“By giving studios every reason to say no to you, you’ll be giving the right studio every reason to say yes.” That was the sage advice given to me by a bright young attorney that I met a few years ago. I still think it is some of the best advice I have ever received. A man looked at me once and said: “you are writing a manifesto. That is good for your head, but bad for your wallet.” Again, a very good observation. One rarely achieves success by disrupting the establishment, but if one cannot remain true to his art then why pursue it in the first place?
Few of us truly listen anymore. Think about it. We live in a world of prerequisites, pre-existing conditions, and pre-conceived notions. Were I to compile a list for you of the studios willing to listen to me discuss me current TV project it would probably be more constructive to simply list ever studio that has anything to do with television production and put a little asterisk next to any that haven’t explicitly said no yet. With a warm and understanding cup of coffee I sit, day after day, writing e-mails to the agents and executives who have shown me the courtesy to let me know that they’re not interested in my project. That’s where the bar is at right now. Most people can get away with saying: “we won’t let you know unless we’re interested.” How many cold calls actually peak someone’s interest I wonder. One in a hundred? One in a thousand? The numbers must be daunting. That’s why I don’t look into them. I realize that one of the many reasons that people don’t want to talk with me about my work is that I’m not an “established” writer, but it is for that reason alone that many should be interested in what I’ve done and be willing to give me a chance to show them what I’m capable of doing.
Most writers don’t go out and write a TV show with no studio backing. Fewer still write out an entire thirteen episode season by themselves. Better to flesh out your ideas and see what is in them then to leave everything up to chance is how I look at it. I come from the school of thought that says: better to really know what you’re selling than to try and sell someone on the outline of a think and vague idea. An established writer can get a meeting with a written pilot and some outlines perhaps even some can get a studio interested with a glorified beat sheet. I’ve seen it done actually. A regular writer has trouble finding interest with a groundbreaking show they’ve written an entire season of. If this isn’t evidence of a flaw in the system then I don’t know what is. Now, I don’t pretend to have some vast story-telling power that my established counterparts do not. What I have are unconventional ideas. Ideas that make people wonder. Ideas that were one to read the mission statements of the top fifty studios would fit at least forty-five of them.
The problem is that the establishment believes that a majority of the truly good ideas come from within. The madness inherent in such an idea is mind boggling. The simple truth is that the establishment is looking for ideas that won’t rock the boat yet still draw an audience. They want an attention grabbing opening sequence filled with an hour and a half of filler. That’s garbage. Its garbage now and it’s been garbage for a long time. People convince themselves that with the right actors, the directors, the right special effects, and the right marketing plan that garbage will become art. This will never happen. Garbage is what garbage has always been no matter how you package it. Some in Hollywood are even convinced that all we really need is a recycling program. Good heavens!
When I was working on a project for the city of Brookfield I was at the office of the city council which was in the same building as the municipal courthouse. I sat outside making various adjustments to my proposal when a young lawyer waiting for his case to be called started talking to me. I didn’t pay much attention to him because I was far too concerned about how my pitch to the city council was going to go over but after muttering a few loaded terms in the form of a sentence I found myself engaged in a conversation with the man.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think this guy’s guilty as hell and I haven’t even read the police report yet,” he said. I was quite taken with the audacity with which this man spoke. “He’s just lucky that he’s got someone like me doing this pro bono for him. I mean if we didn’t have to do a set of cases like this per yet I wouldn’t give this guy a second look,” he said confidently. I inquired about the case, particularly the name of the case and after shuffling through his notes he was able to give me a name. I looked at the court’s schedule when all of a sudden a Bailiff came out and informed the lawyer that his client was now standing before the court waiting for his attorney. I couldn’t help but follow the lawyer into the courtroom and take a seat behind him in the nearly empty room. The lawyer patted his client on the back which seemed to alarm the man more than anything else. The lawyer stated his name on behalf of the defendant for the court. The prosecutor read off the charges for the court and the lawyer shuffled through his notes as his client tried to talk to him, but the lawyer simply smiled and informed him that everything was going to be alright. The prosecution had quite the laundry list of complaints and next to every charge the prosecutor seemed eager to add her own two cents about how the defendant was lucky he wasn’t being charged with additional crimes, something the defense attorney surprisingly had no objection to. When the prosecutor was finished the defense attorney introduced himself again as if everyone had been absent the first time around and then proceeded to inform the court of how little he knew about the case. Then, in an even more bizarre turn of events, the attorney announced that he agreed with the prosecutor that his client was guilty of all those things she had listed but that he disagreed with the manner in which they were described to the court. The judge started laughing so hard I thought he was going to fall out of his chair. The defendant stood up and threw his arms in the air.
“Like hell we do!” He shouted. “This is a courtroom, you’re my lawyer, you can’t just agree with the other side.” All of these things seemed abundantly true at least in the aggregate. We were in a courtroom. He was the man’s attorney and it did seem counter-intuitive to agree with the opposing counsel. Still, the attorney put his arm around his client and asked him to sit down; something the defendant had no intention of doing. “But I’m not guilty,” he shouted.
“Look, just sit down and I’ll tell you what happened when this is over,” the lawyer said. The defendant, who at this point was too chocked too much anything sat down after the Bailiff walked over and made a few idle threats of action. The lawyer went on to explain that he was more than confident that a plea deal could be arranged if given more time. He looked over at the prosecutor who, at this juncture in the trial appeared to be salivating at the prospect of dealing with this man, and curtly agreed. The judge gave them nearly two months before the next hearing and adjourned the court.
A few months later I was outside the city councils office again awaiting word on whether any of our suggestions were going to be considered. I was not confident in our chances. I saw the attorney exit the courtroom although this time he was representing a “real client” as he put it. I inquired as to what happened with his previous case and he informed of the judgment of the court. All but two charges against the defendant had been dropped. He pled guilty to one count and the other was read in and dismissed. He received six months’ probation and a small fine. I was very confused as to why the prosecutor, who seemed to be both in a very good bargaining position and genuinely upset on the day of the hearing, was so willing to go along with a compromise that didn’t seem to serve her interests.
“As I listened to her read off the charges it was clear that she was mad, but she never once looked at my client during that whole process, so it was easy to see that she wasn’t mad at him, she just mad in general. I decided that it was probably better to do this some other time so I applied some temporary tact and we were able to negotiate a mutually beneficial agreement at another time,” he said. I stood there in awe of his ability to read people. I shook his hand and asked for his card; something he seemed to take great pride in giving me and then we both proceeded on to our next tasks. Had a public defender been present or any other attorney for that matter they might have argued their case then and there when the prosecutor was clearly quite upset but this particular attorney made a split-second decision based on his experience in the courtroom and it paid off nicely for his client. I think that we all recognize that a certain wisdom comes with age and experience. We tend to listen to the more experienced people because they have gone through things we haven’t. Even if we are listening to an old man tell us that the sky is falling is probably best for us to continue listening with the tacit knowledge that it is simply not falling quite as quickly as the man we are listening to seems to suggest.
Hollywood, in my mind at least, doesn’t operate all that differently than a courtroom. I’m sure that there are some people out there who really want some new ideas and concepts to add to their studio arsenals. We just don’t always approach them at the right time or with the right tact. Part of the problem however is systematic. Many of us writers who haven’t spent a lot of time in Hollywood likely feel a little bit like the defendant in that court case. We don’t know what’s going on, why it is happening, or how anything is ever going to go our way. We have to exercise a certain amount of trust. It is rarely, if ever, easy for us to trust. However, we must trust if we are to survive and thrive in a world where we cannot simply rely on ourselves to get things done and make things happen. At some point someone needs to see the possibility that exists in our work as writers if we are to succeed. A writer without an advocate is like an airplane without instruments. You may be able to fly the plane, but it is unlikely that you’ll be able to take that plane in the direction you want to go let alone arrive at your intended destination.