Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Why you can't let rejection dash your hopes

Our first agent wasn’t very good. When David Isaacs and I were starting out, writing spec scripts, living on Kraft macaroni, and trying to break in we managed to get an agent. She was a legitimate WGA signatory but she wasn’t top tier. She wasn’t third tier. But shows would accept her submissions, which was all we really needed.

She sent our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to the great David Lloyd, who was one of their producers. When she didn’t hear back in a few weeks she sent him a blistering following up.

Several days later he responded. It was a rejection letter. The opening sentence was:

HOW DARE YOU!

He then went on for three paragraphs to rip her a new asshole for questioning his integrity and accusing him of shirking his responsibilities.

Almost as an afterthought, he finally got to our script in the fourth paragraph and basically said it was a complete amateurish piece of shit (although I don’t think he put it that nicely).

Years later we worked together on CHEERS and I mentioned the letter. David being David, he said, “Well, I’m sure it was a piece of shit.”

I’m also sure he was right.

You won’t be surprised to learn that once we got our first assignment (that this agent had nothing to do with), we moved on to more reputable representation.

In my career, I’ve been on the other side numerous times. I’ve been the one reading and judging. I always write nice rejection letters, even if the script sucks eggs. I feel that good, bad, or indifferent, the person (or team) went to the effort of writing a script and the least I could do is let them down easy.

Plus, who’s to say I’m always right? I’m not. Along the way, I’ve rejected a few great people who went on to long and successful careers.  When a writer friend of mine was story editor on ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE he rejected a script by the Coen Brothers. It happens to all of us.

So when you get rejected – and we all do – take heart. You never know who’s going to turn out to be an A-lister.

My favorite story of that was from Larry Gelbart. Larry was one of the most gifted and successful writers of the last half-century. Among his credits: creating the TV version of MASH, TOOTSIE, OH GOD!, FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, SLY FOX, CITY OF ANGELS, CAESAR’S HOUR – it goes on and on. But when he was 18 he had a screen test for an acting part in a George Cukor movie at MGM. He did his test, he wasn’t chosen, and that was that. Many years later when he was an accomplished writer he happened to bump into Cukor at a party. He told him the story and Cukor said to him, “Well why didn’t you tell me who you were?”

Good luck and may you become who you hope to be.

29 comments:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I don't know that rejection ever gets exactly easier - but you do get better perspective on it as you develop an established portfolio of successful work. At the beginning when you have no outside validation for your belief that you can do good work, I think it's harder because every rejection makes you wonder whether you maybe shouldn't go instead into the aluminum siding business. Later, you can say more easily, wrong idea for *this* outlet, or right idea but wrong time, or right idea and right time, but wrong execution. It definitely becomes less personal.

Which reminds me of Isaac Asimov, who was a publishing phenomenon all by himself and who wrote a number of times about his early days as an 18yo trying to get published. What he realized was this: he was always going to be a writer. He might be a failed writer, an unsuccessful writer, an unpublished writer, a bad writer, or a starving writer, but in any case he was still a writer. The editor could lose his job tomorrow and he wouldn't be an editor any more. He found that thought comforting.

wg

Hamid said...

Good advice, Ken, although it brought to mind a rather sad and moving bit of detail in an article years ago by British writer Jon Ronson, who was given rare access to Stanley Kubrick's archives. Regarding letters to Kubrick from people begging to be in his films, Ronson wrote:

For the past few days I have been reading the contents of those marked "Fan Letters" and "Résumés". They are filled with pleas from hundreds of strangers, written over the decades. They say much the same thing: "I know I have the talent to be a big star. I know it's going to happen to me one day. I just need a break. Will you give me that break?"

All these letters are - every single one of them - written by people of whom I have never heard. Many of these young actors will be middle-aged by now. I want to go back in time and say to them, "You're not going to make it! It's best you know now rather than face years of having your dreams slowly erode." They are heartbreaking boxes.


http://www.theguardian.com/film/2004/mar/27/features.weekend

Chris G said...

Wait, TV version of TOOTSIE?

Shai said...

Hi Ken,

I'm assuming you've seen this already, but in case you haven't here's a link that's worth a look:
http://www.businessinsider.com/everyone-in-the-tech-and-tv-industries-is-passing-around-this-speech-by-kevin-spacey-2013-8

I'd be curious to get your thoughts on what he's saying.

Victor Velasco said...

The difference between disappointment and discouragement is huge; it really gets to the exact meaning of each word. Disappointment is a constant, a given because you're, well, not appointed. Discouragement has to do with your heart; you gotta have a strong heart to get through all the disappointment

Hamid said...

As Homer Simpson once said: "Kids, you tried your best and you failed. The lesson is: never try".

Michael said...

Friday question: Have you ever had any on-set disagreements with actors as bad as the recent one between CSI writer and George Eads that led to him being given leave of absence?

Jase said...

So I take it that "Mary Tyler Moore" spec is not among yours and David's treasured mementos. It would probably be interesting to read today.

Cap'n Bob said...

When my first book made the rounds I got several rejections that praised it, but no sale. Then I got one that said, "I don't like anything about it. Not the plot, the characters, or the writing." And you know what, I preferred being rejected by someone who hated it than someone who liked it.

PS: It eventually sold.



WV: Analrat. No explanation needed.

Cap'n Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
VincentS said...

Thanks for that inspiring story, Ken. I've just done a mass mailing on a screenplay, so I'll think of it as the rejection letters start comeing in.

Dr. Shrinker said...

Cap'n Bob: was the feedback that it was too repetitive?

Dixon Steele said...

I once heard Martin Sheen say that he learned from his salad days that you had to actually "embrace" rejection in the biz.

Because once you robbed rejection of its "negativity", you wouldn't fear it and just take it for what it is: a fact of life, a part of the business that very, very few avoid.

Igor said...

You can say that again...?

Frank Paradise said...

When I left NZ due to an earthquake I threw away all my old tv comedy writing rejections and was shocked to see I had broken the 100 mark and that's not even counting email rejections. The funny thing was that they were almost all written by people who know absolutely nothing about comedy and who still think they were right to reject the unfunny 'Flight of the Conchords'.

I have now foolishly given it one last go and set my beat comedy pilot in Vancouver which funnily enough I now find doesn't make Canadian shows for Hollywood tax reasons. D'oh! It's centered around a very beat 'Cheers' like bar run by an old jazz pianist who bought it many years ago after winning Lotto. Since I'm unagent worthy I will post the pilot soon as I tried to create the craziest musicians comedy ever which could be an ideal candidate for a very low budget Kickstarter type movie if somebody that knows that really rich guy from 'Scrubs' just happens to read it. Yes I know that I'm a dreamer.

Hamid said...

The most depressing thing is that someone eventually said yes to the monumentally untalented Friedberg & Seltzer, whose entire miserable career has consisted of horrifically unfunny shit like Disaster Movie, Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans. The only joke is that their cinematic turds are called parodies. They're nothing of the sort. Airplane and The Naked Gun were wonderfully witty and smart parodies that actually had well thought out visual and verbal gags, they didn't just replicate well known scenes from other films and rely on audience recognition to generate laughter. That is all these two morons do. They don't write comedy, they just throw in random pop culture references and scenes from hit films. As one critic put it, their formula can be summed up in this example: the characters encounter American Idol judges. That's it. No no set-up, no joke, nothing. Just a parade of "Oh, it's Britney Spears shaving her head just like in real life! Oh, it's Kung Fu Panda from that movie Kung Fu Panda!"

Even worse, they often replicate scenes just based on trailers for films not released yet. And the illiterate idiots who lap it up will laugh just because it's something they recognise.

Sorry for the rant but these dicks couldn't write comedy if their lives depended on it, and the fact that their shit gets produced is tragic.

Julie Ann Sipos said...

Fred Rubin rejected the Cohen Brother's on Archie Bunker. In my case, I actually have been around not to take rejection personally. Great post, though!

Mike said...

As Hamid says, there's not enough rejection in this world.
Upon recently noticing in my newspaper that the cast of The Hangover 3 were briefly visiting their talents upon our island, so as to persuade us as to the merits of their cinematic endeavour, I felt nostalgic for the halcyon days when we didn't let Jerry Lee Lewis off the plane.

DBenson said...

The trick is resist the temptation to convince yourself that they're all tasteless idiots who reject everything that frightens them with actual quality. Because one day somebody will accept something and:
A ) You have to admit your work is the kid of worthless crud they like, or
B) This and the rest of your carefully constructed world view goes out the window

cadavra said...

Hamid: The problem isn't that Friedberg and Seltzer make unfunny movies. The problem is the millions of imbeciles who pay good money to see them, thus making them profitable and enabling them to make more unfunny movies. And the worst of it is that people walk out of them saying, "That's the biggest piece of shit I've ever seen!" and yet one year later eagerly line up for the next one. Sigh...

Cap'n Bob said...

When I went to post my reply the blog gods rejected it. I did it again and it posted, along with the first one. Not my fault. I've since tried to delete one of them.

Damien Galeone said...

This is a wonderful post and 100% relatable. It hurts to get rejected, no matter what writers will say to ease the blow - myself included. After putting so much time and effort into a piece it becomes your baby, and then someone (seemingly without care) turns you down. But there's so much more to it.

Rejection - as you mention - can eventually lead to better writing. I send essays, stories, blog posts, and book chapters to one of my dearest friends, who is also a professional writer. And every time, just as I know she will, she tears me a new one over something. I get really frustrated with her advice and criticism, but it's usually because I know that she's right.

Despite the frustration, I keep sending her my stuff because my work ends up better after she looks at it. I guess my (long-winded) point is: Learn from the rejection about that specific piece. If it's rejected by a professional, there's often a solid reason why.

tbesmehn said...

It is 4:10am. I've read this article, am thrilled to be in the company of writers with mediocre agents who are no strangers to rejection and so, as soon as I post this comment I will write.
The middle-agers who wrote to Kubrick and remain unknowns today? Perhaps their first, second or third rejection served as the fatal blow. Perhaps it was the fourth attempt that would have been their ticket to that somewhere over the rainbow.
Like my kid brother's blow-up clown that took it on the nose and kept popping back up with a smile -- I remain in the game. Not because I'm a sucker for the pain of "Not you. Not today. Maybe not ever.", but because I'm a writer, and one day it would be lovely to be paid for it.

Dear Mr. Producer...

Hoverbored said...

Dear Ken,

for a Friday Question, would you please explain the difference between Christopher Lloyd the actor and Christopher Lloyd, the writer?

Many Thanks,

Joseph M.

Hamid said...

I can help on that, Joseph. They're two different people. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Lloyd_(screenwriter)

Johnny Walker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Walker said...

Nice thought, Wendy.

Bob Westal said...

My career attempting any kind of screenwriting or fiction is currently in remission (like any cancer, it could come back full bore someday soon, however). In my younger days, however, I remember being warned about rejection over and over and was fully prepared for it.

What I was NOT prepared for, however, was how hard it was to actually get to the rejection stage! Without an agent, you don't even get rejections in Hollywood for the most part because no one will read you. Agents, in my experience, don't even bother to send out rejection letters, so you never even get a "you suck kid" letter from them (which I no doubt would have deserved and, er, cherished!)

So, in a sense, even being rejected is something of a major achievement in Hollywood of the last several decades.

Dave said...

I never got an agent (dozens of attempts) for my novel/screenplay. I did, on my own, find an independent Hollywood producer for the screenplay. Now he has to find the money people for the production. I think his job is tougher than mine. At least I won't be getting the rejection letters directly.