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10/21/2005 - Working On Hollywood Time
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You may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, but in Hollywood you have to have a calendar -- if you want to sell your screenplay, that is.
There are a lot of holidays on the studio time clock, days and weeks and even months when the manor doors close and the "Gone to Spago's" sign is hanging where the welcome sign used to. The key to survival is learning when, as much as how, to strike.
I wrote a humorous essay once proposing that the studios are only open for business four days a year, one day for each season with summer (plagued as it is by trips to Martha's Vineyard) being just a "half-day." It's a funny essay. But it's no joke. Between religious festivities, "going to Cannes," "coming back from Cannes," Sundance, Slamdance, and "the start of TV staffing season," getting both your agent's attention and that of the movie executives we're trying to sell to is like threading a needle in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane. And when time runs out for we who don't have an expense account and a trip to Gstaad planned for ourselves -- and "Bria" -- it can often mean running out of time to make a living. And if we haven't planned -- we pay the price.
Take right now for example. It's almost november 1 and let me tell you brothers and sisters, if you don't have your spec finished. Today. And in the hands of your agent who's already read it five times, given notes, and satisfied he's not wasting his time to send it out -- the year is over. Maybe you'll get the first two weeks in november to give it a shot, but a bunch of writers just like you may have beaten you to it and, along with their agents, are circling the studios like jets stacked up over La Guardia. Thanksgiving used to mark the end of the business year, now it's Halloween. The reason? Buyers stop buying. Execs turn their attention to their annual gift list and plans for vacation in snow or sun country. And here's the really scary part: it will be this way until February! That's right. That's two solid months of "downtime," December through January, when very little happens and very few are present enough to make it happen. So if you're hurrying to write THE END on anything, better type really fast. Time is almost up.
How did this come to pass? Well, again I cite internal development at the studio level as the biggest change in my career. The studios just aren't in a big hurry anymore. Spec sales are fewer, bidding wars rarer. All because they develop their ideas more and ours less. And as much as Bewitched and Dukes of Hazzard should signal that this strategy doesn't always work, the prevalence of great original specs like Wedding Crashers and 40 Year-Old Virgin still can't whip up enough attention to convince studios that fresh is better. And because of that, what's the rush? You can thumb through your TV Guide and see what old black-and-white show might make a good movie anytime.
Mister Ed anyone?
With Jim Carrey as "Wilbur?"
Deal!
But if you are on target, and riding the waves like a pro, you can counter the whims of the calendar. Spec sales most often happen in fall (right after the slowdown in August) and spring when, according to legend, the studio treasury is fat and they're eager to cut a few checks. And even though you can find proof that spec sales happen all year long -- and they do -- the odds are increased and the prices paid for scripts higher when we have everyone's full attention. So why not plan for these times accordingly?
The only way to combat this narrowing of days to sell to Hollywood is to use your time wisely. Since we know certain times of years are bad for trying to sell -- write instead. This upcoming two-month slot is the best stretch to be writing on spec. And getting ready to sell by having a finely-honed screenplay prepares you for spring, when studios have their budgets in line, when executives can no longer be excused from traveling the globe and checking out the film festivals, and when agents realize tax day's coming up on April 15 and they need to make a sale: now! So, knowing this, why not get cracking?
Other than August -- another blank spot in the calendar -- this December-January dead zone should be good news for us -- and a time to work. So while we're typing, fingers numbed on our keyboards, eating Spam from the can --while executives are off in Rio doing the watusi with a Ford model -- we at least have a mantra that will warm us:
Just wait 'til next year!!

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