Doug Richardson's first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder.Visit Doug's site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.
Question. What’s your score? You know. Movie wise. How many millions have your pictures made? How many viewers have you been able to rack up with your hit TV series? What’s that? A little louder because I can’t hear you. Wait. Really?
Did you really just say zero?
Now that we’ve established your work experience, let’s talk a bit on the subject of job performance. I’ve heard about the reviews in corporate culture. It sounds like a disturbing proctology exam, requiring your boss to evaluate your work for the last quarter-slash-half-slash-year in order to gauge whether you should remain employed. It’s a food chain of sorts where I imagine your boss’s boss is doing a similar review of those under his or her management umbrella. Bullets are sweat. Sleep is deprived.
Then there’s showbiz. Where it’s not quite the same. Especially for the artists. Your show is a hit or a miss. Cancelled or picked up. Everybody knows. Your movie opened or tanked. Scored fresh or otherwise on Rottentomatoes. Yeah. Everybody knows. And no. It’s not just entertainment insiders with knowledge. I said everybody. Or at least it can seem that way.
“You’re a screenwriter?” asks the retired, married couple on the train. “Like what have you written?”
“Oh, wow,” they say, impressed. Both movies are either well-liked or famous in their eyes. Successes.
“I also made Welcome to Mooseport,” I’ll add for my own amusement.
“Welcome to what?”
“Wait. I’ve heard of that… I think… Was that?”
“Ray Romano and Gene Hackman.”
“That’s right,” they say. “That didn’t do to well, did it?”
No. It didn’t. It not so famously bombed. And even regular folks across the land know it. How you ask? Do Ma and Pa Mall-of-America read Variety or The Hollywood Reporter? Do they check Deadline.com or BoxOfficeMojo for Friday, Saturday, or Sunday box office estimates? Are they privy to terms like Per Screen Average or Number of Screens?
They just pick up the newspaper. Any big daily publishes the weekend box office as well as the ratings for the top ten television shows. Not a reader? Perhaps Ma and Pa listen to the radio. Both AM and FM stations subscribe to news services and on Mondays or Tuesdays, most of those toss in Top of the Box Office reports. But wait? Not a radio listener? No problem. Not only do Entertainment Tonight and Extra broadcast box office results, most local TV news stations toss in a weekly “entertainment report” which is a mere excuse to air TMZ-styled gossip, legitimized by box office reporting which they graph and pretend to make look like CNBC statistical stock analysis.
Hell, even the networks newscasts get in on the game, especially when the big weekend winner is a picture distributed by a sister studio or an equally dismal failure by a cross-town competitor.
Yup. Box office equals breaking news.
I suppose it’s flattering. Working in a high profile biz might have its perks. But seriously. How many other businesses have such ubiquitous and up-to-the-moment coverage of your product’s success? Does anybody suffer through these types of conversations?
Picture yours truly watching a Little League practice with a guy who sells cars: “Hey, Milt,” I say. “How’s it goin’? How’s everything over at the auto mall? Really sorry to hear those Toyota turds outsold you last weekend. Better luck with next year’s Ford Fusion.”
Or how about this scene featuring myself and my lovely War Department meeting a DWP technician whilst on a Hawaiian holiday: “Nice meeting you, Phyllis. You’re with the Department of Water and Power? Wow, congrats on that new union contract. Eight percent pay hike over the next three years plus maxed elevators on your retirement benefits? Outstanding. Your new deal’s a hit!”
Then there’s the neighborhood barbecue where I’m lucky to meet the college English prof who lives next door: “Bummer over that Rate My Professor review. Only seventeen percent thumbs up? Man, I feel ya. Ever hear of Welcome to Mooseport? Thirteen percent fresh rating on Rottentomatoes. How ‘bout them veggies?”
Of course, I’m having fantasy fun with scenarios as unrealistic as a Bravo hour with The Real Housewives of Middle Earth. Still I think it makes a point that some of us in showbiz are being scored while others are not.
“Dude. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all about the score,” said a studio pal of mine. “I mean, c’mon. Everybody has a score. So that’s how you know.”
“How you know what?” I queried rather rhetorically, since I pretty much knew where he was aiming.
“You’re either box office or your not office,” he coined. “If you’re a director, you either attract stars or your don’t. If you’re a writer, you either get pictures made or you don’t. Your number says everything.”
Television, of course, is even more cut and dried. Actors and personalities have a Q rating which is not so public. But the number of weekly viewers tuning in, streaming, or downloading, is news. Are your digits up or down? Cancelled or renewed or on the bubble? Hell, I even heard about a dentist asking his writer patient if his show had been picked up for “the back 9,” the number of episodes sometimes required to complete an entire network season order.
Do I sound like I’m complaining? Not so much I reckon. Every industry has its own idiosyncratic inside practices.
So what if you’re outside the candy store and looking in? Your score is an obvious and yawning zero, unworthy of my studio pal, the paradoxical definition of invisible.
But wait. Is zero really such a lousy number? I argue with a big fat nope. Not in the least. Yes, of course, you’re untested. Yet you’re also shiny and new. A bright sparkling penny waiting to be picked up, ready for examination with a jeweler’s loupe, and best of all, someone with the chance to be discovered.
This is due to the simple phenomenon that man is often more interested in what’s new and different than what’s been tried and tried before. That’s the trick you gotta keep slipped up your sleeve, prepared to play at the drop of the last script or audition tape someone just bounced off the bottom of their trash can.
You could be the mythic element of the unknown. A surprise to the eyes of someone who wants to credit himself with unearthing the next big thing.
Granted, you are still competing with some who possess scores in the box office billions. Or viewers in the tens of millions. And while one may remain the loneliest number, zero might just be the most valuable measure of all.
- More articles by Doug Richardson
- Meet the Reader: 10 Screenwriting Career Tips You Need to Know
- Behind the Lines with DR: Dealing with Box-Office Bombs