The Business of Screenwriting: Hurry up and wait

The bane of a screenwriter’s existence: They want the script NOW… then they make you WAIT… and wait… and wait…

We have worked on the script for months. It’s an assignment. The studio and the project’s producers have made it known emphatically since day one they want to see the draft ASAP. Our agents, well aware of this fact, check in routinely to see how things are going. Contributing to the pressure: a significant talent is circling the project, but their interest is almost entirely dependent upon the draft we deliver.

We have had a little more than two months to write the script. With the passing of each week, the writing process feels more and more like a race. There’s simply no way to avoid the ticking of our internal clock growing louder and more insistent as we knock out pages — first draft, revisions, more revisions, still more revisions.

Now it’s down to the last few days and we have been reminded that everyone is primed to get their hands on our script. One last read-through. Okay, make that another last read-through. Ready to print. Wait, a few more tiny edits. If we lose these two sides of dialogue, we can get the script down to 109 pages… okay, okay, I’ll stop!

Now prep email. Attach file. Cursor over Send button. Finger hovers over Enter button. Resist. Temptation. To. Do. One. More. Pass. On. Script. Then…

SEND!

It’s gone!

All that focus and energy. All those debates and decisions. All those pages written and rewritten. All that damn hurrying.

And now… we wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

Anticipation. Every phone call. Every email. Could that be them?

It’s like you’re in a sports car zooming along at 100MPH… then you suddenly slam on the brakes and screech off onto the side of the road. Your body and mind still feel the propulsion forward from the writing. But you’re no longer the driver. They are. Your script’s fate is in their hands. You’re not even in the car. You’re a pedestrian. On a lonely byway. Standing with your thumb stuck out, waiting for their thumb to appear — up or down.

In Hollywood, the phenomenon is known as “hurry up and wait.” It’s utterly maddening.

For a writer If it’s a second draft or a polish, that’s one thing. Then you know they’re basically good with the overall story. Chances of them having a freak-out are minimal. It’s the first drafts that eat at your soul. No matter how thoroughly you’ve talked through the story and everyone has signed off on it, there’s no telling how they’ll react — officially — until they get the script in their hands. Pitching a story in a room where people hear what they want to hear is one thing. Reading a script to determine if the story stands on its own merits is quite another.

Sometimes you get a preliminary report back within 48 hours, but that’s rare. A good turnaround is a week. More often than not, you’re looking at 10 days. Even 2 weeks.

That’s. 336. Hours. Of. Waiting.

Why were they in such a bloody hurry only to take this long to respond?

That’s easy. They enjoy torturing writers. At least it feels that way.

In talking with friends and associates, I discovered that screenwriters have three basic ways to handle these lag periods between delivery of script to response. First, you can go away (e.g., Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Two Bunch Palms in Palms Springs) to provide some measure of distraction. Second, you can get drunk. A lot. Or third, the most advantageous approach: you can have another project ready to go. If you’re good and lucky, you can stack up studio writing assignments, two or three back to back. Turn in Project 1. Immediately switch focus to Project 2. If you don’t have another writing assignment, it’s a great idea to have a spec script you’ve busted, all ready for you to type FADE IN and go.

Anything except just… sitting… around… waiting… for… the… studio… to… respond…

Tick… tick… tick…

Hurry up and wait. One of the banes of a screenwriter’s existence.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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