Follower or Vanguard: as new writers do we dare rock the boat?”

Giant panda Mei Xiang takes a nap

by Diana Black

Male Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) are lousy at sex. Their low libido and lack of interest even when engaged in procreation, coupled with habitat loss, is causing a steady decline in the population. However, all Panda males being equally lack-luster in the bedroom, so no individual Panda male has an advantage over the others and the Panda gene pool is ‘safe’ and the species survives.

What about the gene pool called ‘Hollywood’? How might it look from the outside looking in? Hollywood is perceived by most aspiring screenwriters, actors and filmmakers to be an ‘exclusive restaurant’ securely contained behind thick plate-glass with very few doors, which can only be opened by a gate-keeper or someone who already has a seat at the table. If an aspirant doesn’t know someone of either category then they’re effectively screwed.

Those on the inside, attempting to manifest an air of superiority and exclusiveness, maintain the restaurant is ‘fully-booked’; leaving the hungry aspirants outside, goggling with their noses pressed up against the glass for perhaps weeks, months; even years.

Continuing the analogy, what might it look like from the inside, looking out? The fare at the table, no matter how often one rearranges the food on the plate continues to grow stale; it may have been boring to begin with but something has to fill those airwaves. The only way to partake of new delectable fodder is to ‘order in’. That realization fills those at the table with dread and paranoia. Perhaps understandable – HBO’s first season of Game of Thrones took around $55 M to produce and garnered an average viewership of about 2.62 million viewers. A good thing they’re hunting subscribers rather than viewers for television commercials.

Back at the restaurant, there’s nothing for it but to reluctantly turn and try not to peer too hungrily into the sea of smiling faces; all eager to serve up their latest ‘master-piece’. If heartburn hasn’t already set in from years of trying to retain one’s tenure as a ‘fashionable dinner guest’, now it’s really fired up.

Who dares say, “Yes – send the script over “or “I like it – let’s talk”? They must but if the ‘suits’ green-light a project which then fails diabolically; not only will precious funds in an already thinning pocket-book be wasted, their collective seat at ‘the table’ becomes more tenuous; bringing sweat to the brow of the most hardy. The rancor from those who are ‘guilty by association’ will be unforgiving. It doesn’t matter which rung of the food-chain we currently inhabit, we’re only as good as our last performance.

We as aspirants are warned, “Play by Hollywood’s ‘Rules’ or not at all.” For those of us invited to ‘take a seat’ do we play it safe and offer up yet another serving of mediocrity at the first sign of contention or do we honor our radical aesthetic principles; banking on becoming flavor of the month? What if the response is lukewarm? Will we maintain our aesthetic stance?

Bold aspirants tired of beating their head against the glass, may pluck up the courage to leave the restaurant sidewalk and become a ‘fringe dweller’. Of those that make it in the wilderness, largely thanks to generous friends and colleagues willing to bank-roll their ‘product’, they may lose their ‘fringe’ status and become the toast of tinsel town, especially if their initial success is followed up by others. Some stalwart ‘fringe-dwellers’ may refuse ‘the’ invitation, resolving to remain a vanguard; hardworking, grim but determined.

Others may gratefully take a seat at the table and toe the company line – all-to-willing or coerced into compromising their creativity as a tradeoff for the cozy delusion of having ‘arrived’. Those already seated may deign to smile, feeling vindicated. The new-comer’s compliance has not only swelled their rank-and-file but helped to secure the tenure of those already seated and why not – they’ve paid their dues, haven’t they? Does it matter that artistic expression may have been quashed along the way? In evolutionary terms it does; sameness can be the harbinger of doom.

For all the burning desire for new stories, new characters and new situations etc., Hollywood seems ultra-conservative in terms of risk-taking and lazy when it comes to ‘taking a look’. Admittedly there’s a lot of money involved and who has the time to read the mountain of scripts held in the eager hands of those waiting ‘outside’? If a log line or pitch doesn’t ‘fit the mold’ and grab the jaded attention of a gatekeeper, the script will be ignored and its potential ‘gold’ unearthed. There’s pressure from above and the dilemma associated with “pass” or “let’s see it” – a mistake could determine the longevity of their career.

How do we as emerging screenwriters ensure that we don’t just ‘go home’ in disgust or cave in with trepidation? Perhaps by determining why we are there in the first place, what it is we want to say and if we believe in [it], then having the guts to stand firm and serve the story. Perhaps self-belief and determination are best served by not only having talent but also a willingness to diligently learn and honor the craft. Every pitch and every script that we pitch must have artistic merit via a compelling ‘universal’ narrative (in some way) while also demonstrating a rigorous attention to professional detail. Will this ensure acceptance? Not necessarily.

If a male Giant Panda suddenly developed stupendous sexual virility, far more than his colleagues and got busy setting the girls ‘on fire’, albeit nicely he’d ‘clean up’. His genes would dominate in the next generation. Evolution 101. Mediocre performance regardless of the gene pool does not serve ‘the species’ well.

Quality television’ has brought about a ‘marginal’ increase in the overall quality of television programs. One of HBO’s latest offspring’s, Game of Thrones – an ‘interweave’ of Greek tragedy, Spanish Golden Age drama, soft porn and bloodlust with Tolkienesque underpinnings, has according to IMDB, the highest rating of the current ‘Top 20’. Arguably, there’s scope for developing a greater level of sophistication in the viewing audience but they can only consume what we choose to serve up and the animal known as Homo sapiens, remains a primitive, tribal species with the laminar of sophistication and courage to depart from the norm, ‘paper thin’.