IT DEPENDS: When to throw in the towel. (And how to mop up afterwards.)

With the pursuit of a career in film, it's always important to evaluate when it might be time to throw in the towel. Or can you? Christopher Schiller examines the when and how to call it quits... or if you even should.
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With the pursuit of a career in film, it's always important to evaluate when it might be time to throw in the towel. Or can you? Christopher Schiller examines the when and how to call it quits... or if you even should.

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Screenwriting is a hard road, with lots and lots of rejection along the way. It’s hard to keep moving forward, facing so many ‘No’s. One bit of advice I give to anyone on this journey is to remember that there is only one person who can decide to bring your dream to a permanent stop. They don’t sit across from any negotiation table from you. They’re on your side of the table. They’re in your chair. No matter how many roadblocks are thrown in your path, no matter how many closed doors you encounter, no matter how many stops and restarts you go through, the only person who can end your journey finally and completely… is you.

As long as you have enthusiasm for your story and the fortitude to keep pursuing it, it still is alive. No matter how slim the chance of getting the right person to see your vision, at the right stage in their career where they can actualize that dream and get it to an audience, the determination to keep trying is still in your hands. They may be around the next bend. They may be miles down the road. They may never be found. But you don’t have to give up until you’ve decided it’s time. This article is about that time.

Throwing in the towel

I’m using the euphemism from the sports world of ending things by throwing in the towel. It is usually depicted as a dramatic turning point of a boxing film, when the wisecracking, older-than-dirt manager has had enough of watching his scrappy young fighter get pummeled by his clearly superior opponent. He takes the ever-present towel off his shoulder and throws it into the ring, signaling to the referee that the fight is over, you’re calling an end to it. It’s an old trope used in many pugilist pictures to signal a turning point for our hero. Will the boxer rise from the defeat with renewed vigor? Will this be the end of the road for the punch-drunk sap, only to find true love at last, once the gloves are hung up for good?

It’s scènes-à-faire in a boxing movie, so common an element that everyone recognizes the meaning. But do they truly understand the symbolism? Do you know all the nuances that go into that simple act of giving up? There are rules that apply to towel throwing, there are times and places where it’s appropriate and times and places where it ends up meaningless or confusing. Only certain parties can throw the towel. Was the towel intended to be thrown or did it just fall off the manager’s shoulder? What if the ref doesn’t see the towel?

I may be stretching the analogy to the point of tearing the towel, but the concept of when, where, how and who can “call it quits” are important aspects to know, in the boxing ring and in our chosen avocation of turning story ideas into movies.

Knowing when the towel has to be thrown

The first stage of knowledge in towel throwing is knowing when that last punch has been taken. Often we are so wrapped up in pitching our ideas that we may not recognize that we’ve taken that punch, like the fighter who is knocked out but the message hasn’t yet gotten to his knees to buckle so he wobbles, senseless and incoherent for a moment until mercy or one punch too many finishes the bout. Recognizing the end is sometimes hard, but is something you have to know when you see it.

I’ll give you an example from my own screenwriting aspirations to illustrate that, when the signs are there, it’s towel time. Recently I came up with an idea of exactly how to retell a true-life story. By taking a dark comedy approach that was actually pertinent to the telling, unique and familiar at the same time, it would be a hoot to film. I worked out the details and all the elements fell together as if it was meant to be. It would work in every creative and business way I could imagine.

Since the story, out of necessity, revolved around a single individual and their real-life experiences I knew I would have to first sell the idea to that person and then we could make this wonderful film together. I was able to find the right opportunity to make the pitch. The nods were all in the right places and it was agreed that the idea was a blockbuster waiting to happen, if only… And then reality hit, hard. There was just no way that this person was able to allow that story approach—or any story approach, to be told of those events. The bridges were burnt, the wounds would never heal and the revisiting would not be pleasant for anyone involved.

I felt my story idea take that knockout punch as if I had been hit myself. But I recognized the signs. It was curtains, so begrudgingly but with purpose, I threw in the towel. The great story idea will never be a film.

A real life stopping block is only one example of those signs. You can realize that a story idea loses its reason to exist when the subject matter becomes no longer relevant or no longer has any audience willing to receive it. That’s not to be confused with when the story was already told by someone else—every voice tells a unique version of a similar story (e.g. remakes). But when the main supporting elements of the story no longer exist, too much would have to be explained or excused that the story would get lost or lose all relevance as a story anymore. The key here is to recognizing the grinding of gears. When you are going nowhere or every direction seems uphill, it may be that time has passed the story by.

Make sure it’s your towel to throw

But before you reach for the towel, make sure it’s yours to throw. I mean specifically, make sure you are fully in control of the decision to quit, that you haven’t ceded that power to someone else. For example, if you’re in a work made for hire arrangement, as when you’re hired by a producer to write a script, contractually it’s their towel, not yours. You can negotiate potential ways out for yourself in the bargaining process to become the writer, but the towel may outlast your efforts.

Likewise, unless you were in an unusually powerful position at the bargaining table, if you’ve sold your script but don’t like where development is going—you can’t pull the towel from underneath them. Once you’ve accepted their terms and their purchase price, you accept that they can now do with the work what they’d like. They can even throw in the towel when you think the project still has fight left in it.

And if you are part of a writing team, your co-writers still have a stake in the project and if you don’t all agree that the towel should be thrown it can get complicated. Have you implemented clauses in your co-writers’ agreement to allow for splitting up work that started with all the writers but finishes with fewer? And the producers engaging the writing team may have expectations that they’re getting the work of the entire team and may take unkindly (or not allow) any of the team to walk away. It all depends (you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you) on the contractual arrangements and expectations of all involved. It’s one of the roles of a good contract to accommodate all the possible, even if highly unlikely scenarios and clearly determine who owns the towel if those events take place.

Make sure you know where to throw it

Those who have a stake in the outcome need to be fully aware that the towel was thrown. If you stop work that someone is waiting for and you just ghost their queries and e-mails about how it’s going, that’s never going to end well, and may be legally problematic for you. And you have to be aware of everyone that needs to be made aware of your stopping. If you directly answer to many voices, then each of them needs to be informed properly. You shouldn’t rely on the message being relayed for you to everyone you are responsible to. It’s one of your professional responsibilities so it shouldn’t be delegated.

Most likely the contract between you has stipulations as to how and when you can quit working (and when you can’t or have to wait until a certain stage is reached.) The specific manner and form of contractual notice needs to be heeded. And if the contract is unclear how you can stop working, then you really have to communicate your desires and find a way to keep those that may want to continue able to. Opportunities for others to take up the towel in your stead may require advanced preparation or a continuation/transition period after notice which you’d need to accommodate.

Timing the towel throw, not too early, not too late

So, even if you are ready with proper notice and knowing everyone on the list that needs to be made aware of your decision, you still must make sure the timing is proper. Again, the contractual obligations are usually the rule here. Some stipulations require an expectation of delivery. If there is no contractual out, then you need to deliver what’s promised before you can walk away. If you are required to turn in a full draft, then you have to continue until you have a legitimate draft finished. If you’re required to work for a certain period of time on the project, then you have to put in all that time. The stipulations in the contract create obligations for you and expectations of the other side. Falling short of your obligation may cause something the other side relied on to falter, and the onus would likely be on you to make up for that.

One very regular expectation in contracts is an exclusivity clause, it’s even part of the WGA basic agreement. This stipulates that while you are working on this project you cannot be working on any other. The project is expected to take your singular focus. So it goes without saying that if the reason you want to quit is so that another project came along that you’d prefer to work on, you have to be aware that the other project must be set aside until you reach an appropriate stopping point on this one, if one exists. It might be such a delay that the new offer may be the one you have to throw the towel in on. The one thing you can’t do if you’re working under an exclusivity clause is try to work on both projects surreptitiously or otherwise. That will likely lead to a potential of throwing in the towel on your whole career. A sober reality to consider seriously before signing on to do any project you don’t truly feel committed to in the first place.

Salvaging the good parts of the towel

For those projects that are under your control to quit on, there is sometimes a way to not lose all that work completely. You might be able to reuse those beloved scenes that never saw the light of day in their original form. Once you’ve crafted a wonderful turn of phrase or surprising turn of events, it’s sometimes hard to leave them behind.

But be careful. Try and keep track of what scenes you have reused in new projects you are developing. If you have several viable scripts in the market and that great scene you couldn’t part with has found its way into more than one of those scripts, it may be discovered. If a producer or reader spots you repeating yourself, at best they might think you’ve run out of original ideas. At worst it could lead to a writer being accused of plagiarizing themself. And, although plagiarism isn’t a crime per se, it could be an element that causes confusion and copyright contention issues with the two production entities that end up with the same lines or scenes in separate movies.

Have a whole load of laundry with lots of towels

One way to lessen the emotional damage of choosing to quit a project is to have several more waiting in the wings. Have many irons in the fire and you won’t feel so bad if one of them grows grey and cold. If one towel has to be thrown in because the producer isn’t feeling the pitch and gives you the reply, “What else you got?” you can pull another red hot iron out and poke them with it. (Realize, this is a metaphor. Poking people is dangerous in real life.)

If you were wondering about my towel...

And for those who were wondering, no, I don’t plan on throwing in the towel on this column any time soon. I may not be as frequent to post new columns as I have been in the past, but when I come across a new topic to share and a unique way to share it, you’ll be hearing from me. It all depends on what I figure out you might want to hear or I might want to say. Until then...

More articles by Christopher Schiller

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