The Business of Screenwriting: The Power of “No”

In the event you break into the business as a screenwriter, you need to be prepared to say this word: No.

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The simple fact is if you say yes, you can make a lot of money as a screenwriter. You can also end up writing a lot of crap. And over time that can kill your soul. Call it blood money.

As soon as you say “yes” on a project, the studio in effect owns you. So in a way, the only true power a screenwriter has — other than their writing ability — is to say “no.”

Here’s an example: Let’s say you have a deep, instinctive hatred toward all things related to horses. Perhaps you fell off a horse when you were a child and broke your coccyx. Maybe your father gambled away the family’s life savings by betting — and losing everything — on the longshot Snotblossom at Santa Anita. Maybe you get physically nauseous if you’re channel surfing and you happen upon My Friend Flicka. Whatever. The thing is — you despise horses!

So one day, you go to a meeting at a studio. You schmooze, you laugh, they love your writing, in fact there’s one project they think you would perfect for: “It’s Mr. Ed as a musical! In 3D!”

You know what your quote is (let’s say it’s $200K). You know the gig is basically yours.

And yet, you loathe horses.

Are you prepared to say no? Walk away from over two hundred grand?

Now there may be circumstances where you could make an argument that you should say yes. For example, you haven’t had a gig in 9 months and you’re deep in debt. Or your mother’s mother Miami condo was destroyed by a hurricane — and she’d let her insurance lap — so she’s relying on you to keep her from living on the streets.

Hell, you’re a writer and you’re creative, so the fact is, if you root around long enough, even if you don’t really need the gig, you can probably dredge up all sorts of plausible reasons to say yes and take the money.

But if you say yes, here’s what will almost assuredly happen:

  • You will hate every goddammed minute you work on the project (we’re talking at least 3 months of your life).
  • Your inability to immerse your self in the material will be reflected in the lousy script you turn in.
  • The studio will either hate your script or worse, like it just enough to bug you for endless unpaid rewrites and polishes.
  • In order to dull the pain of your life awash with horses, you will start drinking and taking drugs, staying up until 4AM, gain 20 pounds, your friends will start complaining about a certain fetid aroma emanating from your often unwashed body, and your career will devolve to the point that eventually you’ll find yourself reduced to writing scripts for movies like Racing Stripes 6.

In short, you will be well on your way to turning into a slump-shouldered, pasty-faced, invective-spewing, online-flame-war-starting nub of a worn-out screenwriter.

And what if you had said no to Mr. Ed: The Musical (in 3D)?

Yes, you would have been out the money, but you would have earned some creative karma. And if you have the good enough sense to reject a project that is clearly not one you have any business writing, something good will come your way. Maybe not enough perhaps to send Scarlett Johansson or Jude Law mystically scampering your way proclaiming their undying love to you — but a writing project that is more interesting and less soul-draining.

You can make a lot of money saying yes as a screenwriter. But you can have a lot more enjoyable — and longer — writing career if you claim the power and discretion to — some times — say no.

[Originally posted January 20, 2011]

UPDATE: The inner strength to say NO extends beyond whether to take a soul-sucking writing gig or not. Sometimes in development meetings, as a writer, you have to say NO to suggestions which will gut the story. Explain your reasoning and don’t be an obstreperous asshole, but if they hire you, they (more than likely) want to get your opinion on things. After all, you’re the writer, not them.

You have to go in knowing if you say NO, there can be blowback. Once I got a call for a rush rewrite on a sports-related project at Disney. The producer insisted that my partner and I had to meet late that afternoon all the way in Burbank. However I had a significant family engagement which had been in the works for weeks. I said no, I can’t make the meeting due to family obligations. We tried a compromise, a phone call. But because I was unwilling to disrupt my personal life to respond to a producer’s whim on a troubled project, we didn’t land the rewrite.

But you know what? I probably would have been miserable working on that project. Besides family comes first. And at the end of the day, your soul is worth more than any writing deal.

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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