When I was young I used to think the road to success followed a straight path. Decide what you want to do, put your head down, and plow your way forward. It’s an approach that served me well over the years. I was going to make something of myself and do it on my own terms or die in the attempt, and if the people around me didn’t like it? Too bad. Single-minded determination and the steadfast belief that I was meant for greatness took me on a journey to the top in my art career.
But Hollywood? It’s a nut I just can’t seem to crack. Not when I was 24. Not now, at 60.
Seven months ago I decided to quit. It wasn’t just the constant rejection, or discovering that the closer I got to my goals the farther away they seemed. People much higher up the food chain than I feel like I will ever be wrestle with the exact same things I do.
I’ve met Academy Award winning producers who have eighty five projects in the pipeline in the hopes one of them will get financed, or producers who managed the Herculean task of attaching talent see a project slip through their fingers when the talent got a better offer.
I know a writer who sold two screenplays for a million dollars each, both scripts were made into films AND both of those films were remade, and yet she just doesn’t have the heart to battle the system anymore. Line producers and executive producers and unit production managers with access to more A-list talent than you can even begin to imagine won’t work their connections out of fear their careers might end because they can no longer be “relied on” by the people they work for to stay in their lane.
I get emails all the time from people saying, “Send your scripts to Hillary and Chelsea Clinton because they have a new production company now,” or “What about Reese Witherspoon for your new script,” but no one accepts unsolicited material for legal reasons, including agents. Script competitions aren’t much help. An agent at APA told me there is only one script competition people in Hollywood really care about, and even then, I heard a story not long ago about a writer who DID win a Nicholl Fellowship, got an agent, and never sold anything.
Streaming services are exploding at an exponential rate, so the demand for content is higher than ever. The same people who have been cranking out films and TV shows as fast as they can for the last twenty years are the ones who receive the lion’s share of multi-million dollar deals being offered by Apple TV, Netflix and Amazon, and while I get that a “sure thing” makes more sense than investing in someone nobody’s ever heard of before, it now takes two to three times longer than it used to to “break into the film business.” I know one TV producer who has been at it for over twenty years, proving time and again she has what it takes to move a project forward, yet despite her best efforts she has yet to land her own series.
I quit for all the above reasons and more.
But I am, at heart, a storyteller.
Giving up made it possible for me to let the universe step in to change the story I was telling myself; that I might not be the writer I thought I was, that if it was meant to happen it would have by now, that life is too short to chase a dream that doesn’t want me, that I am doomed to failure because I write period pieces, that by writing about women I am intentionally making my life harder and why can’t I write about…anything else?
Giving up helped me find one of the most important stories I may ever tell, about rhino poaching in the Eastern Cape and one of the most remarkable women I have ever known who is fighting to help stop it.
Giving up made it possible for me to concentrate on my writing and on improving my craft.
Most of all giving up lead me to the greatest affirmation of my work I could ever hope to get short of a green light.
A few months ago, the Athena Film Festival asked me to send the most recent draft of LUCKY 13. They keep a library of scripts from the Athena List, so I didn’t think anything of it. I sent the draft off and went about my business. Then I found out LUCKY 13 was one of four finalists for a Sloan Foundation grant, which is one of the most prestigious grants a writer could ever hope to receive. They only partner with the best of the best, from the Athena Film Festival, to the Black List, to Sundance. I immediately combed through the list of screenplays on the Athena Film Festival site and thought, well, there’s just no way I am going to win this. I’ve been a finalist in so many top competitions this year its not even funny. Every time I reach the finish line, they move it.
And besides, I quit.
I won the inaugural award for a Sloan Foundation development grant and their new partnership with the Athena Film Festival to promote stories of women in science, technology, engineering and math.
The grant will allow me to invest in the story in a way I have never really been able to before. Now I will be able to hire a script consultant to make sure the story is as perfect as possible. I can mount a table read of the complete script, or shoot a sizzle reel with archival footage I can now afford to buy, or fly to Los Angeles for meetings once I also get an agent or manager.
Quitting opened up my world in a way I never expected. Quitting gave me an opportunity to sit in the front row at the Glickner-Milstein Theater at Barnard College and listen to my words being performed by an amazing cast of wickedly talented actors. Quitting means I am going back to New York for the Athena Film Festival next year for an encore performance of the table read. Quitting gave the universe a chance to do some of the heavy lifting for me so I could concentrate on what I do best.
Melissa Silverstein, a force of nature in her own right who advocates fiercely for women in Hollywood through the Athena Film Festival (which she co-created) and her Women and Hollywood blog site, sent me an email when I was certain it was all over for me a few months back that just said…
Keep. On. Going.
Thanks to the Sloan Foundation and the Athena Film Festival, that’s just what I intend to do.
Because giving up isn’t the same as giving in. And this fight isn’t over yet…