FADE IN: EXT. HOLLYWOOD – DAY. The scene is a coffee shop in downtown Dreamland, with the ionic white letters of the “Hollywood” sign peripherally visible through the tinted plastic curtain protecting diners from the harsh rays of the California sun. A YOUNG MAN (okay, let’s be honest, a NOT-SO-YOUNG-MAN) sits with coffee, a slice of pie, and an open laptop, staring at the blinking cursor that’s taunting him to fill the screen with words. He glances over at a YOUNGER MAN sitting by the counter, flipping through the latest issue of Variety while he yaks into his Bluetooth with a person whom the Not-So-Young Man assumes is the Younger Man’s agent.
From what the Not-So-Young Man can discern, the Younger Man is gloating about the prominent Variety article discussing his latest script deal. Apparently, the Younger Man just scored a six-figure contract with a big studio. The Not-So-Young-Man? He’ll be lucky if he makes six figures in his entire career. Why? Because he’s that sad creature you see every day if you spent enough time in Hollywood. He’s a “professional” screenwriter, the kind whose career necessitates the use of ironic quotes around the word “professional.” He’s been paid for his work, but the idea of making a living off screenwriting is still just a distant dream for him.
ACT ONE: THE SET-UP. It all started innocently enough. Ten years ago, the Not-So-Young Man was a hotshot writer in a small city in the Midwest. He wrote for the local paper, picked up sideline work writing ad copy for a radio station, and had enjoyed the adulation of peers and teachers spanning from his high school days to his impressive run in college. Everyone in his social circle had been telling him for years that he was Destined For Great Things.
A generation ago, someone like the Not-So-Young Man would have tried to write the Great American Novel, but that dream had long been supplanted in the popular imagination by the dream of writing the Great American Screenplay. So the Not-So-Young Man dutifully studied his craft, reading respected screenwriting books by Syd Field and Robert McKee before scratching out drafts of early scripts he knew better than to share with anyone. Finally, the day came in his late 20s when he decided it was now or never. He packed up his computer, his furniture, and his petulant long-haired cat, and then he started down the highway to Hollywood.
ACT TWO: THINGS GET COMPLICATED. The Not-So-Young Man had done his homework, so he knew that aspiring screenwriters were crazy to come to Hollywood without contacts. He had a good one, or so he thought. His cousin’s wife’s brother worked as a development executive at a mini-major. (Oh, how the Not-So-Young Man loved throwing around industry jargon.) As soon as the Not-So-Young Man arrived in Hollywood, he scheduled a meeting with the executive, who agreed to read the Not-So-Young Man’s best script and offer some advice. The meeting started momentously. “You’re a fantastic writer,” the executive said. “So few people out here can actually write that I’d put you in the ninety-ninth percentile.” But then, as the saying goes, the other shoe dropped. “I just wish you wrote comedy instead of drama. If you wrote comedy, I could hire you right now for one of my projects.”
The Not-So-Young Man consoled himself that within this seeming failure existed hope. He had been validated. Surely, he thought, if my first meeting went this well, it’s only a matter of time before something clicks. Only with retrospect, years later, could the Not-So-Young Man realize that his meeting with the executive was his first close encounter with the “Hollywood No.” As he learned through painful experience, nobody in Hollywood wants to overtly reject anything, because there’s too much risk that they’ll later be held accountable for passing on something that became successful. Thus the modus operandi of Hollywood professionals: “I love you, you’re wonderful, and I’d hire you today if I could, but my hands are tied.”
It wasn’t until this cycle repeated itself a dozen times that the Not-So-Young Man realized he was being given an endless stack of worthless IOU’s. And yet he pressed on, doing the dance. He went to the cocktail parties and the seminars and the writing workshops. He hobnobbed and he networked and he schmoozed. He told people he couldn’t stand that he thought they were great, and he told people he was already in the process of forgetting that he’d be in touch. He tried to play the role of a player.
Meanwhile, he wrote. When the script he brought with him to Hollywood didn’t deliver fame and fortune, he wrote another one, and then another one, and then nine more after that. He tried to learn from feedback, improve the weak spots in his writing, and seize upon marketplace trends in order to write fashionable material. By the time he reached the ten-year anniversary of his arrival in Hollywood, he had a dozen scripts to his name, all dutifully registered with the Writers Guild of America for copyright protection. But then, one rotten night when he came home tired from his day job at the DMV and crunched the numbers so he could pay the monthly bills for his expensive apartment in West Los Angeles, the truth hit him hard: “I’m not getting anywhere,” he thought. “Ten years into my screenwriting odyssey, I’m no closer to becoming a professional screenwriter than I was when I got here.”
As if on cue, the phone rang. The call was from the executive he met his first week in Hollywood, his cousin’s wife’s brother. The executive was now a producer, and the executive fondly remembered that script the Not-So-Young Man brought with him to Hollywood. Was the script still available for sale?
For a moment, the Not-So-Young Man felt transported into an otherworldly sensation of pure joy. His suffering was over. His travails were worthwhile. He was about to sell a script. And then he heard the offer: an 18-month option for $500 against a $100,000 purchase price. The producer explained that he had a small line of credit for his new company, and he needed projects in order to build his slate. The Not-So-Young Man realized that he must be one of several writers receiving similar calls. The producer was asking every struggling writer he knew to release control of his or her best script in exchange for a pittance payment, all on the long-shot hope that his or her script would be the one that the producer actually produced, presuming the producer every actually produced anything.
The Not-So-Young Man said yes without hesitation.
ACT THREE: THE BIG FINISH. And so there he was, sitting in the coffee shop and staring at the “Hollywood” sign through tinted plastic. Three months had passed since the producer called, and the Not-So-Young Writer knew the deal with the producer was never going to amount to anything. Because, you see, last night the producer called again to say that he’d run through his entire line of credit, and that he was going to let all of his script options lapse because he didn’t have the money to make any of the scripts into movies. As a courtesy to the Not-So-Young Man, because of their family relation, the producer was releasing the Not-So-Young Man from his option, thereby returning control of the script to the Not-So-Young Man. Recalling the conversation, the Not-So-Young Man laughed aloud, realizing that in Hollywood, this gesture represented an exemplary display of personal ethics. The bar for good behavior in Hollywood is low, yet rarely vaulted.
The Not-So-Young man glanced back toward his blank laptop screen, then chomped the last bite of pie and finished his coffee. He put his hand on the laptop lid, intending to close the machine and go home so he could pack up his car and get the hell out of Hollywood. But then something stopped him. He looked over at the Younger Man, the one with the six-picture deal, as the Younger Man finished his phone conversation. The Younger Man closed his call with “I love you too, Ma.” In an instant, the Not-So-Young Man put the pieces together. The Younger Man was just like him, another striver, only he was using factoids from Variety to tell his mother a fable about the success he wasn’t really experiencing.
The Younger Man looked toward the window, and his eyes locked with the Not-So-Young Man’s. Without a word, they understood each other perfectly, nodding like disaster victims commiserating over mutual suffering. The Younger Man paid his bill and left. The Not-So-Young Man took his hand away from the computer lid, smiled, and waved to the waitress for a fresh cup of coffee.
“Okay,” the Not-So-Young Man said to himself. “I’ll write one more, but that’s it.”
Peter Hanson is the author of “Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Rebel” (a finalist for the Theatre Library Association Award), “The Cinema of Generation X,” and “Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories” (IT Books/HarperCollins). He is the director of films including the award-winning short “Stagehand” and the feature-length documentaries “Every Pixel Tells a Story” and “Tales from the Script,” the latter of which is a companion piece to his book of the same name. He cowrote the feature drama “The Last Round” and is preparing to direct his first narrative feature.