Being a screenwriter means working for Hollywood studios. Write one great script and Hollywood will find you. Once you make that first big sale, life will be easy and your career will unfold in front of you.
No. No. And oh, hell no.
It used to be screenwriting was largely Hollywood or bust, but that’s changed; now its possible to exist outside of the studio system and have success. (Or to jump from indie to Hollywood and back again.) Here, I’ll talk life in that world of indie: where suits stay in closets, the offices are coffee shops, and the quintuple-hyphenate is the rule, not the exception.
I’ll mainly talk about writing, but I’ll occasionally talk about producing your own work as well. I’m a filmmaker because I want to tell stories. Produce them myself? Bam, story told, no one had to give me permission. But even if you produce your own writing… heck, even if you like yelling, “BAM!” when you’re done, it’s great to work for someone else as well. Why? Film is a collaborative medium and also, and here’s an important bit, other people usually pay you to write. (Getting paid, the gory details, next column!)
Two quick notes. Here’s Number One: I’m going to be talking about film because indie film and studio film each exist and are fairly well-understood. (Okay, so maybe “understood” is a gross exaggeration, but at least we all basically misunderstand them the same way!) Television is trickier when you toss around “indie”; network/cable TV are established, but “indie TV” often means web series, and that is an emerging field with about as much stability as a drunk duck on a unicycle in San Francisco. If the duck had an inner ear infection. No one knows how to make money from web series yet, or even if you can make money from them in a repeatable way. So I’m mainly talking film, but some of the principles will cross over to television as well.
Quick Note Number Two: there are no absolutes in this industry. You’re talking about an industry which has given rise to Citizen Kane and Showgirls, Lawrence of Arabia and Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo. And that’s just major releases; it doesn’t talk about experimental films. I shot a short film largely set in a Renaissance workshop, full of paintings and alchemy with deep themes about art and life, with a soundtrack by the Russian State Symphony Cinema Orchestra; that film screened at a festival alongside someone else’s film that was nothing but bugs standing on film stock and being exposed to light. The soundtrack was clicking noises. Ten minutes. Of clicking. And bug silhouettes flashing on the screen like some disco scene from The Call of Cthulhu. And there was more than one screening. As the filmmaker, I had to be there each time. Bugs. Silhouettes. Clicking.
Sorry, little flashback there. So yeah, please don’t expect universal truths in an industry that gives you Iron Man and clicking bugs. I’ll give you guidelines, but there aren’t any rules that apply in all situations. This is art, not math.
But why not not stick with Hollywood? There’s money, there’s prestige, and the clicking bugs are few. Go for it if that’s your dream; just bring the chew-proof underpants and a healthy nest egg to survive on while you ram yourself into the studio gates. Figuratively. If you please; Hollywood is very similar to most other industries in that property damage of potential employers gets you zero chance of a career and one hundred percent chance of a criminal record.
So even with the least-shreddible underwear in the world, your figurative gate-ramming helmet, and a nest egg the size of the 2001 Monolith, Hollywood is getting tougher and tougher; when you’re rebooting Spider-Man every six weeks at $250M a pop, there are fewer opportunities for outside screenwriters to break into the studio system. Most sane people aren’t interested in letting a newbie architect draw up the blueprints for a quarter-billion-dollar office building, and it’s no different with in the Hallowed Halls of Hollywood. With the average budget soaring past the GDP of some countries, jobs for new kids are getting thin on the ground at Studio Row, and those dreaming of writing Hollywood pictures can feel despondent about ever getting their big break. (We’ll skip over the probability of big breaks in Hollywood except to say they are about as likely as a lottery win, and a lot less easy to survive on afterwards.)
What matters to us trying to find our career in writing is that, as big Hollywood studios have decreased their demand for new writers, new opportunities have opened up and in many cases they are much easier to explore than Hollywood’s system. They don’t require you to live in Los Angeles, they aren’t as hotly contested, and they don’t have the same shark-tank feel that can typify the studio world. (Don’t believe me? Give Doug Richardson’s blog a read and see if you still love the idea of working in Hollywood…)
So. This indie screenwriting thing. What is it? In my career, I’ve written for projects with a budget of a night in a cheap motel, and I’ve written for high-seven figure budgets. And lots in between. High seven figures? That’s millions, and that sounds like a studio picture! Well, it wasn’t. I’ve never worked on a studio picture; I don’t have anything against them, and I’d take the gig if it came my way (maybe), but indie is about not waiting for gatekeepers. Do you have a smart phone? Great. Go make a movie. You can edit it and upload it on the phone. You don’t even need a computer anymore. Put it on YouTube and your potential audience will be in the billions. Yep, with a B. Can’t shoot a great film on a phone? I’m sure that’ll come to a shock to Malik Bendjelloul, who shot part of his documentary Searching for Sugar Man on an iPhone and got an Oscar for his trouble.
When I started out in film, that wasn’t possible, but now because the barrier is so low there are more people doing this than ever before. A lot of it, to be frank, is junk. But a lot of it isn’t (see above-noted Oscar). If you’re smart and willing to work, you just might connect yourself to the next breakout hit, or at the very least know that people are enjoying a movie that you wrote, and that you can keep the light bill paid with the proceeds.
Working in indie isn’t really about agents and power lunches and targeting trends in studio pictures. Keeping an eagle eye on Variety and Hollywood Reporter and Deadspin isn’t the most important thing you can do, and in fact you can have a good career without ever caring about what those folks have to say. Indie is about networking. It’s about flexibility. It’s about being easy to work with, but knowing what rights are important to protect. It’s about understanding what indie can do, and what it can’t, and writing to suit. There’s no point in writing a freeway chase scene or a planetary explosion if the producer is borrowing her friend’s truck to haul gear. And not refilling the tank post-shoot.
All of these are also VERY useful skills for Hollywood as well. There’s not too much you can learn in indie that is useless in Hollywood.
Future columns will cover making money, contracts, how to write for indie, networking, and lots more. If there’s a topic you don’t see here that you want covered, let me know in the comments or tell me on Twitter @jeffrichards. Hope you enjoy. And watch out for the bugs.
- Alt Script: 5 Good Reasons to Write a No-Low Budget Script
- Taking the Reins: Give to Get Backed
- Alt-Script: How to Pick the Right Independent Producer
- A New World in Distribution – Goodbye Promise Releases on IndieGoGo
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