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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Behind the script

Although Taxi Driver is famed for its dark and gritty story, its screenplay, written by now-acclaimed screenwriter Paul Schrader, was sold in a much more festive context.

“There was this wild beach party that Paul went to in Los Angeles, sometime in the ’70s, that was hosted by the producer Michael Phillips,” laughed Michael Hamilburg, Schrader’s first screenwriting agent, as he recalled the event in a phone interview. “It was one of those parties where everyone stayed up all night and woke up on the beach. And Michael Phillips called me the next day and said ‘Hey, we’re buying Taxi Driver. Paul really sold that screenplay himself.”

It sounds like a nice idea, but beach parties are not the secret to making it as a screenwriter in Hollywood. But what is? Talent? The right agent? Luck?

The answer is all of the above. And then some.

Although they write the words that make our stars famous, little is known about how screenwriters get started, how they break into the film industry and how successful they can become after selling their first script. Despite the constant obstacles that they are met with in Hollywood, aspiring and established screenwriters work tirelessly to get their stories heard for the craft that they love.

Writing a good screenplay can take years to learn and master. “Wannabe screenwriters are like wannabe actors, everyone thinks they can do it but no one puts any work in it. It took me 10 or 11 scripts to really figure out how to write a movie,” said Doug Atchison, 40, the screenwriter of Akeelah and the Bee.

Joel Stein, a columnist for Time Magazine who has recently begun writing for television, agrees that screenwriting can only be learned through experience. “I’ve written five pilots and right now I suck at it, but I’ve written thousands of columns and I’ve gotten fairly good at that. You’ve got to do a lot of writing, like Aaron Sorkin, who writes all his own stuff and had a ton of shows on the air [such as “The West Wing” and “Sports Night],” he said in a phone interview.

There are multiple outlets through which screenwriters can learn the structure of the craft.

William Parry, 49, who dropped out of NYU film school as a teenager when he was unable to afford tuition, utilized such teaching methods when he began to learn screenwriting after getting laid off from his high-tech job eight years ago. “I started by trying to write short films, and I spent a lot of time learning the structure of a script and the difference between writing a screenplay and writing something where you can look into someone’s mind.”

Writing a script is the first step in the long road to breaking Hollywood. Aspiring writers often begin by shopping around their “specs,” scripts that are written for free and are sold on the open market, rather than commissioned by a production company. According to Hamilburg, it is key for an aspiring screenwriter, especially a young nobody, to find a job either in a Hollywood studio or as a script reader. These jobs can introduce screenwriters to connections whom they could later show their “specs” to, and will give them valuable experience with movies.

“You have to understand both the movie-making side and the business side of the film industry. If you understand [the industry] more it will give you a feeling of belonging to it, and the more you feel like you belong the more confident you’ll get.”

Hamilburg added that this is why it’s so important for young screenwriters to move out to Los Angeles. “It’s a film community that makes you feel less like an outsider, even though you kind of are.”

Before selling Akeelah, Atchison got by mainly by doing odd writing jobs in L.A, such as adapting a novel into a television movie (which was never produced) and working as a “script doctor,” someone who rewrites screenplays that production studios aren’t satisfied with. According to Atchison, “there’s good money in rewriting scripts. Studios are motivated to get them done quickly because they need new scripts fast.”

The average payment for a script rewrite, according to the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), is around $19,000.

Another step on the road to Hollywood success is obtaining an agent.

According to Hamilburg, who is currently an agent for the Mitchell J. Hamilburg Agency, an agent is essential to a screenwriter. “There’s no magic button. The agent is the only way you’re really going to get a script to the producer.”

Atchison believes that getting an agent is not as important for an aspiring screenwriter as simply writing a good script. “You don’t want to chase agents, you want to write something that gets them to chase you. If you write a good screenplay, you put yourself in such a small minority of writers that you already give yourself an advantage.”

Atchison was noticed by agents after he won the Nicholl Fellowship, the most prestigious screenwriting competition in the country, for his script of Akeelah and the Bee in 2000, beating out more than 4,000 other entries.

The current minimum scale for an original screenplay is approximately $50,000. According to Hamilburg, most producers will first pay screenwriters around $5,000 to option a script, meaning the script is held by the studio for a year while producers try to find money and interest for the project. The majority of novice screenwriters are paid on scale.

Although the numbers and various fees involved in screenwriting can seem unglamorous, the success stories are enough to keep people working hard at the job. “It’s very similar to drug dealers,” said Stein. “The guy who sells drugs on the lowest level makes less than a guy at McDonald’s, but you keep doing it because of the possible chance of making a lot of money.”

Despite his success, Atchison was adamant about not discussing money details. “If you’re in screenwriting for the money, go become a producer, because there’s a lot more money in that. If you’re writing for the money, you’re setting up expectations that aren’t healthy for you to pursue. You have to do it because you love the craft.”

With today’s current state of the economy and major studios focusing mainly on making big-budget blockbusters, it has been harder than ever for screenwriters to find jobs. Atchison suggests writing for television.

Hamilburg suggests that wannabe screenwriters try to get themselves known through another outlet, such as journalism. “Paul was a movie reviewer for several Hollywood literary magazines, so he did something else which made people notice that he was a good narrative writer.”

It should be noted, though, that name recognition is not an instant ticket to Hollywood success. Stein, who wrote two pilots each for CBS and ABC, has yet to find success as a screenwriter, although he is hoping to soon option the idea of his upcoming book as a film adaptation for which he will write the first draft.

The journey to becoming a screenwriter is not an easy one, but the golden idea can strike from anywhere. Atchison came up with the concept for Akeelah while watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee on television.

And you never know when you’re going to have a big hit. Hamilburg had no idea Taxi Driver would be such a phenomenon when he first read the screenplay. “A screenplay is like a package or present, you don’t really know what’s going to come out of it,” he said.

Hamilburg does believe that there is one sure thing screenwriters can do in their hopes to succeed.

“Persevere – it’s cliché but true. And enjoy the ride.”

ANNETA KONSTANTINIDES can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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