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  • Is Hollywood Racist? A Frustrating Chat with Screenwriter/Litigant Justin Samuels

    September 12th, 2011

    About a month ago, I wrote an article about a screenwriter who is suing CAA/WME for their racist practices which were preventing him from breaking in as a screenwriter. The writer’s name is Justin Samuels and he found my article and wrote me about it, and we proceeded to have quite a back and forth about the topic. Below, in its entirety, is our email exchange. I know it’s long, but please read the whole thing and judge for yourself who you think is right and please leave a comment….

    JUSTIN:

    You claim the education system is what diminished the pool of non white screenwriters, but I have a degree from an Ivy League School.

    So then, surely it’s not a matter of education.  A high school dropout could make a career as a screenwriter, IF he had the right connections (he’d have to read some book, do some workshops, etc but it could be done).

    If you read what I said, the major agencies do not accept any unsolicited submissions including QUERIES.  If you read what I said, I was told I needed an industry referral to be read by the top talent agencies.   But how likely am I to get such an industry referral unless I have a relative in the business?   The prominent people in the industry, with a few exceptions are white, and unless you’re related to them or grew up with them, you just aren’t that likely to be close enough to get such a valued connection.

    And for the record, I’m more than happy to bring attention to this issue.  It’s a basic issue of fairness.

    As for the diversity programs, don’t make me laugh.   What diversity programs?   Has anyone ever launched a career from a diversity program.  I think not.  And I would be the first to say diversity programs would be completely unnecessary if the major agencies would deal with unsolicited submissions! 

    DANNY:

    Dear Justin,

    I’m really glad that my article somehow made its way to you and I respect that you emailed me about it. But I have to tell you – I categorically disagree with your argument. And I’d love to discuss with you why…. (I know it’s a bit long, but please read this whole email)

    First, an Ivy League education doesn’t guarantee anyone anything in this town – unless you went to Harvard. And it especially doesn’t guarantee that graduates know how to behave in the real world.  You went to Cornell I see. I went to Ithaca College – and I know many Cornelians, a couple of my best friends went to Cornell. So I know they have a great list of alumni – a wonderful resource for referrals and connections in the industry… But let’s put aside the education factor.

    You’re absolutely right – a huge portion (not all, but much) of this business is about WHO you know. And you’re right, the major agencies do not accept unsolicited queries. But – they don’t JUST not accept them from minorities – they don’t accept them from ANYONE. It’s as colorblind a process as could possibly be.

    And let’s examine WHY they don’t accept unsolicited material. Since I’m sure you have never worked at an agency, management company, or production company, you probably don’t know that a BOUTIQUE Agency gets about 100-400 queries per month.  So, any idea how many the large agencies receive? About 5,000 – a MONTH! From people just like you – writers too lazy to break in the hard way and instead demand the easy pass route to fame and fortune. Well, let me tell you – there isn’t one.  And if agencies DID accept unsolicited queries, the wheels of Hollywood would cease to grind because it would take too much time to go through them all and nothing else would get done.

    Plus, the number of ridiculous lawsuits that would result would SKYROCKET and end Hollywood completely because litigious, desperate screenwriters would think – “Hey, I sent an unsolicited query letter about robots to an agent four years ago, so Transformers 17 must be MY idea that the agent stole and gave to his client.”  It’s not worth it – there are plenty of good ideas out there that the agencies don’t need the unsolicited ones.

    The system is in place to keep people who aren’t made for this business, out. It is NOT in place to keep minorities out. Just ask the 4,500 WHITE writers a month who don’t get their queries read.

    Of course, there are probably 40 OTHER agencies that DO accept unsolicited queries – have you looked into them? They are all listed on the WGA website. Of course, none of them will work with you now that you have sued the big agencies. But they would have. And since you know the business so well, I’m sure you know that the major agencies – ESPECIALLY CAA and WME -do NOT work with first time writers. They do not give people careers – they make people who already HAVE careers, into STARS! They do not work with baby writers and they do not take on people without any credits to their name. So, even if you DID get a referral to one of those agencies – it would do you absolutely no good. Instead of this lawsuit, why aren’t you spending your time working on your craft and trying to make connections at OTHER companies?

    Speaking of which – ok – this industry is based on referrals. So – why don’t you have any? It’s not that hard to make them. And it is absolutely RIDICULOUS to think that everyone who has gotten a referral is RELATED to someone in this business. Bullshit. VERY few people actually get in through nepotism on the business side (actors, granted, are different). I certainly didn’t have any family in the business and neither did ANY of my friends who are all very successful in what they do in entertainment whether it be as an agent, writer, producer, etc.  To ask how one could have connections in any other way than familial relation just proves how little you know about this business.

    It’s called NETWORKING, sir. It’s what this business is built on – and you clearly don’t do it, perhaps because you have told yourself that since you’re Black, no one will help you. Total bullshit.  You build your connections and relationships over time – through meeting and conversing – not through suing!

    And there are plenty of minority executives and managers and agents by the way, not to mention African-American actors and directors who have their own companies and executives and are ALWAYS looking for new minority talent to work with and mentor. (Will Smith’s Company, Denzel’s Company, Tyler Perry’s Company, Spike Lee’s Company, Lee Daniels’ Company, Queen Latifah’s Company, Jewerl Ross, etc.)

    And by the way, out of ALL the Disney Fellowship Winners last year- there was ONE white male. And he is one of my close friends – from Ithaca. Nickelodeon Fellowship winners last year? ONE white male. So, don’t tell me Hollywood is racist and there are no diversity programs.  PLENTY of people have launched careers from diversity programs in this town – and some of them – weren’t very talented.

    And I’m willing to work with you – but first, I’d like you to answer the following questions I have:

    1.      Do you live in Los Angeles?  (If yes, continue on. If no, then you have no right to complain because you’re not serious enough about the business)

    2.      How many years have you been trying to break in?

    3.      How many fully finished, polished scripts have you written?

    4.      How many Cornell Alumni have you contacted and met with to develop those relationships?

    5.      Have you looked at the WGA website for companies that WILL accept unsolicited queries and have you sent them your query letters?

    6.      How many and which pitchfests have you attended? How many pitches have you given at these events?

    7.      How many and what contests and fellowships have you entered? What contests have you been a finalist or winner of?

    8.      How many classes and networking events in LA have you attended at places like Writers Store, Writers Junction, etc? How many WGA or Creative Screenwriting Mag or Script Mag events have you gone to?

    9.      What screenwriting group are you apart of?

    10.     How many and what internships have you had in the industry? How many agencies/ managers/production companies did you apply to work at as an assistant? Have you ever worked at any?

    11.     What professional script consultants with Hollywood Outreach programs have you used to help work on your projects and query letters to make sure they are ready and professional?

    If you can honestly answer all of these questions for me, I will make you a deal – I’ll read your script – for free – and IF it is good, I will pass it along to some of MY extensive connections at agencies and production companies (of course you’ll have to use a pseudonym because your lawsuit has probably gotten you blacklisted from most major agencies and studios). But if it’s really good – I will help you get to them. I don’t have a dog in this fight, and as you can see from my article and my website (www.nobullscript.net), I am honest and blunt – so if it’s good, I’ll be the first to say so! But…if your script is truly AWFUL – if it truly sucks and the talent just isn’t there at a professional level – you drop the lawsuit.

    Deal?  I look forward to hearing from you.

    JUSTIN:

    Daniel,

    Yes, the major agencies don’t accept query letters from anyone they don’t know.  However, the impact disproportionately affects non whites, since those who know major players in the industry are most likely going to be white.  According to the Guild, by 2011 only 5% of film writers were non white.  A low percentage compared to the general population.

    In terms of there being many blacks who have their own companies in the industry, the most lucrative parts of the industry are summer blockbusters/actions films.  I can see only two black actors who have had significant roles in those genres in recent years, Will Smith and Halle Berry.  Queen Latifah, Tyler Perry, etc have yet to work on a film with top ticket sales like Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, Iron Man, etc.  Basically, they are on the fringe of the industry.  A number of black actors, including Miss Oscar Winning Halle Berry, have said they were turned down for certain roles because of their race.

    In terms of answering your questions, and letting you read my best script, and agreeing to drop the suit based on whether you think my work is good or not, the answer is no.   Because this isn’t about just about me.   This is about a process which has a disproportionate effect on non whites.   This needs to continue through the courts, and they will ultimately decide either in my favor or against me, or perhaps the agencies will settle.  But I simply cannot settle with you.

    And I would never send my work out with a fake name.  I always use my real name out of principle.

    For the record, I do not currently live in Los Angeles, but I have. Didn’t meet any people powerful enough to do an industry referral.  I did work, and even had a few marginal entertainment jobs, but again, nowhere near one powerful enough to do a referral. So I’m happy living in New York.

    Would I live in Los Angeles again?  Sure, if I had a good job lined up.  Los Angeles is an expensive city (high cost of living, plus one must drive) Not joining the other wannabes downtown in skid row.  LOL

    DANNY:

    Justin,

    While not surprised, your response not only disappoints me, but it tells me what was obvious from the lawsuit in the first place- you don’t take writing or this business seriously enough and you are only in it for a quick pay off. You really have absolutely no idea how this industry works and instead of LEARNING it and working hard like everyone else – you just crossed your arms, and said “It doesn’t matter – I’m Black.”

    I think the people who would take the MOST offense to your lawsuit ARE the minorities working in Hollywood because you’re right- they probably had to work a little bit harder than everyone else. But they DID it – and now they reap the rewards. And you won’t.

    It’s fine if you don’t want to take my deal, but I would love for you to answer ANY of the other questions I posed. Any contests? Any pitchfests? Any alumni? Any script consultants? Any screenwriting groups? Any networking events at ALL? If not, then you’re just not doing YOUR job as a writer and therefore, you don’t deserve to get read or have a career. And if you didn’t notice, I gave you 10 steps – 10 critical things to do to break in. And I’m willing to bet good money you have not done more than 2 things on that list.

    If you lived in LA (or even NY) and you couldn’t/didn’t meet ANYONE – then either you’re just the type of person no one wants to be around, Or you’re just clueless about how to deal with people. Because it’s IMPOSSIBLE not to meet someone out here. There are 10 writers at any starbucks at any given time you could talk to in this city. You don’t have to meet SPIELBERG to break in – you just have to meet SOMEONE.

    Who cares if only 5% of writers are non-white? Do you think the white people in this industry won’t talk to you because you’re black? If so, then you are just another self-defeating racist yourself and you don’t DESERVE to be in this industry.

    Tyler Perry is hardly on the FRINGE of Hollywood – he’s one of the highest paid producers/ directors in town and his movies (even though they suck) have made a TON of money. And maybe you’ve heard of Oprah? Owns her own network? You’re only seeing what you WANT to see- instead of the truth of the situation. There are SO many people out there who would have been willing to help you, but you didn’t ASK for help – you wanted fame and fortune at the highest levels or nothing at all. Well, now you have nothing. And I can guarantee – the agencies won’t settle with you. So, the ONLY thing you have done is RUINED your reputation and made yourself a Pariah in this industry whom no one will touch. And your lawsuit will RUIN chances for equal opportunity for minorities.

    And by the way…Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Taraji P Henson, Denzel Washington, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, The Rock, Vin Diesel, Ice Cube, Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Tyrese Gibson, etc have ALLLL been in huge blockbuster/tentpole movies. So, your argument holds no water. You are just uneducated about this business.  Yes, they are turned down for certain roles – but so is EVERY actor – it’s part of the business.

    Eventually, you’re going to realize all have you done with this lawsuit is destroyed any chance you had at a career, and set back the movement of non-whites in Hollywood 10 years. If you can live with that, great. But realize this – a white person working IN the industry who has great contacts and reputation OFFERED to help you, offered to read your script and get it into the right hands, and you turned it down because of your “principles.”  So just MAYBE we’re not ALL bad, and it should make you think about what your principles really are.

    JUSTIN:

    Dude, when I was in Los Angeles I was working 10 hours a day, at times, and commuting 3 hours a day.

    I had bills, including rent to pay.   Maybe because I had a job I didn’t have that much time to lounge around starbucks?   Yes, if you’re a rich white heiress like Paris Hilton who doesn’t have to work, I suppose you can go to the most expensive clubs, party all night, and meet all sorts of people in the business between gigs.  I wasn’t in that category, and didn’t have that opportunity.

    DANNY:

    Justin,

    You’re not getting it – EVERYONE works 10 hours a day. It’s industry standard. We ALL have bills to pay! It’s those who work HARDER than that who make it. It’s those who work 10 hrs a day and then go home and read 2 scripts a night or write for 3 hrs a day that break thru. And I never said anything about clubs or partying – do I look like a hot, rich heiress to you?? Do you really think that’s all white people do? You went to Cornell – you should know better!

    Please, let me post our correspondence – let’s open up the discussion you say is so needed! What do you say?

    JUSTIN:

    I never said all whites party all the time.  You were the one bringing up the networking, the meeting people, and living the fabulous life in Los Angeles.  You were saying I didn’t do those things, that I’m not a social person, and that’s why I didn’t meet anyone important.  So, from what you were saying, you seemed to have unlimited time to just meet people.

    Some of us, after working 10 hours a day and commuting 3 hours, need SLEEP. Also, I didn’t have a job that deal with scripts, so why would I read two scripts a night?   I don’t know what you’re talking about.

    DANNY:

    Exactly, you dont. Listen, because I really am trying to help you – If you want to be a writer, you should be reading scripts constantly and writing as much as you can – that’s how you learn. Doesn’t matter if your job dealt with scripts or not. I never said anything about living the fab LA life – I certainly don’t. I’m talking about going to Business events where there are networking opportunities. Pitchfests, screenwriting groups, classes, screenings, etc. Some are even free or on the weekend. Networking doesn’t equal partying – that’s not how you meet people and forge relationships and maybe that’s where the misconception is. Of course we need sleep – I love my sleep. But when I moved here and got my first job, after working my producers assistant job from 830am-7pm, I then went to “drinks” with other assistants and execs and got to know them to build my contacts. And then I got home at 830 or so and would read 1-2 scripts a night. And that is what people do. There is no shortcut.

    I’m sure commuting was a bitch – but this is LA – commuting sucks. You deal or you move closer to work. I’m saying, it seems like you have a very skewed idea of what Hollywood is and how it works and never really tried hard enough through proper ways before reverting to suing.

    JUSTIN:

    I have read scripts, produced scripts of films, I was an office pa for a film so I read that script.  I’ve read books on screenplays and done screenwriting workshops.  And I have participated in peer review exchanges of scripts, on triggerstreet, zoetrope, and on Amazon Studios.

    You can read reviews of my scripts, my posted scripts, and other scripts on those forums.  My works went through different stages, so some things posted are early drafts, others are much later drafts in response to what feedback I got.

    And yes, you can post our correspondence.

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