Tuesday, May 19, 2009


What’s “commercial”?

The new “Star Trek” movie? A hundred and forty-seven million in domestic receipts in its first two weeks.”

So “Commercial” means popular?

You betcha.

Have you ever done anything “commercial”?

Never came close.

Have you ever tried?

You mean because if I didn’t try, it wasn’t my fault?

I just wondered if you ever sat down and deliberately tried to write something ‘commercial’.”

It doesn’t work that way.

You can’t contrive to engineer a commercial success?

I don’t know, maybe you can look around at “what’s selling these days” and take a stab at your version of that. But there’s a good chance it will fail. Why? Because it’s coming from a calculated place rather than the place the real blockbusters come from.

Which is where?

I have no idea. And neither, by the way, does anyone else.

So trying’s not the answer.

Can you try to be beautiful? Can you try to be tall? Can you try to have a cute little button nose, rather than a big honker with a bump on the top of it?

Wait a minute. Are you saying that being “commercial” is genetic?

Your interests are you interests. And they’re there from virtually Day One. A parent says about their kid, “Since they were three years old, they’ve been taking apart vacuum cleaners and putting them back together.” They would have done it sooner, but before that, they weren’t allowed near vacuum cleaners.

Why did they do it? Because that’s them! It’s who they are. I’m not saying, the kid’s destined to become a vacuum cleaner repairperson. It could be washing machines. But they’re unlikely to become a chef.

So “commercial’s” not just about movies.

Hello? Cell phones? Are you kidding me? “Commercial”, in every area, means striking a nerve – and this is another essential element – at precisely the right moment in time. The thing is – and this is what makes commercial success so hard to predict – that precise moment in time never jumps up and says, “Now!” Why do hit movies seem like they’re accidents? Because, invariably, they are. The odds are overwhelmingly against their even getting made.

Boxing pictures were box office poison before “Rocky.” The movie struck a nerve, and went the distance. Mafia movies? Hardly any, rarely popular. “The Godfather” shows up – badda-boom badda-bing. Here’s an interesting one: “Star Trek” the original series? Marginally popular. Primarily for geeks. “Star Trek”, the movie? A hundred and forty-seven million in two weeks. “Wait a minute, it’s the same concept.” Yes, and it was always solid. The difference? Timing. (Perhaps there are more geeks today.)

With timing an essential component, it’s possible for even you to have a commercial success.

Me? Never.

But you said…

I said two things. Timing was the second one. The first, and more important, is to have an idea that strikes a nerve, by which I mean the viscero-cultural nerve of an enormous number of people. But that’s the outcome, that’s how it turns out. Where it starts is with the passion felt by the idea’s originator. I don’t think Steven Spielberg said, “Everyone loves dinosaurs; I’m making a dinosaur picture.” Spielberg appears to have a passion for dinosaurs, the way I have a passion for cowboys. Spielberg makes “Jurassic Park” and makes billions. I make “Best of the West” and get cancelled after the first season. How come? Spielberg’s passion mirrored the mass audience’s passion, and mine didn’t. Can I say to myself, “Earl, next time, be passionate about the right thing”? That’s ridiculous. Though I remember my agent saying something very much along those lines.

So if your passions are “genetically” uncommercial, you should just give up?

I’m always for giving up. If I knew the Latin words for it, I’d put them on a flag. (A white flag, of course.) But giving up is not mandatory. If you’re lucky – luck being the third Ace in this hand – you’ll find backers who’ll bankroll your passion, and have little to moderate successes. If you work in TV, you can ride the wave of someone else’s acheivement, and, as part of their writing staff, learn to simulate their moves. The movie equivalent of that would be to author a sequel. These options, however, call for realistic expectations and a substantial measure of humility, qualities that are arguably rarer than talent. Especially in show business.

May I ask you a personal question?

You can try.

Is it true that you’ve deleted this post three times, and then pressed the “Undo” button and brought it back?

That’s correct.

What’s the problem?

I’m wondering whether someone with my limited commercial success is the best person to speak on the subject.

And you decided it was worthwhile?

Only because of this. It seems important to tell writers who have not, or at least not yet, achieved any big-time success, and maybe never will, to give themselves a break. Your passions are you. Be kind to them. Even though there’s not a chance in hell they’ll ever be “commercial.”

I’m sure highly discouraging things were said to George Lucas when he pitched an unlikely little science fiction idea called “Star Wars”, or Judd Apatow when he said, “I’d like to have unattractive nobodies star in my pictures.”

In the end, there are two reasons for holding on:

Personal satisfaction.

And proving everybody wrong.

Including, maybe, yourself.


A. Buck Short said...

Earl, I enjoy these internal dialogues you get yourself wrapped up into, and think I’ve discovered the true calling of every scriptwriter – ventriloquism. That or Donald Rumsfeld. Ang Lee had a passion for cowboys, and look where that took him. There actually was a vacuum cleaner tinkerer who also became a chef. Think he invented the Salad Shooter. And where would we be without that? White flag, heh :) But your timing is still a little off. Missed another golden opportunity to integrate the words momentary zeitgeist into casual conversation.

growingupartists said...

I love how honest you are, Earl. Of course you're qualified to talk about this, quit holding yourself back! Name me one person who so generously, as I like to call it, throws golden coinage out the windows at pedestrians.

There is nobody else doing what you're doing Earl, not a one. And you're doing it well, so do not deprive us of your ideas and experience. And don't ignore me at your cowboy premiere either, Earl, you know how you can be when you're all caught up telling stories.

Willy B. Good said...

Great stuff Earl. I hope to prove every New Zealand tv "comedy" producer wrong by posting my Kiwi 'Seinfeld' pilot soon which is set up as a cross of my fave sitcoms 'Taxi, Cheers, Seinfeld' except I use more movie type dialogue which naturally makes me crazy and uncommercial. I'll give you a yell when I post it as the first scene is in a 'Moonlight Cab'. Cheers.