The Greatest Impediment to Your Screenwriting Career Might Be… You

Twenty years ago, I started off working in the story department at MGM. That lead to my becoming a literary agent in Beverly Hills, eventually starting my own management company and also producing. Somewhere along the line I also launched a website called Write Movies to help writers break into the industry. Over the years I ran over 6700 studio pitch meetings mainly with the heads of production. I have worked with thousands of writers, including a few Academy nominees.

When I was asked to write an article about the greatest impediment to a screenwriter having a career in the industry, the answer was simple. Writers themselves.

You might not believe it, but you will by the end of the article. It is quite amazing. I have seen writers who have written screenplay after screenplay, not had their calls returned for ten years, suddenly get a break and totally mess it up. Why?

Here are a few horror stories out of hundreds, to illustrate my point.

3 Weeks and No Pitch Prepared

One writer, a graduate of a major film school, had written this wonderful coming of age piece that I got the head of production at Universal to read and like. He said he was not going to make the picture, but he liked the writing and was open to a pitch. The writer had three weeks to prepare something. The day arrives. I decide to go to the meeting to support the writer. I arrive in the executive offices 10 mins early. Twenty minutes later. The writer is still not there. I am in a huge office, wrap-around views of the valley with the head of production in front of me and six people in Development.

So, I do my stand-up routine until the writer arrives ten minutes later, covered in sweat. He sits down. I put him at ease. He starts to pitch and pitch and pitch. Twenty-five minutes into this pitch, the studio head is looking at me, I look at the writer who now is drenched in sweat. What gives? Pitches are meant to be 7-10 minutes tops, a tease. Back at the writer who turns to me: “Alex, can you finish my pitch for me?”. He had not prepared a pitch; he was making it up as he went along. The studio chief reamed me. It took me nine months to get another meeting with him. The writer never got a script made.

“How Dare You Ask for Notes!”

Another time, a writer-director who had been ignored by the industry for years decided to shoot a short, about 15 mins of his script. This thing was just amazing. Sam Peckinpah meets Michael Bay and then some. I walked it into the office of the head of production at Columbia Tri-Star. He was blown away. Picked up the phone, got five D-people in the room. Played the entire short, there are  explosions, gun battles, etc. They are stunned, mouths open and he says: “Look what these guys did for $4.8 million!” and I went, “I think you meant $48,000”. This got us meetings all over town, one with a super management company with a CAA deal.

So, we go into this meeting right next to CAA, a huge office, with all that fake Santa Fe furniture, a fireplace, the works. The heads of the company are there, two of the most respected industry figures you could wish to meet. We cozy up, discuss the script, my client’s short — complete love fest. I mean these are guys with major movies under their belts.

At some stage, they come up with a few ideas for the re-write, as in… every script needs a re-write. Right? Wrong. What does my guy do? He listens and I see him gradually go redder and redder in the face until he blows and curses everyone out for daring to ask him to make changes to his perfect script. End of career. I think he is painting houses somewhere.

Got Too Cocky

Another case study. A guy who won the Write Movies contest with a horror script, got a lot of prize money, intros to agents, managers, producers all over town. The agent he had been hounding for two years finally gets back to him, agrees to take him on. But no, he decides the agent is no longer good enough to him, he aims higher, wants WME, CAA, ICM… They all turn him down; they want people with track records. So, he goes back to that agent who says: “You are?”. End of story, another house painter somewhere.

The Rule Follower

Here’s an even weirder one. I took on a scribe who had written a major movie for Warners with his partner. Not sure what happened, but they split up. Now, the problem with that is that your “quote” goes down the drain. For those of you who don’t know the term, your quote basically refers to how much you got paid on your last movie. It is something agents use to bump a client’s revenue up when negotiating, and studios always try to beat you down to WGA scale if you have no quote. In this instance, the reasoning is that both writers claim they did all the heavy-lifting, and nobody knows the truth, so your quote goes back to zero.

What my guy then did to “recharge his batteries”, was take one of these writing seminars (I think it was Robert McKee’s) and based on that, decided to write the perfect page, to abide by all the rules, to answer all the questions that the likes of Linda Seger will ask of your script. Now I am pretty sure the best of these script gurus always tell you that these are just guidelines. But somehow that did not sink into my guy, despite my reminding him. So, having identified a brilliant concept we were both excited about, he went to write that perfect script. After a year, he had written three pages. Last I heard he was selling shoes in Santa Monica.

You think these case studies are the exception? Sadly not. I have witnessed hundreds of bad decisions and heard of a lot more from colleagues.

So, what does it take to have a career that actually qualifies you for a mortgage at some stage? Check in next time for the follow-up in this series on how to avoid the myriad of screenwriting mistakes and get paid what you are worth.

Dr. Alex Ross has spent over twenty years in the Hollywood film industry working with and for the studios as agent, manager and producer. He ran close to 7000 pitch meetings, most with the studio heads of production. Worked with several Academy nominees and discovered two.
One of the very few film industry professionals with a research background.  He recently completed a PhD investigating how production companies turn their scripts into blockbusters. This involved eight years of research, interviewing hundreds of filmmakers.
Though based in Beverly Hills, Alex is a member of the British Film Academy (BAFTA) as well as an expert consultant to the European Union’s EACA program, which he advises on which film projects to invest in. He also consults for several studios. He is presently looking for a few more mentoring clients and can be reached at:

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The Greatest Impediment to Your Screenwriting Career Might Be… You