Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Get Rich Quick! Become a Hollywood Screenwriter!

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” -- Thomas Edison

I was once asked to show a short film of mine and speak about filmmaking at a community college. At the time my film (a short film called “White Face”) had been running on HBO. After a few standard questions like, “What was the budget?” and “How long did it take to make?” came a question that floored me. A young man raised his hand and asked, “How do I get my film on HBO?” For me, the assumption behind that question verged on an insult.

Why? Because it devalues my craft. Filmmaking has become the get-rich-quick scheme of our times. The problem with get-rich-quick schemes is that they promise great success with minimum effort. One of the things I dig about my friends who draw is that they are aware that it takes time and effort to get good.

Once, at a Comicon in San Diego, a bunch of artists I knew were looking at someone’s portfolio, their mouths agape. They “oohed” and “ahhed” for a while, then someone asked how old the artist was. The answer came back that he was 45 or so and with that they all relaxed and nodded. They were relieved because they understood he had put his time in.

Imagine a person who has never picked up a paintbrush deciding that they want to be an artist. Upon completing their first painting, they call the Louvre and other museums and ask the curators if they would be interested purchasing and displaying their masterpiece. Sounds silly, right? Yet people have no problem believing that they should sell their first screenplay or have their first film distributed.

I have the utmost respect for the people I know who draw because they understand that talent is nothing if not backed up by skill -- and skill takes time and effort to acquire. What bothers me about some younger people wanting to break into films is their sense of entitlement.

They don’t seem to care about the craft of filmmaking -- only the fame and/or money. They know nothing about the history of the craft the wish to enter and have never seen the films of John Ford, John Houston, Frank Capra, David Lean, Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. These legends have things to teach, but few bother to listen. They just want to know who they can call, what the next step is to becoming famous.

I once had an aspiring filmmaker tell me that she was on a quest to find out how to involve an audience. She said that there must be some key to keeping an audience interested in your film. I told her to read Hitchcock interviews because he was probably the most articulate filmmaker in history when it came to engaging audiences. She scoffed at that, saying she didn’t like Hitchcock and so didn’t think he would have anything to teach her.

I know quite a few people who have done well in the movie business, but they all had a minimum of ten years of hard work under their belts before anyone bothered to pay attention to them. These people were not no-talent hacks -- they are now show-biz VIPs. But I knew them when no one of consequence would return their calls, or come see them perform or read their screenplays. But they just kept doing what they did and acquired skills.

Jerry Seinfeld (not that he’s a friend of mine, but we have met a few times) tells a story about how he was looking out a window one morning and saw construction workers on their way to work and thought to himself if those guys can get up in the morning and go to work he should be able do the same with his work. So, he began getting up early in the morning and sitting down for a couple of hours to write jokes. Bill Cosby does the same thing. As far as I know they both do it to this day. Johnny Carson was so used to getting up, reading the paper and writing jokes that he even did it after he retired.

If you are unwilling to see filmmaking/screenwriting as a craft you must hone, you will fall behind your competitors who are willing to work a little harder. If you are unwilling to study the work of those who came before you, you will fall behind your competitors who are willing to learn. Most of all, if you think that this business is a way to get rich quick, you are in for a world of heartbreak.

I once heard Steve Martin give a young comic this advice: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” Good advice, but it takes work to be that good. If you are unwilling to do that work, find a craft that you are willing to work at and do that.

All I have ever wanted in my life is to be good at what I do and be paid to do it. While I was making my film “White Face,” HBO could not have been farther from my mind. I was only trying to make a good film. Having the film run on HBO did not bring me fame or fortune; it was just one brick on the road to wherever I end up in this business. Meanwhile, I am working on getting better.

So my advice to the young man who wants a film on HBO? Make a film good enough to be on HBO and they will call you. Even if they don’t, you will have something you can be proud of. And for that, you can also be proud of yourself.


son of lim said...

I cannot understand people who think only of profits at the prospect of making a movie, or any work of art for that matter. I find the idea of selling my own work difficult enough. Artists and craftsmen alike spend so much of themselves within the construction of their work; the discoveries that they make are found only by digging through their process as far as they possibly can, and from there, seeing if it can be taken even further. The most famous works of art, the ones you know by heart were all brought to being through hard work, hard searching, and a culmination of experience both in the craft and out. How can you answer someone when they ask, "Did you ever expect your film to be so successful while making it?" Of course not! You have hopes, sure. But the expectation is not there because you were too busy busting your ass making a great film.

Joey said...

Hey Brian, nice to meet you this evening! Great post too.

After the 2-year acting program I took in CA a lot of my actor friends moved to LA looking to hit it big. Most, if not all, are not working and have not worked since being down there.

Personally, I couldn't bring myself to live in LA so I kept moving up north until I hit Seattle. Lots of fringe theatre here and a decent amount of film as well.

I don't check this gmail account but you can find me at joeytrimmer.com.

Josh Wolf said...

While I agree with this to some degree, I really don't see value in beating a dead horse and dis spiriting up and coming filmmakers.
Yes, you have to work at your craft, yes you need to get better and learn every day as you work at it everyday, BUT don't tell me you won't find any success in at least a decade. Puh-leeze.
Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Leena Dunham, Diablo Cody, and many, many, many more people find success quick. They found what they loved and did a kick ass job at doing it. Clerks was Smiths' first movie. Reservoir Dogs is still an amazing film - and as his second film, Pulp Fiction may be the best film ever (at least top 10).
If it takes you 10 years to do something decent enough for people to like, then either you're not working hard or often enough, you suck, or you have a string of terrible luck.
I graduated with a Film degree 5 years ago. I started seriously writing a two years ago, and got an agent in NY in the same year. The next year I got my screenplay optioned for low six figures, and am working on TV and features right now. What I'm trying to say is take this all with a grain of salt. Don't be scared when 1 person says "it takes AT LEAST 10 years to find success" cause that does more harm than good.

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Ed Smith said...

Tarantino says in interviews that he made films before Reservoir Dogs. Smith also made films before Clerks. You've never seen them because the directors didn't want you to. People only see the successes but they don't see the failures that led to it. SORRY Josh, but you're wrong. NOBODY succeeds quick and easy. They make succeed quicker than others, but that's relative. It just looks that way, but there was a lot of struggle/work you didn't hear about before they burst on the scene. Michael Jordan even talks about how much he fails before he actually succeeds. How many times he misses shots in practice just to make the shot that counts in the games. It took him his whole life to hit that shot that won North Carolina a National Championship as well as those Bulls Rings. This is MJ we're talking about. He may not be a filmmaker, but so what... his NAME SAKE is synonymous with excellence in anything let alone basketball. And he disagrees with you, as do I.

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