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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Every now and then I'm asked when it's too late for someone to start in show business.

It's not really my place to tell anyone it's too late. But I should add a few caveats.

It is possible to write a spec feature script that gets bought. You can do that at any age. You will probably have to write at least ten spec scripts before you're writing well enough to sell your script. But no one cares how long it took you to write those ten scripts. I am not sure that young writers have any advantage in the spec feature department, except that as one gets older one gets less and less interested in pirates, by and large, and more interested in how families deal with pain. Studio execs would by and large rather buy a movie about pirates; movies about pain are a smaller market.

What's not so likely is getting into the business of being a pro writer. Particularly not a pro tv writer. Breaking in to TV requires a lot of free work writing specs; and they have to be up to date, so you can't take six months to write one. Then, if you break in, you're on staff working 14 hour days plus weekends. Unless you are prepared to structure your life to achieve your primary and dominating goal of working in TV, you probably won't. It is not quite so hard on your lifestyle to be a pro feature writer; they get more time to do their job. But you are relatively unlikely to get those jobs unless you're around, meeting producers, taking meetings; and you usually have to make a big spec sale in order to get on the shortlist.

So: can you break into TV at thirty? Yes. But it helps if you are just coming out of a childless divorce, and you're ready to move to LA at a moment's notice. If you've got young kids, and live in the same town as your parents, and love your day job, you will probably have to give up too much to do what you need to do to break in. It is probably only going to happen if you suddenly realized that you should never have given up your childhood dream of writing for the screen, and you are now ready to risk everything.

You cannot get into showbiz and expect to retain some level of comfort. You may, if you are successful, achieve a level of comfort. But you have to be willing to sacrifice it again.

Can you truly say you're willing to do that? And if so, why didn't you do it when you were 20? You need convincing answers to those questions, or you may be wasting your time.

If your goal is to get something on screen, you might well think about writing a bestselling novel. Books aren't easy to get published, but they're a hell of a lot easier than getting your movie made. I don't know how many novels come out every year, but let's say it's 50,000. There are, say, 200 theatrical movies that come out per year, and most of those are commissioned. The math speaks for itself.

Thing is, people think it's easier to write a feature than a novel. It's not particularly easier. Screenplays just look easier because they have fewer words, and perhaps because it's less work to watch a movie than to read a book. But many first time writers think they've written a wonderful screenplay when they have, in fact, written a bad screenplay. The form is less obvious; it has more hidden requirements. It is harder to learn to read a screenplay than to read a novel. Don't think that because you can imagine a wonderful movie in your head means you are one step away to being able to write a competent screenplay.

On the other hand, if what you want to do is write scripts in order to better appreciate the movies you're seeing, in the way that ballet lessons, I am told, help you appreciate ballet, or if you want to shoot your own shorts just for fun, or to put on YouTube, then God bless you, go for it. Just be clear what your real goal is, and what the odds are against you.


well said Alex...hard to hear for a lot I'm sure, but more or less bang on the money

By Blogger wcdixon, at 7:41 PM  

Thanks for the perspective--it reinforces my own suspicions that aiming at feature films makes more sense than TV for those of us who left our 20s behind.

That being said, it's kind of a shame. I think many writers have a lot more to say when they have a little mileage.

Of course, your mileage may vary.

By Blogger the third coast, at 10:08 AM  

On October 1st I'm going to start my first novel. It's a serial killer thriller. I'm going to write a page a day for a year. Right now that's not asking too much of myself, and is about all the time I can reasonably spare.

The thing about thriller books is that the longer they are, the more readers like them. They WANT you to take your time. They WANT you to milk the moment, to prolong the suspense. It gives them more bang for their buck.

I have always been a big fan of the roundabout way to getting a feature made. Novel-writing is one of the best ways. Because even if the book never gets optioned, you'll have had the book, and the money you made rom the book.

By Blogger Sully, at 9:35 PM  

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