Archive for the ‘career advice’ category

Eyes on the Prize

October 7, 2015

I’ve been swamped with video production work, and taking care of business before my trip to New Jersey for a high school reunion, followed by a week in NYC where my wife and I will be seeing four Broadway plays. Even though I’m accustomed to high hotel prices since we live in Hawaii, I was surprised just how much it would cost us to stay in Manhattan (over $2,000 for six nights). Plus, we were paying premium prices for the theater tickets because I figured if we were going all that way, might as well get the best seats possible instead of trying to save a few bucks and sitting further back.

In any event, I should be excited about seeing old friends from NJ and my days in New York, but the truth is I was in a funk the past couple of months. After writing what I felt was some of my best stuff ever, I was disappointed when my screenplays didn’t advance in the big contests. On top of that, I had applied to a Hawaii-based accelerator program that is supposed to help develop local TV and film projects, and thought I had a very good chance to get in. I expected to be one of the chosen few… forgetting a zen saying I keep repeating to myself: When you cease expecting, you have all things.

Easier said than done! I suspect that if you are reading this blog, you are a writer and probably competitive by nature. Why else would you care what another struggling wannabe screenwriter has to say? Rather than dwell on my personal disappointments, however, I would like to share the positives that came out of my latest setbacks. Maybe it will help you deal with future rejections and close-but-no-cigar outcomes. In the past year alone, I’ve had three scripts get a fair amount of attention from producers and managers, who shopped them around — but no deals.

Anyhow, after I got the impersonal losers email about the Hawaii accelerator snub, I sulked a bit. Then I decided to play catch up on my journals. Each day I scrawl a couple of lines in a notebook to summarize highlights or low points of the day, just to keep track of my progress (or lack of it). When something significant happens or I have some down time, I transcribe my jotted notes to my computer journal entries. A funny thing happened though when I started typing up what I’ve been doing the past two months… I saw that I had actually accomplished a lot and should have been happy instead of fretting about what might have been.

For my monthly half-hour Career Changers TV show, which airs daily on Oceanic Time Warner cable in Hawaii, I had gotten to interview two Olympic gold medal ice skating champions (Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano, who had a TV cooking show and remodeling show as well) for a paid gig to produce videos about a benefit show they’re doing to help early childhood literacy programs; a week later, I was doing a story on a company started by a talented singer that offers Storybook princesses and superheroes for customized party packages; a couple of nights after that we were shooting a pro wrestling match for a segment about a local actor who runs the wrestling league while managing a self storage facility during the day; and I produced segments about energy and agriculture-related startup companies that are using innovative approaches to help make our world a greener, better place. At the same time, I was getting calls left and right from companies asking me to produce new videos and commercials for them.

Yet all I could think about was what I didn’t achieve or get because the dream of being a successful writer seems so much more glamorous and rewarding than being a mere video producer or copywriter for local commercials. What’s ironic is that the more productive I’ve become on the local level, the more rich and famous people I’ve gotten to meet and work with… and what I find is even Olympic champions aren’t really all that different than you or I once you get to know them. They put their skates on one at a time, they’re excited to be visiting Hawaii, they talk about the hard work it took them to get where they were. And then after they win the gold medal, they have to find new challenges in life. They look for meaning in what they do instead of resting on their laurels or counting their money.

It reminds me of a trip my wife and I took to Vegas when we were still newlyweds and not experienced gamblers like we are now. She sat down at a slot machine, but had her eye on another machine she really wanted to play. While she was watching the other woman plunking silver dollars into the slot, she bided her time by playing one coin at a time in the machine she didn’t want, just waiting for that woman to finish playing and move on… then my wife looked up and saw she had hit the big jackpot! Except nothing happened. No bells or music, no flashing lights. Turned out to win the big jackpot, you had to play the maximum number of coins: three bucks. Because she was fixated on the other slot machine, she had neglected to read the fine print and missed out on the jackpot right in front of her.

The takeaway is if you’re going to play to win, go all in. But don’t overlook the prize right in front of your eyes because you’re fixated on something that may only be an illusion.


Making Sense of Contest Results

July 18, 2015

It’s July, and for unproduced screenwriters this is the cruelest month when big contests like the Nicholl Fellowships and Page Awards send out their dinks or congrats emails for the first round of cuts. Like most of you who are reading this post and seeking solace for not getting the good news you hoped and prayed for, alas I didn’t advance either — in those competitions. Trust me, it’s not the end of the world or last contest you’ll ever lose.

Remember that in the grand scheme of things, negative setbacks in any subjective venture judged by anonymous readers aren’t necessarily an indication that your script sucks. I know people who have never placed in a big contest and now have solid careers making money as produced screenwriters. And I know others who won thousands of dollars in prestigious contests, yet have zero produced credits or actual script sales.

What is particularly vexing for those who have previously done well in certain contests is how one year you could be a top finalist… and the next, zilch. No love at all for your masterpiece, which theoretically is even better since you have “improved’ it in the months between entering that same competition. Like hundreds — nay thousands of prior finalists — been there, done that.

I can see their perplexed, then anguished expressions as they click on the notification email, eyes scanning for one word: “Congratulations!” Once they see the dense block of copy at the top of the message, you already know it’s a fait accompli. Next, your eyes scan for the “P.S.” note saying although the script didn’t make the cut, at least one reader didn’t take a dump on it.

So, you’re sitting there hours or even days later, feeling like Job and wondering, Why hast Thou forsaken me? Listen, God doesn’t give a damn whose script was better. That is the nature of the universe. No one can answer that question. You just dust yourself off, look for other opportunities to sell your stuff or write another script with the hope it does have that bit of indefinable magic you sometimes achieve when all the stars align.

The simple truth is the odds are against you when it comes to the numbers game. To get the highest scores, you need the right person reading the right script at the right time and hope like hell the other scripts the judges also like are a tad less enamored with the competition. Different years, different readers, different results.

Meanwhile, before the latest round of dinks hit my email box, I was contacted by a filmmaker through InkTip. He has no produced credits as a director, but has been working in the movie biz for a few years and made enough connections to scrape together a small budget for his first feature project. He liked my logline and pitch for a big budget spec enough to read it, then gave me a call to see if we could work together to develop a very low budget genre movie. Was it my dream project? Hell, no. But it’s another chance to achieve my goal of writing a real movie, albeit a much smaller, less grand vision of Hollywood success than any of us start out with.

Coincidentally, I turned on the college radio station this morning and DJ Tanya, who I have a crush on because of her voice and musical tastes, was playing an old chestnut from 1980 by The Babys: “Back On My Feet Again.” I smiled, then sat down to write this post. To survive disappointments and rejection, you gotta be tough. You gotta be resilient. You gotta keep writing.

Mad Men, Letterman, Rupert Gee and Me…

May 22, 2015

Late Show signI stopped watching David Letterman’s Late Show regularly a long time ago when he seemed to be falling back on stale bits and spending most of the show on digressive grumblings that went nowhere. He wasn’t the quick-witted, anything-goes sardonic young host I grew up with while living in NYC as a bachelor in my mid-20s during the go-go 1980s. By “go-go,” I mean there was lots of drinking and copious amounts of cocaine in the bars, jazz joints and after hours clubs I frequented from the Village to the Upper West Side. Bruce Willis, who I knew from Montclair State College, was still bartending at Cafe Central in 1985 — the year I pulled a geographic and moved to Hawaii, in part, to avoid the fate of people like John Belushi and others who were part of that scene.

Generally speaking, I’m not the nostalgic type who likes to post a bunch of old photos on Facebook and tag people I hung out with way back when. Yet it’s hard for me not to reflect on the passing of the Mad Men television series and Letterman show because of personal connections to both that remind me how far I’ve come or gone, literally thousands of miles away, and how old I am. Aging sucks — unless you consider the alternative. Just surviving long enough to grow into a crusty, cynical curmudgeon like Dave, can be considered a success in itself. It’s like that old song, “I’m Still Here” from Follies: Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all.

The other day I had a business meeting with a former New Yorker and during our chat, this younger woman asked how old I was to compare notes about our respective time frames in the Big Apple. I hesitated, thought about fudging by saying “I’m in my 50s” or “mid-50s,” then shrugged and admitted: “Fifty-eight. I’m old.” Ugh. Why did I feel like I had to apologize for not being young any more?

She appeared to be caught off guard. Her New York and mine were decades apart. She only knew the Disney-tized Times Square version. My NYC was dirty, dangerous, dying from the AIDS epidemic, yet still retaining some of Don Draper’s Mad Men business trappings from the 60s and 70s. I even interviewed at Grey Advertising, one of the biggest agencies in the world, rivaling the agency that swallowed up Don’s firm. At the time, I was news editor of my college paper and a friend’s dad at Grey introduced me to their head copywriter — a woman, just like Peggy on Mad Men! She looked over sample commercials I wrote, liked a couple, suggested I write more, then get back to her after she returned from vacation. But I needed a job fast, so I never followed up with her and wound up stumbling down other career paths.

After I moved to Manhattan in the early 80s, I got a marketing job in publishing down in the Greenwich Village area. I ducked into a jazz club to get out of the rain one summer evening, and that’s where I met musicians from the Late Show band and Saturday Night Live orchestra. It was named Seventh Avenue South and was owned by the Brecker Brothers, well-known jazz musicians in their own right. It became my pau hana hangout, where I held court with Hiram Bullock, the original Letterman band shoeless guitarist (played with David Sanborn often too); Sammy Figueroa, a percussionist (the conga player on David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”); Will Lee, still playing bass with the Late Show band; Paul Shaffer would pop in; Jaco Pastorius, the late great electric bass player with Weather Report was a regular… plus a host of other young actors, musicians, artists and riffraff. Hiram told me how Belushi was at his place one night, found a box containing all of Hiram’s tax info and receipts, and proceeded to throw them out the window. A few months later, Belushi would OD.

I also befriended David Murray of the World Saxophone Quartet, who I learned was related to Walter Murray — the UH football receiver, best remembered for dropping a pass that would have given the ‘Bows their first victory over vaunted nemesis, BYU. As it happened, on my final night in New York before getting on the long flight to Honolulu, a co-worker scored tickets to the Late Night show as a going away gift for me. I had always wanted to see it live, so it was a big deal. However, David Murray also offered to put me on his guest list for a gig he was doing with another jazz legend, Ron Carter, at the Lush Life that same night. I opted for the Lush Life instead of Dave. Sigh. That was New York in a nutshell — too many choices, too much to do in too little time.

It’s strange how things come full circle. Three years later, I was married, had gone through rehab for alcoholism, got sober and started growing up at the age of 31. That’s when I began writing screenplays based on my wild nights in NYC and 28-day stay at Castle’s treatment center in Kailua. Eventually, I would get to meet staff writers for Mad Men, who were doing a UH screenwriting workshop. They had worked on the Baywatch Hawaii series, along with former Honolulu Star-Bulletin columnist, Charlie Memminger. He got that short-lived TV staff job as a result of winning the Maui Writers Conference screenwriting contest — the same one I came in second place for a script that was set in NYC a year before 9/11 would change the skyline forever.

Me and Rupert JeeIn 2006, my wife and I stopped by the Late Show theater to see if we could get tickets but none were available. We did get to meet Rupert Jee, the Hello Deli owner and frequent guest on Letterman (often put in amusing, uncomfortable situations when Dave would fit him with an earpiece and instruct Rupert to do odd things to unsuspecting parties outside the theater).

I’m still searching for that illusive first big script sale. Heck, I’d settle for a small low budget straight-to-video deal. I used to snicker at shows like Baywatch Hawaii, but now that I’m older, wiser and less full of myself, I realize what it takes to be a professional screenwriter no matter what you or I may think of the quality of the show itself. The Mad Men writers I mentioned had gotten to know Matt Weiner long before he achieved critical acclaim with his series about a Manhattan advertising agency, and the characters we watched grow up (or not) before our eyes. Most don’t know what a hard sell it was for the creator of that series to get it on the air. It’s really an inspiring story for any writer, artist or entrepreneur. You can read the Fast Company piece by clicking here.

The last night I spent in New York, I remember coming back to my apartment on 14th Street, still intoxicated and high from the Lush Life show. Down on the corner, there was a lone sax player I could hear through the open window, blowing sad, sweet notes — a serenade for no one in particular. But in my heart, I believed he was playing his song for me. I miss the city… I’ll miss Mad Men and Dave too.

Hello Deli sign



The Secret to Writing Success

February 28, 2014

Part of my recovery was joining a “mastermind” group inspired by the seminal Think and Grow Rich self-help book. That was  25 years ago after I first got sober — and have stayed sober ever since. My AA sponsor was into Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins and the like, so he suggested we work on career goals that coincided with our efforts to rebuild our lives. Anyone can stop drinking or doing drugs for awhile, but you still have to pay bills and make money while you’re clearing the inevitable wreckage that comes with addiction.

Given a second chance at the life I wanted, I told the group my goal was to be a professional writer. Since I had been a reporter and done some ad copywriting before I went to rehab, it wasn’t much of a stretch. But I was aiming higher — I said I was going to write a screenplay about my 28-days in an addiction treatment center, and maybe a book about it too. They applauded and in the ensuing months, at our weekly meetings they encouraged me to keep writing. Eventually I completed my first feature script, and met with a Hawaii Film Office contact who had worked on TV shows like Hill Street Blues. He had me send pitches to one of his Hollywood producer friends, but nothing came of that nor my rehab-inspired dark comedy. Yet, to me it was proof that positive thinking and working towards written goals could make things happen. I’ve kept to many of those same principles, year after year, plugging away at both new and old goals, with varying results.

However, when it comes to self-help gurus and their pitches for books or seminars that will reveal the secrets to success, I remain highly skeptical because I don’t think there’s much anyone can add to the basic advice offered by people like Napoleon Hill, Earl Nightingale or Zig Ziglar. Which boils down to one main concept: We become what we think about. Of course, that hasn’t stopped latter day self-help “experts” like Rhonda Byrne from cashing in by repackaging old ideas in The Secret  (remember that book phenomenon? Even Oprah bought into it!) or guys like the one I just met in Honolulu recently, who offered a free seminar on “Becoming a Best-Selling Author.”

Hawaii attracts dreamers and schemers by the drove — people who see these islands as an earthly paradise where fantasies come true. Naturally, there’s a lot of older hippie types, artists, New Age entrepreneurs, yoga instructors and life coaches, all selling something to one another. And many of them do have interesting life stories to tell — which is probably why they showed up at the same seminar I went to. To be honest, I went with the intention to sell this self-help guru on buying time on my Career Changers TV show to promote his seminars and services, provided it was all legit.

What followed was an entertaining and inspiring hour of anecdotes about how he went from being an unemployed software engineer to a highly-paid motivational speaker — $10,000 to $20,000 per engagement, he claims — after figuring out the secret to marketing yourself: self-publish a book, then spend the next few years promoting just that one book and making deals to reach the number needed to call it a best-seller. As a marketing tool, his approach actually makes sense for people who want a career on the speakers circuit, or who want to present themselves as an authority on a particular topic. In other words, the dreamers and schemers who feel compelled to share their stories of spiritual/professional/personal self-discovery. People in Hawaii are always discovering new things about themselves!

But he also offered practical advice on how to do it, which I jotted down because it was a good refresher course on Self-Help 101. First, commit to do at least one thing each day toward achieving your main goal. He suggests 90 minutes per day. But he feels the one-a-day approach will require about ten years for the big pay-off, so if you do two or three goal-oriented things each day, you can cut that time in half or better. That’s pretty doable if you have your own business (as many of those in attendance did) or don’t have to, you know, work for a living (and there’s many affluent transplants here who live off their investments). Oh, and btw, for just $2,995 — today only! — he will personally guide you through the process of self-publishing your book.

Then he broke down the costs of producing and printing enough copies to sell or give away, and showed how easy it was to cover the cost of his services and publishing within a couple of years. All you need to do is get someone else to pay you a grand here, a grand there to speak to their group and tell the story behind your book. It’s that simple. The thing is, he’s right. You can write and self-publish a book that will pay for itself, if that’s what you’re content with. Most writers want more than that though, and the self-promotion part is hard for introverts like myself.

On the plus side, he reminded me that I need to stick to that one-thing-a-day goal setting approach. In the weeks following that seminar, I finished a draft of a script, restarted work on a book project, picked up new sponsors for my local TV show, read a couple of books on my “to do” list… all by just tackling each project one page, one call, one email  each day. There have been times when I felt too tired or uninspired to do anything… then I looked at the guy’s flyer and said, screw it — I’m not gonna pay him $3K to teach me something I already know! And you know all this too.

The funny thing is when I pitched him a spot on my show as a sponsor for his upcoming “Best-Seller” publishing conference, he said he couldn’t afford the $2,000 I quoted him. Hey, if he just got ONE client off his own televised sales spiel, he’d make a profit, right? Guess he just didn’t have that much self-confidence, after all.

Make Your Own Luck

September 11, 2013

As I’ve said before, whether you win, place or get dinked in a screenwriting contest — or any artistic competition, for that matter — it often comes down to the luck of the draw. I made the Nicholl Fellowships quarterfinals this year with an old dramedy because it was the right script for at least two of three readers who rated it among the top 5 percent of over 7,200 entries. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the same response from the semifinals readers, so LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET is done as far as this year’s big contests goes…

Except it’s not dead yet. I’ve been through this before and knew there was a fifty-fifty chance it wouldn’t advance, so I started using the Nicholl QF news to drum up interest before the Academy Foundation officially sends out the list of scripts that made the cut. Industry people who do take the Nicholl seriously will request semifinalist and finalist scripts, but usually don’t get too excited about the QF round. So my thinking was some managers or development execs, looking to get a leg up, may bite on a QF script before the next cut is announced since they didn’t know at that point which ones would wind up going all the way. If per chance I did make the semifinals, no harm done. I could send a follow-up to those who passed or didn’t respond to my query, and give them a second opportunity to take a look at it.

But I didn’t get too far with queries before I got a surprising script request that could be called an amazing coincidence, serendipity, or blind luck. However, it’s the sort of luck you need to work at to make it happen. Many years ago, the American Film Institute used to run an annual TV Writers Workshop program, which anyone could apply for. The year I won a scholarship to attend the month-long program at their L.A. campus, writers had to submit an hour-long script for an afterschool special. Yeah, like I said, it was a long time ago! Back in the day, a few writers who would go on to win Emmys and direct features, cut their teeth on the lowly teen dramas. I knew not many aspiring screenwriters would even bother applying for this one, so the odds were in my favor. (Tip: don’t fixate on just big contests — look for smaller contests, fellowships and workshops that tie into your specific interests, goals or qualifications… including “diversity” if you’re a woman or person of color.)

Instead of writing your basic afterschool special, I created a drama/comedy that was inspired by the suicide of Kurt Cobain and incorporated a lot of rock music, plus dark stuff related to addiction, depression, teen angst/romance, and a high school job working at a funeral home. But there were also light moments related to a baseball coach who spoke in malapropisms and a dad who played in a garage band, much to his son’s chagrin. In short, I was going for a MTV-style afterschool special before MTV ever did any scripted shows. One of the AFI staff even suggested I turn it into a feature script.

Although the AFI experience didn’t lead to any script sales or representation offers, it became part of my networking efforts. I was considered an AFI Alumni even though I wasn’t a graduate of their directing, writing or producing programs. It put me on an email list, along with AFI grads who are working in the biz and making big Hollywood movies and smaller indie films. And I used that connection to promote my LOST IN THE SUPERMARKET script shortly after I got word I had made the Nicholl quarterfinals.

In my email pitch to the AFI alumni, I noted it was a low budget indie project — which is what a lot of the producing grads are looking for — and mentioned it was based on my relationship with the late great jazz legend, Jaco Pastorius, who played electric bass for Weather Report and accompanied music artists such as Joni Mitchell.

Less than an hour later I got a reply from a producer who said she has spent the past two years working on a documentary about… wait for it… yep, Jaco. Her co-producer is  the bass player for Metallica, who I later learned idolized Jaco when he was growing up, and now owns one of Jaco’s guitars. They are in post-production on the documentary and haven’t read my LOST script yet, so I have no idea if anything will come of it. Maybe nothing at all.

Yet it just goes to show that we never know what cosmic twists are out there that could cause your “hard sell” story to fall into the right hands at the right time. But you only get that opportunity if you take risks, have your work read by industry people —  through contests, paid coverage, any way you can — and network with like-minded writers/directors/producers. Then, years after countless rejections, soft passes, and “not for me” responses, you just might get lucky enough to find the perfect match for your project.

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 for  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.

Eddie Murphy Connection, Part 2

November 14, 2011

This weekend, my wife and I watched the documentary LIFE IN A DAY, then the Terrence Malick film, TREE OF LIFE. I liked them both, but have to say there were puzzling choices made by the directors of both movies… puzzling in a good way though, because I’m still thinking about what those choice of shots or vignettes really meant.

Readers of this blog may be wondering why I write about the stories I choose to share, and what those anecdotes have to do with screenwriting — or anything else for that matter. It’s like I’m directing/editing my own personal movie, I guess. If I don’t tell these stories, who will? Further, I do think they illustrate how anyone can make connections in the entertainment biz if they really try. You just have to be creative and take advantage of opportunities that might not seem like door openers at first glance.

Eg., freelance writing gigs. Long before I harbored any ambition to be a screenwriter, I was a newspaper reporter. The pay sucked, so I went into marketing and learned how to write ad copy. When I moved to Hawaii, I used my sales job in direct marketing services (more commonly referred to as junk mail) to pick up side copywriting jobs. That’s how I met my Eddie Murphy contact, James Arceneaux.

Back then, James had started a local publication called The Budget Gourmet, which featured food-related news and tips. I did restaurant reviews and came up with the idea for an advice column called “The Hapless Homemaker,” which centered around real life household problems encountered by a newlywed couple — me and my wife, Isabel. It was actually kind of comical, and readers would send in suggestions to me on how to remove wine stains from clothes, hide cigarette burns on furniture, or salvage badly-cooked meals. James liked my writing.

Which brings me to another life lesson: no matter how little the job pays, treat it like it could be the most important thing you’ll ever do. Because you never know who is appraising your work, or where that person may wind up. As it happened, James had bigger plans. He had already started a successful bodyguard business before dipping his toes into publishing. His next goal was to break into the music industry — specifically, song publishing. He did his homework, tapped into personal contacts (he was related to Dionne Warwick, who I think was related to Cissy and Whitney Houston) and began repping local talent in Hawaii.

However, James knew he had to go to L.A. to make the next step. So he needed a promotional package with write-ups about himself and the songwriters/musicians and singers he was representing. I’ll always remember his generosity for paying me more than I asked when I finished the job. It was just before Christmas, and after paying off our monthly mortgage and other bills (not to mention my drinking tabs) I didn’t have much money to buy gifts for my wife. But James peeled off a couple of extra Ben Franklins, and became my Santa Clause that year — a big, black tough-talking Santa.

Well, James moved to L.A., and I didn’t hear from him for three or four years. When he called me out of the blue, it was to invite me to be his backstage guest at a Pointer Sisters concert on New Year’s Eve in Waikiki. He was living with Anita Pointer in her Beverly Hills mansion, and was one of Bobby Brown’s managers at that time. In fact, he told me about Whitney’s cocaine problems long before it became public knowledge… and also told me about June Pointer’s drug addiction. Since I had told him about me going to rehab, he thought I might be able to help her. I never did get a chance to talk to June, but did meet Anita — who liked a pitch I sent to James about a TV series idea I had been working on, called REHAB…

You see, James didn’t just call to invite me to the concert. He decided he was going to use his music connections to get into the TV business. He figured that my promo package was good enough to help him get meetings when he moved to L.A., so he wanted me to write up his ideas for TV, which were primarily meant to be starring vehicles for the Pointer Sisters. James is a savvy dude. He was a former pro football player, and he recognized that Hollywood celebs and music people like being around athletes. So he took up golf, and started playing with agents at Willie Morris (who repped the Pointers) and folks like Arsenio Hall… who was good friends with Eddie Murphy.

Before I tell you what happened with those TV pitches, which led to James telling me about Eddie looking for a heist script, I have to comment on the events of the past week — another example of my bad luck with celeb connections. As you probably know, Eddie was supposed to be hosting this year’s Oscars. Then Brett Ratner, the director of TOWER HEIST, made a dumb remark using the word “fag.” The resulting flak forced Ratner out of producing the Academy Awards show.  A couple of days later, Eddie announced he was dropping out. On top of that, his movie got mixed reviews and did only so-so at the box office.

I imagine things around the Murphy mansion were kind of… interesting. (Speaking of “imagine,” Brian Grazer is now taking over the Oscars show — he produced TOWER HEIST, and has been hanging out at Eddie’s place. He even gave James some screenwriting tips and advice, which James then shared with me… and I’ll share with you in my next post.)

Oh, back to my bad timing: when I was repped by Cathryn Jaymes, the manager who launched Tarantino’s career, one of her higher profile clients was Isaiah Washington. You remember him, right? He was the rising young black star of Grey’s Anatomy. Then he made a comment about a fellow cast member being a “faggot” and the ensuing uproar pretty much derailed Isaiah’s acting career. I remember it vividly because I was pitching ideas to Cathryn for projects that could star Isaiah in lead roles. We were talking on the phone, and she suddenly had to cut the “convo” short because he was having a meltdown. At the time though, I didn’t know it was because the news was about to break about the faggot incident.

That’s the other lesson or takeaway. Words matter. Feelings matter. Being careless or saying something stupid, even if it’s just one small word, can do irreparable damage to your reputation and career. The irony in this case is that when I lived in NYC, I worked at a legal publishing company that was predominately gay… and I heard them jokingly refer to other gays using the “f” word quite often. But it’s like the “n” word: if you’re not gay or black, or Quentin Tarantino, don’t take a chance and use words that could come back to haunt you.