Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Participation & Performance

I'm re-running this blog entry from a several years back, for two very good reasons: It's still an important message, and I screwed up and don't have a blog entry for today.

When I was a kid in school, Gym Class was graded by participation and performance - whether you attended class every day and gave it your best shot, and what was accomplished with that best shot. If you were a fat uncoordinated kid like me, the best grade you could probably get out of Gym was a C, which was passing. I was there every day and I always did my best - which was not very good. Now, if I really wanted to I probably could have focused on one or two events or sports and really worked my butt off (figuratively *and* literally) and ended up with a B... or maybe even an A if I proved to be good at whatever I had selected. But I really didn’t care about Gym - just showing up and doing my best was about as much Gym as I could take. Which meant I would always be a C Gym student.

I often run into new screenwriters who think they should be graded only on participation... yet in the real world no one cares about participation - they only care about performance.

First, let me say that just finishing a script is a major human accomplishment. Finishing *anything* is an accomplishment. I always advise people who have just written Fade Out to treat themselves to something - like ice cream. Or go out to dinner someplace nice. Or do *something* to reward yourself. A dog gets a treat for “sitting pretty”, a screenwriter ought to get something for slaving over a script for a few months until you reach Fade Out. That's a big thing!

And every time you finish another script, treat yourself. I will tell you, there are many people who talk about writing a script and do nothing, many who get halfway and quit, and even many who write one screenplay... But fewer who write two, and the more scripts you write the fewer other writers out there who have done the same. So maybe with each new script you ought to treat yourself to something bigger and bigger - the Michael Bay Explosion Theory Of Screenwriting Treats.

Even though I will tip my hat to you for writing ten screenplays - that’s absolutely amazing - the industry doesn’t give a damn about participation. They are all about performance. And if you write ten stinker scripts, those are still ten stinker scripts. If you write ten okay scripts, that is still not good enough. You need to have a script that cuts through all of the rest - a script that people read and talk about. You need a script that *performs*.

I always use the Basketball Analogy. Right now there are probably tens of millions of kids playing basketball on some school ground or in the driveway after dad spent a full day trying to figure out how to install the hoop and backboard to the garage roof. Out of all of those kids, a fraction will play basketball good enough to make the High School Varsity Team. Out of all of the High School players, a fraction will play at the level that gets them on a college team. Now, even on a college team there are those who play at a level that gets them on a *good* college team and those who just play on teams that only play local teams. Now let’s look at those players on the good college teams - the ones you watch on ESPN. Only a fraction of those basketball players will make it to the pros. And even those who make it to the pros may be pro bench warmers - on the second string that only plays if a bomb wipes out the rest of the team. Now we have this small, finite group of professional basketball players... and even then, we have players who are stars like Kobe and players you have never heard of (but are pros and play in most of theor team’s games). Here’s the thing - as screenwriters, we have to be in that small percentage of pro players... and most of us will not be a Kobe or a Shane Black. Most of us will be those guys whose names you do not know and who do not get endorsement deals or date supermodels.

Here’s where things get rough for many new writers - they finish a screenplay, eat their amazing colossal ice cream sundae, and then nobody in the industry gives a damn about their script and they become angry because they worked so hard and got *bad coverage* in return. Bad coverage! Their reward from the industry? A slap in the face! Ef Hollywood! Ef them all!

But the business side of this (the part where you get paid and can quit your day job) does not care about how hard you worked on the script - they only care about the results. Is the script playing at that professional level? That’s tough to deal with, but you will have to deal with it.

There are some writers (I’ve met a few) who don’t give it their best shot, who don’t work very hard or don’t spend the time thinking about their stories and characters, and finish a script and expect to be rewarded by the world even though their script just plain sucks. It is *not* the best that they can do. Well, here’s the thing - and it is brutal - nobody cares how hard you worked if you did the work wrong. There is no reward for screwing up. You may have put in the hours, but if you didn’t put in the brain power and put in the heart and put in the actual stretch-yourself effort; you have failed. All of those hours were for nothing. If you “just crap out” a script, it will be crap. There is no reward for crap. If you spend 40 hours a week for 6 months and turn in crap, it is still crap. The results are what counts - the *performance* not the participation.

Nobody cares how hard you worked on the script if it's crap. They care about performance, not participation.

But here’s the thing - for the majority of you reading this, if you push yourself you will get better with every script you write and will reach that level of performance where people in the industry notice you. I am a strong believer that hard work is more important than natural talent. Somewhere there’s a kid on a playground who can close his eyes, throw the ball, and get nothing but net. Some sort of Spidey-sense going on there. But that kid is a freak. The rest of us have to work our tails off to get anywhere. And if we do work hard, and stretch our abilities with every script, and get better, and *care*, we will make the team. We will be playing pro, even though our natural talent may be nowhere near that freak kid’s.

But don’t expect the *industry* to buy you that amazing colossal ice cream sundae until you are playing at that pro level. Until then, you have to treat yourself.

- Bill




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Emily Blake said...

I think some of that "I did so reward me" mentality is because our standards have fallen so very low in education. Kids aren't expected to do homework anymore, and now most gym classes do just grade on participation. So today's youth has grown up with the expectation that just showing up is good enough.

Steve the Creep said...

I work with a lot of improvisers/sketch comedy writers and performers, and it drives me crazy about how many of them are just looking for that one viral video that will skyrocket them to fame. But what happens if they do get that one big break. They're not developing the skills to be consistant once they're in the spotlight.

A good way to tell if a screenwriter is focus and devoted is to ask them what scripts they've read. If they just watch movies and read screenwriting books, you know.

Anonymous said...

Great column over at the script tips site. Just what I needed to be reminded of as I set into my first feature script. It has some action elements, but I wanted to make sure that it is always justified and that it has stakes tied to the emotional story.

martinb said...

We had one athlete in our school went on to play cricket at an international level. He was way, way, WAY better than anyone in the history of the school had ever been. And he was superb at sprinting, jumping, gymnastics, rugby, field hockey, and who knows what else...

So, uh, I guess you have to be pretty damn good to make it.

One other thing I noticed about this guy. He was always training.

You'd think such a natural athlete wouldn't need to. [/irony]

Pete Bauer said...

I recently read that people who are very successful invest at least 10,000 hours into their craft before they become successful. I believe that's a good number.

I've written over 10 features, but only about 1/3 are any good, honestly. I look at each script as a writing experiment. Some succeed, some fail. It's the attempt that's important to me creatively.

Joshua James said...

Great post, Bill.


Day after the Bulls are bounced from the Finals by the Pistons, he's at the gym working on this game, trying to improve it.

He was a natural, but he also busted his ass and worked hard and worked smart to excel.

I always think of that, when I think I've done enough on a script.

And Jordan still couldn't really play baseball ...

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