by Greg DePaul
Screenwriting is hard work. To break in, you’ve gotta be super-talented, keep your butt in the seat for longer than the competition, and be seriously lucky. Only when all three elements converge do you stand more than a tiny chance of battling past the gatekeepers and entering Hollywood’s magical dominion of eternal sunshine.
And by dominion of eternal sunshine I mean selling a script – that rite of passage which signifies a screenwriter has arrived. It also puts money in your pocket and earns you a full year of Guild-covered health care.
But to get there you’ve got to do yourself a big, honking favor and stop worrying so goldarned much. The only thing you can control is your screenwriting. Yet I find that screenwriters often stay up nights brooding over everything but screenwriting. And that’s a waste of time. Time you need to write.
So here’s a listicle of things a screenwriter shouldn’t spend a moment thinking about, let alone banging their head on a coffee table about. And I guarantee that once you stop worrying about these things, you’ll be happier. Much happier. So let’s start with this totally unnecessary worry ...
1. People Stealing Your Stuff.
Repeat this over and over: Nobody is stealing my stuff. Nobody is stealing my stuff.
It’s a fact: ninety-nine percent of all screenwriters who claim they have been victims of copyright infringement are full of crapola. OK, that’s not a fact, per se, but ... here is a fact: I once served as an expert witness in a law suit in which a screenwriter sued a major Hollywood star alleging the star’s movie about a bunch of mercenaries invading a third world country was too much like the screenwriter’s script about a bunch of mercenaries invading a third world country, which he had submitted to the star. I could see why the screenwriter believed he was ripped off; after all, there were at least a dozen common elements between the two scripts.
Nevertheless, the judge threw it out of court. Here’s why: There are lots of movies about mercenaries invading third world countries. Loads of them. So naturally they will all have certain similarities – similar types of characters, similar story turns, even similar battle scenes. But was it copyright infringement? Not by a long shot. Two screenwriters can easily come up with the same basic script about the same basic subject matter. It happens all the time in Hollywood, where all of us scribes are watching the same TV shows and cruising the same websites for ideas. So stop worrying about it because it ain’t happening.
In fact, if people really were stealing your stuff or pirating your latest script to make a huge movie, it would be a good thing because it would show your writing is actually valuable. In other words – you should be so lucky everyone wants your screenwriting. If that’s the case you are probably going to break in eventually.
Yes, you want your scripts to look good. A sloppy script indicates a lazy writer. But nobody’s buying scripts based on format. I once read a horribly formatted script – dialogue in the wrong place, spacing all wrong, slug lines missing – that garnered huge attention from Hollywood literary managers and won the writer a job at Disney re-writing movies in production. Why? It was a great story. Despite the many superficial flaws on the page, industry readers loved it. And Yes, after a few of them complained about his lack of formatting skills, the writer hired some college kid to fix it. Big deal.
I’m not suggesting you ignore the format. I’m merely suggesting you prioritize it way below the actual writing of the script. After all, a great script badly formatted can be fixed in a night. A bad script well formatted is unshredded confetti.
3. The Zeitgeist.
Stop trying to have the next Big Hollywood Idea. You’re never gonna get ahead of the curve. Instead, improve your writing. All that time you’ve been spending trying to come up with high concept ideas to pitch at the next screenwriters convention – which you should probably not attend anyway -- would be better spent, well, screenwriting.
Hollywood has plenty of veteran screenwriters who have proven themselves and can, therefore, spent lots of time sitting in their Malibu bungalows sipping chai tea and making lists of ideas that could bring hordes to the box office. Or combing news sites for that wacky article that they can adapt into their next seven-figure script.
If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you don’t have that kind of luxury time. You may be working a day job or wiping baby butts in the middle of night. So every minute facing your script is well spent. Tune out the most recent happenings and the hot news stories that some big-time, veteran screenwriter is probably already adapting for the screen anyway, and get back to tapping those keys. Your writing is your ticket out.
4. Numbered Listicles.
Yes, it’s true. Reading this article is also wasting your time. Time you could be spending reading my book, Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter, when it comes out in July. But don’t worry; it’s short and sweet and reading it will save you more time in the long run --- as will reading this article -- because you will learn how to get the most from every minute you spend writing.
If, like many other Americans, you spend the next six months obsessing over the presidential election, your screenwriting career is toast. You’ll click away the hours reading Drudgereport or Salon or whatever news sites update you on every little move Hillary and Donald make, and your scripts will gather dust. So don’t do it. Make some coffee, sit your butt down and push ahead, page by page, day by day, because that’s the only path to the dominion of eternal sunshine called Hollywood.