A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri’s newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
Having your idea, your script, your passion project turned down is a unique kind of pain. It’s personal. This is your baby. And someone just said, “It’s ugly.” Ouch.
I’ve probably written thousands of rejection letters over the course of my career; whether turning down a query or passing on a script. In keeping with how I try to conduct myself in all aspects of the industry I’m polite, yet honest.
As a producer and as an executive, I’ve also been on the receiving end of a boatload of rejection:
Pitches that crashed and burned. Pitches received with great enthusiasm – then passed on. Projects turned down by actors, directors, and studios. Projects picked up, that then died in development. Projects set up and then put into turnaround.
The film business is a world of rejection. The more emotionally invested you are, the more it will feel like a kick in the gut. Or an even lower blow.
If rejection is inevitable, then your best option is to develop the skills for dealing with it. If you don’t, you won’t be able to keep moving forward.
Duck and Cover
You may recall the upbeat but disquieting film created by the US government back in the 1950s, to help educate children on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Duck and Cover started with an animated sequence of a charming talking turtle, then turned to live footage of kids reacting to an impending nuclear explosion. The tune was incredibly catchy, while the tone was disturbingly grim.
During the Cold War, Bert the Turtle advised kids on how to seek shelter in the event of the Big Bang – under their desks, beneath a picnic blanket, or in a doorway. Unlike Bert, who could just withdraw into his shell, the public had to do what they could to protect themselves in the moments between seeing the flash and the nuclear explosion.
When the bomb of rejection hits, your first reaction may be like Bert’s – to pull into your shell. Hang out where it’s safe rather than poking your head out there and risk getting blown up.
Although Bert may believe that ducking and covering will improve your safety when a nuclear bomb hits, that is the most dangerous way to for you to react when rejection strikes. It’s natural to avoid putting yourself out there again where you are vulnerable, but one rejection isn’t the end of the world.
There’s a long history of famous projects that were rejected time and again before getting made and becoming hits. When Bill Cosby pitched The Cosby Show he was told that the family sitcom was dead. Two of the three networks (yes, long ago there were only three networks) passed. It looked bleak.
But then NBC said “Yes.” The show went on to run for eight seasons. It was considered the biggest TV hit of the 1980s and credited with reviving the sitcom genre. It racked up countless awards, winning Emmys, Golden Globes and People’s Choice honors. It even launched a spinoff.
Maybe this “No!” will bring you one step closer to the “Yes!” you are seeking. If you don’t keep putting yourself and your material out there, risking being blown to bits yet again, you’ll never know.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
Seriously? We’ve all heard this one, and it invariably feels like a lie. Of course it’s me you’re breaking up with!
The truth is, this is one of the lines you’ll hear the most frequently in industry rejection letters. Nothing to do with your material, it’s just not right for us.
Fact or fiction?
A) We just don’t like your idea.
Inevitably, if you have a great idea for a movie, we’re interested. Execution be damned. If the idea doesn’t appear marketable and commercial, it’s a pass. If I can’t figure out how to get it made, it’s “not for me.” It’s you.
I’ve recommended projects that had a great concept, but absolutely lousy execution – including choices that may have appealed to the write,r but limited the audience. When I couldn’t get Universal (the studio my bosses had a deal with) to go for it, the project was eventually picked up by another producer with a deal at Disney. The story was vastly reworked – oddly in another direction that also limited the audience and didn’t deliver on the promise of the premise – but it got made.
B) It is not a match for us.
Your idea doesn’t meet our interests or our boss’s mandate. It’s not a genre we work in, it’s not a genre that appeals to us, or, on the rare occasion, it’s too similar to a project we already have in development.
Don’t take it personally.
If possible, try to get make the best of the situation and ask what they are looking for. Maybe you’ll find something that does meet their needs.
On the other hand, this is one of those ever so convenient excuses; a little white lie that we tell because it’s far kinder than the truth. But it never hurts to ask what kind of script would float someone’s boat.
When The Going Gets Tough… It’s Time To Toughen Up
So you’ve reached the top of the mountain. Your project is set up at a studio! You’re going to get a movie made. Or not.
When I was President of Debra Hill’s production company, I remember being crushed at losing out on a project that meant a lot to me. Debra’s response was along the lines of “Get over it. There will always be more projects.”
Of course, she had already made over two dozen movies, which meant she had a great deal more perspective, while I was killing myself to get projects set up, one by one. Finding a needle in a haystack and then getting screwed out of something I loved… sucked.
A lot of projects won and lost later, and my point of view has broadened somewhat. I know that projects come and projects go, but each loss still hurts.
If it didn’t, it would mean that I didn’t give a damn one way or another. That’s not how I operate.
As they say, “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.” I’ve had my share.
Many a project has died a random and tragic death. I didn’t even know they were sick.
I’ve had a project ready to be greenlit by a production division, with a soon-to-be huge director attached, when another movie came out that didn’t perform. It crushed the studio’s confidence in the division, and killed our project.
(Turned out to be a massive loss for the studio in the long run, as the director now makes all of his top grossing films at another studio.)
I’ve set up a terrific book, with the perfect writer to do the adaptation, and an A-list director attached when, literally within mere days of the deal closing, the President of Production was canned, and the new man in charge wasn’t interested.
I’ve been told by the President of a mini-major that we had a low seven figure deal for a spec script on the table, but he wanted “just three little changes first.” Easy peasy. The writer turned it around pretty fast, but not quick enough. Within days, a million dollar rewrite on another project came in and was considered a mere 10% improved. The studio set to distribute concluded that the mini-major didn’t know how to develop. The new offer? A $10,000 option.
I devoted years to packaging the perfect elements for a true story, a passion project for myself and everyone involved. I had an Oscar-nominated writing team and a talented, A-List actor. I’d just pulled off one last impressive coup, putting everything in place to get the movie made, only to have the life rights yanked out from under me.
You may have noticed that the dreaded “silent killer,” Death by President of Production, comes up frequently in this list of fatalities. Why does this happen so often? When a new “P of P” comes into a studio, one of the very first things he or she does is look over the current slate of projects and decide which to put into turnaround.
Why the ruthless slaughter?
Because if the projects chosen by his predecessor do well, then the executive they replaced gets credit for the success. Symptoms may be partially masked by the new P of P’s desire to put their own stamp on the slate, or perhaps a new mandate to hopefully turn the studio around from a downward trend.
There is no known cure.
I used to have a Jimmy Buffett quote (yes, the “Margaritaville” Jimmy Buffett) taped to the wall beside my desk:
“If you decide to run the ball, just count on fumbling and getting the shit knocked out of you a lot, but never forget how much fun it is just to be able to run the ball!”
Always have more projects.
And enjoy the hell out of running with the ball.
Because you never know when you’ll be tackled.
You Have To Kiss A Lot Of Toads
When I was first starting to date as a ‘tween,” I had a T-shirt that read: “You have to kiss a lot of toads before you meet the handsome prince.” At the time, it seemed funny. Of course, at the time, I had no idea how very many toads I would wind up kissing.
If you’ve done any blind dating at all, you know that it’s a total crapshoot.
You may experience that illusive spark of chemistry. Hours pass like minutes. You talk until your waiter tires of shooting you dirty looks and the restaurant shuts down around you. All you can thinks is “Second date!” and “First kiss!”
You instantly feel as if you’ve been there forever. Very soon, you completely run out of things to say. The thought of a second date makes you both shudder involuntarily. The only sparks that fly are due to static electricity.
Submitting your project is a lot like blind dating. You’re searching for the illusive spark of chemistry.
If it’s not there move on!
It takes tremendous passion and perseverance to get a movie made. If someone gets involved with your project, that is not head over heels for it, they’ll never succeed in moving toward production.
When you discover right away that there’s no “happily ever after” on the horizon, you dodged a bullet my friend, Matrix style.
Embrace the rejection.
Be grateful for it.
Don’t settle. Keep going until you meet the perfect match.
Rejection Is The Name Of The Game
There’s an industry saying, “In the film business, a ‘yes’ is a ‘maybe,’ a ‘maybe’ is a ‘no,’ and a ’no’ is an insult.”
We say “no” all the time, rejecting at least a thousand pieces of material for every one we pursue. But we try to say no kindly, because you never know if the next script or project from the person you passed on is going to be something great. We need to leave the door open.
Your screenwriting career will inevitably be filled with rejection. You will get knocked down. You will get the rug pulled out from under you.
It’s going to hurt.
But rejection is not going to kill you. Unless you let it.
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