I would imagine most people who chase after careers in the film business think of their success or failure in the same way most people hope to win the lottery. I think a career in film is more like being a fish. Fish travel in schools. Sometimes the green fish is ahead and sometimes the green fish is behind, but the pack moves together in unison toward the shared goal of making it big in the movies. Every once in awhile, someone from the school gets plucked out of the water, or eaten by a shark, but the school itself just keeps moving forward in the dogged pursuit of whatever comes next.
Six weeks ago, I attended the Cannes Film Festival for the red carpet premiere of my short film, THE DARK OF NIGHT. It was a once in a lifetime experience that it made me realize just how few people ever make it in the film business. For every actor who enjoys a hit right out of the starting gate and who remains an A list actor all their working lives, there are hundreds of thousands of people who never get past security. The ones who do find themselves part of a smaller group of fish, the ones who have had some degree of success, who are always one step ahead of, or behind, one another.
Ten days ago, I was in California for the Palm Springs Short Film Festival, a seminar at Amazon Studios sponsored by the Athena Film Festival, and a pitch meeting with Mark Gordon Studios. I realized once I got there that over half the people I met were people who had competed against me in a screenwriting competition I had won, or people I had lost a competition to at some point in the past year or two.
Brandi Ford was an Athena List Finalist the year I was an Athena List Winner. This year Brandi was selected as an HBO Access Fellow, one of eleven fellows out of over 3500 submissions, one of which was mine. Pearse Lehane has won the Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay competition twice, and this year he was also the winner of the Emerging Screenwriters competition. I won the Atlanta Film Festival Screenwriting Competition as well, but came in ninth in the Emerging Screenwriters Contest. Dee Chilton was selected by the Black List for a weekend long workshop at the Athena Film Festival and has since landed an agent, her first short film is in the can, and the script that landed her as a semi-finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship has been optioned, whereas I have never made it past the top fifteen percent of writers who submit to the Nicholl Fellowship, the number one screenwriting competition in Hollywood.
In less than a week, I take my place again at the front of the pack with an eight day mentorship as part of the New York Stage and Filmmakers Powerhouse Season at Vassar College. This was an invitation only opportunity and both the mentors and my fellow mentees have such impressive credentials that I half wonder how I had the incredible good fortune to be asked to apply in the first place, let alone be selected to participate in such an amazing program.
For point of reference, the NY Stage and Film organization workshops plays every summer at the Powerhouse Theater to get them ready for Broadway. A little play called “Hamilton” got its start at the Powerhouse Theater a few years back, about the time the film part of the organization decided to work their same magic with film and TV writers. Only a handful of writers are chosen. I think I may be one of the few with a measly bachelors degree; most have masters degrees in film from places like Harvard, Yale and Columbia University. Some have produced feature length films, others have won major screenwriting contests, and one secured a spot with the Writers Lab, the Meryl Streep funded workshop for female writers over 40 in 2016.
I am curious to see where all this goes. I used to think that winning a screenwriting contest meant instant success. But I know now that we are all swimming together in this small school of silver fish, and while our collective opportunities to avoid becoming bait are higher than most people’s, we are all just a school fish waiting to see what happens next.