Wednesday, January 29, 2014

This blog turns five today!

"Chief, do you remember the time we rescued Captain Picard from the Borg?"
- "How could I forget? That was touch and go for a while.  Truth is, there were a couple moments when I thought that we were all going to end up 'assimilated.'"
"I never doubted the outcome. We were like warriors from the ancient sagas. There was nothing we could not do."

- Lt. Cmdr. Worf and Chief O'Brien, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "The Way of the Warrior."

The above quote is from the 4th season opener of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, written by Ira Stephen Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe.  This scene occurs after Worf has spent some time on the station several months after the destruction of the Enterprise, and he's in the midst of a personal crisis.  On the Enterprise, victory was a given, but here, on this Cardassian-built station, everything is unfamiliar, and unfriendly.

At first glance, it probably appears to be an odd choice to kick off a post celebrating the five-year anniversary of this blog.  Fear not. All will become clear in time.

Worf's conviction in himself and his comrades is the sort of attitude that we all should strive to have.  Notice I say "conviction" and not "arrogance." There is a difference.  Both in Hollywood and out, I've run across many an arrogant person who's certainty of their superiority borders on delusional.  And out here, there are many a charlatan and life coach who make a living by peddling the lie that all one needs for success is to merely put that desire out into the universe.

Actors seem especially vulnerable to this sort of snake oil.  I'm aware of at least one "class" that requires its students to go into the same casting offices every week and drop off their headshots personally so that they might introduce themselves to the casting directors.  I believe this is supposed to either show conviction or ensure your face will be remembered by the casting directors.  If those actors are remembered at all, I assure you it will be for all the wrong reasons.

I speak of a different sort of conviction - one that recognizes there may not be any easy solutions, but there are solutions.  The difference between success and failure is the willingness to go the distance rather than will it to come to you. Difficult? Yes. But not impossible - and certainly achievable.

There have been many times in my life when I have felt as Worf did about the Borg incident, despite the odds.  I have spoken before of the TV show I created and ran in college, and how we produced two seasons of shows despite the deck stacked against us.  But the incident where I really was aware of my inner Worf came several years before that, in my junior year of high school.

It was February of my 11th grade year when the School Board announced that they had targeted seven schools for closure - and my school was one of them.  Five weeks from that announcement they would make a decision about upholding those recommendations.  Before that, there would be community forums held at each of the schools.  The intent was to give the Board an opportunity to explain their reasoning while also allowing representatives of each school to make any statements they wished.

The reasons we were targeted were primarily ones of budget and capacity.  The district needed to close schools following the failure of a levy.  They were getting beaten up in the press about all the schools with low enrollments and people were definitely calling for blood in the form of school closures.  My school had a population of a little more than 500 in a building with a reported capacity of 900.  There was another high school nearby that had a population of 900 or so, and their capacity was in the range of 1500 or 1600.

(My recollections of the exact figures might be a little off.  Suffice to say, both buildings were under capacity and it appeared the other school could absorb both populations with room to spare.)

I will never forget the experience of walking into school the morning after that announcement.  There was no chatter, no hustle and bustle in the halls.  Just silence.  It might have been the loudest silence I'd ever experienced. It was the sound of 500 people still reeling from being kicked in the balls the night before.  Someone asked my homeroom teacher, "Do you think the school board will change their minds?"

"There's about a one-percent chance of that happening," the teacher said.

I couldn't accept that. No, I didn't accept that. I believed as Worf did, that with everything we'd been through, we were like those ancient warriors.  There was nothing we could not do.  And I wasn't alone.  That night, the PTA assembled.  Parents and students had a week to prepare for their community forum.  As luck would have it, we were first.  If we did it right, we could set the tone for all who followed.  The local media was already eating up this story - surely there would be a great deal of attention given to the first of these forums.

You might think that the plan was to make an emotional appeal, to parade students before an assembly and talk about how unique our school was, what a community we had built here and how much it meant to us.  Oh yes, you can probably imagine how this would play out as a scene in a movie.  We'd tug on the heart strings, play on their emotions and the School Board's heart would grow three sizes that day.  Our devotion would inspire them to reconsider and save our school.

That's not what happened.  Sure, you can defeat an enemy by fighting them on your terms.  But do you know how you really win? When you kick the snot out of them and humiliate them by meeting them on their terms.

They wanted to make it a simple numbers game. Each of the targeted schools would have their populations easily absorbed... no... "assimilated" into nearby schools.  It would solve the problems of too many buildings and underpopulation all at once.  So what did we do? We shoved those numbers down their throat and up their ass at the same time.

Funny thing about capacity numbers - they hadn't been updated since the late 70s or early 80s.  They were almost 20 years out of date by this point.  You'd think that wouldn't be a problem because the structures of the building hadn't changed, but the laws that calculated capacity had. To make a long story less long, special education students had an impact on the numbers.  I don't recall the exact explanation, but the gist of it is that special ed programs require certain resources that create a ripple effect that reduces the true capacity of the school.

So that 900 figure that supposedly was the number that our school could take?  It was rather high.  The true capacity was closer to 750. And the proposed receiving school had a similar adjustment - to the point where their true capacity was too small to accommodate the enrollment numbers from both buildings.

That was the crux of our presentation. Not "Please don't take our second home away," but, "You guys have NO idea what your own study says."  Our presentation was passionate at times, but it carried much more fact than rhetoric.  It was like a closing argument in court, and the soundbite on all the local news stations was the perfect distillation of our message: "The proposed receiving school can not accommodate the enrollment numbers from both buildings."

One-percent chance, my ass.

We redefined the story right there and put them on the defensive, both in that forum and in the press.  Myself and several other students were so well prepared when the media came looking for quotes. Instead of giving them the "I don't want to leave my friends" statements they were looking for, we started rattling off facts about capacity and how the initial proposal was based on bad data.  I was particularly pleased when a statement I cribbed from the O.J. Simpson trial ended up as a soundbite in the paper.  When asked what I thought about the proposal, I noted the flawed numbers in the study's foundation, and concluded "Garbage in, garbage out."

We found out later that the day after the forum, the superintendent held a meeting where he demanded some of his people debunk the capacity argument we laid out at the meeting.  I wish I could have seen the look on his face when his underling told him he couldn't.

Three weeks after the proposal, the Board held one of their standard meetings.  I and many others from my school attended, for some of our teachers were intending to use the "open mic" time to plead our case again.  As it turned out, we didn't have to.  At the top of the meeting, the Board announced - two weeks ahead of schedule - that they were not going to be closing any schools for the following school year.

We won.  And I had never doubted the outcome.  This result - the Board crying uncle - was the only conceivable conclusion I ever allowed myself to contemplate.  As our PTA President said, "You CAN fight City Hall."

So why tell this story on my five-year anniversary of all days?  Because I was Worf.  My high school, and later my college were my Enterprise... and when I first came to Los Angeles over a decade ago, I was not unlike that Klingon trying to make sense of a much harsher environment.  It was no longer like those days when I had the luxury of believing it would always work out.  Virtually everyone who had my back before was now gone.

I eventually got a job in the industry and started climbing the ladder, but do you know when things really started turning in my favor professionally?  When I launched this blog.  It was slow-going in the early days, I won't lie.  And yet, the more I made a name for myself (one that, ironically wasn't even my real name), the more control I had over my own destiny.

The blog became a great way to network, not just with other aspirings on my level, but with writers who had earned the kind of success I was desperately pursuing for myself.  Somehow, I became someone who they were interested in meeting.  I'd created a sort of credibility for myself and even though I'd only taken a few steps, along the way I found something that had been missing for a while: The conviction that I could do this.  That this wasn't just a pipe dream that I was doomed to pine for from afar.

So those of you still at the start of your journey, I want you to remember that the most important thing you can have is that certainty that you can do this.  It doesn't mean you wait for the universe to work out for you.  We did save the school, but that was a lot of work.  I produced two seasons of TV, but that was a HELL of a lot of work.  Embrace that.  Own it.

Those of you coming to L.A. will probably find it scary at first.  But if you stay strong, you will reach the point when you can look at yourself in the mirror and know, "I can do this.  All I need is the will to discover the way."

I didn't truly find that will until I took control of my destiny and created this little spot on the internet.  This blog has forced me to reflect on what I've learned in the industry, it's made me more aware of my own shortcomings as a writer... and it's brought me a lot of friends.  It's definitely helped my career in ways I couldn't have foreseen.

There are a lot of people I'd like to thank for their support and friendship over the years.  The problem is that I'm certain that the more comprehensive I try to make the list, the more likely I am to leave someone important out.  So instead, I think I'll pay tribute to one of my earliest supporters and the man who was critical in drawing an audience to my blog in the early days - Scott Myers.  After Scott plugged my blog, my hits jumped from about 50 a day to 500 - and they kept rising.  He's been a constant supporter and a good friend in the years since.  If you're not already reading his blog, Go Into the Story, add it to your bookmarks immediately.

To all of you who have come here regularly, either from the beginning or starting more recently, thank you for being a part of these last five years. And good luck in finding whatever it will take to own your own path.


  1. Thanks for writing. Long may it continue.
    I'm cynical and not easily inspired I'll be damned if the soundtrack wasn't starting to swell at one point there... ;)

  2. Although I don't work in the industry, I did get my degree in Film, and I've been writing as a second income stream for two years now. A lot of your posts have been very informative, giving me a lot to think about and apply - either directly or indirectly - to my own writing. I've passed the link to this blog along to several Film faculty I know - hopefully a few of them drop by regularly these days.

  3. Wow, thank you for sharing your "Worf" school capacity story. I love it when individuals dig deep and turn the tables. Must have felt damn good to educate the "educators."

    Thanks for your blog (and the opportunities you've spotlighted).

  4. Scott Myers is a really good friend of mine and truly a great, great guy... that cannot be said enough...

    he has probably the best blog on screenwriting, true, and he's a workhorse and he loves movies and writing, loves it... but what needs to be repeated again and again is that he's also a wonderful person... and there ain't a whole lotta those... not just in this business, but in any business.

  5. Congrats on hitting the 5-year mark! Always some great info and insight to be found. That, plus puppets.