William Goldman got it wrong. The screenwriter’s gospel according to Goldman, “nobody knows anything,” may have been true once upon a time in an analog age, but in an era when screens are pages and stories are being delivered at an accelerated pace, entertainment is instant and constant. If anything, at this point, everybody knows a lot. With sea change comes opportunity. What if the future of storytellers has never been brighter? The hunger for original material is spread wide across a global digital ecosystem. The opportunity for writers to reach readers has never been easier. Anyone with a smart phone can read your work.
Back in “the day” of his iconic book, “Adventures in The Screen Trade,” William Goldman pierced the veil of Hollywood realpolitik by exposing its Achilles heel of arrogant, out-of-touch arbitrary thinking. Traditionally realpolitik informed one giant stakeholder’s self interest by pitting it against another’s. The Hollywood David and Goliath version is played out like clockwork every three years between screenwriters versus their employers, or, “the companies”, as they are termed by the WGA collective bargaining label that lumps together media conglomerates and the individual producers who work for them. Thirty-five years of WGA strikes and strike threats that carried out the same negative result, have financially devastated the modern studio system as well as the bank account of an average WGA member. In this scenario, nobody has won. In that sense, Goldman got it right.
But some storytellers have successfully jettisoned the traditional distribution platform altogether. Consider indie book authors’ increasing reach to connect to an audience, versus decreasing ones for screenwriters. Indie/e-publishing authors know their readers directly through Amazon’s retail label, generate their own appearances at events, manage blogs or tweet, creating an impact equivalent to George Eastman’s portable ‘brownie’ on the studio bound 19th century cameras powered by a gunpowder flash. This revolution, however, hasn’t translated at all to screenwriting. Since the 2007 WGA strike, no matter how many spec scripts they write, screenwriters are more dependent than ever on managers, agents and producers. Never has it been more important for screenwriters to become well versed about their dwindling options in the playing field of Hollywood-generated entertainment. ‘Well versed’ doesn’t refer to writing but to taking active responsibility to accrue strong, genre-driven portfolios, brush aside urban media legends, and visualize Hollywood as a competitive contact sport, with explicit levels, points, and goals. Screenwriters must be engaged players in all effective social media with the same self-taught ferocity expressed by the best self sellers.
DIY doesn’t mean to literally go it alone as these brave scribes have done. Rather it’s about letting go of the idea your reps can do all the heavy lifting to establish your worth. Get yourself directly into the hunger game competition by owning genre expertise, constantly improving your work through a beta reader network of trusted peers. Get yourself an older generation mentor (and, if need be, hire a good editor), and maintain meaningful and consistent territorial visibility. Is the script really ready? Is it really the best you can make it?
This is what indie authors ask about their work, and an impressive number of them are finding themselves very successful. Hire a good editor? Since when does a screenwriter need to do that? Aren’t an agent and manager enough? If a script isn’t a slam dunk rocket to the market buyers’ galaxy, then yes, you do. If your work isn’t able to stand up to rigorous critique, you’re in the wrong business. ‘Stand up’ doesn’t mean you suck up devaluation, but know how to profit from feedback because you’re aware you’re solely responsible for serving the needs of your work, not the other way around.
Are you informed enough about the entertainment business to understand what daunting obstacles you might face? Does your work break the rules in the right way? Are you aware of everything that’s happening in global media? Place yourself in it not as a projection of a ‘dream’ career to be an artist but as an active, knowledgeable, valuable participant. This isn’t about hard sell, self promotion or an annoying blog. Not about Facebook. Or online marketing. It’s about uniqueness of message. Leadership. Standing for something. Finding a community who can appreciate you.