Monday, October 27, 2008

The Big Break

Thursday night was Final Draft’s Big Break Party, where the winners of the annual screenwriting contest are announced. For the past couple of years it was at this nightclub on Hollywood Blvd, I forget the name, that had multiple rooms and always had a Halloween party going on the same night in some other room, with hot women in skimpy costumes stepping out into the common area. There were probably hot men, too - but I didn’t notice. They also had a red carpet and interviews - just like the Oscars. This year was at the Knitting Factory, another Hollywood Blvd night club - but no red carpet and no Halloween party in the next room.

I’d had some meetings on the top secret studio project earlier in the day. Kind of some good news bad news (though it was really all good news) - things are progressing well on the business side, but some new ideas and some new characters means yet another version of the treatment. I’ve lost count at this point - but there have been a lot. I actually got a little pissy in the meeting, because one of the major changes is a change back to something that was in a previous draft (a few drafts back) and when the decision was made back then to make that change, I asked if they were sure that’s what they wanted... it was a little strange. I guess I should have just smiled at Thursday’s meeting and thought “I told you so”, but this was a difficult change to make in the first place, and changing it back means making a bunch of big changes to the current version. It’s like a house of cards. Hey, my job is to give them the script they want, so I’m going to stop whining and start working. I rode mt bike to that meeting, and was feeling pretty good... but when it was time to go to the party, I was losing steam.

The thing about parties like this is - should I eat first? If I eat first, there’s always a ton of hors d’oeuvres. If I don’t eat because the invite mentions food, there are two trays of crackers and cheese that are empty by the time the server gets to me. I hadn’t eaten dinner, and didn’t want to be one of those two beer drunks - especially when the drinks are free. So I figured I’d better eat something, and wolfed down some Carl’s jr burgers and fries on my way to the party. So, you know what that means...

All kinds of food. Tons of food. Mini burgers. California roll. Chicken skewers. Veggies. Cake. Cookies. When I arrived, there was an endless flow of food - but I had just eaten. Pisser. And the food looked better than my quick drive through meal.

If you didn’t know, Final Draft software *bought* Script Magazine a couple of years ago, so they are technically my employer (one of them - pizza and beer money). So I said hello to the boss and he complimented me on my Deliverance article a few issues back. I also said hello to my other boss, Shelly the editor. When Final Draft first bought Script, they were really “hands on” and wanted to target the magazine to WGA members... which was a mistake. There are fewer WGA members than general screenwriters (people trying to break in, etc) and the WGA has its own magazine. So we had a rocky couple of issues after the “merger”, then Final Draft realized if it wasn’t broke, don’t try to fix it, and let Shelly go back to targeting general screenwriters. The magazine has done well, and if you live in Los Angeles or New York, you may have noticed it in your local Blockbuster Video Store - they ordered it from the distrib for their store’s magazine rack. Right next to Entertainment Weekly and Premiere. Kinda cool.

One of the cool things about a party for screenwriters is that I’m likely to know someone. I am shy around strangers, making me a bit of a wall-flower at most parties, but here I know all kinds of people. I bump into Joe and Charles from the Scriptwriter’s Network, which I’ve been a member of since moving to Los Angeles about 19 years ago. I haven’t been to a meeting in months, so we had plenty to talk about. The organization is starting a new international program where the monthly meetings will be podcast, so that you can hear whatever big name screenwriter is our guest speaker. I also bumped into Will and Kel from Done Deal, who are now married (Congratulations!). I remember when Kel moved to Los Angeles, she ended up in an apartment on my street and I went to her house warming party. I also remember when Will (and his business partner Jennifer) started Done Deal, I think as a Tripod website. Now it’s huge! I was one of the first screenwriters they interviewed when they got their own domain, and we talked about doing a new interview when my big deal is officially announced. I also talked to cute little Debra who writes about TV for Script, and a bunch of other writers I know.

They hustled us into another room, with a stage, where they announced the winners of the Big Break Contest - and there is *always* one from the U.K. Always. I don’t know why that is. After the winners grabbed their trophies (and, I think, checks), then introduced the Lifetime Achievement Award Winner - Stephen J. Cannell. After some screen and projector hi-jinks they showed some clips from his TV shows, Rockford, Greatest American Hero, A-Team, and over 2 dozen others. I grew up watching all of these shows. In fact, Cannell is one of the reasons why I am a screenwriter.

You may have heard me tell this story - when I was young (high school or middle school, I don’t remember) I started to notice those credits on movies and realized that someone wrote them. That was their job - writing movies. I wanted that job! My Grandmother had a subscription to TV Guide Magazine (my parents did not - if you want to know what’s on TV, just change the channel) and in the back there was an advertisement for a place that sold scripts from your favorite TV shows. I don’t remember how much they were, but I worked my after school job and saved my money and sent away for scripts from my favorite TV shows - Rockford Files and Colombo and The Law - and watched the mail box every day like a kid waiting for his mail order cereal prize. When they came, I read them, studied them, and even measured them to find out what the margins were supposed to be on a screenplay. Then I started writing my own scripts. But here’s the thing - that Rockford Files script was written by Cannell. He became one of “My Writers” - the people who wrote movies or TV shows that I loved. Levinson & Link were on that list - they created Colombo and wrote some great TV stuff. Lawrence Kasdan was on the list - he wrote RAIDERS and EMPIRE and CONTINENTAL DIVIDE and BODY HEAT. Paul Schrader was on the list, and John Sayles and John Michael Hayes and Ernest Lehman and some others. When any of those guys had a new TV show or a new movie, I *had* to see it.

So it was cool to honor him, and he gave a great inspiring speech about driving a truck for his dad’s company and writing scripts in his spare time... and doing this for *years* until he got his big break and someone actually bought one. If you want to do it, keep doing it. Don’t give up doing what you love. Part of that is loving it in the first place.

After he got his trophy, they DJ jumped in and started playing music so loud none of us could hold a conversation anymore... and it’s a room full of writers, so no one was dancing. You know, for writers I think loud dance music probably isn’t the best choice. How about some nice jazz that can play in the background while we talk?

Several beers later, I was ready for some food... and there were no more servers with trays. There *was* a tray of cookies on a table, but all of the really good oatmeal cookies were gone. There were some sugar cookies... but what I really wanted were some of those mini hamburgers I turned down a hundred times earlier in the evening. I took a couple of cookies, wrapped them in a napkin, and put them in my pocket. In case of emergency. Then I talked to Shelly for a few minutes... and by some miracle, *one* tray of mini hamburgers came out of the kitchen on the hand of a server and I grabbed two.

Which lead to me forgetting about the cookies in my pocket...
Which lead to my reaching into my pants pocket for my keys when I got home and coming out with a handful of cookie crumbs. My pocket was *filled* with broken cookies.

My big break for the night - sugar cookies.

- Bill


The Moviequill said...

truth be told I preferred CS to Script... always seemed to have my nose stuck in CS for longer, read more articles etc... and when FD took over Script nothing changed... but now? I must say I have been preferring Script so yeah, whatever Shelly and the others have done down there is working. I am back to salivating for the next issue again

ObiDonWan said...

Your personal experiences always seem as if they'd add up to a great script. Perhaps that's true of all of us.

E.C. Henry said...

Thanks for sharing your night out, and bit of what you're going through now, Bill. I really appreciate hearing it from someone going through it, as I only know writing without any bounds, unpaid spec. material.

You sound like a fun guy to party with. What's your beer of choice?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

mrswing said...

I agree with Obidonwan. Your experiences always seem like a much more likeable version of Larry David's life (with a loveable guy struggling against insurmountable odds rather than a borderline psychopath in the lead role). Isn't there an Indie comedy or - even better - a smart sitcom series in there?

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