In November 2008, I flew into Burbank airport for the annual Creative Screenwriting Expo held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. I had won Grand Prize in the AAA Screenplay Contest run by Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and my prize package included a comp’d ticket to the Expo. Forest fires had been raging for weeks in and around Los Angeles County and flying in I could see the devastation from the air. Once I was on the ground, my lungs and eyes burned as I walked from my hotel to the convention center amidst heavy falling ash. I should have taken it as a sign of what was to come but I was too excited to finally be in Tinseltown to let anything dampen my spirits.
Once inside the Expo, I was immediately surrounded by thousands of fellow struggling screenwriters. The ongoing WGA Writer’s Strike was on everyone’s minds as we all stood in line, ash coating our heads and shoulders, waiting to get our badges, meeting schedules and obligatory bag of swag. If ever there was a worse time to have won a prestigious screenplay contest, this was it. The industry I so hungered to be a part of was crumbling around me. But I was still too excited and naïve to comprehend how hard life was for working movie scribes, let alone the phalanx of us trying to break in. So, I joined the herd and donned my badge, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
It didn’t take long for the line-up of out-of-work, guild-striking Hollywood pros the organizers brought in to speak on various panel discussions on the craft of screenwriting to disabuse any dreams of overnight success. They assured us making it in “HELL-A” (as the town was rechristened on that long, dark weekend) was never easy. But listening to their war stories, even from the most successful writers of the bunch, made it now seem utterly impossible.
The weekend culminated with an A-Lister closing speaker. None other than William “All the President’s Men” Goldman. Goldman was an idol of everyone in attendance. He had written some of the greatest films of all-time and was known for such best-selling tell-all books such as Adventures in the Screen Trade. I watched him mount the stage with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Old Bill looked out at the sea of dejected, bespectacled faces before him and uttered the words I will never forget:
“You guys out there trying to make it as screenwriters in this town are f---ked,” he sneered. “Stop wasting your time with spec scripts and write a goddamn novel!”
At the end of the weekend, I packed up my bags including the three brass-brad fastened spec scripts I’d intended to hand out to hungry agents and producers and boarded my return flight out of Burbank. But instead of my Hollywood dreams being dashed for good, I found that I had a renewed sense of purpose. All that time and effort to pen the perfect, award-winning screenplay had not gone entirely to waste, I thought to myself. Somehow, Bill “The Princess Bride” Goldman’s advice to adapt my story into a novel made total sense. After all, hadn’t my story beat out several thousand other specs to win the Expo grand prize? Maybe if it had worked as a screenplay, it could work as a novel.
Over the next decade, my debut novel based on that grand-prize winning script secured me a literary agent, a publisher and, in 2019, was published in hardcover. This Fall, Looking For Garbo will be re-released in paperback and an audiobook. My Hollywood dreams are still alive and well, but now I’ve broadened my writing toolkit to include a variety of formats, including writing for podcasts, limited series, documentaries, and even short stories.
I credit Bill Goldman with imparting the wisdom not to limit myself to just the craft of screenwriting but all types of formats – in order to find your way into Hollywood. Because just like Bill always said, “Nobody knows anything…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work.” And everyone gets their break into show business in a different way.
That weekend so long ago now was not a waste of time and money, after all. I learned that at the end of the day, no one in “HELL-A” cares what format your incredible story comes in when they discover it – just as long as it's a story worth telling.
Learn how to flip your script in the upcoming webinar FLIP THE SCRIPT: How to Adapt Your Story to Sell with Jon James Miller on Thursday, April 21st, 2022 01:00 pm – 02:30 pm PDT, only at Script University.