The Wages of Fear
First, a brief update on A Short History of Decay. I’m awaiting the budget and breakdown from my producer. It’s a hugely complicated process that results in a document that is very often longer than the screenplay itself. During this time I’m talking with potential investors. I can’t talk any particulars until I have the document, so we wait. And I turn back to several television projects that are on my board.
I keep a bulletin board in my office with the titles of various projects I’m working on, or want to be working on; It’s easy to lose track. The board also reminds me of why I’m making a film on my own. Every project on it has a back story that includes a litany of reasons why it can’t be made.
If you want to make a living as a screenwriter or television writer there are certain things you must understand: You can’t sell a television show with a female ensemble cast. Baseball movies don’t make money. Period pieces are too expensive to produce. You can’t show a sick child in the opening act. You can’t set the drama outside the United States. You can’t have more than one foreign character in your movie or TV show. The lead has to be an American. A television show has to be a procedural; you must resolve at least one storyline in each episode. And by all means do not write a baseball movie with an all Cuban, female cast set in the 1930s.
What you should do is figure out what was successful ten minutes ago, tweak it a bit and hit the streets with your script before the buzz dies about the thing you just ripped off.
I exaggerate, but not much. This is a symptom of the climate of fear that has always gripped the entertainment industry but which has of late reached apocalyptic proportions. Agents don’t want to go out with offbeat material, and junior executives don’t want to pass it along to the higher-ups. If you’re working on something and you hear that someone else has beaten you to the punch with something very similar, write faster and wish them well. If their project crashes and burns, yours will never see the light of day.
A number of years ago my wife and I developed a medical procedural set in the world of fertility clinics. We were partnered with big TV star fresh off of a mega-hit series who had a development deal with Warner Brothers. All good. Except... we’re all buoyed about by the same zeitgeist. If you’ve got an idea, and it feels good or commercial (or both!) then you can pretty much assume that half a dozen other writers were struck with the same epiphany in the shower this morning and are busy drafting emails to their agents.
That was the case with our fertility drama. We learned, while sitting in a conference room at CBS, that there was another project that they were also considering that had been brought to them a few weeks earlier by a team of emmy-winning writers. They went with the other project.
Several months later we turned on the TV and watched the show with something approaching paralyzing trepidation. It was -- pun alert! -- as different from the show we’d conceived of as possible. And it was godawful. Just terrible. And it didn’t last much beyond the pilot, from which I derived some smug satisfaction until I realized that it meant that nobody was even going to look at a show in the fertility “arena” for at least a decade. And that was the end of that.
Nobody wants to hear that a show or a film didn’t do well because it wasn’t well done. That’s too hard to quantify, so everything is reduced to a formula based on facile and false equivalencies. There’s little room for aesthetic judgement in the economy of fear.
A television pilot I recently wrote about doctors in a war zone (American doctors) was quickly conflated with a chirpy feel-good medical drama set in a tropical paradise from people who made Grey’s Anatomy. The only thing the shows had in common was doctors and Third World. I’ve actually spent years living in refugee camps in war zones. I was creating real characters and drama based on that experience. There was no confusing it with escapist entertainment -- not that there’s anything wrong with that.
People who liked my pilot were waiting to see how the other one did. It didn’t do well.
The lesson that producers took from that was you can’t take doctors out of the country.
But then there’s Slum Dog Millionaire. And there’s Mad Men and Six Feet Under and other films and shows that broke lots of rules, maintained their integrity and did phenomenally well. And when you hear what it took to get these things made and distributed you can only gasp in admiration of the persistence and singularity of vision that it took to fight through the resistance. Ultimately it’s powered by respect for the audience and by the belief that what’s good is good whether your hero is an all-American masked avenger or a Mexican sharecropper. It’s hard to keep believing that when you’re constantly fed that list of things you can’t do. Until finally you just decide to do it anyway, which is why I am where I am, starting to raise money to make my own film.
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