I was driving home from a features meeting yesterday listening to Scriptnotes, a podcast by Craig Mazin and John August. If you are an aspiring screenwriter and you haven’t found Scriptnotes yet, I highly encourage it. Craig plays the cranky rich guy who grumbles when a screenwriter finds this job hard while John soothes with his kind voice and gentle encouragement. I think it’s the kind of balance you need inside your brain if screenwriting is the kind of thing you want to do to your life. (“Oh, just shut up and write, you whiny baby! …and good luck, you can do it!”)
Lately Craig and John have been taking a few minutes out of their podcast to ponder why there are so few women in this industry. As a woman who had just taken two general meetings that day in features, slammed in the middle a week of no less than five TV sitcom pitches, I wanted to shout back, “I’M TRYING, GUYS.” Craig and John gave some stats based off their own recent inquiry for submissions — only 12% of the writers who sent them pages were female — and with less than a third of Nicholl submissions coming from women and only around a quarter of working screenwriters with the Guild being female, they eventually somewhat concluded: “I guess they just aren’t as interested.” And then I got really bummed out.
This doesn’t seem like the regular argument I’m sick of and already wrote about at length. This isn’t “Are women funny and if so/not why aren’t more of them writing television?” Craig and John weren’t wondering if women could do the job. They wanted to know why they didn’t seem to be applying. And I can’t talk to this like I can in television, because the features world is so isolating.
In the TV world we all seem to eventually run into each other — at meetings, on staffs, during pitches or punch-ups, at parties. But I rarely get to talk to another screenwriter, and when I do I would have to say if the screenwriter is working (meaning: “getting paid to write what they’re writing”), that writer tends to be male. If the screenwriter is working on a spec while balancing some other paid work (usually in television), I find she’s female. But that doesn’t mean she’s not hustling. Perhaps I don’t run into working screenwriters in general very often because my funny friends who got TV work stayed there, as it’s much more reliable, much more predictable, and much less frustrating than trying to secure work in the feature world.
Right now, I’ve got a well-received novel making the rounds in features, and a spec feature that’s also circulating, another spec script that’s optioned and securing attachment before going out for financing, and a number of television show pitches with different producers and studios that are lined up for the auction block of network pitching. Combined with the two scripts I’m writing that are paid gigs (they are movies, but for a television channel) and the graphic novel that will be coming out in the future (all of which I get to announce at some point some time, but I don’t get to talk about them yet) I’m definitely a working writer (even though less than five of the things I just listed off actually pay me money). But all that work doesn’t even begin to include all the work I do to try to get work in features. And that is a completely different kind of hustle that mostly doesn’t pay a penny.
I’ve chased a few feature jobs this year, where you go in for a general and you’re pitched either an idea or what’s called an Open Writing Assignment (which means the idea/property/concept is the equivalent of a job description and they’re looking for applicants). You then go home and write up a pitch or come up with your take on a rewrite of the script they have and don’t like. You come in and pitch. They give you notes and you go back and work on that pitch again and sometimes you get notes on those notes and rewrites on top of that and the next thing you know it’s been four months of back-and-forth writing and pitching and your pitch is now some kind of enormous outline and there’s more phone calls and now it’s down to you and four other (nameless, faceless) writers, or you and one other (fuck that guy) writer, and while it’s tempting to walk away from the whole thing and go back to television where you know the weeks they are hiring staffs, the weeks they are hearing pitches, and the weeks they aren’t hearing anything so you should work on your specs. And sure, all that doesn’t pay, either, but at least you can live a life that has some sort of order and sense.
When it’s down to you and one other person on a feature job and you’ve already spent more than a quarter of the year trying to get the gig, it’s hard to walk away. Because what if??? This is also when I like to say, “I am still in the running for America’s Next Top Screenwriter.” So you keep trying, keep rewriting, keep working part of your week completely for free, only to find out they went with the other guy, or they decided to regroup and try another direction, or they are no longer pursuing the project.
And that can be financially tough. And emotionally brutal. “This is why everybody’s going to television,” I’ve been told by other writers, agents, the producers who were telling me I didn’t get the job. “This system is messed up.”
But that doesn’t explain why the majority of people going for those gigs are men. Or is it that the majority of the people landing those gigs are men? I don’t know. This is very difficult for me to do, but I’m going to try to form an answer based off of gender, off of how women tend to handle conflict and adversity.
We are pretty fluid. When we find something that isn’t working, we tend to try to look for another answer. That often gets bad-mouthed as “people pleasing” or “weak,” but I think it’s crafty. “Oh, this script isn’t working? I will try another.” “I’m not getting my point across with this pitch? Maybe I’ll film some of it for YouTube, or try it as a pilot, or see if there’s a novel there.” “I’m going to work on my voice on my website for a while and see where I can make things stronger.”
But there’s a flipside. Thinking it’s great to be adaptable makes you less aggressive. Makes you take steps backwards. Maybe the reason there are fewer female screenwriters is because we don’t attack it, we don’t bully it. We say, “Okay, thanks for the feedback, I’ll try again” instead of “NO I WANT I WANT I WANT THAT NOW GIVE ME IT GIVE IT. NOW.”
I don’t want that to be true, by the way. I don’t want to think we have to start “acting like men” to sit at the big table. Because I don’t think all men act that way, and a whole lot of them are working in this business. But I don’t know a lot of lady-bullies. I know a lot of male bullies. I know ladies who can be arrogant, who aren’t interested in helping others, but I don’t know them to be assholes. Again, maybe I’m just lucky that way.
I started out as an actress who found her way to comedy who learned pretty quickly that it was easier to make money in comedy if I stayed away from the stage or camera and just wrote the words for other people (often dudes) to say instead. My first industry sale was a feature, but it was an adaptation of my own novel, and pretty soon after that I was getting steady television work that kept me from having the time to pursue the seemingly endless marathon that is getting a feature gig. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I only kept writing feature specs, specifically in one genre. If I decided to pigeonhole myself from day one. Or what would’ve happened if I kept doing comedy five nights a week, if I’d spent the past twelve years on a stage instead of behind my laptop. If I’d logged my 10,000 hours doing improv, would I be on SNL right now? (Answer: Probably not.)
It’s hard to answer Craig and John’s question of “Where are the women?” because I am one of the women who keeps trying. Who keeps writing and pitching and taking meetings until my passenger seat is overflowing with empty water bottles. I chase the assignments and write the specs and keep up with the connections and try to remember that 80% of this career is looking for work and 20% is doing the work you get so well that it makes the other 80% a little less painful. That there are days when you hear “No” three times in an hour that destroys months of hard work, and other days when one little yes changes the rest of your year.
But I don’t write action movies. I don’t write about superheroes. I don’t even know how to begin to write a heist film or a bullet-riddled crime drama. Is that why there’s not a lot of screenwriting work for me? It’s only recently that female-driven comedies are seen as something people will “go to see.” And every time I write an ensemble dysfunctional family comedy I get told, “We’d buy this if it were a book.” It’s still a world where features are targeted toward young men holding videogame controllers. Is that why it’s harder for a woman to get a script to screen?
I keep concluding that it’s just hard. Period. It’s difficult and there are so many other things that beckon a talented screenwriter who knows how to tell a story. It’s so easy to do something — anything — else. But to conclude that women aren’t interested is just brushing them aside.
Okay, let me address one real gender issue, since I’m going to be very honest, here, and this thing drives me batshit insane.
There’s a word I sometimes get after a pitch or in a critique. It’s a word that I’m positive men don’t get when they’re done talking. The Scriptnotes podcast I listened to yesterday, after Craig and John wondered why women just aren’t going for the gold, they decided to intentionally critique a female writer’s submission to their Three Page Challenge. They go through a description of the pages — it’s a female superhero named Awesome Girl and from what we can tell she turns broody, sad boys into men through her awesomeness. And when John finished describing the pages, Craig started his critique with this:
Do men get that? Do you get told, “It’s cute!” when you’re done speaking? Because I get it, even when I’m talking about sad things or nasty things or raunchy things. “So cute.” Like I want my scripts and my party dresses to be judged under the same criteria. Like I’d just held up a pair of shoes. “Cute! CUTENESS! I WANT TO PUT IT IN MY MOUTH LIKE IT’S MADE OF BABY TOES!”
It breaks my heart.
When I was three I asked my mother to cut off all of my hair, because I was furious that all the grown-ups kept calling me cute. My mother chopped off all my long ringlets, sure they’d just grow right back, but they didn’t. I had stick-straight hair for years after that, and my mother never forgave herself.
But even at three I knew that word was very female-dismissive. I was just starting to approach other people with my thoughts and ideas. I didn’t want to be a Care Bear. I didn’t want a pat on the head and given a smug smile, pinned with a ribbon that says “I try my best!”
I don’t want to be “cute.” I want to be good. I want to be smart and right. I WANT TO BE RIGHT. I WANT TO BE PAID AND I WANT TO WORK.
Having my stuff called “cute” makes me want to set fire to it all and just walk away. Because there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s not that I’m writing cute. It’s that that’s the word people use for female writers and it’s maddening. Please, tell me I’m wrong. I would love to hear that you are a guy who goes in there with your comedy pitches and gets immediately told, “So cute.” And then you get the job. Please. I’m dying to know that we’re all getting told we’re cute, because then I won’t think of it as the immediate equivalent of “NO.” Because that’s all I hear.
Do you think Wes Anderson finishes his shit and people are like, “Wes! Your newest is super cute. Love the orange colors and the kitty in the basket. Adorbs.”
And then you get:
SUPER CUTE WORK, LADIES. NOW LET’S GO GET SOME SHOPPING DONE BEFORE TONIGHT’S EPISODE OF THE NEWSROOM.
It’s hard to keep trying when you can be so easily dismissed, but I have no choice other than to keep writing about love and family and relationships and pissed off teenagers and I’m going to keep pitching troubled people who make mistakes and how hard it is to love difficult people and I’m going to keep writing characters who do not have it all figured out, and I know I’m going to keep hearing how cute it all is, and I’m going to just wait for the day that it isn’t news that people of my gender can’t catch a break in this industry. Now that has my interest.