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How to Succeed in the Screenwriting Business

February 18, 2018

McKee

I have been, of late, receiving emails telling of momentous news on par with the Pope having just announced his departure from the Vatican so he can travel to Tibet to become a Buddhist Monk, or, if not that, then to join hedge fund group on Wall Street. I am talking of course of the imminent “return to the U.S.” of Robert McKee.

You may be wondering about who the hell is this modern day General MacArthur, Robert McKee?

Robert McKee is a screenplay writing guru who does seminars around the world, which explains why he is about to make his triumphant return to America laden with the spoils of having robbed naïve people who suffer from the delusion of thinking that because they like movies, and because they are illiterate, they can break into Hollywood. Note that all these aspiring script writers are not getting paid for their efforts. They are instead spending money. And into which bank account is going all their cash earned from shabby jobs at Uber, Applebee’s and the post office? Hint: the name on the account starts with “Rob…” and ends with “…Kee.”

In short, the best way to be successful in the screenwriting business is to prey upon those desperate people who want – want so bad – to become screenwriters. The Internet is teeming with “experts,” “consultants” – in a word, Gurus — ready to dissect your work and then offer a detailed analysis on how to transform it into the next “Chinatown.” I remember in my own early days as a gullible novice in the trade when some guy said he would totally rewrite my first script for the whopping price of $10,000. The lesson learned was that my ambition to pen a script that could perhaps earn me at least an option and a paycheck worth ten grand entailed that I spend ten grand.

I did pay some other guy a more modest sum of $350 to analyze the same script. We went over his proposed revisions on the phone. At one point, he laughed at how I had written “toe the line” rather then the correct “tow the line,” to which I laughed back at this Expert that “toe” IS the proper usage. Yet he did not pay me for having fixed his grammar.

In 1849, some 300,000-people swarmed northern California to prospect for gold with the impractical dream of becoming rich with one swoop of a tin pan. Few of them achieved this goal, but there were more than a few entrepreneurs who did make a sound, reliable living by furnishing these desperate prospectors with food, clothing, tools, legal counsel, and everything else essential to modern civilization. That pretty much sums up the relationship between wannabe screenwriters, most of whom are impractical dreamers, and the screenwriting Gurus who exploit the wannabe’s desperation to become rich with one swoop of their script being bought by a studio.

An actor, Brain Cox, played script Guru, Robert McKee, in the film “Adaptation,” which was the product of a true writer, Charlie Kaufman. Here is a one-minute clip of McKee earning his living:

You can see that McKee has a schtick and it is called being a Tough Guy. Two other top screenplay writing gurus, Syd Field and Blake Snyder, are both, to a “man,” Tough Guys. Another aspiring guru is William Akers, who must have recognized the importance among successful gurus to practice tough love, hence the title of his book, Your Screenplay Sucks! What a Tough Guy.

Robert McKee is one of those rare specimens that actually makes a substantial living in the screenwriting business. One’s next question, then, may be, What series of blockbusters did he write to establish his credentials as someone now deemed a screenwriting oracle? The answer is NONE! Yep, Robert McKee has never written a workable script. Let us all chant together the mantra: “Those who can’t do, teach!” (And those who can’t teach, administrate.)

Syd Field is considered the first Screenwriting Guru, and his famous book Screenplay – The Foundations of Screenwriting is sometimes called the Bible of Screenwriting, which would make Field more Prophet than Guru. Syd is now a benevolent Tough Guy, a grandfather-type figure who has calmed down over the years from his wild youth when, as a student at Hollywood High School, he was a member of a “gang” called the Athenians – yeah, a name not quite as menacing as the Bloods – that would inspire the James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause. He writes cool things like, “Make it the same but different,” meaning that all scripts should be written in the exact same spec script format with the exact same rules of dramatic structure, with a hero who must overcome implacable odds to defeat the villain – i.e., the same ole story – but the story must also be something never before seen on the theatres. Get it?

How many original screenplays have issued from the brain of Syd the Prophet to then reach the viewing public? That would be zero.

Blake Snyder wrote another well-known book of script-writing advice called Save the Cat! This odd title refers to the need, in the first scene, to establish the protagonist as someone the viewer will want to root for over the next two hours. An example would be for the main character, like Ripley in Aliens, to save a cat minutes after the opening credits. Then Snyder dons his Tough Guy leather jacket and brass-knuckles, and writes:

“Can you imagine if the makers of Lara Craft 2 spent $4 on a good Save the Cat scene instead of the $2.5 million they spent developing that new latex body suit for Angelina Jolie? They might’ve done a whole lot better.”

But at least the now deceased Snyder had written a few screenplays that reached production and went on to enjoy a modest success, and those would be Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check. True, neither of these films ever entered the minds of the judges at the Academy Awards other than as a template for what NOT to be deemed worthy of a nomination, but Snyder did parley the experience into the more dependable income of scolding novices that they “have to come up with a great idea. And I mean it’s a killer! You have a killer title, a KILLER logline….”

Snyder has inspired me with the idea for a movie called I Failed to Save the Damn Cat! In the opening scene, my hero climbs a tree to save the cat owned by his beautiful woman neighbor, played by, say, Megan Fox, only he drops it on a railroad spike protruding from the ground. Now he must spend the rest of the film trying to make amends with Megan with the goal of winning her stubborn heart, the climax of which is when he must again climb the same tree to save her new cat.

Then there is the how-to book in which the Guru’s Tough Guy street creds are implied in the title, and that title would be the aforementioned Your Screenplay Sucks! by William Akers. Note how both Snyder and Akers depend on exclamation points to drive home their point. Snyder wrote the script that future generations of scribes will aspire to match in terms of wit, emotional impact and transcendent theme – you guessed it, Ernest Rides Again. What’s funny is that Akers brags about his work on Ernest Rides Again. Akers must have caught onto the fact that screenwriting novices and wannabes love to part with their money at the expense of buying food in exchange for being told that they are shit and that the chances of them ever writing a script deemed worthy of production is slimmer than them ever writing a coherent sentence. This is never more apparent than in the introduction where he paints a grim picture of the people who read potential scripts for agents and studios and how they are just looking for a reason to stop reading your magnum opus and thereafter toss it in the trash so they can go do something more enjoyable like “flop by the pool with a delightfully refreshing umbrella drink.”

I had read only one screenwriting book before I had finished writing four scripts in a period of five years, and that was The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trotter, who, unlike his fellow script-wizards, is not a Tough Guy. My former mother-in-law bought me the book, even though I had given little thought to writing screenplays other than creating casual skits for my acting class. But Trotter made it seem like a doable enterprise if only you followed certain rules, above all the unyielding three-act format that includes “beats,” which are the Catalyst, Big Event, Pinch, Crisis, Showdown and Realization. So I put a paperclip on page 83-84, which offered a summary of these “critical events” and at what page-number they should occur in a 90-120-page screenplay, and proceeded to churn out my own scripts whenever I had time between working at my blue-collar job, raising kids and getting a degree in biology at UMass-Boston.

I moved to Denver from Boston in 2013 and that was when I encountered another species of Script Guru — that is, the local Script Guru who has done nothing worthwhile in the Business other than to start a Meetup group. I joined such a group two years ago but ended up attending only four meetings. I introduced myself to this group as someone who had written three screenplays (excluding my first one), all of which had reached the quarterfinals in various screenwriting competitions (more later on this method of preying on desperate writers), and one of which had done so in the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowship – and this after having only read one how-to book, The Screenwriter Bible. One guy spoke for the whole group when he asked me how it was possible that I had read only one how-to book and had never, until today, met a single other script writer, but had somehow managed to place high in the Academy Nicholl Fellowship?

My answer was that, yes, one must read books to understand the art of storytelling, but NOT books on screenwriting outside of learning the rudiments of script formatting. The books one must imbibe and internalize are all the great works of literature, all of human history, all of science – in short, one should KNOW the entire scope of the human condition through vast erudition. Then the ideas for stories, or how to dream up a way out of a stagnant scene, will always be floating around in your rich pool of neural connections. Most important, to be well read enables one to spot an old already worn idea that you may have initially thought had issued from your own noggin, and thus avoid embarrassment. Of course, the other members of the group, especially our uncomprehending hostess, most of whom got all their inspiration from comic books and video games and Facebook comments, looked at me as the arrogant curmudgeon who still went to libraries for the purpose, get this, of borrowing books rather than the DVDs, poor not-keeping-up-with-the-superficial-times guy. More likely, I came off as a Tough Guy.

It turned out that, on a table situated in the middle of our circle, sat Trotter’s book along with a host of other ones that I was seeing for the first time. These titles included “The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field and “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder, and all were put there by our hostess. I decided after this first meet-up that I would read Syd Field and Blake Snyder – why not, at this point in the game?

Our hostess, the local Guru, was a woman who had absolutely no writing talent, no sense of humor, but who made money from the rest of us by collecting our annual dues. This lady had read all the books, taken all the courses, watched all the instructional YouTube videos – in fact, she was still shoveling out cash for any class that came down either the cyber or geographical pike, but all the technical knowledge gleaned from first and second tier Gurus did nothing to compensate for her lack of “feel” for how to write an original, stimulating composition.

At our meetings, she would give us diagrams of the three-act structure and the page numbers of where to place the beats — all copied from the experts — but leave out the more important lesson on what it takes to be a true writer, which is someone born with a sense of poetry and drama, to say nothing of an inherent emotional range that enables one to tell a good story with ups and downs and a rousing conclusion. We would take turns group-reading scenes a few of us had brought from our works in progress. Our hostess had the annoying tendency to interrupt and respond to these readings with quotes lifted verbatim from either Syd Field or the Save-The-Cat guy. In other words, she had given the matter no original thought, hence why she could not write an original screenplay. She had no actual feel for telling a story.

The moment she lost me for good was when she interrupted, again, the reading of one of my scenes to ask, with total authoritative disdain, why I had used the term “purloined gun,” when perhaps “shiny gun” would’ve been a better, easier way to describe the object? I answered with even loftier disdain that “purloined” meant “stolen” not shiny, while restraining from calling her a stone-cold fraud.

Then again, various Gurus have critiqued me for using a full vocabulary and sound grammar in my descriptions, since it is imperative that professional script readers understand my meaning. And here is where I am in the sane minority for believing that professional readers and writers, or those aspiring to either of these trades, should, of all the people in the world, know grammar and vocabulary, right? Or am I being crazy?

This just demonstrates how being a Screenwriting Guru – i.e., one who is compensated for offering movie script advice – is simply a matter of following an algorithm. Are the beats of the story in place? If yes, then do we want to root for the protagonist? Does he or she Save the Cat? Next, is there a strong antagonist that will offer the viewer catharsis when the hero vanquishes this villain? Okay, then, let’s move down to the next line of code: Are the minor characters instrumental is moving forward the action? Or are they superfluous to the story? If the latter, then eliminate these fictional wastrels or combine them into a single character, much how Spike Lee fused three actual people in The Autobiography of Malcolm X into one man, Baines. But what happens if the Guru reaches the end of the algorithm with no calls to jump to the concluding print-command of “This needs a lot of work, so pay me another few hundred dollars and WE will improve your script.”? Easy. What he now does is dismiss, with a snooty flourish, the whole script because it “doesn’t work for” him, when in fact he just lacks the worldview, or weltanschauung, to comprehend a dramatic theme more complex than an Adam Sandler movie, much like how a shallow Millennial, pursing his lips, will “write” a negative review in the commentary section of a YouTube video about a cartoon lunchbox using misspelled words and the English grammar of dyslexic Uzbekistanian nationalist.

Okay, Mr Sour-Grapes-because-he’s-never-made-a-dime-from-his-scripts (that would be me), would this algorithm work in real life? To this question, I reply that algorithms are already being used in the medical field to diagnose disease, and in the legal profession to search for just the right precedent to argue a case. All I can say is look out Script Gurus, for a robot will soon have your job, and then the gig is up!

Another “successful” screenwriter is the person who will rewrite YOUR story at the behest of the studio, if only to remove YOUR one great line of dialogue and replace it with their own line as dictated to them by their talking dog. Then comes the soul-crushing step in the process when your name is deleted from the credits to make room for the re-write man or woman who did the yeoman’s work of replacing a period with an empty space, since, in their opinion, a run-on sentence is more cinematic than a series of cogent sentences.

There are a lot of good consultants who really will give your script a competent reading and then write a detailed analysis that demonstrates that they truly did understand the method to your self-involved madness. Of course, they always end it with how “we” still need to do a lot of work on this script if it’s to be pitched, without the risk of humiliation, to an agent or a studio. I thrice used Christina Gray from the Los Angeles by way of Texas and truly appreciated her dependability and competence. In fact, she was the one who advised me to join a screenwriter group, the difference being that her group in L.A. was comprised of people with actual writing credits in Hollywood, while my…well, you know the story. She was the one who called me out for being a bad proofreader of typos, as it has been demonstrated that I can read one of my own passages ten times and still miss the use of the word “it” for what I meant to be “at.” And Christina eats, sleeps and breaths the Hollywood culture, since, as she told me, yes, it’s possible to sell a script from outposts like Boston and Denver, but c’mon, Jim, the reality is you have to be close to the action, to the agents and the studios to make it in the Biz. Blake Snyder said the same thing, but in a more belligerent way.

So why then did I move on from Christina and twice use Coverage, Ink for analysis? For one, the resident founder and Guru, Jim Cirile, offered the prospect of placing a script with a passing grade to a studio; and, two, his services cost less due to the division of labor at his factory of readers.

The last way to Succeed in the Screenwriting Business is to host a Screenwriting Contest, to which I have been an eternal sucker. I have donated much of my paltry salary to these competitions, in part because I reached the quarterfinals a number of times…but NEVER the semis…oh but so close, dammit, so, yeah, let me pay out another entry fee and maybe this time I will get that email that lists my name as a semi-finals winner. Chump!

Then you have Gordy Hoffman, who is both a script consultant AND operates a screenwriting contest, the well-known BlueCat Screenwriting Competition. That is a man who knows how to succeed in the Business!

One may be curious to know what the Gurus and Gordy Hoffman (the BlueCat gives every entrant a complimentary analysis) had to say about my own screenplays, what was their consensus opinion on the writer, James Francis Johnson? To them, I suffer from two flaws: One, my villains are not villain-esque enough. In my defense, I do not believe in simple good and evil, just degrees of stupidity and selfishness. Therefore, I made a conscious effort to invest my bad guys with multi-dimensional aspects rather than make them one-dimensionally Evil. Still, in the end, I obeyed the Gurus, and, in my movie about social media run amok, I transformed the Steve Jobs-like antagonist from a not-so-bad-once-you-get-to-know-him, egomaniacal pain in the ass into a guy with only the one predictable goal of seeking power for the mere sake of innovation. In my story about the Christian girl trying to make it in Hollywood with the help of a Little Person writing her a raunchy stand-up routine, Jim Cirile, or one of his reader-cogs, advised that I make the girl’s pastor father an all-out terrorist, but I have yet to revise that one.

My second chronic problem is that I am too in love with grand ideas that I tend to express using too many secondary and tertiary characters; and so, to borrow a quote from Arthur Quiller-Couch, I have had to “kill my darlings.” I heeded this advice in two total rewrites of my gangster/Greek Odyssey script that takes place in my hometown of Philadelphia (hence my aversion to Tough Guys) when I replaced my protagonist with a more Homeric character and then omitted the disgraced former baseball player, Pete Rose, from both the story and the title. Perhaps when I write I Failed to Save the Damn Cat!, the silliness of the subject alone will prevent me from introducing complex ideas on the meaning of Life and the Universe – although I can see how a dead cat pierced by a railroad spike can be used as a metaphor for Beauty being rendered Ugly by an unthinking Universe.

There was another common point that all the consultants and contest readers made about my work. They all gave me high grades for Originality, which I will take any day of the week over being deficient at spotting typos. It reminds me of the story of when pre-fame Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood auditioned for the same part. They were both rejected but for different reasons, Burt because he couldn’t act and Clint because he had an oversized Adam’s apple. The two of them left the studio together and were walking down the street when Burt said to Clint, “You know, I can learn to act, but I don’t know what you’re going to do about that Adam’s apple.” In short, we originals can learn technical stuff about beats and formatting, but I don’t know what the big-Adam-appled Gurus are going to do about their lack of imagination.

At present, I do belong to a screenwriter group that was formed when three ladies, all Colorado natives, and I seceded from the group organized by the Local Guru who thought the word “purloined” meant “shiny.” We meet every other Sunday at a Whole Foods and none of us bring diagrams or screenwriting books. What we do is table-read scenes and then offer commentary devoid of tough guy inflection. We make light of the whole screenwriting guru racket, though we are all guilty of feeding the beast. One member, not long ago, was ecstatic when none other than Gordy Hoffman volunteered – for a fee, of course – to read her script. Then she became flummoxed when Gordy wanted to change her favorite part, the ending, her “darling.” But now she is back to work still determined to get to Hollywood. Another member is in the process of reworking an ingenious script we have decided should best be described as a supernatural lesbian love story. And the last member writes hilarious skits that rival anything on SNL, but when it comes time to expand the concepts into a full-blown TV pilots, she instead brings us a few more original short scripts that have issued from her fertile mind. What the four of us have in common is that we have rich imaginations and excellent senses of humor, which, really, are the main prerequisites to becoming a good writer. The hypocritical part of our group’s dynamic is that I play the role of the beats and format scourge, but only because I am the only one, until Gordy entered our world, to have been through the analysis grind; as such, I want them to hear it, first, from the far nicer me than the Tough Guy Gurus.

This Fab-Four, huddled around our table in Whole Foods in Denver, are afforded a beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains. We are all aware that over them thar’ hills is a straight, clear road through Utah and Nevada that leads to Hollywood, CALIFORNIA, like the Gold Rush of yore. Therefore, it is just a matter of staying committed to our unique cinematic visions while knowing which tips from the Gurus to accept as true and which ones to discard as nonsense coming from “experts” who have never themselves written a successful screenplay – yes, it is just a matter of us navigating the peaks and valleys of the screenwriting process in order to reach that flat road to Paradise.

Every aspiring screenwriter from all over the world wants to be compensated for their herculean hard work however much this dream becomes a retreating mirage with each passing year and each fee paid for a book, a seminar, a contest. It gets to the point where, like a client of a dominatrix, you begin to think you deserve to be punished by the harsh, unforgiving world of Hollywood; or that, like a wage-slave at the lower rungs of the economic realm, you accept that your masters will, and should, reap all the benefits of your long hours of toil, except that at least the wage-slave does receive some money.

That is when the unsuccessful screenwriter may want to consider joining the ranks of the exploiters and become a Guru. All it takes is some bluster and an entrepreneurial spirit and a know-it-all attitude, even if you don’t know squat.

This article could be considered the work of a Guru, even a Tough Guy, if only I had been paid a cent (which is less than a dime) – and so, like all the other Hollywood wannabes, I will continue chasing the retreating mirage of becoming a Screenplay Writing Success.

 

(Please check out my writer website: http://www.authorjamesfjohnson.com)

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