As of a few hours ago I received my first remuneration as a screenwriter. It consisted of a plane ticket, a motel room and a very nice meal (and a few beers) at a seafood restaurant in Santa Monica. Of course tomorrow we’ve got a full day of combing through one of my scripts line-by-line in an effort to turn it into something that this particular production company will want to option and hopefully produce. Then Monday morning I’ll head back to the real world with a dozen pages of notes and yet another draft to write while waking obscenely early in the morning before I go to work.
But in the process, I’ve learned something about folks in the film industry. First, they are business people who deal with a bottom line and the uncertainty of a market just like any of us who work professional jobs. Next, they have very clear creative aspirations which they struggle to exercise by risking their livelihoods on a very fickle and challenging industry. Finally, and probably most important, they value collaboration.
As a writer-type, I’ve heard all manner of horror stories about Los Angeles. The most common comment I get from people when they learn that I’ve won some contests and had meetings in LA about scripts I’ve written is: “Aren’t you afraid someone is going to steal your ideas?” Sometimes I hear, “You mean you just send your script to strangers?” People tend to get defensive right away. The truth is, screenwriters don’t get paid for ideas. Nobody gets paid for ideas. If that were the case, we’d all be rich. Writers get paid to write, and write well…and often they don’t get paid that much to do it. If they get paid anything. And writing well is hard to do. If you and another writer arrive at the same idea, and you write a bad script and she writes a good one…then she deserves the payday, not you. If you have a brilliant idea but write a bad script…sorry. Nobody’s ever going to pay you anything for it.
But idea theft isn’t the only thing I’ve been warned about. Other knowing writers have referred to Hollywood as a “meatgrinder” or a “bloodbath.” I suppose bad things can happen to sensitive creatives in the glare of Tinsletown lights. But what I’ve learned about people in the film industry in my experience here is that they’re no more or less ruthless or conniving than your garden variety corporate lackey or your average middle manager in higher education. They’re ordinary working stiffs trading their time in hopes of making something useful for society while also paying the mortgage. The only difference is that when they’re successful, what they make can inspire or enthrall millions of people in darkened theaters all over the world.
And most importantly for writers, if you want to fit in here, you have to be willing to collaborate. Nobody can make a film on his own, least of all a writer. Sure there are the Auteurs, but then most of them have a trust fund or a boatload of luck. You need smart business people, a visionary director, talented actors (and a casting director to match) a matchless DP, etc, etc, etc. It’s all about collaboration. If you’re not willing to collaborate, you don’t belong here. If you’re an artiste (with a long ‘e’), this is probably not for you. If you’re so terrified that some producer is going to insist you insert a wolfman and a car chase into your artfully written script that you’ll bristle at any and all suggestions for changes or revisions, then this is probably not for you. If you’re desperate to quit your day job, screenwriting is not going to allow you to make that happen. You probably won’t get rich. You probably won’t become famous. You probably won’t even get a WGA card. But, if you can write, and if you’re willing to be the consummate collaborator, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have a shot at getting a plane ticket and a motel room and a decent seafood dinner. And with a little luck, maybe you’ll have a rare chance to see something you wrote (and rewrote and rewrote based on round after round of worthy and legitimate feedback) have a shot of making it onto the screen.