BITTERNESS IS NOT YOUR FRIEND
There’s a lot to be bitter about in Hollywood. You can craft a pitch-perfect adult drama, only to have it rejected by every production company in town. In the meantime, writers of tentpoles based on toy robots and childhood board games earn millions. Your deeply emotional short film can win award after award, but it’s the flashy music video and commercial directors who get the studio assignments. If you’re a woman or minority, you’ll hear how much progress is being made in Hollywood to promote “diversity,” but at the end of the day, your paycheck still comes from Starbucks. You can spend years — decades — honing your craft, only to learn that all that learning and experience has only “aged you out” of employability.
Yes, it’s easy to get bitter in Hollywood. And such bitterness usually has pernicious consequences. In movies like “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) , “Bowfinger” (1999), “Swimming with Sharks” (1994), “The Player” (1992) and “A Star is Born” (1954), bitterness with Hollywood’s outrages lead to isolation, fraud, kidnapping, murder and suicide. In the real world, the end-results are usually more mundane, often a combination of depression, substance abuse, artistic paralysis and returning home to live to one’s parents’ basement.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Bitterness is not your friend. It may cling to you like an attentive lover and stroke your ego like a royal courtier, but its only aim is satisfy its baneful appetites by eating you from the inside out. Bitterness darkens your world and distorts your perceptions. It causes you to see barriers that aren’t really there and ignore opportunities that are. Bitterness creates a vicious circle of self-hatred, malice and recrimination that ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In short, bitterness blows.
If the Hollywood experience is so conducive to bitterness, how do you avoid it? And if you’re already suffering from its effects, how do you overcome it?
Here are some suggestions:
Accept that Life is Unfair. We’ve all heard that life is unfair or, as one sage so aptly put it, “Fair is what you go to in August.” And since Hollywood is nothing but life writ large, it’s no surprise that the town’s indignities are likewise amplified. So be it. Instead of expecting justice and karmic rectitude, accept that working in Tinsel Town is going to be capricious, chaotic and fickle. Good will not always be rewarded and bad not always punished. In fact, very often, just the opposite will occur. While this inequity strikes deep at the heart of our traditional Calvinist traditions, it does come with an upside. It means that, while your best efforts may go unrecompensed, there’s also a chance you may suddenly find yourself landing a deal for which you are not prepared or even qualified. Sometimes, things can break your way for no discernable reason. Dumb luck works that way. Learn to enjoy the madness.
Diversify. We’ve all been told to avoid putting all our eggs in a single basket. Certainly any competent investor will never put all of his/her money into a single stock or real estate venture. No experienced gambler risks his/her entire bankroll on a single hand of cards. Likewise, you should never invest all your hopes, dreams and emotional capital in a single spec screenplay, gig or film project. Always have multiple irons in the fire. Explore different genres, styles and formats. If something fails — or something always does — you can find hope in the possibility that another one of your projects will pay off. Hell, you never know what’s going to catch a buyer’s fancy or satisfy a producer’s sudden need. Again, luck is like that. Just keep tossing those dice and, sooner or later, you’re bound to throw a natural.
Take Control. In Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Satan famously states that he would prefer to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. There is something to be said for having control, even if it’s over some not-so-prime real estate. With this in mind, bitterness with Hollywood can be avoided by finding alternate outlets for your creativity, outlets where your don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself. Fortunately, the Internet offers myriad opportunities to do just that. Try blogging. Creating YouTube videos. Building a website devoted to your personal passions. Self-publishing a novel on Kindle. Even produce a short digital film. Not only can these activities help divert your attention from the slings and arrows you suffer as you slog your way through Hollywood’s No Man’s Land, but who knows — you might actually find an audience.
Pretend You’re Han Solo. In 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” renegade smuggler and hot shot pilot Han Solo is repeatedly warned by the excitable droid C-3PO against trying to outrun the Empire’s TIE fighters by venturing into a dense asteroid belt. The odds of surviving, Threepio insists, are hundreds-of-thousands-to-one. “Never tell me the odds!” Solo barks back, and immediately steers the Millennium Falcon into the rocky maelstrom. When navigating the Hollywood mine field, it pays to pretend you’re Han Solo. The odds may be stacked solidly against you. Moving ahead may be clearly foolhardy. So what? Fuck it. Do it anyway. That’s how you become a hero.
Play the Long Game. Sales is a notoriously brutal way to make a living. In fact, it’s perhaps the only profession that supports a billion-dollar-a-year side industry devoted to nothing but “motivation.” Salespeople need to be constantly pumped up via seminars, rallies, self-help books and personal counseling just to keep from blowing their fucking brains out. One psychological trick salespeople use to keep themselves going is to see value in rejection. They’re often told, “You need to earn 50 No’s to get a Yes.” (Or some other arbitrary number.) As a screenwriter or filmmaker, you are a salesperson. Your job is to sell stories, be it via a pitch, a presentation, a screenplay or a test reel. Since, in Hollywood, the supply of available stories always vastly exceeds the demand, the numbers dictate that you will necessarily hear more No’s than Yes’s. So start collecting No’s. A lot of them. Hell, it’s easy! Do it long enough, let the No’s add up, and eventually you’ll have collected enough to earn a Yes. And once that happens, as if by magic, the bitterness will vanish.
Look Inward. As Shakespeare so eloquently put it in his tragedy “Julius Caesar,” “The fault…lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.” As her hero of our own inner movie, our natural instinct is to blame our frustration on others. But to lash out at others is not only unproductive, it’s often counter-productive. Blaming other people allows you to avoid taking responsibility for your own situation, to take a serious audit of your own strengths and weaknesses, and to take the steps necessary to up your game. To actually accuse others of unprofessionalism, discrimination, conspiracy, etc., is almost certain to get you branded as a crackpot and blacklisted from consideration by any reputable buyer or representative. Remember, Hollywood is always looking for the Next Big Thing. It needs product. If you’re not selling, it’s most likely because you’re simply not offering what they want to buy. It may be time to change your approach.
Ultimately, there’s only one person who can prevent you from succeeding, and that’s yourself. The minute you decide to stop trying, it’s over. Embrace the cliché “No Pain, No Gain,” recognize the long odds and keep plowing ahead anyway. You may never end up where you hoped to go. But it you keep moving — if you don’t let bitterness cloud your vision — you may eventually end up someplace you never expected. And that may turn out to be a good thing. – Allen B. Ury