03 December 2009


This fine evening, I find myself in a mood of gradually increasing irritation. The holiday season tends to do that to me. The forced jollity, the insipid specials, the ridiculous Christ-in-Christmas made-up controversy, the endless airings of the same five songs over and over, the labeling of "Scrooge" to anyone who wants to avoid the now-meaningless rituals held year in and year out. Frankly, I'm ready to put the "mas" back in "Christmas," as in "mas booze," "mas candy," and "mas selfish gift purchases."

Which means I'm in the perfect mood to examine a subject I've been meaning to write about for quite a while. It's one that any screenwriter, and really, any filmmaker will probably already be familiar with, given its inescapable nature to anyone even casually involved in the industry. I speak, of course, about screenwriting contests, lectures, and similar enterprises designed to pry the hard earned dollars out of your wallet.

Everyday, my e-mail box is lambasted with notices about competition deadlines, festivals I must enter, conferences where I will learn the closely guarded secrets to writing that perfect screenplay. They come from organizations I never recall signing up with, but I'm hesitant to yank myself from their mailing lists - "Maybe one day something worthwhile will show up," I think as I delete the oncoming waves of junk. Today it was an invitation to a FREE teleconference where I will hear the Top 10 Insights Learned from 437 Hollywood Producer Interviews, which are the KEYS TO YOUR SUCCESS as a writer.

Only 437? If it was 438, I might be inclined to participate...

I'm not going to say that these are scams set up as mere profit generating machines (not all of them, anyway). And I'm not going to say that you won't learn anything worthwhile from them. Hell, if you had the time and the money, then it certainly couldn't hurt to attend with an open (yet always keen) mind willing to test out the latest suggestions and insights. Different things work for different people, and it's up to you to explore what fits your style and personality.

But I, for one, don't have the money to fly to L.A., book a room, and spend cash money to go to week long events where I'll get to pitch my ideas to LIVE! NUDE! PRODUCERS! Nor do I want to look at a credit card statement littered with dozens of entry fees for competitions that only give me a polite but firm "No, we did not choose to honor your screenplay" (and that's if they're extra nice).

Years ago, in the before time, I was more inclined to enter competitions. I figured it was an opportunity to get my work read by fresh eyes, make connections, and maybe even win some recognition and acclaim. What's thirty to fifty bucks every now and again if it leads to something bigger? Well, I'm just going to say it: It's not going to lead to something bigger. It's not going to lead to anything but you losing thirty to fifty bucks.

"But what about the winners?" you may be asking. "Surely they win something, and if I'm a good enough writer, I could be one of them." Yes, the competitions have winners, but so does the lottery, and in both cases the crowning of the winners depends just as much on luck as on skill.

See, the people who judge these things tend to get inundated with entries and so, naturally enough, they need to find a way to parse through the load and make the job faster and easier. Major typos and improper formatting are obvious things they can use as guidelines - "They dropped the 'O' out of that character's name. Into the garbage it goes!" - as are common and tired tropes that beginning and/or lazy writers tend to over rely on (I hope to never read or see another asshole boyfriend character as long as I live). This might lead to an accidental toss-out of a masterpiece, but hey, some wheat always ends up with the chaff. The process gets a bit harder when the writer has cannily taken care to avoid such errors. And so the judges rely on the ol' classic rules of screenwriting - Does the script follow the mathematically derived formulas for screenplay success?

In the end, these competitions tend not to reward ingenuity or insight, but safety and blandness. How often do you read about a competition winning screenplay being produced? It happens every once in a while, yes, but if the scripts being churned out of these things had any life or vitality, there would be many more announcements of their getting optioned and delivered to theaters. As it is, the best a writer can hope for is a contact with an agent or producer and a couple of dollars to pay the electric bill.

"But there are more factors at play than whether a script is good or not!" I'm already protesting for you. "There's marketing, and budget, and casting, and etc. etc. etc. Really, these competitions are about finding unique and original talent!" Yes, yes, yes, all true. But also threatening to derail the thread of my original point: Participating in these contests is still stupid. And not because they don't offer a chance of getting somewhere (slim though it is), but because your efforts at getting discovered could be put to better use elsewhere. Again, you could win the lottery, too, or you could save that dollar a day and use it to buy sweet, sweet bourbon.

It's the same thing with the forums and the conferences - they'll give you the REAL way to make your script attractive to REAL producers (call now! only $1.99 for the first minute!) - but a lot of this is stuff you can easily find examined and debated online and in books at the library. The only reason to participate in any of it is to meet other people who can help you in your career (and vice versa), which is something you can do in other places where you don't have to spend two hours listening to an unproduced hack drone on about the three types of stories and how to make them work for you.

I say the hell with all that. I say just keep writing and reading, watch movies, do your own research, talk about it endlessly with fellow scribes and anyone who will tolerate you, and - that's right - start producing your own stuff. Because as everyone has begun pointing out more and more these days, the industry is changing, paradigms are evolving, and while it's scary that you may no longer be able to sell your comedy screenplay about a man who becomes trapped in the fictional world of a children's program to a major studio for seven figures, take heart in knowing that more opportunities and more venues are opening for people with the guts to say "Ah, fuck it, I'll do it myself." The wallet may suffer, but the life of the mind is about to undergo a revolution.

For now, though, we're stuck in the doldrums. Everyone, not just Hollywood, is falling back on the same tired formulas. This is the first holiday movie season I can recall where I don't give a rat fuck about seeing any of the new movies coming out. They all feel like I've watched them already. Last year I wasn't particularly rooting for anyone in the Oscar race, but I still followed it closely. This is the first year where I've felt utterly indifferent. Up in the Air? Precious? Middling Piece of Shit? Who cares? With all this mediocrity, something has to eventually give way. Some batshit genius will come out of left field and release a completely new movie, or at least repackage the same crap in a new suit, and movies may finally be good again.

It seems like those of us attempting to carve a life out for ourselves in this business have a choice. You can be one of the many followers who enter competition after competition, taking the advice of any broke motherfucker with a formula to peddle, and continue to try to be one of the fewer and fewer go-to writers for Hollywood studios and producers. Or you can be a goddamn maverick and start producing your own scripts, and take on writing assignments outside of movies in an attempt to seek new inspiration and creativity for this thing we call a screenplay, and do whatever you can to create and distribute the art you love wherever you happen to be, whether it's Southern California or Nuuk, Greenland.

But then, I'm just a bitter asshole who hates Christmas. What do I know about anything?

1 comment:

  1. You bot baitin' mofo. Oh, and mighty damn fine advice. Where do I send the check!