A Warning For Our Next Great Screenwriters

by Billy Ray

The Academy
Aug 5, 2015 · 7 min read

I have a warning for you.

Ten years ago, or even five, this warning would have been simple. Back then, when screenwriters got together to bitch (which was often) it was usually about directors for being bullies, or for trying to steal a shared “Screenplay by” credit, or cutting necessary dialogue, or just plain botching things.

But, that’s not the case anymore.

The sands under all of us have shifted. And today, directors — even the arrogant ones — are running scared like everybody else.

Today, the warning is about the business itself and the almost pathological timidity of the institutions that control it.

When I started writing there were still a few mavericks out there; a few gunslingers who ran studios.

These were people who went with their guts and would make a movie just because they believed in it.

But that’s not the process anymore.

Today, before a studio chair can green-light a movie, that movie must also be blessed by the head of marketing, the head of foreign sales, and the head of home video.

It must be subjected to a process called “running the numbers,” which means that the movie’s cost — or, downside — is compared against its potential value because of its cast and what it might do in foreign markets.

This process takes into account every variable except the variable which actually matters — the one that can't possibly be gauged by any sort of calculus — which is whether or not the movie’s going to be any good.

And yet the process continues.

There are other challenges too. Ones born of progress itself.

It’s axiomatic now that the technology of movie making has never been greater than it is today, but I don't think any of us can honestly say that movies themselves have never been greater.

These things are not unrelated.

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Suppose we were going to shoot a scene in a typical room. We can now, if we want to, add elements to that scene to make it more visually arresting.

We could light the ceiling on fire by using CGI.

We could enhance the experience by projecting it in 3-D.

Does any of this have anything to do with story, or character? No.

But, it would look great in the trailer.

That kind of thinking, the idea that dazzling visuals are enough, has led to a certain kind of movie-making laziness that has not been good for anybody.

Worse, it’s made it tougher and tougher to dazzle the audience because they know out there now that we’re making movies with software instead of cameras.

When any image is possible, no image is all that impressive anymore.

We’re storytellers, which means we have to do better. Sometimes I think we have to rescue the business from the very people who own it.

The good news is, we can.

Inside every one of you is the flame that has always lit the way in this industry, which is originality — that one spark of an idea, that one archetypal character, story, truth, or world that no one’s ever captured before.

Do you remember the movie WALL-E, the brilliant Pixar film?

He’s in a dangerous world and he’s one of thousands who are supposed to clean it up.

But, there’s something special about WALL-E. He finds this little tiny sprig which might one day become a plant. He guards it, and saves it, and preserves it on the chance that it might some day turn into something beautiful.

Well, Hollywood is that dangerous world and you are WALL-E.

Your idea is that plant and you have to protect it. If you do, it might change the world.

That’s your charge now — greatness.

You have to pursue it every single day in everything you do; in your work ethic, in the way you conduct yourself, in who you choose to do business with.

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You are now part of the most collaborative medium anywhere in the world and much of your success in it is going to be determined by how well you listen.

I was very fortunate in that regard. As the child of divorced parents, I learned early how to take two warring factions and make them both feel they had been heard.

This works fantastic in meetings.

You’re going to get a lot of notes in your career. And it’ll be your instinct to resent them. But, I’m telling you now to ignore this instinct.

The fact is that most of the notes you get will be smart and thoughtful.

And all of them — even the bad ones — will teach you something about where you failed to articulate something as clearly as you had it in your head or where something just didn’t make it on the page, where something just didn’t land.

You will make your living largely not by writing, but by re-writing. The grace and efficiency with which you do that will define you.

But what will mostly define you more than anything else is what projects you say yes to and what projects you say no to.

Here’s a rule of thumb about that.

If someone offers you a job on a project that has real heat, a star attached to it, or some wonderful pedigree, and you find that you’re not waking up every morning thinking about it, if it’s not living inside of you trying to claw its way out, then don’t write it.

Remember you got here by believing in original thinking. Never forget that.

And always remember that if you are inspired we will be too.

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The best advice I ever heard about writing came from Paddy Chayefsky — he, of Network and The Hospital. He also wrote Marty. (That’s three Oscars.)

Chayefsky’s advice to writers was simple: Don’t think of it as art, think of it as work.

Because when a writer is stuck and he or she calls in another writer for help, that second writer doesn’t say, “What’s the art problem?”

That second writer says, “What’s not working?” And they get under the hood and fix it together.

That’s most of what you’ll do in your career — work, problem solving. Approach it in that way and then at the end of every day, you’ll at least be able to say, “I did my job today.”

If you’re an artist, it’ll come out as art anyway.

The truth is there are millions of variables that will profoundly affect your career. Variables over which you have zero control.

You have no control over the state of the economy or over the health of our industry.

You have no say in whether or not the DVD business flat-lines, or whether or not the market is suddenly ripe for thrillers or superhero movies or — god help us — romantic comedies.

The only variable you will ever have any control over is your willingness to work hard.

So maximize that variable.

I take my son to his bus stop every morning at 7:30. I’m at my desk working by 8:00. Somebody feeds me at 1:00 and I’m back at my desk by 1:30, working until 6:00.

I don’t surf the web. I don’t gamble online. I don’t go to the local Starbucks for two hours. I don’t try to seek out old girlfriends on Facebook.

I don’t do anything that requires time. I just work.

I do this because there’s a mountaintop that I’m trying to get to and I’m nowhere near it.

I can see it from here. But, the accomplishments of our greatest writers, that’s the Holy Grail for me.

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Billy Ray on the red carpet in front of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences

I want to leave a legacy like they did.

I want to spend a lot of time in tuxedos.

The next time the AFI does a list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, I want my name on one of them, at least.

And I want some day in 2032, for someone to cite one of my movies with the same kind of reverence I have for those movies of the ‘70s.

Luck will not get me there, although I will need plenty of it.

The only thing that will get me there is my willingness to write that 15th draft, or proofread it one more time, or be open to notes from someone who’s smarter than I am.

It may be that I’ll get notes from one of you one day. And I trust that they’ll be good ones.

I’ll leave you with one last thought.

As you surge forward, don’t forget to look back.

At the Writers’ Guild building on Third and Fairfax there’s a library. In that library you can read any screenplay that you’d ever want to read.

Visit that library. It’s your history up on those shelves; the bar that was set for you by the writers that have preceded you.

Their struggles belong to you now. Cherish them. Learn from them. Let them challenge you to keep getting better.

I wish you nothing but the best.

This is an excerpt from Billy Ray’s keynote speech at the 2012 Academy Nicholl Fellowship awards.

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