Wednesday, April 16, 2014

John Gary vs. The Hope Machine

Monday night, while many people were preparing to watch the blood moon, my friend John Gary took to Twitter with some advice to aspirings to be wary of what they read about the business and what their expectations are for breaking into the business.  The commerce of trading on the naive dreams of aspirings is what John calls "The Hope Machine."

I agree with a lot of what John wrote on twitter.  He's especially right when he cautions against buying into the bullshit hype that the trades often manufacture.  If a trade article tells you that a particular spec is the hottest script in town this week and multiple studios are after it, that could be true - but it's often complete and utter fiction.  The people who have access to the major tracking boards can sniff out this lie pretty quickly, so it's fascinating the charade still persists.

This is not an easy business to break into.  Even once you "break in," the job isn't done.  There are writers who've been repped for as many as five years who haven't made a sale yet.  I've talked to writers who've taken as many as EIGHT years from their first option to their first sale.

This is a marathon.  Not a sprint.  At least not for most people.  If you're go in knowing that, you might not get crushed.  John knows what he's talking about.  He's worked in this business a long time, first as a script reader and now as a writer.

After you read John's full essay below, go check out Amanda Pendolino's excellent post on the subject as well.

What follows is John's rant from the twitter pulpit:

Story time: 2012. A close friend closed a deal on a script. She and I kept in close touch throughout the highs and lows of negotiations. I knew *exactly* how much she was getting upon close of the deal, and it wasn't much. 10k for a 12 month option. There was a guaranteed rewrite step for nearly WGA minimum - about $35k - and she stood to make a lot more money if the movie ever got made.

But the trades? "Mid six against low seven sale in competitive bidding!" Complete and total bullshit.

And yet, even though I knew EXPLICITLY the terms of the deal... when I saw the articles in the trades, my heart leapt. WOW.

And that, my friends... is the Hope Machine.

I have been doing this for a long time. I have many many screenwriter friends. I worked for an agency for more than ten years.  I have witnessed the sausage being made, beaks and hooves and intestines and all - and yet - I still eat the Bratwurst.

Reporters want stories, interesting ones. Agents and managers want deals they broker to be seen in the best possible light.  Everyone knows exactly what's going on - the reporters, agents and studios know the truth is often not quite as great as what's written. 

But here's who *doesn't* know the truth, and hears about the big 'sales' and whose heart leaps: the amateur, the young pro, the struggler.  Of course you want it to be true. I knew EXACTLY what was going on, and yet I STILL GOT EXCITED when I read "competitive bidding!"

Hope Machine.

Studios are able to call each other to find out details of deals. Did you know that? Business affairs departments phone each other on the regular. "What was that deal?" they can ask. The other studio freely discloses. Some deals are classified as "no quote" by the agents/lawyers.  "No quote" happens when a piece of talent (in this case a writer, obvi) takes a low deal and requests the studio not disclose it.  "I'll work for you for peanuts, but you better not tell anyone about it."

Here's the rich irony - it takes about a minute of drunk thinking for a business affairs exec to figure out what the "no quote" numbers are.  Who doesn't get to find out how much that young (or old!) writer earned on that script? You. Me. The amateur, the young pro, the struggler. It is incumbent upon you to educate yourself about the business you are seeking to enter. The reporters and agents have their own agendas. They will not change. Do not expect them to. It's up to you to change.

So that's what's up with larger outlets - trade publications. What about smaller ones? Websites that specialize in spec info?  If you have to pay a fee to access a website's information, that website needs you to renew. They benefit from your desire for news.  So everything they report gets amped up, accentuated. Everything is a capital-s "Sale," even if it's an option or even just an attachment. 

Contests need you to enter in order to keep on. If a contest winner signs with a manager or a producer boards a script, they'll promote that. But you know by now that a producer attachment doesn't mean money changing hands. It doesn't mean that writer can write every day.  But it feels that way, doesn't it? It feels like forward progress.

At William Morris, we said this *all* the time. "Doesn't matter until money changes hands."

[Someone asks John: “So high six figure scripts are rarer than they seem?”  John replies, “The overall deal may be worth six figures, but the money in hand once the writer signs the contract is often far far lower - and would certainly be much lower if that writer is a first-timer.]

Not everyone who is part of the Hope Machine wants to be part of it. Many bloggers and podcasters and tweeters talk about screenwriting - and from their perspective, it sounds like a real, viable job that is achievable. It is achievable - like the NFL is achievable.

More people played in the NFL last year than WGA members were paid money to work in features.

Info on NFL vs. WGA. Last year NFL players: 1696. Last year feature writers with WGA contracts: 1537. (The WGA numbers will get adjusted up by as much as 6% come this July, which would take us all the way to 1621.)

Were there lots of non-WGA contracts? Sure. How much money were they for? Mostly less than you make a month. When you read "six-figure deal," that should mean that the entire contract is worth six figures - option, rewrite money, production bonuses. When you read "six-figure sale," that should mean that the copyright has changed hands permanently for a decent chunk of change.

But - BUT - often when someone says "sale" they really mean "deal which starts as an option." People say sale over option, but when you're starting out, options are 99% of what you'll get.

So what to do? You're a young writer. You wanna write movies. You own Fade In. Your blu-ray collection crowds your closets.  Keep writing things you love. Make art. Watch the world. Explore humanity, people, relationships. Write things that are true and real. Never expect to get paid for it. Never think about the big hope, the big sale, the big tomorrow. Focus on the today. Focus on your work.

Keep your day job. Make it a good day job you can work the rest of your life. Find joy in your family, your parents, your kids.  Move to LA if you're serious about working in Hollywood. Know that everyone else moved here to write or direct. Nearly all of them never do.

Get your scripts to people who matter - agents, managers. If you're lucky enough to sign with one, know that the hard work is ahead of you. Nothing is for sure. No one owes you anything. One deal does not mean you've made it. One project rarely leads to another.

The Hope Machine wants to devour you, to consume you, to make you believe that your happiness is just one script, one sale away. It isn't. Your happiness is right there on the page in front of you while you're writing it. Your satisfaction is typing FADE OUT.

The job, the profession comes for almost no one. It calls who it wants. You can do little to influence it. You can only take joy in what you write and know that your victory is there in those words and in your friends and family when you fade out.

So that's it. How do you defeat the Hope Machine? How do you keep it from eating you up? You write what you love and ignore the rest.

Fade out.


  1. Great advice. Thanks for this.

  2. john continually alludes to 'these' people. We all know who he's talking about and it just sounds like he's complaining. stop complaining. the machine works at all levels.Big business has front runners and hype machines and that's just how it fucking is.

    Hope is how the world is negotiated. The hope machine is what keeps people writing. if you don't have 70 dollars to spend on your future than pack it in. Nike is a hope machine. Cross fit is a hope machine. The black list is a hope machine. Tracking board. all of them are business's that run on word of mouth and hype.

    Thank god because it's what keeps people working hard and dreaming.


  3. And there's 1 manager who continually takes that hope and markets it into press and thank god for that guy. Hail the very best brand in the business.