I really thought I’d made it. It was 2006 and I was up there at the podium, giving that acceptant speech every screenwriter imagines. It had happened, I made it, this was it. Getting on the plane, leaving the California Independent Film Festival, I was sure that all that was in my way was a few meetings with some executives. Then I would be what I always wanted to be; a working screenwriter. And I did get those meetings, I went in, I pitched, I smiled, I was told they would get back to me.
But the thing was this, no one ever did. I took it upon myself to follow up with them, surely they were just busy. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to remind them that I was an award winning writer. Every response was the same: “Though you’re undoubtedly talented, we just don’t see your script as a fit right now.” This was my introduction to the movie business. When I learned that talent is nice, but it isn’t everything. Money is everything, your script has to be in the right place at the right time and, most of all, scream “I WILL MAKE YOU LOTS OF MONEY”.
Of course I moved on and wrote another script, and another, and so on, entering and placing in several other film festivals. But through it all, even placing in the top 15% of the Nicholl Fellowship, the big daddy of all screenplay competitions, I’ve never gotten an agent or even gotten more than that first meeting. I know this all seems doom and gloom to this point, but I’ve learned some valuable lessons through all of it. Due to sheer laziness on my part, we move on to the bullet points.
1. Make it yourself.
When you’re an aspiring writer you spend an unhealthy amount of time trying to convince someone else that your script should be made and, let’s face it, as writers we’re not exactly salespeople. Nobody knows your material better than you do, nobody will ever love it like you do. Write something that’s light on explosions and heavy on really good characters and go make it. From my experience, it comes in handy to write something that takes place in one room. The director, which is most likely you, will love you for it. My newest web series, Trivial, was just that. It was written with my own home as the location and with very specific actor friends in mind. I knew that if I finished the script to my liking, I could get it made. I wouldn’t have to go to meetings, I wouldn’t have to follow up and try to sell myself and my script. I could hire a director who works for cheap and go. Obviously the cheapest director I interviewed was myself. So cheap, in fact, I decided to give myself the job of editor as well, which brings up a sub-point to all of this; be versatile. When you make it yourself, you’re also funding it yourself. So as many jobs as you can adequately tackle saves you money and allows you to pay your mortgage and stuff.
Anyone who has worked with me knows I’m not a director and definitely not an editor, but I’ve learned enough to muddle through and finish the work. Sure, Trivial has warts, but it’s made and some people will see it. In the end, that’s all us writers want right?
2. Be careful who you trust.
We all know the cliche of Hollywood being filled with bottom feeders who latch on to projects, try to monetize them, and usually leave a pile of crap in their wake. What you wouldn’t expect is that same sycophantic subculture is lying in wait pretty much everywhere, and they talk real nice.
When you finally finish that screenplay you’re going want to share it, you’re proud of it. You still have that endorphin high of actually finishing something that will be shot. Trust me, be careful who you share it with. If someone shows interest in your project and they are an acquaintance or below proceed with extreme caution. Trivial was conceived and produced with almost Orwellian security and it felt ridiculous. I mean, I was making a web series for YouTube, not a Christopher Nolan jam. Unfortunately though, I have learned that for as many awesome people you meet doing this, there are always terrible people out there waiting to try to fill their dream of being rich and famous by burrowing into your project and sprinkling little pieces of terrible throughout it. Protect yourself and work with people that are in this for the same reasons you are; because they love it.
3. Don’t do it for the money.
Sure, I’d love to be a professional writer and be in a situation where I didn’t have to have that pesky day job, I’ll admit it. If you start a screenplay with that lifestyle as your motivation, though, you should probably just stop. Writing for film is not an occupational choice, it’s a compulsion. If your family could conceivably hold an intervention to curb your writing habit, you are a writer. On the other hand, if you want to make movies because you really want a pool house addition to your estate, you’re going have a tough road ahead.
Trivial was written because I had to write it, not because I was hoping for a lifestyle of the rich and famous. I write everyday, not because it’s glorious fun every time I sit at the keyboard. I do it because I feel guilty and neurotically twitchy when I lay in bed at night if I’ve failed to write. This combined with the difficulty of “breaking in” to the Hollywood system means that to be a writer is to accept poverty and/or a day job as the norm. If you succeed monetarily, feel lucky and never take it for granted. If you start to take it for granted, go to any film festival and tell someone you’re a writer, then watch their eyes glaze over as they scan the room for a filmmaker or an actor. Writers are not glamorous, but luckily we are necessary. So, yes, work hard and write as many things as you can. Who knows, you might be the lucky few who gets to claim “writer” on their taxes. However, if you write for monetary gain or fame, if writing is a means to an end to a lifestyle, just know that you chose the wrong door into the business. Actually, writing is less like a proper door, and more of a freight elevator into Hollywood. It’s necessary, but they usually hide it in the back.
So, that’s my advice. Make a web series, make a short, even a feature if you can. But be careful, protect yourself, and be sure you’re doing it out of passion and compulsion; not as a get rich quick scheme. Trivial is the latest in a long line of projects I have made and I can honestly say I am happy with it. And that, I have learned the hard way, is the most important thing.
Eric Havens resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is currently brainwashing his six-year-old daughter to be a screenwriter. He has written and directed a number of shorts and web series as well as several feature length screenplays that have won or placed in a variety of competitions and festivals. You can follow him on twitter @erichavens.