|David H. Steinberg grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, entered Yale at age 16, and earned his law degree from Duke University, where he served as editor-in-chief of the law review. After four years of entertainment law in Atlanta and New York, he abandoned his legal career to attend USC's Peter Stark Producing Program.
Steinberg has co-written AMERICAN PIE 2 (J.B. Rogers, dir., Universal Pictures, 2001), and written SLACKERS (Dewey Nicks, dir., Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2002) and AFTER SCHOOL SPECIAL (David Mickey Evans, dir., MGM, 2005). Steinberg has also written sitcom pilots for 20th Century Fox Television, UPN, and Paramount Television and has worked on film assignments for most of the major studios. Steinberg writes the online column "Hollywhooped" for aspiring screenwriters.
It's been five years since we first interviewed you. Catch us up on your career.
Well, first of all, "Slackers" didn't go exactly as expected. I was replaced by another writer and the script changed a lot in terms of tone and style of comedy. Consequently, the movie, regrettably, didn't turn out so hot. Add to that the fact that Destination went bankrupt and you've got a recipe for disaster. Sony picked it up out of bankruptcy and released it on Superbowl weekend 2002. It tanked. Oh, well. What are you gonna do? I did learn a lot from that experience, like how to work with a director and the producers.
Do you feel its "lack of success" hurt you?
The good news is that writers aren't blamed for the failure of their movies. Getting a movie made is a huge career plus, no matter what happens to the movie. If the movie does well, you can reap the rewards, but there's no penalty for failure. Having three produced credits is a huge factor for me that helps me get assignments. If you have an opportunity to get a movie made, jump on it.
You also worked on "American Pie 2." How did that go?
The writer of the original movie came back on after my drafts and rewrote me. I wound up getting shared story credit, which is still pretty cool. And AP2 did the best financially of all three American Pie movies.
And not to put you on the spot, but so other writers might be prepared, how was your dismissal handled? What should other writers know to do or not do possibly in a situation like this?
You make it sound like I was called into the shift supervisor's office and told I was being laid off. The reality is you're going to get fired. The studio executive calls you and says, "Thank you so much for all your hard work, we're ready to move on." It's obvious anyway because your contract is up-they only hire you to do a certain number of drafts. After that, it's someone else's turn. Don't take it personally and don't argue. Just say, "Thanks. I had a great experience. I look forward to working with you again."
What's the third movie you mentioned?
In the Fall of 2000, I sold another spec, called "After School Special," that was about three high school kids who try to make a porno movie. We shot it independently in Vancouver and MGM is releasing it in 2005.
What else have you worked on?
I've done some studio assignments, sold a pitch to Disney Animation, and started working in TV. I wrote pilots for Fox in 2001, UPN in 2003, and Paramount in 2004. None of them got made, but hey, I got paid.
How is writing TV different from than film?
Well, for one, everything is sold on pitch. You simply can't write spec pilots. Second, the networks only take meetings with experienced TV writers or film writers looking to cross over. A writer just starting out can't get a meeting to pitch a pilot. So as far as breaking in, it's a totally different process.
You have to pay your dues?
Right. In TV, you have to work your way up through the staff ranks. And you can't sell spec scripts. So when aspiring writers tell me, "I have a great idea for a TV show," I just say, "forget it."
As for writing the pilots, the process is a lot faster. It usually takes a month to write, and revisions are done in days, not weeks. And when you turn it in to the network, you get an answer on whether it's being ordered in a week or so. And unlike film, if it's dead, it's dead for good.
How have things changed in the marketplace over these last few years?
It's a lot tougher right now. I think everyone longs for the days of "German coin." Back in 1999 or 2000 when the stock market was soaring, there were all these start-up mini-buyers flooding the market with money. It was so much easier to sell a spec. Now, those companies have all gone belly-up, and the studios have cut back drastically on their development slate.
The upshot of this is that it's five times harder to get an assignment, ten times harder to sell a spec, and twenty times harder to sell a pitch. Going in for a rewrite back then meant coming up with an approach-a "take"-and a few set pieces. Now, they want the whole movie. It's the same as a pitch. But there's ten other writers going after the same job. A lot of writers aren't working right now.
And the specs or pitches they do buy almost always have attachments now. Studios want you to come in with a package or a movie ready to shoot. It used to be their job to find a director. They bought a great script and the producers and studio worked on getting it greenlit. But check the Done Deal sales pages. Everything has a major element attached now. And that means if you don't have a director or actor attached, you're not making a sale.
Obviously it won't stay like this forever.
I hope not. A lot of writers are saying this is the most difficult market ever. Reality TV has cut into the TV writers' business-there's fewer scripted shows. And studios are making a lot of sequels, remakes, and projects based on existing material. That's what they do when they're scared. They go to what has worked in the past. Even if it means an overall drop in originality and quality. But at the end of the day, they've got to report to the shareholders, not the critics.
Who knows? Maybe four years from now we'll all be talking about the huge influx of money coming from the Dutch.
So how would you say you've changed as a writer in the last few years?
Well, I'd like to think my writing has gotten better. I wrote my three teen sex comedies-my trilogy-and I've moved on. I've written different types of movies, sci-fi comedy, children's animated, etc., and I think I have sharpened my skills.
As far as how I approach the industry, I'm definitely more seasoned now-a bit more cautious, much more collaborative. The most important lesson I learned off of "Slackers" is that at the end of the day, you've got to please the studio because they're your boss. If you piss everyone off, they'll just get someone else to do what they want. I actually wrote an article on this in the January 2004 issue of "Scr(i)pt Magazine."
What do you forecast for 2005?
Things are picking up in the industry it seems. It's slow now, but I'd bet that this spec season will be pretty good. And, things being cyclical, high concept scripts are selling and character-driven ones aren't.
And along these lines any thoughts or comments on the recent WGA contract with the studios and networks?
It went down as expected. Writers are the bitches of the industry and we folded like the bitches we are.
What are you working on right now?
Two assignments, one for Village Roadshow/Warners and another for MGM. Plus a spec script that should be ready to go out this Spring. The MGM project is a remake of "Love at First Bite," that vampire comedy from 1979 starring George Hamilton.
Sounds like you are keeping fairly busy.
Well, I write fast and it's a full-time job. I wrote six scripts last year. Gotta crank 'em out if you want to work in this business.
What is the assignment like from Village Roadshow? How did this project come up and what did it take for you to "get the job"? And what do you expect the challenges to be?
Village Roadshow is a rewrite of a script called "Other People's Wishes," a high concept supernatural comedy about a guy who steals coins from a wishing well and then the wishes start coming true. I'm the fourth writer on it and it's been in development for six years.
I got the job by pitching my take over and over again to the executive. And it wasn't just a two minute take, it was a full-blown twenty minute pitch. And even then, it still took almost a year before they finally hired me. That's how hard it is to get an assignment these days.
It's difficult because I'm the new guy. Everyone else has seen fifty versions of the script, so when I pitch something, I'm a little in the dark as to what hasn't worked in the past. But it's a good group of people-we'll get it figured out eventually.
Can you say much about "Love at First Bite"? Will it be dramatically different than the first one? What do you look forward to changing & updating about it?
It's more of a sequel than a remake. It focuses on the son of Dracula who's turned his back on his vampire heritage. He falls in love with a human girl, and they get engaged. The story is about what happens when all his vampire relatives show up at the wedding.
I think it's fun taking a comedy like this and giving it a modern comedic tone. Also, we're updating the story, asking "What happened after fade out?"
Do you find it difficult working on more than one project at a time?
What I do is just write one project in the morning and the other in the afternoon. I rarely write all three at the same time because usually one of them is being read by the producers, or I'm outlining, etc. It's rare that all three would be at the drafting stage at the same time. If they were, I guess I'd have to create a late shift in the evening.
Sometimes, I do get confused which one I'm talking about, but they're so different it's not that hard to keep them straight.
And no TV?
Not this season. There's nothing going on in sitcoms. Too many reality shows. NBC only has three sitcoms on the air right now. They used to put on twenty in the Fall, so you can see how ridiculous the odds are to get a sitcom going these days. I've been getting a lot of work in film recently, so I wasn't too upset about sitting out a TV season.
Do you or any of the professionals that you deal with have any sense based on meetings when the reality TV show ride might finally come to an end or at least slow to a trot?
Beats me. Sure, there's been a drop in the ratings this year, but that just means some reality shows do better than others. But as long as they're cheap to make and get decent ratings, reality shows are not going away.
What are your career goals at this stage?
I feel like I've lived one dream already. I've sat in a theater and watched my movie projected on the screen. Watched complete strangers laugh at things I've written. So I feel like I can put a big fat checkmark on that dream.
But unfortunately, the writer's vision rarely gets translated onscreen 100%. "Slackers" was not exactly what I was going for. "American Pie 2" was by no means my own. Maybe "After School Special" will be closer to my vision.
But the lesson I've learned is that the only way to really put out into the marketplace my vision of a movie is to direct it myself. So I've been trying to raise funds independently to direct one of my scripts. I've already got a few actors attached and hopefully in the next year the pieces will come together for me to make a directorial debut. So there's my new dream. On set, yelling "Action!"
So what advice would you give to someone trying to break in to the market?
Well, I've been answering Q&A's for Hollywhooped on Done Deal for like four years now, and I guess the most frustrating situation I'm constantly asked about is the person who wants to be a professional screenwriter but doesn't want to "take the plunge." Whether that means keeping the day job in Omaha or whatever, these people are simply never going to make it by only trying half way. There are two qualities that are absolutely crucial in this business besides talent. It's passion and initiative. Passion means do or die. It means quitting your job. Hey, I did. So can you. It means moving to L.A., being an assistant, making copies, going to film school, doing whatever it takes to make the connections you're going to need.
There's only a few accepted tracks to success. Half of the studio heads started in the mailroom. There never used to be a formal education in film, so the mailroom was the training ground. These days you can go to USC or AFI or make a DV short. But people who want to ignore the accepted routes in, who want to sit in Omaha and send out query letters and throw away forty bucks on the Greater Kalamazoo Script Contest, are never, ever going to succeed-they're just going to experience heart break.
I know. Not everyone can just quit their jobs. Some people are already 60. Others have families. Well, in the immortal words of Ted Knight, "The world needs ditch diggers, too."
That simply means, FIGURE IT OUT. People write in all the time asking how to do the most basic things, the answers to which are easily available to them with only the most cursory research. This is a business about figuring it out on your own. There are often not clear answers. Figure it out. If you want an industry with simple, clear-cut rules to follow, try accounting.
Look at what Keetgi and I did back in 1998. No one would read my script, so Keetgi called the agents and said she was a producer who had optioned my script. No one told us to do this. We just came up with the idea and it worked. Professional screenwriting is about problem solving. If you can't even figure out how to get an agent, what hope do you have of convincing a studio you can fix their $100 million movie?
Some people say they just want to write specs from home and not do studio assignments. Write a book. Your wishful thinking about how you'd like things to be just isn't realistic.
Over the last five years, I've seen a lot of aspiring writers hit the brick wall in terms of success. And what always keeps them out is a lack of commitment and an inability to figure things out (okay, lack of talent sometimes can be a stumbling block, too). But during that same time, I've watched dozens of friends get agents or managers, sell spec scripts, direct feature films, get staffed on TV shows, basically make their dreams come true. And every single one of them did it through one of the established routes in. Film school. P.A. Assistant. Nicholl [Fellowship].
It is possible to break in. But I can tell you within ten words of an email if someone has absolutely no chance. Sloppy spelling. Bad grammar. Poor word choice. I mean, you are trying to become a writer, right? Of English? If you can't construct a sentence with a nice rhythm, if you can't spell "a lot," if you can't type "agent" without hitting the "1" key, what exactly is it you're hoping to do for a living?
Maybe I'm getting all high on my horse here, but we are writers. Maybe this isn't life and death brain surgery, but what we do is still an art and a profession. Sure it's just "movies." But it's still literature. We're still writing English words that must be carefully chosen. I think aspiring screenwriters should take a moment to think about that. Are you capable of taking up the mantle and continuing the great traditions of Western Civilization here? And if you think I'm kidding, you just don't get it and you probably never will.