Finding Your Way In Hollywood

Rumour has it that film star Lee Marvin was once so drunk after a night out that he had to buy one of those “Map of the Stars” they sell Hollywood tourists before he could find his way home.

by Tim John

I lost my own home in LA because I found the film business too hard to navigate year after year. It’s easy to do – because Hollywood can be bizarre. Many know it as “Sodom-on-Sea”. Pauline Kael called it “the only town where you can die of encouragement”, buti t’s still possible for new writers to make a fortune.

Here are a few lessons I learned the hard way…

Be careful who you “get into bed with”.

I’m talking about choosing a writing partner. One of my lawyers always tells clients to think far more carefully about choosing a business partner than they do a wife.

Know your audience.

Hollywood is not about making movies, it’s about marketing movies. Even Indie producers need to know which audience will pay to see your picture.

Hollywood is like McDonalds.Adventures

People go to McDonalds, in their millions, every week, because they know what they are going to be served. It’s something they like, it’s reliable, it doesn’t disappoint. It may not be the greatest thing they’ve ever had, it may not be something to sing and dance about, but it’s enough to satisfy them at that particular point.

That’s what millions of people want from the movies too. Sure, if you can throw in a little something extra, a nice surprise like a little toy or extra side dish, great – but a lot of film makersthink they can take America by storm by presenting an entirely new kind of meal with only a token bit of McDonalds thrown in. That hardly ever satisfies the American appetite.

On the other hand…

While there is no surefire recipe for a hit, there is certainly one for a flop – trying to please everybody.

Even Indie producers need to know which audience will pay to see your picture.

Acquire balls (if you don’t already have them).

I once went to a pitch meeting dressed in a home-made Red Indian costume I’d made with my kids. It seemed appropriate – it was for a story about dads and kids playing together more. I figured nobody would laugh at me because the meeting was at Universal Studios. Surely people would just think I was just a movie extra in costume.

Unfortunately, five minutes before I arrived, the producer phoned to say we had to meet in a Hollywood restaurant instead. I arrived wearing full war-paint and feathers. Curiously, they bought the pitch. Sometimes you just have to go for it.

Be confident but never cocky.

Never be what Hollywood people call “Too smart for the room”. But don’t be self-effacing either. “El Laysians” just don’t understand irony.

I once went to a meeting at Disney with a writing partner and when we got there the main executive said “Great to meet you. We’re looking for some funny writers” to which I replied, self-effacingly, “Then you should meet the guys I play tennis with, Dick Clement and Ian Lafrenais. They’re really funny”.

Not only could the man not see that I was joking, but as I left the meeting, his assistant took me aside, handed me a business card and whispered “If you keep having self-esteem problems, call this number. She’s my shrink anhollywoodd she’s really good”!

Never get complacent.

“Writer” is only one letter away from “Waiter”.

Curiously, they bought the pitch. Sometimes you just have to go for it.

Always leave them wanting more.

Never pitch your entire story, just the feel of your movie. Act out the trailer. And if you find public speaking tough and you choke on your words, pretend it’s because your story is so moving. As a senior Disney executive once said to me, “Nobody ever walked out of a movie because it was too emotional.”

Make sure you stand out.

But don’t be remembered for the wrong reasons. I made the classic mistake of taking along a prop to a series of pitches – a human prop – a ventriloquist. It seemed liked a good idea because the story was about a kids’ entertainer. But I’d forgotten that whenever you show a performer an audience, they automatically perform, even when you don’t want them to.

I’m still haunted by this guy’s puppets constantly interrupting me during my pitch to show off funny voices, tell jokes and yes, even sing a duet! Even more scarywas the moment I gestured for the ventriloquist to stop and he replied “Don’t blame me. It’s them!”

Never forget

You could be mixing with some seriously devious players. Of the many stars who allowed me to quote them in my book, I think David Mamet summed up the industry best when he said “Film is a collaborative business – bend over.”

Keep it real

Draw on real life for your writing, not just movies.

Enjoy the process.

Enjoy coming up with a great line of dialogue or fixing a single scene. Don’t let your only measure of “success” be seeing your name in lights. Most of my work is doing re-writes and polishes. They rarely get your name on the credits or on Imdb, but people often pay handsomely for writers to do what they love doing.

-Tim John


timjohnTim wrote a few sketches for TV’s “Spitting Image”, co-wrote “The Max Headroom Show” series, worked with George Harrison HandMade Films and worked as a script doctor for most studios.

Tim tweets daily about the business @TIMJOHN1.

“Adventures in LaLa land”, his funny and refreshingly frank memoir about life as a writer in Hollywood, is available on Amazon.

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