ONE 10 • Hollywood Notes – inside the gilded cage

Learn how to write a screenplay for the low price of only $299.99! — or at least that’s what the Hollywood establishment would like you to believe. As an aspiring screenwriter, my email overflows every single day with offers and claims from various ‘pros’ pitching their latest book or workshop: Learn the Syd Field Method! Experience the Robert McKee Way! You too can sell your first screenplay for $750,000! Three Act Structure, Twelve Stages of Story Development, Twenty-Two Steps to Become a Master Storyteller – and so on. Apparently, you’ll need to be in tip-top shape to mount the thousands of steps required for success, and have a superb financial plan to manage the millions of dollars that will soon be rolling in.


Hollywood Notes: inside the gilded cage
–Cheryl Compton

I know actors and other such aspiring individuals in “the biz” are also bombarded with technique classes and the promises of get-famous-quick schemes, which got me thinking: is Hollywood the only industry in which the insiders try to profit on such a scale from the wannabes? Did Pablo push the Picasso Method or did Seurat teach Pointillism for Dummies? Do famous physicists have weekend-long seminars promising that all the secrets of splitting the atom will be revealed? Why does the entertainment business think there’s a shortcut for everything? Don’t get me wrong. A little Continuing-Ed never hurt anyone, but this constant barrage of guarantees of fame and fortune reminds me of the extravagant claims of weight loss products that litter late night television. One little pill is all it takes! It’s the exact same pitch complete with exclamation marks – except the screenwriting seminars don’t promise your money back.

Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of Hollywood itself. The quick fix: give it to me in less than a hundred and fifteen pages and under two hours (unless you’re James Cameron, and then for some mysterious reason you’re allowed to push the three hour barrier). However, the real reason why screenwriters don’t get their credit due is because nowadays just about everyone thinks they can write – since most folks compose a clever email, grocery list or a semi-entertaining Facebook status update at least once a week. The rest, having viewed thousands of hours of movies, television, and commercials in their lifetime, have at one time or another been stunned by a great idea that they think would make a hit on the silver screen.

Well, here’s the rub. Having a great idea and writing a great film or television script are two very different things. Oh, how many times have I had a conversation that goes something like this: “I’ve got this great idea for a movie… You write it and give me half of the money.” Sure and hallelujah, I’ll spend weeks or months of my life figuring out how to tell your little story in a comprehensible three-act structure with entertaining dialogue and redeeming social themes (or I’ll just throw in a couple of big explosions). No thanks. Not to prejudice myself, but if I never have another original idea for a screenplay, I can keep myself busy on the sludge from my own inspiration file for the rest of my life. In the words of the immortal William Shakespeare, “the play’s the thing” – not the concept.

This is a town where every other person has a screenplay or at least a kernel of an idea for one – from the valet at the four-star restaurant to the cashier at the dry cleaners. Such aspirations can be daunting. On the other hand, Hollywood is a magical place that harbors even the unlikeliest of candidates – Quentin Tarantino was once a clerk in a video rental joint and Diablo Cody flung herself around a stripper pole. I suppose part of the allure of Tinseltown is that if you do manage to hit the jackpot, there’s the potential to win big – unbelievably big. While the era of the million dollar option pay-out is all but extinct, one screenplay could be a life-changer for the lucky bastard who wrote it. This is where the hucksters swoop in with their big promises and their proven secrets of how to write a story that’s going to win the Hollywood lottery. Yes, you too can join the club.

But then again the golden reality of making it as a writer in Hollywood has a tarnished patina. In 2009, of the eight thousand or so Writers Guild Association West members, only around fifty percent reported any income at all. And of that elite four thousand-ish, what percentage of them actually made a living and didn’t have to sling double soy lattes at the nearby mega coffee chain to make ends meet?
However, the profile of the top earners is much clearer. According to the WGA’s own statistics, if you’re a minority or a woman, you’re fifty percent less likely to be in that upper echelon. In fact, women only make up about twenty-five percent of the WGA’s total membership and minorities a little over seven percent. Of those in the 95th percentile of wage earners, the gender-race gap is even more prevalent. Men in that coveted rank rake in an average of nearly $840,000 per year, while women and minorities in that same percentile take home a staggering $400,000 less. In any other industry, everyone would cry foul and there would be investigations of widespread abuse.

Hollywood is all about the gatekeepers (i.e. agents, managers and studio heads) and they ultimately decide who is going to gain admittance to the great gilded cage. Since thirty-something, white, Ivy League frat guys are the common recipients of the keys to the kingdom, it leads to a homogenization of what the viewing public sees on television and in the theaters.

Many of my contemporaries are paralyzed by what they’ve learned, relearned and unlearned in various workshops, as well as overwhelmed by all the above statistics. They write treatments, outlines and character breakdowns until they’re blue in the face, instead of just diving into their story. But then again, I understand the hesitation. Would you go into a profession knowing that you have less than a fifty percent chance of ever collecting a paycheck? As someone whose favorite moments in life include sitting in a theater while the lights dim around me, I think I’ll take that chance. But dream big, my friends.

Also find the spicy Cheryl Compton taking on STarbucks and the coffee elite at her new blog: My Name Is Cheryl

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