Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Sell Perfect Scripts in 24 hours!

The "learn to write" and "sell what you wrote" industries have been a going concern for almost as long as there's been a film business. Skim showbiz publications, search the net or pick up a local free weekly and there will invariably be a list of lectures, seminars and workshops on writing scripts, selling to television or creating webisodes.

Most are pretty pricey as weekend entertainments go. But they're usually cheaper than a semester of film school tuition and come with the promise of networking and celebrity access. Some even include cocktails afterward or a boxed lunch as part of the admission fee.

I've attended dozens of them, probably been a speaker or panelist at just as many more. And how worthwhile they are often depends less on who does the talking or the topic discussed than what the individual members of the audience are trying to get their heads around.

I've filled up half a notebook in the presence of somebody spewing exactly what I needed to hear at that point in my life and development. And I've doodled for pages as somebody else droned on, boring me to death, yet scoring a standing ovation from everybody else.

The best bit of writing technique I ever obtained came from a couple of fellow students as we were eating our box lunches. It turned into something I've applied to every script I've written since and it made most of them a million times better.

Drop a hundred bucks in the bucket at the top of the page and I'll pass it along. But I guarantee half of you will say "I'm already doing that!" and the other half won't think it's worth anywhere near $100.

The second best teacher I ever had started a retreat weekend by saying, "I can't teach you anything you don't already know. All I can do is show you how to use it…" implying that whether you used his wisdom well or badly was also up to you.

And that's completely true.

If you're spending $300 to listen to somebody who can spend ten minutes on the imperative of attaching #12 brads to your manuscript, you're probably not going to get your money's worth. But graduating from a prestigious film school that leaves you staring down the barrel of an outstanding $40,000 student loan with no job waiting in the wings might not be the most beneficial career path either.

Pick your poison.

I've always believed that screenwriting was a little like carpentry, a craft almost anybody could learn and even get very good at but few do well. Being able to make a living at it is an entirely other matter that may or may not correlate to your talent or expertise.

But like carpentry, where you get schooled in the basics and then begin an apprenticeship, anybody's writing will automatically get better and richer if they can be doing it every day.

So as important as it is to learn the basic skills, it's far more important to be working at them in an environment where you can see the results on a regular basis.

I started off writing movies that somehow got made. But where I really honed the craft was on a TV series, one shot so tightly to a schedule that more often than not what you wrote one day was shot the next and available in dailies on the third.

The memories of how any scene had been constructed were still fresh enough while viewing the final takes to quickly learn how you'd messed up or where your creative instincts had been spot on.

It's always been my belief that you make better writers by giving them the opportunity to work not the chance to listen to others talk about how they work.

Yes, you'll always leave those sessions invigorated and inspired. Certainly, in my case, many left the hall muttering, "Shit, if that idiot can do it…".

But invariably you end up back in front of your own blank computer screen with your own thoughts. And I'd argue that having the expectations of a waiting cast and crew and network or studio is a far more pressing incentive than tapping out a new idea to be mailed to people who mostly won't read it.

Likewise, I'm sure it's possible to delineate the skills of the showrunner. But until you've arrived at the production office one morning to deal with a lead actor with pneumonia, the truck carrying horses for the cavalry charge broken down a hundred miles away, 400 extras on a 4 hour call and the writers room up in arms over some insulting notes from the French co-production partner -- you haven't got a clue about actually being a show runner.

Yet, instead of creating greater opportunities for writers to actually work and learn from the end product of their own labor, the Canadian film and TV industry seems to keep putting more emphasis on "training".

Each year, millions more in Federal and Provincial and Corporate dollars are poured into film schools and conferences and seminars and retreats. Studios and networks set up their own courses to train genre writers and showrunners. Guilds and Unions append seminar listings in their newsletters.

On one level you can't fault any of them for this. If they don't do it, they've got people screaming that they feel left out or ignored or without something to do that'll make them feel part of the industry. Simply by existing, workshops and seminars provide hope and the promise of a better future.

And yet by doing it, they also get guys like me coming out of the woodwork to wonder why you need to keep training people for jobs that don't exist or while you already have dozens of people with hundreds of credits who are barely working -- if they are even working at all.

In many ways, it leads me to believe that all these "educational initiatives" are little more than a smokescreen to hide the fact that until Canadian film and television is about being a real profit and loss business dependent on box office and ratings to survive there is no future industry for any of us.


That's part of the reason I stopped hop-scotching the country to disseminate my own personal pearls. I knew 90% of the people eagerly hanging on my every word didn't stand a chance in hell of ever selling a script.

What's more, for every kid I'd mentored who'd gone on to make millions in Hollywood, there was one with far more talent left weeping in the CBC Atrium after their best work had been savaged by somebody without enough talent to color co-ordinate sweaters at a suburban GAP outlet.

No matter how high the level of creative talent rises in this country, it can never overcome the glass ceiling of CRTC and CMF mandates which limit production to the least and cheapest requirements of license.

And if the jobs of industry bureaucrats and network executives are to continue the smokescreen to hide their lack of commitment and lack of resources must get thicker.

One recent writing brochure that crossed my desk came highly endorsed by some of those who purport to hire writers, assuring potential students that their teacher, despite his lack of writing credentials had "recently been in LA pitching HBO, Showtime and Fox".

It's a sign of either their naiveté or their desire to climb on the snake oil wagon that nobody mentions there are guys who drive cabs, wait tables or once did stand up comedy taking meetings with all those entities and many more even as you read this. 

That's because that industry is based on new ideas and catching an audience's imagination instead of meeting regional quotas and bureaucratic funding rules.

By the last time I did a writing seminar I had already decided I didn't want to be part of peddling false dreams and providing less than hungry producers with new meat because the more experienced lambs wouldn't be led to slaughter any more.

I was appearing at a very well-thought-of institution to talk about making a first feature and decided to be brutally honest. I started by asking how many of them wanted to make a film. Of course every hand in the room went up.

So I asked that they keep them there until I described a scenario under which their personal code of ethics would not allow them to operate and only then to take their hand down.

I started by asking who would be willing to falsify government funding documents in order to get financing. These people had all probably cheated a little on an income tax form or knew somebody who had, so all the hands stayed up.

I asked how many would have no trouble lying to a bank or group of investors. How many would lie to family members to get their funding? A few began to waver.

How many would launder money?

How many would sleep with a member of the opposite sex to get their film made?

With a member of the same sex?

How many would be willing to cheat a writer out of his credit or find somebody willing to kick back fees to do a re-write?

How many would construct a contract with a foreign actor so he actually earned more than the Canadian actors needed to qualify as Cancon?

How many would sign side-deals with their crews that paid them less than union scale?

How many would skimp on meals and craft services to save a couple of bucks?

How many would make under the table deals with suppliers that benefitted them more than the production?

How many would falsify financial statements for years to come in order to keep their personal fortunes afloat while the artists who had made their film struggled to survive?

By the end of my list, there wasn't a single hand still raised. I asked how any of them expected to make a movie in Canada if they didn't resort to such things. And then we spent a couple of hours talking about not falling into any of those traps.

After the class was over, every single student communicated their appreciation. The school never asked me back. And I wouldn't have gone if they had.

We don't need yet another evening set aside to teach those already flooding from our film schools about structure and format and inciting incidents. We need places where they can practice what they've already been taught, see a finished product and have it appraised by real audiences.

For an industry to grow here we need to stop selling hope and start yelling "Action!".

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