Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Film Courage Plus: Myth Of Overnight Success

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me at the end of 2014, and then again at the end of 2015, around 36 segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

Dispelling the myth of the Overnight Success:

No one ever tells you this: Prepare to start at the bottom and work your way up.

You aren't going to sell the first script you write.

So you probably shouldn't quit your day job.

You’ve read the stories about someone who sold their first script for a pile of money and kissed their day job goodbye - from nobody to the hottest writer in Hollywood! Well, 99% of the time, those stories are BS - created by a publicist somewhere to turn this script sale into a Cinderella story, instead of that gritty real story of struggle and hard work that got them to that point where they could sell a script for a pile of money. The article says it was their first script... but that just means it was their first script that *sold*. We know from that old WGA survey that the average screenwriter wrote (and rewrote) 9 screenplays before they made a cent, so even if this is the story of the 1% who actually was some sort of overnight success, that screws up the odds for everyone else - the average number of scripts that you will have to write goes *up* for everyone who isn’t that person.

One of the reasons for publicists to ignore the truth and give us the Cinderella stories is that they want everyone to ignore the past credits of that new million dollar screenwriter. Because no one starts at the top, that means those early credits are often at the bottom. And maybe a little embarrassing. When Jeff Maguire sold IN THE LINE OF FIRE back in 1993, there was all kinds of publicity about how this was his first script and how he turned down Tom Cruise’s offer, because Cruise was too young for the role... but this was not his first script sale. Not even close. His first produced credit was in 1975, and we’ll get back to that in a minute. He had written the successful family adventure film TOBY McTEAGUE in 1986, and wrote VICTORY starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine in 1981. Before that he had been writing low budget exploitation movies for a living, like RECKLESS (1979 version) and the actual first screenplay that he sold (not the first script that he wrote - remember that average) was VAMPIRE LUST back in 1975. So only 18 years to become an overnight success!

I met Jack Nicholson at the San Francisco Film Festival sometime between 1975 and 1979 - I had snuck backstage past security and found him in the green room before he was supposed to go on stage - and he told me that it only took him 25 years to become an overnight success. His first TV role was in 1955, his first movie role was in 1958, and his breakthrough role was FIVE EASY PIECES in 1970 - so it was really only 15 years, right? But those 15 years were spent working in low budget movies for Roger Corman, have you seen the original LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS?

Everyone starts at the bottom and works their way up.

Because there was a new TERMINATOR movie out a couple of years ago, the last successful TERMINATOR was RISE OF THE MACHINES in 2003 and that was written by the two guys who wrote THE GAME... and THE NET with Sandra Bullock, and that was their first script sale according to the publicists. But not in real life. Like Jack Nicholson, those guys began by working for Roger Corman - they wrote BLOODFIST 2 starring Don “The Dragon” Wilson and around a dozen other movies before they sold THE NET. And here’s a bit of encouragement from all of that struggle that the publicists left out of the story - the reason why they were hired to write TERMINATOR 3 is because the director who was hired to make the film had worked with them in their low budget days and thought that they were great writers. So that time you are working your way up from the bottom you are making connections that can put you on top!

I often mention my ill-advised Super 8mm feature film, made in my home town when I was in my early 20s. I cast the movie out of the Diablo Valley College drama department, and my female lead was the most beautiful and talented actress there. I believe that she was super disappointed to discover that I was not some big Hollywood producer, just some guy in the Film Appreciation class who owned a Super 8 sound camera and some lights and was the entire crew for the movie. Just me. Well, she moved to Hollywood and was cast in a low budget T&A comedy called BEACH GIRLS as the lead - the girl who didn’t get naked until the end. That film was a drive in and grindhouse hit, which lead to her starring in some other films and a guest star gig on T.J. HOOKER. Many years later, when I had moved to Los Angeles and was an active member of Scriptwriters Network, our guest speaking is the writer of Mr. HOLLAND’S OPUS and COURAGE UNDER FIRE, Pat Duncan, and afterwards I talked with him... about his first produced credit - BEACH GIRLS, starring that actress in my Super 8 feature! Pat had spent years writing low budget films and Saturday morning cartoons before he became the serious writer whose scripts got actors Oscar nominations. He did rewrite work on my favorite Chuck Norris movie...

Speaking of Chuck Norris, Oscar winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian (SCHINDLER’S LIST, THE IRISHMAN) got his start on a Chuck Norris movie... the one directed by the guy who did opening titles and music for Paul Kyriazi's DEATH MACHINES! I’ll bet the publicists leave that off his resume!

The point of all of this is that a writer writes. The door that opens for you is probably not going to be a big studio film, it’s most likely going to be something at the bottom. Just like any other job, you don’t walk in after you have graduated high school and fill out a job application for CEO of the company. You start at the bottom and work your way up.

If you plan on writing TV, you don’t start by selling a pilot script. That pilot script is what may get you hired as a writer’s assistant on a low end TV show, or maybe get you work writing Saturday morning cartoons (check the credits of your favorite TV writers - a lot began in cartoons, that’s where they hire new writers). But writers write, so you will be learning on the job - writing against deadlines and working your way slowly up the ladder until you are hired on staff for a hit TV show and someone at the network pulls you aside and asks if you have any ideas for new TV shows... and you whip out that pilot that got you the job on that cartoon many years ago. Or, more likely, a new pilot that incorporates what you have learned over those many years. You aren’t going to start at the top.

You will grab hold of that first cartoon job or Roger Corman film (or whatever) job and give it your best shot, because you are a writer and love writing and want to do as much writing as possible. Paid to write? Heaven! You are getting paid for what you love! Up until this point you were working some possibly crappy job that you may have hated... and now you are writing for money!

Being a screenwriter is not a single screenplay, it is writing maybe 100 or more screenplays over your career. So you need to get used to writing screenplay after screenplay after screenplay. You’d better love that, or at least like having finished writing those screenplays - because that’s what being a screenwriter *is*. Writing a stack of screenplays. Writing screenplays for a living. Writing screenplays for others, based on an existing property (book, movie remakes, board games) or for specific requirements (we have Adam Sandler signed to a 5 picture deal! Or Chuck Norris wants to do a low budget horror movie where he kicks a monster’s butt!) because that’s what a professional screenwriter does. Spec screenplays are job applications for assignments like that. This is a job. You write for a living, on deadlines, with crazy bosses, and have to do great work no matter what the assignment - or you will be fired. More writers than jobs, maybe someone else can do what you can not? But if you love writing, you will look at any challenge as a chance to show your creative stuff. Embrace those entry level jobs, because you are WORKING. Getting paid for writing. Is there anything better?

And the thing that I didn't mention in the clip: All of those terrible writing jobs on cartoons or low level TV shows or non blockbuster films? Are JOBS! Writers are needed to write those - and you may end up writing cartoons for the rest of your life. Guess what? That's writing for a living. It's better than doing that horrible day job that you had to do before you broke in. Is there anything better than writing for a living?

Good luck and keep writing.

- Bill

PS: In the clip I also talk about keeping screenplay copies in the trunk of my car. These days, I would just ask for the person's e-mail and ask if I can send them a logline.

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