The Unspoken Path To Hollywood Success: Betray, Crush, Destroy Your Peers
I hope I’ve illustrated some lesser-known struggles facing people trying to break into television writing. Today, I’m going to talk about something you probably knew: it’s incredibly competitive. But it’s competitive in a much weirder way than you think. For instance …
They’ll Stab You in the Back…
Yes, screenwriting is competitive. There’s only so many movies and shows getting made, and most of the writing spots are for established writers. There’s precious few spots for writers with no credits. It’s no surprise that this means there’s an incredible amount of competition for those scarce positions, as they’re rarer than a Dodge Neon that doesn’t shake like a shuttle taking off when you break forty miles per hour. Which in turn means that the scrabbling between writers to get those jobs is everything short of gladiatorial combat. Actually, I wish it was gladiatorial combat: I’m a weak anemic nerd, but in term of writers I’m definitely in the top oneth percentile of Having Been Punched in the Face, so I like my odds there better than relying on my “talent” and “personality.”
The problem this scarcity of jobs for new hires creates is twofold. Because it’s so competitive, there’s been an upsetting uptick in people who realize, hey, these people are desperate – that means we can take advantage of them! Some comedy shows, particularly sketch comedy shows, accept submission packets. But if you look in the fine print, they technically own every joke you submit whether you get hired or not. And, at least for awhile, a few big-name shows also put in the fine print that they were legally allowed to use any jokes you ever posted to social media, or ever will post to social media, even in a hundred years when we’re all scrolling Pavolvr, the only social media app that hooks directly to your brain’s dopamine centers.
And look, in some sense, I get why they do this. This indemnifies them against being sued in case they happen to use a joke that a writer uses. The internet, particularly Twitter, is just a non-stop joke machine churning out millions of jokes a day, nearly nine of which are actually funny. Odds are, eventually, someone will make a joke online that someone in the writer’s room also came up with. It’s just bound to happen. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t also some concerning cases of extreme similarity, which is why I’ve never submitted a packet. Also because if I’m selected I have to live in New York, and if I wanted to live in Worse Chicago I’d just move to East St. Louis where at the least the pizza isn’t just Cheese-Flavored Additive on a lightly toasted roofing shingle. Yeah, that’s right, I like my pizza Chicago style: an entire loaf of bread with a thin veneer of tomato sauce that makes me want to hibernate after I eat it.
Those examples are all indirect, though. There are also cases where free work is expected. I’ve heard firsthand of people being asked to give free pitches as part of interviews. More and more free work seems to be expected of people trying to break in. There’s also what I’ve heard called “braintrust rooms,” which are where, instead of a standard writer’s room where episodes are written week-to-week, a smaller lump sum is paid to a handful of writers to pitch an entire season’s worth of content over a day or two. Then some of the writers will be chosen to write those scripts on a freelance basis, maybe. This is more common in animation, probably due to them having less powerful unions, and it super sucks because instead of fostering a sense of unity and camaraderie among writers it’s essentially pitting writers against each other.
I once got an offer to come up with an entire season’s worth of ideas and jokes for a TV show on a well-known basic cable network over the course of a long weekend for exactly zero dollars and zero cents. But they did offer me nearly twenty dollars a day in non-refundable meal vouchers! I didn’t take that job, by the way. Well, I guess “job” is being generous, since traditionally jobs give you some form of compensation. Oh boy, I love working in an industry with roughly the same labor practices as a Reconstruction-era uranium taste-testing factory! To further illustrate my point: I was a professional editor for years, so when I first moved to LA I looked for editing jobs to keep the lights on. Here’s a real-ass ad I saw on Craigslist:
The flipside of this crappy, crappy coin is this: Having so many young and hungry writers has fostered a culture wherein some on the trying-to-break-in side of the equation will do unscrupulous things to get a leg up. It’s rare, but I’d be lying if I said it was completely unheard of for wannabes to step on each other’s necks if it means they can get even the slightest advantage. Work in Hollywood long enough and you will eventually see someone who wronged you personally be richly rewarded for it. It’s like if the Olympics had an event called Toddler Kicking with a hefty cash prize.
Here’s a personal example. I really struggled with whether or not to include this for reasons I’ll get to later, but someone I believed was one of my closest friends got their big break and asked for my help coming up with ideas for the movie they were going to be in. Which I did, with the agreement being they’d help me out when the movie dropped and they had some cultural cachet. I should probably mention this person was my roommate and we’d been friends since fifth grade.
When their first check cleared they moved out with less than a week’s notice after swearing they weren’t planning on moving out, which was a devastating financial blow to my wife and I. I wrote several ideas that were used in the movie they starred in. I got nothing except a Special Thanks in the credits, because I thought I was helping my friend so I gladly gave my creativity away for free. Now I have to see their big dumb traitorous face on billboards, DVD covers, and even on Netflix’s ‘Hey Asshole, You Took Too Long Microwaving Your Spaghetti-O’s So Here’s a Series of Stills’ feature. You’ve statistically almost certainly seen the movie in question. I won’t tell you what it is, so don’t ask. This feeling is what I imagine it’s like if your family was murdered by Sweet James.
…While Smiling in Your Face
The urge to gossip in screenwriting communities is ineluctable. Birds must fly south for the winter. Dogs must chase rabbits. White women turn thirty and become compelled to get weird little dots tattooed on their fingers. So it is with screenwriting and gossip. But here’s the really weird part about all of this: remember earlier when I said I wrestled with whether or not to share that story up there? That’s because there’s a culture in screenwriting of never, ever saying a bad word against a fellow creative.
It’s not just that there’s a taboo against airing your dirty laundry in public in a way that could hurt another person’s career. There’s a taboo against even lightly criticizing a movie or TV show you didn’t like. I’ve seen several showrunners claim that before they’ll even consider hiring a writer they go through their Twitter feed to make sure they’ve said anything as unforgivably diabolical as “I found the second season Young Sheldon to have somewhat less thematic cohesion than the first.” You absolute monster. You make me wish Hell was real so that you’d get the eternal punishment you so richly deserve.
I’m exaggerating for comedic effect, but not as much as you might think. It’s honestly difficult to overstate how deeply ingrained the idea of Never Criticize has become, but it’s also unevenly applied. When a relative outsider like Taylor Sheridan saying that he gets snubbed at awards time for not making shows that appeal to coastal elites, then all bets are off and the Dunkathon has begun. Look, I get that the phrase “coastal elites” has become something of a dog whistle, but does it really rankle TV writers that much to be called a “coastal elite?” You pretend for a living! You are a coastal elite! If being accused of being out of touch makes you that mad, spend a summer planting fence posts for federal minimum wage and then get back to me.
It’s bizarre. Why can’t we just admit that we’re all scrabbling, fighting, and occasionally screwing over each other like a burlap sack full of Tasmanian devils? Why do we have to do performative niceness, too? I assume this began as a reaction to fandoms being the largest group of psychopaths outside of people who are rude to waitstaff. Fandoms can and have used the internet as their personal Hate Outlet Device, and writers are often at the receiving end of that. But I think we may have overcorrected somewhat. Through my work with Cracked I have become the level of Known On The Internet that I have occasionally been looking at something completely unrelated to myself and seen, in the comments, a discussion of how much I suck. I survived. It was fine. I never let a discussion about how much I suck ruin one of my childhood birthday parties, Grandpa, and I don’t let it ruin my looking-at-pictures-of-cats-on-Reddit experience. It comes with the territory.
Is There a Lesson In All This?
It’s a B.S. game, but you don’t have to play it. You can be better. You can rise above it. Don’t play the nasty little politics. Don’t let fear rule you. You probably will get screwed. It’s almost a rite of passage. And when you do, please, please don’t let it make you bitter. This industry, and maybe this world, needs nothing less than it needs another bitter cynic. Don’t use what happens to you to justify doing it to someone else. Here’s my pet theory: there are basically two types of people in the world. There are those who suffer and believe that if they don’t make others suffer in turn, it makes their suffering meaningless – and there are those who believe their suffering only gains meaning if they work towards a world where no one has to suffer like that again. This isn’t just the film industry, I don’t think: I think it explains why people are against student debt forgiveness, and socialized healthcare, and free lunch for impoverished kids, and any number of things.
There are people who would stab you in the kidney if it meant they’d get a non-union “Special Thanks” credit on The Real Housewives of Anchorage. That’s true. It just is, no matter how much cozy wholesome hugbox niceness you see on social media. But there’s some good news, too: lots of writers are really, really cool people. I’d even say most of them are. When I moved to LA I had virtually no friends here outside of the one who would eventually screw me over so bad I nearly had to give up and move back to Indiana. But now virtually all of my friend group here are writers, and I’m incredibly grateful to have them in my life. Find the people you genuinely like, whose work you genuinely respect, and you can rise together.
Damn them that would screw you over. Damn them that pull the ladder up behind them. They’ll be successful, and they’ll probably never face a reckoning for what they did, but you know what you’ll have that they don’t? One of the rarest things in the world: a writing career in Hollywood and an intact soul.
Ultimately, I believe that we can work together to build a better Hollywood. One where we lift each other up in a meaningful and material way, not just punishing anyone who dares to voice a dissenting opinion on art. Or, at the very least, we can get them to stop testing the accuracy of prop catapults by firing PAs out of them.
I stand by all of this. I have principles. Unless you’re in a position to hire me as a staff writer or option one of my scripts and were upset by something I wrote, in which case I was just goofin’ and will publicly recant!
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, or even to be staffed on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on twitter.
Top image: Seamind224/Shutterstock