Archive for April 2013

The Black List – Part 2

April 6, 2013

Been awhile since I posted here for a few reasons. Mostly though, I’m just tired of slogging through other blogs, forums, Tweets, Facebook posts and e-newsletters telling me the ins and outs of “successful” screenwriting. Then I turn on the TV and watch the latest “edgy,” dark adaptation of a movie, book or rehashed crime procedural in which both the protagonist and villain are brilliant eccentrics who are simply misunderstood by ordinary people like ourselves, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry in the face of actual crimes against humanity committed every day… which are largely ignored or quickly forgotten. And it makes me wonder: what’s the point of all this wailing and gnashing of teeth over whether a script got a 5 or a 7 or the magic number 8 on the Black List?

Who the f@#k cares! That is not why I started writing in the first place, it’s not what motivated me to take up screenwriting, and it’s not why I’ve kept at it all these years. Yet even I get caught up in the contest/ratings game mindset because unless you’ve sold a script and gotten it produced, what do you really have to show for all your efforts?

Yeah, yeah, yeah… it’s an old song every artist, writer and musician who hasn’t broken through, has heard and sung themselves. As it happens, I “re-discovered” an early draft of just such a personal story I turned into a script a few years ago based on my relationship with the late great jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. He played electric bass forĀ  Weather Report — that’s him soaring on “Birdland” and pouring his heart into “A Remark You Made” on the same Heavy Weather album. Sadly — or maybe not — Jaco was bipolar, subject to wild mood swings, depression and heavy use of drugs and alcohol. I went along for the ride with him a couple of nights that became the talk of Seventh Avenue South, the jazz club in Greenwich Village where I met Jaco and other semi-famous jazz musicians.

Anyhow, in my script, a young college guy who works part-time in a supermarket doing security surveillance, meets a bipolar jazz genius and his lovely lady friend… who the kid is instantly smitten with. (She was based on the girlfriend of another great musician I knew in college — and we developed a relationship while she continued to live with this rock guitar idol of mine.) In the script, the kid doesn’t exactly get the girl, and the musician meets an untimely end just as Jaco did… possibly as a result of him not taking his meds, while continuing to self-medicate with booze and cocaine.

What I later learned was Jaco felt lithium robbed him of his ability to play music. It did “flatten” out his moods, creating a semblance of normalcy and stability in his chaotic life. But it killed his creative urges and made him impotent as well. Which presents a terrible choice for an artist — would you trade your manic highs/lows and bursts of creativity for a more ordinary existence? As someone who has dealt with bouts of depression and mania, I can only say for me, I’ve tried to balance things so I can write when I feel like it, and live a fairly productive life when I’m not up to facing the inevitable rejections.

When I reread my old “Lost in the Supermarket” script, which I had shelved long ago for more “commercial” specs that were edgy, dark permutations on psychopaths and gory stuff, I was struck by how fresh it felt — no shootings, no stabbings (well, one near stabbing), no psychos or brilliant heroes/villains! It was about real people, albeit one or two bigger than life characters, wrestling with the meaning of life and art, and art as life. It made me laugh and cry because I wrote it at a time when I didn’t know where screenwriting would lead me… I’d get close to breaking through, but I just never got over the hump.

So what did I do with it? What do you think? I submitted it to the Black List, of course, to see how it would rate. Except this time I put a fake name on the title page to test a theory. When BL first launched, I was an early adopter and put up my most “successful” scripts in terms of contest wins and prize money (a couple had been optioned by reputable producers as well). There is a space on the submission form to include “Previous Awards.” So I listed some notable contest results — Nicholl quarterfinals, Austin finals, AFI scholarship, etc. I think that was a mistake.

What happened was my first paid script reviews were bombs. On a scale of 1-10 (10 being the highest), the anonymous readers gave me 2s and 3s. At first, I thought it had to be a mistake. But the readers’ comments were so barbed, I got the feeling they were making a personal statement about the contests I cited — keep in mind, most of these readers are wannabe screenwriters themselves. I doubt many of them have come close to winning or placing in as many contests as myself or others who got equally dismal scores. Their pointed comments gave me the impression they wanted to take me down a notch. Or maybe they just thought my script sucked.

The next couple of scripts I submitted, I purposely left out the contest results info (again these were finalists in fairly well known competitions) and the scores went up to the 5-7 range. The median scores are around 5, so anything above that is better than average. An 8 or higher though is what gets promoted by BL, and since there is a follower’s mentality among agents, managers and producers, you need at least an 8 to get much notice.

So how did my old Lost script do when I didn’t include my contest results and used a fake name? Both paid reads were 7 across the board. Every single category. It’s like getting a “consider with reservations.” If someone else rated it 8 or higher, that reader can say, “I liked it too — just wasn’t sure my boss would!” If another person rated it lower, that same reader can nod in agreement and say, “It was pretty good. Just not good enough to recommend.”

Franklin Leonard, who created the Black List, had told me in an email that he had fired some of the first readers, but did not elaborate on why. Probably because they were overly harsh in their scoring or written comments, which is bad for his business model. Much safer for them to hand out mostly 5-7s, which is like Vegas slots that make you feel as if you “just missed” the big jackpot when the truth is the odds are no closer than if you scored 2s and 3s.

The funny thing for me though was my 777s felt like a jackpot that reaffirmed something I knew all along. When I write for myself, I can come up with stuff that I feel good about, regardless of whether it ever sells or not. It reminded me why I choose to create art that lifts my spirits, instead of succumbing to the mindset that psychopaths and sex are the only things that TV and movie producers are interested in.