The Business of Screenwriting: Movies don’t owe anybody a living

September 6th, 2012 by

This is actually a lesson I learned before I became a screenwriter. After I graduated with an M.Div. from Yale and turned my back on an academic career — although I didn’t know it at the time, only thought I was taking a year off before I went on to a doctoral program — I played music professionally for 7 years, then did stand-up comedy for 2. So before I wrote and sold the spec script K-9, I worked in the entertainment business for nearly a decade.

During that time, I learned a lot about writing, knowing your audience, working a room, comic timing, and how to entertain people. I also found out a great deal about life itself.

One thing that stuck with me was a quote. I attribute it to Levon Helm, formerly the drummer of The Band, but I’ve never been able to find a source online to confirm that. The quote as I remember it is this: “Music don’t owe anybody a living.”

It made quite an impression on me when I first heard it. At the time, I was living and playing music in Aspen. In one respect, it was a great place to be because the town was, at the time, filled with a ton of talented musicians, drawn by the success of Aspen residents including John Denver, Jimmy Buffett, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and others.

Some of the local musicians, living so close to superstar performers, had an attitude that could best be summed up this way: “I deserve that.” In their eyes, there was no substantive difference between their talent and the talent of Denver, Buffett, and The Eagles. I suppose it’s possible they could have been right. But I found their attitude offensive. I’ve always worked my ass off in every job I’ve ever had — even if you don’t know me personally, you can probably tell by the fact that I spend so much time on this blog that I have no aversion to work. To think that anyone deserved fame or success based upon sheer talent rang false to me.

No, I think Levon Helm or whoever it was who said “music don’t owe anybody a living” has it right or at least more right than “I deserve that.”

I carried that attitude with me to Hollywood and the inevitable lean periods I experienced reinforced that truth. But even in flush times, when I’ve written 4 or more studio projects a year, I have always acted like I needed to prove myself. Any story can be your last. The town has an insatiable desire for young, new talent, and rightfully so. In order to feed the filmmaking process, Hollywood owes writers — in general — a living… but not necessarily me. Or frankly you.

So what can you do with this bit of wisdom?

* Even if you sell a spec script, I would recommend not giving up the day job. Just yet.  See how things shake out for a year or two. You get a few paid writing projects lined up, maybe then make your move to L.A..

* Sock away at least 20% of what you earn into savings to give you a buffer when the Hollywood winds starting blowing in your face, not at your back.

* Treat each script as if it’s your first and last chance to tell a great story. Yes, there will be assignments you take where the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to being ‘great,’ but even then you need to bring your A-game to your writing.

“Movies don’t owe anybody a living.” On the one hand, a harsh truth. On the other hand, if you live by that credo when you work in Hollywood, it can keep you honest — with your creativity and with your Self.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally December 2, 2010]

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