Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 19th, 2017

Time for the stars

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Last year, the screenwriter Terry Rossio, whose blog is the best online resource I’ve ever seen for advice on survival in Hollywood, posted a long post titled “Time Risk.” How long was it? If published, it could be sold as a short book of a hundred pages or so, and it would probably be acclaimed as one of the two or three most useful works ever written on the business of screenwriting. Rossio has spent more time than any successful writer since William Goldman on sharing his experiences in the industry, and this post is his masterpiece. (It received a flurry of attention earlier this year because of one unflattering anecdote about Johnny Depp, which is a classic instance of missing the forest for the trees.) I don’t know why Rossio invested so much effort into this essay, but I suspect that it was because he realized that he had stumbled across a single powerful idea that explained so much that was otherwise inexplicable, even cruel, about the life of a writer in the movies. It’s the fact that any investment of time presents a risk, which means that there’s an enormous incentive to transfer it to others—and the writer, for better or worse, is where the process ends. As Rossio puts it in an exchange with a producer whom he calls Jake:

At the point of sitting down to write, there was no way for my writer to know whether this particular story was going to work. She set forth on faith alone. So did thousands, tens of thousands of other writers around town, none of them knowing whether their stories would pan out, or even whether they could finish, or whether they could beat out the competition and have their work land on your desk…You [the producer] not only gain the value of the time my writer put at risk, but also the risk of every other writer who sat down to face the blank page around the same time, most of whom came up short. It’s like having everyone play the lotto, then you call the one person with the winning ticket. At the start it’s a giant risk pool, and all that collective risk is represented by this one winning screenplay.

This is a remarkable insight, and it applies to more than just screenwriting. Rossio doesn’t come out and say it, but he strongly implies there’s a fundamental cognitive divide between people who can work on more than one thing at a time and those who mostly can’t. It’s the difference between writers and agents, writers and book editors, writers and producers. The relationship doesn’t need to be adversarial, but it unquestionably creates different incentives, and it can result in situations in which the two players in the room aren’t even speaking the same language. It also lead to apparently paradoxical consequences, as when Rossio describes what he calls “Death by Sale”:

The day you sell your screenplay, you gain a small real chance it will be produced, at the same time almost guaranteeing that it will never be produced. Put another way, the same screenplay, unsold, has a much better chance of reaching the silver screen than it does when purchased by a studio…Selling a screenplay represents the exchange of all future positive outcomes of a project for a single, often unlikely, current scenario. You throw in with a particular set of players, at a particular time and place, with a particular set of restrictions and parameters.

This might sound crazy, but like everything else in Rossio’s post, it’s a logical extension of the principle in the title. If you’re a rational producer, you deal with time risk in the same way that a fund manager deals with investment risk—by diversifying your portfolio. A producer can have twenty or thirty projects in the hopper at any one time, in hopes that one winner will make up for all the losers. Writers don’t have this luxury, but they engage in a kind of simulation of it during the submission process. An unsold script has a virtual portfolio of potential buyers, one of whom might one day pay off. As soon as someone buys it, all those other possibilities disappear, and if it fails, the project might be tainted forever.

So how in the world do you deal with this? Rossio’s advice is simple, but it’s also the exact opposite of the reality that most writers face: “Spend as much time as you can making films, rather than trying to get films made.” Every strategy that he proposes comes down to knowing where to commit your time and how much of it to devote to a given situation. Take what he says about buyers and sellers:

First, understand when you’re in a room with fellow sellers, and temper your excitement accordingly. Second, commit less time risk to fellow sellers—and infinite time risk to an actual buyer. Third, understand the real value of investing time with fellow sellers. The value is not just an eventual project sale. The real value is building your team.

Rossio also advises writers to take cues from the industry players, notably producers, who have learned how to maximize the relationship between risk and return. (In financial terms, they’ve figured out an investment strategy with a good Sharpe ratio.) He quotes the producer Ram Bergman: “I told Rian [Johnson], I simply will not let you sell anything you write…The more we put it together, script, cast, producer, the more effectively we can dictate how it gets made.” If you can be a director or a novelist—or set up an animation studio in your garage, as Rossio repeatedly recommends—that’s even better. But even powerful people need to take what comes. Rossio devotes a considerable amount of space to the travails of his screenplay Déjà Vu, which set and still holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a spec script, only to run into rewrite problems and a reluctant director. When Rossio complained and suggested that they pull out, the producer Jerry Bruckheimer replied: “I have a director, a script, a star, and the studio giving me a green light. It’s not my job to not make movies.” And he was right.

I could keep quoting forever from this essay, which is loaded with throwaway insights that deserve a full post of their own. (Here’s one of my favorites: “Writers and producers often do the majority of their work with the cameras snug in their form-fitting foam cases. Actors get paid when cameras roll. And it’s only when cameras are rolling that power accumulates, and brands are established.” And another: “It’s amusing to listen to film critics assign responsibility for the content of a film exclusively to the screenwriter, the one person on the team with no final authority to insist on any particular story choice.”) But I’ll close with a story about a project in which I take an obvious interest—the adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, on which Rossio worked while the rights to the novel were still held by DreamWorks. Here’s what happened:

The screenplay was completed about a month prior to the rights renewal date, and to be honest, we nailed it. The source material is of course fantastic, one of the top ten science fiction novels of all time, and the draft we turned in would have made an amazing film. The renewal date came and went, with no word from the studio, but a few days later we got a phone call. “We’re going to let the rights expire,” said the executive. “Did you not like the script?” we asked. “I’ll be honest with you,” said the executive, “We’ve been really busy. I’m sure the screenplay is fantastic, you guys always do good work. But we just didn’t have time to read it.”

Rossio concludes: “While this sounds insane from a business perspective—why option the book rights at all, on such a high profile project, or hire screenwriters to do an adaptation—it makes perfect sense from a time risk perspective. If you’re an executive, and you know the project doesn’t fit your production schedule, why expend the time risk to even read the screenplay?” He’s perfectly right, of course. But the real takeaway here is one that he leaves unspoken. In this situation, you don’t want to be Terry Rossio, or the producer, or even the executive on the other end of the phone. You want to be Heinlein.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2017 at 8:51 am

Quote of the Day

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Republics exist only on the tenure of being constantly agitated…As health lies in labor, and there is no royal road to it but through toil, so there is no republican road to safety but in constant distrust.

Wendell Phillips, “Public Opinion”

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2017 at 7:30 am

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