C – H – A – N – G – E
The terrifying six letter buzzword you need to embrace
by Michael Lent
Author’s Note: Usually, I write nuts and bolts pieces like “Five Bears You Need to Avoid and Seven Ways to Fend Them Off With Toe Nail Trimmers;” however, since this is the inaugural column of the Creative Screenwriting re-launch, this conceptual piece is my way of saying, “Good to be home.”
The headline on the email blast read “Get it together! Start fresh!”
I know September is fast approaching and that’s the time of year when we feel pressure to ramp up and cast out the old for the new. Trust me, the fresh start doesn’t last. Often the problem goes beyond typical writers’ malaise and lies in trying to make too many “jumps to light speed,” across-the-board changes at once. A “hot” new pilot or spec written in a new style with a new partner intended for a new agent is too many quantum leaps, sure to slam us into the side of a high-rise a few months from now so, no, I don’t want a fresh start.
Instead, much like the old analogy of the butterfly flapping its wings in China, a few carefully crafted micro-adjustments will reap the more dramatic effect. When our writing and business sense is 95% there, it’s that last 5% that can make all the difference in creating the right access, opportunity and result. The right simple change can have a profound impact right now. Proof of this is all around us. In fact, I owe my career as a working writer/producer to this simple principle of micro calibrations.
Put a group of writers together for an extended period of time and invariably one will break out of the pack career wise. (If this hasn’t happened, you’re in the wrong group.) Some of the others will lament their sour grapes that “There’s virtually no difference between [him/her] and me. I’m just as talented as him/her.” Sometimes they’re right. The distinction can be infinitesimal. One writer gets his contract renewed to staff a series. Another is back in the hunt, even though they both were in the room and broke the same scripts. Four years into my foray as a professional writer, I had half a dozen jobs at once and nothing to show for all of my writing except a few $500 production company options and a fistful of free right-to-shop agreements. There was the cavalcade of big budget specs that didn’t quite sell and studio assignments that I didn’t quite get. My friends were basically in the same boat: waiting for agents or producers to call. Things were looking grimmer than a Lone Ranger sequel. Then I decided to make one small adjustment: I would stop waiting for career validation from the Universal Studios of the world and immediately be the writer I wanted to be with the career I wanted to have.
That was the one change.
C – H – A – N – G – E
To repeat, I would stop waiting for the Prize Patrol to show up and start treating my work with the respect it deserved. Immediately, I slew those internal dragons that ostensibly guarded my self-esteem, but in fact roared at me at all hours of the night with enough self-doubt to keep me from changing the state of my career. While I realized that some self-doubt can be a good motivator, from that point on, nothing was out of my league. And yet, the league that I was already in was chockablock with opportunity. So the gritty little $500 options and assignments I managed to scrape together were no longer depressing stop gaps, or as one colleague referred to them, “cabana boy gigs.” Instead they were legitimate opportunities to lock down future relationships.
For the next one that came my way, I sought out an entertainment accountant, as well as an entertainment attorney who charged $250 just to look over the deal memo. That meant the lawyer got half of my contract. Meanwhile, the accountant charged me three times what H & R Block did to do my taxes. Initially, “Yikes!” but then, “Fine.” The accountant soon had me form a corporation that got my money back including her fees. And the lawyer proceeded to put a couple of key protections into the deal memo language that more than paid for itself in terms of peace of mind. Plus, our professional relationship was off and running. Having a team behind me felt different, better than having gel inserts in my boxer briefs, and more like having a special key to a suitcase of nitro glycerin.
Emboldened, I started looking for projects to produce. To-date that has meant five films in locations as far flung as China and with budgets ranging up to $1 Million. I also took on “producing” graphic novel projects that subsequently were optioned as feature film projects. The graphic novel writing and producing work segued into video games and I’ve worked on three of those. In otherwords, I made one adjustment and suddenly, had a development slate and operated like a mini-studio. My day became filled with actors, artists, publishers, writers and producers. I didn’t wait for my cell phone to ring because usually, I was initiating the calls.
Be the writer you want to be right now
Lots of times we think the next level is about someone else having more resources or more access. Yet there are plenty of people bopping around with incredible access but can’t make a go of it. They seem to have it all and don’t do anything with it. Here in Hollywood, it’s common to come across the children of legendary actors, directors or producers. The personal legacy of many of these privileged progeny is little more than some compromising footage blasted on TMZ.
We have to carry ourselves as the writer we aspire to be before we put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard… before we pick up that phone to set up our meeting. Then “Just do it.” One time a producer who was stressing the importance of execution said to me, “Good ideas are like assholes, everybody’s got at least one.” Uh… but I don’t agree that ideas, or even thoughts are in easy, limitless supply. Thoughts aren’t free in the sense that they take up space in the brain. We can only hold onto so many, hence the invention of paper and iPads. Ideally, we want our brain filled with stuff pertaining to that amazing new project. Fine, but all too often our brain is filled with less inspirational matters like, “If I don’t sell this timely blockbuster on the dangers of acid reflux, how will I afford to be buried in a paupers’ grave?” or less charitable thoughts about how that aforementioned “friggin’ no-talent” colleague might be hit by a Mr. Tasty Ice Cream truck and thus, restore some sense of order to the Cosmos. Cynicism is a very dubious currency that’s only honored in the black markets of a tortured psyche.
Work on personal projects that are worthy of the writer you see yourself becoming
We start our process of butterfly effects right now by truly believing we are gifted writers with limitless capabilities. Here those of us steeped in the Power of Negative Thought will say, “Hey, Mental Lental! None of that gifted-shmifted crap matters unless you’ve actually written a brilliant script.” Truth is, if you’ve read as many scripts as I have and judged as many competitions, it hits you that only a tiny fraction are brilliant… or out-and-out crap. Ninety percent are, “Meh, that was okay.” It occurs to me that if those writers truly believed they were gifted, would they really write about zombie vampire rock bands or drug deals [with vampires and zombies] in warehouses gone bad? Or would they risk sharing just a little more insight with their audience? Wouldn’t they feel free to truly express themselves and trust their craft to deliver something no one had ever quite put on paper before? At the very least a new way into Hitchcock or screwball comedies, etc.
As a part-time writing instructor, I ask students to name their five favorite films. Often a student who was writing Count Chocola: The Movie would proclaim his favorite film of all time to be Goodfellas. That’s a disconnect of confidence and ambition. Anything worth doing involves risk and putting yourself out there a bit. That’s what we need to focus on instead of being concerned over losing a few heat shield tiles from one’s ego.
I realize that the idea of butterfly wings is a bit conceptual. Many writers have more immediate concerns like:
How do we land a meeting?
How do we make sure that it’s a good meeting?
How do we cement our reputation as a talented writer AND walk away with a deal?
How do we earn a consistent and good living with this craft, this hobby, this thing we love so much?
My book Breakfast with Sharks is filled with the answers to these game plan/taking action and taking chances sorts of questions. My future columns in Creative Screenwriting will be like that, too. But going beyond “A is to B is to C” specifics, what we’re really talking about is turning our desire into our reality. What we’re talking about is going to the next level in our careers. We see it happening every day for others, so we know it’s possible. And we’re right. It is our turn. And the good news is that we may be one small change away.
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