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When Should You Give Up?

in Filmmaking
on Aug 24, 2011

Over at the literary site The Millions, Edan Lepucki had a post yesterday entitled “Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell?” After receiving rejections from multiple publishers, she writes about her first novel:

The truth is, my novel isn’t selling, and it probably won’t. There, I’ve said it. Eventually, a writer must accept rejection, accept the death of her first true darling, and move on. Can I face that sobering reality? Can I put my first book into the drawer, and shut it?

Oh, you say, what about self-publishing? DIY? Connecting directly to fans? Bypassing the gatekeepers, who don’t know anything anyway? Lepucki has thought of these things.

A friend pointed out that I was waiting to sell my book to publishers, when I could sell it to readers, all by myself. That’s true, of course. Self-publishing is as easy as it’s ever been, and if done well, it can even be lucrative. But, in most cases, self-published authors spend money, not make it, and they have to be their own editor, copy editor, publicist, and book cover designer (which can lead to this and this and this). I certainly could self-publish my novel, but I don’t have the cash, time, or talent to do it successfully. Plus, there’s still a stigma to publishing your own writing. Though this is changing, I’ve never been an early adopter. (I used my AOL email account well into the new millennium, y’all; I leave the experiments to the innovative types.) The truth is, I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.

So, okay, I’m willing to let my book die, if that’s to be its fate.

I’m struck here by the finality of Lepucki’s decision and how difficult it is to achieve that same kind of acceptance in the world of independent film. I’m not trying to minimize the grueling and solitary work of novel writing by noting independent film’s key difference: the existence of, usually, outside investment and many other people. Directors and producers rely on others to enable their visions, and it’s very difficult to tell them that those visions turned out to be not so visionary. Investors want to know their belief went to something worthy (to say nothing of their money back). It’s hard to admit to oneself that you have disappointed them. And then there are the crew who have done great work within a flawed project. For them, an audience will produce both pride and career opportunity. Finally, there are all those phone calls — “Hey, when’s the film coming out?”— and your own struggling ego, which says, there must be something more you can do.

Overarching there is the mindset that we — and yes, I include Filmmaker here — have perhaps unfairly created, which is that a film’s failure to come out is a reflection of the will of its creator.

But some films shouldn’t come out. They don’t work, and they don’t represent the filmmakers’ potential as much as they need to. Where would Quentin Tarantino be today if he had spent years flogging on the festival circuit and then DIY-releasing his own largely unseen first feature, which he admits in interviews was chopped up into guitar picks? (Yes, we’re talking the days of celluloid here.) Some films that do great on the festival circuit are probably best served by going straight to some form of home release and not trying theatrical. Some scripts are better as writing samples than first features, and others are simply great test runs or writing exercises.

A few things got me thinking about this recently. A colleague and I were emailing the other day, and he wondered whether the poor theatrical box office results of some of the best independent films right now are partially due to the marketplace being glutted with too much product. Maybe, I said, but this glut has been with us for a while. But it’s true — I’ve seen several films released theatrically over the last several months that, frankly, probably shouldn’t have. I can’t believe that their reviews and box office helped the people who made them. Perhaps these releases were necessary ones to trigger ancillary sales, or maybe their P&A budgets were part of the initial raises and thus were contractual obligations. But maybe not. Maybe their releases were just good money after bad.

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a filmmaker about 15 years ago when I read James Schamus’s remembrance of Raul Ruiz and the making of The Golden Boat. In his piece, James writes about repaying the film’s investors with the money he made from another film, The Wedding Banquet. I knew about this when I spoke to that filmmaker, who had made an excellent first feature that made minor waves on the festival circuit and had subsequently embarked on a well-received run of non-theatrical college dates. But still he hadn’t paid back his investors, and two years later he was continuing to work on new schemes to do so. He called me for advice, and it wasn’t the first time. Having run out of suggestions, I said to him, remembering James, “You know, you should probably move on and if you’re so concerned about your investors why not pay them back from your next project?” I have no idea whether he did this or not, but I will note that he is now a very successful screenwriter.

When is it time to quit? Being a both a personal and a business decision, it is hard to say. Maybe Lepucki’s book is a masterpiece, a future A Confederacy of Dunces. Maybe the wisdom learned from writing it will make her next book that incredible discovery. In my own work, I’m neither a sage or a self-disciplined rationalist. I’ve persevered on projects and have been happy I’ve done so; there are films on video shelves and Netflix cues that wouldn’t be there without a final push. But I’ve also been part of projects that, with the wisdom time brings, I know now we — our investors and even the filmmaker — would have been better off calling it a day a little bit earlier.

One last tale. Years ago I was submitted a script by someone I knew from a film shoot. It was to be his first feature, and he had been working on it for a very long time. It wasn’t for me, and I gave my honest reaction, which was to say what I liked and what I thought could be improved. I remember his pausing before saying, “Look, I’ve been working on this for years. I really want to make it, but everyone keeps passing and I feel like I’m at the end of the line. Do you think I should just give up and move on?”

Generally, I never tell people to do that. Who am I? But there was something in his voice that, I felt, gave me permission to say what I was about to say. It was as if he knew the answer already and just needed someone to give it to him. “I think you could work on this for years and, in the end, I don’t you’ll ever get it made,” I said. “So, yes, I think you should move on.” “Thanks,” he said, and hung up.

I felt kind of bad, wondering whether I said the right thing. Then, a couple of years later, I got a call from this same filmmaker. “I’m standing on the set,” he said, “and I just wanted to thank you. I took your advice, gave up on that script and wrote a new one. And now it’s the first day of shooting my first feature.”

He was right to give up — not on his filmmaking dreams, but on the project he thought would enable those dreams. It was the smart thing to do.

When do you think it’s right to give up?

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