Fail fast. I dare you. Fail at writing a decent screenplay. Fail to distill it into a killer logline. Fail to communicate your big idea with that hot shot movie producer.
How do you feel when you read that? Knot in the stomach? Flashes of past trauma? Kinda wanna puke? Yeah, me too. Failing sucks. But here’s the truth. Failing is an absolutely essential element of success. Because ‘failure’ is actually ‘feedback.’
If you take your losses personally, it hurts. But if you step back and give it some space you can always learn something from your mistakes.
Every kid who tries to walk fails for weeks before getting a few steps together. The Beatles got rejected from tons of record companies before they landed the deal. Einstein pushed through a thousand dead ends before he came up with the theory of relativity. Without these failures, everyone who stands on their own two feet, the Fab Four, and Einstein, would not have succeeded.
As screenwriters, we have the opportunity to fail at every turn. Let’s start with writing some ideas for your next project. If you sit around being precious with your imagination babies, you won’t step into the flow state. Instead of coddling an idea for weeks, why not coffee up and bang out forty (yes, forty!) plot ideas on a Sunday afternoon.
Sure, thirty nine of them might suck. They might be dismal failures. But the fortieth might be gold.
Ok, so now you’ve got an idea you dig. Perfect. Knock out an outline. Fast. Maybe even knock out two or three outlines for the same idea. You’ll fail all over the place. But you will learn something. You’re doing it right by doing it wrong.
The idea is to step on the gas so that you don’t waste time. Believe it or not, you want to fail. Because that means that you're doing something. Taking action. Moving forward. The faster you fail, the faster you succeed. You just need to squeeze out as much wisdom as you can from each failure.
Don’t believe me? Ask any successful person about their relationship to failure.
Let’s take this further. Now you’ve got your twelfth draft and you’re good to go. Time for the pitchfest or to get into a room with a producer. Although it might seem like your job is to sell your screenplay to the person across the table, a better strategy might be to really pay attention to their reactions.
If you do, you can clearly see when their eyes drift. Or when their brow furrows and they get confused. These failures are critical pieces of feedback. If you miss them, you’ll make the same mistake next time. If you learn from these failures, your pitch will get better and better each time.
Of course, I’m not recommending that you try to fail during your big meeting. Fail small first. Pitch to friends, family, co-workers, strangers. Who cares if you fail then? They aren’t gonna bankroll your movie.
I really believe in failing fast because I’ve made the mistake of failing slowly. For nearly a decade I took classes, wrote a bunch of screenplays and pitched to every producer I could find. No real luck. Year after year. Fail after fail.
What did I learn? I learned that it might be wise to take responsibility for the next step in my career instead of waiting for validation and opportunity from someone else. I manned up and decided to write, produce and direct my first short. I budgeted a thousand dollars, hired a crew and kicked into it. I ended up spending eleven thousand bones before the whole thing was over. Expensive fail. But also a win!
What did I learn? Making a decent short costs some money. I also learned that I can do this. I don’t necessarily need film school or a Hollywood type to make it happen.
Although I went more than 1000% over budget, I loved my movie and learned a ton by making it. So I applied to dozens of film festivals. I got shot down by every single one of them. Major fail. What did I learn? Film festivals are commercial enterprises and generally have very specific needs to fill in their programming. My movie didn’t really fit their agendas. Good to know.
Weeks later, I was hanging around wondering if I should give it up. Then the phone rang. It was a film distributor who saw my short through a friend at one of the festivals. They wanted to do a worldwide distribution deal. Holy crap! MYSTIC COFFEE is now beaming across the world on gaia.com's on demand platform. Unlike the festivals I applied to, they specialize in ‘conscious media.’
If I didn’t fail about a zillion times along the way, this deal never would have happened. Upon stepping off this chapter of the roller coaster ride I know that I’ve got the chops, experience and moxie to write, direct and produce.
I want to fail again. Fast. So that I’ve got as much wisdom in my pocket as possible before I crank up (and kick ass!) on my first feature.
Fail Fast. Then re-write, re-pitch, re-dream.
In what ways have you failed fast as a screenwriter? What did you learn?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jeff Leisawitz burns with a mission—to inspire screenwriters, artists, musicians, filmmakers, entrepreneurs (and everyone else) to amp up their creativity, heal their hearts and shine in the world. Click on over to his website for a chance to win four hours of online creativity coaching ($1000 value!). You’ll also get free chapters of his book, Not F*ing Around— The No Bullsh*t Guide for Getting Your Creative Dreams Off the Ground.