A RESPONSE TO JEANNE V. BOWERMAN AND SCRIPT MAGAZINE
OK, so before you read even a word of this here response, take some time and read Jeanne V. Bowerman’s piece from yesterday (if you haven’t already) over at SCRIPT MAGAZINE. It’s important you have her perspective, because you’ll need it to understand why I’m shredding it so harshly. So go take a gander.
Done? OK, fun. Here we go.
First and foremost, let me get this out of the way, because by the time I’m finished with this I know I’m not going to feel like being nice anymore: I like Jeanne. I like #scriptchat. I think, for the most part, she genuinely wants to help other writers, and I think she has her heart mostly in the right place. I think she’s a smart, capable woman, and I believe that she believes the things she’s saying in the above referenced article.
Unfortunately, I also think that her conclusions – and, more importantly, how she arrived at those conclusions and the manner in which she opined them – are a gigantic pile of naive bullshit. Probably borne of a measure of frustration and regret.
The first major mistake that she makes is that she makes not a single delineation between any of the gaggle of “screenwriting experts” out there. In this piece, pro/working screenwriters are apparently offering their knowledge and expertise at he same level as those who have written screenwriting books or offer consulting “services” for hundreds and often thousands of dollars. This alone negates any worth the article might have had in the first place. I’ve spent enough time explaining why (though I will hit the essential beats in a bit), but suffice to say: this is such a drastically wrongheaded conflation, and a deeply insulting one to me. And it is REALLY hard to insult me. I’m low on the totem pole in the profession of screenwriting, but I’m LEAGUES ahead of any of these “consultant” assholes when it comes to writing, story, development, and the ins and outs of this industry. As are my colleagues. Let that be made perfectly clear.
The second – and FAR worse – mistake that she makes is, I believe, a pointed and intentional one: she ties the notion of reading screenwriting books and paying for script consulting to a writer’s PROCESS. She often goes out of her way to make this about YOU, the writer, and how those of us who advise against script “consultants” are just up and screwing YOU out of learning how to write. Let’s lock on to this for a moment.
To quote one of her major points: “No one knows anything other than what worked for them.” Emphasis hers. This is a total crock of shit. Literally all you have to do is ask a screenwriter, “Hey, how’d you break in? What worked for you? What should I do? What should I avoid?” And they’ll tell you. And then you’ll know. We’re not just offering advice in a vacuum here, bouncing our own voices off the walls so we can hear their dulcet melodies. We are preaching, TOGETHER, something that we believe in because we have SHARED experiences. So while I or Travis Beacham or John August or Justin Marks or Crag Mazin or John Gary or any of the countless other pro writers who speak on this topic time and again can only speak for ourselves about what works for us individually IN THE PHYSICAL ACT OF OUR OWN WRITING, we can very much collectively champion actions and philosophies that we took to in the days before anyone paid us for said writing – and we can especially call out those we see taking advantage of aspiring writers today. We learned not only from those of us who were still struggling to get through the gate, but from those who crashed it before us and those who cared about us and looked out for our best interests as we came up. To a scribe, we absorbed advice and strengthened and discarded certain notions as we moved forward, learned and evolved.
And again, to a writer, we all come down on the same side of this issue: spending money on “script consultants” and “coverage services” is a LOSING ENDEAVOR. At best, it will separate you from some hard-earned money and not make you a better writer. At worst, it will separate you from buckets of hard-earned money and will actually cause your writing to regress as you develop bad habits and take terrible, terrible advice to heart.
Now I’ve spoken about this many times, and I’m loathe to do it again, but just in case you’ve never heard it before, I want you to pay attention. It’s important to understand and appreciate WHY we believe script “consulting” is a joke, lest you ken that I have some unnecessary vendetta against these people. Please trust me: it’s a very necessary vendetta. And the explanation of such is very simple:
These people don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re charging exorbitant amounts of money to pass that total lack of knowledge and acumen onto you.
Go onto any script “consulting” or coverage website. Look up the people who run the “business”. Read their stories. You’ll find the same thing everywhere: vagueness and obfuscation. They sold a script, but leave out the title or fail to mention to whether or not it was to an accredited, viable outlet. They’ll claim to have worked at studios and production companies you recognize, though they’ll never say in which position (or they’ll label themselves “consultants” to firms and films, but never elucidate on that, because it’s a fucking wank of a term that means nothing and is often made up out of whole cloth). They’ll claim to have “worked on” certain films, but never detail in what capacity. Then there will be a laundry list of important-sounding accolades, awards and recognitions, none of which has the first thing to do with understanding scripts, screenwriting or development. Then they will list breathless testimonials from people you’ve never heard of and writers who are SO HAPPY WITH THEIR WORK, yet shockingly have not sold a single script to anyone anywhere.
Most of these people had a least some murky experience in the entertainment industry, and I always ask writers who are considering paying them for their services one simple question: if they were any good at what they did, wouldn’t they still be doing it? In case you thought that was rhetorical, allow me to answer: yes. Yes they would.
And here’s the difference in the way I’m aware of these people and the way Jeanne is, again in her own words:
“Certain experts state the odds of breaking in are miniscule (sic) and most of us will never break down the doors, let alone break in. Screenwriting is FREE, just like breathing in oxygen, so we shouldn’t buy books or hire consultants to give us any help or advice. Basically, it’s like saying to someone who stops and asks for directions, ‘Sorry, but you don’t know whether I really live here or not, so why should you trust me for directions?’ Don’t buy a GPS, because those cost money! Don’t invest in a map because who the hell created it? Forget buying gas… it’s too expensive! But hey, have fun trying to find your destination!”
This is such a childlike misconstruction of the advice that I and others give that it can only feel intentionally misleading. I can’t think of a single writing pro who has ever said that you shouldn’t seek out help or wisdom, or that you should only listen to one source when you’re trying to gather information, or that there’s only one way or the highway. To even insinuate such a thing is, to my mind, flat out irresponsible. To twist our words and our intentions in order to cloud the advice we’re given is, frankly, disgusting to me. To wit: all I’m EVER trying to to say is that most screenwriters who broke through and had fruitful professional careers rarely-to-never paid someone to consult upon, analyze, critique or represent their work. CAN you do any of those things? Sure, you totally can. But our goal in bringing this stuff up is to SAVE you money and to SAVE you getting into bad habits. To use Jeanne’s own analogy, using a script “consultant” is like needing a guide to get around New York City, but paying someone to traipse you around Albuquerque while assuring you it’s the Big Apple.
That’s what script “consultants” do. Their goal is to make as much money off of you as possible by convincing you that if you just spend a few more dollars on THIS, you’ll find yourself walking through the Gates of Hollywood. Except you’re not near the gates; you’re in a hyperloop of upsell, and the charlatan has control over the spin.
At this point, perhaps you’re asking yourself, “Geoff, you’ve used a lot of words and you like to claim things, but seriously, why should I trust you? You appear merely a drunk, loud troll.” WELL I AM A DRUNK LOUD TROLL. But I’m also several other things:
1. Not trying to take your money in any way, shape or form.
2. Formerly a reader for New Line Cinema for 4.5 years, in which time I read close to (and perhaps more than) 5,000 scripts, both for work and my own education.
3. Someone who bought one screenwriting book (SCREENPLAY by Syd Field) at the behest of his mentor who argued that it should be osmosed and ultimately discarded as a formula for writing a screenplay but catalogued as a basic conceptualization of three-act structure.
4. A working screenwriter currently within the studio system who consults with other working writers and offers support, knowledge and advice to aspiring writers. Often, and in different capacities. Again: for free.
5. A veteran of 11 years in the film industry, all-told.
And here I am, telling you that you CAN spend money on books and services if you want to do that, but that I and SO many others are proof positive that you have *exactly* as good a chance at breaking in if you NEVER SPEND A DIME.
Compare me to Jeanne, whose qualifications in writing and development I asked for on Twitter earlier today. She offered the following:
1. Editor of SCRIPT MAGAZINE.
2. Has had one screenplay optioned (details not given).
3. Has adapted a book, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME (details on status of the project not given).
So: one script optioned, one of nebulous status, Editor of an online screenwriting magazine. No development experience. And while it costs nothing to read Jeanne’s column and SCRIPT is a free online outlet, it’s worth pointing out that SCRIPT is run by The Writer’s Store, which sells Final Draft Software (the least expensive version of which is $99 at the time of this writing) and also sells books, screenwriting “tools” and minutiae, and runs something called Screenwriter’s U, a for-profit gaggle of online tutorials and screenwriting “courses”.
(IMPORTANT EDIT: I wrote erroneously earlier that The Writer’s Store produces Final Draft software; however is merely a retail outlet for, but does NOT produce, Final Draft. Not sure how I managed to slip that in there other than that I’m an idiot; thanks to Phil Galasso for the heads-up and apologies for the error.)
(FULL DISCLOSURE: I like and use Final Draft software and have advocated for its purchase by any screenwriter who can afford it. Some writers use other programs. Anything that helps you automatically format a screenplay – so that you don’t have to do it manually – works.)
Jeanne has her own website. Interesting that she chose to offer this advice not there, but on the SCRIPT site, where there are multiple ads for screenwriting books and services embedded in her piece itself that…hey, cost money. Oh, and though she made a bunch of vague accusations about “popular screenwriters” with “cult followings”, she never mentioned anyone by name and never linked to a specific instance of impropriety or or perceived slight. However, she did link to several other SCRIPT articles (and ONLY to other SCRIPT articles) that had little to nothing to do with the matter at hand. When I asked Jeanne why she didn’t “call out” directly the individuals she was so offended by (after describing them as “unacceptable, juvenile and unprofessional”), she told me that’s “not her style” and that the piece was in response to an attack on two SCRIPT writers, though she failed to link to said attack in the response itself, so we have zero context on which to validate her claims.
Sorry, but that’s not fucking good enough. At best it’s disingenuous and at worst it’s a sad little hit-and-run. If you’re going to admonish working writers and flat-out call them unprofessional, have the decency and courage to do so with specifics and evidence, not thinly-veiled potshots and rhetoric. Especially in a column that has the temerity to call itself “Balls of Steel”.
Make no mistake: Jeanne is”calling out” writers like Craig Mazin, myself and others who preach that a screenwriter’s education can and should be free and that you needn’t spend money to put yourself in a position to break in. But not only does she do that – and, again, vaguely and insultingly – but she doubles down with THIS crap: “Can you learn about writing without spending money? Absolutely! But that doesn’t mean every writer can learn without help. Don’t judge those who want to educate themselves in a more traditional way…I simply want you to do what is best for you and not feel judged for doing it. Use your energy, time and even money to please your vision.”
Yes, that’s it! Jeanne, she of next-to-no practical experience in the entertainment industry who works for an outlet that relies on the advertising of the costly screenwriting implements, products and services of its parent company is JUST LOOKING OUT FOR YOU. The implication being that those of us professional writers who give of our time and advice freely because we want you to avoid wasting money and falling into bad habits as a writer are JUDGING YOU for the choices you’ve made.
Very few things disgust me. THAT fucking disgusts me. I have NEVER seen an instance of a pro writer offering his or her advice to an aspiring writer shaming or mocking or judging them simply because they bought books or used a service. I’ve seen a lot of lowbrow attempts at character assassinations in this business, but that’s one of the most pathetic.
“Educate themselves in a more traditional way.” Give me a motherfucking break.
Look, I don’t have the time or patience to address every dismal thing in Jeanne’s piece and I’m fast running out of an interest in keeping this civil. You can read what she wrote and judge for yourself. But let me beat the drum again:
You do not have to pay for your education as a writer. The vast majority working screenwriters did not (a fact that should stop this discussion in its tracks on its own). You do not have to pay for access to Hollywood, and the vast majority of the people claiming you do are lying to you. The ones that tell you THEY can get you there for a fee are lying to you even harder. But all I can do is make you aware of that, tell you of my experiences and share the wisdom I’ve gleaned while on my way up. I’m not some pampered A-list scribe who’s disconnected from the realities of the industry. I’m a medium talent who’s fighting to keep a relevant career going. But I’m in the game. I’m not lurking outside it, lobbing bitter, grotesquely false invective, desperate to be taken seriously. And I’m not asking a goddamned thing of you – other than that you appreciate that the advice I give comes from eleven years practical experience.
If that doesn’t float your boat, godspeed. There are plenty of wannabes, false prophets and used car salesman out there who will be happy to pick you out of my wake. And for just a small fee (in the grand scheme of things!), they’ll be able to explain to you what I couldn’t.