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Screenwriters chasing the brass ring in the land of dreams

Web posted on: Wednesday, July 22, 1998 4:22:25 PM

A NewsStand: CNN & Entertainment Weekly report
From Correspondent Bruce Burkhardt

HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- If you've ever walked out of a movie thinking you could write a better screenplay than the one you just witnessed, then you might want to consider screenwriting as an occupation. After all, if you're as good as you think, your story could earn you a seven-figure income.

But dreaming about making it as a screenwriter in Hollywood is much easier than becoming a screenwriter -- a player -- in the land of dreams.

There's so much competition that the odds of selling a script are comparable to winning a lottery. In fact, the California lottery has produced more millionaires in the past 10 years than has screenwriting.

The business

Recent movies based on spec scripts:

"The Truman Show"
"Small Soldiers"
"Good Will Hunting"

Most screenplays are written on speculation -- in other words, the writer writes it hoping it will sell. But each year, some 43,000 "spec" scripts are registered with the Writer's Guild of America. Of those, only about 150 are sold to major studios and production companies. And of those, maybe seven or eight actually become movies.

So why do people waste the time and energy it takes to write a feature length screenplay, if the odds are the investment won't pan out?

Screenwriting guru Sid Field, whose screenwriting books have sold over 600,000 copies, says they are attracted by the lure of attaining the nearly unattainable.

"Everybody has a dream in their life," Field says. "If I can write a screenplay, I can sell it for a million bucks. Robert Redford can star in it. I'll be rich and famous. That's the dream."

Dick Christie went from starring in the Fox sitcom "Small Wonder" to writing a million-dollar movie script

Christie wrote the script to "Rescue Me," soon to be released as a movie starring Elizabeth Shue

A million reasons to write

And it's people like Dick Christie who keep that dream alive. His screenplay is being turned into a movie called "Rescue Me," starring Elizabeth Shue.

"It's due to be released around the first of the year," says Christie, who has earned a pretty penny for the work. "The deal was $700,000 against a million. In other words, I got $700,000 for the script itself, and then $300,000 more when it went into production."

A million dollars, for sitting in front of a computer and telling a story. Now he's hanging out at the exclusive Bel Air Country Club, enjoying the good life.

"It has changed my life," he says. "You know, the money buys you the things that you like -- the cars and the Cuban cigars -- but don't tell the authorities, please."

Now Christie is trying to pass along the hope.

"Follow your passion. Follow your dream," he says. "It's there. It will lead you in a different way. It will lead you somewhere where you'll be happy, if you follow your passion."

Students at UCLA study screenwriting

The slot machine

But most screenwriters' stories don't end that way. Witness Dennis Palumbo, who enjoyed success as a screenwriter, penning "My Favorite Year," and the TV show "Welcome Back Kotter." But Palumbo quit, saying he grew tired of the Hollywood game.

Now's he's trying to help other writers. He became a licensed psychotherapist, writing a monthly column, "The Writer's Life," and advertising his services in the journal for The Writer's Guild of America.

Almost 90 percent of his practice are writers.

He says aims to keep the hope alive in writers.

"It's like pulling the lever on a slot machine," Palumbo says. "The three cherries are going to come up just enough times to keep you plugging quarters in there and pulling the handle down the next 25 times because, who knows, the 26th time, the three cherries are going to come up again."

Laurie Hutsler sold her house, packed up and moved to Hollywood to peddle her scripts

'We sold our house'

It's that hope that has kept UCLA student Laurie Hutsler heading towards her dream of screenwriting. She says she came to Los Angeles with stars in her eyes.

"We sold our house, sold almost everything we own. My husband quit his job, put just a few things in a U-Haul van, and drove to California," she says. "Somebody has to be the one that's the lucky one. And I actually have a script that's been optioned and that's planned to go into production next summer."

The operative word is "optioned." That means Laurie has received 10 percent of a reported mid-six-figure deal. If the movie gets made, she'll see the rest. If it doesn't, she won't.

She's ahead of the game. Most writers toil years on the outskirts of the industry, without ever making a sale.

But even Hollywood heavyweights admit that the next "Titanic" could come from an unknown screenwriter.

"The spec script still has a great deal of power," says "Titanic" creator James Cameron. "Nobody wants to let that spec script pass them by that might be the next -- you know, whatever -- name your favorite film."

Just what screenwriters need -- more hope.

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