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[GUEST POST] Matt Wallace (LUSTLOCKED) on The Pelecanos Proposition and What it Means to SFF Authors

Matt Wallace is the author of The Next Fix, The Failed Cities, and his other novella series, Slingers. He’s also penned over one hundred short stories, a few of which have won awards and been nominated for others, in addition to writing for film and television. In his youth he traveled the world as a professional wrestler and unarmed combat and self-defense instructor before retiring to write full-time. He now resides in Los Angeles with the love of his life and inspiration for Sin du Jour’s resident pastry chef.

The Pelecanos Proposition and What It Means to SFF Authors

by Matt Wallace

“When I was a kid, I used to watch Twilight Zone, as everybody did. The reason I watched it—although I didn’t know enough intellectually then to know why I was watching it—it was written by novelists like Richard Matheson. I always wondered, why don’t they do that more? Because, damn, novelists sure could use the work; I mean, just to get that extra thirty grand or whatever the scale is for a script and a story is a huge amount of money to most novelists. I think one of the reasons they don’t—actually what a producer told me one time is, ‘We can’t control you guys.’ “ – George Pelecanos, novelist and screenwriter

I’m a writer. That’s what I do for a living. That’s my job. It’s both accurate and wholly inaccurate to classify me as an author. I do write books. I’m writing this post largely because I have a new book out and I need to promote it, in fact (am I supposed to leave that part out? I’m never sure. The book is called Lustlocked, by the way). I don’t make my living authoring books. Very people do. I also write or have written advertising copy. I’ve written about a million kinds of web 2.0 content. I’ve doctored the dialogue for erotic comic books. You name it, really.

I’m also a screenwriter, which is what I’ve made the most money doing in my career to date. I’ve written movies, I’ve written for television, I’ve written webseries and animated series. It’s good work if you can get it.

Film and publishing are two very different and very similar worlds that collide every single day, and yet properties cross over at a vastly higher rate than the folks who power both of those industries: the writers.

When it comes to fiction I largely write what is categorized popularly and often detrimentally (at least from a critical and marketing standpoint) as science fiction and fantasy, so I know and deal with SFF authors and publishers a lot. It’s kind of shocking to me how few of my colleagues and peers pursue screenwriting, particularly adaptations of their own work. I know a slew of authors who have had their books and stories optioned for film and television, and they just kind of…let them go.

That’s standard operating procedure, not involving the author in the adaptation process. Most producers, studios, they don’t want the author involved, will actively refuse to involve them. The reverse happens, but it’s much more common for an author to grab whatever cash they get for the option and then just kind of forget about it, like buying a lottery ticket. You hope it hits, but odds are overwhelmingly against it, and you have zero control over the outcome besides.

I just…I call bullshit on that, on both sides.

Total and complete bullshit.

To me a film/TV option is like someone opening a hatch to the next level. On that level the canvas on which you paint is bigger, the audience is bigger, the money is bigger. I don’t really get the logic behind twisting your story into a paper airplane, gliding it through that hatch, and then just kind of waving goodbye as you watch the hatch close. I want to dive through that hatch with my story. I want to be knee-deep in the blood and guts of pushing it through the next hatch above that one. I want to write it for that new medium and audience. I want to make even cooler shit out of the already cool thing I wrote. I want to force the dick crewing that hatch to hold it open while I doing an awkward white guy shuffle through it.

Yet it seems like most other authors either don’t think they’re allowed to ride, or don’t want to take that ride for a variety of reasons.

I have this dream. I mean, I have a lot of dreams, including one reoccurring which involves a clown and my grandfather and a very large novelty sausage, the psychological ramifications of which I’m certainly not going to discuss with you, a total stranger, but that’s not the point I sat down at this keyboard to make, and I’ll thank you not to divert me again.

I have this particular dream. In it I’ve become successful enough selling books I’ve written and television/streaming series I’ve written and produced to open my own studio; not a massive operation like Warner Bros. or Sony. Just a little place that makes little SFF movies for not an obscene amount of money. We’d release them digitally, worldwide, simultaneously and DRM-free, the way I believe all digital content should be released.

Here’s the part I really like. I’d hire authors of SFF novels and short stories to write all of our scripts. How cool would that be? Think of the last shit sci-fi/fantasy movie you saw in a theater, and then think about your favorite SFF author getting to write their own movie, based on their own book if they want, and not have their work fucked about till it becomes a nightmare.

Even better, I’d pay them the Guild minimum for an independent movie, which isn’t much by studio screenwriter standards, but is an absolute fucking fortune compared to an average five-grand book advance.

I like that dream, and I like it as a business model. You’d get SFF movies that were cheap to produce, but also more complex and literate than the big-budget SFF tripe studios have been marching out every summer lately. Because they don’t hire people who know how to write SFF to write their SFF movies. They don’t, ever. They hire the same assholes who scripted their last financial disappointment, and pay them millions. They do this because they’ve worked with that writer before, know what to expect, and know they can control both the process and in the end, the product.

It’s that simple.

SFF on television is doing a little better. Actually, it’s doing a lot better comparatively. Television, however, has become much more the writer’s medium.

My dream isn’t entirely original. In fact, there are companies that do exactly what I’ve outlined, except for hiring the talented writers and paying them part, of course. When I was a kid way back in the long, long ago of the early 90’s, I was a member of the Full Moon Fan Club. Full Moon was a studio that made straight-to-video (that was what mommies and daddies watched before DVD’s) genre movies.

At their height, Full Moon produced and released thirteen movies in a single year. And I loved them, and still do. They’re also mostly crap. I know that, too.

But they weren’t nearly as bad as a lot of people remember them being, and certainly not as often. No, I’m serious. Sure, they were low budget and suffered for it, but a lot of innovative, talented folks worked on those movies, a lot of really cool little pulp-y, original SFF and horror stories were told well in those movies.

Take Robot Jox, one of my favorite science fiction B-movies of all time. The miniature work/effects in that movie are absolutely top-flight. They hold up reasonably well today. But what I always liked about the movie, even when I was a kid before I could really define it, is it is a surprisingly literate and unexpected film, especially for the type of movie it is.

I believe the reason for is this: Hugo and Nebula Award-winning SFF author Joe Haldeman wrote it.

Now, you can read any number of reports about Haldeman being unhappy with how the director handled his script, and I’m sure he was, but I believe what remained of his influence elevated that movie greatly. He wasn’t the only one. Full Moon hired writers like comics scribe and novelist Peter David to script movies, and it really shined through, whatever technical issues or acting issues remained. I had the same reaction to Full Moon that George Pelecano had to Twilight Zone: Why don’t they do that more often?

That’s a complicated question, and I believe it has as much to do with the authors as it does with the studios and producers who hire, or don’t hire them.

Several years ago I moved to Los Angeles to focus on screenwriting full-time, and I ended up living across the way from a legendary graphic and title sequence designer and his son, who used to work for Paramount and Full Moon. I learned filmmaker Charles Band, the founder and executive producer behind Full Moon, owed and still owes pretty much everyone on the planet money. I learned from another friend of mine, an author and a screenwriter, that my friend’s buddy made a slim one thousand dollars for a script he wrote for Full Moon that became one of their movies.

It was, to say the least, disillusioning.

But having your illusions dissed is a good thing 99.9% of the time, and 100% of the time when it comes to the business of freelance writing.

I think I was so surprised because I’d worked with producers on the fringe of the industry, and I’d never been screwed over like that. Maybe one reason is I vet the folks who hire me as carefully as possible. I ask a lot of questions before a deal is struck to gather as much information and form as much of an impression of them as possible. But above all, when it comes to money and schedules and demands on me, I hold the line.

I hold it like a soldier on the Russian front of WWII.

Not that I haven’t been fucked around with on occasion. I once got into a situation in which the producers of a script I was hired to rewrite hated my rewrite, and lost total confidence in both the script and me as a writer. They’d paid me half up front, with the other half to be paid upon delivery. Well, delivery happened, and after they read it they decided they didn’t want it, me, and they certainly didn’t want to pay me.

It was the first time someone had been genuinely unhappy with my work. That felt shitty. I felt like a failure. I felt like I owed them better. I wanted to beg them to give me another shot. I wanted to hold a boombox outside their window, Cusack-style, until they allowed me to prove my worth by fixing my shitty, awful, obviously unworthy offering.

That all happened inside of me.

What happened outside of me was this: I told them to give me my fucking money. All of it. Now.

It came down to two things: 1) They only paid me for half my time, and they’d already used the other half. I was owed for that time and effort, regardless of how they felt about the results. 2) I believed in the work I’d done. I’d done my best to incorporate the wants of the four different people involved, and if they couldn’t get on he same page, hey, that’s on them.

One of the producers, a friend of mine responsible for me getting the job, had the unenviable task of being in the middle of me and the other producer and financiers who didn’t want to pay me. He offered me less money to call it even. I said no. He said it could take longer to pay me out the full amount. I said that was unacceptable.

I held the line. In the end he either convinced or somehow forced the person holding the checkbook to pay me out in full immediately.

What really trips me out is I’ll tell professional authors stories like these and their horrified reaction will often be, “See, that’s why I don’t want to deal with Hollywood.”

My response to that is simple. I ask them to tell me their worst story about doing business in the publishing industry.

It is invariably equal to and sometimes worse than my story about screenwriting.

To me the headaches in both the film and publishing industries are the same, and I’d rather get top dollar for my headaches. Other authors may find this not to be the case, and as with everything, your mileage may vary.

I think, above the hassles and the different writing format (the challenges of which are its own essay), the majority of authors’ discomfort with crossing over from publishing to film comes down to a few things.

The first is simply access. They don’t know how to access the film industry. With publishing you generally just submit to whomever will read your work, and repeat that a thousand times or more until you get lucky and/or hit the right agent or editor on the right day. With film and television no one is generally looking to read cold scripts from unknown writers.

Well, there’s never an easy answer to that question, but if you’re a working author here’s a hint: You wrote a book. It got published. Your book is access. Ring it like a bell.

Past the issue of access is the fear of a vast unknown. To an author of books, the film industry can seem like an entirely other universe they can’t begin to comprehend, and wouldn’t know where to start. It’s overwhelming. It really is. Publishers, even the imprints belonging to vast conglomerates, are infinitely smaller operations than most studios. You deal with fewer people, you have fewer people in your business, giving you notes, telling you what to do, and have fewer moving parts to navigate.

The second thing that puts off a lot of the authors I know is the simple fact that getting a movie or TV/streaming show actually made is very difficult, and very rare. Even when you work a lot, write a lot, deliver a lot, and get paid a lot, you don’t see a lot of work make it across the line.

I’ve felt the frustration of this, personally and professionally. Personally, I’ve had periods where I was working a ton, and on a reasonably high level, having more financial and professional success than a lot of authors I saw receiving accolades and attention and admiration. But they had a book on a shelf. No one saw or knew about the work I was doing, and often times I was contractually forbidden from talking about it. It galled my ego that I wasn’t counted among them. I wasn’t recognized.

A lot of writers can’t handle working in the dark like that. They want their work to be out there. They aren’t fulfilled unless it is. I’ve tried to learn from all the imploded projects I’ve been part of and carry those lessons into making the next one better and seeing it makes it across that finish line.

Professionally, what you write not getting made can and does eventually become a death sentence for your career. It’s something you have to be careful about. You want to sign onto projects that will make it across the finish line, and that’s a terribly difficult thing to judge at an early stage.

These are all valid concerns.

In the end, for me at least, it’s worth it, all of it. The chase can be crushing. The waiting can be crushing. But the rewards enable me to write for a living, and I honestly believe if I keep pushing writing for the screen as hard as I push writing for the shelf I’ll create something great on the biggest canvas available to a storyteller, and reap rewards beyond anything I’ll ever see in publishing.

Oh, and occasionally I have a lot of fun.

So, yeah. That’s why I do it. That’s why I’d advise any author, every author to stick to their fiction properties when producers come a’knockin’. Especially SFF authors. It’s a good time for SFF properties, especially on television, and television, in my extremely novice and humble opinion, is where every writer should want to be. It’s our medium, vastly more so than publishing.

You know, control is bizarre concept. It’s a bad motivator. It’s an insidious tool/tactic. It’s a twisted emotion.

It’s also inextricably woven into freelance writing in many ways, few of them good for you as the writer.

Publishers and studios, whether they admit it or not, all want to control writers. They literally can’t function without us. As the writer you are the only indispensable member of this process. Never forget that. Writers are Genesis. Everyone else is waiting with their thumb up their ass for you to write so they can work, and that work is adapting what you write. You’re the originator. Studios and publishers know this, and the last thing they want or that benefits them is you realizing any of that. Thus they’ve worked immensely hard over the last century to convince writers they’re worth nothing, easily replaceable, and lucky to have a job ever.

It’s worked pretty well for them.

Writers don’t have much control over anything these days, except on television and in theater. Everywhere else we get shit on pretty much every day, all day. And I see the vast majority of us take it. It sickens me more than a little. But I understand it. While there’s endless, endless prattle about the craft of writing, there’s little education for writers about the business of writing, and even less organization for writers. What organization exists has been wholly pathetic at collective bargaining up to this point in our history. Those organizations have zero power with anyone who matters. Even the WGA, which is the only professional organization for writers I consider worth a shit, is fabulous if you need to talk about healthcare coverage and absolutely abysmal if you need them to fight for you against a studio.

But for a lot of authors, I think ceding control of their optioned properties and rejecting Hollywood outright is a means of control. For them. If you feel lost in a process, or intimidated by a system, refusing to take part in it can literally be the only way for you to retain any feeling of control. I get that. I really do. I don’t judge it. And for a lot of authors I’m sure it’s the right choice.

Also, a lot of authors just plain don’t want to be screenwriters. They want to write books. There’s nothing wrong with that.

As for me, I love writing books, but I love being a professional writer more. I like money. For those reasons I choose to wade into the Hollywood throng swinging a flaming axe and screaming bloody abandon (I don’t advise this as a pitch meeting tactic, by the way).

I sincerely believe if more SFF authors did the same it would benefit them greatly, and benefit us all as a whole.

Oh, and as a selfish benefit for me as a fan, SFF movies would suck less, too.

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