Robert Masello's Letter from Hollywood -- September
In yesterday's mail, I got another one of those envelopes I have come to dread ever since moving out to Los Angeles.
It was from one of my friends back in New York, an accomplished writer of novels and short stories, an intellectual of the old school, who was sick and tired of writing books that the critics loved but nobody bought. Now, what he wanted to do was make some easy money. What he wanted to do was tap into that mighty river of cash that he believed, like so many writers do, flows unimpeded through the streets of Hollywood. All you have to do is take out your bucket and scoop up as much of it as you want!
The envelope contained a five-page treatment for a movie. Since it's my friend's idea and not mine, I won't give anything away here, but suffice it to say the idea was okay: a romantic comedy set against a promising backdrop that hasn't to my knowledge been seen before.
But a treatment was all it was.
The characters were just sketched in, the plot was only marginally laid out, and there wasn't even any firm conclusion. Still, my friend concluded his missive with an eager, "Who do you know out there who'll buy it?"
To be honest? Nobody. The Hollywood community may not be the brightest lot in the world, but they're not that dumb, either. They know what they want -- a sure thing -- and a five-page treatment from an unproven screenwriter isn't it.
Trying to figure out what the Hollywood studios and producers are looking for has been the single most popular pastime in L.A. since D. W. Griffith shouted "Action!" Everybody wants in, and that's why a new book -- The Big Deal: Hollywood's Million-Dollar Spec Script Market -- will probably fly off the shelves. Written by Thom Taylor, a former journalist who now works at a local literary agency, the book is a useful antidote to the commonplace notion that selling a spec (or "speculative") script is a piece of cake. Taylor makes it very clear what the odds are -- at the same time that its title alone stokes the fever. A million bucks? For a movie script? Sign me up!
"In today's studio environment," Taylor writes, "...an original spec screenplay remains the easiest path into Hollywood's game, and can lead to gratifying bidding wars and huge paydays."
The operative word in that passage, as I will have to point out to my friend in New York, is "screenplay" -- not treatment. Not pitch. Not high concept. If you're William Goldman or David Koepp or Ron Bass, you can probably sell your laundry list to someone out here, but if you're not, your chances of selling a treatment, much less a verbal pitch, are very slim indeed. And even if you do, there's a much greater likelihood that you'll be removed from your own project sooner than you would have been if you'd come in with an actual, completed script in hand.
The Writers Guild can offer you a lot more protection, and guarantee you a lot more money, if what you've sold is a 120-page script rather than an airy notion, as easy to steal as it is to say. In a town where talk is cheap, but real writers -- you know, the ones who can actually sit down and write an original script from scratch -- are as rare as snowflakes in July, the smartest thing you can do is invest in yourself. Take the time to write the whole story, the whole script, the way you believe it should be told. That way, at least you'll have some record of what you wrote, and what you intended, before the producers hire the next seven writers to improve upon your vision.