Meet the Reader: The Dark Side

Last month I wrote a column on how to deal well with the critiques and criticisms of your screenwriting. After the column posted, I was taken to task by a few people for painting too rosy a picture of the industry. Most of these brickbats were triggered by this paragraph:

Keep in mind that everyone’s just trying to help: When industry professionals criticize your script, their goal is to make the piece better, not to hurt your feelings. Now, some may deliver their comments in a clumsy or indelicate manner, which can certainly make them feel like personal attacks, but you can take out a lot of the sting if you keep in mind that, even if your reviewer’s manner is inartful, his/her intentions are probably good. Remember, everyone in the industry wants to find or develop a great script – no one’s out to discourage anyone just for fun or to dump on a piece of material arbitrarily.

A number of my critics accused me of living in a fantasy world for suggesting industry professionals are generally so helpful; so well intentioned; and so concerned with quality.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have been more specific and said that once you are in the arena – once a manager or a producer or a studio has made the decision to go ahead and develop your script – I honestly do think everyone’s primary goal does become to generate the best result possible and that everyone’s efforts – comments, notes, rewrite requests, etc. – are directed towards achieving this.

Now, that certainly doesn’t mean everything’s going to be smooth sailing. As in any creative enterprise, there are bound to be variations in taste, differences of opinion (often beginning with just what the definition of the “best possible result” is – for some that might mean the most artistic screenplay possible; for others it might mean the most commercial; for others it might mean the script that can attract the biggest star or be produced for the least amount of money, etc.), power plays (usually to determine who has the final say in these disagreements), and so on that can generate tension, argument, and (sometimes) bad behavior – but in general I think it’s safe to say that once everybody’s on board, their intentions are usually honorable. That’s been my experience, anyway.

However, that does not mean there’s not a dark side to the screenwriting profession, because there obviously and most certainly is. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there, both in and out of the arena, beginning with:

Bad Manners: For some reason, a lot of people in the entertainment business don’t always feel the need to observe the general etiquette, courtesies, and simple human decency that tend to govern the majority of our professional and social interactions.

So, while there are many, many very nice, very polite, and very considerate folks in Hollywood (and there really are), there is also a fairly high percentage of people who won’t get back to you about important matters even though they’ve promised you that they will; who have no problem leaving you hanging for days and weeks and months and sometimes even forever; who dispense attitude (condescending, dismissive, and sometimes just plain mean) like bon bons, especially to people they consider “nobodies” (years ago, when I was a p.a. in New York, I spent an entire day escorting the flown-in-from-Hollywood guest star of the series I was working on around the city to help her get settled and she never once acknowledged my existence. Several years later, this same actress was cast in a project I had written and she spent the whole time fawning over me, never realizing that I was the “nobody” she refused to speak to in Manhattan — something I found both amusing and sad.); who don’t respect your time the same way that they demand that their time be respected. (I once spent three hours in an exec’s outer office waiting to pitch, and then watched incredulously as he walked out a side door and went to lunch.) For some miscreants, this sort of behavior transcends rudeness and approaches sociopathy as they seem to take great relish in treating people badly: insulting them  (as the sitcom showrunner who openly mocked me and my ideas – by laughing derisively, making pained faces, and producing loud gagging noises — as I was pitching them once did to me), forcing them to do demeaning things, etc.

I’m not clear why this sort of behavior is tolerated as much as it is in Hollywood – perhaps because achieving success in such a competitive, high profile, and sought after industry makes people think they are special in some way that means the rules don’t apply to them — but it is.

Exploitation: There are a lot of people out there looking to take advantage of up-and-coming screenwriters, from the low rent producers who try to cajole writers desperately looking for their big break into working for free (in exchange for “sweat equity” in profits that the producer promises will be bountiful and that I guarantee you will never see) and their evil cousins, the Craig’s List trolls who offer writers $500 to turn the trolls’ supposedly brilliant ideas into screenplays that the trolls then hope to sell for big bucks with the intention of keeping all or most of the credit and all or most of the money; to high-profile internet “studios” that require you to sign away all of the rights to your work before they’ll even let you submit your script, then offer to develop and produce your script in exchange for paltry fees far below WGA minimums and no profit participation; the script “gurus” who require their clients to give them a large piece of the sale of any script they consult on; to the sponsors of certain shady screenwriting “competitions” in which every entrant ends up as a finalist as long as they agree to purchase expensive tickets to the competition’s “awards gala;”  to the “talent representatives” and “career consultants” who charge large upfront fees for their dubious services rather than take a modest percentage of the money earned for the jobs they procure for their clients, the way reputable managers and agents do.

Things aren’t much better for established screenwriters these days, with the studios pressuring some of the biggest scribes in the business to accept lower fees and one step deals, to do free rewrites, and to jump through more and more hoops (including participating in pitching competitions with half a dozen other writers on a single project and having to generate detailed, treatment-length leave behinds) in order to get jobs, while dragging their heels when it comes to completing contracts and paying off on fees, residuals, and profits. The WGA can provide some protection for its members against these abuses, but with fewer and fewer assignments being offered in a difficulty economy, there’s a lot of motivation for writers to not make waves.

Treachery: Yes, there are people out there who will lie to you if it benefits them; who will promise things they can’t (or have no intention to) deliver; who will plot to kill projects and careers if they see an advantage in doing so; who will steal opportunities that rightfully belong to you without giving it a second thought. And yes, there are people who will steal your ideas. It’s happened to me three times:

  • The first was when I was just starting out and was very naïve. A friend who worked in development at a mini-major gave me a screenplay to read that the company was having trouble getting to work. Seeing a potential opportunity, I wrote up several pages of potential fixes, hoping that if my friend’s bosses liked my proposals, they would hire me to rewrite the script. Well, they liked them all right – every single one of my suggestions (including a really major MacGuffin) ended up in the finished film, but I never got the gig, credit, money, or even a thank you.
  • The second was when a writing partner and I pitched several story ideas to the showrunner of a cheesy syndicated sitcom. One idea in particular really tickled the showrunner’s fancy and he couldn’t stop telling us how brilliant we were and how amazing our concept was (it wasn’t – it was just competent, but on this sucky show, competence = Mozart). As we left, the showrunner said he would be in touch and we naturally assumed that we had sold the pitch. So imagine our surprise when the guy’s assistant called us the next day to inform us that after we left the showrunner suddenly remembered that he and his staff were already working on a script with the exact same premise, so our services would not be required. Uh huh.
  • The third was when a famous and successful (if not particularly talented) writer/director/actor with whom my then-partner and I shared an agency and who had been offered a script of ours to direct came out with a film that lifted not only our script’s premise, but a number of major scenes and the story’s single most important plot twist. Our (now-ex) agent claimed it was a coincidence. He then tried to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge.

In all three cases, there wasn’t much I could do about the thefts. Yes, I could have made a stink with the WGA or I could have hired a lawyer and taken the perpetrators to court. I might have even prevailed, but the cost would have been my career – Hollywood is a town that doesn’t like people who make waves and tends to punish them, even if those people are completely in the right. If you don’t believe me, just ask the late Cliff Robertson.

So, now that I’ve dumped all of this sunshine on you, what do you do about it?

Well, I suppose you could let it discourage you and drive you out of the business, but I hope you don’t. This is a tough business and tough businesses come with tough conditions, but it’s also a wonderful business filled with many wonderful things, including glamour; fun; smart, fascinating people who are kind, respectful, interested, and helpful; the opportunity to be creative and to (sometimes) do satisfying and even significant work; and (best of all) the chance to make movies. How do you handle the bad stuff?

  • Don’t be naïve: know this stuff is out there and stay alert (without becoming defensive or paranoid, which can only trip you up).
  • Protect yourself: copyright your material, register it with the WGA, and if things start cooking for you, get a lawyer.
  • Work hard: at your writing and at all of the other things you need to build a screenwriting career (networking, making contacts, writing query letters, sending out submissions, etc.). There are no shortcuts and looking for them can make you vulnerable to those looking to take advantage.
  • Find healthy ways to handle downturns: surround yourself with good friends, wise counsel, and a decent therapist to help you deal well with the large amount of rudeness, rejection, and disappointment that will inevitably come your way as you attempt to forge your career. If you don’t, you run the risk of becoming discouraged and bitter, which can send you looking for shortcuts and…well, you know the rest.
  • Have faith: there are a lot of great people and legitimate opportunity out there. Hang in there, keep pushing, and, if you have the goods, you’ll get there.

Bookshelf

Here are a few new or recent books of interest to screenwriters:

Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes by Steven DeRosa (CineScribe Media, New York 2011). This is a new, slightly expanded edition of DeRosa’s excellent 2001 book about the collaboration that produced Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much. This terrific tome gives us a fascinating look at the working methods of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, shines a long overdue spotlight on one of the greatest (and most unsung) screenwriters of all time, and provides a wealth of information and detail about the making of four classic films.

Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless by Joseph McBride (Vintage Books, New York. 2012). Although the author himself poses the question “who needs another book on screenwriting” in the introduction to this well-crafted volume, what makes screenwriter (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School), critic, film historian, and biographer (Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success) McBride’s book a worthy addition to your screenwriting library is his welcome emphasis on the writing part of screenwriting. McBride eschews the formulas, tricks, steps, and “secrets” that clutter up most screenwriting “how to” tomes in favor of a straightforward, gimmick-free discussion of the art and craft of putting words on paper and how to apply those concepts to the task of writing for the screen. The book’s only real flaw is that McBride has chosen an extremely undramatic and uncinematic short story (Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”) to use as the basis for the sample screenplay that he constructs to illustrate the lessons he is imparting and the final product suffers as a result (like the short story, the sample script lacks adequate drama and cinematic qualities). That problem aside, Writing in Pictures provides screenwriters with a number of useful tips and some solid food for thought.

My Life as a Mankiewicz: An Insider’s Journey Through Hollywood by Tom Mankiewicz and Robert Crane (University of Kentucky Press, 2012). To regular readers of this column, it is no secret that I am a huge admirer of the work of the late screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, the son of the Oscar-winning writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) and nephew of Herman J. Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane), the man who rebooted the James Bond series in the 1970s, and the key (if uncredited) screenwriter of 1978’s classic Superman: The Movie. Mankiewicz was working on this book when I interviewed him in 2009 and I am glad to see that, despite his death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, it has finally been completed (by Robert Crane). My Life as a Mankiewicz chronicles Tom’s fascinating life, which brought him into contact with many (if not all) of the major showbusiness figures of the second half of the twentieth century, including John Wayne, Gene Kelly, Sean Connery, and Marlon Brando, all of whom he discusses in a string of entertaining and affectionate anecdotes. It also chronicles his work life in the colorful worlds of 007 and the Man of Steel, on television as the creator of a number of innovative musical specials and Hart to Hart, as Hollywood’s most sought after script doctor, as the prime creative force behind 1976’s underappreciated black comedy Mother, Jugs, and Speed, and as the director of 1987’s Dragnet. The book also honestly depicts the unhappier aspects of Mankiweicz’s life and career, including a difficult (and sometimes tragic) youth, a busy if often-frustrating love life, and the industry politics and chicanery that led to the decline of his once-illustrious career. Like Tom himself, the book is witty, entertaining, and generous and well worth your time and attention.

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4 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: The Dark Side

  1. Gail

    Yes, excellent. Thanks for sharing, Ray. One more thing that might be mentioned re theft: I’ve had any number of original scenes (based on more research than writers usually do) end up in other films when they had so far only been seen by ‘anonymous’ readers for various scriptwriting competitions. Coincidence? I’d often wondered – till I saw a half-dozen dialogues I’d written turn up verbatim in a very popular history series. That seemed like a bit much. How frequent is idea theft via contests, do you think?

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