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Alt Script: Self Esteem and Avant-Garde Cinema

On the MIND mental health website, I found this list of things you can do to improve your self esteem.

  • Stop comparing yourself to others
  • Don’t put yourself down
  • Get into the habit of saying and thinking positive things about yourself
  • Accept compliments
  • Use books and websites to help change your beliefs
  • Spend time with supportive people
  • Acknowledge your positive qualities and things you are good at
  • Be assertive, don’t allow people to treat you with a lack of respect
  • Be helpful and considerate to others
  • Engage in work and hobbies that you enjoy

An interesting list, because who doesn’t want to buff up their self-esteem a little? It really brought into focus how being a spec screenwriter is genuinely bad for your mental health.

Stop Comparing Yourself To Others

Films take hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, pounds, or yen to produce, therefore, only the very, very best (allegedly) ever get made. Thus, if you have a pile of unproduced screenplays, the impression most of us develop is that our scripts are not as good as those being produced.

Screenwriters are told over and over again by the industry, “What sells most is best.” Good screenwriters create scripts appealing to mass audiences, while bad screenwriter are “self-indulgent" or a screenplay that doesn’t appeal to a particular reader.

Most screenwriters buy into this idea, because they're told that the ONLY way to become successful is to find your break into one of the segments of the industry, but more importantly, the only way to do that is to write like previous successes. The entire script development industry is built around the core concept of comparing what is presented by the writer, with previous writers' work.

The idea the industry has completely abandoned, seems to be in their approach to developing writers... That every writer has a unique and individual perspective on the world and on cinema. So, rather than persuading writers to write more like other “successful” screenwriters, perhaps, we should encourage them to discover their unique voice and vision -- to be different, to think for themselves, to offer a unique perspective. In other words, we should be encourage writers to become the next generation of avant-garde film-makers. Stop comparing yourself to other writers and just write what genuinely interests you.

Don’t Put Yourself Down

Most screenwriters don't understand how much they've been conditioned into putting themselves down. In terms of achievement, a completed screenplay is just as important and significant as a completed a novel. The fact that you can’t get it out there as a product is irrelevant. If you're writing and completing screenplays, you are in fact, a screenwriter, not a “wannabe screenwriter.” The idea of someone paying you to write, does not “per-se” make you a better or more accomplished screenwriter, so adding the word “professional,” doesn’t mean a damn thing. However, we fall into the trap of believing there are different levels of screenwriters i.e., the Newbies (bless their little cotton socks); the Wannabes (what a bunch of losers) and, the Professionals (a small band of God-like winners). In reality, each label is simply a form of putting ourselves down.

Newbie tells the world we know we’re not good enough yet. Wannabe is a horrific put-down! Want-to-be what? Even the Professional label is an admission that our self-worth as writers is only legitimate because of someone’s willingness to pay us.

None of these labels apply in Avant-garde cinema. You are never too new, too rubbish, or too professional to be able to make a piece of experimental cinema. The great thing about alt-cinema is the fact it can be anything you want it to be. It can be good, bad, interesting, or tedious. Artsy or not and due to its experiment and non-commercial nature, it rises above judgment. Only you get to decide whether you like what you made or not. If you think it’s worth making, go ahead and make the darn thing.

Get into the habit of saying positive things about yourself

You are a writer. You are an Avant-garde filmmaker. Go make stuff that interests you. When people ask, say “I’m a writer and an avant-garde filmmaker.” People might think I’m joking about this but I’m not. I really would like to see more writers and filmmakers stop pretending to be “professionals” and just come out and make the positive statement: “I am an artist and if you don’t like what I’m doing, so what! Who are you? The art police?” More than that, I believe many of us need to make that move in order to do our best work.

Accept Compliments

Most screenwriters are taught to listen to negative feedback in order to learn and improve. They teach us to listen to notes. They teach us to accept rejection as a positive thing. Rarely do screenwriters make an effort to build their natural audience by building their strengths as opposed to trying to change what they naturally do via criticism. Screenwriters embrace and chase the negative. “Don’t tell me what you like about the script, tell me what doesn’t work!”

After a rejected pitch, I have heard myself say “Well, they didn’t like this idea but at least the door is open for future pitches” which loosely transcribes to, “These people didn’t like my ideas, so rather than looking for people who do like my ideas, I’ll change my ideas.”

Screenwriters learn to see the negative voices as more important than their own internal creativity. If an idea or a script is rejected, it must be because the idea or the writing was wrong and never because there might be a problem with who rejected it. Not that a writer should be saying they’re wrong to reject you but all a rejection really tells you is these people are not part of your natural audience.

One way to avoid the negative and accept compliments is to become an avant-garde filmmaker. For instance, if you decide you really want to make a film about a clown on a bicycle who likes to pop children’s balloons along with his side-kick dressed as a giraffe, then I'm sure you'll find a small group of people who really like that (I’ll probably be one of them). I’m not talking about commercial success here. I am talking about making something with the resources you have and then giving it to people who will appreciate it. I am talking about changing the paradigm of filmmaking so success becomes redefined i.e., finding the audience who enjoys the films you make. Accept the compliment of their enjoyment and then go make even more films they like.

Use books and websites to change your beliefs

If your script is too expensive to turn into a film, turn it into something that you can afford to make yourself. A book, a graphic novel, or a website. Get your creativity out there any way you can. Do not let concerns about money cloud or color your creative life. Make your stuff any way you can and give it away. Find the people who appreciate it and build your next creative project from there.

Use websites and books to change the view that the industry controls your creative output and, don’t fall into the trap of seeing avant-garde cinema as a way of “showcasing your work to the industry.” Make interesting films and let the audience decide whether what you do is worth doing.

Spend time with supportive people

If you spend enough time in the film industry, you'll soon discover the number of genuinely supportive people is severely limited. In the last thirteen years, I have met exactly five people in the industry I would trust not to empty my wallet if I left it unattended on the table for thirty seconds. Most of the people you will encounter, do not have your best interests at heart. They are driven by an almost psychopathic need to “get the big break.” To achieve their own and personal big break, most people in the industry quite happily climb over your flaming corpse to make it happen -- a match in one hand and a can of kerosine in the other.

In avant-garde cinema however, it is completely different. Alt-cinema allows you to surround yourself with anyone and, because it’s an avant-garde movie and no one working on it believes their career is dependent on this film’s success, people won’t get uptight and snippy when it doesn’t win Cannes or picked up by Miramax. People working on a project just for the love of it, tend to be more fun and more supportive than people looking for their big break. Making experimental cinema means NEVER having to spend time talking to people you neither trust or like.

Acknowledge your positive qualities and the things you are good at

I have yet to read any screenwriting or filmmaking book starting with the phrase, “Make a list of your positive qualities and the things you are good at.” This is because it’s difficult to write a book designed to nurture people’s unique qualities yet insanely easy to write one where giving either a formula based on reverse engineering old hits or undermining the writer’s confidence.

If you are going to write and make avant-garde films, simply ask yourself the following question, “What am I both interested in and good at?” Avant-garde cinema is always about your perspective as a unique creative individual, rather than your ability to conform. Good avant-garde cinema always builds out from the individual’s strengths and positive qualities.

Be assertive, don’t let people treat you with a lack of respect

I once read an article where a professional writer suggested it was being too pushy to follow up on whether a producer has read your script until at least twelve months passed by. While I don’t doubt the advice, it's the kind of nonsense you encounter in the industry every day but how disrespectful is a producer who leaves your screenplay unacknowledged for a year? The truth is, screenwriters in the industry are expected to put up with high levels of disrespect. Levels making a normal person’s head spin with rage at the sheer unadulterated crassness of it. In the industry, an assertive writer is always reframed as “unstable,” “unprofessional,” “a diva,” or “difficult to work with.” I’m not joking... Screenwriters who aren’t prepared to live by the mantra “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” are not welcome by a lot of people in the industry. So, given that the industry is inherently disrespectful, the only sane answer is to shoot them the finger and become an avant-garde filmmaker.

Be helpful and considerate of others

Most writers I know, start their careers by being both helpful and considerate of others. They’re eager to please and want to be part of things, yet after being exposed to the industry for a couple of years, they learn being helpful leads to their asses being exploited to death. Producers don’t want to pay for project development anymore, so they’ve invented the term, “collaborate.” What collaborate means is, “I am a producer and I have an idea I want developed. You write it for me for nothing and I’ll use my “contacts” to make it happen.” Every single day of the week, writers looking to make their big break are being exploited by producers looking to leverage a project. The producer knows they can’t go to an investor or commissioner with just a vague idea scribbled onto the back of a cigarette pack, so they need some actual material. They find a writer willing to donate their time to become part of this “opportunity.” These kinds of quid pro quo arrangements would be fine if any of them ever came to fruition... Unfortunately, most of the time, they don’t. because whilst it takes weeks of work to pull a pitch together, it takes very little effort from the producer to ask for a spec script from the writer thus, it’s no skin off their nose to push the completed script to one side, if something more promising comes up.

If you spend enough years “collaborating,” writers eventually get to the point where any request to help out on a project feels like a personal insult. My experience of alt-cinema is completely different because when someone calls you up to help with an avant-garde film project, they don’t make any career promises. Instead, they tell you about the project and why they want to do it. This means if spending a week filming insects in a shed sounds like a laugh to you, you do it because you're just helping out. The same happens when you are pulling together your film. There is the genuine possibility of helping out a friend and doing it only to be helpful. Doing cool things with friends makes people happy. Avant-garde filmmaking makes people happy for this very reason.

Engage in hobbies and work you enjoy

After you’ve written four or five spec screenplays, it becomes harder to figure out whether you are writing because you really want to write or because you believe this script is the right career move. During the past three years, I’ve sat down a half-dozen times to write a personal, no-budget, alt-cinema project, only to be interrupted by a phone call from a producer or friend who has an “opportunity.” Sometimes that opportunity is an empty slot in their funded slate, sometimes it’s because they know an investor looking for the right project. Sometimes it’s an open door at a TV commissioner’s office. Each time however, I've been a professional, and put my alt-cinema projects to one side. Sometimes I’ve been paid to do that, sometimes it’s been presented as an incredible “opportunity.” Three years later, I’ve done lots of meetings, have a movie in pre-production, and a drawer full of scripts I wouldn’t have written if it hadn’t been for those phone calls. My Avant-garde movies never got written or made, even though I have the resources to make those pictures myself without industry input. Being professional has kept my projects out of production.

Because of these relentless career opportunities, I got sucked into the industry malstrom and lost sight of what it is I really want to write let alone what I am genuinely interested in. This disconnection from my natural writing self has caused all kinds of problems for my well being. Not writing what I need to write, makes me unhappy.

There is a lot to be said for engaging in hobbies and work we enjoy. I believe many screenwriters are ashamed their screenwriting may simply be a hobby as opposed to a profession. That somehow, it's shameful not to be the big shot or get the big break. I don’t know why that is, because fundamentally, both good writing and good filmmaking is a wonderful thing, regardless of whether it's commercial or avant-garde. Unfortunately, the big break isn’t all it's cracked up to be either.

Looking For Inspiration In All The Wrong Places

When it comes to spec screenwriting, the most interesting thing about the above list to improve your self-esteem, is that you're put into a world (the industry) where you constantly subject yourself to the opposite of each and every one of those positive values.

Spec screenwriters are taught that it’s essential to:

  • Constantly compare yourselves to others
  • Be aware of your failings
  • Get into the habit of listening to negative things about yourself
  • Accept rejection and criticism with a smile
  • Use books and websites to change yourself into something you are not
  • Spend time with selfish, stupid, and greedy people who do not have your best interests at heart
  • Acknowledge your failings and change yourself to suit the whims of others
  • Not be assertive, encourage people to treat you with a lack of respect
  • Treat people with contempt, unless they can help your career
  • Forget what you like or care about, because you’re an idiot. Instead, write stuff you loathe simply because we tell you it sells

Avant-garde, alt-scriptwriting, no-budget... It doesn’t matter if it makes money. Give it away. If only two people like it... Cool. It’s all about making the films you believe in for the sheer hell of making them. No thoughts of audiences or money or how it will help your non-existent career and, the best thing? Alt-cinema is sitting here waiting for you to stop wasting your creative life trying to write mediocre, formulaic toss for idiots, in the hope some day you’ll make money doing it.

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