Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Two schmucks short" - Writing is a business

Let's be honest, folks. It's Thanksgiving week in Hollywood and anyone who lives here knows what that means - no one's working. Judging from the fewer hits and comments yesterday, fewer of you are reading blogs this week too. That being the case, I don't want to waste a good Tuesday Talkback on a lame duck week. Still I feel obligated to offer some amusing content. Having just come from a particularly hilarious meeting of my writer's group, I think I'll offer these words of wisdom from some very funny guys in their late 20s.

On this particular day, our lone female member brought a pitch to the group, then almost immediately apologized for it. She started to say that she knew it was lame and goofy, but it was right up the alley of a particular contact she'd made and she knew this was the kind of material that buyer went for. She thought this was stupid - but I disagreed and offered the following pearl of wisdom:

"Don't write from the heart, write for the wallet."

I admit, it's a bit crass and cynical and I'm sure that several readers who fancy themselves serious artists are ready to fire off an angry comment disagreeing with me. The fact remains that screenplays are written to be sold. I've said this before and it's true. Yes, it's possible to write a wonderful, meaningful script and get it produced with the right buyer but never forget the key word in that equation: "Buyer."

No one writes screenplays just to write screenplays. People write screenplays to make movies. To turn that particular caterpillar into a butterfly, you need money. That money doesn't appear out of the ether - it comes from people who see it as an investment, hoping for a return.

In other words, making an artistic statement with a screenplay is most feasible if you can make a few bucks on it. As another member of my group put it, "It's not 'selling out,' it's 'buying in.'"

I also offered the following thesis to the group: "All you need to sell a script is one schmuck to represent you and another schmuck to buy it."

Our unofficial chairman then made this statement: "Hell! I'm two schmucks short!"

Aren't we all?


  1. I've had this conversation before, with some writer friends, who maintain that they must have some personal artistic connection to the material before they can start ... and I point out that Coppola didn't want to direct The Godfather, he felt it was pop culture soft core porn and he'd be selling out ... and the main reason he did it was for the money.

    And he made it his own ... and later, when it came to the sequel, he refused that as well, as that the only reason anyone ever made a sequel was for the money, not for artistic integrity ... and Paramount backed up a money truck to Coppola's doorstep and made him a financial offer he couldn't refuse ... and he made the sequel his own. It became personal and artistic.

    I'm all for being personally creative and artistic ... you just don't always know where it's going to come from ... I've done a job mainly for the money, only to find myself connecting incredibly once I was in the middle of it, and really satsifying myself and the person who hired me.

    I've started projects on my own, for the pure artistry of it, that later crashed and burned ... and sometimes got me work ...

    You never know when and where lightning will hit, but the artistic integrity is in the process more than the product, is it not?

  2. i got an established producer to read my screenplay- he didn't like it but his words were "Keep sending it around, all you need is one schmuck." I'm going with the 1 schmuck route- that way i don't have to cut the other schmuck in on the take.
    (ok i lied...i'll cut any interested schmucks in on it- that's just what i'm telling myself to keep from crying at night)

  3. Oh please. Hollywood is all about the money. We all know that. Studio bosses went to business school. They didn't study filmmaking, art, literature, or history.

    If a screenwriter really wanna be an artist, they're better off sticking to theatre as playwrights.

  4. Bitter Script Reader,

    I read ALL your posts, I just don't post responces to them all.

    I don't view the buyers and agents as schmucks. I THINK some of the sentiment comes from the writers resment looking at the movie landscape today. So many of Hollywood's offering are superficial and lack substance. THAT then leads to the thought that people are "selling out" making schlock.

    I like to think of myself as an artist. I wanna make films that entertain people, maybe make them think a little bit, and are constistantly artically brilliant.

    Better post might be an insiders view why so many movies being released these days are so bad. THAT doesn't reflect well on 1) people in devlopement, 2) the people pulling the triggers to make these movies in the first place.

    I feel like the Entertainment Indusry is hamstrung by forces at work IN the Entertainment Industy. I don't believe for one minute that we are seeing the best stories making the silver screen from today's top writers. Why is that? Maybe, you could shed some light on that...

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  5. On the one hand, yeah it's amazing how many people don't think about the business side at all. How many actively don't like Hollywood. How many spend two years writing a period drama about a 16th century castrati, and then are shocked, just SHOCKED, when someone in the industry tells them that's not very marketable. Which they could have figured out if they spent fifteen minutes in a video store before they started writing...

    On the other hand, I'm not sure if it makes business sense to write an entire spec script because you have one connection who might, repeat might, be interested in it. That's pretty close to working for free on a producer's idea, and then when he can't sell it you can't shop it.

    Is the idea general enough that there are plenty of other schmucks to target? Or is it so specific that it's all or nothing with this one schmuck? Is it in the genre you're focusing on, or are you going to jump genres, completely changing what the industry sees you as, because this one guy might, repeat might, like it?

  6. Sweet, I went to Business School!! I must admit do I tend to think about the business/entrepreneurial side of writing and filmmaking. Thoughts of audience appeal, franchising, international acceptance, budget for my cgi/effects, would my mother and grandmother be able to handle it? I will think about those, but the story (concept, characters, structure) always need to be "job #1" with me.

    No thanksgiving week off for me, still stuck at a damn desk job. Hopefully there's a lot of opportunity to get some quality writing done around the family events. Happy Turkey Day.

  7. I've sold some scripts, but none were ever made. When i mention this to other writers they ask if it bothers me that they were never made. Hell no. I made a product and sold it.

    There's a hospital charity in Seattle that has a director that HATES the glass artist Dale Chihuly. So the fundraiser is whoever gives the most money gets to smash a Chihuly glass piece of art. Ask Chihuly if he cares.

    So to the up-and-coming writers who are looking to break in: scripts are written to sell to (at least) one person, and that person IS NOT YOU.

  8. I saw a script yesterday that had a good premise: "An Arab Assassin has to travel across the country immediately after 9/11 to perform a hit." I commented to the author that the premise was good, but there was no chance in hell a script about an Arab Assassin was going to sell after the Ft. Hood Massacre by an Arab-American gunman. Also there is going to be the non-stop media circus that could last 10 years with KSM in the NYC 9/11 trial.

    I told the writer to change the assassin to any other nationality, even Jewish. Make the assassin was from Hong Kong, Mexico, whatever. After 9/11 anyone non-white person was suspect. Heck, even nuns and priests were frisked and strip searched. The nationality of the assassin should not make a difference, unless the writer had hung the entire story on the hook that the assassin HAD to be an Arab.

    Unfortunately, he had. He had concentrated the story on that Arabs had been treated bad after 9/11, and not the more interesting story of an assassin trying to get across the country after 9/11 to perform a hit.

    So now the writer has a script that might as well be kryptonite, and he can't/won't change the script because he says the script will lose all meaning if the assassin is not an Arab.

    I wish the writer luck.

  9. Joshua brings up a lot of good points, thanks for commenting.

    Grant - Agreed, it makes little sense to spend all that time writing something that would ONLY appeal to one buyer... but in this case, it's writing an idea to appeal to a specific buyer, but not so specific that the idea couldn't be rewritten and salvaged if this one gets a pass.

    But you're right - don't write something that ONLY one person can buy because you're screwed if they say no.

    Purpletrex - That actually sounds like a pretty cool premise. I can see the point you're making about the Arab nationality, but I think if the writer handled it well, it could have been cool. Arabs WERE the ones worst treated after 9/11, so it makes more thematic sense to do that than make it any other non-white race. As long as it's handled maturely, it could probably work.