Go Into the Arts . . . I’m Not Kidding

How the muses kill . . . and fulfill at the same time

Banner by R.D Francis: Kurt Vonnegut image courtesy of brainpickings.org and”Warhol” image processing via imgonline.com.ua (Ukraine)

“Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
— Kurt Vonnegut

And with that Vonnegut-bred tenacity, I write.

Movie reviews. Music journalism pieces. And screenplays that I then adapt into novellas. And I make little to no money doing it. Your friends don’t understand. Your family doesn’t understand. But Kurt Vonnegut understands. And my fellow-unknown music and film critics, journalists, screenwriters, and non-fiction and fiction novelists understand: it’s never about the money. It’s about the journey. It’s about enriching your heart, mind, and spirit. It’s about looking at yourself in the mirror and realizing you faced down the demon. It’s about going to bed exhausted, satisfied with your good day’s work in promoting an unknown musician, actor or director, or creating a world out of your own mind.

But it sure would be nice to earn a decent living from writing and not depend on a day job.

But I am also a realist. The odds of having one of my novellas or rock journalism books optioned are as astronomical as having one of my screenplays optioned.

Why?

Hollywood is only interest in books that are best sellers, that is, books that have been vetted by the book-buying public.

One of those vetted examples is Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L James, a book christened by vetted reviewer-critics as “the worst-written book to top the ‘Best Sellers List’ of the New York Times.” And burgeoning screenwriters toiling at their laptops, querying screenplay after screenplay without success, expressed outrage that the erotica series (“It’s not even original! It’s nothing but a fan-fiction rip-off of Twilight, which, in themselves, were awful books turned into worse films!”) was optioned and made into (three) films — as their own works collect dust bunnies in the bottom desk drawer (in today’s digital realms: using up kilos on a flash drive).

Say what you will about the books and the films derived from Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. In the end, writing is about connecting with an audience. And a publisher read those manuscripts and saw the audience potential. And the ensuing consumer response for both books perked Hollywood’s collective ear.

I remember one of the film school students from several years ago that I worked with as an actor. He went off on an apoplectic, social media rant regarding his frustrations with Hollywood’s insistence on adapting books, comic books, and graphic novels, and rebooting previously released films. His clarion to the industry: come to our school, meet our students, and read all the unique, original stories we have to tell.

He currently works at an Applebees. I know because my girlfriend and I went out to dinner just prior to the COVID outbreak and he was serving customers — luckily not at my table. And thankfully, he didn’t recognize me. And he still owes me a DVD of clips of my scenes — the “payment” for working for free on his opus — the one he never finished and a situation the school was ambivalent to remedy. (Big surprise: that film program no longer exists.)

What my hash-slingin’ auteur-buddy failed to understand — and his film school instructor failed to teach to Spielberg, Jr. — is the reason Hollywood purchases best-sellers and adapts them is because book sales serve as a barometer of its box-office potential. There’s no point in a producer-shingle associated with a studio buying a book from an unknown and a non-vetted writer. In other words: me.

So, why does Hollywood buy books, Applebee Chilli Spielberg?

Yeah, didn’t think so. Pick up for table two. See you on the set, aka back alley dumpster pad, for a smoke break.

Hollywood doesn’t buy books for the stories contained within. Studios and their related production companies have a phalanx of screenwriters, ready-for-commission to write a similar story just like that book — and do it cheaper-than-a-book-option and with ease. So they don’t need the likes of an aspiring screenwriter and novelist such as, you guessed it: me.

And I realize the time-folly in — for fun and the educational high — of adapting a favorite novel of another writer, a comic book, or reimaging an old movie. And I realize the time-folly in thinking that, if I can’t sell my screenplays . . . and if I self-adapt and self-publishing my screenplays into a consumer-palpable novels, Hollywood will miraculous bang down my door.

Helloooo, big pond. Do you by chance need another fish? Like my fins?

Kurt Vonnegut’s signature image courtesy of Print Mag.com

One of my fellow screenwriters was hell-bent on buying a particular book for a “big spec sale.” He was absolutely, utterly convinced he was the only one capable of adapting it. Yep. He, the unknown screenwriter who never optioned or sold a screenplay, making a pest of himself with one unreturned phone call after another, and one ignored email after another. But he fared better with his letter-writing campaign: that garnered rejection letter after rejection letter — until a legally-acidic return correspondence told him, to put it bluntly: knock it off, we’re not interested. For the heart does not grow fonder in the rife of repetition. Ask any woman that’s filed a restraining order against an amorous suitor. (No: not me.)

What Spielberg, Jr. Jr. failed to understand is that you don’t buy a book outright (nothing like a large inheritance to fuel delusion): you option the book before you buy it. And that vetted producers option those books. And standard options runs 12 to 18 months; a timeline that allows the producer to hire a screenwriter to complete the adaptation. The subsequent screenplay is then used to pitch moneymen, so as to raise the budget to buy the actual adaptation rights, so the film can be put into production.

Granted, there are those flukes where an unknown writer with a self-published book (me) could, technically be optioned. Or a first-time screenwriter rolls the upload on a script hosting service’s green felts of chance or a pitch service’s roulette of fate and heads to the cashier’s window (not me). For I am not a New York Times Best Seller writer. So I am not netting a mid-to-high five-figure salary. Or six-figures of any amount. I’d — theoretically — option out enough money to head down to the local Trickster’s Used Auto Emporium and have that money stolen from me — with nothing but a dead-on-the-road beater to show for my sweat and brain cells burn-out. (Curse those 50% warranties with clauses and subsections that would give Sheldon Cooper pause.)

In the end: experienced, well-informed and vetted producers — the ones that would never be interested in the likes of me — don’t buy books. They option books and see if they can develop that book into a viable film property for an interested studio. Most times that producer will spend 18 months in development, the studio doesn’t bite, and the project dies.

On the other end: there’s the inexperienced producer — the local businessman or medical-entrepreneur with a zero-film skill sets that wants to “get into the movie biz”(for the chicks) — who could possibly want to option one of my screenplays or novels. But how much can that individual possibly pay me. And we’re back to being ripped of my payday at Trickster’s Used Auto Emporium.

Filmmaking is a business. And smart business is about minimizing risk and controlling the chaos. It’s why universities have course in Risk Management on their business curriculums. So producers do not buy: they option. Options are more cost-effective than a buy and create a reduced loss. And the sensible risk is to option an intellectual property to assure their company possesses the exclusive rights for said intellectual property for TV and film adaptations. Options are all about providing the opportunity and time to organize the manpower and financial resources to initiate a production. And sometimes it works. And most time — while the writer gets paid and gets to keep the money — it ends with no deal. No name on the theatrical one-sheets. No after-parties (if you’re even invited — most times, the writer isn’t). No glamour-filled days hanging out on film sets (screenwriters are rarely invited — or even permitted — to be on a set).

Courtesy of Redkid.net

In the end, a guy like me can dream. And he can self-publish. And sign up for screenplay hosting services. And pitch services. And cold query via snail mail (passé in the digital epoch) or email (making it easier for them to ignore you) literary managers. But the key is to never sellout. Never sell the exclusive rights to your work, for you’ll step into a legal twilight zone from which you’ll never escape. (Not that I’ll ever have that problem.) Always option your work. (Again, not a problem I need be concerned.) Let the studio or production company “buy the time,” that is, the exclusive rights to use your source material for project development during a determined timeline. Why sell your work outright — and give the exclusive rights in perpetuity — only to have them erase your name and put someone else’s name on it. Yeah, the money is great. But in addition to being a greedy creature, man is a vain creature. We need adulation. We need the jealously of others. We want credited for our work as well.

And that leads me to think of two of my favorite writers: H.P Lovecraft and Phillip K. Dick. Both died in Nikola Tesla-alogous obscurity and penniless — only to find fame posthumously. And I’d rather live poor and in obscurity than to relinquish my heart and my soul for money. But make no mistake: obscurity and its related poverty isn’t a sign of failure. It’s a sign of creativity that, in most cases (such as mine), the pockets are empty, but the heart is full and the soul is content.

So what if I don’t sell a screenplay or novella, or a music or film journalism article? I’m being constructive with my time and I’m happy.

And with that Vonnegut-bred tenacity, I write.

You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis at his Facebook Author’s Page.

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