Pay Attention Or, 16 Emails = $16,000Written by: James Mercurio, writer and script analyst
Published: Feb 11, 2009
Jim Mercurio reminds you that life is an ensemble adventure, and, with a lesson learned in his lucrative excursion into the world of poker, shows that creativity and openness in your career and life is just as important as in your art.
I am going to sell a high-concept spec for a million dollars next year.
I am going to be a staff writer next year.
I am going to win the Nicholl Fellowship next year.
We've all had thoughts like these, right? We're uncertain about our future, but we take solace in the hope that maybe we will be able to walk down these well-trodden paths to success. We take classes on how to pitch our stories. We buy books that tell us how to circumnavigate the threshold guardians -- the agents, assistants and execs -- who keep us from the people who can say yes.
We want to learn from the people who have conquered, even if temporarily, the system and hope to find a clue as to how to do it ourselves. As frustrating as it might be to think that there are only a few ways "in," we secretly want it to be true. Because that would allow us to validate all the energy we spend on one of the right ways to break into the Hollywood career that is waiting for us.
These forward-looking statements that end with "next year," are part dream, part prayer. Are they healthy symptoms of faith, hope and the inspiration we writers need to continue to defy the odds in Hollywood? Or are they delusions that can lead to years of what will be eventually feel like a waste of time?
Sometimes it feels like 50-50, a coin flip. And it's hard in this town to know heads from tails. However, a recent experience of mine helped me put the relationship between the present and the future into perspective. Hang out with me for a few minutes and let's see what we can do to get "next year" out of our vocabulary.
A passion of mine outside of film is poker. (If you count the last film I produced, I guess gambling is a passion of mine inside of film.) I saw that Howard Lederer, one of the world's most famous poker players, was holding a weekend-long Poker Fantasy Camp where a few thousand dollars allowed attendees to learn poker from, schmooze with, and compete against many world-famous players like Howard's sister, Annie Duke, Celebrity Poker Showdown co-host Phil Gordon, and many others.
The details will show up in my unwritten CS Weekly article, "Chutzpah & the Query Letter," but I got the idea to send an email to Rick Bierman, whose company runs the event. Knowing how much I hate long-winded queries, I kept it brief, "I'm a writer and I could give you publicity by writing about your camp if you would let me attend." In a turnaround time that makes you appreciate his gamble (a gambler's term for a willingness to risk), Rick emailed me back in a few seconds: "Sure."
As a writer, producer and director, I have sent out probably a thousand screenplays and, ironically, neither of my two produced films were a result of those submissions. It would be nice if people in THIS business were as open to possibilities as Rick was. For pennies on the dollar, I was able to have the entire Fantasy Camp Experience in exchange for writing about it.
With a "yes" from Rick, I had the clear-cut task of becoming a freelance poker writer. I Googled "poker magazine" and sent out a dozen or so emails. Let's call it 15 to make the title of this article work. When people ask me why I became a screenwriter, I say, "Because I'm not that good with words." As funny as that sounds, it's true: screenwriting is not about the eloquence of the language. Thank god no one sees my first drafts.
However, my years of wrestling with words and twisting them into semi-coherence paid off. Without a resume, interview, or even phone call, my track record -- right in front of me -- immediately established myself as a writer in the eyes of the queried editors. Within a day or two, I had logged a total of $2,000 in freelance assignments for poker magazines, poker newspapers, poker websites, and a Nevada travel magazine. I found, unlike Hollywood, other industries have a measurable and immediate need for decent writers.
But $2,000 plus the $4,000 trip isn't $16,000, is it? Read on.
At the camp, I participated in several classes with top poker players like Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Paul "Dot com" Philips, and Erik Seidel. Many of you know Erik as the guy who loses to Johnny Chan at the World Series of Poker in Rounders. However, I know Erik as one of the best tournament players in the world. He walked away with over $600,000 earlier this year when he won his seventh gold bracelet at The World Series of Poker.
We played a $50,000 prize-pool tournament at legendary Binions Horseshoe Casino, home of the WSOP every year until this one. Curtis Hanson, director of L.A. Confidential was even downstairs with Robert Duvall, Eric Bana, and Drew Barrymore shooting their poker-themed movie Lucky You. I survived a field of 305 players and landed at the final table playing for a $10k first prize. This amount of money represents a few months off from reading other people's screenplays and working on my own. After we broke for the day, I spent the night obsessing over how I could win the next day.
The next morning, I walked into Erik Seidel's class and asked him how to win the tournament, TOMORROW (might as well be next year). He wouldn't answer. He told me to ask him after the lecture and then gave a great class that compared poker to Jazz. He advised the class to get out of your own head. It's not your game; it's not a solo. It's an ensemble. You cannot figure out how to play without paying attention and just responding to what is right in front of you.
When he asked me if I still had a question, I smiled and shook my head.
How much was his advice worth?
Yep, I came in first place and here is the picture to prove it.
Screenwriting and poker, the twain shall meet.
My friend and partner (in several endeavors), Creative Screenwriting alum Michael Lent, wrote a column awhile back where he encouraged screenwriters to think outside of the box. He suggested that they consider comic books as a way to get writing work or to jumpstart a career or project. He even included the contact info for a few companies that might be open to new writers. A reader wrote in to nitpick the accuracy of a few of the facts: email addresses or the companies' credits. Whatever. He missed the point.
Having worked with Michael on the feature Hard Scrambled, I know he is one of the most resourceful people I know. He has an uncanny way of applying his creativity -- not just to the words on the page -- but to his life and career. He wrote an amazing visual and visceral action-adventure spec called Origin of the Species. And then he took his own advice. He emailed a few comic book companies. And, in fewer emails than it took me to kick off my freelance poker-writing career, Michael signed a deal with Dabel Brothers Pro for a six-part comic book and graphic novel based on Origin.
Talk about improvising…
And those of you who have been paying attention to what's right in front of you in CS Weekly might recognize that this lead to the DB Pro Prize -- a $50,000 Production Deal -- for one of the winners of this year's Expo 4 Screenplay Competition. Apparently Ken Gamble was paying attention, too, when he decided to enter his script Grey Malkin's Omen of the Wendigo into the Expo 4 Screenplay Competition. Ken was in the back of the giant room when he was called on the stage to receive this year's DB Pro Prize at Expo 4. I think it was because he wanted to enjoy the moment -- what was right in front of him -- for as long as possible.
Erik Seidel reminded me to pay attention to what was right in front of me. It helped me win $10,000 and become a step closer to becoming the poker player I want to be. However, I would have never even been in the situation without being open. I'm not a poker writer. But I can write. I don't have a few thousand dollars for an educational vacation. But I can tell a story. I didn't know the guys who run the camp. But I can send an email.
I am not telling you to be a freelance journalist or to go query comic book magazines or to write about poker or even to start playing poker. But make sure you haven't confined yourself into thinking in only one way about your career, or more importantly your happiness. Think about all of the skills you have developed as a screenwriter -- perception, creativity, discipline, storytelling and writing. Your script is not the end-all-be-all. It is not the product. You are.
If your career and life are not happening exactly the way you want it, be open to what is in front of you. Treat yourself and the things in the world around you as an ensemble. Adapt and interact.
It's worth the gamble.
Jim Mercurio is a trust fund brat with several million dollars in savings. He is a horrible script consultant and doesn't want or need your business. You cannot read more of his writing at his web site.