“I couldn’t get past the readers in the studios. The minute the people, actually at the studios who read boring scripts all the time, actually read my scripts they’re like –this shit is awesome, send it right to us. But the readers would never let it get there.”
Rejection. It’s important to remember that it’s happened to every screenwriter. No one magically starts writing great screenplays. It’s a process of trial and error. You learn, you try things, you learn from your mistakes, you try it again.
How do writers stay confident in the face of rejection? It’s not easy. And it may be the greatest challenge any writer will have to face. You will have to start a screenplay knowing full well that up to a year of your life may go into it – yet, it may not sell. In fact, the odds are pretty much against it.
The screenwriters I’m quoting here talk about how they handled rejection. It’s good to hear this advice because rejection is a way of life for a screenwriter. A TV writer, too. But mainly for screenwriters.
Once you’re in the door as a TV writer, you get staff jobs where you get paid to write lots of scripts from the pitch up to a final draft. You don’t have to write on spec every day of your life and win some kind of lottery to make a sale.
I collect these quotes from famous screenwriters because they have the best advice. It’s what they went through. I always feel inspired reading their words.
There is some tough love in their statements. They talk about how many scripts they wrote before they finished one that was worth buying. They talk about the perseverance it takes. They talk about resilience.
So, here are my favorite quotes on the subjects of rejection and perseverance.
“Everybody passed on Memento. It was a really unique road. I don’t think I’ll ever have a moment like that in my career. We took a huge knock, back as far as we could go. But we came back from it with sheer good fortune.”
— Christopher Nolan
“If you’re not failing now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”
“I take rejection as someone blowing a bugle in my ear to wake me up and get going, rather than retreat.”
— Sylvester Stallone
“It’s probably not a good idea to put too much of your self-esteem on something like this, because, really, you can make a bad movie and it can be well received, and you can make a good movie and it can be badly received.”
– Wes Anderson
“John [Cassavettes] was rejected by studios, he borrowed money and did movies with his own money. You’re either courageous or not. You have to find a way.”
– Ben Gazzara
“If you get rejected, you have to persist. Don’t give up. It was the best advice I ever got.”
–Anna Hamilton Phelan
“Don’t give up. You’re going to get kicked in the teeth. A lot. Learn to take a hit, then pick yourself up off the floor. Resilience is the true key to success.”
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
“Michael Werwie wrote 9 scripts before he won a Nicholl Fellowship. John Swetnam wrote 17 scripts before he landed his first paying gig. M. Night Shaymalan wrote 5 drafts of The Sixth Sense before he realized this: Maclolm Crowe is dead. A screenwriter must have persistence as part of their arsenal of traits.”
“We wrote six scripts before anything was produced.”
–Jack Epps, Jr.
“Before I got adept at it, I had to write about ten scripts.”
“So no, it’s not an “industrious process that can take months,” it’s a process that can take years, and that’s only if you’ve written a great script, market it aggressively, and get really, really, really, really, lucky. It’s a common saying in Hollywood that the overnight success takes 10 years and from what I’ve seen that’s no exaggeration.
–Ashley Scott Meyers
“I never give up on anything, because you come back around, and suddenly the thing you thought you’d never do is relevant.”
“Everyone I know who is having success in film right now is there because of persistence.”
— Jay Duplass
I find these quotes both inspiring and motivating. These writers are telling us they weren’t born geniuses. They had no special magic. They made mistakes, and they learned from them.
Almost all of them say it took years. Some say six to ten years. Some say six to eight scripts. Can you do it faster? I believe there are some shortcuts.
Shortcut # 1. The big shortcut is to listen to criticism from veteran writers. Your learning curve speeds up when you do this. If you don’t know any veteran writers, take a class. Or hire somebody like Eric Bork – a script analyst with real credits. The money you spend will be worth it.
Shortcut # 2. Another important tip –you have to learn how to boost your odds. For example, the market for big budget tentpole movie written by newbies has frozen up. The studios used to buy them, but now it takes a miracle. It does happen, occasionally, but why not increase your odds of a sale?
In today’s market, I suggest you write low-budget screenplays that independent producers and directors can shoot on lower budgets (1 to 4 million). That means three to six sets, ten or twelve characters, no crowd scenes, no special effects, no driving scenes, no scenes on a train. Keep it simple.
Sell to the low budget producers, and then work your way up.
Shortcut #3. If you’re going to write big budget, write high concept. That means, create a plot based on a pitch that sells itself. “Alien.’ “Jaws in space.” “Big.” Tom Hanks wakes up a kid in a man’s body. “Saving Private Ryan.” A soldier’s brothers have all died in World War 2. Tom Hanks is sent to bring back that last living brother. “Splash.” Tom Hanks falls in love with a mermaid. It’s also possible to write low budget high-concept.
Shortcut #4. The other shortcut is writing for TV. My partner and I wrote only two spec scripts, a Barney Miller and a TAXI. Took less than a year. We were then hired on the basis of those scripts to write a bunch of Normal Lear shows in the 80s. It happened that fast.
At 28 I was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, doing what I loved doing – writing comedy. I had a regular 9 to 5 Story Editor job, writing for the highest rated tv shows. I think I wrote nine scripts that year. And they were all produced.
And that’s a great way to learn how to write better. When you’re on a show, you learn to write at a very high level, very fast. It’s sink or swim. You have to learn fast or get fired.
You can succeed at this if you listen to the best advice. Good luck.