Thursday, September 23, 2010

Unemployment & writers

There's a lot of talk these days about unemployment, there's supposed to be an 11% unemployment rate in California and around 9% in the entire country. Experts also suggest that the conservative figures are more like 15% or higher. For a while Republicans held back from letting Unemployment Insurance benefits be released, mostly posturing and playing politics, but both parties do that so it doesn't really matter as it's the same game.

How does this affect the writers, and then actors and directors? Because after all they can't make a movie if they don't have a screenplay. It could be argued that even when they have a screenplay, it's  not that good anyways.

The WGA has supposedly 10,000 members, mostly in Los Angeles (WGA west) and New York (WGA east), and a few in the huge distance between the two cities. I say supposedly because it is increasingly difficult to get an accurate number.

You know how many of them are working?

Again, figures are hard to find and so there are basic estimates, the best one I've seen being that in any given quarter, there are around 1500 members working.

Fifteen hundred out of 10,000.

That gives us an unemployment rate of 85%.

This can be argued back and forth, but ultimately the truth is most WGA writers are out of work. It's one of the drawbacks when you have a few scripts you're trying to sell, or even get someone to look at them.

So what do we do when we're not being paid for working?

Some of us take other jobs; teaching writing classes at UCLA or other schools. UCLA advertises for writers in Written By, the guild magazine. You can buy it almost anywhere in LA. Others leave the business, their number filled up by new writers, some take any job they can find to pay the rent.

I've been a limo driver, a security guard, a newspaper subscription caller (I was the only one on that job that never sold a subscription. Not even one!). I've edited a travel guide of Las Vegas, did magazine articles for the Auto Club and even did medical reports for Workers Comp. I had to edit long testimonies and doctor's opinions. Actually it was sometimes a lot of fun.

Then there's writers who write spec scripts. This isn't something that all writers do, and it actually surprised me. I am extremely prolific at writing, I'm always writing something, a screenplay, an idea for one, an idea for a documentary, an idea for a pilot.

Since I have a background as a newscameraman, I make small documentaries which I shoot on digital and edit in Final Cut Pro, which took me 2 years to learn. But now I love that software and am currently editing a doc I shot with my deceased friend's son. It's about Highway 50 in Nevada, dubbed "the loneliest highway in America".

I love doing these docs because it's all in my hands, I don't argue with anyone about how it should be filmed or cut.

And I write specs somewhere in that collection of things I do to try to make a buck. But as I said, some writers don't do that. In fact some can't do it. I couldn't understand this at first but began to see what the problem was.

Alot of writers need to be hired in order to work. I know writers who couldn't write a spec if their life depended on it. And I don't think less of them anymore than they think less of me. There are a lot of us who do write specs that we hope someone will buy. I write at least 2 specs a year, full feature-length screenplays. Currently I have around 33 specs "on the shelf" as they say.

33 screenplays that are begging to be made.

So why haven't they been made yet? Simple enough.

I haven't found someone who likes one or more of them that wants to make them. They're not bad, they're just not what "they" are looking for. And I can't blame them. I always say they may not like my story, but they can't say my writing is bad.

The odds of getting someone to like your story is a combination of craft, timing and just plain old luck.

Take Christmas In Nowhere. I wrote it 4 years ago and it hung around ABC Family and Lifetime and Hallmark for that long. Oh, they all loved it, but they didn't want to make it. My old agent Frank used to say "I'd rather have you love Jim less and buy him more".

Guess what happened after 4 years?

They bought it. 

What did it take? What was the burning desire someone had to finally take the leap? Well, I asked the woman who pushed the project for Hallmark. Was it my great writing, or my track record, or my glowing personality?

No. It was none of them.

It was because the teen-age girl in my screenplay reminded her of her two daughters. 

That was all. Really. Okay, she did like the writing and they went with my draft of the screenplay with actors changing a line here and there. But it got made because the teen touched this producer's heart in a way only she could see.

And I look at it as pure luck. Sure the script was good enough to land on a stack of screenplays at Hallmark, but it was picked out of sheer luck.

And nobody can teach a writer that part.

Watch for it this Christmas.

(Mon: More movies)


  1. Jim,

    Enjoyed reading your blog titled 'Travel Day 09' My friends and I have recently put together a web site dealing with some of the very issues which you touch on and one guy is a struggling actor. The site is called and it chronicles the lives of three unemployed twenty-somethings named Josh.

    Each Josh has a distinct personality and different ways of dealing with unemployment. JR is serious and takes a proactive approach to unemployment, Hollywood is trying to make it as an actor and is driven by emotion, while Shua takes a humorous look at unemployment and is quite handsome to the female audience.

    Visitors are able to interact with each Josh and vote on which one they think will land a job first. Soon, we will be expanding our format, incorporating videos, special features, and message boards and forums. Our goal with this site is to offer an alternative to the vast array of websites dealing with the unemployed and provide an interactive oasis where the jobless can voice their displeasures, lament the injustices of their plight, and laugh along with the Joshes as they share a ride on the Jobless Josh roller-coaster.

    Please check out our site and feel free to read through to get a better idea of the dialogue our readers are having and the dynamic that is in play.

  2. Hi Joshes... read your blog, interesting idea, I always thought it would be a great idea to give a guy $500 in NYC and have him travel across America with just that money and anything he can earn along the way.

    Your actor blog sure connects, I think writers are after actors in the "suffering stage" of their career. But we're both out there for people to judge.

    A cynical exec told me once, "you need 3 things to make it in this town, craft, discipline and talent. And the least important is talent.

    Good luck on your mission, will check in to see how it goes.

    Josh website is

    Have a look.