“When it’s over for a woman, it’s over. You’re not getting an appeal.” – Jack Nicholson
“No one wants your stuff” – William Goldman
“Everyone gets a lot of no’s. It’s almost always more no’s then yes’s.” – Vince Gilligan
If you’re a professional football player, you’re signing up to get tackled. Even the kickers take a fair share of brutal shots.
If you’re a boxer, you’re signing up to get punched in the face.
If you’re a screenwriter, you’re signing up to get rejected. A LOT.
There is no avoiding it. Think of your favorite screenwriter. Be it David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, Paddy Chayefsky, et al, they’ve all heard the most four-lettered of all four letter words: “PASS”
Let’s not mince words, rejection sucks. It is one of the great fears in life up there with spiders and public speaking. And rightfully so. If one thinks of their most painful moments in life, it’s reasonable to guess some of those are directly because of rejection. It reduces grown adults to tears, it wrecks self-esteem, it jades optimism and can often send one down a self-destructive path.
So it is no wonder that when some people turn away from the creative life, “fear of rejection” is often a primary reason. The idea of pouring your blood, sweat and tears into something artistic only to get a “meh” or a “PASS” from either the audience or the gatekeepers is not, on paper, the best way to spend one’s days.
Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to have some success and create some in-roads. I’m in the process of signing with some representation as we speak. But I’ve also dealt with A LOT of rejection. In fact, some actors have told me they think screenwriters deal with more rejection than they do. That’s a scary stat, though not an insurmountable one.
Because one thing I’ve learned is entertainment industry rejection is a lot different from real-life rejection.
When someone doesn’t want to go out with you, it sucks. And a lot of times, the terms are not negotiable. There may be no physical attraction, the philosophies don’t mesh, you just don’t enjoy each other’s company etc. The internet is filled with ads about “how to trick people into going out with you” and fortunately, I’ve never had to use those so I can’t verify their results.(For the record, I remain dubious of those claims.)
If you’re an aspiring screenwriter and are scared of being rejected, let me assure you it is not like “I don’t like you anymore” or “I’m breaking up with you.” It’s still painful to get a pass on your script but it’s really not the same thing. Scripts being passed on are not a personal judgment and shouldn’t be taken as such.
“Your script doesn’t fit our slate” is very very different from “I hate you, wish I never met you and never want to see you again.” There’s a ton of reasons why a company (production or management) will reject your work that have nothing to do with the quality of the script.
*They don’t have room on their slate for your project.
*It wouldn’t be a good fit for the leads they have deals with.
*They may think it’s too risky for them.
*They may not know how to market it.
*They may not be able to afford it.
And there’s one thing every Screenwriter should say to a PASS – “Thank You.”
Seriously. Say Thank You.
First of all, no one owes you a read. No one owes you a yes. No one is waiting to bow down to the brilliance of your script. Everyone you’re pitching to has read a pile of scripts taller than Andre The Giant. No one owes you anything so the fact that they are taking a few minutes or an email or a phone call to hear your idea is a big deal. You don’t have to grovel or go into penitent-man-will-pass mode. But say Thank You. I open and close all of my pitches with “Thank You for listening to my pitch.” Time is the most valuable thing anyone has and showing the proper respect for one’s time will never hurt and only show you’re a professional.
Even if you get a pass, say Thank You.
Not everyone has the good graces to call and say “Sorry, we’re passing.” Some folks will just leave you hanging because they’re scared of hurting your feelings. (***Note to those folks: I suggest giving the bad medicine. It hurts, sure but it also tells us to look elsewhere instead of holding onto false hope.) If someone tells you they’re passing but you then respond like a professional, you’re now not dealing with rejection – you may have just made a new connection.
Being defensive doesn’t help anyone, least of all the screenwriter. Everyone knows you’re mad or hurt or upset about the Pass. Let me repeat that – EVERYONE knows you’re mad or hurt or upset about the Pass. You don’t have to tell them, it’s no secret. By all means, complain loudly over some libation to friends and loved ones. This is why God invented bars. But getting into a fight or being a smart-ass to the person passing only gets them to cross your name off of their list. Being a professional and being cool about it can get you in their rolodex. Because again – EVERY single screenwriter gets passed on. It’s how they respond to that pass that matters.
If you’re confused about why you got a pass, go ahead and ask. They may answer, they may not but if you’re open-minded and are receptive to their reasons, then your reputation only goes up. Hollywood is BIG business but it’s a small town. Falling outs, bad attitudes and unprofessional behavior are remembered.
Even I get defensive replies from writers if I say that I don’t have time to read their scripts or am not available for a collaboration. And it’s stunning and quite frankly, shameful. My schedule has been so busy lately, I’ve been unable to record any interviews for a while. For people to treat that or the producers and gatekeepers their pitching to with attitude is just downright selfish and rude.
It’s a cliché but it’s true – you will probably be seeing these people again and again. Let’s say a producer passes on you and you’re so indignant about the insult of the pass, you tell them to fuck off. You make a fresh start elsewhere and build up your screenwriting career. Years later you end up pitching the head of let’s say Universal for a big, big money show. In walks that producer you told to fuck off. They pass on your pitch – AGAIN – and your “fuck off” has gotten you nothing. Seriously, save the bitching for the bar. Sleep it off and get back to grind after the coffee washes away the hangover.
It’s Not You, It’s Them: For real. Production companies and management firms are looking to make money in a hyper-competitive marketplace that is changing at warp speed. We know there’s more Star Wars movies coming. How kids born today will be watching them in five-six years is anyone’s guess. So we screenwriters have to remember that Producers and Agents are not waking up and saying “How can I make some screenwriting dreams come true?” They’re waking up trying to survive – just like we are.
You’re talking to people who are balancing multi-million projects and making high stakes decisions with their careers on the line. Understand that before you walk in the room. Your script may be a huge part of your life but in context, it is a smaller piece of a much, much large industry with probably a million other decisions to be made even if you’re lucky enough to get a yes. They may look at your project and say “can’t make that work right now” but the more you pitch, the more they hear your voice, the more likely it is they will soon be making it work.
I’ve gotten tons of passes. I’ve gotten zero “don’t come back.” In fact, I’ve gotten many “Not for us at this time, but we’d love to hear future ideas.”
Industry rejection is not permanent: Let’s say a company passes on you but you do some rewrites, maybe find a manager or that same script wins a few laurels on the festival circuit. That company maybe very open-minded to revisiting your idea. They don’t know everything and they know they don’t know everything.
Production slates and management needs are constantly changing. Today’s “pass” could very well be tomorrow’s “Where have you been??” which leads us to…
Research Who You Pitch: This is a very important point because it’s something agents, managers and production companies say all the time. Many aspiring screenwriters think that casting as wide a net as possible is the best strategy with queries and cold calls. If you’ve written the most revolutionary horror movie in years, chances are the company producing 10 rom-coms a year isn’t going to buy – or even waste their time hearing the pitch.
Yes, there are exceptions to every rule and maybe your horror will be what turns “Rom-Com Productions” into the next Blumhouse. It’s still a smart strategy to focus your efforts onto the people who are representing and producing the material you like to write.
I’ve made this mistake myself. I got a read from a manager who I didn’t realize repped like 80% comedies so my gritty crime drama got a pass with a “needs a lot more jokes.” Oops. I’m much, much more careful now and learn from my mistake, you’ll save some aggravation by heading off some of these rejections at the pass.
Every Pitch/Rejection Is An Opportunity: I know that sounds real saccharin but it’s true. This past year alone I had two rough pitch sessions. The people passed but the questions they asked me pointed out some clarity problems in the pitch. I put my “well, fuck you” aside and used their questions to rework my pitch. As a result, I’ve heard “YES” several times since. So quite frankly, if I saw those folks again I’d happily shake their hands and say “Thank You.” Those rejections actually helped me out huge and on a purely pragmatic level.
Listen to how people are responding, what questions they’re asking and the notes they’re giving. There is no better window into what the other side of the desk is looking for.
We Already Have Something Like It: One of the best you can get. Sure, someone got there first, but it also shows your idea is relevant and you’re onto something. If someone is buying and idea like yours, then in this competitive market it’s likely someone else is looking to buy yours. This pass is a big, flashing sign that says “KEEP GOING.”
If They Do Hate It: If you believe in your story, with your heart of hearts and think it should be told to the world and then you pitch to someone who responds “That’s dogshit” well, smile, say thank you and move on. Don’t look back. They’re probably not going to like your voice or your stories so you need to find the people who will.
I don’t always love to hide behind the blanket of “subjectivity” but there IS a matter of tastes to this business. That said…
Your Script/Pitch May Actually Be Terrible: Here’s the one none of us want to deal with but until it gets made, the idea of your script not working at all must remain on the table. Screenwriting is a strange vocation because even when we’re “done” the script is still a launching pad for production and post-production. And the script will go through changes, sometimes HUGE changes, during those processes. Scripts are constantly fluid and subject to reworking.
If your scripts are really generating no reception, no reads, no buzz or heat, it’s a good idea to take as objective a look as possible at the material. Maybe it’s your pitch. Maybe it’s how your idea is being presented. Maybe it is in fact your script.
A circle of readers or being a part of a writer’s group might help you out with this. If you don’t have access to that, there are sites like The Black List and script consultants out there to give you notes and coverage to get your story where it needs to be. (VET any script consultants. Don’t just give some schmuck who’s written two unsold scripts $$$ for notes. I’ve won awards and wouldn’t even think of charging – even if I did have time to read a stranger’s scripts.)
So yes, the possibility your story isn’t working has to be considered during this discussion. Sometimes it is you, not them. But the doors are not slammed to you. If your rewrites help and you get the story on track, the same people who said no before may become your new champions when it’s ready.
Being as objective as possible or having the perspective of a reader are vital tools to being any kind of writer. So you can’t always chalk up the “no’s” to “well, what do they know?” Hell, constantly trying to improve your writing is a part of the quest – yes or no. Sell 12 scripts last year? That’s great, you should still be trying to get better.
There is no avoiding rejection and “PASS” on the screenwriting journey. But if you arm and prepare yourself properly, you’ll be able to survive this minefield. How many and how much you can take is up to you. I suggest you take all the no’s on the chin and learn everything you can from them. Say Thank You and put that pen back to paper.
Because one yes will wipe all the no’s.
The Handsome Timmy D Express is proud to be a part of:
The Dan & Travis Show Podcast: An Awesome Thing
The Chronic Rift: A series of podcasts that attempt to “find the culture in pop culture.”