I was watching “Stranger Things” last week, when I heard the opening notes to New Order’s “Elegia” trickle in behind the mourning scene in “The Acrobat and the Flea” episode (I won’t elaborate any more on that, because, you know… spoilers).
I was jolted back to my freshman year at college, when my friends and I made a short film called “Welcome to the Machine,” utilizing that exact same song behind our mourning scene.
That year, a larger than anticipated number of people enrolled in the Tisch film program. And due to the limited amount of equipment, not all of those incoming students could participate in freshman production classes. As fate would have it, my friends and I were part of that group of pseudo-outsiders, designated as “Alternate Curriculum” students.
Naturally, that kind of sucked. But we all came to NYU to make movies, so holding off until we were sophomores wasn’t going to fly. Instead, we decided to make them anyway. Outside of class.
That fall, many nights, weekends, and free days were devoted to shooting and editing our 25-minute digital opus. Although my primary role in that project was as an actor, I’m pretty proud of what we were able to pull off together.
Sadly, the story doesn’t end with us becoming the darlings of that year’s Sundance Film Festival (though that would’ve been awesome, right? Remind me when my biopic is produced to make that happen for dramatic effect). Instead it just serves as a reminder of what’s possible once you decide you don’t need permission to pursue your goals.
In the professional world, screenwriters shouldn’t just spend all their time chained behind the keyboard, waiting for the million-dollar spec sale or put pilot commitment to fall into their lap. Because, let’s be honest, the odds are not in your favor there. They’re not in anyone’s, really.
Sure, back in the 90’s it was all about the spec script. You wrote one after another and hoped you’d win the “lottery.” Those days are gone, however, and devoting all your time to churning out a pile of specs – even a really tall, charismatic pile, with the good brads – might not be the best way to get your foot in the door anymore.
We can complain about the circumstances. Writers are good at that kind of thing. Probably a bit too good. It’s not fair. We don’t have enough opportunities to get read. Too many sequels and not enough new ideas. How can we build a track record if no one gives us a chance in the first place? When I ask for room for cream, I don’t mean give me half a cup of coffee. Blah blah waaah.
It’s time to stop griping and time to start taking action. Get out there and make something happen. More specifically – make something.
This is the age of DIY. Professional grade cameras are incredibly affordable and editing software can be installed in a laptop. Digital publishing is no longer seen as automatically tainted or illegitimate. Web series have their own award shows and festivals.
Just within the past few years, there’s been stunning success stories to prove the point.
The self-published book, “The Martian,” became a blockbuster Matt Damon movie directed by Ridley Scott. The Twitter account, “$#*! my Dad Says,” was developed into a sitcom starring William Shatner. The Web series, “Drunk History,” was recently picked up for its fourth season on Comedy Central, while “Broad City” was renewed for its fourth and fifth.
Granted, these are the home runs, but there are infinite levels of success that can be mined that flat-out didn’t exist before. Which is not to say you should stop writing screenplays altogether, but instead, diversify your output and your opportunities.
All around me, my creative peers are exploring and exploiting these very possibilities. My friend Doug Stark made the web pilots, “Shining City” and “GROOMer.” The multi-talented Ungers created the animated franchise, “The Punky Pets.” Madellaine Paxson and Eddie Guzelian produced an indie horror film called, “Blood Punch.” And writer Mike Katz self-published his latest novel, “Dearly Befuddled.”
Like them, my frequent partner, Rhonda Smiley, and I decided to try something else. Something new for us.
We recently finished the script for our first graphic novel, “Blowback,” and are searching for the right artist to bring it to life. Rhonda is also getting close to finishing her debut novel, “Asper.” We’re widening the net. Increasing the odds of something happening.
Maybe you should too.
Do you have a contained feature you could fund yourself or through Kickstarter? Maybe you have an idea that could make an excellent short film or web series. Perhaps a print-on-demand book.
Those projects might just lead to something else. Sure, there’s a chance they don’t come out the way you envisioned. Maybe some of them are downright awful. But that only helps you learn what to do differently next time. And just the feeling that you’ve created a final product, and not just the blueprint for something that may never come to life, can make it all worthwhile.
It feels pretty good.
So don’t wait for anyone’s permission. Give yourself the green light you’ve been desperately seeking and make some magic.
Seriously, why are you still reading this? Get off the internet and make it happen, dammit.