Social media has created a highly unique viewing experience, one where the pictures of friends appear alongside the latest activities of our favorite celebrities. Extremely successful individuals suddenly feel more accessible, more familiar.
So how has this experience affected the way we view success and how it’s achieved?
There’s an argument to be had over whether social media, and media in general (TV, movies, even commercials), have made success seem bequeathed rather than earned.
As an example, let’s think of how screenwriting and filmmaking have been portrayed in movies.
Adaptation (2002) portrays a fictionalized version of Charlie Kaufman as he strives to find true meaning and purpose while adapting a book about flower thieves.
Paris When it Sizzles (1964) shows screenwriting to be a casual experience, in which deadlines can be sloughed off with ease. The lead character even has time to fall in love with Audrey Hepburn along the way.
It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, to hear that many aspiring screenwriters think the path to success is fairly simple and straight-forward.
But our conversation with screenwriter Sammy Sultan confirmed that in reality, success in the entertainment industry requires tremendous skill, expertise, and determination.
Sam of All Trades
Sammy Sultan is a screenwriter originally from the UK. Prior to his first short film, Sultan’s creative pursuits included comedy, prose, and even a successful interview show.
Each of these projects would eventually inform his screenwriting. He has drawn on his experiences to create a number of shorts, which have earned him several prestigious screenwriting awards, including recognition from The LAUNCH: Million Dollar Screenplay Competition and distinction as a BAFTA Los Angeles Newcomer.
Sultan has also worked with Annapurna, Mad River Pictures, and Feigco, the production company of comedy veteran Paul Feig.
While speaking with Sammy, we received a much-needed update on the realities of screenwriting and working in the entertainment industry.
The lessons learned were not necessarily new, but they do remain essential, especially for anyone who wants to take a real crack at making it in Hollywood.
The Long Road to Perfection, or Something Like it
As you might expect, it all starts with the script itself. Each screenwriter’s process is highly individualistic.
While the general structure of a screenplay remains static for most projects, the journey to create characters and give them interesting things to do is a free-for-all.
There’s no one right way to create a story that viewers will find compelling, but Sultan has found it monumentally helpful to put ideas down on paper. These initial ideas and scenes can then be improved again and again and again. And again.
As a script develops, the editing process becomes more complex, and the screenwriter needs to consider a huge number of factors, not the least of which is how readable the script will appear to producers and other industry professionals.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I’m not only checking to make sure my story is coming through, but that there are no possible distractions for the reader. That means doing a forensic inspection for typos, grammatical errors, and formatting issues. As you can probably tell, my editing process can be extremely tedious.”
These kinds of edits aren’t just a one-time event toward the end of the writing process, these are constant considerations, many of which persist even after a script has been accepted for production.
Apart from the Rest
Even if you’re a highly talented screenwriter, there is of course no guarantee that your work will be bought or even read.
This is partially because there are many, many aspiring screenwriters out there, all of them trying to get the attention they feel they deserve.
You can’t change the number of writers vying for attention, but you can make sure that your writing stands apart by focusing on subjects and styles that enjoy and can execute well.
Paying too much attention to passing mainstream trends, for example, could encourage you to write a script in a genre or style you’re not especially comfortable with, and the result will most likely be a bad script.
Sultan wanted to remind all aspiring screenwriters to focus on their individual strengths.
“When writers try to be something they’re not, they do themselves a great disservice and drift into mediocrity. We all have unique voices and very different stories to tell. Don’t shy away from them. Embrace them and you’ll set yourself apart.”
When you care deeply about your script and your characters, you’ll be motivated to make your script as polished as it can be.
The Script is Just the Beginning
Media depictions of screenwriting often imply that once the script is written, the screenwriter’s work is finished.
While it is true that, at times, screenwriters stay away from the set and are not heavily involved in production, Sultan explained that it’s quite common to be included in the actual process of filmmaking.
For one, screenwriters may be asked to make edits, sometimes very significant edits, to their script based on the needs of the studio and the cast.
“You may be encouraged to write larger set pieces, though more often than not: smaller ones to account for budgetary and logistical limitations. Finally, it’s also fairly common for writers to be invited on set and make themselves available for scene rewrites. Actors are incredibly intuitive when it comes to dialogue, and if certain lines bump for them, they’ll likely bump for an audience.”
The Rise of the Underground
Proponents of the mainstream Hollywood studio system are quick to note that there are huge benefits to having large staffs with sizeable combined experience.
Indie filmmakers, on the other hand, often note that big studios have a habit of muddling and mangling unique ideas to make movies more accessible and, simultaneously, more uniform.
Despite all the arguments surrounding indie vs. mainstream filmmaking, it seems clear now that the independent scene is no longer a community on the margins.
Why? Well, technology has advanced, which has had a democratizing effect on film production and distribution.
As Sammy told us, “The independent film scene is thriving, mainly due to the now-numerous means of distribution. Every film has a potential home somewhere. The state of independent film has never been healthier and it’s been extremely freeing for writers who feel they might not fit in the studio system.”
For many filmmakers, and for many screenwriters, independent filmmaking offers an opportunity to turn a slightly offbeat script into a feature worthy of generating Oscar buzz.
Right in line with this new increase in accessibility, many young filmmakers, Sultan included, find themselves exploring different skills and roles within entertainment.
In fact, throughout our extensive experience speaking with independent filmmakers, it’s rare to meet an entertainment professional who hasn’t worn a few different hats to help get movies made.
Sultan, in particular, will soon be sitting in the coveted director’s chair, an experience that promises to be as challenging as it will be rewarding.
“In the Fall, I will be directing the short version of my feature film, Raymond’s Room. There are many writers, like myself, who have a singular vision for how they want their story to be told. It’s not a universal instinct, but I certainly feel it when it comes to my own work, and I’m looking forward to nurturing that new skill set.”
Working within different aspects of filmmaking doesn’t blur expertise and specialization, but instead informs whichever role remains the focus.
For Sultan, screenwriting is a lifelong love, and spending time directing can only lead to a more informed perspective when writing.
Maybe our collective archetype of the professional screenwriter should be tweaked to include a wider range of skill sets and ambitions.
Slow and Steady
We thought it might be interesting to ask Sultan about some of his preconceptions about screenwriting and the entertainment industry that he later found to be incorrect, or even detrimental to finding success.
As Sultan explained, many of these preconceptions surrounded the idea that success could be found rather quickly, and that everything along the way would simply be a means to an end.
This proved to be untrue, and Sultan has been thankful for every stepping stone on the path to success.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint. When you read about overnight successes, that’s never really the case. You have to work really hard for a really long time to get the kind of success you set out to achieve. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of people, myself included, forget to enjoy the journey.”
Media may have given us the impression that a professional can only be truly happy after achieving every one of their goals.
But over here in the real world, pursuing those goals can be incredibly satisfying as well.
So the next time you see a celebrity or filmmaker enjoying their success, try to zoom out and appreciate the years of work that made their success possible.
by Giorgio Chang