On the podcast, Craig and I have discussed how much the career of screenwriting has changed over the past few years, and how it’s gotten harder for many feature writers to actually make a living at it.
In episode 35, a veteran screenwriter named Biff wrote in to vent about how grim studio development had become:
I had a president of production ask for a free rewrite before he gave it to his chairman. Not a polish. He had notes. True multi-week notes. That doesn’t strike me as a producer’s polish. That strikes me as flat-out abusive.
Has the landscape changed that much? Has the douchiness pervaded every level of the business? Have I turned into Clint Eastwood shouting get off my lawn?
A reader named Cordy wrote in to share his experience.
I’m a fairly new working writer. Screenwriting is paying my bills. I have a big-three agent, a name manager, many meetings, all the things I used to think would make it possible, if not easy, for me to have a career.
When I heard John reading Biff’s letter, my heart sank. I have to admit that I was secretly hoping you guys would be more like “Quit yer whinin’!” because then I could be stern with myself and like “Craig Mazin thinks my intensity is for shit. Win, Andrew, win!” but… this is pretty grim stuff.
I’ve seen Craig speak at the Guild, and he really inspired me to stop seeing myself as a victim of the capriciousness of people who control the pursestrings, and to try to be more upbeat and proactive about my career. So that’s cool. Not so cool is that even with my new attitude, I still run into some pretty tough roadblocks.
One example: At a pitch meeting at the studio I previously sold something to, I pitched out literally every scene, every arc, every relationship, specific jokes and set pieces, acting out whole chunks of dialog. This was for a remake of a movie that would cost the studio peanuts to make. I am not a business guy, but I think the risk level here was relatively low. When I was finished pitching, the executive frowned at me and said “But why would people go see this movie instead of staying home? What makes this movie a big hit? You have to understand, that’s what my boss will ask me if I pitch this to him.”
So that project just died on the vine. I didn’t lose the job to anyone, they just killed it. I have struggled to frame this kind of thing for myself as an opportunity.
But I keep bumping against that executive’s question: how can I guarantee that what I’m pitching will be a big hit? I don’t think that I can, but that seems to be what people want. If I can’t magically say, “Yes, here is my crystal ball, it outperforms THE HUNGER GAMES, don’t worry about it,” they just shut me down.
It reminds me of that apocryphal story of the early days of Sony, when the Japanese executives were like, “Your problem is that you keep making bombs. From now on, we’re only going to make the hit movies.”
As a screenwriter, it feels like I am being asked to perform an impossible feat, and it’s easy to slip into bitterness.
But I don’t want to be bitter. I do want to do decent work and do okay financially and be able to support my family. Is there still a way for young screenwriters to build semi-steady careers, or is that paradigm gone forever? I know a lot of young writers in my general boat, and to be honest I think all of us are trying to get out of features and into TV.
There’s also a lot of dazed talk about how screenwriting as a job is just dead, Jim.
I don’t want to believe that. I want to believe that this thing I’ve spent my young adult life getting good at — and I am good at it — can still be made to pay a modest living if I work hard and make smart choices.
Should I act more as a “producer” of my own career? I write specs, and recently optioned some material. I am trying to get into TV.
Should I try to get involved with directors, and write him or her a project for free, in hopes that having a filmmaker attached will help? I have explored this a bit and found that there’s a roadblock here, too: directors who mean something as attachments can get brand-name writers to work for them. I know several writers, more established than I am, who are doing free work for A/B list directors right now.
There must be a way to break in to that. (I can’t believe I am scheming to do free fauxssignment work, but here I am.)
I do discuss all these things with my reps, who are smart people I trust. But I don’t think they have the answers. They just encourage me to write specs.
It seems like this seismic shift has happened so quickly and has left so many people behind that we’re all paddling frantically against the undertow.