Chasing the Market in Hollywood

Several years ago I was pitching a film to a producer who had a deal with one of the major studios. My story hewed closely to a real life tale about some super smart middle class New York City kids who turned themselves into expert gamblers. They started playing online and eventually ending up in turning cards at underground casinos run by Russian mobsters in the netherworld of Queens. Their story arc took them from smart kids planning on attending elite universities, to wise-ass, know-it-all winners with delusions of grandeur. Of course, the bubble bursts and by the third act they’re in debt to the mobsters and frightened for their lives. The main character, who had already been accepted at Stanford, finds himself being trailed and beaten up by a gang of prostitutes who work for the mobster. And, eventually, one of the kids is killed fleeing a casino. That’s the low point, and a measure of redemption follows.  It’s a good story.

The producer stopped me in the middle of the pitch. “That’s not what’s selling right now,” he said.  “We’re looking for political stories. People are focused on the war in Iraq. That's the kind of stuff we want. Can you write that?”

This was 2006, a slate of films based on events in Iraq and Afghanistan were lined up for release.  Rendition. Lions for Lambs. In the Valley of Elah. That’s what they were looking for.

Shit, I thought. That was the stuff I wanted to write. I’ve been in war zones in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan... I can spin those tales in my sleep.  That, I figured, was my sweet spot.  But I didn’t pitch anything like that because I was thinking, “Who the hell wants to see a film about Iraq when it’s on the news and in the papers every day?” But I went back to the drawing board and tried to come up with a war movie.

I should have stuck with my instincts. All of those films bombed. A few months after my meeting you couldn’t get anyone anywhere to even hear a pitch about a war movie.
The film that did really well that year: 21, about a bunch of MIT kids who make a fortune in Vegas and then.... you know what happens.  My story was better, grittier, truer.
I should have learned my lesson then.  When my agent told me that political thrillers were selling, I went and wrote one. It was awful.  That’s not how my brain works. I’m never going to be able to write a tightly-plotted caper film.

The lesson is to stick to your guns, and do what you do best. Someone — an exec, an agent, your actor buddy — is going to tell you quite correctly that what you want to do isn't what's selling right now.  But unless you can spit out a screenplay in two days, the market is always going to be squirming out of your grasp.

I just finished a spec; a quiet family drama. A dark comedy. I've been told that those things aren't selling right now — which is fine with me, because I'm not going to sell it. I'm not going to chase the market.  I'm going to make it.  Stay tuned.

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