Of Hollywood, Heroes and Heroines


Hollywood 1920s

Hollywood. Who can ever understand what motivates decision makers in their choices of scripts to pump money into? Lots of people think they’ve nailed a formula for success, most notably those who teach scriptwriting and sell their services as script editors. It’s a huge industry. They all claim they know what makes producers choose your script. They gloss over the truth that ‘producers’ come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them think they know the formula for success and they reckon the other guy doesn’t. The other guy – oh, I don’t need to finish this sentence, do I?

The script teachers and editors also rarely agree with each other. It’s confusing if you’re new at the game or don’t have a mind of your own and can’t figure out that self-styled authorities’ true skill lies in milking your insecurity.

They need you to believe your writing is full of imperfections and that you’ll never succeed without their very special advice. I entered a high profile script competition last year and didn’t make the short list but within days of being told so I got an email from a guy who’s a co-partner or something or other in the company, telling me, congratulations! You’ve won a discount on an advice session.

I called him up. He was a nice guy; I enjoyed talking to him. Then he said he could help me with my script and tighten it up so that agents and producers would be more likely to look at it. I said how do you know anybody will like the version your advice has led to? IMO, I continued, getting noticed is less about a perfect script and more about gutzpah; getting out there so people know you exist. Not backing down or giving up when you don’t win a competition or somebody says no thanks.

Or says it more rudely; it’s not unheard of for a big fish in a little pond who doesn’t like your work to tell you you’ll never make it in the industry. Pretty much everybody who’s succeeded in the world in any discipline has been fed that line some time or another. And we all know who’s the one left with the regrets.

My fella seemed to be smiling when he admitted he couldn’t guarantee that his advice would further me in any way.  Ha! The pleasures of having a mind of your own.

All of this is not to say that I don’t care about the quality of my scripts. I do. But that’s just for me. I’m under no illusion that it’ll be the primary factor in my success. So I turned down the generous offer, which amounted to R2500 for an hour. Of advice that might or might not be of any use to me. But my money would have been of a lot of use to that fella.

Some of the teachers etc. really do understand story-telling and can boast of many ‘students’ who have achieved a lot of success. But whether that success came directly and solely from their teaching or not, who can say?

Here’s the reality: Sometimes there’s a massive difference between a good script and one that will attract a producer, or between a brilliant director and one whose work will garner Academy Awards. Take Martin Scorsese. He’s widely acknowledged as the most influential filmmaker in the history of Hollywood but he’s only won one Oscar. And Boyhood, nominated for a best screenplay Oscar this year, deserves a column on its own, not all of it gushing praise.

But sometimes a quality script does attract producers – I’m thinking The King’s Speech – and awards and great directors do get Oscars for their work. Robert Zemeckis won in 1994 for Forrest Gump and beat Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction). Good decision.

There’s just no predictable formula in Hollywood, because producers come in all shapes and sizes and are as subject to whim as those who determine what or who should win an award.

I reckon the best way to get the most out of everything as a screenwriter is to write as much quality as you can and enjoy yourself when doing it, then fight like the devil to find producers who’ll throw money at you, and find ways to enjoy that fight as well. Because if you write to please producers you’ve never met, based on somebody else’s opinion of what those producers want when they’ve never met them either… It’s gambling on rather long odds. And the worst part of it is how horrible the whole experience is.

Scripts are all about heroes and heroines so if you’re writing about them I figure you might as well be one yourself. Heroes and heroines do their own thing and everything they can to forge a path to success, facing fears, dealing with insecurity and with all the demons and harsh realities that are part of the landscape of not playing it safe. They don’t strive to adapt. They strive to conquer.

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