Paying Rent With the Power of Screenwriting
Paying Rent With the Power of Screenwriting
Happy New Year, Stage 32! Each in our own way, I suspect this new year brings us all our share of hard-won conclusions, new beginnings, and fresh perspectives. To invite you into my own New Year’s celebrations, I’m going to reveal some personal details:
NEVER A DULL MOMENT
Back in 2013, as many of you will recall, I was struck in the head with a sword on the set of a sci-fi webseries. My crippling brain injury lasted the better part of a decade. In many ways, it changed the course of my life profoundly. In other ways, it didn’t change a thing. If you’re interested in the backstory of that particular saga, I welcome you to read my article on Reality Checks from an Inspirational Cripple. Here and now, I’d like to discuss the part of this story I’ve have withheld, until now.
Most people assume that the financial aftermath of my brain injury must have been pretty comfortable. After all, productions have insurance. Right?
Like many independent producers, the people running this webseries were cutting a lot of corners and telling a lot of lies, and their “production insurance” came with the understanding that they’d never actually be making any claims. In exchange for six years wherein I couldn’t always walk or speak when I needed to, or where the sound of a passing truck could wipe me out for hours, I eventually received a settlement just big enough to cover a few months of back rent. My rent, my brain damage, and my new role in society as a cripple wore down my financial stability until I eventually took up residence in a Mini Cooper belonging to the Alutiiq princess who would soon become my wife. Together, we lived for two and a half years in a parking garage.
Every morning, I exercised and showered at the 24 Hour Fitness before heading to the nearest Starbucks to work on my laptop. During that time, I was a script reader for a coverage site. Along the way, I adapted a novel to screen for a little under a thousand dollars. I wrote a tentpole movie for an up and coming management company, on spec. I sold my micro-budget indie satire Making the GAMP, which is unquestionably the angriest movie I’ve ever written, to an outstanding human being and a pretty wonderful director by the name of Michael Wohl right here on Stage 32!
Plenty of progress was made, over those years. When we weren’t living gig to gig, we often found ourselves supported by the kindness of friends. Sometimes, we just went hungry.
STRENGTH IN CRAFT, STRENGTH IN COMMUNITY
For those who don’t know, moving into an apartment in Los Angeles is prohibitively expensive. For one thing, rent is higher here than it is in most other parts of the country. For another, most landlords require the first month, the last month, and a security deposit. Once you’re a month behind in the “paycheck to paycheck” hustle, finding that much cash takes a substantial windfall. Neither my wife nor myself had any idea where that money was going to come from, or how we were going to get out of the car and into a stable home.
What I did know, and what I’ve repeatedly explained in my blogs on this site, is that it takes two things to be successful in showbusiness. Building and maintaining a level of craft that makes us necessary to any production we would ever want to work on? That’s half the work. Building and maintaining a community of collaborators and audience members strong enough to support those productions is the other half. When both of those elements are in place, success becomes both inevitable and lasting.
IN THE BEGINNING OF 2020
My manager and my producing partner had been asking me to stop writing screenplays on spec (because I’ve written a whole lot of screenplays)... so I’ve focused my personal writing efforts on developing a tabletop roleplaying project I started working on ten years ago - a really fun space adventure project for young people of all ages, called Jump Rangers. My plan was to finish the core rules of the game, and to start writing supplements and a young adult novel. After writing five expansion books, I’m about a third of the way through the novel and I’ve been building a Patreon to help with expenses and to get people playing the game. Once I finish my novel, I plan to do some simplifying and rebalancing of the game before I put my focus into finding and paying artists to work with me on the visuals of the world I’m building.
Before quarantine, I was working in the theater several times a week. My performing arts community was always at my fingertips. My producing partner is building her own company from scratch, and I’ve been serving as her head of development to lighten the entrepreneurial workload. Right now, at least one of my screenwriting projects at any given time is something I’m writing on spec to make sure my show family’s passion projects are moving forward with a strong foundation. I’m helping friends out with script services all the time, and I write these blogs to make sure I’m doing something for the people I don’t have time to work with personally.
When my stage productions were put on hold, it froze the bulk of my income - but it didn’t stop me from moving my career forward. When friends started seeing their film productions fall apart, I offered to write screenplays that would get them working on their dream project instead. Writing a novel has always been a scary prospect for me, but Jump Rangers is too important for me to let it fail just for the sake of my own insecurity. All in all, I’ve kept myself growing.
IN THE AGE OF COVID-19
Most of this decade has been a struggle to make progress in my career, despite the challenges posed by my own messed-up central nervous system, by poverty, by starvation, by the violent notions other people have about a disabled person’s capabilities and/or rights, and by a million other factors. I’ve been cross-training for 2020 for the last seven years, and I don’t think the last year has shocked or challenged me in quite the same way that it has for many of my colleagues and friends. What’s more, the life my wife and I have lived in since quarantine started has been… let’s say serendipitous to the point of being overtly magical, divine, or both.
My birthday is on March 12. My wife had been planning for months to give us a week of celebration away from the Mini Cooper we’d been sleeping in. Calling in help from friends and relatives, she got us a timeshare in Anaheim and complimentary tickets to the Disney Parks… so thanks exclusively to this cosmic, unbelievably well-timed blessing of resources, we were safe and sound in an enclosed space with a kitchen when the State of California closed down for COVID. One day before the timeshare closed its doors, a director friend of mine arranged for us to housesit a property owned by her parents in Phoenix. In many ways, it felt like fate was herding us like heads of state during a security lockdown.
After several years spent living exposed to the elements, both natural and manmade, shelter and safety took some getting used to. Let me assign credit for this uncanny level of good fortune to the almighty Lord. Thank you, good Lord, for saving our bacon like you have.
Let me also assure you, dear reader, that none of this would be happening if I hadn’t spent the last twenty years of my life making my craft and my service to the community a necessity for the showpeople around me. If I wasn’t constantly coming through for others, without ever asking “what’s in it for me,” I feel pretty sure that the amazing chain of events that kept my wife and I clear of the plague sweeping through the homeless community of Los Angeles like a wildfire would never have happened. Showing up for others strengthens the community, and a strong community is exactly what you need in times like these.
THE NEW JOB
Towards the end of summer, I received a notification that I was being followed on Twitter by a screenwriting services company. My articles here on Stage 32 have been making the rounds, I’m reaching a point in my writing where people I don’t know are discussing my work, and my wife and I had been discussing whether I should take on some more coverage work… so I messaged the account to see if they were looking for readers.
In hindsight, I think they were probably just looking to expand their writing network on Twitter. Be that as it may, I got talking with the owner and found out that he was looking to expand his services into ghostwriting and script doctoring. When it comes to supporting the screenwriting and indie film communities, my commitment and my body of habits are easy enough to see just by following me right here on Stage 32. After filling out some sample coverage and sending in a line edit, I was helping Script Reader Pro build and expand their new script doctor service.
Anyone who’s read my article on Why I Passed On That Screenplay knows that I don’t write congratulatory coverage very often. My job as a coverage writer is always to support the writer. I’ve been working in showbusiness for more than three decades, and I know how to support a production without imposing my own creative agenda. With that said, it doesn’t do a production any good to tell a writer with a passive screenplay that their ideas and their talent will somehow make up for the fact that they’re not giving their director or their cast the tools they need to make a great film.
Because these are points that consistently come up in my consultations, most of my script doctor jobs have turned into ghostwriting jobs. Right now, I’m writing an average of two screenplays a month for my clients. In addition, I have a number of clients requesting coverage, proofreads, and other services. I have my own creative projects to work on, as well as those of my colleagues. I’ve got a wife who needs me to look away from my computer for a few hours a day. For me, at least, 2021 has been an incredibly busy year…
...but for the first time in my life, I have a very comfortable home. My wife and I are eating well, we’re spending some money on the things we were dreaming about having when we were living in the car, and we’re making some big investments in our future and our dreams. After years of developing my craft and my community, through a chain of events I could never possibly have predicted, I am living very well off the income provided by my writing.
BRINGING IT FULL CIRCLE
My point here is not that the extraordinary circumstance of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a lucky Twitter interaction, helped land me a job that pays well. My point is that luck is something we can help create for ourselves. Focusing my energy and time on the ways in which I can make my filmmaking and my film community stronger has done more than just make those resources available to me... it’s given me habits that help maintain and expand these resources with as little effort as possible. Nobody could ever have predicted the way in which my dire circumstances would transform themselves, but I always knew they would. Like I keep saying, truly devoting ourselves to our craft and our community makes our success inevitable.
In April, I’ll be directing my first microbudget feature film. I’ll be finishing my Jump Rangers novel this year, along with the 2.0 revision. With a little help, I’ll be financed and in pre-production on Quantum Theory, my science-fiction heist movie, by year’s end… and here’s the thing. What I’m doing now is pretty much exactly what I was doing when we lived in the car. Really, the only difference is that now there’s enough people who want my help that they’re using money to influence my priorities. Soon enough, they’ll start realizing that my own projects are just as vital to this community as the stuff everyone else wants me to spend my time on… and that’s when film finance will start getting easier.
In the meantime, the trick is to stay humble and grateful. In the end, showbusiness is a team effort. Our legacy isn’t defined by ideas or creative vision, so much as it’s defined by the ways we offer excellence and selfless support to our community. Stay focused on that, and everything else will literally work itself out.
Success in showbusiness boils down to two simple and continual pursuits: cultivating excellence in our craft, and cultivating strength in our community. That’s how Shakespeare did it, that’s how Disney does it, and building success on those terms is hard enough without overcomplicating things. If someone’s telling you there’s more to showbusiness than that, or that they have some kind of workaround, that person is trying to sell you something.
In the wake of COVID, quite a lot of this industry is going to be rebuilt… and we’re the ones rebuilding it. Now, more than ever, Hollywood is what we make of it. Happy New Year, Stage 32! Go high, and go far.
About the Author
Tennyson E. Stead is a master screenwriter, a director, a worldbuilder, and an emerging leader in New Hollywood. Supported by a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 50 projects, Stead is best known for writing an...