I recently attended an event hosted by the Canadian Association of New York at the historic Roosevelt Hotel. This was a University night, where alumni of Canadian universities gather to drink and eat and socialize and celebrate what it is to be a Canadian in New York. Now, these are stodgy affairs for someone like me, given the majority who attend these functions are in either Law or Finance (i.e. People who make more money than I do.) So when they ask me what I do and I tell them, they’re suddenly impressed (because Lawyers and Financiers know they’re not terribly interesting — hence the money). First I’ll be asked what I’ve done that they’ve seen; I reply that they have all been Canadian productions, which is why they haven’t seen them. Lots of times they have a son or daughter, or niece or nephew who wants to get into the biz and seek advice (if they love their kids, I suggest discouraging them). Occasionally they ask how to “break in” (I recommend a sledgehammer), and how to make a career of it (grab as much incriminating evidence as you can), but at this particular event, one person asked me something interesting;
“What makes you decide not to do something? ”
The fact is, there are certain common factors to a project or potential one that give me that uneasy feeling that it’s not only not worth my time, but would be a waste of it. In screenwriting we have something called the “rule of three”; when the hero is trying to perform a difficult task, it’s always on the third try that it works. With that in mind, here are three factors I consider any time I consider taking on a project, the first being …
1. The Project
The big rule; if it doesn’t interest me, the subject matter, the challenge of it, then I’m not going to work on it. I’m not a “take the money and run” type – my name’s going on this thing somewhere so I better do my best to make sure it’s the best I have in me.* It’s nice to work and get paid, but if it never sees light of day, you’re pretty much working in anonymity. My IMDB page is proof of this – from 2002 to 2010, to untrained eyes I didn’t work between I Love Mummy and Stonehenge Apocalypse. Fact is I worked for those 8 years on a wide range of projects that either a) never went to camera, or; b) was never credited on. If you’re a writer, your career is best compared to an iceberg – only 10% is visible above the surface – the other 90% are projects you toiled away on for years that either never happened or haven’t happened yet. So now, the likelihood of this project, a project I’m actually interested in, going forward is a big motivator.
*Oh, there’s a word for people who are only doing it for the money. We call them “Hacks” and I’m proud to say I’m not one of those. And speaking of money:
2. The Pay
As Heath Ledger’s The Joker remarked in The Dark Knight; “if you’re good at something, never do it for free.” Writers are forever being shortchanged in this biz, and they often do it to themselves. Hell, at the beginning of my career I was so happy to have any work I often did it for next to no pay (and in one case, got screwed out of the “next to no pay” part of it). But you do yourself a disservice by working for less than your worth; money is important – it gives you the freedom and ability to actually do the work, frees you up to work on other personal projects, and, yes, helps you pay the damn bills. My still in the works novel was written largely in chunks between drafts of three separate film projects, and my Mixtape project has been financed out of pocket on the money I make from writing. Still it’s amazing how many would be producers take offence when you tell them you won’t work for them, for free. They’ll certainly tell you that “you’re not the only writer we’re talking too” , which is the point in the negotiation process when I them that they’d be better off with going with one of those writers — you know, the ones with no self-respect. I’m sure they’ll do a good job. In every case I’ve been fed that line, the project never got made, and that’s the key; the success this project has in seeing fruition is directly proportionate to how much they are willing to pay you. If they’re serious, they’ll be generous, because they have a plan that will guarantee they get back that initial investment in you through financing etc. When someone comes to me with “I have a great idea for a movie – you write it, and we’ll share credit, and I’ll pay you a thousand dollars for your trouble” I’m usually too busy laughing my ass off to give a more dignified response. It’s the equivalent of hiring someone to paint your house, but only paying you a fraction of what you should be, because you should feel “honored” they’ve come to you with this great opportunity. Does the painter take the job? Of course he doesn’t. Does the home owner sniff that there are “plenty of painters out there who would”? If they do, the response they should get is; “they’ll turn you down too, if they’re any good at their jobs.” If you’re good at your job, you’re going to undercut that fact by underselling your worth on it. And last but most important …
3. The People
The first time I meet with a producer, the question I’m asking myself is“are they legit?” If they haven’t produced something of note I’m wary. The circumstances on meeting the potential employer are also very important. For example, if a would-be producer is interested in meeting me anyplace other than their offices, I’m wary. Now there could be a great reason for this; if they’re in Brooklyn and I’m in Upper Manhattan, a midtown meet at Starbucks is perfectly reasonable. But if they rebuff my every suggestion to meet at their offices, it’s often because they have no office to speak, other than the one at their home. Producers are uniform in one respect that they’re proud of their accomplishments. They want you to come to their office, to have their secretary fetch you coffee, and to talk things over with you in their boardroom. They do this because they want you to see that they are successful, and that they can afford an office, and a secretary, and a boardroom, but most important, that they are successful. Even if theirs is a home office, that’s fine – I have a home office and in this uncertain age, why not save some money if you can do your job as effectively? The key is effectively.
All three of these rules were devised, really, out of one experience. There was a producer my late manager Cathryn arranged for me to meet a few years back. She (the producer) had directed an indie feature, had optioned a book and had drafted an adaptation of it. Now, she was seeking a professional to take the existing draft and “make it sparkle” (her words, not mine). She told me she loved my work, agreed to my fee even, and despite my reservations on the book and on her (both of which were deep reservations), we agreed to have her and my reps start talking shop. Then, she changed her mind; she started bad-mouthing me to my manager, asking “what’s he working on now, what’s he done lately,” and on second thought didn’t think I was worth the fee we had discussed after all, and actually started coming back with lower and lower fees she’d agree to if I was to “work on this amazing project.” Cathryn, my manager, promptly told this woman where to shove her fee and relayed the info to me. Frankly it was a relief, as I realized that life was too short to work on something I wasn’t 100% gung-ho on, and I emailed this would be producer and politely told her on reflection I decided not to take part in her project, as I was due to start another project shortly and would have no time for hers (which as it turned out was true). Oh, and this producer and her project? It never got produced and her IMDB page and credits are stuck where they’ve been since 2004 – in the breakdown lane.
The fact is you as a writer have a skill set the people hiring you do not. They could have the idea and the money, but without you they don’t have a script. If they could do it themselves they wouldn’t be calling you. You should want to work with good people – either you like them personally, or like their work — you should want to be in business with them. If they’ve got a good rep and are talented, why wouldn’t you want to? I’ve been fortunate to have worked alongside some extremely talented people, and continue to. These are people who are new to the biz, and ones who’ve been in it longer than I have. Butthey all have one thing in common; they take their work, and the work you do for them, very seriously.
And that’s all I really ask for; that they’re as serious about the work they do as I am about the work I do for them.