11/18/2013 04:38 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Rejection, Hollywood-Style

I couldn't sleep last night. I got to worrying about why ravel and unravel mean the same thing. What's that all about? And why cleave is its own opposite. About three in the morning it hit me that if a semi-truck has 18 wheels, a whole truck must have 36. That's the kind of thing that kills us literary types.

Onward through the fog. Or blog.

Attitude is language. Which means we are not only what we say but how we say it. Here is all you need to know about the difference between publishing novels and writing movies.

In publishing, if an editor doesn't want your work, they send you a rejection letter. Rejection is the key word for New Yorkers. Editors like to look at writers from the point of view of Cotton Mather's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon, and they are God. One misspelled word, or a margin too narrow or too wide, and they not only ship you a rejection slip, but a form rejection slip.

Compare rejection to how Hollywood turns you down. The producer who doesn't want your work will say, "This is the best first draft I've read all year, but I'm afraid I have to pass." Isn't passing so much softer than rejecting? It's also sneakier because it leaves the door open for coming back, as in "I'll pass on those pork chops but I may take you up on it later."

And when they do pass, they do it by sending an email to your agent. Down at the bottom of the email are letters CF/rb, or whatever, indicating who said it and who typed it. But below that, at the very bottom, you'll find this cryptic sentence:

Dictated but not read.

That means whoever said it said it but they reserve the right of denial, if it goes to court or their job is on the line. Isn't that sneaky?

Actually, you're lucky to get a Pass in Hollywood. Mostly what you'll get is silence. People out there hate to say "No." It might be awkward and awkwardness is not tolerated. Stars never say "No." You send them the script and if they like it they say, "Maybe, depends on the money," but if they don't like it, eight phones calls, twelve emails and four months later your agent's assistant lets it slip, "Too bad that didn't work out with the star."

"First I've heard it didn't."

"Oh, they passed a couple months ago." This always comes from the assistant, never the agent. No agent who wants to stay alive in that town will tell a client anything the client doesn't want to hear.

And then here's what happens more often than could be statistically random. A friend of yours at a hummus and pita bread party will be standing next to your star and your friend will say, "Too bad you passed on Such-and-So's script. You would have been great for the part." And the star will say, "What script? I didn't see any script," which means either the star, his agent, or your agent, or all three, are lying through their teeth.

You'll never know for sure, but the odds run to his agent. Agents love to protect their clients from artsy character-driven passion projects by turning them down without telling the star the offer existed. Nothing an agent hates more than a client taking on a project for some reason other than big bucks. Better to keep him in mindless tentpoles.

Or maybe your own agent didn't want to tell you the famous actor will never in this lifetime play in your cross-dressing musical and he told you he submitted it but instead he stuck it in a file cabinet for three months before telling his assistant to leak it to you that the star loves the script but it's not for him.

Or maybe the star is lying.

If you plan to work in the movie business you must accept that everyone lies and it's normal behaviour and your job is to figure out what they really mean. They don't even know they are lying. They think they're speaking in a code (which we will discuss in a future blog) and, if you're a professional you will be able to translate the truth. For instance, in that earlier statement, "This is the best first draft I've read all year," the only part of that you need to hear is "first draft." That means if they take it you'll be doing rewrites on your deathbed.

Richard Price once said, " 'Thank you,' in Hollywood, means 'You're fired'." It is my experience, the studios said "Thank you," but the producers said nothing. Remember when your first girlfriend broke up with you in high school? You talked on the phone every day for a few months and then it stopped. No Goodbye. No thanks for the memories. If you threw a wall-eyed cat fit she had her best friend tell you you were being shallow. That's how it is with producers. One day you call them and their assistant says he'll call back in ten minutes and that's the end.

Your progression should be idealism to cynicism to acceptance. Otherwise, the business will destroy you.


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