Is Hollywood screenwriting success easier to find online?
- 17 June 2014
- From the section Business
"Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along."
That's what the character Joe Gillis says in the classic American film noir, Sunset Boulevard. In the movie, Gillis works part-time as a struggling Hollywood screenwriter. He ends up floating dead in a swimming pool.
Perhaps he should have kept his day job.
The path to screenwriting success has always been hazardous. Every successful writer has a different story, though most would agree it takes a lot of hard work and a bit of luck.
But some experts and wannabe writers believe the internet has levelled the playing field.
There are now so many websites and online contests out there promising to make writers' dreams come true that you no longer need to move to Hollywood to get your script seen.
"Historically you had to move to LA [Los Angeles] and network and eventually someone would read your script. That's terrible advice if you're married and have two kids and a mortgage," says Franklin Leonard, the creator of the popular website, The Black List, which hosts thousands of scripts for a fee of $25 a month.
"We've had writers from Ireland sell scripts via the site, writers from Sweden sell scripts via the site. If you don't live in Los Angeles or don't have an uncle who worked at Paramount it shouldn't matter," he says.
But has the internet really democratised the process?
For Matthew Hickman, winning a screenwriting contest on The Black List website changed his life. Well, sort of.
His script, An Elegy for Evelyn Francis, won him an all-expenses-paid trip to Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival, where he was feted by the industry.
Producers have been buying rights to produce his scripts and he's got meetings with executives all over town. Technically he is one of the most talked about, promising new writers in Hollywood.
Yet Hickman still works as a low-paid clerk at a UPS postage store in LA to pay the bills.
"It's been a remarkable couple of months," he says, in between helping customers send packages by express mail. By winning the contest, he sold the rights to make one of his scripts and earned some more money writing for another producer.
"I have maybe earned enough money to quit. I can live for a year or so but it doesn't necessarily feel smart in the sense that I would rather take that money and stow it away," he says in explanation. "Screenwriting - it's such a nebulous career path."
'Like the lottery'
Hickman may be smarter than most of the writers in this town, where tens of thousands of wannabes toil in isolation, or at the local coffee shop.
There are hundreds of screenwriting contests, some for specific genres, some promising riches and access that never comes through. Experts caution people to read the fine print before they pay an entry fee. The most reputable and prestigious contests offer a monetary fellowship, like the Nicholl fellowship which pays wining writers $35,000.
"It's still like hitting the lottery," says film consultant Vincent Bruzzese. "If Hollywood was a meritocracy then all you'd need to do is write a great script and show it to the right person."
Bruzzese says more than 100,000 scripts are submitted into the Hollywood system each year and about 300 movies are made. Typically, about 10 of those movies actually produced are from first-time writers, he says.
Hundreds of undiscovered writers attended a recent conference in Los Angeles with a panel discussion called Launching Your Writing Career: Competitions, hosted by the Writers Guild Foundation and the Austin Film Festival.
Panellists included the directors of competitions and some recent winners - they were applauded, questioned and, when it was over, mobbed like rock stars. The writers begged panellists to read their scripts, and were politely rebuffed.
Franklin Leonard held a casual meeting in the lobby during the conference and was crowded by fans, many desperate to know why their script wasn't getting better ratings on the site.
"It's hard because on the one hand you don't want to sell people a dream - you can't say it will all work out. I would like to be a professional footballer but no amount of running or training will get me to Arsenal," Leonard told the BBC.
"But there are people who have that talent and they can do it even if they don't have the right parents or live in the right city."
Doorways to success
Kevin Ott, the communications director at the Writers Guild Foundation, says writers should branch out more and think about producing their own work, albeit on a small scale.
"A lot of people come to Hollywood and they still think in that kind of old-school mindset of 'I'm going to write my script, I'm going to get it in front of a producer, I'm going get it in front of an agent, they're going to sell it for me and I'm going to make a million dollars,'" Ott says. "That's a very, very, very narrow doorway to success."
He says the foundation urges new writers to produce short films and post them on YouTube. And they urge comedy writers to try stand-up comedy to get an audience or start a blog and get a following.
"There are a million different ways a good writer now can get his or her work read by just about anybody," he says. "And that's what the internet has done - the internet has created more pathways to success, if you're willing to broaden your definition of what success is."