agents and managers who visited my class all said they’re looking to sign writers who can write material that can attract these elements. And what are the stars and directors looking for? Something different. Something fresh and original. Something that isn’t like all the same old formulaic junk coming out of the studio development process. The agents said that stars want to play characters that nobody has ever seen before. Characters with unique voices.
And that is what real writers create.
Real writers don’t care what anyone else thinks. They don’t write scripts to chase the hot trends. They write what they want to (or have to) write. And they don’t fit it into the popular story paradigms and formulas. They write it their way, in their voice. Which means that their scripts are unlike anyone else’s scripts. That’s the key.
The agents and managers all said they want the next Diablo Cody because only Diablo Cody can write a Diablo Cody script. The same is true with Alan Ball. Or Quentin Tarantino. Or any real writer.
Real writers are brand names.They aren’t manufacturing characters and stories that follow the same old tired formulas and trends. They are creating truly original characters and worlds. Which is the only way to get a star’s or director’s attention.
One agent put it this way: When you are established and have a career you need to know how to write the studio formula script, but you can’t break into the business that way. You have to break in with an amazingly well written piece of work that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. That’s the only way to get noticed.
THE ROAD TO SUCCESS
The way to give yourself the best possible shot at a career is to do the hard work to develop and master the essential skill sets, then repeatedly put them to use in service of being a real writer. Which means write what you most want to write, following your own unique passion and voice.
Create characters and stories that only you could have invented.
Write scripts that don’t read like everybody else’s scripts.
Because in this current marketplace the multitude of pretend writers are sitting around complaining about how impossible it is to break in and have a career while the real writers are doing just that.
Posted in Corey’s Blog | January 12, 2011