If there were ever a place for dreamers, it would be a college commencement speech.
After four or more (never less) years, a college student is ready to bound out into the world, armed with knowledge, pep, and a quickly deteriorating set of skills. But probably the best dreamers among all college students aren’t engineers or the English majors. No, that title in particular would belong to the art students.
Robert De Niro gave a commencement speech to the graduates of the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. It will go down as a classic commencement speech because of the way it begins:
Now you or I couldn’t get away with telling a group of starry-eyed college students, not to mention their families and friends, that they’re fucked with the degree they just spent four years acquiring, but De Niro, hell, the guy was Vito Corleone; I shudder to think what he couldn’t get away with at a commencement speech. But De Niro’s speech begs a curious question: just how fucked are these students?
The Tisch School encompasses all sorts of arts – dance, acting, film – so the ways these students will be successful varies, and the roadblocks in their paths will vary greatly too, depending on all sorts of things that enable success. So let’s look deeply at one small part of the Tisch School, one small cadre of the fucked: the screenwriters, the ones with Hollywood dreams, looking to go West, sell a script, get it made, make it big.
There’s a really great documentary about screenwriting called Tales from the Script where a bunch of screenwriters come together and talk about their experiences, and in particular, give advice for young screenwriters. One of them, Doug Atchison, who wrote and directed the movie Aleekah and the Bee, said this:
They don’t want you. The business doesn’t want you. There’s too many people trying to do what you do. They need to weed you out, so to do that, they make the walls very, very high.
And the walls are high.
In 2013, there under 5,000 people, total, making a living writing for film west of the Mississippi, according to the Writer’s Guild of America, West. What we’re looking for is only a slice of that, the people that are writing for movies. If we just look at that, we knock our numbers down to about 1600. This number represents a 14% decrease in the number of movie writers since 2009.
Now there is money to be made; those 1600 screenwriters collectively made 336 million in 2013, according to the WGAW. But that’s like saying there’s money in baseball if you play for the major leagues. It’s true, but the clubhouse is depressingly small.
Those established major leaguers are not your only competition, as anyone can write and register a script. Such scripts, written without any backing or actors, are what’s called ‘spec,’ or speculative, scripts. Every year, roughly 50,000 scripts are registered in Hollywood. Of these scripts, 300 or so are put on what’s called the ‘Black List,’ which is the studio executive’s listing of the top scripts. In 2010, only 55 spec scripts were actually sold to Hollywood studios.
Of those scripts, most are not actually made into movies. Most of the time, when a spec script is sold, a studio will use it like a writer’s audition, leading to solicited work, writing jobs where a studio will assign a reliable stable of vetted writers to write a script for them. The epic script spec wrote, even the best of the best, likely won’t get made into a movie. Very likely, it’s your audition.
Let’s say, just for fun, that you beat all those odds. You write a script so good that people can’t ignore it, you have contacts in the industry, a bidding war starts, driving the script price up sky high, and one of the Big Six is looking to make your movie. That happened with Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid, which sold for 400k in the late 1960s. That’s 2.7 million in today’s money, and started the whole modern idea of writing first and selling later. That’s what happened with Nottingham, and that was only 8 years ago.
Nottingham started as an amazing idea: a fresh take on the old Robin Hood story, where the Sheriff is the hero. Think about it: people have been making cop movies, specifically police procedural movies, since movies were a thing; they’re as American as apple pie, proxy wars, and fluffernutters. The movie was a police procedural in the Middle Ages, with the Sheriff trying to solve a group of murders for which Robin Hood was being framed. They had a love triangle with Maid Marian, the whole bit. It was a really interesting concept, a well executed script by all accounts.
Russel Crowe attached himself to the movie. So did Ridley Scott. Unfortunately, while both liked the script enough to make the movie, neither really wanted to focus on the Sheriff, which one writer pointed out, was sort of the entire point.
Instead of Nottingham, we got a stereotypical, warmed over action drama about Robin Hood. Just watching the trailer, you can tell what you would be thinking if you actually bought tickets to this thing
That’s just the way Hollywood works: even if you do manage to sell your script, the chances of it getting made into a real movie are exceedingly small, and having a director, crew, and actors that will make the type of movie you had in mind is even smaller than that.
That’s why it’s easy to look at the headlines about De Niro’s speech and think he was saying that people who choose an artistic career are doomed to a life of rejection, low wages, and crushed hopes. The walls in front of them terrible. But that’s not what the speech was really about. As he said:
You discovered a talent, developed an ambition and recognized your passion. When you feel that, you can’t fight it — you just go with it. When it comes to the arts, passion should always trump common sense. You aren’t just following dreams, you’re reaching for your destiny. … You’re an artist — yeah, you’re fucked. The good news is that’s not a bad place to start.
Having a dream is an excellent place to start. There lies the foundation, but it is only a foundation. There is a second step to proper dreaming: to bring a dream down to earth, to scuff it, dent it, throw it against the wall; that is, to dream with our eyes open.
That’s the step people often miss.