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  • Fred Smith

The Five Stages of a Screenwriter’s Grief

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying describes a series of emotions experienced by dying people that have come to be known as The Five Stages of Grief.

I’m not facing imminent death, but I do currently have three screenplays under option Out There in Hollywood.

While not fatal for screenwriters, the experience feels a lot like the five stages of grief…in reverse.

Normally, the five stages of grief are experienced as follows:

Denial- believing the terminal diagnosis to be a mistake, individuals cling to a false and preferable reality.

Anger-realizing denial can no longer continue, the individual becomes frustrated, usually at the people closest to them.

Bargaining-in exchange for an extended life, the individual vows to reform his or her lifestyle.

Depression-the classic low point, the individual recognizes mortality and retreats into a mournful state of self-imposed isolation.

Acceptance–Understanding that death is inevitable, the individual embraces the end.

Death is a rather grim topic. So let’s instead keep the focus on torture, a living state in which many a hopeful screenwriter spends his ever-dwindling days.

For the last two-plus years, three of my original screenplays have been doing the development dance Out There, triggering the five emotional stages of grief in the opposite order they are conventionally experienced.

The first stage is acceptance.

Many of the most successful screenwriters of all time toiled for years before finally getting a foot in the door of Tinseltown.

When it finally happens, when someone in authority Out There says, “I’d like to option this,” you revel in the acceptance.

Finally, someone has recognized that I have something to say. My work is important!

You see yourself getting the news in front of your peers that you’ve been nominated for an Oscar. You imagine yourself speaking of your process before a packed theater of hopeful writers soaking in your every word.

It’s a glorious time when the future is bright with the inevitable showering of riches and adulation. And then…

Nothing happens.

Let’s go over what it means to have a screenplay under option and, in turn, to live as a screenwriter in a perpetual state of torturous grief.

In my case, I had written a feature-length screenplay that my agent thought was good enough to submit to a studio.

“Good enough” as a burden of standard is a bit misleading.

Here’s why.

In Hollywood, everyone from the head of the studio down to the junior-level script readers and all souls in between are assumed to have good taste.

That is, if you work in any aspect of story creation or development Out There, you’re expected to have a working knowledge of what’s good and what isn’t.

The way one proves that critical understanding is to vouch for a given script by giving his or her approval of said script and sending it up the line where it will meet increasingly more important sets of eyes.

At the same time, the fastest way to earn a reputation as someone who can’t tell the difference between a legit contender and a POS that should immediately be lit on fire is to vouch for the latter by putting your good name next to it.

This is especially true for agents and readers, two positions for whom a reputation as a poor arbiter of “good” is fatal to career advancement and ultimately leads to death Out There.

“Death,” in this case, being the career equivalent to selling solar panel installations in the Valley.

All this is to say, the urban legends are true about the number of screenplays floating around Out There. Everyone has one and is desperately trying to get it in the hands of someone whose mere approval will instantly transform a bumbling writer into a king for a year,

Half of these scripts are garbage and should be rotting in the bowels of its writer’s local hard drive. The other 45% are lukewarm at best and don’t meet the rigorous standards of being considered as a movie.

(This is a brutally subjective business, in case you didn’t know.)

It’s up to the agents and the readers to weed through the ooze and discover the 5% of submitted scripts that have a chance to get made and are therefore worthy of the studio’s attention.

I made it through the ooze with not one but three screenplays over the course of two years.

That means, my agent submitted two of my screenplays to one studio and a third script to another. Each was read by the studio's readers and was recommended for development.

Development, mind you, doesn’t mean production.

Each of my three scripts was optioned, meaning I was given a little money after signing a contract that essentially says I agree to give the studio an agreed amount of time (18 months) to attach a director, a star, procure funding, and “greenlight” the movie.

Option/purchase agreement contracts for screenplays
Option purchase agreement contracts can be just as long as a screenplay and are (hopefully) a lot more dense and boring.

Only when the project is greenlit and the cameras begin to roll do I as the writer get paid the full sum specified in the contract.

And it’s a great sum, which is why there are so many starry-eyed screenwriters submitting their unsolicited work under the bathroom stalls to executives who wrongly assumed they had a moment of peace for themselves.

Back to the five stages of a screenwriter’s grief:

Imagine my elation upon hearing from my agent that my three scripts had passed the initial round of readers (where most scripts go to die) and were heading up the chain of consideration.


It was bliss, and it lasted for weeks.

But weeks turned to months and then a year. While there were meetings and emails and texts about emails and more emails about what went on in the meetings…nothing got made and time marched on.

Depression took hold.

As the late, great Tom Petty said, “The waiting is the hardest part.” You cling to hope and positivity, but begin to question yourself. Is my work good enough? Do I actually have what it takes or is this the high point?

Bargaining begins.

At this point, the screenwriter has gotten some feedback from the studio in the form of notes–suggestions the studio thinks might help the script climb the chain en route to being greenlit.

Already in a state of depression and desperate for advancement, the screenwriter considers every nook of suggestion with the open mind of an inmate on death row.

Maybe now, thinks the screenwriter, is a time to bargain by conceding what little dignity he has left. Perhaps less money and more work are in order.

Anything to climb another rung of the development’s greasy ladder.

Rewrites are made and submitted. More waiting ensues.

There are fewer meetings and emails about meetings. Unrequited texts abound.


At this point, the screenwriter begins to resent not just the industry, but movies themselves.

In my experience, anger and denial appeared almost simultaneously and carried me off to perpetual anguish.

Not only did I find myself mad at the dreck I saw getting greenlit and finding its way to screens big and small, I caught myself explaining to anyone who would listen (mostly my own conscience) that no one Out There had anything of substance to say. Only my story was worthy of the effort to be brought to life.

Unlike the conventional stages of grief, the screenwriter’s tragic journey doesn’t end in actual death.

Sometimes I wish it did.

Because the plight of the hopeful screenwriter seeking to break in with that critical and elusive first movie credit is one of perpetual torture.

The cycle repeats with each option extension and/or the start of a new screenplay.

It’s the life we as screenwriters have chosen.

Life appears good at the top, but it’s a brutal climb.

Many are called. Few are chosen. Even fewer get greenlit and become movies.

Grief is the only certainty.

Learn to deal.

I have.

And I’m still alive Out There.


Fred Smith is the author of The Coolest Labels, a novel and The Closet, a short story collection. He has written nine feature-length screenplays.

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