A Career of Mid-Life Crises

Dennis Palumbo, a screenwriter-turned-shrink, sent me an article he wrote for Psychotherapy Networker.  For the most part, Palumbo makes fun of his clients —  cartoonish caricatures of stereotypical Hollywood nutcases ("I love Gary, I really, really do…it’s just…he’s a set decorator and, well, I just don’t think I shuld marry below the line.")  I was about to toss the article aside, when I came upon this bit of wisdom that should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career as a screenwriter:

In most professions, career success follows a more or less predictable trajectory. If you’re a lawyer, banker, computer programmer, doctor or the like, you spend a number of years learning your profession, then you generally ascend–if your job isn’t outsourced or your CEO indicted for fraud — to a reasonable level of security, seniority, and maybe even pretty decent pay.

For the creative professional navigating a show business career, there is no such path. Triumph and failure follow one another — in fact, feed one another — in a maddenly erratic way. Hollywood is a notoriously fickle industry, where you can earn vast sums for a few years, then face a sudden and inexplicable loss of marketability, followed immediately by a severe cash drought. Not surprisingly, creative professionals spend an inordinate amount of time in therapy discussing whether to ditch the whole thing and start over.

Of course, many people in their forties and fifties go through midlife crises during which they wonder if they, too, shouldn’t leave their boring law partnerships or real estate businesses  and try their hand at running a B&B in Vermont…

..the whole process is a one-time thing, with a more or less definable resolution at the end.

For Hollywood entertainment professionals, however, this "midlife" crisis afflicts them throughout their careers.

That is so very true.  It is, perhaps, the most frustrating thing about this business… at least for most TV writers.

I got some good advice early in my career from an enormously successful showrunner saddled with enormous debts and going through a vicious divorce (his second…or third..it was hard to keep track).  He had a huge mansion, half-a-dozen fancy cars, vacation homes, yachts, the whole fantasy.

He warned me that it’s easy to get seduced by the money and glamour of television. That you think when you’re on a series, that you will always make that kind of money.  But television can be cruel. Your show could be canceled after a handful of episodes. Or it can run for five years…but when it’s over, instead of Hollywood embracing you, you’ll struggle for script assignments for two or three years before, if you’re lucky, landing on another series. Which could get canceled after three episodes.

His advice was simple: live below your means. Never assume you will always make the money you are making now. In fact, assume that you won’t, that disaster is only a year away (because it usually is).  And, whatever you do, don’t get divorced.  Work as hard on your marraige as you do on your career. He didn’t follow his own advice and ended up losing  everything.

Like any TV writer who isn’t John Wells, Steven Bochco or David E. Kelly, I’ve had my career ups-and-downs. Exhilirating highs and terrifying lows.  But I followed the showrunner’s sage advice.  I’ve always lived below my means, saved my money for a rainy day (and there are many of them) and have been happily married for 15 years. I’ve managed to stay afloat…and I credit a lot of that to his advice very early on in my career.

Do I wish I’d picked a career with more financial stability? Sure. But is there anything I’d rather be doing? Hell no.

The Expository Friend

Over the last two days, I’ve seen the Expository Friend everywhere…in books, TV shows and movies. I’m thinking that, for the sake of good writing, the WGA should put a ban on the Expository Friend into our next contract with the studios and networks.

The Expository Friend is the character who exists only so the hero or heroine can reveal what they are thinking and feeling, what they are conflicted about, and what they intend to do about it.

The Expository Friend also comes in handy for telling the hero things they already know  that we, the audience, do not (the big clue is when the Expository Friend starts any sentence with the words: "As you know" or "As we discussed," or "Remember when we," or "You realize that if you do this you," etc. etc.).

The Expository Friend is usually the frumpy single or married best friend/co-worker/next-door-neighbor/sibling of the romantic lead and is, in every case, a completely pointless character that could be removed from the movie/tv show/book without losing a thing.

Any time you see the Expository Friend, you are looking at tangible evidence that the screenwriter is either incredibly lazy or doesn’t have the talent to reveal character in any other way except, well, to have them step up and tell us directly who they are and what they are feeling.

The Expository Friend violates the basic rule of good screenwriting: Show don’t tell.

Pilot Bait-and-Switch

I haven’t seen the new TNT series WANTED yet, but in today’s LA Times review, Paul Brownfield talks about the common practice of pilot bait-and-switch.

Television pilots, particularly the ones with action, are real productions these days, sometimes upward of $10-million affairs with chase scenes and blow-’em-ups and helicopter shots.

They’re like features — better than features since they last only an hour and there’s no mall parking. The bait and switch of these lavish premieres, of course, is that two or three episodes in, the big-name director that the producers got for the pilot is gone and the budget is pinched back,

The producers know that. The networks know that. And increasingly, the viewers know that, too. The problem is, a pilot isn’t entertainment. It isn’t the first episode of a series. What it is, first and foremost, is a sales tool aimed at the key decision makers at the network…perhaps a dozen people in a screening room.  The studio will do whatever it takes to wow them…and get on the schedule… then worry about the license fee and the deficit later.

But those worries will come… and when they do, the pilot that was filmed on location in New York moves to a warehouse in Vancouver, the big-name movie director who shot the pilot becomes a non-directing executive producer, and the stories become much smaller (and more produce-able in scope). THE FUGITIVE was one recent series that suffered from the pilot bait-and-switch and the network still couldn’t understand why viewers abandoned it. 

The question is if the producers/studios deliver a pilot that truly represents what they will actually be able to afford on a weekly episodic budget, will the network be wowed by what they see?  Probably not. So they go balls-out for the pilot — the 60-minute sales pitch — pretending that if the network likes it, they will cough up the bucks to deliver that same show every week. But both sides, buyer and seller, know that isn’t true. 

The downside is that viewers aren’t part of that tacit understanding. The audience tunes in for the pilot, which they don’t see as a sales tool. They see it as the first episode of a show they may, or may not, make time for every week. If they like the first episode, they will expect that show every week. If the viewers return and get a cheaper, less ambitious, show they will be disappointed and, in this highly competitive entertainment marketplace, won’t come back for episode three.

Must Love Cliches

From today’s LA Times review of "Must Love Dogs:"

Ah, movie divorce. The dinner over the sink loneliness. The ice cream out of a carton sadness. The bad date montages. About three-quarters of the way through "Must Love Dogs," Sarah (Diane Lane) suffers her first big romantic setback, at which point my viewing companion keeled forward and croaked, "Oh my God. Of course she’s wearing bunny slippers."

"Must Love Dogs" must not love movies very much because it takes Lane, John Cusack, Dermot Mulroney, Elizabeth Perkins, Stockard Channing and Christopher Plummer and forces them to reenact the entire unabridged Encyclopedia of Treasured Romantic Comedy Clichés and Chestnuts, Revised Second Edition.

And the studios wonder why fewer people are going to movies these days…

The Thrillers are Here

The International Thriller Writers (ITW) will begin awarding "The Thriller" for excellence in — what else? — thriller writing. As they say in their press release:

For the first time, novels that
either transcend or amplify the traditional genre into the realm of
thriller will be honored and acknowledged.

The awards include Best Novel, Best Paperback, Best First Novel, Best Screenplay, and The Distinguished Literature Award, the ITW equivalent of MWA’s Grandmaster.

This award honors authors whose body of work in books or film
has had a significant positive impact on literature over a sustained period of
time.  Only authors whose body of work encompasses a minimum of twenty years are
eligible.  Each year the ITW board will poll the membership for suggestions. 
The board will choose the honoree by majority vote.

The top five finalists in each category will be announced at
Left Coast Crime in Bristol England (March 16-19, 2006).  The winners will be announced at the first annual International Festival of Thrillers (June 29-July2, 2006) at the Biltmore Hotel
in Phoenix, AZ. Visit the ITW website for more details.

A Letter From Janette Anderson

This letter, presented unedited and in its entirety, is from agent Janette Anderson, who is responding to comments I made in the post The Five Stars.

”’Ms. Anderson and Five Star also share the same logo and web-site. Any reasonable person would conclude there is an affiliation. But if I am mistaken, I will be glad to immediately correct any errors I have made. I will also be glad to post unedited any statement you or your client would like to make to clarify any errors or misinterpretations you believe I’ve made. I’ll post the statement as prominently as my original blog post.”’

Mr Goldberg:

As you are aware, as your own agent is WGA of good standing, its not just a  simple process of
signing a paper to become a WGA signatory. One has to be recommended and proposed by at least three reputable people in the business. Only after one year as a good agent and said proposal can one even think of becoming a signatory agent, and its an honor as far as I am concerned to be one and not to be dismissed with a mere flourish of the pen (or website in this case).

Firstly, my client never sent you an email. Secondly, before jumping to conclusions about ones
character and ones involvement with a publishing company, would it not be prudent to check it out first. I did indeed shop both Alex Cord’s book and Ben Costello’s book around to several companies before landing the deals with Five Star Publications. Of course a press release, as you point out, was released as
all were happy to be working together. That’s standard, as you should know. I have both contracts containing details of advances and the royalties sitting here on my desk.

I have never worked for Five Star Publications, maybe working along side them ( a very different
thing) helping to promote my clients work and get Mr. Costello several book signings, as a  good agent does..of which he now has many… and the logo that you point out happened to be on my headed notepaper in those colors, which I picked many years ago. I happen to have been a celebrity journalist for many many years before becoming an agent, and everything on my bio page is the
complete truth. Pictures don’t lie. I have at least five celebrity clients, maybe I should change it to Six or Seven Star………Five Star Publications did indeed do my fabulous looking website, which I paid mucho bucks for, as anyone getting a website up does.

I have no idea how you found out about the books…. Of course I am glad you did, because you will do
nothing but enjoy them.

The point to all this is:  simply never jump to any conclusions about anyone let alone put it in
print, so that next time no one’s attorney will contact you. An apology to me on your site would be the gentlemanly thing to do.

I hope indeed you will print this as you promised in it entirety.

Most Sincerely,

Janette Anderson

Janette Anderson
Talent Agency
9682 Via Torino
Burbank, Ca 91504
WGA signatory
818
768 3358
www.fivestarcelebrity.com
andersonagencyja@aol.com
emmadeetwo@aol.com
www.alexcord.net
www.50yearsofgunsmoke.com

"Dreams
have wings, dare to soar"

Fanficcer Spoof

The satirical site Watley Review has posted a brilliant, pitch-perfect spoof of the fanficcer attitude towards popular fiction:

A disgruntled Harry Potter fan has released a "corrected" version
of J.K Rowling’s latest installment in the series, The Half-Blood Prince,
prompting a storm of curiosity and support from many fans who disliked the
direction of the story in the book. It has also, not surprisingly, prompted a
storm of legal activity from Rowling’s publishers.

"Whenever an author puts a work out into the universe, it is no longer
their exclusive property anymore," said Mary Sue Pembroke, who is credited
as the author of the modified book. "Harry Potter belongs to all of us, not
just Rowling. She took some liberties with the story in this latest book that
really weren’t faithful to the logic of the narrative. My version is, I think
it fair to say, much more faithful to the true Harry Potter mythos."

…This is not the first time a fan has created a story based on an author’s
setting; so-called fanfiction is a popular pursuit across the internet. This
is, however, the first time a fan story has captured a sizeable portion of the
author’s audience: over 800,000 fans have downloaded the book, many openly
hostile to J.K. Rowling’s narrative decisions in the most recent book.

Scholastic Publishing has obtained an injunction against Pembroke and has
threatened a lawsuit, but has been unable to take the site offline due to a
number of overseas mirror sites…

"The only way for an author to keep a piece of writing completely their
own is to never have it published," insisted Pembroke. "J.K. Rowling,
you asked for this."

Whoever wrote this piece has a great ear for the fanficcer voice. It sounds just like  Naomi Novik and her ilk doesn’t it? It’s uncanny. For example, here’s one of  Novik’s comments:

I do understand individual authors who feel strongly that they don’t
want fanfic on their own work out there. If an author feels an intense
negative reaction to fanfic on her work, that is a completely valid
feeling. I don’t think that it obliges people to respect that feeling,
but it’s not ridiculous, it’s how she feels, and I personally do
respect that reaction out of courtesy.

"Mary Sue Pembroke" is a bulls-eye.

Character Short-hand

TV Writer Paul Guyot talks about character short-hand or, as he calls it, character gadgets. Network and studio development execs love them.

On the new TNT show The Closer the lead character has a weakness for
junk food.

That’s it.

Take that little gadget away and that "unique" character is suddenly very
similar to several other female TV leads. But network and studio folks like
gadgets. They think it makes the character unique. It’s easy. It’s simple. And
much safer than doing something deeper, or darker, or less mainstream.

It also leads to rampant cliches. How many times have you seen the character who loves junk food? A hundred times? A thousand. I’ve lost count (I remember seeing it in the pilot for THE STRIP  a couple years ago on UPN and throwing my dinner at the TV).  How about the cop who is a slob? It was old when THE ODD COUPLE was on the air and it hasn’t become any fresher with each new iteration. But character short-hand/gadgets  gives a development exec something to latch on to…"Oh yeah, Det. Nick Waters. I get him. He’s the hard-nosed cop who actually spends his free time ballroom dancing. That gives the character depth, levels, shading. Yeah, I like Nick. He’s got an edge."

Not a real edge, or any tangible depth,  just a quirk that’s easy to grasp, that quickly defines the character for the development exec. (And not just development execs, but editors, too. How many loner cops have you seen in novels who love classic rock music, drink too much, and are estranged from their wives?) The danger is when weak writers start relying on those quirks as a replacement for developing an actual character.   And I see that happening more and more…

David Montgomery expands on Paul’s thoughts, talking about writing gimmicks in mystery novels and offers this great advice:

Gimmicks lead to a "sameness" in writing, making a particular book sound like
every other book you’ve read. As a result, gimmicks diminish the author’s
individual voice and style. They also have a tendency to take the reader out of
the story, disrupting the flow and rhythm of the book.

So here’s my piece of advice for the day: if you find yourself using a
gimmick in your writing, stop it! Be creative instead. Be original. Think about
the problem and figure out how else you can solve it. Find a way to
make the plot work, or to get the reader the necessary information without
resorting to a trick or cliche.

What To Do While Your Wife Is In Jail

From the NY Daily News:

While source-shielding journalist Judy Miller languishes in lockup, her husband
of 12 years, editor Jason Epstein, has set sail on a luxury cruise of the
Mediterranean, alongside the likes of Isabella Rosellini and J.K. Rowling. And
what does Ms. Miller make of this rather raw deal? Her attorney, Robert Bennett,
retorts, "We all serve our time in our own way." In today’s N.Y. Daily News,
Christopher Buckley, comic novelist and editor of Forbes FYI, speculates about
what Epstein might have said to Miller before embarking. "’Darling, I wouldn’t
be able to enjoy myself even if it were a nice cruise. While I’m dining
on foie gras, I will be thinking only of you, sitting behind bars in 110-degree
heat, eating baloney and being brutalized by prison matrons.’" Is he far off?
For now, Miller’s camp is putting on a brave face. On the record, Bennett
reports, "Judy wanted him to go very much. She insisted he go, because there was
nothing he could do for her during that period of time."