Tuesday, September 01, 2009

More thoughts on the Writers Conference

I was worried that I may not have been clear enough on something in my last post. With the pitches, even though pitching to someone who is not interested is not at all fun, I don’t have any resentment about it. I know they are looking at the bottom line, and they should be. If the company that puts its trust in me goes bankrupt because they are not making sound financial decisions, that doesn’t do any of us any good.

In terms of whether they are right about whether it can make money or not, that’s truly anyone’s guess. In one of the workshops, a speaker was discussing the success of Gran Torino. The way it got made was that someone who read it knew Clint Eastwood’s lawyer, or something like that, and it got to Clint and he loved it. The fact that it should have been relatively low-budget probably helped with it get the green light, as well as having Clint on board. (And I have heard that Clint can basically get what he wants made, because he is very responsible, coming in on time and within budget, and so he has a proven track record beyond ticket sales.)

Anyway, his theory on the success of the movie is that someone taking control in a bad situation is resonating with people in this economy. In good times people flock more to darker movies, and in bad times they want the feel good movies. That makes sense, other than that I am not positive that Gran Torino counts as a feel-good picture. The main point from that though, is that from starting a screenplay to the time a film hits theaters, a lot of time goes by. There’s a limit to how much can be predicted.

So to some extent, a picture taking off and being successful is a matter of luck. It can be a great movie and flounder, and horrible movies can be wildly successful, and that’s not getting into all of the different levels on which movies can be good and bad. And that realization should bring a huge dose of perspective to anyone who wants to work in the industry.

Actually, I was chatting about this with a friend who also writes, and my philosophy is that writing is a lousy way to become rich and famous. It can happen, but there are lots more reliable methods. Writers do a lot of work that they may never get paid for. To get paid, you need to bring it up to other people, many of whom don’t really want to talk to anyone new. When you can get them to look, they pass judgment on this part of you, and they have to place a potential monetary value on something that is infinitely personal. Before you even get to that point there is the frustration of times when things aren’t clicking, and they don’t sound right, or when you have writer’s block and you are getting nothing at all. You would have to be crazy to sign up for that.

I write because I have to. I am not at peace unless I have written. Sure, what I wrote leading up to that does not sound peaceful, but in the journaling and blogging I get things worked out. I have a tendency to think in circles when I am leaving it in my brain. Putting it to paper (or keyboard and screen, actually), allows me to actually move forward and get somewhere. There is satisfaction in bringing out this order, and there is great satisfaction in having a story come to life, and reaching those moments where you find the solution to the problem, and it is brilliant. Occasionally there are bits of perfection.

And so if you have to write (and I do), well, then maybe it is worth trying to get paid for it. I am trying to sell for two reasons. One is so I can write more. If I am earning money doing what I enjoy, I can do more of it. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the other jobs I’ve had. Some are better than others, but ultimately, we’re workers in my family, and if you give us something to do we will do it, and we will make a good job of it, and there is satisfaction there, even when other elements of it may be soul-killing. Still, this other job takes time that could be spent on writing and researching and planning other projects. (It’s not a total loss. I never would have written Corporate Malfeasance without having spent time in the tech sector.)

The other reason I am trying to market my work is that it feels like it needs to go somewhere. I want to share it. I want other people to be excited and thrilled and satisfied with how things are resolved. More money would be nice, especially now after eleven months without working, but I don’t need to be wealthy. I’ve been pretty happy on my tech sector wages. I would be more comfortable making as much as an engineer, and a doctor’s salary would put me over the moon, but I don’t need millions. It’s really not about that. And frankly, that’s good, because I’m looking at something very unpredictable. If all I cared about was the money, I would be facing a lot of disappointment. It’s disappointing enough when people don’t like your ideas (or don’t think they can sell them), but there is still the gratification of the writing—finding the perfect words, finding the logic that justifies what you imagine happening (and it does actually make sense), and just getting all the dots to connect into something that makes you happy. I couldn’t stop that if I wanted to.

There were a couple of hopeful signs. The one producer did not get back to me, and I sent a reminder message, and there is still nothing, so that’s probably a wash. On the bright side, one pitch recipient did seem somewhat impressed by my ability to come up with different kinds of ideas. This is important. One fun thing about the panel was that people were asking what they look for and all they could say was that they know when they see it. You can’t give out a formula for writing a good script, even if there are some general guidelines you can provide. However, one thing that was important to the agents is that the person will keep writing. Delivering one good script is great, but they want someone who will keep producing new things. I can do that.

(I was also complimented on being able to convey the material well, which I admit I had doubts about, so that was reassuring.)

The other thing that was interesting to me was reading some pitching advice. It wasn’t about the pitch specifically, but related to picking material that can sell. As an example he mentioned historical dramas. Sure, every now and then they are successful, but they are not sure-fire, and they are expensive and complicated (great award fodder though), so when the studio does one, they are going to use a proven screenwriter. But I liked what he said. He said if you have a historical piece that you are itching to write, write it. Write what is in you, and then put it away and work on other things you can actually sell. Once you have made a name for yourself, and someone asks what else you have, then it can be the right time for your period piece.

I think he addressed the issue there nicely. It is a business, and you have to write what is in you. Somehow you have to balance those two sides.

I don’t think I have a single tent pole/blockbuster in my arsenal right now. I might have some nice indie pieces, but mainly I am writing what is in me, and just trying to make it good. Honestly, after Josh died, I don’t think I could have written anything other than Past Present. It needed to come out then. It may not have an audience at all, but I don’t regret writing it. The artist needs to write good stories, the businesswoman needs to network, and make sure there is variety, and have a clear-headed view of the less artistic side of the business.

And both sides need to accept that a lot of it is luck.