Since the publication of UNLIKELY ALLIES, many readers have encouraged me to write a screenplay about how a merchant, a playwright and a spy saved the American Revolution. So last week I found myself in Napa at the Northern California Screenwriters Expo pitching UNLIKELY ALLIES to Hollywood producers.
Surrounded by other aspiring screenwriters I felt more than a little intimidated. There were so many people from all walks of life full of inspiration and hope. As we waited to pitch our ideas to the jaded Hollywood crowd, I sat with a grey-haired single mom nervously paging through a script on her lap about a middle-aged divorcee struggling to raise a family. I talked to a cheerful homeless man who had scrapped together just enough money to pay his registration fee so that he could pitch an idea for a sci-fi movie. I met a young man with a brilliant smile who had travelled up from Mexico with a terrific idea for a romantic comedy.
We discovered that the film business has never been tougher. In the Great Recession Hollywood isn’t taking any chances. Dramas, science fiction, and romantic comedies are too risky to try to sell to audiences overseas or to the “target U.S. demographic”: 16-24-year-old boys. All Hollywood wants to see is another Avatar – something with lots of action that doesn’t require much of its audience and can be easily translated into Spanish or Chinese. That’s why you can’t find anything worth watching at the Cineplex on a Saturday night.
Yet, despite the chilly reception we received from the Hollywood crowd, what struck me was how hopeful these aspiring writers felt even in the face of slim odds. Was there ever a country so populated by dreamers? What is it about our national character that we grow up believing that anyone can win the lottery?
The founders of our nation declared the inalienable right to “the pursuit of happiness.” What other country was founded on such a promise? What the founders meant was the right to pursue one’s aspirations to better oneself and to provide greater economic opportunities for one’s family. Is the pursuit of happiness still possible in America?
Even before the Great Recession began the economic opportunities for most Americans have been closing. Over the last thirty years the average income of Americans has come up only 12% in real terms. At the same time, the average income of the wealthiest .01% of Americans has risen 400%. During the Bush years 8 million Americans lost their jobs, and now unemployment remains stuck at 9.7%. Today, one in four American homes is worth less than the outstanding mortgage.
The American Dream had been on life support for at least a decade. That may explain the fascination with shows like American Idol that hold out the hope that anyone can realize their dreams in America. Against all odds we still grasp onto the founders’ promise.
President Obama’s health insurance reform bill is a small step in the direction of trying to help the average family survive the vicissitudes of life so that they can pursue their dreams. More must be done quickly to generate jobs and open up educational opportunities if we are to preserve our American tradition.
As for UNLIKELY ALLIES the movie, well, we’ll see. But if you have a friend in the business let me know. I still haven’t given up on the pursuit of happiness.