Hollywood: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

All the parking on the Vegas strip is free.

Downtown along Fremont Street in the old Las Vegas, with its storefront casinos such as The Golden Nugget, even in one-hundred-and-ten degree desert-summer heat the doors stand wide open.

Casino owners want it to be super-easy for visitors to enter. Even a nominal parking fee might deter, say, one-and-a-half percent of potential visitors. Even merely having to stop to push open a door—rather than simply strolling through one that is already open–might dissuade, say, one half of one percent of potential gamblers. One half of one percent might add up to, perhaps, six-hundred-thousand dollars a week.

What’s this got to do with screenwriting?

Writers should make it not difficult but easy for readers to enter their scripts. Even with a stack of scripts to the ceiling, a producer, or her readers, might glance—merely out of curiosity—at the opening lines of a newly arrived script.

Why not hook them right away?

I love to read the first few sentences of books. Among my proudest achievements is having my 1999 novel Escape from Film School (St. Martin’s Press, NYC) cited by Entertainment Weekly for “Best Opening Lines in Literature this Week.” Here they are: “I wish I had died in some Hollywoody way: metal on the highway, sex-drugs, murder-suicide. The sorry truth is I choked to death on sushi.”

Who wouldn’t want to read past that? The book made the Times bestseller list, even if merely for a week, even if merely at number thirteen. Hey, it’s no small achievement!

Surprisingly enough, the greatest opening line in all of English language literature (in my opinion) lies at the start of The American Red Cross Guide to Life Saving and Water Safety Instruction. This is the legendary tawny-covered guide that runs maybe seven hundred pages and contains everything there is to know about swimming in lakes, pools, rivers, and the ocean. It advises swimmers how to disentangle themselves from kelp. It tells life savers what holds they can use when rescuing someone who is drowning. Simply stated, there is nothing about swimming that is not in this book.

The opening line: “Man is a land animal.”

Doesn’t that say it all?

One of the most famous opening lines is the title of this piece, leading off Dickens’ eternal A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” These words describe with splendid, wretched clarity the screenwriting market at present.

The worst of times?

A recent Writers Guild report shows major studio writing assignments to be in steep decline. The studios are making fewer movies than in the past, and the vast majority of these are sequels, prequels, remakes, adaptations of material from other media including books, video games, board games, and even children’s toys. These projects are developed in-house at the studios. Understandably and lamentably, for these assignments they hire not new writers but ones already well known to them.  It is excruciatingly difficult for newcomers to break in.

The major TV networks: ditto. Among the top eleven TV series on air at the time of this writing, only one is scripted. The others are game shows, musical competitions, athletic events, and reality series. A fellow screenwriting educator told me that teaching new writers and encouraging them thereby to believe that they have a chance to build careers makes him feel like a fraud.

He is no fraud.

For new writers this is not the worst but the best of times. There has never been a better time to break into the business. Now more than ever, the best way to break in is through screenwriting.

Regarding the studios, very much like the record labels: good riddance. Two things have changed that have already transmogrified film, music, and entertainment in general. First, production costs have plunged. Today anyone with a cell phone can produce a movie. For just a little bit more money you can rent a fully professional digital camera. Second, distribution is available to anyone with a laptop or an iPod.

My own dear sister is the actor Jessica Walter. She appears at the time of this writing in three TV series concurrently. Retired at Thirty Five, where she stars with George Segal, runs on the cable channel TV Land. Archer, the multi-Emmy winning animated series, is available via cable’s FX channel. Her legendary role as Lucille Bluth in the widely loved Arrested Development is now shooting thirteen new episodes that will stream online via Netflix.

None of these outlets existed until (it seems) twenty minutes ago. None of them has anything to do with major studios or TV networks; each employs not only my sister but also oodles of writers. I don’t have to tell you that there are dozens of other such outlets: HBO, Showtime, Hallmark, MTV, Oxygen, A&E, and scads more producing original series and long form.

A writer in my current UCLA feature writing seminar is penning a script that will definitely be produced. How can he know this? It’s written for a micro budget and he will produce it himself. It will require merely a twelve-day shoot. Most likely it will not achieve blockbuster success (though it may) but because of its low cost it does not require that outcome. There’s an opportunity here first of all for an artist to see his work produced and to earn a reasonable—if not nosebleed-luxurious—living. Second, audiences seeking entertainment have available to them far wider alternatives among which to choose.

What’s not to like?

The very first moving picture, filmed sometime in 1883, shows a trolley car moving down the main drag of Orange, New Jersey. Why is that? First , Thomas Alva Edison’s workshop, where he developed the kinetoscope,  the earliest movie camera, was located in that city. Why build a movie camera in New Jersey and then schlep it to, say, Cleveland, in order to try it out?

Likewise, why invent a movie camera and then test it by filming, for example, a vase standing on a table?

For a number of years audiences went crazy—they would fork over an entire nickel— watching pictures that moved, but in a hurry the experience grew old. To maintain interest, film makers traveled to foreign climes and produced the equivalent of travelogues. They depicted, among other scenes, lines of Bedouin tribesman riding camels past the pyramids at Giza, indigenous Africans at the foot of Victoria Falls, Chinese atop the Great Wall.

Interest in such fare, too, quickly cooled.

Then, in 1903, in Hollywood, the first dramatized narrative is produced: The Great Train Robbery, which runs twelve minutes. Since then, now for more than a century, it’s all about story. Films have gone from short to feature length, from silent to sound, from black and white to color, from 2D to 3D, from analogue film with its silver halide crystals to digital media with its trillions of pixels.

One thing remains the same throughout: story.

There has never been a more exciting time to enter the business. It’s like 1903 all over again, with nobody knowing where it’s going, but also with the certainty that whatever else happens, it’s all about story. For narrative creators, the future has never been brighter. For storytellers, there has never been more opportunity, not in the future, or even merely the near future, but right now.

Is your screenplay ready to sell? Purchase Richard Walter’s ‘Essentials of Screenwriting‘ from The Writers Store anytime during the month of October – either online, in store or at the Screenwriters World Conference happening Oct  19-21  to find out!

Richard Walter will present “Getting An Agent The Old Fashioned Way – The Query Letter” on Sunday, Oct 21st at 10AM. Register for this event online using the code “SWWWalter”.

Get Your Script Read by Richard Walter: Professor Walter asserts that one of the biggest mistakes writers make is to market their scripts before they’re truly ready. If you attend and buy Richard’s book at the Screenwriters World Conference, or anytime during the month of October from The Writers Store, you will be qualified for a free read of your script by Professor Walter.  If he deems it ready, he’ll refer it to a potential representative or directly to a production company. If he feels it is not ready, he’ll send you a letter in which he cites its essential strengths and identifies those issues that in his view require further consideration. Once you have purchased the book and are ready to send in a script – contact Kathy Cabrera, Media Manager for Richard Walter with the information at kathyacabrera@yahoo.com to make the arrangements.

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