Hollywood, Schmollywood

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A year ago I was frantically shopping for clothes to make my first appearance on the red carpet in Cannes with Robin Wright, Nini Le Huynh and Alfonso Carrion for THE DARK OF NIGHT. Anyone who knows me well knows I am anything but a fashion plate.  I needed…everything…Spanx, bras, shoes, an evening gown, underpants.  I hadn’t had a manicure or pedicure in years, Diana Ferguson sent me a gorgeous pair of earrings she’d made because I didn’t have any jewelry worth mentioning,  plus I spent a fortune getting what good clothes I had dry cleaned,  crammed everything in a suitcase you could have transported a body in and headed to the airport.

The Cannes Film Festival put us up at the Hotel Martinez, which was the host hotel for the event, so I had a front row seat to everything that happened, from celebrity departures opening night, to the scores of paparazzi surrounding the hotel every day waiting to photograph every move anyone made, to breakfast with Robin and Nini each morning of our stay, to the anniversary dinner honoring the 70th edition of the film festival with everyone from Monica Belluci to Julianne Moore in attendance.

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Before I left I had nightmares I would return to the job I had at the time, fixing toilets in RV’s with my husband, Michael, instead of a career in film we had both worked so hard for. Despite having gotten into a number of other films festivals, having our film selected by the LA Femme International Film Festival as Best Short, and recently winning a Gold Award from the L.A. Neo Noir Film Festival, it was back to the RV business with a vengeance.

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I told myself when I got back there were five screenwriting competitions or fellowships I would submit to last year and if I got into any one of them, I would know I was on the right track. I won a coveted fellowship with the New York Stage and Filmmakers Workshop at Vassar, but I didn’t make the cut for any of the five competitions I’d set for myself as a yardstick, and it was through the New York Stage and Filmmakers Workshop that I did begin meeting people who HAD succeeded where I had failed, including Academy Award winning producers, actors, TV executives and directors.

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Despite having had major success at the box office, and sometimes an Oscar to show for it, they are no better off, or farther along than I am.

And that’s when the reality of the business I am hit me like a ton of bricks.

Hollywood is worst business model on the planet. And a huge part of why the business model is so successful, is the way in which it encourages massive insecurity and complete lack of access all while lamenting the inability to find and foster qualified talent.  No other business would a market a product that made investors millions and then refuse to make any other product like it because the last one was an  “anomaly,” and yet that is the way Hollywood works and does business on a daily basis.

I wrote a script called RIDE THE WIND, about motorcycle legend, Bessie Stringfield four years ago. The script is under option with Jay Ellis, who stars in INSECURE and he told me not long ago that while every executive who’s read it, loves it, they just can’t imagine a market for a period piece about a black woman. HIDDEN FIGURES made $252 million domestically on a $25 million dollar budget, but NO ONE CAN FIGURE OUT HOW A MOVIE WITH A BLACK FEMALE LEAD COULD POSSIBLY MAKE A DIME, so there the script sits, with no one attached to direct or star even though an article in the New York Times came out a few weeks ago about Bessie Stringfield that everyone read and everyone forwarded to me, and I swear to God, I can hear at least a dozen people frantically writing scripts about her as I type this, because the story is that good and 20 MILLION people on Facebook watched a Timeline video about her, and if that’s not enough to convince you there is a market for this then I don’t know what is. But no one in Hollywood can even begin to imagine how a script about a black woman with a remarkable, unsung life, could POSSIBLY make any money at the box office.

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Someone will make this movie someday, and I fear it won’t be me, and that, in some kind of nutshell, is what this business is all about. I belong to a group of women writers who are so close to that goddamned brass ring it has all but smacked them in the face, and many are at the point where they have started to wonder what THEY are doing wrong and what THEY can do to change a system that has its own ever-changing set of rules.  Other businesses make sense. Why the hell doesn’t this one?

I think it’s because there are people who get handed the Golden Ticket to the Show early in life, and never look back. That doesn’t mean everything else in their lives comes as easily, but it leaves the rest of us thinking, what did they do that I didn’t, and how I can do that same thing, and for me, after nearly three months of the worst depression I have ever encountered in my entire life, I finally decided that the idea that you have to give 150% just to get passed over, doesn’t work for me anymore.

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I will be 59 years old this year. I don’t have the time or the patience to spend countless years of my life chasing after something I don’t understand, that seems as random as getting cancer, or winning the lottery, or being chosen as a Nicholls Fellow. I set out to become the best writer I could be, and after winning several script competitions and advancing, twice now, to the second round of Sundance writing labs, walking the red carpet at Cannes, and working to hone my craft, I have come to the conclusion that if Hollywood wants me, they are going to have to come to me. I want to work on my house, and take the trips I’ve been holding off on thinking someday the career I’d always dreamed of would be a reality and I would have the resources I needed to do the things I want to. I have started painting again, and when I start to write again, I will write what fills my soul, and if I ever make it to Cannes again, it will be with Michael, either on the red carpet, or not.

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And here’s the thing…

For the first time in my life, a literary agency reached out to me, just last week, asking to represent me. They are a boutique agency based out of Montreal with connections to the European market where the kinds of independent films and TV series I write are coveted. This could finally be my time, and, it could not.

But either way I have made peace with the idea that this is either meant to happen, or it’s not. My job is to be an amazing writer. The rest is out of my hands.

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Writing About Writing When You Are Getting Nowhere Fast is like Shopping When You Are Hungry. You Probably Shouldn’t, but Who’s Going to Stop You?

There’s this post on Facebook today. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything that matters, like the March for Life, or gun control, or the Mueller investigation. It has to do with reaching for your dreams even when your dreams seem hellbent on defeating you. walk

This picture was posted on a screenwriting page as a way of encouraging screenwriters not to give up on their dreams.  One young man said, in response,  “what if it isn’t going at all? Can’t find an agent. No one will read anything. Can’t even get a return email rejecting me. It’s unprofessional garbage. New writers are locked out.”

That’s because, MOST writers are locked out.  Actually, most people in the film business, no matter where they land on the food chain, are part of  a system unlike any other business on the planet that is designed to lock you out.  Because now matter how successful you are, no matter how much money your film has made, or how many Academy Awards it has been nominated for, it never gets any easier.

Last year I met the producers of not one, but THREE Academy Award nominated films, one of which won an Academy Award for  Best Picture.  She said the film took seven years from concept to execution and even though the film won an Oscar,  she is back at square one developing material and taking meetings like she is new to the business and has never won $2 on a scratch-off ticket must less the most coveted trophy in all of Hollywood.  I went to an event last summer where female filmmakers listed their (rather considerable) accomplishments before admitting that they either had a feature film that went nowhere, or that they’d won several screenwriting competitions or workshops/fellowships that ALSO went nowhere, and were wondering what they were doing wrong when everything about their experience said that under normal circumstances, the career path ahead should be smooth sailing.  After all, if you land a major account at a law firm, the chances of becoming partner grow exponentially even if it takes awhile.   I’ve heard it said that even if The Black Panther makes a billion dollars at the box office, white Hollywood will still think its an anomaly and not rush to make any movie with a black lead because they aren’t sure there is an audience for movies about black people.  That’s like Coca Cola saying, “that last beverage thing we did made ten times what Coke does, but we aren’t going to try it again because there probably isn’t a market for it.”

For the past thirty years, all I have heard – all any screenwriter has heard – is that the path to success is a good writing.  Write a good screenplay, and the road to a successful future will be lined with gold.

Last summer I won a coveted spot with a writers workshop where nine amazing writers gathered to have their work torn to shreds by mentors who would blow your mind.  The torn to shreds part is good.  Because these people were directors, actors, producers, executives, film festival programmers, with the sort of experience and connections and box office triumphs that would blow your mind, and their insights were designed to make our work so amazing no one could ever turn us down again.  I went into this experience the oldest writer by far, with the idea that if I could just win – or even be a finalist – in one of the top five writing contests on my bucket list, I was IN. As a writer,  in my mind at least, I would never had anything to worry about again.

And this workshop was an astounding place to start.

But several writers on our group HAD won the screenwriting competitions I thought would pave the way and they are only inches ahead of me.  One was an Writers List winner. One was a semi-finalist for the Nicholl Awards.  And ALL of us went back to our day jobs after discovering that winning an Oscar, or turning a $25 million dollar investment in a film that made $252 million domestically (HIDDEN FIGURES) is no guarantee of a career in film.

Just because George Clooney’s aunt was Rosemary Clooney, or Jason Momoa married Lisa Bonet, doesn’t mean that Denise Meyers, who lives in Mars Hill, North Carolina, who started in the film business with Bryan Lourd, and Mike DeLuca and Mark Ordesky and Josh Donen, who had a film directed by Robin Wright, or who exchanges emails with Sam Rockwell and Jay Ellis, will ever be anything more than the woman who co-owns an RV repair business and fixes toilets to help pay the bills even after being named one of the Top 25 screenwriters to watch in 2018 by the International Screenwriters Association.

This is Hollywood.

And there are worse things that happen in the world than a screenwriter who wonders, if great writing isn’t enough, then, what is?

Being a screenwriter is like being a fish; sometimes you make it upstream to spawn and sometimes you wind up in the bouillabaisse.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The red carpet, the Cannes Film Festival and coming home to my day job.

Two weeks ago, I discovered that the short film I wrote, the one that is already remarkable for the fact that one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood, Robin Wright directed it, the crew from the Emmy award-winning House of Cards volunteered their time and resources to breathe life into it, and Sam Rockwell, Leslie Bibb, Callie Thorne, Michael Godere and Nini Le Huynh agreed to star in it, would make its red carpet debut during the 70th Anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival.

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No matter how many times you may have rehearsed your Academy Awards acceptance speech in your pajamas, nothing prepares you for a moment like this. I spent my formative years in Hollywood, so red carpet premieres in and of themselves are not a big deal bearing in mind I’ve been the one who made sure celebrities like Michel LeGrand and Jerry Weintraub made it to the festival venue, the green room, and the after party. Michel LeGrand still owes me for the bow tie he wore to the Palm Springs Film Festival, not that anyone is asking, and Jerry Weintraub may never have found his way to the men’s room at the Palm Springs Museum of Art if it weren’t for me.

The truth is, I was on the fence about going. The ticket from Asheville to Nice was $1700, and frankly, I am at the point in my “career” where I have spent more money pursuing the dream of becoming a writer than I have actually ever made AS a writer. I’ve had exactly one paying writing assignment for low-budget indie producer, Larry Levinson, and that was years ago. But my husband knew, even if I didn’t at the time, that this was an experience I would regret not having taken part in, so he bought the ticket, and I had the panic attack.

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I haven’t gone clothes shopping in years and I needed everything. I found an evening gown on Rent The Runway, then had a panic attack about getting it back to the US before the deadline. They charge $50 a day for every day its late, not including the additional daily rental charge. So I found the dress I wanted on ebay, a floor length Badgely Mischka that might cover up the fact that I no longer have much of a waistline to speak of, a pair of spanx that ran from my neck to my thighs, and a pair of flat sparkly shoes so if I fell off them I wouldn’t have far to go.

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I made arrangements to stay at an Airbnb a “bus ride away” from the Croisette, bought my first set of grown up luggage, installed a global plan on my phone, and boarded a plane for Charlotte, destination, Nice, France.

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When I got to Heathrow Airport, I received a text from Nini Le Huynh; The Festival de Cannes was putting us up at the Grand Hyatt Martinez from Tuesday to Friday, so I let my Airbnb host know and headed to the Martinez, which, as it turns out, was the host hotel for the festival. Everybody stayed there; Jessica Chastain, Will Smith, Elle Fanning, Julianne Moore, Marion Cotillard, Pedro Aldomovar, Fan Bingbing, Victoria Abril, Sara Sampio, Monica Bellucci and Robin Wright. I had a front row seat to all the insanity, from the crowd of paparazzi and fans gathered behind barricades outside the front door, to the entrances and exits the stars made, to sitting down to breakfast with Robin like it was an every day occurrence.

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Wednesday afternoon, I got another text from Nini. We had been invited to attend the seventieth anniversary dinner for the festival in the Grand Ballroom of the Martinez. The stars sat together at a long table in the middle of the room; the other tables fanned out from there. The room was cavernous, and it was hard to hear anything, but the experience of being there was unforgettable. Especially after Robin introduced me to Harvey Weinstein, who was kind enough to engage me in conversation for a few minutes.

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The next morning, I accompanied Robin and Nini to the Variety/Kering Women in Motion interview at the Hotel Majestic where the main focus of the conversation was the upcoming season of House of Cards and Wonder Woman. When she was asked about our film, she introduced both Nini and myself to the room, then made sure to mention all the people from House of Cards who volunteered their time to work on the movie. We ended up having over 125 crew members involved in the film, not the least of which was a young editor named Alfonso Carrion, who spent hours and hours making sure the film was perfect.

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We left for the Palais at 6:15 and were delivered directly to the red carpet. Two lines of people with invitations to the opening night film feed into the red carpet from either side, and risers packed with reporters in tuxedos line either side of the red carpet. Behind us, more reporters on step ladders, to get the best possible vantage point, and more security than you could shake a stick at.

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Robin was announced, and all four of us (Robin, Nini, Alfonso and myself) stepped onto the red carpet. Everyone started screaming her name. We made three stops on the red carpet, since its not very long, and there are reporters on both sides. We turned to face one set of photographers, then on a signal from a man in a tuxedo on the carpet itself, we turned and faced the other set of photographers. We repeated that move two additional times, them made our way up the steps of the Palais where we were greeted by Thierry Fremaux, the head of the festival, who ushered us upstairs to a private cocktail lounge where we drank champagne and waited for the film to begin.

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A short time later, we took our seats in the Salle Bunuel Theater where Thierry introduced each of us before inviting Robin on stage to talk about the film. She was so complimentary about the film and gave Nini, Alfonso and I credit for the roles we played in making the film possible.

And then it was showtime.

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The film looked marvelous on-screen. People reacted the way we had hoped they would in all the right places, and when the final scene cut to black, the woman beside me, an agent from CAA, said to herself,  “God that was GREAT’.

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We went to dinner afterward, just the six of us at a little seaside restaurant. It was lovely, just sitting around a table, watching the sunset over the ocean and sharing a bottle of wine. It was definitely a night for the record book.

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I am back in North Carolina now, back to my day job, trying to make sense of the events of the past week, and how to move forward. The film was accepted into the Palm Springs Short Film Festival in June, which is an Academy qualifying film festival with a short film market (the only one of its kind in the nation). I’ve been invited to an event hosted by the Athena Film Festival, who arranged pitch meetings for Athena List winners with Amazon  as well, and hope to set up some meetings with agents and managers while I am there.

In the meantime, I am working with a TV producer for a series based on the short film, and a new project about an award-winning screenwriter who returns from a red carpet event and goes back to work fixing toilets and refrigerators in the RV repair business she owns with her husband.  Because there’s nothing like hearing the sound of God’s laughter after telling him your plans.