There was an interesting article this week by Sean Hood, the screenwriter of CONAN THE BARBARIAN on what it’s like to have your movie flop at the boxoffice. A number of my readers emailed me asking how I handled major failure – the assumption of course being that I must have experienced that… probably often. Thank you for thinking of me. But the truth is, I have had my share of misfires. All writers do if you’ve been in the business long enough. The trick is not to have them first so you are able to be in the business for more than a cup of coffee.
But the short answer to the question is: IT SUCKS!!!
I will say this: it’s harder to weather failure now because there is so much more scrutiny. Websites and blogs make note of every step of every career and project. If a movie pitch is sold it’s a headline in the trades. That used to be a complete non-story. Today if you sell a pilot pitch and get a script commitment that warrants an entire article in Deadline Hollywood. It's just a script deal. Each network will make hundreds of them, and most of those projects won’t live beyond the second draft. An article for every one? So you’re always in a fishbowl. Yes, friends congratulate you when they see your name on Nikki Finke's site, but then they also see that ABC decided your pilot script was a piece of shit and junked it.
And if you’ve written a movie that tanks at the boxoffice, there’s nowhere to hide. Larry Gelbart used to get out of the country whenever one of his movies opened. If it were today he’d be getting texts in Addis Ababa and the one TV station in Ouagadougou would be showing ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT.
The only commodity more valued than hype in show business is schadenfreude, and now with the information highway, we can have both anytime anywhere, magnified to IMAX proportions. So a Friday movie tanking carries the same weight as a government junta.
I walked up to the Picwood on Friday night at 6:30 and there was a line for our movie. I was excited. That excitement lasted maybe two minutes. Inside the lobby I encountered our producer, Dick Shepherd. First thing he says to me is, “We’re dead!”
I was stunned. “But what about the line…?” “Dead!” he repeated.
Early boxoffice returns from the east coast were average. That meant ‘dead’. So I went into the theater, the lights went down, and even though a sold-out house was roaring with laughter, all I could think of was “We’re dead. Will we ever get another movie assignment? Is our feature career over? Am I going to have to give back the Tri-Star jacket?” For years I dreamed about the day when a movie I wrote actually made it to the big screen and when that day finally came I couldn’t enjoy a moment of it.
Today, not only would I know the movie was dead but the audience would too, having received texts and RSS feeds and E! updates. They would have gone into the experience already with a preconception that what they were about to see wasn’t very good. I bet they wouldn’t have laughed as much. Same movie, same jokes, different mindset.
Dick Shepherd proved to be only half-right. VOLUNTEERS was not a big hit. But it broke even. And for whatever reason, does great on television. You still see it popping up all over the dial, which is pretty damn good for a 26 year-old movie.
The advice Sean gives is the same I give – shake it off and just start working on something else. Go back to basics. I became a writer because I have this need to express myself. My ultimate goal wasn’t to see my name in print or get invited to one of the many Kardashian weddings.
There’s also another alternative. Sarah Palin’s film also opened to two people in the theater on opening night. So if your movie flops, either go back to the drawing board and begin work on a new project, or consider running for President.
Tomorrow is Friday question day. But on Saturday I'll discuss dealing with rejection in greater detail. So don't hang yourself just yet.