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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"THE" Story Versus "A" Story Part 2

So the difference between telling A story and telling THE story really comes down to a choice of career paths. It’s amazing how many books and publications are out there about screenwriting yet almost none of them talk about this fundamental choice. You can either strive to be a Working Writer or you can set out to become an Auteur.

The career path to becoming a Working Writer is long and hard. You have to come out to LA. No debate about it. Being a Working Writer means learning The Biz and the Biz is in Los Angeles. Ideally, a writer comes out to LA with plenty of money in bank. You find an internship at a studio, an agency, or a production company. That’s right an internship, an unpaid internship. I know I said “Never Give It Away” but this is very different. As a producer explained to me, interns are paid in knowledge. When you’re not being paid you can ask questions. If you’re being paid you’d better have the answers. And most internships are only for a few months anyway. If you’re moving to LA you had better have at least that much socked away in the bank account or already have another job lined up. Most internships only require a few days work a week anyway, perfect for a bartender/waiter. Once you’ve completed your internship you move on to an assistant position which is pretty much like being hazed in a fraternity though some are genuinely good gigs to have. The best assistant ship by far is Writer’s Assistant at a TV show. That almost guarantees you’ll be writing for that show in a matter of months. All of this is designed for you to learn the business and make the appropriate contacts. You see what’s selling and what decision makers are looking for. You get those impossible to get otherwise industry recommendations that will get you a good agent and manager.

Alternatively you can do coverage for whoever is willing to hire you. This can take a little bit longer but it’s a great way to secure an agent or manager or start a relationship with a production company. Again you may end up doing some coverage for free for some companies, but hopefully that will secure you paid work with others.

Becoming an Auteur is just as hard work. The good news is you don’t have to move. The bad news, success is far from guaranteed. On the plus side, the career rewards are much larger. An exciting new writer/director is the king of Hollywood. A bestselling author or comic book writer has studios coming to him. How do you get this royal treatment? Basically you set out to tell one perfect story and get it out there to the wider world. You could turn your screenplay into a movie by producing and directing it yourself but that’s no where near as easy as many seem to think it is. Being director (a good one at least) means knowing as much about photography as your DP, as much about physical production as your UPM and as much about editing as the Editor as well knowing enough about acting to get good performances out of your stars. Producing has its own set of hurdles. As a friend of mine said, it requires meticulous preparation combined with the ability to improvise at a moment’s notice. Above all the jobs of producer and director require an extroverted nature that many writers just lack. So be honest with yourself. If you can’t bring yourself to ask your rich next door neighbor or relative to back your movie, then this isn’t for you. Once you have a movie then you have to get it seen. It has to be entered in as many festivals as possible. DVD distribution should be worked out ahead of time if possible.

Alternatively you can turn your story into a novel or graphic novel. A Graphic obviously requires the services of an artist if you yourself can’t draw. A novel may seem easier but remember it’s a lot more writing. Novels begin at around 50,000 words and can go well over 100,000. Many screenwriters are so used to describing sight and sound they forget a novel has to make use of the other senses. More than that, a novel has to peak inside the minds and emotions of the characters. Even once it’s done, that isn’t the end of it. A novel or graphic novel has to be sold to a publisher. I would strongly argue against self publishing for novels at least. If somebody isn’t willing to pay you the relatively small advance for a first time novel or graphic novel, most people are going to conclude it wasn’t that good to begin with. But assuming you are awesome and your work gets published, you then have to sell it. You can’t rely on the publisher. He’s probably already invested as much as he’s going to by giving you an advance. It’s up to you to hit the internet fan sites, go on book tours, do interviews with whoever wants to talk with you.

That is the entire road map for writers in Hollywood. Those are really the only two options open. I sincerely wish somebody had laid it out to me in those terms all those years ago. I might not have listened, but at least I would have been informed.

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