It’s the mid 1800’s, hot but with a refreshing coastal breeze that blusters through an, at the time, modest settlement called San Francisco. California has the gold rush bug that’s seeing more and more migrants depart from ships with dollar signs in their eyes and a skip in their step. There’s not much in their pockets but that doesn’t matter because every single one of them believes they will strike it rich, be it through luck or hard labour.
A man paces through the streets with astonishment painted on his face, pausing occasionally to draw a crowd who then flock urgently to their homes or to gather others. In his hand the man clutches something of wonderment, that when held aloft glistens in the mid-day sun. “Gold!” he proclaims, “Gold on the American River!” His news triggers a fever that sees every abled bodied man clambering for picks, shovels, and pans and heading for the hills.
And one really has to ask, why would someone be so stupid to announce this finding to the world, knowing full well the mania it would spark? Well, you see, this man, this man by the name of Samuel Brannan has a secret, he owns the only mining goods store between San Francisco and the gold fields, and he’s bought up every pick, shovel, and pan he can find. Brannan went on to sell that equipment for 650% profit to the naive but ambitious workforce that had poured from boats and crossed the deserts with nothing to their name. Brannan subsequently became the first millionaire from the California gold rush without ever getting his feet wet or his hands dirty. He was at best a capitalist and at worst a con-artist, but either way there’s a lesson to be learned; hope sells.
To Many Your Hope Is More Valuable Than The Gold
In some ways, trying to break into Hollywood, which the vast majority of screenwriters seem to be trying to do, makes panning for gold seem a sound financial strategy. It’s rumoured there are something like 5,000-10,0000 spec scripts written by amateurs each year, equating to an annual wave of a few thousand eager individuals all convinced their obvious talent will be recognised, welcomed, and rewarded. And the thing is, nobody’s buying. The studios aren’t, the independents aren’t, the individuals aren’t, the statistics alone are terrifying. They get even worse when you consider Hollywood dominates the industry in the Western World, and, with the subsidies and creative accounting behind the big studios, it can only continue to (but that’s a whole other scary story).
The real money for many within the industry is within those churning hordes of writers, many of whom are in the early years and naive or stalwarts who’ve become desperate. Every screenwriter needs to know this is the true Wild West. Hope is the currency that drives the Hollywood economy.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, for all the good most services actually do for screenwriters, we may as well burn a pile of money and hope the right producer spots the smoke plume.
Hollywood is Vegas but without the Regulation
The best are middle men and the worst are parasitic. But wait, it gets worse, because every single trader gets a caveat to put in their T&C’s; subjectivity. You can’t objectively evaluate something where the majority of it’s value is subjective. But many try, and then remind you just how asinine it is to try – after you’ve handed over your money that is. The screenwriting competitions are lotteries and the evolution services casinos. They boast about their success stories while over 99% of customers walk away with nothing. There’s no refunds for gamblers.
And we all ask, over and over again, if a script guru knows how to fix amateur scripts, why can’t they sell their own scripts? If a pitch specialist can sell a concept why aren’t they a producer? If a reader can see commercial value, why aren’t they an executive? Because it’s all a tsunami of bullshit, that’s why. And that’s not to say every service out there is in it for the wrong reasons. Many believe in what they are doing, some strive to deliver results that help their customers, a few work.
You want to know how some script consultants really operate? They tour screenwriter communities spamming threads, writing crummy blog posts, or placing smarmy ads that try to stir up fear in writers. Their sales pitch sometimes masquerades as sound screenwriting advice on what writers should do or easily shared lists of what writers shouldn’t. They push products and services on writers saying they are essential or valuable because they themselves get some measly cut from discount vouchers or via affiliate links. They get a few customers and go to work on them, convincing them they have serious flaws and offering insider advice on what the industry’s looking for. They then try to get those customers to enter the very pitchfests and writing competitions those consults, or their consultant friends judge. It’s a racket that creates little more than a pool of confused screenwriters who have spent a lot, have accolades, but haven’t sold a thing nor generated any assignment work. Worse still, their own voice is now completely lost as their scripts have become sausage meat. Script consultants are, more often than not, failed screenwriters turned cannibals – or failed people turned bastards.
For more on self titled “professional” consultants, I can’t recommend this blog post by Geoff LaTulippe enough. He’s a working writer and all round legend in my eyes – even if he does ignore my emails.
And yeah, you know what, some of the stuff works some of the time. There’s good information locked away in some of those books. There’s opportunities via some of those services and any writer would be wise to look at the success stories first – not testimonials, not press releases, not anecdotal forum messages – like, actually Google the writers listed and find out where they are now and hope they weren’t that dude who was asking you to read their script last week.
The thing is, this all pales into insignificance compared to the genuine success stories that stem from completely free resources. There’s plenty of professional screenwriters screaming this from the rooftops but many don’t want to hear it. Free is dirty. Paid is for the elite. Paying is for those who believe in their work. Payment is the barrier to entry needed to filter out the crap – bullshit. Amazon Studios picked up The Wall through their free submission system. A sci-fi script got bought after being posted on Reddit. A writer running a joke website got commissioned to write a comedy feature. But on top of this there’s story after story of writers simply honing their craft while networking in a professional manner until they align with the right person, sometimes in the strangest but most serendipitous ways.
“There are so many people out there charging you money to enter contests, charging you money for notes, charging you money for consulting. It doesn’t work. And more to the point, not doing it has worked. In fact, not doing it has worked for literally everyone you and I know who works as a professional screenwriters. So at some point I think we’re asking people to take a leap of faith here and stop doing this. We know that the Nicholls Fellowship matters. It doesn’t always work, but it can work. We know that Austin to a lesser extent can work. Beyond that, stop.” – Craig Mazin, Scriptnotes, Ep 355.
We have to stop staring directly into the light because it’s blinding. We have to take a good hard look at anybody who approaches us trying to sell something. We have to turn our back on the self appointed doormen who want to shake us down for what little change we have. Ultimately though, we have to slow down and realise there’s more to all this than some elusive gold nuggets in the bottom of a river – there’s a whole world out there that’s probably better for us.