Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Happy Halloween...?

To all who enjoy treat-or-treating, bags filled with candy, spooky happenings, horror movies, parties with friends and all that good cheer, I wish you a very, very happy Halloween.

For a lot of writers out there, it's a scary, frightening time...and not just because of the holiday. In what could be a matter of hours, a looming strike could shake things up in the entertainment industry.

There's a gross misconception that once a writer's lucky enough to make that first sale, they're either set for life, or able to live at least a little comfortably for if a six or seven figure paycheck is the industry norm, and residual checks flow into mailboxes in continuous, bountiful waves.

You can probably guess by now what my one-word reaction is to this notion. It begins with a "B" and ends with a "T".

Yes, there's a lot of rediculous money to be made in this industry. If and when the money comes, it can be good, but you have to learn to spread the wealth and make the most of it; it may be years before you get paid like that again. Most guild members are lucky if their work brings in over $5,000 a year -- and merely becoming a member of the guild is a challenge. (It took me several years, and when it happened, it was mainly because a friend of a friend chanced upon some of my work and liked it enough to support it.)

Most "professional" writers -- and by professional I mean actively working, and luckily getting paid for it -- really aren't all that different from you. In fact, many of them probably make a lot less in their jobs, have smaller bank accounts, drive used cars, or live in rented apartments instead of luxury homes.

I know. I'm one of them.

I'm not complaining, now. I love what I do, though it can be the most rewarding and frustrating job in the world. When I sold my first script, the money wasn't much compared to VARIETY headline deals (it was in the mid five-digit range) but to me, it was all the money in the world. I quit my job, bought a (used) car, and was determined to write full time and take on the world.

Less than two years later, I was flat broke. And I absolutely deserved it.

Another friend of mine wrote a spec television pilot that was bought by Sony six years ago. Miraculously, he did it without an agent. (How, you ask? Answer: his script was brilliant.) But today, he's still sharing his Los Felis apartment with a roommate, and relies on L.A.'s inadequate public transportation system to get around. He's yet to save up the cash for a new car; his credit's in the toilet.

Sure, there's something romantic about the idea of writing full time, but how do you afford to live? Eat? Get health insurance? Smart writers have a backup plan -- they work at another job, another occupation, and make the most of their prescious free time to write.

That's not selling out. That's survival.

So when you hear all this talk about a writers' strike, give pause. It's not all about overgrown children living off of trust funds, fancy houses and stylish sportscars... It's mainly about working folks, most earning significantly less each year than school teachers and mailmen, just trying to carve out a living one day at a time.

Talk about "unsung".

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