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Friday, January 24th, 2014

Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant's Five Tips on How to Write Movies in Hollywood

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Tom Lennon and Ben Garant are experts on how to make it in Hollywood. Their book, Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, was an attempt to convey that knowledge to a hungry audience wanting to hear the ins and outs of the studio system as explained by two men who have actually been successful navigating it. On July 13, 2011, to promote their book, the pair sat down for a Q and A at the Paley Center to candidly share some advice, wrapped inside some entertaining stories from their behind-the-scenes careers.

The night began with a pair of videos they had produced for Funny or Die before Lennon and Garant took the stage. There was a brief conversation about their show Reno 911! but beyond those few moments, the conversation was kept strictly to their writing careers. Throughout the night they gave young writers innumerable tips to make it in the system, which I have, for your convenience, put into boldface and isolated for your edification:

If you don't want to write, this isn't the job for you.
Several times the pair stresses the importance of writing constantly. If you're looking to get noticed, write a funny and original screenplay that is really going to grab somebody, but know that "it's never going to be made." However, if it does its job, it is going to lead to your next job. When you get that job, though, there's another warning that comes along with it: you're going to be writing a lot more. Garant warns that on occasion they've been forced by studio executives to "throw out forty percent of a script." Lennon adds, "that's really tough. It's like practicing getting punched."

In addition to the many scripts they've already written, the multiple scripts they currently have in production, their various television projects, and their families, the pair still finds time to do their own things. When this seminar was happening, Ben had just sold a horror movie script that he had written. Tom mentions that they had both independently written several screenplays, which he says is due to the fact that he doesn't play video games and doesn't have cable.

Once you sell something, it's not yours anymore
Again and again, Lennon and Garant warn their audience that as soon as you hand in the first draft of a script, the studio will take it away and give it to another writer. They promise this. Sometimes this works out, and sometimes it's heartbreaking. They describe an experience with the writing of Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, which originally had the subtitle of Riddle of the Pyramids. A scene in the movie called for there to be an interesting numerical code, and the two of them worked for "four or five months" trying to come up with it, before reading a book and learning that the mathematical constant pi figured heavily into Ancient Egypt. So they write a scene in which Ben Stiller figures out the code and goes to Albert Einstein and for about ten seconds, he excitedly tells him about the history of pi and it's connection to the Egyptians.

At the premiere, the two of them sat next to the President of the Smithsonian Institute, and as the scene approached they began to get more and more excited that they'd be able to impress these incredibly smart people from the Smithsonian. So Ben Stiller goes up to Einstein and asks him "Why the number pi?" and Einstein replies, "Because that's the way (uh-huh, uh-huh) I like it!" and then cabbagepatches. Blaming the focus testing studios do in malls across the country, Tom Lennon explains that "Orange County didn't have seventeen seconds for pi." And that's just one of the heartbreaking examples they give of the studio changing things around just to change it.

However, they are completely up front about the fact that the script for the Jimmy Fallon/Queen Latifah movie Taxi is word for word what they wrote…

The market has changed
Lennon and Garant drop a lot of hard truths about writing throughout this seminar, but they save one of the hardest for the end. They discuss the way that the market has changed and studios are hedging their bets by making fewer and fewer smaller budget movies, and instead are making much larger blockbusters that will play internationally. This means, as Garant puts it, "they're making 200 million dollar movies. You can't make that money back in just America, which means they have to play better to people who don't speak English than people who do." Which is a way of saying that the dialogue ain't that important in Thor: The Dark World because it needs to be translated easily into several languages.

So chew on that.

The pitch is more important than the first draft
If your pitch is great, you get hired to write a movie. If your first draft is good, you're still going to get fired for the next writer they want to bring on board. Lennon and Garant recommend a short pitch of 10-12 minutes. The whole movie in that span. Garant adds, "It has to be super clear and super funny. If it's funny and they can remember it, you're good." They also express surprise at the fact that many of their contemporaries don't practice their pitches ahead of time, while they practice it together, over and over, "like vacuum cleaner salesmen."

You always burn the first pancake
You might love your first script or your first draft, but when you look back later, it may not be as good as you remembered it. That's why it's important to not be precious of your writing and be willing to let it go when you're done with it. Or as they put it:

Garant: Always burn the first pancake.
Lennon: And sometimes the first costs 70 million dollars.

Just like this seminar, the book is filled with practical advice that the pair has gleaned from working in Hollywood over the past few years. If you haven't already picked it up, it's a wonderful resource of information for writers, but also a fun read from two guys who you already know as funny writers, and I don't get money for saying that. Even if your goal isn't to write the next Hollywood blockbuster that also plays well internationally, these are still the guys who brought you Viva Variety, "Porcupine Racetrack," Reno 911!, and a screenplay for Herbie: Fully Loaded that everyone swears was actually good, so you know it's going to be entertaining. But no matter what, if you're a writer, you're going to have a tough road ahead.

Keep going, keep writing, and if all else fails, make Einstein do a funny dance.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His brand-new webseries is called "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" and has all your favorite up-and-coming comedians in it.