Wednesday, January 25, 2006

A Book for Struggling Screenwriters

Recently, a great deal of my coverage has focused on games and the gaming industry. This may have left those of you who first read this site because of my "Want to Write a Supernatural Spec?" post wondering what you are doing reading this blog regularly. Others who came following our first movie review "In the Shadow of Kurosawa" might be wondering if Cinerati ever lives up to its name. Our focus here at Cinerati is to discuss Popular Culture, broadly defined, as our individual professional schedules allow us to write as amateur journalists. Sometimes this leads us to focus too keenly on one, or two, aspects of Popular Culture. Recently this focus has been overly dedicated to the discussion of Comic Books and Games.

Today I would like to recommend a book to all aspiring screenwriter's out there. In fact if you are interested in Hollywood and its workings at all, you must own Conversations with My Agent by Rob Long.




One might be wondering what I, a "character" in The Prisoner and Director of a non-profit devoted to civic engagement of youth, might have to offer as far as recommending books for aspiring professionals. There are after all blogs written by screenwriters who have written blockbusters or written by hard working direct to DVD writers, all of whom could better relate to screenwriters what it takes to be a working writer in Hollywood. That's not my goal. My goal is to provide hope to those who find themselves questioning their choices, staring at writer's bloc, or frustrated at the challenge of getting anyone to even look at your ideas. Is this you? Good, then let me continue.

I first heard of Rob Long's book at an LA Press Club event entitled Mass Market, Smart Content ( I reported on my experience here). The book was mentioned by panelist Scott Kaufer, who mentioned how accurate and entertaining the book was. In the spirit of full disclosure, Scott Kaufer is currently my wife's boss. He wasn't at the time of the event, neither my wife or I had met him before the event, but he is at present. Having said that, this recommendation, like most of Mr. Kaufer's recommendations, was a good one.

Conversations with My Agent (published in 1997), as its name implies, is filled with discussions that Rob Long had with his agent following the end of Cheers on which Long was an Executive Producer and Writer. The discussions are well written, ring true, and are often laugh out loud funny. During the process of reading Long's conversations one becomes familiar with many of the frustrations that writers in Hollywood face on a day to day basis. Everything from "development hell" to the desire to write a novel is discussed. Since purchasing the book, I have returned to the book again and again to reread a particular anecdote or example. The humorous examples always bring a smile to my face. Don't take my word for it, here is an exerpt:



ME
We're thinking about writing a feature film spec.

MY AGENT
Wonderful. That's a terrific idea. Do you know why?

ME
Why?

MY AGENT
You'll get it out of your system. You'll write one, it won't sell, and it'll be out of your system. And that will be good. Because you'l never never ever get another chance to write one.

ME
What?

MY AGENT
Please. You'll be busy. You'll be producing your television show or pitching another show or working on someone else's television show.

ME
But --

MY AGENT
We are not having a conversation. I am talking.

ME
But --

MY AGENT
It's a bad career move. It's a waste of time.

ME
But --

MY AGENT
Plus I don't handle feature scripts. It would be handled by someone else at the agency and do you know what? There's nobody here as nice as me.


The theme of "not having a conversation" is one that is constant through the book. The relationship of writer to agent is shown as very one sided and the running theme is that all decisions an agent makes are based on the agent, not the writer, getting paid. That may seem a cynical position, but I don't think it is. I believe that the lesson of the book, if there is one, is to remind writers that Hollywood is an industry filled with people who are making money. But these people are also risking resources on an often unproven commodity. You may be an extraordinarily talented and funny writer, but until you have turned a profit you will be viewed skeptically, and as Long demonstrates that skepticism is there even if you have turned a profit.

As a fan of television it is always nice to read a television writer write about why shows don't always work. "The main reason that television sitcoms are so bad is that too many educated people are involved in creating them."

I personally think Long's story about when he talked with his agent about writing a book was one of the most amusing conversations, but if you want to read that you have to buy the book. The book didn't sell as well as it ought, but when I had the opportunity to ask Long why this was the case he shared that it was because the book was too short. At 180 pages, the book is just the right length for the person who picked it up on the shelf at Barnes and Noble to finish the book by the time they go from the rear of the purchase line to the cash register. Whatever the reason...rush to your keyboard and order a copy.

While you are at it, you might want to check out his more recent book.


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