MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #8
A writer’s day job is his best friend. Let’s stumble down memory lane to a time when I worked a freelance assignment for a toy company.
WHAT SHOULD I WRITE?
THE LARGE DOLL AREA
Over forty years of writing, there’s no kind of literary laundry I haven’t taken in.
In my earliest days, even before graduating from film school, I worked at Universal Studios’ Commercial/Industrial Film unit where, along with fellow alumni from the USC Cinema-Department student Mafia I wrote corporate propaganda for banks and oil companies and government agencies including among others the United States Army and Air Force. It always amused us to regard our clients’ stunned reactions upon encountering the ragged band of long-haired tie-dyed mutton-chopped freaks who were creating their public images and communicating their media messages.
Universal long ago shut down that unit, but new writers nevertheless make a serious mistake if they ignore the world of corporate and industrial film and video. Who’s the largest producer of films in the world? It is not any Hollywood studio but the U.S. government. Corporate, industrial, government films are like all other movies, that is, most of them suck and a few are quite splendid. All offer opportunities to support a writer’s feature-length screenplay habit. Best of all, they pay quite well and require little time.
On one occasion years after I had left the unit, when I was already busy working on feature assignments for the studios, I was approached by UCIF to pen the narration for a travelogue for the Nova Scotia Board of Tourism. My first novel had just been published by a major New York house; the film rights had been sold to Warner Brothers and I was busy working on the adaptation and had no time for the Canadian job. Still, in show biz it’s feast or famine, usually the latter, so whenever there is paying work a writer should just bite the bullet and do it.
After all, there are a few experiences that mellow the soul like writing for money.
I met with the Canadians at Universal in the morning for an hour. Discussing this less-than-electrifying assignment, which would require me to postpone work on the project where my true passion lay, I had to conceal my despondency. When I got home a little before noon the mail had just arrived. Some people say there is no God, but there, atop the pile of letters and journals and flyers, was the latest copy of National Geographic. The cover story: Beautiful Nova Scotia.
I shamelessly purloined much of the text, starting with something like, “In 1698 (or whenever) LaSalle (or whoever) first gazed upon these shores.” I finished the job in about forty minutes. UCIF had pleaded with me to deliver the script within two weeks. I was savvy enough to understand that if I handed it in early they would ask me to revise. Instead, I held onto the script and went back to my Warner Bros. assignment and, two weeks later, just before the close of the business day, panting as if I had at that very moment completed the work, I presented the pages to Universal.
The executives overflowed with gratitude not only for my meeting the deadline but also for engaging in what they regarded as painstaking research. The very same pages, delivered upon their actual completion two weeks earlier, would have resulted in oodles of notes and requests for endless, useless, worthless, pointless tweaks.
Lesson #1: Meet your deadline, but never turn in pages early.
The worst writing job in my life was an assignment I wrote for the toy giant Mattel.
I was already professing at UCLA and not seeking any industrial film work, but the assignment was lucrative. I had phoned an insider at the company who leaked to me the budget. I had been planning to ask for three thousand dollars (in late Jimmy Carter currency) but my spy advised me to ask instead for five. The toy show would be held at a nosebleed luxury hotel, he informed me; all the major buyers would be flown in first class. The highlight of their weekend would be the toy show movie. After that, over the next two hours they would write ninety-five percent of their toy contracts for the year. The K-Mart buyer alone, for example, right then and there would order hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Mattel’s products.
The budget for the show represented, therefore, a bottomless pit.
After a lengthy meeting discussing various aspects of the film, it came time to talk about compensation. It had been very much in my interest to delay this topic for two reasons. First, it represented an investment on the company’s part of some several hours. Second, it afforded me the opportunity to wow their brass with my boundless creativity and imagination.
As planned, I reported to them that my fee was five thousand dollars. In 1978 this represented well over a year’s rent on my Echo Park hillside bungalow with hardwood floors, two bedrooms, a den, a formal dining room, a wood burning fireplace, sensational views, and gorgeously landscaped wholly private yard.
To my dismay, without a moment’s hesitation they agreed.
I say ‘dismay’ because it occurred to me that if they had so blithely consented to my price I must have asked for too little. Suddenly I heard myself adding, “On commencement.”
They regarded me now with concern. “Plus five thousand upon conclusion,” I told them. Adjusted for inflation, in contemporary dollars, the total fee was the equivalent of at least a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.
At this point they became agitated and disturbed, in other words, they reacted exactly as I had hoped. They complained that this was too high a fee. I told them that if they didn't have the budget for it I would gladly refer them to someone more affordable. With the reluctance I had hoped for, they agreed to my price.
Certainly the money was sweet, and did what money does for writers. it answered the unvoiced question: “Why am I struggling with this boring project?” Oscar Wilde once said, “Amateurs talk about art; Artists talk about money.”
My task consisted essentially of smearing narration over photos of a parade of prototype toys.
Working with Mattel at that time was particularly frustrating. There were twelve so-called ‘product groups’ and each had authority over the entire project. No area would ever consent to any proposal from the others.
My most timeless line: “In 1979 Mattel takes an aggressive stance in the Large Doll Area.” The latter was one of their product groups; it contained, for example, the legendary Barbie line. Another area, led by G.I. Joe, was called Boys Toys and Male Action Figures. This struck me as the titles of two porno movies playing at a theater in, say, San Francisco’s Castro district.
Only a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco I appeared at a writers conference along with any number of producers and agents. The agents complained to me that writers were asking them, “What should I write?” Writers wanted to know what was hot, what was trendy, what was selling. I argue in my screenwriting books and elsewhere that there are no trends in the movie business. Writers must follow their hearts. How can audiences care about a movie if the writer herself doesn’t care about what she’s writing?
Even if there were such a thing as a trend, it’s too late to get in on that trend precisely because it is the trend. Those movies constituting the purported trend had to have been in the works at least two years earlier in order to be on the screen now. This is one more reason why asking anybody else what a writer should write is a self-defeating prophecy.
Several months ago I had a chat with a highly respected writer. He has had perhaps a half dozen major films produced over the past ten years, including a couple of major hits, and has earned plenty of money. Alas, however, Hollywood is a harsh and fickle mistress, and he finds himself no longer the writer de jour, and is struggling to win assignments.
He decided, therefore, to abandon the search for paid assignments and to engage instead the tactic that had launched him in the first place: he would pitch original notions and hope to land a development deal. He set up a meeting with his prestigious agents and proposed a number of concepts. The agents listened politely for a while and then cut him off, telling him that these days nobody is developing stand-alone original scripts.
They explained that a major toy company—Mattel!—was developing films based upon their toys. If he could come up with a decent pitch for one or another of their products, there was a reasonable chance he’d land a deal. This was hardly what he’d had in mind, but he was frustrated and desperate and, therefore, vulnerable to the suggestion.
“Okay,” he said, struggling feebly to mask his disappointment. “I’ll work up something for Barbie.”
“Barbie’s taken,” his agents told him. Another writer was already developing a Barbie project.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I’ll do G.I. Joe.”
“Taken,” the agents said again.
They told him about a new item from Mattel called Little Mommy Baby Ah-Choo. Yes, that is what it is called. It comes in a Caucasian and also an African-American version. The literature reads, “Girls will love making the doll ‘sneeze’ by squeezing her tummy. Wipe her nose with tissues, then check her temperature with the interactive thermometer.”
The writer told me that he struggled for hours in his writing studio trying to wrap some narrative around this toy, only to sink lower and lower into despair. At last, in the middle of the night, he realized what he should do.
“What’s that?” I asked him.
“Seize a length of clothesline," he said, "and then go out into the yard and hang myself from my avocado tree.” How had it come to pass, he wondered, that he had been reduced to creating (without any guarantee of compensation) a screen story built around a snot-spewing child’s toy?
Lesson #2: Against all odds, writers’ only hope is to follow their passion.
The Land Down Under Gets Screenwriting Advice from UCLA Master
In early March, if you’re seeking last minute writing assignment tips from Richard Walter, you will need to try and find him somewhere else than the halls of McGowan, where he has maintained an office for over thirty years on UCLA’s north side of campus. Rather, if you pursue finding him, you will find yourself on an adventure to the land down under where Richard will be conducting masters classes in Sydney and Brisbane, Australia. The master classes, sponsored by Screen Queensland and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, will run during a 10-day trip starting March 9th. Check back in next month’s issue and on Facebook to see trip photos and Aussie feedback on Richard’s master classes.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars:
March 9-20, 2011 - Pitchfest - Brisbane; Master Screenwriting Class
Sydney; Hosted by Screen Queensland and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School
May 27, 2011 – UCI Screenwriting Festival, Irvine, CA
June 4, 2011 – Great American Pitchfest, Los Angeles, CA
June 21, 2011 – Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Santa Barbara, CA
August 13, 2011 – Screenwriting Master Class, Albuquerque, NM
For Richard’s full calendar of appearances please visit http://richardwalter.com/attend-a-seminar/.