Sea Of Red (or: The Unbearable Weight Of What Feels Like Constant Rejection In Any Creative Endeavour Worth Pursuing)

The creative industries love success. It’s a hit driven business, with a Pareto distribution of results, and so it’s success that gets celebrated.

When you read about a new show dropping on Netflix or making a splash on the BBC, it has already cleared hundreds and hundreds of hurdles. In management speak” this is called “success bias.”

We only know about the projects that actually made out of development hell, got a green-light, secured financing, and made it through physical production. Everybody talks about KILLING EVE or NORMAL PEOPLE or I MAY DESTORY YOU. Nobody is talking about the brilliant show that’s languishing in rewrites or turnaround, or the amazing new book that’s currently on its third edit, or worse, has been abandoned by the writer, stuffed into the desk drawer out of frustration.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my adventures in the creative industries, it is that since (in the wise, immortal words of William Goldman) “nobody knows anything,” it is patience and persistence that pay off.

Writing is a craft, and you get better over time with more and more dedicated practice. I for one am a subscriber to the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours theory of expertise. But since so much of what gets a book or show commissioned is luck (often timing), it’s not enough to have one project that you obsess over for your career. I know too many writers who’ve held onto one script or show idea for years (decades even), always believing that a green-light is right around the corner.

And it might be. But it might not be.

Since the first of March, I’ve given 213 unique project pitches. Now, that’s not 213 discreet pitches, because in some cases I’ve shared two (or three) project ideas with the same receiver of the pitch. I keep an excel spreadsheet and colour-code it. Red is a pass.

My spread-sheet is mostly red.

Blue is when someone goes “cold” or simply doesn’t ever come back to respond. There’s some blue on there.

Dark yellow is submitted but not yet acknowledged. Light yellow is submitted and received (and thus under review, a process which can last days to months). I recently got feedback (a pass) on a script submitted in April. It just turned October today.

I get it. People are busy. Production is stalled. We’re in a pandemic. I used to be on the creative executive side of the business and tried to get back to writers / agents promptly. But I often failed.

So, within my spreadsheet of mostly red, a bit of blue, and two shades of yellow, there is some green.

Green is “moving forward.” Not necessarily a green light into production, but a third party is putting there hand in their pocket to pay me to an idea or script.

The hardest part of this business is actually getting someone to pay you to be creative. There’s an expectation to do things “for love” or on spec, neither of which pays the bills.

Of my 213 project pitches, there are four lines that are green. That’s less than a 2% success rate. Put negatively, it’s a 98.122% failure rate. In any other business, that’d be catastrophic. Could you imagine if 98% of cars coming off the assembly line failed?

Or if 98% of airplanes crashed?

But this is not an assembly line pursuit.

Creativity is bespoke.

It only takes one. And not unlike venture capital, the one hit will pay for the rest of the losses.  But you need to get to that hit. You need to wade through the sea of red to secure the green.

So, keep going. Keep pitching. And the don’t worry about the sea of red. In baseball terms it just means you’re getting up the plate. If you’re not at the plate, you can’t swing. If you don’t swing, you can’t hit the ball.

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