Monday, May 26, 2008

Top Ten Reasons NOT To Be A Screenwriter

Screenwriting sucks. It is a brutal occupation. You get crapped on all the time. But I wouldn’t change jobs for a million dollars... I love writing screenplays. So, here we are with more answers to those questions you posted a few month ago...

Question: Can you give us some reasons *WHY NOT* To Write A Screenplay?

I'll start:

1. How to write a Feature Film Script is *elusive*. Unless (of course) you are a glutton for continuous mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical pain…

Answer: Have I ever said it was easy?

2. It's almost impossible to sell a script. There are around half a million scripts in circulation ever year, and a couple hundred films made.

3. Oh, and once you sell or option a script - almost impossible to get it made.

4. And once they make it, they screw it up so bad it doesn't resemble what you wrote.

5. And critics will blame *you* for all of the bad parts, even though all of that stuff was their stupid rewrite.

6. And, as I've said before, if you were to just focus on a day job and work really hard - you'll probably make about as much (if not more) than you will writing scripts. With less hassle and more peace of mind.

7. David E. Kelley is the exception that proves really hot actors/actresses do not sleep with screenwriters.

8. The minute you sell a script and they completely ruin it, someone comes out of the woodwork saying they would have bought it and made it as written.

9. But if you sell a script for less money to someone who says they won't change a word - when they are done, they will point out that *one* word they didn't change.

10. And once you’ve gone through the seven circles of Hell required to sell a screenplay? You are unemployed... and must return to GO and begin the whole process again... Then again... Then again... Then again...

But Wait! There's More!

This is a brutal, difficult business. Someone once said that you can make a fortune writing screenplays, but you can’t make a living. That’s not entirely true, but the point is that when you read about some writer making a lot of money, those are the very very few at the top of the food chain. Every year, half of the WGA membership makes $0 (zero, zed, nothing)... and the median for the other half is around $100k. So, you can kind of plan on making $50k a year as a professional screenwriter - and that isn’t much. Of course, some people make more money... which means others have to make less money. And some people go a couple of years without work, so that others can work every year. There is no regular paycheck, and every time you sell a screenplay... it may be your last. You don’t know. Or, maybe this is the sale that will be made into the hit film that will change your career. You never know.

I just finished the rewrites on movie #20, and now I’m unemployed (I'm good 'til the end of the year, but what about next year?). So I’m running around trying to get someone, somewhere, to read a script and then buy it. Saturday night I had dinner with a producer... which lasted a couple of hours longer than expected... and after all of that time, do I have a job? I don’t know. We talked about potential projects, but nothing that seemed like a contract and a paycheck. May happen, may have just wasted half a day with this guy. There are a lot of time wasters out there. Lots of meetings that lead nowhere. This business has ups and downs - not all rollercoaster rides are in the cineplex. I have had years where 3 scripts were sold... and 3 films were made from them. Other years where I sold nothing and lived on savings from the previous year’s sales. I’ve also had years where I worked my butt off on a project that crashed and burned - I got paid, the film didn’t get made. There’s a stretch of time between credits on IMDB where I earned a living - they just never made any of the films. Problem is, go long enough without something going to screen and you start to go crazy. Am I doing all of this work for nothing? For a check? So that I can pay the monthly bills and at the end of the year have no new credits and no movie to watch with my name on it?

Hey, I could tell you tales of terror from the screenwriting trenches... in fact, some are coming up. The statute of limitations have expired on a couple of stories, so I’m gonna blog about them in the next few weeks... while I’m looking for work.

The amazing thing is - this is my 18th year as a pro screenwriter. I have managed to put together a living for 18 years, now. Through good and bad. You might look at my credits (or my credit reports) and think I'm a failure... I mean, look at all of those bad movies! But I think I'm a success - I am doing what I love, and have been doing it for the past 18 years. Some good years, some bad years - all *screenwriting* years.

Recently all of the “Entertainment News” shows (which rarely contain any actual entertainment news, but lots of celebrity news and scandal stuff) did a story on Anne Heche’s divorce - she’s behind on her spousal support payments and her ex dragged her into court... where she said that her TV show had been cancelled, so she is currently out of work and has no offers, and no idea when (if ever) she will be employed again. This is some sort of scandal! Broke TV star! How can that be? Well, it’s actually fairly common in the entertainment biz. No regular pay checks, no regular employment, no idea what will happen next. Live like a star, and you may end up broke before the next gig. What if you were “flavor of the month” and the month is over? What if that was it?

Because I’m often the guy with the facts and figures about just how tough the job of screenwriting is, people sometimes think I’m a pessimist... or, at the very least, some sort of spoilsport trying to destroy their dreams. Wrong on both counts. I am a *realist* - I don’t live in fantasy land, I live here in the real world, and want to know how to survive in this world. In either STAR WARS or EMPIRE, Han Solo says, “Don’t ever tell me the odds!” I think he’s a fool. If I know how difficult something is in advance, I can make sure I put in enough effort to win. I can prepare myself. I can make plans, do research, find the best method for success... Of course, Han Solo wasn’t really one for plans, so maybe knowing the odds was just unimportant to him. I want to know what problems I am likely to face *before* I have to face them - then I can come up with a solution and not just get beat down. Many people get beat down because they think their dreams will come true if they just keep on dreaming. Problem is - the real world doesn’t care about dreams. It’s hard work and problem solving.

Here’s the thing - once you know that there are going to be a million boobytraps ahead, and that there are 50,000 scripts registered every year, and probably ten year’s worth of scripts in circulation (that is half a million, folks) and that they only bought something like 98 spec scripts last year, and probably made around 10 or something, you may wonder how anyone can *not* be pessimistic... and there’s the key to being a screenwriter. You have to be an optimist. Once you know how crappy the odds are, once you know that your career could be over with one script sale, once you know that even if you have 19 films made from your scripts and they all turned out crap... you still believe you can make it. You still believe that someone, somewhere, will actually make your script the way it was written... or maybe even be a great director who will interpret your script using their directing talent (which has zip to do with writing) and the film will be better than your script. Hey, and maybe some great actor will play the lead and add their talent to your script (again - acting talent doesn’t mean changing the script, it means *performing* it). And the film becomes better than you could have imagined! And you maintain this optimism through crappy film after crappy film... through rejection after rejection. And when your hair begins to gray, you still *love* the writing part of this job. You still *love* coming up with stories and characters and going on those mental adventures for 110 pages.

I love to write. So, even if #20 was it and I end up working in McDonalds for the rest of my life, I will always have writing. I will always be able to do what I love.

Being a screenwriter is just like anything else in life. There are highs and lows. There are days when you think God hates you. Most days, though, you just wonder if He even knows you exist. A few weeks ago, I was standing outside a coffee shop, talking on my phone, surrounded by other people... and a bird shit on me. It didn’t shit on anybody else. Just me. A few months ago, I went to pick up some printing at a copy shop and they told me my credit card didn’t work. What? I called the credit card folks they told me that I had reported it stolen. What? I told them I hadn’t - and they argued with me. Eventually, I got far enough up the chain of idiots to get someone “in charge” who said a mistake must have been made and they would send me a new card... You know, it’s been one thing after another and many phone calls later I still don’t have that replacement card... I'm better off without it... and just use another card, now. Someone spilled coffee on me a few days ago. Burned my leg and stained a new pair of jeans - fresh from the laundry! Things go wrong every single day of your life - and you don’t quit, do you? You don’t give up on living because some bad things happen - because there are obstacles. Hey - same with screenwriting. I can tell you right now - you will have all kinds of problems in your screenwriting career. You will have producers back stab you, you will have agents blow deals, you will have managers cheat you, you will work your ass off on some film... and credit arbitration goes against you and your name isn’t on the film. There are a million things that will go wrong in your career as a screenwriter, just as there are a million things that will go wrong in your life. But if you love screenwriting, you’ll keep doing it....

Just make sure the producers don’t shit on you too much. And when they do, just remember there are other producers - some will probably shit on you less... and some may not shit on you at all. And, if you’re an optimist, some producer somewhere will read one of your scripts and know how good it is... and do everything in their power to turn it into a great film. I’m still waiting for that to happen, but I have faith that it will.

So, I’m working on a new spec... a family film about getting back up on your feet after life knocks you down. Inspirational. Optimistic... and also realistic. In the immortal words of Rocky Balboa, "It ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! Now if you know what you're worth then go out and get what you're worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits."

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Bank Holiday in the USA, so it's Hero Comes Late. - but some new tips are in the works... one on IRON MAN I'm working on...
Yesterday’s Dinner: Broccoli Beef at City Wok in Studio City.

Movies: I've seen a whole bunch of movies, including the new Indiana Jones film, and will report on them in the coming days...

Movies: NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN - I thought the first NARNIA movie, THE LION THE WITH AND THE WARDROBE was just okay. When my nieces were kids I gave them all of the books to read, not so much because they were secretly Christian books as because they were books of imagination. Kids need to exercise their imaginations! They need to have an escape! When I was a kid I read all of the Edgar Rice Burroughs stuff, but those were kind of boy books - the Narnia books had girls in them, and they’d be perfect for my nieces. They called them “chapter books”. I have no idea whether they saw the movie or whether they liked it, but for me by the time LION got to the big battle scenes, they were kind of *generic* battle scenes - and I didn’t care.

So, maybe they figured all of that out in the sequel?

Nope! PRINCE CASPIAN is bland and boring and impersonal... and also completely non-Christian... not that that matters to me, I haven’t set foot in a church in decades, but you’d think it would matter to the guys making the film. That is part of their audience, right? I mean, the reason why SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES died was because it was the non-Christian fantasy film, right?

LION has a great opening scene - Nazi planes are bombing London in WW2 and our 4 kids are racing to the bomb shelter, when one of the boys races back inside the house... the very house that is about to be bombed! The other kids *order him* not to go, but he does anyway. Bombs are destroying homes. People are being killed out there. It’s an exciting, suspense filled action scene. This is a kid with problems.... and when he gets back into the bomb shelter we find out what was so important to him... a photo of his dead soldier father. Okay, that is a great scene because it’s all about character - and it’s also exciting and involving.

CASPIAN begins with a fist fight between boys - and we don’t know what started it or even who these kids are. Our two lead boys end up involved in the fight in the subway (tube), but we don’t know what it is all about... meanwhile some geeky kid is hitting on the oldest girl, and she tries to get away from him. That’s when the subway train comes... and the four kids see Narnia. They are transported to Narnia...

That isn’t nearly as cool as the hide & seek from the first film. No magic.

Once they get there, they discover a whole bunch of time has passed in Narnia, that runs on some sort of dog-year time or something. Narnia has been taken over by a bunch of evil humans who have killed all of the cute talking animals (can’t really say I blame them) and killed all of the weird half-man/half-horse things that have 6 appendages and may or may not have 2 sets of genitals (again - can’t say I blame them - those things freaked me out in the first film). There is an evil king, of course, and he has this evil plan to build a wooden bridge over this river. Much like Darth Vader, he kills people who get behind schedule... so I’m thinking this is the Death Bridge. No one ever tells us why this bridge is so important, or what the king;s evil plan might be... so we just watch guys build a bridge and don’t really care. It’s not like they are going to use the bridge to destroy a planet or something - it’s just a freakin’ bridge! So we don’t care.

When the evil king’s wife pops a boy, Prince Caspian is in the way of his evil bridge building plan, so he decides to kill him... but Caspian escapes, because the film is named after him. The film isn’t called Narnia: Cute Talking Badger.

Caspian does bump into some cute talking animals and some dwarves and our four kids, who are all legendary kings in the world of Narnia. Though the evil king and his bridge building henchmen think all of the damned talking animals and dwarves in Narnia are dead, seems that some survived and are living in the woods. Now here is where being a writer means I make sense of a story that really doesn’t make sense in order to explain it to you - the talking animals basically hide all day because they have no one to lead them into battle with the humans. That isn’t in the movie at all, but it should have been. And, though not a single talking animal ever mentions Aslan the Lion from the first film, who was secretly Jesus, it seems they need some Lion guidance. Again, I’m making sense of the movie and adding that the animals have lost faith, when that is never mentioned, shown, alluded to, hinted at, or anything else in that actual film. It’s as if all of the important stuff in the story never made it into the script - it just stayed in Adamson’s mind.

The talking animals and Prince Caspian, who speaks with Chico Marx’s accent, want the four kid kings to help them - even though this is barely discussed. This is a movie where things happen in the most boring and unemotional way possible - as if it’s designed to put you to sleep. It never tries to include us in the story or involve us in any way... and none of the characters have any emotional conflicts at all ... so there is nothing to feel. They decide to attack the evil king in his castle - because they’d never expect that - and we get a big, pointless battle scene.

Now, I’ve said this in a dozen Script Tips - an action scene is a *character* scene. In one of those danged LORD OF THE RINGS movies, there’s this great battle scene where one of the King-guy’s daughters, played by Miranda Otto (didn’t even have to look that up) is in love with Viggo Mortensen’s character. When all of the soldiers put on their armor and go into battle, she dons armor and tries to blend with the others. One of the short guys - I think the one on LOST - sees that this soldier is a woman... the Princess. Will he keep her secret? That adds an element of suspense, along with just the basic concept that this is the *Princess* in the battle, not a soldier. Of course, the biggest, meanest, most evil monster-soldier of all kills his way to her. Now she is fighting the ultimate warrior... and we know it’s the Princess, not a soldier! The ultimate warrior thing fights her - and it’s one heck of a great fight, but she’s completely out-gunned. This ultimate warrior thing gets ready to kill her, and says, “No man can kill me.” And she does an absolutely amazing sword move and kills the sucker, then takes off her helmet, lets down her hair, and says, “I am no man.” That’s a freakin’ great moment in a huge battle scene! And that is only one moment out of *dozens* in that one battle scene. That’s the key to a great epic battle scene - it’s all about individual fights within the battle, and the amazing emotional moments in those fights. But with CASPIAN we just get this big battle - lots of long shots of fighting, but no *moments*. These are the most boring film fights since the last Narnia movie!

Oh, and Tilda Swinton pops up in a one minute cameo as the evil ice queen... which brings up character arcs and emotional conflicts. Even though the battle scenes were boring in the first film, the film was still okay because of the characters. The problem boy from the first film was lured to the dark side by the Ice Queen, and a major part of that first film was the battle for that boy’s soul. Here, no one is even tempted! None of the four kids has any emotional issues they are struggling with at all - that makes them boring. They are flawless - and characterless. Maybe they thought after the kids found Lion in the first film they had to be perfect... but that just makes them boring. No weakness means no strength. You can’t get up if you have never fallen.

Okay, once they have retreated from one pointless battle scene and fallen back to their crumbling hide out in the woods, the evil King decides to follow them and kill them all. All cute talking animals and half horse / half men will be destroyed! And you know how they get to the Narnian hide out? You guessed it - the Death Bridge! This makes no sense at all, because they thought there were no more talking animals, so why would they build the Death Bridge over the part of the river that leads right to their hide out? I mean, they’d have to have flipped to the end of the script to find out where the hide out would be (it wasn’t a hide out until there was a reason to hide out) so this makes no sense at all - just really really bad writing. The writer may know what comes next, but the characters don’t. And in this case, the evil King is building the bridge before they discover that there are still cute talking animals and before our Kid Kings return.

Eventually the evil King and his army cross the Death Bridge and we get to another big pointless battle scene - with no character and no drama and no moments in between - this film is flat and boring and long. For some reason which they do not tell us, they send the youngest girl, Lucy, on horseback into the forest. Oh, and there are bad guy soldiers in the forest. Why is she riding in the forest? What the hell is this all about? Instead of letting us in on the story, so that we can worry that she won’t accomplish her mission in time or whatever, we’re kept completely outside the story - and have no idea what the heck is going on. They keep cutting back to Lucy evading the soldiers, and we wonder why they sent a little girl out into the woods in the first place. Are they trying to get her killed? Did she piss off her brothers and sister and they want her to die?

Instead of including us in the story, the film excludes us and confuses us.

And we don’t care.

By the way, the one thing I still don’t understand about these epic boring bloody battle scenes - are they really in the spirit of being Christian? Instead of bloody battles where people are brutally killed, shouldn’t we be turning the other cheek? Shouldn’t we be finding some sort of peaceful answer? Should we be teaching our kids that when people have a different opinion than yours, you should kill them? There’s a moment in the film where a character can be forgiving or use their sword... and we don’t end up with a very Christian solution to the fight. The good Christian character lifts his sword to kill the bad guy, hesitates... then hands the sword to another character and says: You kill him! Like I said, I haven’t set foot in a church in decades, but I believe that you always have to do what is right - and that isn’t the message in this film. At the end of the day, this film is about brutally killing people. I don’t think I want my now-adult nieces to see this film... and I worry about the kids in the audience. There are more moral discussions and more moral actions in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies than in these supposedly Christian films. The scene in, I think the second LOTR movie, where Frodo and Sam are suspicious of each other... and eventually they must make peace with each other and forgive each other.... that’s a good message. The LOTR movies are about throwing away the most precious thing in the world so that the world can be at peace. You know, when people are killing each other over *oil*, maybe we need to skip the next NARNIA movie and re-see those LOTR flicks. Plus, they’re much much better movies.

Pages: Kinda goofed off for a few days after the rewrite, but now I'm working on the girl-horse project... and kind a poking around on the Big Rewrite Project.

Bicycle: Raining and overcast in LA - so I haven't been on the bike over the long holiday weekend.

- Bill


Cody said...

Writing may be your first love, but during a goldrush it's the guys who sell shovels that make money. Finish/update one of your books and get it out there amongst all the dreck.

Oasis said...

I’ve been called a lot of names by the LA crowd like POLLYANNA. I’ve been told by many of the same crowd that Hollywood is going to eat me alive. I like to respond by saying…”not without lots of foreplay.” I don’t mean to be crass, however I pray that my point is made.

I’m new to this game, but this isn’t the first game I’ve ever played.

When I came to this internet, I knew nothing. Seriously. I didn’t even know how to send an email without referring to my notes.

I fast and prayed before posting my first blog. I knew nothing. I was so intimidated by this www that I would hardly look at the monitor.

A couple of years ago, I was on a website. A guy posted a blog, quoted you and posted a link to

I stopped by your site…thus began my REAL learning of how to write a screenplay.

You don’t know me. You might never get to know me…but know this,
Part of the reason that we are on this earth, is to help other human beings. And you have helped me Mr. Martell. I KNOW HOW TO WRITE A SCRIPT!

But not only me, you have helped my family…because they love me and they’re seeing a happier me (as a result of my writing).

Now you might say “that’s all well and good lady, but bird’s are still shitting on me.”

I’ll get to my point. I know that I’m not the only one out here who is benefiting greatly from your wisdom. And I don’t take it for granted.

I take every tip you post literally. I’m hooking them with the first sentence. I have a page turner on every page. My descriptions are action. My hero has inner/outer…all kinds of problems. The arc is CRAZY!

“There are days when you think God hates you. Most days, though, you just wonder if he even knows you exist.”(Bill)

Trust me he most certainly doesn’t hate you. And he knows every hair on your head. Especially the gray ones.

You have no idea the lives you have touched in a positive way…just through me alone.

With that I say Thank You. (I hope that there was a point made in there somewhere.)

p.s. I just happen to catch "cody's" comment before I posted...

and my opinion for what it's worth...

Your book is going to be worth a *whole* lot more if you can *hold* off a little longer. There is going to be that perfect time (IMO).

And...I've been wrong a time or two.

Oasis said...

Very sorry for such a long post. I promise I won't be offended if you edit.

And you are certainly welcome to delete this one, once read.

Anonymous said...

during a week long power outage in the former State I lived in, I trucked myself down to the wife's work so I could use the free-wifi in the lobby and continue to write all day (plus they had a cafe so I was good to go)... and a bird shit on me... inside! Friggin pigeons.

Oasis said...

Like the little boy who got *excited* when he saw the horse manure underneath the Christmas Tree. He said, “there’s got to be a pony around here somewhere.”

I wasn’t going to say anything…but now that you mention your experience moviequill, I’ll confess:

A bird once shit on me. There was a herd of people around. But no one else. Just me. The shit got in my hair. And I was looking all cute. With my hair extensions. It was awful!!!


I think it’s something to this shit.

Christian M. Howell said...

I actually prefer the Galaxy Quest motto.

"Never give up, never surrender."

Fortunately the internet has changed the playing field and if you really try, you too can get an assignment where the movie isn't made but you actually get paid.

Another thing that helps is the ease of making indie films. Those are even better for "keeping yourself hot."

I'm a year in and have built a few relationships and actually gotten reads.

I'm kind of lucky in that I can always write code in the lean times, so it's like full speed ahead.

Emily Blake said...

Well, the truth is, screenwriters are all completely insane. Some of us are better at hiding it than others.

Richard McNally said...

Remarkable that half of WGA member writers make $0 in any given year, and that the median take for the remaining half is $100K. As difficult as screenwriting is, at least there are harder times ahead.

Carolyn said...

What you wrote may seem discouraging on the surface, but in actuality it is very inspirational and encouraging. :) Thanks.

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