How to make a fortune as a Hollywood screenwriter

Tips for career in screenwriting

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That’s what I planned to do when I lost my job as a copywriter in a London ad agency – and for a few years it actually worked. I sold eight original ideas to Hollywood studios and had many more commissions as a “script doctor” adapting books and amending other people’s scripts.

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BUT then I lost the lot. Sadly, the ante for staying in such a high stakes game as Hollywood is extremely high. And it’s a seriously strange world to navigate.

Tips for  career in screenwriting
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Quentin Crisp described LA as “New York lying down”. Many know it as “Sodom-on-Sea”. Pauline Kael called it “the only town where you can die of encouragement”.

Having said that, if you really get to know the lay of the land, English writers can still succeed.

With that in mind, I’ve just published “Adventures in Lala land”, a warts-and-all account of my seven years in Hollywood. Chris Jones from the London Screenwriters Festival described it as an “insider guide to the lunatic asylum where we all dream of working and living”.

Here are a few lessons I learned the hard way…

NEVER FORGET you go down far faster than you go up.  So, be confident for sure, (Americans hate “losers”), but never get complacent. Remember “Writer” is only one letter away from “waiter”.

But don’t be self-effacing either. “El Laysians” do not understand irony. I went to a meeting at Disney with an old writing partner and when we got there the main executive said “Great to meet you. We’re looking for some funny writers”, to which I replied “Then you should meet the guys I play tennis with, Dick Clement and Ian Lafrenais. They’re really funny”.

Not only could the studio executive not see that I was joking, but when I left, one of his assistants discreetly handed me a card and said “If you keep having self-esteem problems, call this number. She’s my shrink and she’s really good.”

NEVER FORGET you’re mixing with some seriously devious players. Of the many stars who allowed me to quote them in my book, I think David Mamet summed up the movie industry best when he said “Film is a collaborative business – bend over.” Having said that…

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP. Just because one company turned down your idea, it doesn’t mean everyone else will. I drove almost 3000 miles in two weeks around Los Angeles pitching the first movie I ever sold.

MAKE SURE YOU STAND OUT. But not for the wrong reasons. I once made the classic mistake of taking along a prop to a series of pitches – a human prop – a ventriloquist.

It seemed liked a good idea at the time because the story was about a kids’ entertainer. But I’d forgotten that whenever you show a performer an audience, they automatically perform, even when you don’t want them to. I’m still haunted by this guy’s puppets interrupting me during my pitch – and by the moment I gestured for him to stop and he said “Don’t look at me. It’s them!”

ALWAYS DRESS APPROPRIATELY. I once went to a studio meeting in a homemade Red Indian costume. It was for a story about dads and kids playing together more. I thought nobody would laugh at me because the meeting was at Universal Studios, so I figured they’d think I was just an actor in costume. Unfortunately, five minutes before I got there, I got a call from the producer saying we had to meet in a Hollywood restaurant. I arrived wearing full war-paint and feathers. Curiously, they bought the pitch. So you never know…

ALWAYS LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE.  Pitch the feel of your movie. Act out the trailer. And do it with passion. As a senior Disney executive once said to me, “Nobody ever walked out of a movie because it was too emotional.”

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Hollywood is not about making movies, it’s about marketing movies. Even Indie producers need to know which audience will pay to see your picture.

IF YOU’RE THE NEXT TARANTINO your story doesn’t need a beginning, middle and end in that order. If you’re not, it probably does. Most studio execs have been on the ubiquitous courses telling them what all the formulae should be and they’ll have a mental checklist.

HOLLYWOOD IS LIKE McDONALDS. People go to McDonalds, in their millions, every week, because they know what they are going to be served. It’s something they like, it’s reliable. It may not be the greatest thing they’ve ever had, but it’s enough to satisfy them at that particular point.

That’s what millions of people want from the movies too. Sure, if you can throw in a little something extra, a nice surprise like a little toy or extra side dish, great – but a lot of film makers think they can take America by storm by presenting an entirely new kind of meal with only a token bit of McDonalds thrown in. That hardly ever satisfies the American appetite.

ON THE OTHER HAND, while there is no surefire recipe for a hit, there is certainly one for a flop – trying to please everybody.

IF YOU REALLY WANT TO SELL HOLLYWOOD SCRIPTS, learn the language. Not just the language of film, but the way real Americans speak. I started my chapter “Lost in Translation” with Stephen Fry’s quote about Dick Van Dyke: “We know him as Penis lorry lesbian”.

Anyone who’s grown up watching American films knows why that wonderful British advertising headline “Faggots – great meaty balls of goodness” would never run in the States – well, possibly in San Francisco. But do you know what a “Monet” is in Hollywood? Yes, it can be the quality of painting A-list stars can still afford to buy, but a “Monet” is also the term for a woman who doesn’t look so good when you get up close. Tough? Get used to it.

My favourite story about an Englishman assuming our linguistic skills were superior to any American involved a college professor. As part of his lecture to international students he pointed out that “While a double negative in the English language becomes a positive, two positive words can never ever imply a negative”, to which a sassy American at the back of the class replied “Yeah…right”.

They’re not as dumb as some of their movies might lead you to think.

This article was written by Tim John. Tim’s book “Adventures in LaLa land” is available as a paperback and e-book on Amazon. Tim tweets daily gems about Hollywood @TIMJOHN1