The Business of Your Writing Career: Studios vs. Independent Films

Having grown up in the Los Angeles area, I never thought that there was anything other than major motion picture studios that produced movies. Out here in L.A., those studios are all around us. You drive by them in West L.A., Burbank, Culver City, the San Fernando Valley and various other spots. We all stare at as we drive by them. No matter how many times we see them, they still give us all a thrill. The magical names like Walt Disney Studios, MGM, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Paramount and RKO give me chills. When I became an agent and had meetings at these and other studios, I had to pinch myself to believe I was really there and a part of it all. When I walked down the street set where The Sting was shot, I got goose bumps. When I sat in the commissary at MGM and an elderly, but still gorgeous, Cary Grant walked by, I simply went weak.

Writer/Director Gary King’s ‘How Do You Write a Joe Shermann Song’

Eventually I made lots of deals with the people at these studios and visited the sets of my clients’ movies. There were a myriad of meetings with the folks that make it all happen. There were lunch meetings, breakfast meetings, drinks, and dinner meetings with marvelously creative and famous people. That became my world.

All of this is preamble to the choices that you have as writers of film scripts. Do you envision yourself at these places? Do you see yourself in the conference rooms or grand old Hollywood style offices? If that’s the case then you need to do everything to make that happen. It really is up to you. Do you see yourself sitting in the beautiful reception rooms of CBS, NBC, ABC and the major cable companies awaiting your meeting with the people that can actually say yes or no to your Television project? Are you willing to pay the piper to get there and make all of this your world?

There is an alternative to all of the above. The independent film arena may be what you want. It might be where you are better suited. You might fit into that world in a more comfy way. The great thing about indies is that they are everywhere. You might even end up being the producer of your own movies. You might feel that you have to direct your first script. If so, the independents are great. We all know that the money you will make is a great deal less then you’d make at Warners but you will most certainly have more creative input and power.

We all constantly have to make choices in our lives. Deciding whether to go indie or studio is a very big choice that you should make early in your writing career. Just close your eyes and see yourself in either world. How does it feel? Which place is drawing you to it? Are you afraid of Hollywood? Yes, it’s big and overwhelming, but it is full of creative and even some nice people. Are you afraid of giving up your day job or of trying to move your spouse and kids to this city? There are jobs here and there are a zillion choices when it comes to finding a place to live. Grab the gold ring and make the move.

If your choice is small budgeted films then you can start your engines now. Let’s say you have a great script in your hand. Now you must find the money. Successful business people everywhere want to be in the movie business. Five grand from this guy, ten grand from that woman… pretty soon you’ve got enough bucks to make a little picture. Who knows, you might have a Juno on your hands. Perhaps you’ll take it to the Sundance Film Festival, get a distribution deal from the Weinsteins and become that huge little independent film that everyone wants to get to know.

There are many, many goals you will need to set for yourself in your screenwriting career. Studios vs. Independents is one of the first and foremost you should make. This industry is all about your inner vision. You dream up characters and stories. You create set pieces and conundrum for your make believe people. You will have to rewrite endlessly and come up with solutions to script problems. It’s all in you.  You have the power to set it free, to make choices and even to make some mistakes. I’ve always felt that the definition of success is simply making more right decisions then wrong ones. Even the most successful people in the world make mistakes. Look at Bernie Madoff and Mitt Romney.

In making your dreams into realities you will need to be honest with yourself. Many people will tell you that you can be a big Hollywood screenwriter while living in Anywhere, USA. That, my friends, is not true. To be a Hollywood writer you need to be here for meetings that get cancelled at the last minute and rescheduled for two weeks later. You need to make connections and see those people as much as possible. You need to be available to go to screenings and drink meetings at the last minute. Face time is of the utmost importance. A real career with the studios consists of getting rewrite assignments, adaptation assignments and pitching your own projects. It is extremely rare for anyone to sell a completed spec script and have it get produced. You might be lucky enough to have someone option your project but there is little to no money involved in that particular process. You are much more likely to see your script on film if you go the independent route. Unfortunately, you might be the only one that sees it.

So make your decision and then make it happen. It’s all in your hands.

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3 thoughts on “The Business of Your Writing Career: Studios vs. Independent Films

  1. Anonymous

    “Independent film” has a lot of levels. I agree that it’s an important decision to make – and it does dictate what choices you make, where you will live, and what your goals look like along with the level of success you may or may not achieve. That being said, some people do cross over after finding success in indie films (all the giant filmmakers of today come to mind – Aronofsky, Nolan, Wes Anderson, Tarantino, etc).

    But when we say “indie” I think it’s important to differentiate what we’re talking about because “indie” as in Big Beach Films is NOT the same “indie” as in Gary King (the poster in this article) which is NOT the same “indie” as in Focus Features.

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