Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!

There’s a word used among professional writers that describes those who refuse to write anything for which they do not feel a deeply emotional connection: unemployed.

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to manage on occasion to make a living putting words to paper understand that writing is first and foremost a job, and not a form of personal expression. On occasion, you may be lucky enough to work on a project that you love, but it will almost invariably pay far fewer bills than the ones you loathe.

Two men who understand this better than almost anyone are Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, former members of the MTV comedy group The State and two of Hollywood’s most successful comedy hacks (THE PACIFIER, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM and HERBIE: FULLY LOADED, among many others). In the nonfiction paperback WRITING MOVIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT: HOW WE MADE A BILLION DOLLARS AT THE BOX OFFICE AND YOU CAN, TOO!, they explicitly detail the unpleasant (but amusing) realities of being a successful screenwriter in the studio system, most of which are guaranteed to send anyone with even the slightest pretension of creating art or experiencing personal fulfillment running screaming to Austin, Texas, where they’ll spend the rest of their life talking about the brilliant independent movies they’ll never make.

As frequently hilarious as it is, Lennon and Garant’s book is not satiric in its intentions. They mean everything they say in it, and chances are, the people who need to hear their hard-earned wisdom the most are the ones least likely to heed it.

The fact is, the nature of the studio system is such that most of what gets produced is going to be shit. That’s irrelevant. All that matters to those who write that shit is this: Did it make money and, if it did, did I get credit for it?

Like I said, many readers will undoubtedly find this revelation to be extremely cynical and antithetical to the creation of art. Those readers are wrong. Lennon and Garant truly understand the medium and business they are working in. Unlike most of the people who’ll end up buying and reading WRITING MOVIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT, they are working writers, and in Hollywood, that occasionally means having two weeks to rewrite two completely new drafts of a Martin Lawrence movie, much of which involves indulging his desire to include a scene where he resuscitates a parrot.

If you read that line and immediately thought, “I’m not a whore. I would never do that!,” don’t read this book. It’s not for you. Keep working on the script for your silent, black-and-white Nikola Tesla biopic. I’m sure it’ll get made someday. On the other hand, if the only thought that occurred to you was, “How much would I get paid for that?,” this book is an absolute must-read.

Truth be told, a lot of what Lennon and Garant tell you to do is pretty obvious. The problem is that most people enter the industry assuming that their talent is going to give them a free pass and allow them to write their own rules. The book squashes this myth as hard as it possibly can. Hollywood doesn’t want you to be the next Charlie Kaufman — it already has one of those. What it wants is someone who will take their notes — all of them — and apply them to the script, regardless of how badly it fucks the whole thing up.

Sometimes, Lennon and Garant’s wisdom is counterintuitive. For example, they explain that in many cases, the best thing that can happen to you is get fired (and, they add, you will get fired at some point; it’s inevitable). Usually, this means the studio still wants to make the script you’ve been working on. If enough of your material makes it into the final product, you’ll get a credit, which means making money without having had to do all of that extra work.

Their advice about dealing with the stars who can get your script produced is equally intriguing. Never, they warn you, ask a movie star for anything, even if it’s just a glass of water to quench your thirst. Stars spend their whole day dealing with other people’s requests, and the last thing they want is someone else on their back. And you have to take their notes and put them in the script. No matter how stupid they are. Remember Martin Lawrence and the parrot?

Time is also spent on such seemingly petty details as formatting your script (the rules actually change from studio to studio), how your studio parking space is the best indicator of your status in the industry, and the importance of living in Los Angeles if you want to be a successful screenwriter (it’s really, really important).

The one area where they don’t waste a lot of energy is telling you how to write a script. Robert McKee (the world-famous “story consultant” of BARBIE AS THE ISLAND PRINCESS) has made millions telling folks how to write the perfect screenplay, but Lennon and Garant reduce the formula to a much simpler equation: Watch DIE HARD, then do that.

It’s smart advice from a smart book that manages the neat trick of being highly entertaining, genuinely informative and hilariously cynical at the same time. WRITING MOVIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT is a solid dose of reality that many aspiring screenwriters will insist doesn’t apply to them. I hope they have fun working at Starbucks. —Allan Mott

Buy it at Amazon.

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2 Comments »

Comment by John A. IKarr
2012-07-16 06:41:53

Dose of reality with this one. Wonder how their approach compares with the best seller novelists out there, some of whom may feel the same, but perhaps others are still passionate about their works.

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Comment by Phil Gladwin
2012-08-20 11:16:33

Got to love that opening paragraph. So, SO true!

And the rest of the article is pretty good too.

“Hollywood doesn’t want you to be the next Charlie Kaufman — it already has one of those. What it wants is someone who will take their notes — all of them — and apply them to the script, regardless of how badly it fucks the whole thing up.”

and

“in many cases, the best thing that can happen to you is get fired (and, they add, you will get fired at some point; it’s inevitable).”

Couldn’t agree more, on both counts. But it’s still a dream job – the art is to find the beauty and the passion even on jobs you don’t think you will connect to. Keep a tiny corner of the script that is yours. It almost always can be done.

Great post, thanks. I’d better take a look at that book.

Phil

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