Enough Already?

Last night the wife and I had the rare opportunity to host a dinner party, featuring the girlfriend of an acquaintance, who is visiting from Russia. My food-centric friend and I quietly competed for most grandiose offerings, and the table was spread with everything from grass-fed bacon cheeseburgers to asparagus stuffed chicken.

The thing that struck me immediately about our honored house guest, was how well she spoke English; better than the lot of us, I’m afraid, with all of our swearing and missing consonants. Of course, she didn’t get to say much for most of the evening, but then that’s what she gets for dating a chatterbox American actor with obnoxious friends.

When we did allow her to speak at length, the conversation turned to the food, the amount of it, its over-the-top extravagance and variety, and how this seems to be a norm in our country. So many choices, such immense portions, and everything just killing to make us obese, with us dying to get as much of it as we can.

Moscow the Cat is saddened by your decadent, sedentary lifestyle.
Kiev the Cat is saddened by your decadent, sedentary lifestyle.

Since my first career was in grocery management, I had some interesting stories to add the the argument that America was crazy for consumption (not tuberculosis). Since her visit was almost exclusive to the biggest cities in California, I submitted that she got the absolute worst of it. Vacation destinations and BBQ gatherings, where people splurge on purpose, and have to go enormous because what they’re used to is already so much.

She did mention, however, that our mustard isn’t nearly as flavorful as what she’s used to back home.

The question is: when is plenty too much, and when is too much almost a bad joke? Would it take someone from another country, sitting in your living room and pointing at all the food you’re leaving out, to illustrate just how amazing you have it?

Go to the supermarket and count the number of apple choices. Do the same for the tomatoes, potatoes, squash, and citrus fruits. If you live in California, you’ve given up before you’ve finished. We get everything we want anytime we want it, but did you ever stop to consider that you shouldn’t have farm fresh berries year-round?

An cardboard sign I bought from a homeless street vendor in Vegas. He had several signs, but this one seemed the most poignant, buying it from a guy with nothing but strips of cardboard and colored pens.
An handmade sign I bought from a homeless street vendor in Vegas. He had several signs, but this one seemed the most poignant, buying it from a guy with nothing but strips of cardboard and colored pens.

Here’s an interesting article, from Forbes. In it is a graph that shows an Economist study of the socioeconomic state of the top and bottom ten percent of several socially democratic countries. If you look closely, the bottom ten percent in the US seem to have it better than the top ten percent in Russia, where our charming guest is from. If the results posted in the article are to be believed, in a country stereotyped by corrupt fat-cat officials, those top tier individuals live like people in the worst slums in America.

Is it so hard to believe that it can’t possibly be true? Or are we so well off that we’re too high on our mountain top to see the valleys below? Quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter. We can’t make the world an entire ball of American standards; in fact, many places would out right refuse if we could and tried.

It all boils down to our good fortune. We are born here, or immigrated here, and thus enjoy the perks of what our society has created. Yes, it makes us fat, and makes us tactless, and we don’t really concern ourselves with the state of another country’s union, but then, we’re here and nowhere else, so what should it matter?

Happiness is a choice, not bound by circumstance.
Happiness is a choice, not bound by circumstance or surroundings.

Happiness is relative to circumstance. The homeless addict finds joy in the receipt of a half eaten fast food meal. The average American Joe is overjoyed when a new season of his favorite show starts. The same can be said for people in any country, in every condition of life. The young lady who came to visit us would have only had hearsay evidence and her own country’s stereotypes of us, if she hadn’t hopped on a plane and came to see for herself.

I say: live the life that you have, don’t stop trying to better it, and don’t feel bad about it. As for our visitor, it didn’t seem like she had too bad a time, enduring our insanely over-indulgent lifestyle, although it did seem to bother her maybe a little. I’d probably know for sure, if we’d let her get a word in edgewise.

We all knew this song was coming, so stop with the face. Seriously, how bad can it be? Hot chicks in every major city, and rock ‘n roll seems to have found its way there.

The Secret Science of Screenwriting

In all the literature I’ve ever read on the subject of screenwriting, the advice is: write, that’s the only way you’ll finish. I’ve finished what I will largely refer to as “my first feature script,” and I’m damn proud of the fact that I finished it, put it through the paces, completely rewrote it, and finished it again.

Will it sell is a completely different subject.

So many people want to “break in,” that the system of finding new talent for writing TV and film is irrevocably deranged. Imagine you are a high-profile movie manager, and your job is to find that next great talent, that diamond in the rough, that one in a million with the perfect idea at the perfect time. Oh, and you also get a thousand query letters a week from wannabe screenwriters like myself, only 996 of the emails are written so badly, you don’t even want to read the log line.

You're in that line somewhere, so your chance has to come eventually, right?
You’re in that line somewhere, so your chance has to come eventually, right?

That’s just the first guy, and he’s already too bombarded by bad ideas to even consider your half-way decent idea. If you happen to get the manager, who will read your stuff, tell you how to fix it, and help you develop your craft, you still have to get that polished turd into the hands of someone with money to pay you for your time (and your manager’s too).

They say Hollywood is like a small town, where everyone knows everyone. Your shot at the big time is so far away, you’ll have run, climb, swim, and fly to get there. Even if you do, what if that one chance lands in the wrong hands? Not what they’re looking for right at that moment, and it turns into a waste of their time, and now you’re on a list in a computer that tells everyone else that they shouldn’t waste their time either.

We haven’t even found an agent yet, or a lawyer, neither of which will waste any of the little squares in their scheduling calendar on you until you’ve proven you can find work. Usually this means actually finding work.

So what’s the secret? There must be a science to it, because the Internet is saturated with persons and companies that swear they have the sure-fire formula for breaking into the business. If that is true, what is holding all these hundreds of thousands of Hollywood hopefuls back?

No wonder regular people can't figure out the Hollywood job formula: i sure don't have a degree in theoretical particle physics.
No wonder regular people can’t figure out the Hollywood job formula: i sure don’t have a degree in theoretical particle physics.

I think it goes back to the original conundrum: writing. If you suck, you suck, and that’s a really hard teet to ween from. Anyone can aspire to do something, and when you have websites and magazines selling the email addresses of every script buyer in the world, of course every American Idol schmuck that got too much unwarranted praise from their family is going to give it a shot.

There is also an originality debate. You need to have an original idea, but it can’t be so original that there’s no telling if people will like it. That’s just too risky for anyone to pledge a hundred million dollars to, and that makes perfect sense.

Personality is also a big part of the equation. Say you get into that meeting, and you pitch your project like the village idiot with a stray cat. Who is going to want to start a long-term business relationship with you, especially when they’ll have to introduce you to people with money, and pretend that you’re the next big thing? if I owned the agency, I’d fire myself.

Then there’s the middle of the sandwich, the PB&J: perseverance, blink luck, and just plain patience. Okay, it didn’t work out well as an acronym, but you get the picture. You’ve got to keep fighting, working on your craft, improving your skills on and off the typewriter, and then after years of submitting queries, entering contents, and going to pitch fests, you still have to be in the right place, with the right idea, at the right time.

Not that I’m telling bad writers to move aside and let those folks with a real chance to stand out more. I’m definitely not saying that, especially because I’m not sure which side of that particular fence I’d land on. Follow your dreams, but don’t just dream about following them.

There you have it, the equation of screenwriting success, as far as I fail to understand it right now. Work hard, be good, don’t give up. And maybe buy some online guy’s ultra secret list of top executive emails and blast them into space; who knows? Luck may be all you need.

If you think you’re going to fall ass-backwards into money for nothing, maybe you should keep you day job for now, just in case.

The Business of Family

You’ve always heard people say, “it’s all about who you know”. I can personally attest to this fact, as every job I ever got, before I began working for the grocery industry, someone helped me acquire. Even now, as I wait for a phone call from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, I realize it’s a potential for employment that a person close to me academically set up.

Family. Friends. Former associates. This is how many people achieve a lot of goals in life, There’s nothing wrong with it, especially if you’re on the inside.

Ah man, they even got fancy dinner mints I always see on reality TV.
Ah man, they even got fancy dinner mints I always see on reality TV.

But what if you are on the outside, looking in? That enormous Christmas goose in the window has already been promised to someone the butcher knows personally, so it’ll be canned ham for you and yours. Is it fair? Even if you had the money you couldn’t buy that goose, simply because you don’t know the butcher.

How many times have to clocked in at your job, looked at the lazy schmuck running your department, and accidentally said aloud, “how did he get that job?”

“His dad is friends with the boss,” a co-worker disdainfully replies.

It’s the same in places like Hollywood. I’ve read that Hollywood is a small place, that everyone knows you, who you are, and what you’re all about. If you aren’t the kind of person people want to work with, word gets around fast and no one wants to work with you. If your mother has won an academy award for dramatic acting, that gets around pretty fast, too.

I recently found a passion for screenwriting. My first screenplay, a fantasy-action-adventure, is something I’ve spent more time on than probably any other single pursuit. After much research into the modern difficulties of breaking into the business, I decided that my best course of action would be to hire a company called SpecScout. What they do is take a spec script, like mine, and run it through a three-person critical analysis, then return the results to you.

The company is small but respected in the industry for its scoring system, on which if you place high enough, they will invite you to join their spec script library, which is accessed by producers and movie studios. According to their own literature, their script scoring system places the average quality of all screenplays currently for sale in Hollywood in the immediate 70 range.

After paying the fee and waiting a month, I got my screenplay back. I scored an exact 70, with 75 being the cutoff for invitation into the SpecScout agency. For a first effort, I was overjoyed, and the fifteen pages of notes I received about my screenplay were a great boon to my knowledge base.

I am currently re-tooling my screenplay, based on the suggestions and criticisms I received. I will be allowed to re-submit it, for a discounted price, and should be able to pop myself over thebar and find my way into the outer edges of the movie industry.

The question remains: if my first screenplay is “industry average,” am I going to be really good at it, or is Hollywood keeping its borders closed to new talent, and working with the same people it always has? We’ve all left the theater at some point wishing for a refund, but if you paid close attention to the credits, you’d probably notice that the bomb you just saw was written by the same person who penned a bomb you saw before.

Mr. DeMille, I think he meant you.
Mr. DeMille, I think he meant you.

I’m not saying I’d have a perfect list of top-notch films, but I’m wondering how many amazingly written works never get a chance to be a motion picture, simply because too much of the movie making machine is focused on its own inner workings.

Now, there’s a lot going on, and you can’t just blame the writer, but if a person is churning out sub-average screenplays and continues to find work, what gives? Are they just that fun to be around, or have they been accepted into the fold and made a member of the family? All I can say for sure: if anyone I know has a sister,¬†or Uncle, or friend of a friend in a Hollywood agency or management company, feel free to give me a call.

So I keep company with good people without the power to make things happen. Someone has to know someone who knows somebody…