Justin Samuels...Part Two!

Dear Everyone:

I didn’t intend to do a second part to last month’s interview with NYC screenwriter Justin Samuels, but the reaction to it was overwhelming...and I wanted to give Justin a chance to respond to some of the comments and criticisms leveled at him by you readers...and there were a few additional questions I wanted to ask. So, without further ado…

VINES: Well, Justin, it seems our previous interview created a bit of a stir! You certainly took quite a drubbing. How are you holding up?
SAMUELS: Things are perfectly fine with me. I got my share of criticism, but I also got my share of support.
VINES: As you know, there were a lot of comments posted to my blog. I’m going to provide snippets from some of these comments and I’d like you to respond to them.
VINES: Great. Here we go…
READER COMMENT: “I actually think being a minority can OPEN doors for you in Hollywood. There are a bunch of diversity-focused screenwriting fellowships out there. I live in New York, work as a copywriter, and had zero connection in Hollywood. I entered a diversity-focused fellowship and was selected. It's helped me meet a bunch of successful directors, managers, producers and screenwriters, all who want to read my script and are rooting for me to succeed. I'm now setting up a deal with one of those directors to make my very first screenplay. I sometimes think my status as a minority has given me an unfair ADVANTAGE. But it just opened the door. After that, I had to have the talent to back it up."
SAMUELS: The diversity fellowships? I'm not aware of anyone who has written any major blockbuster movie or who has a serious career as a screenwriter breaking in through a so-called diversity fellowship. Could they exist? Sure. But none of the bloggers who are working screenwriters—who have written about me and criticized me—suggested I take this route. I tend to think that means no one really cares about these fellowships....Also, there's the WGA Minority Report for 2011, which shows representation of non-whites slipping.
READER COMMENT: “I’ve read two of his scripts....They are just not good enough....I speak from experience of having been a reader for a mid-sized prodco....Try rewriting one of those scripts for God's sake. There were numerous typos as well as sluglines that were totally out of place! You think that's worth money? If you can't spell or be bothered to learn the form, WHAT THE HELL MAKES YOU THINK YOU'RE ENTITLED TO ANYTHING? Why should people waste their time reading something that's sloppy and thrown together? Anyone can have ideas; it's the execution that's worth money. And that is exactly why you haven't been paid/read.” [Note: Justin assumes this poster read these scripts on Amazon Studios.]
SAMUELS: For what it’s worth, Amazon Studios is a place where you put up screenplays, get user feedback, and then rewrite. Scripts posted on there are not meant to be final drafts. On the first few scripts I posted on Amazon, I got feedback from other writers, listened to them. If I thought it appropriate, I revised or rewrote the script. As for me being entitled, aren't we all entitled to the same opportunities? Or should a few people have far better opportunities than the rest? I think anyone should have the opportunity to be read by the Hollywood talent agencies. In publishing, most agents take unsolicited queries and sample chapters. No reason it can't happen in film as well.
READER COMMENT: “I don't think we've ever met, but just by reading your comments here I can definitively state that your knowledge of the business and how it works is astoundingly obtuse.”
SAMUELS: No offense intended, dude, but there seems to be an infectious disease on the internet called expert-itis. Everyone has wisdom from God on how to make it in the film industry and knows all there is to know about the film industry, even though they're just on the first page of their first draft! I never claimed to be an expert on the business, nor do I want to be an expert in the business. I want to be a working screenwriter, and I, along with any other screenwriter, deserve access to the top firms in the business.
READER COMMENT: “The sad thing is that [Justin] just ruined his name. No one will work with him now; and no talent—considering most of the A-list talent comes from these two top tier agencies— will ever speak his words. He'll have to change his name to work professionally, along with his attitude.”
SAMUELS: This is plain ridiculous. People criticize everything all the time. People can criticize the federal government, and yet some of the same people who criticize the government run for office or work for it in other capacities. What am I getting at? Some people seem to think that the top agencies are somehow beyond reproach. I'd almost get the impression that some people hold an almost religious significance for these agencies. They seem to think that in the United States, where freedom of speech is a part of our constitution, we should not be able to criticize the business practices of these agencies. That's ridiculous. That's the beauty of living in the United States of America.
READER COMMENT: “Justin, there's no magic answer to succeeding except working hard to promote yourself....Stop suing people because they aren't doing what you expect them to do. It is YOUR job to write a script that knocks them on the floor. Good luck getting anything read now. The sad thing is, as a fellow Cornellian, I believe you probably are a good writer. You just received bad advice that will most likely cost you your screenwriting career.”
SAMUELS: I didn't receive bad advice. It was my idea to pursue legal action. Believe it or not, I really am concerned about the disproportionate impact that the industry referrals have on blacks and other non-whites. It’s a cause I believe in. Some of us are concerned about people other than themselves.
READER COMMENT: “As a copywriter, I'm amused to note that Samuels seems pretty sure he can break into New York's advertising/theater/literary orbit pretty much at will.”
SAMUELS: Let’s just say I can get by in my hometown.
READER COMMENT: “Justin, as an African-American writer who works steadily, is repped by one of the agencies named in your suit, went to an Ivy League school and doesn't have a trust fund or rich parents, I can tell you from years of experience that you are right about one thing and one thing only: there is discrimination in Hollywood. Women and minorities face obstacles that white men don't face in this business. However, that discrimination has NOTHING to do with your inability to get read. Studio executives would buy a script from a pelican if they thought the resulting movie would make money. Race has nothing to do with getting read. Yes, it is extremely difficult to gain access as a minority.”
SAMUELS: You and one other poster seem to be flip-flopping. There's discrimination, but there isn't; race isn't a factor in getting read, but it’s extremely difficult to gain access as a minority.
READER COMMENT: “You should be ashamed of yourself, Samuels. This frivolous and moronic lawsuit is going to make it much more difficult for people who actually do face discrimination in Hollywood to fight it. You're perpetuating the myth that prejudice is an illusion. Prejudice is real sometimes, but your suit is a joke.”
SAMUELS: There is discrimination, but because I made accusations of discrimination, I somehow [make it] harder for those in Hollywood who are facing discrimination to defend themselves. The courts would judge those cases independently of mine. Sorry, what you're saying makes no sense.
READER COMMENT: “We writers already get very little respect in the industry. Lawsuits like this only make us look like a bunch of whining sloths who don’t understand the business and can’t handle the challenges of climbing the seemingly endless mountain to success.”
SAMUELS: So I suppose the old writers in the [2002] age discrimination case were whining idiots? The ones who won the settlement from the agencies, networks, and production companies precisely because there had been a pattern of age discrimination against old writers? Obviously there must have been a problem and the law must have been violated for a $70 million settlement to be paid out.
READER COMMENT: “As for the need to be rich, my answer is Twitter. Doesn’t cost me a damn thing to tweet and connect with industry people all over the world.”
SAMUELS: Connect perhaps, but they don't seem to be interested in producing you. Honestly, any major industry person can get massive numbers of people following you on Twitter. This doesn't mean that they are going to take the time out to help you in your career. I remember on Facebook when I would get invitations to non-industry parties and…other non-industry events. I got so many invitations I stopped reading them. I seriously doubt any produced screenwriter suggests Twitter is a substitute for actually having personal contacts that you know and work with (providing you can get a job that allows you to support yourself in the industry). John August talks about the importance of living in Los Angeles—he has a career—yet [the poster of the previous comment], with no career, claims Twitter is all. Ummm, okay. I said rich white males in the industry tend to like to hang out with each other, and that makes it much harder for anyone outside of that group to break in. And since the top agencies do most of the sales, their insistence on an industry referral tends to lock non-whites out.
READER COMMENT: “What Samuels has done, in my opinion, is demean any real cases of discrimination that are indeed happening. To fill the court’s time with false claims from a scorned writer should be criminal.”
SAMUELS: Discrimination happens, but if someone points out that a business practice is discriminatory and attempts to change it they are demeaning real cases of discrimination? How? The courts handle each case and claim individually. One has nothing to do with the other.
READER COMMENT: “You tried for 9 years??? Are you SERIOUS? Not really any contest entries, just a couple handfuls of queries. Wow, you've really worked hard. A previous post suggests changing your name. I agree.”
SAMUELS: Most contests do not launch careers; for the most part, they are irrelevant. Of the few contests that are worthwhile, even they don't guarantee a career in the film industry. And I've not heard one working screenwriter say that contests are the best way to launch a worthwhile film career. I've not come across one book on screenwriting that says this is the best way to launch a career. As for changing my name, I tend to like my name; I'm happy with what I've done, thank you very much.
READER COMMENT: “Do you want to be in the room because you deserve to be there, regardless of what color you are or what you've got in your pants? Or do you want to be in the room because it's required they have diversity? Most every person in that room is there because they earned it. Black, female, white male, whatever....Half the freaking execs I sit across from are women or black. My agent is a woman. A recent producer on one of my projects is a woman. All of them are there not because they're women or black, but because they refused to fail. Fact: If you aren't in a room, it's because your work is not good enough to get in the room [and not] because you are black [or] because you are a woman.”
SAMUELS: I'm not sure what this has to do with my lawsuit or with my saying the current policy of no unsolicited submissions has a disproportionate impact on non-whites. These are anecdotal examples. There are people, for example, who would claim that there's no racism in Mississippi based on their experiences of everyone supposedly loving each other there. And there are others who would strongly disagree with that, [even pointing] out case examples and other evidence.
VINES: Justin, in our previous interview, this is what you said regarding screenwriters who have found success: “How did those people get read? Did they have relatives in the business? Did they live in Los Angeles all their lives? Who supported them and paid their bills when they moved to Los Angeles? You might have a lot more time for networking if you're a trust fund baby.” Then you went on to say something about needing “to be in the right social circles” in order meet the people who can get a script produced. Based on the above comments, I’d like to take a quick peek at four successful screenwriters. I’d like to point out that two of these writers are white, while the other two are African-American. One also happens to be a female.
1.) David Ayer (The Fast and the Furious, Training Day, SWAT), was born in Champaign, Illinois, but grew up in Bloomington, Minnesota and Bethesda, Maryland. When he was a teenager, he was kicked out of the house by his parents. He then move to Los Angeles and lived with a cousin, spending much of his young life on the troubled streets of South Central L.A.
2.) David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, Men in Black) was born in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. His mother was a family therapist and his father owned a billboard company.
3.) Antwone Fisher, born in Cleveland, Ohio, grew up in foster homes and was physically, verbally and sexually abused as a child. He wrote his first screenplay, Antwone Fisher, while working as a security guard at Sony Pictures.
4.) Shonda Rhimes (writer and creator of TVs Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, and screenwriter of Princess Diaries 2 and HBO’s acclaimed movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge), was born in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents were a university administrator and a college professor. After graduating from USC, Rhimes found herself swimming in the teeming pool of unemployed scriptwriters in Hollywood. To make ends meet, she worked at a variety of day jobs, including as an office administrator, and then as a counselor at a job center that taught mentally ill and homeless people job skills. During this period, Rhimes also worked as research director on the 1995 Peabody Award-winning documentary, Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream (1995). Rhimes made her directorial debut in 1998 with the short film Blossoms and Veils starring Jada Pinkett-Smith and Jeffrey Wright. [All biographical information culled from IMDb and Wikipedia.]
VINES (cont'd): It doesn’t appear to me that these writers came from terribly auspicious beginnings or, as you mentioned in our previous interview, “the right social circles. No, it sounds like to me like these writers a) had the initial writing talent, b) knew what they want and went after it, and c) worked their rear ends off to find success. These writers had jobs, had school, had their own obstacles to overcome. They hustled, did what they had to do, and MADE IT HAPPEN.
SAMUELS: I really hope you aren't using these four writers to say that working screenwriters are 50% black and 50% white!
VINES: No, of course not. What I'm trying to get across to you is that screenwriters do not have to come from money or a certain upper-class of society to become successful. A writer can find success, whether they're white, black, male or female, if they have the talent and are willing to work to make things happen.
[Justin declined to discuss this issue further.]
VINES: By the way, I was wondering…have you ever considered joining Organization of Black Screenwriters (OBS)? They list their primary function as assisting “screenwriters in the creation of works for television and film and to help them present their work to the industry.”
SAMUELS: I never thought about it. Not that I think it’s a bad thing, I don't know much about them and I don't know if joining would have been beneficial to me or not.
VINES: I’ve done a bit of research regarding your case against CAA and William Morris. Is it true your lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Deborah J. Batts on July 20th, 2011?
SAMUELS: The case was dismissed and I’m filing the appeal. These cases take years because as soon as one side is defeated, the other side appeals.
VINES: If necessary, are you willing to press forward with this discrimination case for "years"?
SAMUELS: Yes, I am.

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Did you know there are other great interviews on this blog? Feel free to check out my three interviews with U.K.screenwriter Darren Howell. He discusses his highs and lows as he gets his first script off the ground with a big prodco here in L.A. It’s quite a roller-coaster ride, believe me!

Thinking of entering a screenwriting competition? If so, you’ll want to read…
There’s also a very insightful interview with a Hollywood lit agent.

APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)