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Friday, June 11, 2010

Machiavelli’s The Prince and Screenwriting Part 1

Machiavelli’s The Prince is the classic book on strategy and skullduggery. For centuries it’s been used as a guide for leaders, politicians and businessmen. But can it help a screenwriter navigate the sharks in Hollywood?

Yes, if you make a few allowances.

1 The Various Kinds of Government and the Ways by Which They Are Established.

All states and dominions which hold or have held sway over mankind are either republics or monarchies.

Machiavelli says in his next chapter that he’ll only be talking about how monarchies operate. This is good because when a screenwriter negotiates with a producer, a star or a director he is essentially talking to a king or a queen. Businesses are essentially monarchies. There a boss and what he says goes. He might be restrained by corporate bylaws but that’s nothing compared to the constant haggling a democratically elected official has to engage in. The good news is that as soon as you sell your screenplay you’ve joined the aristocracy. There are four pillars that make up a movie, the producer, the director, the star, and the screenwriter. Editors and DP’s might be hugely important but they rarely if ever get a seat at the big table. The bad news is that out of the four pillars, the screenwriter is the most junior and the most replaceable. Writers are replaced at the drop of a hat. Going in you have to be aware that yours is the weakest hand.

2. Of Hereditary Monarchies

…the difficulty in maintaining hereditary states accustomed to a reigning family is far less than in new monarchies; for it is sufficient not to transgress ancestral usages, and to adapt oneself to unforeseen circumstances…
No your kids won’t actually inherit your position as screenwriter, though they’ll have an easier time breaking in. But a year is a lifetime in Hollywood. After just a few sales you will have become known for a particular kind of writing. Therefore anyone who has that kind of a project is going to look to you first. Usually after just one sale your reps will be inundated with offers. You’ll be offered Chainsaw Sorority Part IV because you wrote Lifeguard Massacre III. As Mackey says, these gigs are easy to maintain as long as you meet expectations. The problem arises when you want to break out of your niche. William Peter Blatty is a prime example. Blatty started out as a comedy writer. He wrote A Shot in the Dark which essentially created the whole Pink Panther franchise. But by the late sixties he was tired of comedy and wanted to write a horror story. Studio execs wouldn’t even look at his horror writing so in frustration he turned to print publishing. He wrote The Exorcist which became a bestseller. Ironically he then tried to go back to comedy only to then find himself trapped in the horror niche.

3. Of Mixed Monarchies

But it is in the new monarchy that difficulties really exist.
And here’s where we start to get into the nitty gritty. The real meat of how to begin your career and lay the proper foundations.

Thus you find enemies in all those whom you have injured by occupying that dominion, and you cannot maintain the friendship of those who have helped you to obtain this possession, as you will not be able to fulfill their expectations, nor can you use strong measures with them, being under an obligation to them;…

You have enemies. Get used to the idea. The second somebody said “yes” to your project it meant saying “no” to a dozen others. Those projects had their own champions inside the company and, if they’re any good at all, they won’t miss a chance to advance their project at the expense of yours and your reputation. And you can’t expect your own champions to leap to your defense. They’ve already done you a huge favor getting you this far. So what do you do?

…you will always need the favor of the inhabitants to take possession of a province.
Get your name out there and start building your following. This is a real problem for most screenwriters. Novelists understand this much better and are better equipped for it. But before the ink dries on your first contract you should be out there and putting a human face to your words. Whatever your story is, there’s already a huge fanbase out there (otherwise you wouldn’t have made a deal) start giving interviews. Look for fan sites more than screenwriting sites. People who read screenwriting sites are your competition. People who read fan sites are your potential customers. Yeah the whole world is skeptical of social media’s influence. They point to many cases where internet interest didn’t match real interest. Maybe but even if they are skeptical of praise, they’re still terrified of criticism. The Wonder Woman movie essentially bit the dust the moment Joss Whedon was removed from the project. The producers may well have had a script they loved but the Whedonites would have torched it nonstop from the start.

But when dominions are acquired in a province differing in language, laws, and customs, the difficulties to be overcome are great, and it requires good fortune as well as great industry to retain them; one of the best and most certain means of doing so would be for the new ruler to take up residence there.

Once you get the money, move to LA. Yeah it’s expensive but even a first time feature contract is worth a LOT of money. It’ll probably be a few years before you can afford that house in Beverly Hills, but get your behind over to Los Angeles pronto. The language and laws of movieland are unlike anything else that exists. Often the difference between staying on a projecting and being replaced is a few words at a party. Yeah in the past there guys who wrote from Michigan or Wisconsin, but where are they now? The guy who wrote Top Gun never set foot in California and look at the result. Nearly everyone else involved is a household name, Tom Cruise, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Tony Scott. Where’s the screenwriter? Did he get screwed or did he screw himself?

Further, the ruler of a foreign province as described, should make himself the leader and defender of his less powerful neighbors, and endeavor to weaken his stronger ones,…
As I said earlier the writer is in the weakest position at the start of a project. Of all the principal members he’s the one who can be replaced without making any fuss unless he or she has worked to establish a fan following. Nevertheless the writer has made a tremendous gain. He has conquered his own little kingdom and Machiavelli’s advice comes into play. A writer should strive to make himself the friend of the smaller fish in the pond. First there are the fans. Then there the assistants and secretaries that make up a huge part of any production company. These people will one day be producers and execs themselves and believe me, they love it when you buy a round at the bar. Then there are the other members of the production, the DP, the editor, the Unit Production Manager, the Casting Director, the Assistant Director, the other actors. It’s really important to get to know these people. Even if a dozen other writers are called on to the project, make sure you get a set pass and use it. Why? You want to learn everything about the business for one. You want to be able to talk the lingo and have a few stories of your own to tell. Secondly you want to learn how to make a movie. That’s because there’s only one way to weaken a director and that is to become one yourself. The same goes for the producer. In fact you’ll probably add “producer” to your business card right away. Nearly all writers form companies so they don’t get reamed by the IRS. But a real canny writer will use his company for more than just a shelter. He’ll actually learn the ropes of producing and distributing. It’s a lot harder to disentangle an agreement between two companies than to just replace a writer. Above all the writer should be looking to direct his or her feature debut as soon as possible. While you’re at it, make sure to give yourself at least a one line cameo in the film. The smartest thing Tarantino ever did was get in front of the camera, thereby putting a face to his writing and his directing. You come in as a credible producer and director and maybe even as a credible actor you monopolize the project.

Next Week Part 2


  1. Actually, Jack Epps (co-writer of Top Gun) moved to LA and his writing partner Jim Cash stayed in Michigan and continued to write long distance. They don't have the shabbiest career to look back on... I mean, I'd sure like to have it! :)

  2. True enough Cheryl, true enough. But Epps and Cash still came out with the least. Even today when people talk about Top Gun's story most of the credit is heaped on Simpson and Bruckheimer even though they were the producers.


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