How to get a Hollywood career…or lost in Mongolia

It’s a long road to a script sale

It’s a long road to a script sale

When I started this blog back in 1902 or whatever, I wanted to record the major milestones on my journey to becoming a professional writer. I’ve made embarrassing mistakes, gained amazing allies, and gotten some awesome opportunities. I also discovered the one thing that made it all possible and if you’re going after a huge, crazy, out-of-touch-right-now dream, you will need buckets of it: MOMENTUM.
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The Twitch

Look, Mom! I'm doing eyeball Kegels.

Look, Mom! I’m doing eyeball Kegels.

As of yesterday, my left eyelid twitches. As do my fingers, toes and a tiny, as yet unidentified muscle in my calf. Thus far, I have resisted the urge to rip open WebMD and misdiagnose myself with a variety of disorders…all fatal. It’s as if the minuscule muscles, sick of being ignored and unappreciated, have decided to exploit my greatest weakness: hypochondria.
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The Vacation Irony

imageI came to Florida to relax. To get a handle on the stress that infests my cognitive processes, chewing through irreplaceable synapses, and gumming up my creativity with its rancid effluvia. I was desperate to shed the excess layers of self-doubt, muddled priorities, and fear of failure that pad my hips and my psyche. I envisioned a fresh start in the Florida sunshine. I would rise each morning and swim laps in the private pool after a light breakfast of good old American calories and creative thinking. My thoughts would lighten as would my belly. If Mark Twain and Oprah Winfrey had a child, this would be that glorious offspring’s dream getaway. [Read more…]

The Next Big Idea

imageAfter months rewriting my latest comedy feature, the script is finally going out. I’ve earned some play time. Flopping on the sofa, I turn on the TV and watch animated bears wipe their bums with plush toilet paper. Next, a teary bachelorette begs for a rose. And then a bearded hillbilly pronounces roasted squirrel to be food of the gods. But none of this drowns out the insidious voice whispering: “What will you write next?”

Like Poe’s telltale heart, the question echoes in my brain over and over again. Screenwriting, like any career, is a numbers game at its core. The more you practice, the more impressive your skill and the higher your demand. The bigger your pile of desirable material, the bigger your chances are of getting THE script into the hands of THE person who can help to launch your career. Hollywood is a town built on dreams and for the screenwriter, the tunnel into the fortress is dug with all the scripts you have yet to write. So, we writers will always be haunted by the insidious voice. I’m going to need a plan.
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Opportunities Ahead: Proceed with Cautionary Tale

Every day for the last month, I have been opening my email as a hardened Army Ranger might approach a live grenade. I am both hoping to finding a response from the “Big Time Executive”, and hoping not to find it. You see, like the fabled Mr. Toad of the literary classic, Wind in the Willows, I dropped what I had, to reach for something better. And it was a mistake. A Big Time mistake.

After months of rewriting two high concept scripts, which nearly drove me insane, I sent them off to my most trusted readers. While I waited for their notes, I planned to clear my head, perhaps learn to crochet. This lasted two days and exactly eight rows of hopelessly lopsided yarn stitches. Instead of wisely rewarding my brain with a much deserved vacation, I dusted off my screenwriting business plan and checked off the next item on the list: Prepare pitches.
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Cinestory: Go Sell It On the Mountain

I clutch the steering wheel until my poor writer’s knuckles crackle. Glaring at the rental car’s GPS, I yell, “You’re insane. I can’t possibly go up there!” The moonlit mountain before me is so large, its peak exceeds my windshield’s visual capacity. I fervently repeat my latest mantra from Ralph Marston, “Excellence is not a skill. It’s an attitude.” The stubborn GPS counters with a mantra of its own, “Continue…continue…continue.” I recognize the simple wisdom in its command. If I want to achieve new heights in my screenwriting skills, I must follow this terrifyingly twisty road up the side of a mountain…in the dark. I double-check the seatbelt holding my laptop bag in the passenger seat and get back on the road.

Like all of history’s greatest gurus, the coveted Cinestory Writers’ Retreat in Idyllwilde, CA requires a pilgrimage cross-country, through the 405’s gauntlet of unforgiving drivers, and up a narrow mountain road that would make a goat tremble. Tracy King-Sanchez, a writer/director that I respect as a real warrior in film and life once told me if I want to master my screenwriting skills, I must “go cry on the mountain”. And cry I did, but that came later.

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Making Wily Connections

I’m listening to a writer’s meditation program. The eery, monotonous voice tells me to visualize myself creating a successful career. I squeeze my eyelids together until colorful little dots explode in front of my eyes. I breathe in and out, following the super-slow rhythm set by the voice. Just when I start to slip off my chair, the tiny dots form an image. This is it! After my long journey and months of hard work, I’m finally going to complete my writer’s vision quest. I see…an arid cliff under a robin’s egg blue sky. I hear…a strange grinding sound. And then…imagine my surprise when Wile E. Coyote speeds past in a makeshift raft. He slides right off the cliff and floats for a moment, gasping air into the fluttering sail. We lock eyes. He waves. Then, he drops out of sight.

I’ve come home from my first L.A. pilgrimage with the Hollywood Holy Grail…a successful project pitch, and I want to nail it like an Olympic vaulter. In an earlier blog, I shared the moment that I spontaneously pitched this pilot to a sharply-dressed management executive. Now, I love TV sitcoms. I watch TV sitcoms. I quote TV sitcoms. I have no clue how to write TV sitcoms. Aye, there’s the rub.
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Building a Career: One brick…

I’m gazing longingly at Final Draft’s “Collabo Writer” button.  If I click on it, would my perfect script pal inflate from the back of my Macbook with a completed script in one hand and a cup of chocolate sorbet in the other? Instead of whizzing through several magical drafts of my TV pilot, I’m sighing dramatically over coverage the initial treatment received. Legendary newsman David Brinkley once said, “A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.” So, how can I stack these bothersome blocks into a wall of wisdom and wealth?

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L.A. Meeting #3: Making a Perfect Pitch

It was my third and final L.A. meeting. I practiced my pitches in the mirror. I paced. Like “Alice”, I had stumbled into Wonderland determined to make my own way. I hit that town ready to prove myself as a screenwriter. I would do whatever it took to find representation. My pal, a best-selling author with years of experience in the movie industry, warned me, “Finding an agent or manager is like making a good marriage.” In other words, know my own worth and don’t look too desperate.

Later that day, sitting at yet another cafe table, I felt very desperate. I wanted to impress the sharply dressed executive sitting across from me…right NOW! The glorious California sunshine frizzed my hair and sweat coursed down my spine. I wasn’t sure if I was succeeding, until he sat back in his chair, watching me coolly, and said, “So tell me your idea.” For a moment, all the world stopped, except Rick James on a radio somewhere nearby singing “Super Freak.” There it was. The Holy Grail of meetings…an executive asked for my big pitch. And…I went blank.
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L.A. Meeting #2: Humble Pie and Coffee

The morning of L.A. meeting #2 started with someone else’s wake-up call. I was to meet Lee Zahavi-Jessup and a very successful producer at a popular L.A. cafe in twenty minutes and looking at the valet’s grim expression, I wasn’t going to make it on time. My stomach bubbled and I rested my head on the steering wheel for a moment. I couldn’t be late. I just couldn’t.

Successfully negotiating the rush hour traffic, I hunted for a parking space and emptied my pockets into the hungry meter. Inside the cafe, I quickly ordered breakfast and entered the crowded dining area. Lee and the highly successful producer were chatting and laughing over lovely pots of tea. I was late and I was drinking coffee. Swallow, step, smile, shake hands and sit.

I was so anxious to be in the presence of a producer known for shepherding authentic and unusual stories. She’s passionate about scripts that Hollywood should hate: period pieces, musicals, and dialogue-laden plays. Her first feature film began as a play on the east coast, but her determination transformed it into a film, starring Johnny Depp that was nominated for seven Oscars. Despite her success, she was so humble, lowering her voice to mumble names and titles, because in Hollywood someone is always listening. She was lovely in that easy California way and staring across the tiny table, I dug deep for a spectacular conversation opener. I asked, “Was it awesome working with Maggie Gyllenhaal?” Oh boy.
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