What Hollywood can teach us in Europe

 Published at TwelvePoint.com on 5 January 2009

Scriptwriter reaches the edge of the cliff. The weather is mild, sky blue, wind warm and the smell of ashes is in the air. She looks around. Cliffs ahead, desert behind, clouds of smoke billowing from the mountains on the horizon. The billboard is unreadable. Fire, she realises, LA is on fire again. She shudders. No sign of the Sphinx though. I’m on time, she reassures herself by taking a quick look at her wristwatch. Then she smirks. Don’t be silly, this isn’t a meeting; it’s a gate, a gate to the Wonderful Land of the Blockbusters.

The air shivers like a broad, tall heatwave emerging from hot tarmac. Scriptwriter’s heart pounds and throat goes dry. Here I go. She’s prepared: McKee, Field, Goldman. I know the rules. Greek mythology, Aristotle, Campbell, Sodoku. Her mind is sharp.

Sphinx begins to materialise. It flickers. It seems to be split in three parts: head, body, feet. That’s good. 3 Acts… I can definitely deal with this. The imprecise image begins to clear. Scriptwriter’s eyes narrow, then narrow some more. She frowns. Is this the head of … Homer Simpson? It is. Hmmm … the body of Shrek … Angelina Jolie’s legs. Creepy, but what CGI effects! Sphinx glares at her. Silence.

‘Pleased to meet you …’ Scriptwriter prompts.

‘British, right?’ the Sphinx thunders in a familiar, cartoonish voice, its massive green body leans down from a newly-materialised couch, crosses its long legs. ‘Ready for the question?’

Riddle, it’s called riddle, Scriptwriter thinks but she doesn’t dare correct the Sphinx.

‘What’s the most important rule of physics for a scriptwriter?’

Her face goes blank. No A-Levels in physics. GCSEs? She racks her brain. Nothing. The Sphinx begins to fade away.

‘Physics?!’ The Sphinx is disappearing. ‘But I’m a bloody writer!’ she yells, angrily.

Bloody writer … that’s so cute …’ she hears as the Sphinx slowly vanishes, the sound of its laughter still echoing in the sky.

‘Ask Doug!’

And like this …

… it is gone.

I’ll share with you one thing I’ve learned from the Mastering Hollywood Seminar; the rest you’ll have to get from Doug Chamberlin himself. If you’re invited for a pitch meeting in Hollywood, they’ll offer you muffins and soda. NEVER eat the muffin and DON’T drink the soda.

I don’t think Doug will hate me for giving away that extremely useful piece of advice – with a sweet tooth, I would eat the muffin and drink the soda and spend the rest of the meeting sucking my teeth and trying to swallow back the burps – because his seminar gave us so much more than that. It gave me much more than I was expecting: I learned not only how Hollywood works but also how to think about myself from a much more business-like perspective and this is something I can use in any industry, be it British, French or Brazilian.

I was a bit wary when I first read the seminar’s title. Would this be like those American-style uplifting, preachy, cheery, ‘how-to-be-a-successful … whatever’ events with holding hands and song-singing? It wasn’t. Doug can be hilarious – he’s a comedy writer after all, which is a bonus – but he is no Las Vegas showman. He’s clever and honest about what he’s going to deliver and he does deliver. He is also a very nice guy.

Writers normally don’t see themselves as business people. Writers are artists, creative people. Business people wear suits, receive regular pay cheques, go on holiday, socialise and like expensive entertainment. Writers may socialise but they like to be left alone to write or think about what they’re writing. Writing is about art, guts and soul whereas entertainment is something else, though some write for the entertainment business if it helps them make a living. Writers never really go on holiday and they like to think they can play by their own rules. Yes, these are stereotyped descriptions but don’t they sound familiar?

If you want to break into Hollywood, you’ll have to merge the two characters described above and become a writer who is aware of and will work the ‘business person’ inside you (invent him or her if they are entirely absent). Hollywood is about business. That’s what they do best and how they make money, and the only way to win your way in is to play by the rules, their rules.

The tricky bit about Hollywood’s rules is … well … their rules are crazy; they don’t make any sense. It is about business but a very distinct and unusual type of business, so most of the ‘normal-world’ business rules don’t apply. You won’t be able to ‘reason’ your way in. ‘Reason’ and ‘reasonable’ are not part of Hollywood’s dictionary; even ‘common sense’ is not very much there either.

Here are a few examples of Hollywood’s ‘counter-intuitive’ mechanics:

One would expect executives to be impressed and feel more confident if they knew how hard you worked on your script. Hollywood execs not only are not interested in your hard work at all; they’d rather not know. You’re a magician, a miracle worker and magicians don’t give away their secrets.

During a meeting, you would think that the more professionally you behave, the better. No. Artists who behave like normal people or like professionals in Hollywood are perceived as too well-adjusted and are therefore not geniuses.

To break into Hollywood, you have to understand the mechanics and be able to translate people’s behaviour and codes on the spot. You could learn by trial and error or you could learn from Doug. He helps you discover your strengths, hone them and make them work to your benefit. He has experience (check his credentials on his website), he has done it and he knows the path. True, it’s his path and other people might think differently but you ought to give some credit to a guy who has worked with Steven Spielberg, Barry Sonnenfeld and Ron Howard.

The seminar gives you practical and concrete information. I was amazed by the portrait of the industry, how it works, its power structure, how it is set geographically, the myths and the reality. If it’s something he cannot give you, he will show you how to get it, from online resources and script competitions, to a list of entry-level Hollywood jobs and how to get a work permit or a visa. The volume and quality of the information is impressive.

An interesting point Doug makes about how Hollywood works is its ‘map of power’. Being geographically based in the right neighbourhood can really help you. The potential of ‘casual’ meetings at the local grocery shop or the hairdresser should never be underestimated, and being close to where the studios are located can produce a lucky, random encounter with an executive of the studio to whom you have just sent your script.

It is crucial to understand that when you establish contact with a studio, you are actually establishing a professional relationship with an executive – a person, not the company – who is the link between you and the chain of command above, under or around him/her inside the studio. That’s when things start to happen and why nurturing relationships and networking is so vital in Hollywood.

The seminar helped me begin to think strategically about myself as a professional who is producing stories for a business: how to position myself, what my strengths are, how I can make them look attractive when talking to industry people and how to approach people (a little classy technique really helps when it comes to networking, something with which most writers are not particularly at ease).

Another peculiar rule is that in Britain it is seen as a sin to brag about oneself; in Hollywood people do it naturally and expect you to do the same. In Doug’s words: ‘Hollywood loves a pompous ass.’ It doesn’t mean you have to take that literally, however. Rather it means you have to share more about yourself, your achievements and your abilities than you normally would in an informal conversation. You don’t need to lie or exaggerate but be confident about yourself and volunteer information consciously, especially if it is something you think that person might need or like at that particular moment.

How will you know what people need? Research. Learn about them, their projects, what they’re planning to do next. Find your peers, people who have projects and ambitions that match yours and share. There are some reliable online tools, magazines and literature to improve your powers of observation. Hollywood is pretty self-centred so it does help enormously if you are based in LA or even if you appear to be based there. Doug has some pretty smart advice on how to do that.

The seminar also showed us how to find an agent, how to format a query letter and how to work out one’s story synopsis and premise, something crucial for getting to the next level. Attracting the attention of an agent is hard anywhere in the world and the only tools you have are your credentials and your writing skills so when you write a query letter, don’t forget that it is part of your job to write well. Use your talent creatively.

Doug showed us the different stages his and his creative partner’s query letters have gone through starting with a well-behaved, business-like one (which did not get any response). This evolved into another, more witty and humorous, which generated more attention but still no concrete results. For the final version, they created a parody of the Variety magazine cover that featured them, their story and some buzz notes, with a query letter and a stamped, self-addressed postcard already ticked with ‘Yes, please send me the Seinfeld and Simpsons’ specs.’ This one found them an agent. Don’t forget, though, they are comedy writers so the gimmick had a purpose and was perfect to show how good their attitude was.

Once your story (based on its premise and synopsis) has raised some level of attention and you’re invited for a pitch meeting, you need to know how to manage it. Preparing for the meeting and pitching was a really useful exercise during the seminar. I am terrified of pitching but observing my seminar colleagues’ pitching exercises encouraged me to try, although not having prepared properly, I failed dismally. I was all over the place. The ‘producer’s’ questions sent me off track. I couldn’t summarise the story. I became bogged down with details … but it was a fantastic chance to practise and think seriously about the script’s strengths and weaknesses. And now I’m less terrified. Pitching in Europe is hard enough, the British industry is tough – but pitching for Hollywood is quite another experience. It was merely an exercise but I could feel the heat. Now I know how much more prepared I need to be and I have more tools to do it properly.

It’s always good to meet people during workshops and seminars. The group comprised an interesting mix of ages and interests: a fifteen-year-old writer-director who is already making his own films (the next Spielberg?), an enthusiastic writer overflowing with ideas, a nearly-graduated student with a pretty cool writing style, a scriptwriter who has already written/directed/produced short films and another writer who gave us a wonderful gift.

During a coffee-break informal chat she told us one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever heard; we were all mesmerised by the images she was describing. There was a film there and the images were so powerful that during her pitching exercise, Doug’s assistant, Caroline (who is also a scriptwriter), was in tears! So was I. I was thrilled: I had just witnessed the birth of an Oscar-winning script.

What has physics to do with all that? If you can’t wait to learn, Doug will be in Edinburgh on 24-25 January 2009 and then back in London on 21-22 March 2009.

For details of the seminars see http://www.masteringhollywood.co.uk

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