For decades, young men and women have come to Hollywood with dreams of becoming the next Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin or Nora Ephron, only to be hobbled by the same misconceptions, make the same poor choices, commit the same faux pas and engage in the same destructive behaviors, all leading to frustration, disappointment and career implosion. Understanding why they stumbled may not provide you with a clear path to success, but it can certainly help you avoid the pitfalls most likely to end in professional self-immolation.
Here, then, are twelve common mistakes new writers and directors always make — and how to avoid them.
1. Believing there is a formula for success. Read enough “How to Write a Screenplay” books or watch enough “How to Make Your First Movie” videos, and you’ll come to believe that launching a Hollywood career is like making a chocolate soufflé: It may be difficult, but if you just follow the recipe correctly, you’ll eventually succeed. The truth is, there is no recipe, formula, or blueprint. Entertainment is not like law, medicine, finance, accounting, real estate, or even plumbing in that there is no such thing as professional training, apprenticeship, or licensing. Unless you have a relative in the business willing to give you a break, the confluence of random events that resulted in the ever-elusive “Yes” for one person can never be duplicated for another. And certainly not for you. This reality is both terrifying and liberating. It’s terrifying because it means you can do everything “right” and still have nothing to show for it. It’s liberating because it means you’re now free to pursue a strategy that takes advantage of your own unique strengths, skills, talents, interests, and relationships. Like a good military commander, you have to learn to “play the map” as it exists at the moment, and not be beholden to dogmas that may no longer have any relevance — if they ever really did in the first place.
2. Not understanding your place in the industry. Every young screenwriter and director comes to Hollywood with dreams of creating movies or TV shows that will become instant classics, develop armies of rabid fans, reap innumerable industry awards, and make them obscene amounts of money. What they don’t understand is that the industry’s Powers that Be don’t care what you want. Hollywood doesn’t care about your dreams. At best, producers, studio executives, distributors, agents, and managers want to know what you can do for them. They are looking for skills, ideas, scripts, finished movies, or any other product they can sell with as little effort as possible. As soon as you realize that you are here to serve the industry, not the other way around, you’ll find that doors open a bit easier and fewer are likely to be slammed in your face.
3. Expecting the opportunity to tell a deeply personal story. As an adjunct to the mistake discussed above, most would-be filmmakers come to Hollywood determined to realize a “dream project” — something that to them is unique, meaningful, and deeply personal — with little regard for the demand such a project might have within the industry or the audience at large. “But Tarantino and the Coen Brothers make weird, quirky, personal films, and they’re all big hits!” they argue. But the reason Tarantino and the Coen Brothers are successful (at least most of the time) is that their weird, quirky, personal films just happen to align with the sensibilities of enough moviegoers to make investing in their projects a reasonable bet. For every Quentin Tarantino, Joel & Ethan Coen, David Lynch and Wes Anderson, there are thousands of self-styled auteurs whose visions — no matter how unique and powerful — Hollywood just isn’t buying. There may come a time when you have enough experience, success, and professional capital to make your “passion project.” But that time is not here. Yet. So be patient and start accumulating some professional cred.
4. Trying to write to “the market.” The flip side of the would-be auteur is the mercenary who believes he/she understands what buyers are looking for and then creates a project specifically designed to pander to that audience. The latest low-budget horror movie was just a big hit? Write a low-budget horror movie. Fantasy-dramas are big on T.V. right now? Create a fantasy-drama T.V. series. The problem with this strategy is that “the market” is a rapidly moving target. It literally changes week to week, sometimes even day to day. In the four to six months it can take you write and polish a screenplay or series presentation, “the market” will have gone through three or four cycles.
So if you can’t sell unique personal projects and you can’t sell what you think buyers want, what can you sell? Today, producers say they’re looking for “unique voices.” What that really means is that they want projects that look like previously successful films and TV shows — but are just different enough to warrant people’s attention. Often, this means projects that mix and match disparate genres, feature traditionally unrepresented character types, or approach an old topic from an unfamiliar point of view. Beyond that, what sells is whatever a particular person at a particular company sparks to at a particular time, and that is impossible to predict. Which is why people in the entertainment business tend to be really, really superstitious.
5. Not having the proper skills. You can’t become a NASCAR driver if you’ve never learned how to drive a car, and you can’t create for Hollywood if you haven’t taken time to acquire the basic skills and training. There is no such thing as a “natural” screenwriter or director. You may have bucket-loads of talent, but talent is worthless if it hasn’t been shaped and honed by education, training, and experience. Read books. Take courses. Join writers groups. Learn the tools of your trade. Yes, you’re going to fail at first, but better to fail when you’re surrounded by friends than when you’re facing off against a jaded studio executive antsy to get out on the golf course.
6. Not polishing their presentation. A spec script or sample film short needs to be honed to perfection before being shown to potential buyers. To writers, this means that the script is properly formatted, spell- and grammar-checked, and the writing is 100% free of typos. (Most writers find it impossible to proof their own work, so it’s worth it to secure the services of a professional proofreader.) For directors, polishing means that pacing, sound, music, visual and audio effects, and all other technical elements are as clean and precise as your budget will allow. Remember, agency and production company gatekeepers are looking for any excuse to reject your project. Don’t give them any easy opportunities.
7. Going directly to the buyers. Most production companies won’t even look at unsolicited projects, let alone buy one unless it comes through known, accredited agents or managers. Getting an agent or manager is one of the most daunting hurdles for newbie writers and directors, but here’s a tip: If you’re going to reach out to an agent, refer to the agent by name. Don’t send out query letters or emails addressed to “Dear Agent.” Make the effort to make the inquiry personal and specific. Obviously generic or mass-emailed queries are the first to go straight to the “Delete” folder.
8. Submission overkill. In their desire to please — or perhaps out of sheer desperation — newbie writers and directors often submit multiple projects to an agent or production company for consideration. They subscribe to the old adage, “Throw enough shit against the wall and something’s bound to stick.” However, in most instances, this shit storm only serves to confuse the potential buyer and suggest that you lack focus and confidence. Remember, you’re not a watch salesman. Always go with your strongest project — or the project you think is most appropriate for the buyer to whom you’re trying to sell. If you’re asked, “What else have you got?”, be prepared to respond. But never “shoot your wad” in the initial exchange.
9. Trying to be all things to all people. Along the same lines as above, many newbies try to pass themselves off as “Renaissance” men/women, people who can write expertly in a broad range of genres. They’ll offer up a romantic comedy and a horror movie and a sci-fi epic and an historical drama. Ever hear the expression, “Jack of all trades, master of none”? That’s how “Renaissance” folks are branding themselves. And Hollywood is always looking for masters, not jacks. Before you offer your services to the market, figure out what you’re best at and promote that. After all, if you’re looking for a great steak, do you go to a high-end steakhouse, or the family restaurant that offers steak, seafood, tacos and pizza?!
10. Being a pest. It’s never fun waiting to hear back from an agent, manager, or potential buyer. The image of the nervous actor/writer/director sitting anxiously by the phone for hours on end may be an outdated Hollywood cliché, but the fact that phones are now mobile doesn’t make the sentiment any less accurate. To assuage their anxiety, many neophytes will email and/or call repeatedly in hopes of eliciting a response. All this does is get you labeled as a pest. And that increases the chances that your project will be rejected. At most, contact your recipient once to acknowledge their receipt of their material. After that, forget about it and move on. As sad as it is, the phrase “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” remains as operative today as it was in the age of Adolph Zukor, Sam Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer.
11. Being protective…and possessive.If and when you sell a project (Yeah!) and it’s put into development, you’ll be asked to make changes. Lots of changes. There’s a reason why so many films — especially the big blockbusters — often list a half-dozen or more writers. Development executives are always asking for more, more, more!!!! And there’s only so much any one writer is able to provide. If you want a career in this business, you have to understand that filmmaking is a collaborative enterprise, and that most of the people you’ll be working with are smarter, sharper, and more experienced than you are. Be receptive to development notes, be eager to experiment with new ideas, and never insist that any element of your work is set in stone. Sure, be prepared to fight for things in which you passionately believe, but when doing so, ask yourself, “Is this the hill I want to die on?” Because when you sign a contract, you’re also putting your name on a bullet your buyer is keeping in the chamber.
12. Being an asshole. They say that money doesn’t change you — it just makes you more of what you already are. And if you’re naturally a dick, your first taste of success has the potential to turn you into a raging asshole. Hollywood lore is filled with tales of wunderkinder who, after their first hit — or even their first sale — become insufferable louts, making ridiculous demands, being habitually late to meetings (if they arrive at all), being verbally abusive to underlings and superiors alike, disappearing for weeks at a time and basically just acting like entitled jerks. Don’t be that person. Getting your first break is difficult enough; don’t blow the opportunity by alienating everyone around you.
As we stated at the outset, entertainment — and Hollywood in particular — is an industry where normal rules of career advancement do not apply. It’s quite possible you might ignore every one of these suggestions and next year walk off with an Emmy or Academy Award. (Despite the massive odds against them, some people dowin the Lottery.) Just remember, if you’re going to break the rules, it helps to have a good reason for doing so — as well as a viable Plan B for when the landmine you’ve chosen to step on goes boom. – Allen B. Ury