If you’re thinking of pursuing a career in screenwriting then chances are you already know that the road ahead of you is going to be a tough one. If you’re already deep in the woods as a hustling screenwriter, then you probably have experienced many dreaded no’s and yesses that don’t lead anywhere. And then there are those rare instances of screenwriters who score deals right out of the gate and instantly become the resentful envy of his or her peers. But for those who don’t see instant success, failure is inevitable — but for experienced screenwriters Malcolm Spellman, John Turman, and writing duo Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley, their moments of “failure” weren’t really failures. They managed to see a silver lining and make the best lemonade they could out of the lemons the industry threw at them.
The adage of “pick yourself up and try again” is easier said than done — especially in the entertainment business, but as a screenwriter, you pretty much have to. During the special Tracking Board-hosted “Turning Failure Into Success” panel at the Austin Film Festival, Spellman, Turman, and the Wibberleys shared their career trajectory in the vicious, yet rewarding world of screenwriting. Each have their own unique story of entering the biz and each have their own stories of minor and major speed bumps that helped their career.
Spellman currently works for the hit Fox show Empire and worked in the business for 15 years. He is one of the rare cases that broke into the business with a blind submission to an agent.
“My then ex-girlfriend and now wife had an agent at ICM and I wrote a query letter looking for representation,” says Spellman. “They agreed to rep me — it all happened so fast.”
He added (kind of) jokingly, “It was the only good moment I had in Hollywood.”
Two years later, after Spellman broke in, he was adapting a novel, but the agents were quick to leave his calls unanswered as fast as they accepted him as a client. The radio silence continued for years, but he continued to write and develop projects. Some almost saw the light of day; some still remain on the shelf; but his resilience eventually paid off when he landed in the writer’s room at Empire.
Turman had just as much of a rough road which was highlighted when he pitched an idea for a Buck Rogers movie to a “p**ck executive” who tore him apart and said he “wasn’t the right guy for the job” — but he ended up landing the gig. However, the executive ended up getting fired and the script never went anywhere. Plus, Turman never got paid for it. “There’s a success story in there somewhere,” joked Turman.
Well, Turman ended up writing Hulk, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and is now a writer for the CBS reboot of MacGyver — so he’s seems to be doing OK.
For the husband and wife team of Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, the two left their jobs as a ABC Executive and a math teacher to become full-time screenwriters. As their career moved along they had some ups and downs with pitches, scripts, and things of the like. But things started to look up when they landed an agent –until they had to face the realities of being with an agent who also represents the uber-popular Wachowskis. Needless to say, as their agent rose, they were left behind and were back at square one.
The continued to write and in one instance, they sold a script only to be fired and replaced by someone else. “You begin to question your ability after you get fired after your film agrees to be made,” says Cormac. “The only way to turn failure into success is to keep writing.”
The duo kept writing and eventually made National Treasure, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.
Their stories of failure are really stories about encountering obstacles, but, as a screenwriter might say, an obstacle is an opportunity for a character to discover a solution. And the common solution in all of their stories is simple: keep writing.
“The only way to get through failure is to keep writing,” says Spellman. “Keep writing with no sense of quitting no matter what.”
“Don’t be above anything when it comes to writing,” adds Turman. “I didn’t care about the quote I received for Macgyver because I do what I love.”
With writing also comes the task of pitching — something that none of the panelists are particularly fond of. Turman shared a story about pitching Hulk and being a tad bit intimidated when he had to pitch to Gale Ann Hurd and her team as well as Stan Lee and his team — but his intimidation faded away when he realized that he “didn’t give a s***”.
“I knew I wouldn’t get it so from then on out, I didn’t care about the outcome,” he says. “I just cared about the story.”
By the way, he ended up writing Hulk.
“Less is more when pitching,” Marianne added. “You have to give them an impressionistic painting and give them a swirl of things — get them to lean in and want more.”
It takes a lot even want to have the ambition to be a screenwriter, let alone drop everything and attempt to be one. That said, Cormac admits that it’s OK for it to start off as a hobby — that can potentially turn into a job — but make sure you have an actual job that pays the bills.
And when it comes to notes to turning your screenplay into a success, be open to it — as you already should be.
“I’ve never met someone who handles notes well,” says Spellman. “But sometimes people are right to tell you what’s wrong.”
And if you think that rewrite a script until you think a producer will like it, you might want to just shelve the idea altogether.
“It’s a mistake to write the same story over and over again,” says Marianne. “Learn to let go and write something new.”
In an industry that is wrought with no’s it is important to persevere — as the panelists have done. But as Cormac says, “getting fired is not failure.” To all of them, it was an opportunity to find success.
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer
For more of our coverage of the 2016 Austin Film Festival, click here.