Category: screenwriting

Secrets to success

I read this article a few weeks ago from the LA Times about a writer/director who managed to beat the odds and get a movie produced. Listen, I’m all for success stories, but everytime I read one of these, I find that the true secrets to someone’s success are ignored or misstated, leaving the aspiring artist to wonder what it was that actually made it happen.

In the case of Stella Meghie (as described in the article), the one line that stood-out for me – and obscures the true secret behind her success – was this:

“Shortly after graduating, she sold a number of TV projects.”

Now, this may sound like a throwaway line, and one that the writer penned without really considering its implications, but I see it more as the gateway to getting “Everything, Everything” made. In other words, had she not been able to sell “a number of TV projects,” it is unlikely that she would have had sufficient legitimacy to garner any attention to finance her first film project, and – in turn – an agent from CAA.

Having been through the big agency meat grinder, I have seen artists get ignored and cast aside without so much as a cursory read because they didn’t have a famous last name, or an industry referral, or some other mitigating factor in their background that opened the gates. When I first moved from the mailroom (yes, it’s not just a cliche) of UTA to an agent’s desk as his assistant, I was the sole barrier for anyone getting to him.

Perhaps the second most important lesson is to be nice to the assistant. The first is that tales of success often ignore the true reasons for how someone’s career was launched. And that is the primary failing of articles like this. I am reminded of reading about how “Gran Torino” got made, having been written by a Michigan no-name. The article said he got it to Clint Eastwood, and I immediately groaned, thinking that it takes a very special set of circumstances to get something to the revered actor/director.

Yes, this is a bit of a rant, but one that I think may prove helpful to aspiring writers and directors (even actors) who don’t understand why they can’t catch a break in Hollywood. Often, there is more that isn’t mentioned in articles like this that really tell the whole story.

One quick caveat – I am writing this making my own assumptions, and there may well be other considerations that I just don’t know about. Which is why I always try to make the creative process less of a mystery than it already is.

Good luck!

Thick skins and fragile egos

I read the other day about the passing of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The first line of his obituary in The Los Angeles Times reads:

In the nearly five years it took Robert Pirsig to sell “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” 121 publishers rejected the rambling novel.

If you are a seasoned writer, this should come as no surprise. The business of creative arts require you to risk – perhaps, invite – criticism and rejection in pursuit of success. And this stems from a universal truism that was best explained in the classic Hollywood tome titled, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman. The author is probably best known for writing such masterpieces as The Sting and The Princess Bride. And while it’s a rich and humorous journey through the vagaries of making movies, he repeats a phrase that every creative type should commit to memory: “Nobody knows anything.”

This does not mean that people who produce, finance and/or distribute films are stupid (and this goes for publishers, editors, agents, etc.). It is a simple distillation of the fact that there is no certainty about what makes a movie, book, series, etc., hugely successful, or a colossal bomb.

Think for a moment about My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This was an inexpensive film with no A-list stars, yet it was a box office phenomenon in 2002. There is no algorithm, no formula (despite the current superhero craze), no secret sauce in differentiating success from failure.

I have read scripts that were so-so, but became huge hits because of the cast, the director, or maybe just the public sentiment at the time of release. I’ve also read scripts that were brilliant, but these same forces resulted in a dismal failure. One of my favorite examples is Die Hard. Based on a book by Roderick Thorp, titled Nothing Lasts Forever, and was originally optioned as a vehicle for Frank Sinatra. It languished in the vaults of 20th Century Fox for years until producer Joel Silver found it while searching for a starring role for Bruce Willis. Who knew?

Anyway, not to belabor the point, suffice it to say that perseverance is necessary (but not sufficient) to achieving success in entertainment. But remember – it’s also important to keep creating. You never know when lightning will strike!

An authentic tale of success in Hollywood

 

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“Don’t Breathe” from director Fede Alvarez scored big at the box office this past weekend, surpassing all others to debut at #1. And while I haven’t see the film (yet), I thought the trailer was pretty compelling, and its success came as no real surprise.

What I didn’t realize was the lineage of its director and co-writer, Fede Alvarez. I had actually seen his early work years before when this YouTube video was garnering a lot of buzz, for what amounted to five minutes of cool special effects and terrific directing. I’ve seen some promising artists create interesting work online before (most notably, “405 The Movie,”) but Fede actually had a lot of luck to match his talent, leading him to Sam Raimi and his first Hollywood film, the remake of “Evil Dead.”

The story is told best in this interview with John Horn from public radio’s KPCC, and it is fairly detailed in how it all happened. The reason why this stood out for me was it seems that, too often, we hear success stories that omit huge steps in how a project came to prominence. In particular, I reference this article from The Los Angeles Times a few years back about how “Grand Torino” got made. It was this passage that frustrated the hell out of me:

“Schenk managed to get the script to two younger producers, Jenette Kahn and Adam Richman, who optioned the story with their own money. Schenk says everyone they took the script to passed. They finally got the script to Gerber, a veteran producer and one-time Warner Bros. production chief who had worked on a number of Eastwood films. Gerber gave the script to Eastwood, who read it and simply said, “I’m doing it.”

Having been an agent for years, I know that this really gives short shrift to the process, and I felt that this particular series of events warranted much greater attention, for the sake of aspiring screenwriters everywhere, if nothing else.

Anyway, I had to write about Fede’s path to critical and financial success in Hollywood because I still harbor frustration over that LA Times article from 2008. I guess I’m still learning to just let things go. And in the end, as difficult as it is to make it in this business, you can’t succeed if you don’t try, and it helps to have a lot of luck – perhaps more so than talent…

Enjoy!