A SCREENWRITER’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING IN THE HOLLYWOOD TRENCHES
Q: How many screenwriters does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. The bulb is perfect the way it is.
Like many classic jokes, this gag illustrates a painful truth: Most screenwriters are fiercely protective of their work. And why not? Writing an original screenplay, especially writing one on spec, is a grueling, painful and often soul-sucking process. Often, the only thing keeping a writer going is unbridled ego and the dream of future glory. (God knows, it’s rarely the money.) Screenplays are our babies, and criticism of any kind can elicit the same instinctive defensive reaction a mama bear unleashes in defense of her threatened cubs.
But while fierce resistance to external forces may help bears propagate their species, it can prove damaging, perhaps even fatal, to Hollywood screenwriters. Especially new ones. The most successful writers are those who are open to suggestions, sensitive to the power plays that are an inevitable part of the filmmaking process, and able to divorce their egos from the “job” they’ve been hired to do. Perhaps even more important for new writers is the ability to stay focused on the real job — which is building a lasting career — and subsuming any one particular screenplay to the service of that longer-term objective.
Why Movies Get Made
To develop an effective career-building strategy, you first need to answer the key question: Why do movies get made? There’s really only one answer to that question: To make money. Obviously some movies are produced with the goal of making a lot of money — we call them “blockbusters” or “tentpoles” — while others have less lofty ambitions. (We call them indie films.) Sometimes the resulting films turn a profit. Often they do not. But no one backs a film with the intention of losing money. Even a “prestige” film produced primarily to win critical praise and Oscar nominations is still expected to, at worst, break even or, in some cases, as payback to its above-the-line players for participating in the sponsoring studio’s more obviously commercial ventures.
As a screenwriter and member of a production team, your first obligation is therefore to help your movie make money any way you can. The arguable “quality” of the script you write may be irrelevant to that goal. We know this to be true because:
1) Many screen projects are launched before a screenplay is completed — or even started;
2) Screenwriters are traditionally billed fourth behind stars, directors and producers;
And perhaps most telling of all,
3) Many movies are huge hits despite the fact their scripts suck balls.
Face it, if there was any correlation at all between writing quality and box office receipts, we wouldn’t be looking forward to Transformers 5.
Why Screenplays Are Bought
Now that you understand why movies get made, you next need to answer the question: Why would a producer buy your screenplay? Again, the answer is pretty obvious: The producer believes he/she can sell it. And again, this conclusion may have little to do with the quality of the writing. The producer may simply find the concept commercial. The producer may like the overall story but not your particular execution of that story. Or you may have written a part the producer believes will attract a bankable star. In the very best — and rarest — of cases, the producer sees in the script all the elements — premise, story, structure, characters and dialogue — necessary to serve as the foundation for a commercially viable motion picture. Even then, your position remains as tenuous as a rookie NBC sit-com.
To get a film green-lit, a producer must convince backers — usually a studio — that the project can be successfully marketed to its intended audience and that risks have been mitigated. Since, in Hollywood, nobody knows anything but everyone is an expert, this requires taking suggestions from a wide range of stakeholders. These usually include studio development executives, stars and, of course, the director, all of whom may have their own personal agendas. As a screenwriter, your job is to find a way to satisfy everyone while still delivering a script with some modicum of dramatic integrity.
It ain’t easy. Yet being able to do so is critical to your professional survival.
How Writers Survive
Of all the so-called “above-the-line” people involved in motion picture production, writers are by far the most vulnerable. Directors are so powerful that usually only an act of God — or a wanton act of self-destruction — can pry them from their lofty roosts. You can count the number of stars who’ve been replaced once shooting begins on one hand — assuming that hand has been in an industrial accident. Producers get usurped more often than technically replaced as more powerful entities move in to add needed muscle in terms of money, talent or other resources. But writers tend to be commodities that can be replaced as easily as spark plugs. Even if you are the writer of an original spec screenplay, your ownership of that screenplay is forfeited to the buyer as soon as you sell it. While your contract may compel the producer/studio to keep you attached for a set number of rewrites, once that obligation is met, they’re free to cut you loose. They may actually be eager to do so if what you’re delivering is not meeting their expectations. Especially if there’s a credited A-list writer the studio wants to work with waiting in the wings.
(With a big tentpole project, in which literally hundreds of millions of dollars can be at stake, it’s not unusual for a script to be worked on by a half dozen or more writers during its various stages of development.)
Again, to avoid an ignominious firing, you must learn to take suggestions — even contradictory ones — and make people happy enough for them to want to keep you around. This usually involves a lot of nodding, copious note taking, and developing a genuine eagerness to explore new avenues and ideas. If nothing else, you must always respond by delivering rewrites that are immediately and obviously different than ones everyone has seen before. Even if all the changes are your own and not necessarily the ones your “collaborators” requested. (Producers and studio execs often don’t remember their own suggestions, but they can immediately distinguish fresh material from old stuff.) If you can keep coming up with new ideas, you’ve given the powers-that-be a good reason for keeping you around.
And there’s a reason why you want the studio to keep you around. It’s called money. Not just the money you get from pumping out all those rewrites. I’m talking about the big money you get from getting credit on the final film. Being the only credited screenwriter will get you major bucks. If you have to share that credit with a subsequent writer, your cut will be less. It’s even possible to be stripped of credit altogether, being left with a less valuable “Story by” credit, assuming you wrote the original script as a spec and not on assignment.
(Final credit is determined by the Writers Guide of America in a process called “arbitration.” It’s an arcane and somewhat ruthless process that pits writer against writer in what can only be described as a literary version of Thunderdome.)
Why You Should Rewrite Your Spec
With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand why you must be open to rewrites once you’ve sold your script to a studio. But what about prior to your sale? If a producer is interested in optioning your script but wants free rewrites before submitting it, are you under any obligation to comply? How far should you go? As this may be the only time you’re still in full ownership of the property, shouldn’t you protect it as much as you can while you can?
The answer is: Be prepared to rewrite as much as is necessary to sell the damned script. Your script may truly be artistically “perfect” the way it is, but if it doesn’t sell or attract top talent, it does you and your career no good. If you trust the producer enough to sell the project, trust him/her enough to value their input concerning the changes they want you to make. And if such changes go beyond mere “polishing,” so be it. You may need to add or remove characters, cut whole sequences and write new ones. At least, at this point in the process, you’ll be the one making these changes, not someone else. If the resulting screenplay does sell, you’ll still be able to claim it as your own. And, who knows? The suggested changes might, indeed, make your script better.
In addition to resulting in a more marketable property, your rewrite will demonstrate your ability — and willingness — to take direction. This should help make your producer more confident about championing your continued participation in the project if and when it’s set up at a studio. And confidence — and the relationships that result — is what can keep your career going through this project as well as the ones yet to come. – Allen B. Ury