Writing A Movie For A Major Hollywood Studio Broke My Spirit

I wasn’t a bad writer. It was a broken system.

woman and man desperate, defeated with papers flying around them Alexander's Images via Canva | GlobalStock via Canva | fizkes via Canva | Dean Drobot via Canva | cosmin4000 via Canva | alfredogarciatv via Canva

I was ecstatic. After 5 years of trying to make it — of starts and stops and almosts and we’re sorry, buts — a major Hollywood studio hired my partner and me to write an original television movie.

We were the first never-before-produced writers they hired. I told a friend, a seasoned, successful screenwriter who had written many shows for them.

He shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and said, "Congratulations, you’re about to have the worst experience of your life."


RELATED: Actor Explains Why Hollywood 'Millionaires' Like Mandy Moore Are Striking Despite Making Over $200K Per Episode

Spring 2014. We grabbed coffees at Starbucks, then slowly made our way the three blocks to our agent’s office.

I was so nervous, caffeine was overkill. I had meticulously planned my outfit, had my roots done so no gray, said hello, and had practiced faking confidence in my bedroom's full-length mirror. I mean, I had an agent. It blew my mind.

My writing partner, George, had none of these concerns. He had been working in Hollywood most of his life. By the time we started writing together, he had been nominated for two NAACP Image Awards, starred in a popular and widely syndicated sitcom, and directed and produced a show for cable.


A receptionist ushered us into an elegant conference room where we sat on one side of a long, polished wood table. 

Within minutes, several young white agents in expensive suits sat across from us.

"We just love your writing!"

"You’re a diversity dream team!"

Sure. An attractive middle-aged white woman and a handsome young Black man writing coming-of-age scripts about race and gender? Our time had come.

"Everyone is going to want you!"

Do you know that old adage, something about not believing your own hype? That day in that Beverly Hills office, being fed words every screenwriter dreams of hearing, who wouldn’t believe them?

"How did you two meet?"


George and I had perfected our meet-cute story.

We met in Pilates. He was quiet; I was loud. He had no interest in talking; I had a lot of interest in figuring out why this tatted-out young man had the time, money, and inclination to be in a Monday morning Pilates class with a bunch of middle-aged white women.

One day, I overheard a voice on the TV show my children were watching. I ran into the room and there was George. Gotcha! You’re an actor. After that, I wore him down and chatted him up about all kinds of things until he relented and became my friend.

By then I had written film scripts, and been hired by a successful producer to write a feature film, but nothing had been produced. When two studios expressed interest in what I wrote for him, the producer passed and didn’t feel ready to proceed. Imagine being told, "Fox Searchlight loves your script but I’ve decided it’s not right for my brand."


It broke my heart — but not my resolve.

I told George about an idea I had and asked if he wanted to write it together. He must have hit his head that morning because he said yes and off we went to write a television pilot. People we knew read it, liked it and sent it to producers. Three producers wanted to option it (pay us a little money to try and get it made).

We chose the company we vibed with most. We loved them; they loved us. Several months and rewrites later, they took our one-hour television pilot to studios. Everyone passed. It didn’t matter. We were in the door and loved writing together. We were really, really optimistic about our future.

We wrote another script, got a manager, and then one day, an agent who read our work called. They wanted to sign us. Here we go.


For one year, our agents sent us out to general meetings.

Generals are meetings with people who like your work but don’t want to make it. They want to meet and get to know you, see if you’re right for other projects, and hear what else you’re working on. We aced them all.

We kept writing and pitching ideas, undeterred by the slow pace. We were in it for the long haul. But my already shaky belief in myself was waning. I mean, George and I knew a lot of people in this town and our writing was really good, so why was it so hard to find work?

A friend working in television told me, "You have to meet showrunners." Showrunners are the writers/producers who run television show writing rooms. Cool, how do we do that? "You have to know them. They don’t take meetings. They hire from their circle." A circle has no end, no door, no entrance.


We asked our agents to set up meetings with showrunners the agency represented. Surely that would work. It never happened. We were on the D list, and there were C and B-list writers ahead of us.

A year later our agents dropped us, which is Hollywood-speak for "You’re fired." We weren’t getting work which means they weren’t making money. So much for the dream team.

This time, I was heartbroken and devoid of resolve.

RELATED: The Barbenheimer Phenomenon Proves Female & Queer Content Is For Straight Men Too — & Hollywood Should Take Notice


In 1992, at 24, I sat on a shrinks bougie blue velvet couch and said, "I want to be a writer."


"What’s stopping you? Be a writer."

I stared at her blankly, disconnected from the me that stood in my own way defined by fear. For decades, I filled notebooks with short stories, stuffed journals with emotions, and wrote ideas on scraps of paper I tossed in the trash.

What’s stopping you? Being a writer nagged at my soul.

It took 19 years, a whole different career, marriage, two children, and a dog before I had the courage to pursue my dream.

One day in 2011, I showed a friend a short story I wrote. He liked it, and said, "This should be a screenplay." I spent the next three years bumming advice from screenwriter friends, taking classes at UCLA Extension, and reading books.


I’m a nepo-wife, nepo-friend, and nepo-neighbor. My work got read because of who I know. It got passed forward because it was good. And still, I couldn’t make it to the next level — the working writer name in lights level. Neither could George and I as a team.

After our agents fired us, George and I took a break and I stopped writing screenplays. I wasn’t just heartbroken, I felt ashamed, like a failure. I didn’t see Hollywood as a broken system, I saw myself as a bad writer.


Summer 2016. Almost one year after George and I met her at a general meeting, a development executive from a major studio called us. (Development executives are the creative execs who work with writers on their scripts). She had an idea we were right for. I couldn’t believe it. Excitement swelled my soul.


We got to work crafting and refining a pitch, a story we knew they would want.

On my husband’s 50th birthday, as I dressed for his party, we got the call. You’re hired.

Within weeks, we signed our contract and began writing.

Our deal was a "step deal." We were paid a portion of our total fee upfront, another portion when our outline was complete, another for our first draft, and the remainder when our final draft was turned in. An "optional polish" fee was included. That means the studio had the option to pay us additional money for one draft after our final one.

The thing is: there aren’t dates attached to those steps; each piece of work was complete when the studio said it was. That meant for us — and every screenwriter with a step deal — that you don’t know when your money will arrive.


This is one of the issues the Writer's Guild of America (WGA) is currently striking over. We are asking to have the option to have the total fee paid out weekly, like a typical salary.

How can a screenwriter plan for rent and bills if they don’t know when they’re getting paid?

If my husband wasn’t the breadwinner, I would not have been able to pay my mortgage with the way we were compensated.

Shortly after we signed our deal, the development executive — a Black woman — who believed in us and advocated for us to get the job, left the studio. They replaced her with a white man.

"It’s about to get really hard for us," George said.

As a white woman with little experience in Hollywood, I wasn’t sure what he meant.


We were writing a movie about Black and brown people, in an urban neighborhood, about a specific world and culture. After that executive left, George was the only Black person involved. Every executive was white and completely unfamiliar with the world and culture we were writing for.

RELATED: I Am A Writer, But I'm Not Responsible For Educating You

Their notes and feedback reflected their lack of knowledge.

Sometimes notes from one executive conflicted with notes from another executive. It was up to us to determine whose notes we agreed with; up to us to balance the politics of pleasing the studio and sticking to our vision.

The thing is, their ideas were frequently terrible — I mean, so far from what was true to the world we were creating or even what was objectively good, it shocked me. And we could not summarily reject them.


"That’s just the way it is. Find a way to make it work or get fired," my seasoned and successful screenwriter friends told me.

The studio gave us firm dates to turn in drafts but they didn’t have firm dates to return their notes. Sometimes they changed their minds after seeing their ideas executed — not because our execution wasn’t good, but because they realized they didn’t like their own suggestions.

This happens all the time, on every script, for every screenwriter. It’s maddening.

We were at their mercy creatively and financially. Over and over again, I heard. "This is just the way it is." But "the way it is" is exploitative and unfair.


I have a Master's in Social Work. For more than a decade I worked for non-profit organizations, with vulnerable and marginalized communities; overworked and underpaid. But everyone was. We were in it together.

Writing for a studio is not truly a collaborative process, just the give and take of creatives creating.

There’s a power differential, one where the creators of the content — that earn studios billions of dollars — have the least power and are the most vulnerable.

We are not all in it together.

Some studios, networks, producers, and production companies are notoriously bad to work for, others notoriously good. The competency and talent of development executives are as varied as the talent and competency of writers.


But in every instance — except for the few at the highest level — the screenwriter holds no power and knows they are dispensable. Far too often, screenwriters must accept and tolerate unreasonable demands and inequitable pay to keep their jobs and their livelihoods.

As days turned into weeks and months, the process wore me down and eroded the beautiful partnership George and I had built. 

We bickered and stopped communicating effectively. The endless rewrites, the not knowing when they would consider a draft complete, the realization that we were grossly underpaid — all of it made writing harder than it had to be.

Ten months after we began, we turned in our final draft. The executive called, "We want you to do one more rewrite."


George and I consulted.

"Absolutely not," he said.

I panicked. We had to do it, saying no was not an option. This was my dream at stake.

"You have to do it; that’s just the way it is," said every single one of my seasoned and successful screenwriter friends. Even my husband, a veteran of this business, told me we had to do it.

Hollywood runs on fear. Fear of obsolescence, of financial ruin, of being labeled difficult. Saying no to one more draft would be the end of our career. They would label us difficult and we would never work again.

"How about a compromise," George said. "We say no to one more free draft, but ask to move to our optional polish, and we’ll give them two drafts. Two for the price of one."


Our lawyer agreed that was the best approach. After all, we were right. We were only asking for what we deserved, what was moral and fair.

We wrote a lovely and kind email with our proposal. They never responded. NEVER. Two weeks later our final checks arrived in the mail. They didn’t even have the courtesy or respect to engage in dialogue.

After us, they hired two white men to rewrite our work.

I went on to write one more show for Hollywood, without George. The process was similar but better. It was the insane 6 AM phone calls from the producer that did me in.

Our original movie was made and received great reviews. I saw my name on posters and in lights and I cried. We did it. My dream came true. I’m a writer.


The thing is, I was already a writer. It just took me a minute to figure that out.

These days, you can find me sweating, walking the picket lines, and reminding myself my story is hardly unique: I wasn’t a bad writer. It was a broken system.

RELATED: How I Survived Decades Of Sexual Harassment (And A Brutal Rape Attempt) In Hollywood

Mindy Stern is a screenwriter, essayist, and author.