We are seated in the expansive bungalow office of a top Hollywood director and we are having a great time. I mean a really great time. We talk about the business, his movies, our movies, sports, politics. We laugh, he laughs. It is as close to a love-fest as there can be without condoms being proffered.
The meeting started at 11AM. We glance at our watches. Holy crap! It’s 12:40PM. The Director shakes his head in disbelief, then smiles at us.
“Wanna stay for lunch?”
So the meeting continues over ginormous sandwiches ordered in from Jerry’s Deli. And as we gnaw on our food, the Director proceeds to tell us about a project. On his last movie, a below-the-line crew member — after weeks of hesitating — summoned up the courage to give a screenplay he’d written to the Director… “ya’ know, to see if anything’s there.” The Director graciously accepted the script, then passed it along to one of his ‘people’ expecting absolutely zero to come of it.
Turns out the script is just okay, but the story concept is a strong one. The Director tells us the idea. We immediately respond to it, a great premise for an entertaining family movie.
For the next hour, we talk it through, one fantastic idea after another magically emerging across our lips. It’s like the script is writing itself and the excitement in the room is palpable.
Maybe we should bust out the Trojans.
Now I should note that at this meeting is the Director’s wife who also happens to be his producing partner. She slips in and out of our confab having to take care of things as our session runs long. In hindsight, if I hadn’t been so caught up in chatting, eating, guffawing at the director’s anecdotes, and now spontaneously working out a rough plot for this family movie, I might have noticed the Wife doesn’t share the same degree of enthusiasm the Director has had during our meeting. Not that she is cold or off-putting, just a bit more reserved.
Anyhow at some point, the Director looks at his Wife and says, “I think the guys are perfect for this project.”
A beat. Another beat.
Then she is nodding her head.
And he is shaking our hands.
And we are walking out the door having just landed the gig!
We call our agents. They’re ecstatic. What had been a simple meet-and-greet turns into a deal! “You guys are awesome!”
I go out that night to celebrate with my wife, reliving the details of the day, jotting down notes, my mind already racing with ideas about the project. I can see the movie in my mind! I’m already at the premiere!
The next day, we are in our office when we get a phone call.
It’s the Wife.
We put her on speakerphone.
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but we’ve decided to go in another direction.”
“There was another writer… someone we’d talk to previously about the project… he wasn’t available, but now it turns out he is, so…
The. World’s. Longest. Silence.
She says she called our agents, explained the situation to them [“They fought for you but…”], she apologizes to us once more, and then this:
“Don’t worry, I promise we’ll work together on something!”
I must confess that at that moment, I felt pretty damn bad.
Later when the movie came out and was a huge hit, I felt bad again.
When they did a sequel to the movie, I felt bad once more.
And another sequel… yes, I felt bad all over again.
Sure, part of it was about lost income, not only money from the first movie, but income we would have seen from both sequels.
But what really ate at me was the simple fact: We didn’t get the gig.
Here is a fact of life for any Hollywood screenwriter: Sometimes you don’t get the gig. Hell, oftentimes you don’t get the gig.
Writing assignments. Pitches. Specs. There will be occasions where the response is just not there. Clearly the wrong story at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s bad, but when the stars are so obviously out of alignment on something you work up, it pretty easy to shrug and move on.
But other times, there is a good reception, even a great response to your project.
Spec scripts that circulate around town, top producers attached at every studio, buzz building, your phone ringing with people telling you they’re hearing how much heat there is, visions of six-figure deals dancing in your head.
Pitches where you have the buyers in the palm of your hand, every plot point and story dynamic you present received like wisdom from the screenwriting gods, and surely the deal is as good as done.
And yes, meetings where the vibe is so good they invite you to stay for lunch and oh by the way how would you like to write this hit movie?
Then you don’t get the gig.
How to deal with that sense of total deflation?
How to survive that when it happens more than once in your career?
How to handle that emotionally without turning into a clocktower sniper?
I don’t know about other writers, but here is the only method I discovered that worked for me.
Three simple steps.
Step 1: When you find out about the disappointment — the spec didn’t sell, the pitch was a pass, you lost the OWA to another writer — that night give yourself permission to get lit. Now there’s sideways… and there’s sideways. Me? I just get sideways. You? Your choice. But yes, you have the right to feel bad for yourself for one day, and drown your sorrows in the cold comfort libation of your choice.
Step 2: The next morning, drag your sorry ass out of bed, stand in front of the bathroom mirror assaying your blurry face, and say these words out loud: “It just wasn’t meant to be.” This is the mantra that will save your sanity. Repeat it as often as you need. “It just wasn’t meant to be.” Being a writer, feel free to embellish. “You know if I had landed the gig, I’m sure one day when I was driving to the studio for a meeting about it, my car would have been crushed by a fifty ton boulder rolling down Laurel Canyon Blvd.” Hey, do what you need to do. But the key is the mantra: “It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Step 3: Start writing a new story. I suppose this is a bit like a guy who gets dumped by a girl, then immediately dates someone else. Whatever. You are in survival mode and the creative process can be a lifesaver. So immediately immerse yourself in writing a new script. You can’t control fate, but you can control your writing.
I sincerely hope you never lose a deal like I did. But it’s a lock cinch there will be times when you don’t get the gig. When that happens, you can try my approach. Or work out your own. But the bottom line in Hollywood about gigs…
Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.
Oh, by the way. The Wife’s promise that we would “work together on something”?
The Business of Screenwriting is a 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 posted March 8, 2012]