When you were first getting started as a writer, did you meet other hopeful screenwriters? And, if so, did you grow, over time, to absolutely despise them?
Because I’m feeling this. When I first moved to LA a few years ago, I met a whole bunch of disreputable screenwriter wannabes. I made friends with them. We helped and encouraged each other. But in the last year or so, I began to grow weary of their company and their lame-ass superficial ideas. I wrote a script that landed me a fairly prestigious agent and have since gone on to have meet and greets and do all the things that other screenwriters do who haven’t yet sold a break-through script. I’ve pitched for assignments. I’ve duly submitted new scripts that haven’t yet tweaked the fancy of some mid-level studio exec. I’ve met with producers. I’ve played the whole game. I feel like I’m on the cusp.
But I’m still sort of in that netherworld between WGA-sanctioned writer and struggling wannabe. The thing is, all the struggling screenwriters I’ve grown to know in the last few years… well, truth be told, they irritate the fuck out of me now. I have no patience for them anymore. And they seem to have no patience for me. They’ve grown really demanding. It seems like for every new door that opens for me, they feel like I owe them the passcode. The secret handshake. The “in.”
What I want to know is, did you go through this? Did you, at some point, have to sort of leave your fellow strugglers behind? I don’t want to lose my friends, but at the same time, I feel like it’s really important for me to separate myself from them right now. I also feel like, if the shoe were on the other foot, they wouldn’t think twice about blowing me (and all my scripts) off. I mean, they’re calling me and asking me if I’ll send their latest script to my agents… who have only hip-pocketed me and who I can barely get on the phone as it is.
Hollywood is such a weird place. I feel like I’m still learning all the ins and outs of the politics that go with it. How have you dealt with fellow screenwriter friends who haven’t yet crossed that line, but who still count you as a friend, with all the benefits that come with that friendship? Does that make sense?
I’d really appreciate some advice.
Your letter pretty well encapsulates a lot of what I have felt, and to some degree continue to feel, about Los Angeles and the film industry.
To a surprising degree, screenwriting can be a meritocracy, where good writing (and savvy) leads to a fulfilling career. Talent and hard work are rewarded; laziness is punished. The lag between cause and effect can be frustratingly long, but there’s reason to have faith.
From your letter, it really does sound like you’re off to a good start. Congratulations. Work your ass off, land an assignment, and write the hell out of it. Then do it again, and again, and again. You’ll know you’re doing well if you’re too tired to go out drinking with your old screenwriting buddies.
Yes, I’m saying to let ‘em go. Not all of them, necessarily. But it’s time to thin the herd.
I think there’s an important distinction between friends and colleagues. Here’s the single most important question to ask yourself: Who is happy for you? A true friend is glad you’re finding success, without any ulterior motive for himself. Be smart: hold onto your friends. I have honest-to-goodness friends who I met the second day I arrived in Los Angeles, who will be my friends until I die.
But I also have colleagues, mostly other screenwriters, who are important to me even though they’re not really friends. With colleagues, it’s okay to feel some jealousy. Even small twinges of schadenfreude. Particularly at the beginning of my career, I was constantly comparing my success to their success, and it made me work that much harder. Yes, we helped each other out when we could, but the biggest help by far was by continually raising the bar, not just in the quality of our writing, but what we were able to achieve career-wise.
Most of your so-called screenwriter friends are probably fall into the “colleague” category. Some of them are definitely worth keeping in your life. Ask yourself which ones you think are actually good writers. Here’s the test: whose scripts are you genuinely excited to read? If you dread cracking open Jim’s scripts, and dread giving him notes, then you really don’t believe in him as a writer. You’re not doing him or yourself any favors keeping up the charade.
You don’t have to tell him, “Jim, buddy, I think your writing sucks.” Just be too busy to read the next draft. Say it’s too much like something you’re working on. (And remember that trading scripts works both ways. It’s not fair to ask for his notes if you’re not willing to do the same.)
Jim may think you’re an asshole. That’s his right. But the process of adding and dropping friends and colleagues isn’t unique to this business. I’m guessing you’re in your 20’s. With certainty, I could say you’d be going through the same thing no matter where you lived, or what you were doing. Things change. People move on.
What’s different about this business is the musical chairs aspect. Hollywood only “needs” a very small number of screenwriters. Maybe it’s a hundred. Maybe it’s three hundred. Whatever the figure, it’s a very small number compared to the vast legion of wannabe screenwriters in Los Angeles.
The cliche is that every waiter in LA is an actor. The truth is that every non-waiter is probably working on a screenplay. So when these aspiring screenwriters see you climbing those first few rungs of the ladder, it’s no surprise there’s some jealousy and resentment. After all, just a few months ago, you were exactly where they were.
In some ways, it’s easier to begrudge a person a little success than a lot of success. There’s a relatability, a why-not-me factor. It sucks for them. It sucks for you. Accept that and move on.
If it’s any consolation, look around at all the aspiring actors in your midst. They’re going through the exact same winnowing process, but at least you’re being judged on your words. Imagine how much more frustrating it would be to succeed or fail based on the whims of a casting director who liked your look, or felt you could stand to lose 10 pounds.