Thursday, November 11, 2004


I probably get five inquiries a week that are a version of one of the following questions. (Note that each question comes with an implicit unspoken question. I'll write those in italics.)

- "I have a REALLY great idea for a movie. Can I tell it to you?"
"And can you find someone to buy it from me?"

- "My daughter/son/nephew/neighbor wants to be an actor/writer/director/composer, can you give him/her some advice about starting out?"
"And can you help them find a job?"

- "I've written a screenplay. Can you read it and tell me what you think?"
"And then can you find someone to buy it from me?"
OR, the new more recent twist,
"Can you get it to Mel Gibson?"

- "I just moved to L.A., can you help me get plugged in?"
"And can you help me find a job?" And/or "And can you get my script to Mel Gibson?

- "I'm totally passionate about the movie business. Should I go to film school?"
"Or do you just want to hire me now?"

- "I am a musician, do you know someone who could listen to my stuff?"
"And then pay me for it?"

- "I love the movie business, but I'm not sure whether I want to be a writer or director or actor. Where should I start?"
"Can't I just do them all? And when do you think I should start writing my Oscar speech?"

Thank God, there is a new ministry in town that has been set up just to take these questions out of the in-boxes of Act One, Inter-Mission, Actors Co-op, Hollywood Prayer Network, Premise, Open Call, CIMA, LAFSC, Mastermedia, Entertainment Fellowship, Reel Spirituality, and any of the other pastors, churches and ministries that serve the entertainment community.

Hollywood Connect is a program to help all of the people just getting off the bus, or those folks who are thinking about getting on the bus. It's a great, smart, comprehensive doorway in program that any Christian coming to Hollywood should check out seriously. Michelle Suh is the new Director of Hollywood Connect, and she has a thoroughly pastoral, ecumenical sensibility. And, as a professional musician, she can speak with heartfelt compassion as to how hard it is to make a start here.

A few more thoughts about the questions above...I feel a rant coming on.

The problem with all of the above questions is that the answers tend to be way more than the askers want, or are ready to hear. So, often, I just want to respond, "Why? What do you really want? Because I probably do not have that to give." Most of the time the implied, unspoken questions reveal their askers to be people who see the entertainment industry as a lottery, not as a profession.

The people who ask for connections to celebrities elicit another whole kind of sigh. I always want to say to them, "You really don't have any idea what you are asking."

For example, three times this week (which represents a dip in the weekly number of this particular request over the last year) people have asked me to make a connection for them to Mel Gibson. Two of the people wanted me to try and get Mel to speak at their place. The last one wants me to get Mel to endorse their book. What I always want to say back to these queries is, "And WHY should I make that call for you?"

First of all, I don't know Mel well enough to presume upon him to trust me to make a referral. Do you know what I mean? But, even if I did, it is, you know, inappropriate for people I barely know to ask me to make that connection for them. If anyone in this town acquires any kind of access to celebrity, it's been the result of lots of work and favors and relationships that come only from being in the middle of this weird world for a long time. It isn't fair to try and trade off that, pretty priceless, capital in a short-cut maneuver. One of my friends who works in TV calls it "looking for cheap grace."

Another point about the above questions is how many of them, at heart, have to do, not with art, but with making money. Christians are just as bad as everybody else in this area, and maybe even worse, because they always seem to squeeze in, "It isn't about the money for me." And I always want to respond, "Oh really? Cool! Here is a legal agreement in which you sign over complete ownership of the property to me. Need a pen?"

It is about the money. And in this business, it can be about lots of money. It is spiritually dangerous to underestimate how seductive the desire for money and celebrity can be.

Most of us who have been answering these questions for more than a couple years, are absolutely touched with cynicism. We have spent too many hours sincerely offering people notes on their work or talent, only to find that the person really didn't want that kind of help at all. They want to win the lottery, and you can discover this fairly easily when you try and give them some serious feedback. They move quickly from a posture of deference and sincerity to impatience. Then, as you keep bringing their attention to problems that will take years of application to fix, their eyes tend to flash in annoyance. And then they shut you off and walk away.

All of my friends have been through this many times. It makes you very suspicious.

When people come to me to talk about working in entertainment, I usually ask them many more questions than they ask me. Questions like, "Why?" That's the biggie. Then, "What are you good at?" and "What is the biggest problem you think you will have working in Hollywood?" and "How do you see yourself spending your working hours in this business?" and "How many years are you prepared to spend acquiring a skill that someone else will want to invest in?" and "How will you know when you are a success?"

When people ask me to read their script, I ask, "Why? What do you want from me?" If they say, "Your opinion." I say, "Why? Are you looking to rewrite it?" It's amazing how many people look at me and blink. They are, kind of, hoping I will LOVE LOVE LOVE the script (like that ever happens...) and then want to pass it along to my friend - the big studio producer guy. (Or, like, Mel...)

But even when people do indeed just want my opinion on their script, I still want to say, "You don't realize what you are asking!" See, I do this script reading stuff for a living. I'm good at it because I have read hundreds of scripts and because I spent $30,000 getting a degree in screenwriting from a top film school, and then, because I have spent years working with writers, and also, because I have spent six years sitting in the back of the classroom at an AMAZING scriptwriting training program. All of that has been an investment that I have made. And most of my friends in the business have paid the same price in different ways.

When you ask one of us to read your script, it's kind of like asking a lawyer to give you free legal advice, or asking a psychiatrist to give you a free two-hour session, or like asking a surgeon to do some free out-patient surgery.

And so we come back around to the thing I always want to say, "Why should I do that for you?"

And it isn't even just about getting paid to do it...even if the people who ask offer to pay...which most don't! Because, frankly, most of the efforts that come my way are too painful to make it worth reading for any amount of money...Well, not ANY amount of money, but certainly it isn't worth $300 to me. Or $500. And I imagine some day, it won't be worth $1000....Not there yet.

There's something about this business, that draws many more queries than any other. I think it's, again, because people disrespect Hollywood as a professional, skill-based environment. They think it's a game you have to win, as opposed to a career like any other. My dad was a museum director for forty years. I bet he only met two or three young people in those four decades who wanted to sit down with him to find out how they should break into the museum director business. That's because, people respect that being a museum director takes years of study and then working your way up while always getting better in a wide array of different skill-sets.

Working in Hollywood is like that.


Anonymous said...

Barbara, I can appreciate your frustration, but given that you run workshops for aspiring writers, I'd suggest not airing these feelings in public. Why not have a standard packet/letter/website of helpful getting started information and an apology that you cannot read unsolicited manuscripts due to prior commitments but wish your correspondents the best? Then refrain from deriding these folks. Given that you teach writing, I'd think that never abusing or deriding your potential clients (neophyte writers) in public ought to Customer Relations 101.

Miles Archer said...

[furiiously scribbling note to self] "Okay, cheap grace is bad."

Jakubczyk on Life said...

Ah Barbara, the price of fame and notoriety. Or as the old saw put it, no good deed goes unpunished. Do you sometimes just feel picked over like the carcus of a honey roasted chicken? Or is it the frustration of giving good advice, only to be ignored after making a serious effort to actually teach someone something?

Well, I will make you a deal. If I ever get inspired to write a script, I promise to let you tear it up and then I will rewrite it. If any of my children decide they want to go into the business, I will make sure they do not ask you for a job, and finally, I will make sure that they realize it is only after hard work and persistent effort that one may have the good fortune to succeed (that is of course unless they are a genius - at which point - I will call you right away).

Take care and don't feel bad. Everyone always asks me for free legal advice - all the time.

Hey - we can thank God that He has given us what we have to share.

the Joneses said...

I work at a Christian civil rights law firm, and we often give referrals to other lawyers if we can't help the person asking. I know that several lawyers on our referral list have later asked to be taken off, saying that too many people contacted them expecting (or demanding) free legal services, because after all, "You're a brother/sister in Christ!"

Cheap grace is a very good name for it.


Brennan said...


Thanks for posting that. I think it is helpful to let aspring writer/actors/directors know that "making it" in Hollywood requires skill and hard work. Plus I find your comments an enjoyable read.

Todd said...

On a more encouraging note: Have you been reading Zenit lately? The Holy Father is talking a lot about beauty and it's power to evangelize. I thought in light of your current writing for the register it might be encouraging.

Fr. Todd

gussiesmum said...

I see your point, but really, all I see when I have to watch a movie is terrible acting (think Lord of the Rings for one), poorly devised plots, sloppy editing. I don't enjoy watching movies anymore. If the material and acting were of better quality maybe it would discourage those who dream of a career in that field. But for a hopeful actor/writer to see the crap Hollywood puts out and how much people are paid for it why wouldn't they think, "Why can't I do that?" It is just too easy to think, "I am just watching some no-talent read off lines on a stage set," instead of getting into the story.

Janet said...

Responding to gussiesmum -- Lots of people feel the same way you do when they see a movie or TV show that doesn't hit the mark exactly.

It's like how I feel when I'm watching world-class ice skaters -- They make it look so easy, that I'm very quick to comment on how their spins aren't fully vertical, or they two-footed a landing. And what I forget is that these are the very best in the world at what they do, and what they do is so phenomenally difficult at this level, that seeing a near-perfect performance is close to a miracle.

That's the most realistic way to look at movies or TV. It's *incredibly* hard to do. (Especially comedy.) And the best writers/actors/directors make it look so easy that indeed, many people start to think, "I could do that." But when you watch something that isn't as fully realized as it could be, remember that -- these are the very best people in the world doing what they do better than anyone else, and they still flub up. Not because they're no good at what they do. But because it's *so* very hard to do.

Max Schadenfreude said...

The judges give Janet's reply a 9.9!

Anonymous said...

Well done Michelle Suh! World-class! ~_^

Anonymous said...

Shut up dj!

Anonymous said...

Cyber stalkers? What? Where? WTF?

Anonymous said...

OK! Who's Janet?

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Anonymous said...

I think I might of missed this the first time? Ah no. Looks like the same old junk as last time. Sorry Barbra but maybe you should clean up your blog more often and maybe even ban some IP's!

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Anonymous said...

Sorry Michelle.

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