Hollywood or Bust – Why we need to stop California Dreamin’

We’ve all heard it, within every screenwriting community:

You have to grow a thick skin to survive this industry!

This industry is desperate for high quality scripts!

It takes years to break into this industry?

This industry.

What does your screenwriting dream look like? Is it red carpets and strobing flash bulbs outside the Dolby Theatre? Is it hustling through the studios of Burbank, script in one hand and coffee in the other as you pace your way onto set? Is it running into your heroes and talking the night away on Sunset strip? Is it shielding your eyes from the sun as you write on your balcony, taking a lingering moment to gaze up at the old Hollywoodland sign and drawing a contented smile?

This is our dream. It’s a highly romanticized one, sure. But it’s an aspiration that, overly sentimentalized or not, it’s the only aspiration we have.

The industry is not Hollywood, nor is it LA, nor California, nor the West Coast, nor even the United States. The industry is global. And while it seems crazy to suggest the above, the real mania is our current collective mentality.

I know a young female actor, very ambitious, talented, and full of vigour. She has representation in LA and boasts an impressive career. She read one of my scripts, got very excited, and demanded her management company read it as well. She raved about how she was determined to play the lead and, if nobody was willing to take her up on it, she would travel to Toronto as a last resort.

Fair play to her courage, but this is the odd way we see things. We hold Hollywood in such high esteem that anything else just feels second-rate.

But here’s the thing: Hollywood isn’t working, and hasn’t been working for a long time.

Gone are the days of the backlot rebels. That was the last of artsy-Hollywood and it worked because nowhere else could you get so much talent in a room so fast. Meetings would be called. Pagers would beep. An hour later, deals were made and the cogs within the backlots would begin turning. Plus the returns could be massive, with waves of revenue trickling in as the medium offerings shifted from theater tickets to DVDs. Not any more.

Today’s Hollywood is old industrialization fused with modern incorporation. Agents have become managers. Producers have become executives. The friendly-faced entrepreneurs now militant CEOs.

The roots of Hollywood, once encumbered by gridlocked roads, antique phone networks, and snail-mail have now advanced into every home with an internet connection, allowing that meeting to happen, that script to be submitted, that deal to be arranged — all instantly, all right now.

Hollywood has become unwieldy and ineffective, yet omnipresent. We cannot shake our obsession despite the way it churns ruthlessly through our peers. The tales of how screenwriting only gets worse once you break in do not thwart our efforts to try to do just that. The statistics of WGA West writers never making another dime after they join do not hinder our enthusiasm. The rampant inequality, misogyny, and ageism does not see us turning our backs in disgust — it instead sees us bending to their will.

Because we’re the ones who are going to make it, right? And — our reasoning continues — Hollywood is our only chance to make it big; it’s the only endgame that can pay out what we’ve paid in. Well, maybe it’s about time we stopped falling for this bluff — for our own good.

Want to know the real reason it’s so hard to get traction in Hollywood right now?

Because the part of Hollywood that’s working isn’t really looking. It doesn’t need to. For decade after decade, the best the world has to offer has been throwing everything it’s got at Tinseltown. First it was by letter and now by email. Submissions have rocketed up by the thousands while the number of successful movies has dwindled. The independent movie is dead. The Blockbuster dominates the screens and decimates the competition. The only people left actively looking are the ones failing.

Screenwriters are increasingly swindled out of backend profits, carelessly dropped from projects, and told to work on spec. The friction is so rasping that writers have had to strike to earn a living, their only security being the vigilance of their union.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world prospers in film. Maybe not with the same glitz and glamour as Hollywood, and certainly not with anywhere near the same press coverage, but things are moving fast. Morocco, New Zealand, South Africa, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, and India top the charts but, thanks to affordable equipment, every country is seeing crews setting up on the streets. If you don’t believe that’s the case for your country, your city, or your town then, guess what, you are that film industry.

The problem at the moment? The viability of small films making profit. However, things are improving and streaming is set to change the landscape forever. There’s no denying the massive power of the domestic marketplace — just look at Bollywood. We’re sitting on a tinder box full of creative energy that’s going to explode anytime soon. It’s just a question of when, not if.

So, why do we have this Hollywood or bust mentality?

It’s partly down to our culture. Stir thousands of screenwriters together and that’s the underlying narrative — that all that matters is breaking into Hollywood. That’s not just a film industry conceit — it applies to anyone in the entertainment industry, full stop. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen screenwriters told to give up because they’ll “never make it in the Hollywood”. That’s like telling a friend to give up being a chef because they’ll never cook in Paris, or to stop making suits because they not the standard found on Saville Row. That’s madness.

The majority of the blame, though — the real blame — lies squarely with the industry that trades off writers’ hopes and dreams. How many times have I seen a writer talk about giving up because he or she didn’t make the semi-finals of BlueCat or didn’t get an 8 on the Blacklist. Unfortunately, too many to count.

Let me suggest a counternarrative, an inner monologue to push back against that kind of thinking. And it starts like this: If Hollywood doesn’t want you then fuck Hollywood. What is the point of fighting through that creative cattle market? To get representation? An agent? Who’s buying? Where are the sales? Where’s the produced work? You got read — that’s your fucking claim to fame? You did so well, tried so hard, and spent so much money so someone could fucking hand your script to their intern? You have a manager now, who’s also a low-rent producer? So you’re just writing scripts for them for free in the hope they make a sale? That’s your fucking dream, to be a tiny part of someone else’s dream? You got validated by someone one rung up the ladder from you? You’re just going to sit back and accept that shit? Or what? Give up? Just give up because, if you’re not making WGA minimums, then what’s the point? What the fuck? You’re brainwashed!

We aim for Hollywood because that’s where the salesmen are, and they are hedging their bets both ways. They indoctrinate us with the hope of making it in La La Land because their own dreams are tied up there. But no more.

As Joel Coen said:

I like Hollywood just the way it is, actually. I don’t think I’d change anything. I like that it’s out here 3,000 miles from where I live.

Times are changing. Anyone keeping tabs on the writers selling scripts knows what’s going on. They are selling outside of Hollywood. The message is that the spec market is dead, but that’s nonsense. That’s news from the SoCal bubble. That’s Max Landis talking. That’s where you’re being mislead. That’s the LA smog clouding your thinking.

You know what doesn’t count? Writing your heart out for years and giving up. Giving up because one little town on the planet couldn’t find room for you. Giving up because, despite your brilliance, one group of people didn’t have the time to acknowledge your existence. Giving up because some piece of shit exposure service took your money and showed your work to a few disinterested acquaintances.

Things are going to change because we’re going to change it. All of us together. We’re going to continue to put our scripts out there with no financial burden, with no barriers to entry for filmmakers.