Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lifestyles of the broke and anonymous; or, Why a screenwriting career might not be for you

When I won a Nicholl Fellowship a few years back, I was astonished how many would-be screenwriters asked me questions like: "Are Fellows forced to quit their day job?" "Are Fellows forced to move to Los Angeles?" And my favorite: "How could anyone be expected to live in L.A. on $30,000!?"

(To answer these questions: No -- Fellows aren't forced to quit their day job or move to Los Angeles -- but who the hell wouldn't, if he's serious about exploiting this hard-earned big break? And as for living in L.A. on $30,000...well, actually I managed to make that money stretch for TWO years, as I'd already been surviving in Los Angeles on LESS than $15,000/year [without receiving food stamps or welfare, I hasten to point out to the ever-enraged right-wingers out there]. How did I manage? Well, it wasn't easy, but writing is so essential to me that I'm willing to sacrifice just about anything to do it.)

I frequently run into people who claim that they really, really want to be screenwriters, but they just can't quit their secure 9-to-6 corporate job, and/or they can't move to L.A., until they "make it" as a screenwriter to the extent that writing will support a "comfortable lifestyle." They fantasize that a script they work on for a couple of weekends a month will suddenly sell for a million dollars and presto! -- they'll be a "successful screenwriter" and all their cares will be over.

But these people are not serious writers -- they're wannabes and hobbyists.

The harsh truth is, the vast majority of "professional screenwriters" -- and by this I mean, screenwriters who have sold at least one script or have been hired for at least one paid writing assignment -- will never make another cent from screenwriting. Of course, they can't know they'll never make another cent, so for a few years they'll continue to write full-time, spec after spec, and they'll continue to go to countless pitch meetings, and their reps will continue to send them out for assignment after assignment, with none of these efforts resulting in a sale or paid gig. This is the part that non-screenwriters don't understand when they say things like "When a screenwriter is unemployed, why can't he just go get a day job until he lands another writing job?" The thing is, when a screenwriter is "unemployed," he's not sitting around watching soap operas and waiting for his agent to call. He IS working full-time -- he's just not getting paid for it. He's spending 50 or 60 hours a week writing, and countless other hours on the non-creative "business" side of his writing job. And this unpaid, full-time job will continue until:

a) one of his specs finally finds a buyer,
b) one of his specs happens to be just the right "sample script" that lands him a paid assignment, or,
c) he ends up so deeply in debt that he must "quit screenwriting for a while." (Which usually means quitting for good -- because if a screenwriter isn't continuing to produce new spec scripts, he'll be dropped by his reps, he won't have any new samples to circulate, and he generally won't be considered for open assignments.)

Therefore, even if a screenwriter has just sold a script for "six figures" (which typically translates to about mid-five-figures the screenwriter actually receives), that $40,000 - $60,000 paycheck must not only make up for all the debt the screenwriter has accumulated during his years of toiling away unpaid, but it must also last indefinitely, because the screenwriter has no idea when -- or if -- he will ever be paid again. So he'll need to make every penny count, and will need to live just as frugally after breaking in as he did before breaking in.

That's why, if you can't bear to live frugally, screenwriting is not the career for you!

For true writers and artists, the object isn't to get "rich" or even well-off -- the object is simply to survive to create another day. (Thus the title of this blog.) If your goal is to get rich, you'd be better off doing almost anything else! Most working writers average less per year than retail employees.

In the upcoming months, this blog will offer tips on how to get lots of great things free (such as internet service, college courses, entertainment, and much more), how to eat healthy, tasty food for less than $5/day, and how to re-assess your life to put writing in the forefront. It will even offer tips on your screenwriting career.

Next up: Houdini's last meal.

'Til then,
Stay hungry. But don't starve.

No comments:

Post a Comment