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Section 101: Introduction to Tinseltown
Overview of Hollywood
There's an old joke about the studio exec who has read a script and someone asks what he thought of it, and he says, "I don't know. I haven't talked to anyone yet." The jest works on two levels: Hollywood is a startlingly tiny community, and in L.A. everyone plays the "six degrees of separation" game to figure out how you already know each other, as in "You just sold Matt at Sony? Ohmigod, I pitched him on Ninja Clown Posse six months ago. We gotta have lunch." As for the second part of the joke, ideas may be king in Hollywood, but this place is not about reinventing the wheel. "Uniquely familiar," a phrase coined by veteran producer Joel Silver (The Matrix, Lethal Weapon), is the stock and trade of Hollywood. In other words, you should think outside the box, but don't try to bring your own box to L.A., because over the past hundred years or so, Hollywood has developed a way to do business and make movies that it is quite comfortable with, thank you very much. The system works in an imperfect way, but it does work. So there's little use in trying to force the town to do things your way. The logic behind the Hollywood development process for a motion picture goes something like this: no matter where you are making movies in the world, if you are producing a product for a mass audience, the various funnels through which your story (the entertainment you are creating) must pass will narrow in order to appeal to the most people waiting on the other side. Typically, mass audiences reduce characters to white hat/good guy and black hat/badguy. Consequently they like the familiarity and comfort of a twice-told tale. As we shall see, the trick for the successful Hollywood writer is to create a script that is intensely personal, yet still manages to resonate with a mass audience by virtue of its universal themes. A quick scan of the American Film Institute's list of "America's 100 Greatest Movies" shows a number of masterpieces that have accomplished this difficult feat. These are films like Casablanca, The Graduate, On the Waterfront, Schindler's List, All About Eve, Raging Bull, Midnight Cowboy, Rebel Without a Cause, Rocky, Platoon, Easy Rider, The Apartment, Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction.
While most of us are uncomfortable judging, say, Japanese calligraphy or a Wagnerian opera based on our limited exposure to those art forms, we are all experts on Hollywood simply by virtue of having seen hundreds or thousands of movies in our lifetimes. Few moviegoers have qualms comparing and contrasting The English Patient with, say, Scary Movie. But from inside Hollywood, what you see is an imperfect system that contains vast armies of smart, usually young people in their twenties and thirties, working tremendously hard to make mainly mediocre movies. Why? Because moviemaking looks deceptively easy, but is, in fact, very, very hard. It's a highly collaborative endeavor with dozens and often hundreds of people involved. Perfecting your craft to work in tandem with other craftsmen can and does take many years. That's why even great fiction writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker were never better than mediocre screenwriters.
What Does Hollywood Want?
"I think film schools serve as a good training ground, but there isn't really a replacement for doing it."
—Brian Glazer, Producer, Imagine Entertainment
This book isn't about teaching you how to write. There are lots of other sources to help you with that part of the process. I will state, however, that the fastest, most time-honored way to learn structure and form is to take a favorite movie and, as you view it, type it out into a script. But if you're reading this book, I assume you have already achieved the laudable goal of completing a screenplay. Congratulations on having written a movie on paper! Now you're ready to ask the next logical question: "What do I do with this thing that I've written?" How will you realize your dreams of making a living as a writer in Hollywood with a chance to see your work on movie screens all over the world? That's what this book is about.
One of the first realizations that arrivals to the movie capital of Planet Earth make is that despite having the world's biggest stage, Hollywood is an amazingly insular place. Catch-22s abound, such as that "no one important will read your work unless you have an agent, and you can't get an agent to read your work unless you are referred to them by somebody important who has already read your work." So, as soon as you get here, intent on befriending anyone with access who will read your script, you discover that everybody seems to be a producer or working on a hot deal. You feel as if you're chasing your tail as you deal with some of these people, because, although they promise the moon, from them you see very little in terms of money or the all-important access to the real players of the town. It's so hard to find out who is really who. Believe me, you will get frustrated as you try to cut through the miasma--"What's the deal with this !%*$ town? What is really going on?"
I know exactly how you feel because I've been there, and I want to tell you right now that if you learn from your hard-knocks experiences and persevere, these early days in Hollywood will become war stories that you can share and laugh about later. As mentioned in the introduction, during my first ten years in the film business, I have co-produced one movie, sold outright one screenplay, taken on four production company and studio assignments, and optioned or "rented" my work to producers five times. What follows is my very first war story.
"What Just Happened?"
I arrived in September and, several weeks later, landed my first pitch meeting at a production company based at Warner Brothers. The company had made two successful films in the past two years, one of which is still considered a minor classic. Initially I had used my film school alumni contacts and then the big-budget script I had just completed as a sample to get a meeting with the senior vice-president of the company. The VP told me right away that although they really liked ("loved!" is the way the exec put it) the script I'd written, the project was well out of their budget range. However, they had German funding for a science-fiction project in the $2.5-$3-million range for which they believed I might be perfect. So I was asked to come back in a week with three ideas based on the one-sentence "concept" for a story they had given me. To be honest, I have forgotten what the concept was, but I think it involved a single location in a futuristic, postapocalyptic society--people hiding in a warehouse with a killer android/alien/mutant on the loose. Something like that. Later I was to learn that a week is actually quite a lot of time by Hollywood standards, but back then it seemed incredibly cruel and short. Working frantically for five days and nights straight, I turned in my best three stories on time, then went home to bed and waited. And waited. One week and then two excruciating weeks of silence followed. And then, finally, the call came. It was early November. I suppressed tears of joy as the VP told me over lunch that they wanted to go forward with one of my story ideas. In fact, the contracts would be submitted to the production company's business affairs department that very day; and I should anticipate a "deal by Christmas" that would pay me a total of $30,000 up front, in addition to an opportunity to earn a production bonus if my script was made into a movie. The VP smiled and said he intended to fast-track this project. We would get started as soon as the contracts were signed, most likely right after the New Year.
"Nope. It will never happen," said the jaded veteran director who lived in my building. I had already lined up a young, aggressive entertainment lawyer to handle things from my side, and all was right with the world. A few days later my fiance and I were on our way out to celebrate our good fortune when I ran into this director in the parking garage. "I know the chief accountant for the company. They're dead broke over there." "That isn't what I've been told," I said haughtily, while wondering to myself what this guy's problem was. "We're fine, so you're fine," was the gist of the phone conversation I had with the VP the next morning. I hung up feeling silly, but in the back of my mind I wondered if I had detected just a whiff of something in the executive's power pep talk. Sure enough, the VP began to avoid calls from the lawyer and me in the ensuing weeks, before phoning me one morning in early December to say that no projects were going forward at this time. In fact, he was leaving the company, but he hoped we could find something to work on together where he was going. That was it.
Postscript: My deal never got off the tarmac, and the production company closed shop soon after, but the exec and I did indeed find another project to work on. Through this I learned the valuable lesson of never celebrating before he check clears, as well as to be a little more low-key (and a little less public) about any "success" I might have. I used to run into that director long after moving out of the building. "Hey, Mr. Deal by Christmas!" he would shout at me from across a crowded restaurant, guffawing and mock-toasting me with his water glass. (Avoiding his level of cynicism was another important lesson.) Later I discovered that the scenario of a production company promising more than it can deliver is well known to nearly all veteran screenwriters. But such a situation is hard to imagine until you've gone through it.
Effort, Access, Timing
The old saw that you must "know somebody" in Hollywood to succeed isn't completely untrue. Having a famous relative does help, at least initially. Sooner or later you'll be judged on your own merits. "Talent always wins out" my old film professor used to say. Success in Hollywood can be boiled down to a trilogy of components: Effort, Access, and Timing.
Effort is the diligence you exercise by writing every day, as well as by pursuing all the various career opportunities that may come your way.
Access comes from continually educating yourself about the process, then finding the right decision-makers who may be interested in your writing, and immersing yourself in their world.
Timing is about having the talent and skills to seize opportunities when they are presented. If you can combine timing with effort and access, you and your work can be in the right place in the right time.
Here's a story of how I used and then failed to use these components. In my first year as a Hollywood writer, I worked long into the night to finish a new script (my second "Mr. Professional" project). This script incorporated everything I was learning about the craft, post-film school. That diligence paid off when I attended an industry screening of a new movie, and met an ambitious young assistant to a well-known director whose work I had long admired and felt very passionately about. That introduction or "access" led to drinks with the assistant whereby I pitched my new project. Not only did he like the pitch, but he agreed to read the script and liked that, too. Another hurdle was overcome a couple weeks later when the assistant called breathlessly one Friday morning to say, "I just pitched your project to my boss, and he's interested. Get me a two- or three-page synopsis tomorrow so we can make his weekend reading." Talk about great timing! But I had never done a truly professional synopsis of a script, and I didn't have one ready with this particular project. So I struggled mightily over the next seventy-two hours to boil my movie first down to twelve, then six pages.
Early Monday morning I faxed a four-and-a-half page synopsis--two pages too long and two and a half days too late, as it turned out. When I called the assistant, he simply said, "Michael, you're not ready for this," and hung up. He was slow to return my subsequent calls, and then stopped all together. Clearly my efforts, while noble, were undercut by my inexperience. Thus I had failed to fully take advantage of an opportunity when it was presented. Of course, it's quite possible that the director would have passed on the script based on my synopsis, but at least I would have been one more step further in the process. In the end, I at least took comfort in the fact that responsibility for this failure clearly rested on my own shoulders. That meant it was a lesson to heed and something that I could address. I spent the next two weeks writing formal synopses for all my preexisting work.
Make no mistake--it takes a certain kind of person to follow his or her dreams here in sunny California. Aside from cloudless skies and chronically pleasant weather--the thrill of pumping gas into your Ford Festiva while standing within ring-toss distance of Al Pacino, who does not drive a Festiva--Hollywood is a very tough place to make an easy living. The cost of living rivals New York and San Francisco. Many people have more than one job. Meanwhile, the craft of filmmaking is difficult to perfect--the results can be very unforgiving. And if the craft is unforgiving, the industry is even more brutal.
My First Hollywood Lessons
1. Attend screenings and premieres where I might meet industry contacts.
2. Know the market and make sure I'm offering a suitable project to my potential buyer.
3. Follow instructions and recognize the importance of making my deadlines.
4. Recognize my mistakes and take the time to correct them.
Passion vs. Pa$$ion
Some writing that we writers do for the market may be less than satisfying creatively. However, no writer should feel compromised artistically just because he or she must pay bills or dues. Conversely, some writers can develop pa$$ion for a paycheck by writing exclusively what they think studios want to buy at the expense of fully realizing their craft with themes that resonate or ambitious characters that are fully fleshed out. While Hollywood screenwriting can be very lucrative financially, solely running to the whistle of money will guarantee neither career longevity nor satisfaction. That's where passion comes in. Passion (not pa$$ion) is still caring about the end result even after you've completed draft after draft of a project. Passion means that you're willing to "go back in" one more time to get it right. When financial concerns dictate what most studios and movie producers are willing to make, the most direct impact is on the filmmaker. First, we creatives delight in spinning words into images. Telling visual stories is our particular passion. And passion is what agents, producers, and executives alike seek out. It is a powerful ally in choosing the kind of projects you want to do and the kind of career you want to have. Passion is the manna of inspiration from heaven--a currency passed from writer to producer to executive, then director and actor, down the line from key grip and best boy to editor, on to the promotions department and, ultimately, to the viewing audience. And therein lies the rub.