IT DEPENDS: 10 Cold, Hard Facts of Film Industry Life

Christopher Schiller lists 10 cold, hard truisms of the film industry, how to recognize them and how to deal with them to give your screenwriting career the best chance of success.
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10 Cold, Hard Facts of Film Industry Life

The following are hard to swallow truisms of the film industry gleaned from long observation and experience in the business and legal sides of the game. They are presented here as a cold splash of reality to keep in mind when you enter into negotiations or start working on projects with others. Taking these to heart doesn’t make you a cynic. It makes you a realist. Ignoring them does make you naive, or at least makes you appear that way.

1.) Promises without risk or consequence to the promisor are just hot air.

Face it. We all love to hear good news. We all like the pat on the back, the encouragement that we’re going places, that we’re good at what we do and of course they’re glad to help. But if you don’t want to be blindsided, you need to be realistic. Motivation dwindles quickly from those with no real investment in the outcome. It’s an easy thing to promise to do something for someone who asks. And they may even try. But how hard they try will depend on how much it costs them if they fail. 

“Skin in the game” or “sweat of the brow” are still honorable tests of commitment. If the person promising you the moon isn’t willing to get in the rocket ship with you, then don’t expect things to fly.

Once again, it’s a matter of position of power. The only promises that carry weight on their own are those that come from a lesser powered entity trying to prove their worth to the more powerful person. You’ve got a gain in reputation that hangs on your success in delivering on your promise. And that’s as far as a promise alone goes. If the powerful one in the negotiation only “promises” something in return, they don’t lose much if they don’t follow through. Unless they’ve ventured something of worth to them, something that would hurt to lose, their promise can easily be broken.

If you have a promise from someone who is not willing to risk anything in addition, then act as if you have gained nothing. Let them surprise you and don’t be disappointed if they don’t.

If you only have a promise to give in order to gain reputation with a powerful mover and shaker, then definitely fulfill your promise. A promise alone that gains trust and reputation has value, to you and to those you promise—and come through on.

2.) Talent doesn’t win. Work ethic doesn’t win. Passion doesn’t win. But you can’t truly win without these.

It is possible to seem to win without any one or all of these, but those victories always prove to be hollow. You know what is truly needed to have staying power. You’re using it to fuel your creativity every day. Continue to work with them in your tool kit, and when your day comes, you’ll truly succeed. Then the real work starts.

Winning without talent is exposed on the very next stage when the winner is asked to “do” something new.

Winning without knowing how hard it usually is to create will fail on the next attempt when the luck runs out and the hard work is needed. They won’t know how to proceed.

Winning without passion is possible, but, there’s nothing there driving the pursuit to do it again.

Failing when you still have talent, work ethic and passion isn’t a stopping point. In fact, often in the drive to keep moving, the failure along the way just fuels the fire toward eventual success, the right way.

3.) Villains aren’t the only things that die in Hollywood. Ideas do, too.

This one’s a particularly hard pill to swallow, but, sometimes a great idea can never be realized for external reasons outside of your control. It’s not your fault. It’s not that the idea wasn’t a good one. It’s just life. Eventually, as writers, we all will have had that great idea for a film that suddenly slams up against the cruelty of reality that denies its existence. It’s too expensive, it’s no longer relevant, the people involved won’t ever allow it, it’s time has passed or never was.

The hard part is letting go of something that sparked every fiber of your writer’s intuition. It would have been great, if only… And it wasn’t even your fault. You figured out all the story points, loved the characters, got an answer to all the difficulties. It’s not fair. You worked so hard.

But you always work hard. And you’ll work hard on the next idea, too. You’re not resting your career on a single idea or story. You’re a writer. You want a career as a writer. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Pick one of the other eleven you’ve got in your back pocket and run with that one.

4.) Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it’s not done.

This one would seem to go against all the articles I’ve written here since 2013 when I started this column. But it’s just facing facts. Sometimes people don’t follow the rules. You have to be prepared for that.

Sometimes it’s the burden of the paperwork or strictures they need to work under that entices those to stretch a bit further than they should. Sometimes it’s a “what can I get away with” attitude that pushes the boundaries. It can be as seemingly innocuous as writing down that a 35-minute lunch break lasted 45 minutes to fit into the requirements of union rules just so the director can squeeze in one more shot in the day and stay on schedule. It’s wrong, but it happens. Sometimes it’s as egregious as what ended up leading to the #MeToo movement, lawsuits and jail time. To varying degrees, it happens a lot.

It’s a calculation of risk versus reward. If the reward is much bigger than the risk of being caught, then it’s a big enticement. Once again, here’s where power at the bargaining table will play a big role as to what to expect. As you may remember, I’m a really big fan of solidly written contracts. Even with the most sound terms covering every potential eventuality in the agreement, it is still up to the parties to abide by their commitments.

For example, I know many more than one industry bigwig who has promised the moon to a filmmaker to take on their film, even contractually committing to all of it and not delivering any. What’s the wronged filmmaker supposed to do? If the contract is written well, the courts are always a recourse to get the scofflaw back on track or recover what’s due. But the defaulting player is betting that the filmmaker would rather chalk this one up to experience rather than find a way to pay the expenses and time necessary to see the case through to a verdict. Even the best written protection clauses in a contract are only as protectable as the wronged party’s conviction to pursue those ends.

Once again, be aware of the imbalance across the table when negotiating and be realistic as to how much effort you are willing to make to get your due out of a deal that might go sour. Sometimes the fight IS worth it. Sometimes moving on is more prudent. It depends.

5.) Handshake deals and face-to-face meetings feed egos, not mouths. Get it in writing.

This one’s a bit of a combination of several of the points already discussed, but it is important to cover individually since it’s a major factor of industry deals. Take a meeting, make a pitch, handshake deals, “the details we can go over later,” are examples of common aspects of doing business in the movie industry. If you’re “not good in a room” it’ll be very hard for you to get hired to work on a project that will take up several years of the lives of those you’ll be working closely with. These face-to-face meetings are important. They serve a purpose. They establish rapport and trust. But they should not be the only avenue to deal making.

The most important reason to get it in writing is removing the potential for misunderstanding. Important details for one side can be missed or garbled by the other. Real-time conversations never occur in a vacuum. There are always potential distractions and momentary lapses in concentration that could happen at the most inopportune times. And relying on people’s memory as to what was said long after the fact is a proven “bad idea.”

At the very least it is best to follow up the important meetings with written acknowledgement of exactly what was understood to be agreed on there. Seeing it in black and white, rereading it if necessary to fully understand the elements is key. And sharing it with the people that were in the room makes certain that everyone is on the same, literal page. It is better to find out that there were misunderstandings early, rather than go on assumptions and let each side stray farther and farther apart because they never were together in the first place.

Take the meeting. Let your ego swoon with the attention and good will there. Then follow it up in writing to make sure you got out of it exactly what was being offered.

6.) Hear what they’re saying, not what they said.

And while your ego is being inflated with wonderful praise in that meeting, make sure you are paying attention to the whole of what is being said, and not said. No one wants to say, “No,” but there are many ways of really saying that without coming out and saying it. Learn to listen to someone who may be politely declining in indirect but clear language.

And this goes to getting notes on your scripts, too. You’re a writer and you know how to write the story you’re trying to tell. Many people who give very useful notes couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. But they know something is wrong with the script. So they attempt to tell you how to “fix” it. You don’t have to do what they say, but, you really should listen to why they said it. There was something in the script that prompted them to give the note. It may have nothing to do with the area where they think the fix needs to go, but, there’s something there. If you are honest with yourself you will surmise where the disconnect probably happened leading to the note. You can then apply your professional scripter skills in properly fixing the script so the note no longer applies. And they’ll never need to know, and probably won’t remember what they said anyway. As long as the script is better.

[Script Extra: 20 Little Things That Make Script Readers Hate Your Screenplay]

7.) Things change. If they get worse, no one wants to talk about it. If they get better, they may forget to.

Everybody else’s success story sounds like they had an easier ride than you. Believe me, they’re just painting a rosy picture. Everyone’s journey is hard. Doors that were open to others may be closed to you. So, you adjust. You go around. You find a new path. And then when you tell your own story, to make it short and sweet and inspiring, maybe you too will leave out some of the struggle bits. It’s a survival tactic to put them in the past and forget how bad they felt at the time. But believe me, they were there for each and every one who succeeds.

8.) When you’re going through tough times, keep going.

We all can use external validation once in a while. The hardest times are when we seem to exist in a vacuum, when the phone doesn’t ring, the queries remain unanswered. Keep going. Keep working on new projects. Even when no one seems to want to listen to or read them. Keep going. There are only two outcomes to facing the silence. Make enough noise so that when they finally listen you have something they can’t help but hear. Or shut your mouth and stay where you are, mute and done. You’re not done. Keep going.

9.) It’s not a competition, it’s a career.

Others can succeed before you. Others will succeed after you. It may feel like you’ve lost already, but it wasn’t ever a competition between you and them. You are building a career. Your career is unique to you. No one else builds theirs the same. No one ever will do it like you can. Keep working on it and you’ll get there. The only one that can beat you, is you.

If you want an example of how true this one is just look at the writers nominated for best screenplay in the major competitions. Every one of them had a unique path to get to the highest accolade tier. Every one of them is stellar in what they do. And they are all different. Just like you. (And in that particular example, it just happens to be a competition too.)

10.) No one’s out to get you. And no one’s out to help you, either.

It’s up to you. It always has been. Your success doesn’t depend on the generosity of others. And your success won’t be hampered by the ill will of others getting in your way. They’ve got their own goals and agendas. Sometimes those aline with helping you out or seeming to harm you, but, you’re never going to be their focus. You should be your own focus and the main thing you’re fighting for. You are your own, best champion.

There you have it. Ten truisms of our industry. They’re true. They’re not going anywhere. Knowing they exist means you can develop mechanisms to get through them or around them. And if you can’t avoid them, at least you can grow a thicker skin to survive them. How you do it doesn’t matter. Just do it and keep going. I can’t wait to hear how you did it.

More articles by Christopher Schiller

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