Last May, on a whim, I submitted a screenplay I'd written to the IFP/New York Market & Conference, where independent film industry people convocate in New York for a week to begin and continue "relationships" (dominant trope for the Conference) that will hopefully bloom into a thousand contracts.

I liked the script, and so did IFP: they accepted it as one of 200 projects out of 1600 entries from around the world ("entries" ranging from naked scripts like mine to completed features and documentaries by full-bore production companies).  Here is the synopsis of "Ain't Ethiopia" from the IFP Directory (which was posted beside my thumbnail headshot face):

After local whites lynch his wife as a suspected Communist, African-American Jesse Colton travels to Spain in 1937 to fight Franco.  But there he finds that his real battle is with the fascists in the small Mississippi town from which he escaped and that he must return to face them down if his life, and his wife's death, is to have any meaning.

There wasn't a person I pitched this to who didn't pinch his or her lower lip and go, "That's a great idea -- I'd love to see that movie."  Which was gratifying, though no one gave me a bottom line to sign on anything legal-looking. But then again, we were just starting relationships.

So here I am, the newly minted MFA'd screenwriter among hundreds of people all vying to either get the next big thing under contract as soon as possible (on the producers' side) or to sell the next big thing (from the rest of us).  It was a naked bazaar, a souk of pitch and schmooze and glad-hand, not only in hopes of selling a product but, on a deeper level (and, yes, there is a deeper level here, even an artistic one), of being validated as one of those who can navigate this treacherous and vaporish world and become a success.  And I loved every minute of it

Which surprised me.  As a playwright, I'm used to a much more muted level of ambition and enterprise and more attuned to talk about integrity (of text, of playwright's vision), of collaboration, of "vision" and "mission." In short, in the theatre, my ears have become used to talk about art, artistic impulse, noble self-abnegation ("no one gets rich doing theatre"), the conflict between art and commerce, and so on -- the talk of an art form that wants to believe it can be edgy and provocative but long ago lost any claim to be a voice for anything but it own internal concerns.

Not so at the Conference.  Here, one king ruled: money.  And its vassals: wanting to make more, fearing to lose any, how to leverage returns in domestic and foreign markets, etcetera, etcetera.  And as much as it galled me to hear this again and again (in part because I don't have access to the sums of money that could help me make more sums of money), it also had an astringently refreshing effect. It confirmed the canard about the definition of a good movie: one that gets made.  It can have the lamest story at its core and a slip-shod execution, but if a producer greenlights it and can get enough people on board to support it, the movie will get made, it will make some money (even if it goes direct to video or DVD), it will put hundreds of people to work, and will either rise or float on the whims of a whimsical public.  No one feels ashamed about this -- after all, it is the "movie industry" -- and no one spends much time worrying if it is art or commerce. It is both; but if it isn't the former, it can still be the latter.

I pitched and schmoozed and glad-handed and business-carded with the rest of them -- and I actually got a couple of production companies interested enough to at least read this screenplay and a second one I have on deck. And I learned a lot of the lingo you need to keep the parlance common as you speak to these people.  I now know that I need to get "talent attached" to my script, that "meetings" are not only about "making the pitch" but also about finding the producer's "comfort level" as they contemplate sinking "financing" into a "project" while also contemplating losing their shirts and jobs over the "deal."  We'll see -- perhaps "Ain't Ethiopia" will one day reach that small pantheon of made films.  (And it is, indeed, a small pantheon -- given the hurdles strewn in the way of taking a script from computer screen to thousands of screens, it is, as they say, a "miracle" that any movie ever gets made.)

Given all this brazen commerce, why would I, self-proclaimed theatrophile and hater of commodification, be pleased to be so embedded with the money-changers?  In part because they were so honest; in part because there are actual chances to make a living through my dramatic writing (slim, to be sure, but gargantuan when compared to the non-existence of such chances in the theatre world).  And in part, and I feel surprised saying this, for the entrepreneurial spirit I sensed everywhere and in everyone.  Here were people unabashed about selling themselves (and it is always the self that is sold -- the product, the project, is just a calling card, a preliminary knock on the door).  Here were people unafraid to push hard for what they believed in -- not a noble "believed in" because larded with all levels of self-interest and competitiveness but still a "believed in" that got them up in the morning and forced them to move against gravity and ennui and defeat.

I am not going to propose that the "theatre world" and its denizens practice any of this brazenness -- but it wouldn't hurt me to do more of it. Let's face it -- even in our venerable theatrical world it is not art versus commerce but art as a commerce. Verdi believed that the box-office was as good an arbiter of worth as the swoons of the critics and repetitions of posterity.  So did Shakespeare, who wrote his plays, made his money, and bought his real estate. And so should I, if I expect ever to move away from the malnourishment of the theatrical margins and into something like the hearts and minds of a large paying audience.

 At least, that's how it feels at the moment as I wait to hear from the "Ain't Ethiopia"-reading producers.  In the meantime, clickety-click on the keyboard, lick-paste the stamps, insert my response post-cards, and wait for the theatres to say yea or nay to a reading, a workshop, a production (be praised!) -- all, of course, for the greater glory of the artistic self.



For more commentary and articles by Michael Bettencourt, check the Archives.


Michael Bettencourt has had his plays
produced in New York, Chicago,
Boston, and Los Angeles, among others.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

©2004 Michael Bettencourt


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