Selling out versus selling


Over the last few years, I have met a lot of artists of various stripes, and almost to a person, one of the major fears each has is the belief that to become a success and to make a living with their Art, they will have to dilute that art. They’ll have to sell out. Some simply fear it in quaking silence, while others fend it off with flecks of foam like some rabid dog chained in a backyard of their own making. To each, their own.

You have a vision for your Art and you must respect that. It is because you are doing your Art that your Art is different from anyone else’s. By the same token, if you do hope to make enough money to keep at it, you must be able to express your Art in some commercial way.

Admittedly, with technologies such as self-publishing (formerly known as vanity publishing) and phones that offer better cinematography than anything Cecile B could have dreamt of, you can go it alone as no one before you could. You can make all of your dreams come true, but the question is, will those dreams come true? Will anyone beyond your mom, your partner and a few close friends bother with your Art once discovered?

I’m not saying to make a living you have to sell out. Don’t despoil your craft in the name of crass commercialism. If you’re truly an artist rather than a hack, it wouldn’t serve your purposes and you’d come to loathe the thing you once loved.

No, I’m talking about finding a line of compromise between your vision and the market’s.

As this is particularly close to my heart right now, let’s say that you’re writing a screenplay. First, congratulations. There may be thousands of screenplays out there, but I am confident there are billions of unfinished scripts and half-thought ideas.

Having completed your screenplay, however, is only the first step. Now you’ve got to share your creation with dozens of other people, each of whom will want to put his or her stamp on the work.

Story editors, readers, producers, directors, actors, financiers, market researchers. To a greater or lesser extent, each of these people has to buy into what you’re selling before your movie will get made.

Sure, if your film is small with a very modest (miniscule) budget, all of these titles may be handled by 3 to 6 people, but even then, you’ll likely run into issues with distribution.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. History is replete with artists who decided to go it alone. But the unwritten backdrop of that history is swamped with the myriad films sitting idle on bookshelves or hard drives, or competing with cavorting kittens and bad karaoke on YouTube or Vimeo.

If you want to share your Art—and I’m betting that you do—then you want outside thought, you want feedback, you want people to contribute.

Don’t look at barriers, but rather seize opportunities to engage. These people are your first audience. Respect them. Use them. Understand them. Do this and you’ll be well on your way to realizing your vision in their world.


(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because I refuse to let anyone sell out.)

Covering your ass-ets

So often, when I start a new series of classes or attend a conference on screenwriting, I hear the same refrain: How can I register my stuff so no one steals my ideas?

And, as logic would dictate, the question always comes from the most junior writers in the room, if they have yet to write at all.

There is no denying that the universe is a dangerous place. Global climate change necessitates we choose higher floors in a high-rise to ensure our laptops are not flooded by rising sea levels. I always write with my back to the wall so that people in the condos across the street can’t take telephoto shots of what I’m writing. And whenever I publicly speak the word “tadpole”, I actually mean screenplay…likewise, “garlic”, “symbiont” and “purse” for protagonist, antagonist and onomatopoeia. (Don’t bother memorizing those; I have already changed them.)

All in an effort to make sure that no one steals my ideas. They are mine. I created them. They are owned by me. (Much as with Miss Ann Elk’s theory about the brontosaurus.)

Ah, but wait a tic. Just a mo’. Hold your horses and tell them that you love them.

I forgot one teensy little thing.  A bit of a fly in the old ointment. You see: YOU CAN’T PROTECT IDEAS!

1) I defy you to actually show me a completely new idea, and not just something old that you’ve redecorated.

2) The idea is not the important bit…it’s what you do with the idea. Give 12 people the same idea and you will end up with 12 very different stories.

3) There is every reason to believe that your idea is shit. No offense intended. Most of my ideas are shit. That’s how you find the truly brilliant ones, by moving the shit out of the way so the good ones are more visible. (See also: Miss Ann Elk’s theory about the brontosaurus.)

I applaud you for having ideas, shit or otherwise, because it’s not easy to do and is a valuable first step in your art. But not until you’ve completed your story, however, do you have something to protect.

You have completed your story, haven’t you? If your idea was solid, then you should be anxious to tell the story. If your idea is good, I want to hear your story. Seriously. No kidding. We need more good stories.

The story—not the idea—is where you will shine as an artist. The story tells me everything about you. It puts multiple facets of your personality and belief system on display and says: Hey universe! Here I am!

That, my friends, is worth protecting. That is what you register somewhere so that no one can tell exactly your story without your permission.

Once you’ve reached that point, I then recommend:

Writers’ Guild of America – West (web site is easier to use than the East chapter)

Writers Guild of Canada

The organizations have a reciprocal agreement, so registry with one is sufficient for both the United States and Canada.

Unfortunately, I only know of these two organizations, so if anyone wants to contribute others in Europe, Asia or anywhere else, please do.

Yes, you want to protect your assets, but you’ll be a lot better off putting your energies into creating assets that are worth protecting.

Fort Knox isn’t meant to be a kitty litter box.

A strange jobs program in British Columbia. (Whistler)

A strange jobs program in British Columbia. (Whistler)