“Screenwriter for Hire”
Definition and Significance
It took me many years to understand all of the legalities of the titles, work descriptions, credits listing, and contract terms in Hollywood. Through my blogs you will learn 75% of the terms and ways to navigate or translate a contract into “English.”
“What does this contract phrase “Writer For Hire” mean to me as a writer, and how will it effect my career and how the industry perceives my role in the film or tv show?”
When professionals and Industry outsiders need a screenplay writer, they pick the words in their contract very carefully. Some producers (people that hire a writer I am putting under this identifying title) will want a partnership, but most want to own the work they pay the writer to do.
When someone has the phrase “Writer For Hire” in their contract, it identifies to the courts and studios that the Writer does not own the script or words once he is paid. The Producer has all the ownership rights and say, unless stated otherwise in the contract. If you allow them to put this into a contract, it is very hard to later argue that you have any say over what happens to your words. You have no choices to negotiate on later unless stated in the contract.
Screenwriters for hire are also contract writers for sitcoms, and other television weekly episodes. They are paid well, they get royalties, but they have no say in the shows.
The Writers Guild will watch out for you, for the most part, when it comes to residual checks. But they cannot argue that you own the story very much if you agree to this term.
In the case of Independent writing, for productions without enough money to properly reward the writer, they often offer deferred pay, or shares in the movie receipts. That is fine, but, you need to have a lawyer look at the contract to make sure that every element of your promise is put down on the contract, especially when Screenwriter (or Writer) For Hire is the pivotal understanding of the relationship.
Crossing the Line
From “writer” to “Screenwriter for Hire”
Making the distinction between being a casual good writer and a Screenwriter for hire happened over two decades ago for me.
I’m going to start blogging about my early years as someone people call when they want to hire a screenwriter. The stories will open the eyes of people that want to enter the business as a screenwriter, and those considering how to start being a screenwriter for hire.
In October about 1985’s I moved to Los Angeles. I met a blonde actress in Chicago working a tv show called Private Eyes, where I modeled for David Lee Agency. She talked me into moving to Los Angeles to live with her. A few weeks later my modeling connection here got me onto a show called Paper Chase the last season, mostly as a Silent Bit but sometimes SAG. I stuck with Fox when I acted in L.A. Law. On the set I began to study scripts. Realizing I could write at least as good a script as the ones in the theaters, I started on a comedy. It was called “86 Restaurants” and was a modern version of The Producers, the story revolving around two guys that plan to open a restaurant that fails so badly no investors question their books, and they sneak off with millions. But I wasn’t even thinking of being a Screenwriter for hire yet.
I started writing it on the set of The Outsiders, where I pulled in a mild stunt double gig for the lead. I did some stand-in for him too, so I was on the set every day for about 4 weeks. There were a lot of great looking girls on the set, and I found that this was a great icebreaker. Scenes were funny standing alone, and a few laughs opened the door to dates. On the day it was finished, a gorgeous brunette told me, “Hey bring a copy tomorrow and I’ll read it over the weekend.” I didn’t know she was roommates with Heather Locklear. So the Brunette read it, loved it, laughed a lot. She gave it to Heather who read it, laughed a lot. She was dating an exec at Universal Studios, who read it Sunday night. On Monday I got a call from an assistant at Universal for this exec. They wanted to know who represented me. I wasn’t repped for lit. So they said they would make a call to The Swanson Agency, which was once one of the most impressive lit agencies in town. Swanson read it over night then called me into the office. They signed me, and sent me to Universal.
The exec told me I was funny, but that the screenplay did not follow the structure or formula of screenplays in all ways. I had to admire that I never studied script writing. He and Swanson told me to read a dozen buddy scripts, including 48 Hours, Butch Cassidy, Lethal Weapon, and others. I did a rewrite. It almost got picked up at Universal, but Swanson said it was not ready to go out. He asked me to write another script or two. I was on fire to earn some of those big numbers that were coming out of the Bidding Wars. I wrote two scripts in 5 weeks. But for Swanson, they were “nothing new and nothing exceptional.” I knew nothing of how scripts and writers are marketed, so I was a bit offended (I was in my twenties and full of myself.) If only I could be someone they could sell as a screenwriter for hire, as in, studio gigs paying about $50,000 back then.
I had to improve and also increase my odds on marketing myself. I had limited access to companies. I found out that Swanson (then in his late 80’s) was dying and his agents were moving on. I got creative in my approach to improving as a writer. I began clipping all the articles that said the names of agents that appeared in The Hollywood Reporter and L.A. Times. I went to the Writers Guild (which was on Beverly then) and asked the librarian for the 10 best screenplays she ever read. Among others, she had me read Body Heat, Taxi Driver, Raiders of the Lost Arc, The Graduate, and several others. The next script I wrote was a striking improvement over my first scripts. I knew it from the first sentence, and so did the Industry.
“Traders and runners rushed the sinks, prepping their engines with Bromo’s and uppers, ready to race the daily Fortune 500 we know as Wall Street.”
The script was called “Future Tense.” It was about a 24 year-old novice trader that gets seduced by a sexy female executive to use insider trading to make millions. I printed 21 copies at my dad’s office and mailed them to 21 agents. I was so new that I did not know what agency was important or not. I included a simple, humble cover letter.
I waited to get my rave reviews the next week, but none came. I waited so long I stopped waiting. Then one day my phone rang, and it was an agent named Tom Strickler. I had no idea I had sent my script to one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood, only months before he would break off to form Endeavor. “I can’t represent you because we only represent established writers here. But I wanted to tell you, you had me at the first sentence. You have the talent to be a big hit writer. Stick with it, make a sale or two, then come find me. Oh, and one other thing, there is a big film about to be announced called Wall Street. It’s gonna kill the chances of your script selling, but it’s a great sample.” That was just how it went down.
His words were so inspiring they filled me with courage. I had to stop doing all my other write and just go for it – I was going to be a professional Screenwriter for Hire. In the meantime, Swanson pretty much was in the dark about this, and was folding. I wrote Supertanker, which I sneaked to some guy I met at Hard Rock Café bar. He worked at a boutique agency. In five days I was signed and the script got Optioned at Silver Pictures. I was very naïve. I actually thought agents told the truth all the time and had no competing interests ahead of their clients.
I remember walking into the offices at Warner Brothers. The posters of Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Predator was being made. Down the hall was Steven Segal, and Dick Donner. Their spies were noting my arrival. The boss working in the office under Silver was a very hot blonde that was the secret mistress of the head of ICM. I forgot her name, but she and her male head of production met me and said, “Congratulations, we’re making your movie.” I couldn’t believe it … and shouldn’t have. They were talking about it being Die Hard 3. And I believed them when they offered me a paltry $10,000 option on it. I thought that was so low, since my talks with the agent at first said this should sell instantly for over $300,000. And I had meetings set up at Fox for it. The heat was on! What I had yet to learn was that agents would at times sell out a client to help a producer keep a script off the market. And that is what they did. They buried it so that it would not compete with Die Hard 3 since the scripts were so similar. They had me in for some story meetings, I did some script tightening, but the formula and action was all there. Then came the excuses that led to the inevitable, “Sorry, but we’re putting the script into Turnaround.”
That led to a year of poverty, not making one penny. I had always made good money, and had a nice car, an antique car, and a nice condo I rented in Century City. I sold the second car, and then sold the new car for a bad old car, then sold that for a $1,000 motorcyle, and sold that for a $500 piece of shit motorcycle. I moved back home. My dad had talks with me every day to reconsider my profession. My girlfriend left me. I was too broke to do ANYTHING.
The agent was losing interest in me. Then one day the assistant in charge of Supertanker got fired, and called me and told me how they sold me out. And that led to me being dropped as a client.
I talked to the librarian and a producer or two, and they said I should try to find some Indie writing assignments to get a credit. So I put out an ad for “Hire A Screenwriter” in the trades. I kept putting in the ads, and after about 6 weeks started to get jobs. The pay was “anything they had to offer.” I was WGA, but had not gotten work, so I was sneaking under the radar. I told NO ONE about this, because it would be so bad for my career. I wrote scripts for as little as $1,000. I needed money. I wrote them and gave them credit for the writing if they needed it.
One great things came from this two years of lowest level writing. I learned how to please clients that were going for a dream, had a decent idea, and just needed talent. I learned how to listen, how to share ideas, and how to fit good and bad stories into screenplay formula. My talent for words was there, I could turn a great phrase and make memorable lines. But I had no agent. The scripts went nowhere slowly. I was not obligated to help the clients, so I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I think I wrote about 7 low budget scripts in that time. Never knew what happened with them, never tracked them. Some I heard go optioned, and one got a big named writer on it and the rewrite was bought.
Then came my big break …
FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED NEXT IN THE SECOND BLOG ON THE LIFE OF A SCREENWRITER FOR HIRE.
WRITING FOR ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS
I’ve mentioned in other blogs how rare it is to find Producers that know how to improve a script nowadays. This was mandatory a few decades ago. I think that the digital age and expansion of film schools allowed more Producers to rush ahead to production. In my mind, hey, it’s great that they get to produce a film. But steps along the way – steps learning the elements of better storytelling – are often skipped. That is why you hear so many bizarre comments in studio meetings about rewrites on your scripts. Here you are a writer that toiled away at writing s solid story, and suddenly a Producer asks if you can make the death of the midget drowning in the toilet more glorious for midgets (this is an actual note from Warner Brothers on a comedy assassin movie.)
I have been lucky enough to work with several Academy Award winners. I would be either a Screenwriter for Hire or I would have written a script they wanted to set up.
Here is a list of the infamous Producers or Directors I worked with, learned from, or set up projects with:
Freddie Fields: Glory
Jerome Hellman: Midnight Cowboy
John Badham: Saturday Night Fever
Barry London: Head of Paramount/Titanic, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Top Gun
Cort/Madden: Mr. Holland’s Opus
Albert Magnoli: Purple Rain (early guidance in film making/writing)
Sydney Pollack: Tootsie, Out of Africa, countless others (seminar mentoring)
Tony Scott: Top Gun, Man on Fire, Unstoppable, A-Team, countless others.
Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc.) didn’t really do script improvement or mentor/advise me in any way. Though he is a big name.
My experiences with the big days of New Line were interesting, and I learned a lot.
But the three most influential are Freddie Fields/Jerome Hellman, and Barry London. John Marsh at Tri-Star was fantastic at showing me how to improve a script. As was Justin Dardess. I’ll concentrate on Fields, Hellman, and London, since I credit them with advancing my talents far beyond most writers, especially when it comes to Marketing, Funding, and Distribution savvy.
Freddie Fields. Wow, what a legend. I met him through Cary Selig, a fantastic female producer. She was a D-Girl for him before moving to create Bel-Air Pictures (Collateral Damage, Message in a Bottle, The Replacements, Pay It Forward, and more.)
Freddie Fields was the Producer or Executive Producer on: American Gigolo, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Poltergeist, American Anthem, Glory, Milennium, Fever Pitch, Crimes of the Heart, andVictory. But before that – get this – he was one of the heads of ICM (then called CMA) and was credited as instrumental in the careers of Judy Garland, Woody Allen, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen, and married a Miss Universe. He set up Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KKid, American Graffiti, and Star Wars.
And I was mentored by him for a year. Unbelievable. I learned more than I could ever put into a blog – about the energy and the deal making behind closed doors. (Only Barry London taught me more.) Here is how it all happened.
Keri is a stunning brunette with a perfect body, the type you would imagine came to L.A. to be a star. But she was only interested in production. I met her out at a bar, through friends, and she gave me her number for business. We met a few times for drinks, then sort of vanished from each-other’s lives.
I started writing an action script called Hard Knox. It is the story of the stealing of the gold out of Fort Knox during a tornado. The tornado ends up being the bad guy. It had some unique plot twists in it. I knew it was a hot idea. I was on page 80 when I ran into her and she told me she moved to Fields/Hellman. I went in for a talk, and she had me pitch her three ideas. Since Hard Knox was not finished, I pitched that one last, but she knew this was the one. She asked me for a sneak copy. I went home and touched up what I had written and, unfinished, delivered it to her.
In the meantime, I had met a small time Producer that had a film deal at I think Millenium Pictures, plus an open door at some studios. He needed a screenwriter for hire. I don’t even remember his name for sure but think it was Jacque. I only remember his attitude toward the film he was directing in a month. It was a $3 million film, shooting in Vancouver. He called it shit, a waste of time, etc., and something that he wanted to do and flush in the toilet but he needed the money. I felt so sorry for the actors. The story and writing was very watered-down and anemic. He had read Blood, Sweat, and Gold after a lawyer told him I was the best undiscovered (cheap and willing to do ghost writing is how he saw it) writer in Hollywood. He wanted me to do a ghost writing fix on his dream project for a few thousand dollars, so I took it. I was working on that at the same time as Hard Knox, but had not told him about it.
She wasn’t even finished with it when she called me and said, ‘My boss wants to meet you.” At that time, I did not know who the legendary Freddie Fields was, or what would happen to me if he did a film for/with me.
I walked into his office and there was this 70 year young man, Freddie. We had a fairly formal meeting. He talked about his accomplishments, and was generally seeing me as who I was – a naïve, needy writer with some talent. He had read Hard Knox’s first 80 pages, and said simply, “I can make this a movie.” He brought in Jerome Hellman, legendary Producer of Midnight Cowboy, and they were chummy with me. Then Jerome left. Freddie was for sure the hard ass, hard line deal maker. He said he wanted a free Option on it. I said no. He chuckles and says that it’s okay that I don’t know what’s being offered, and that he promised he would make me a better writer in return. I said it sounds good, but was still too naïve to know what I almost passed up.
After that meeting I had a meeting with Jacque. When he told me about Freddie he asked me if I would give him a copy of the script. I had one in the car from the meeting so I gave it to him. I got his notes on his script and left.
The next day I had a meeting with Freddie. It was my first meeting to discuss how to improve my script, make it a slam dunk. He was very nice, and told me some cool stories about Hollywood. I liked the guy. And I was surely learning. By then I had almost finished the script. It seemed like it would go okay, but, then again, I had good meetings before, and was not married to Freddie. I was more attached to Keri. That was my loyalty at that time.
When I got him, Jacque called me back to his house. I thought it was to give me more notes. I entered the house. He was intense! He desperately wanted this Hard Knox. He knew it was a super hit. His connections at Millenium were enough to get traction, and he would attach himself to direct. Then he went into a long diatribe about how evil Freddie Fields was, “He will fuck you over so bad that you won’t even know he fucked you until your ass bleed a year later.” This guy was so crass and insulting on Freddie … it didn’t seem to fit with who I had gotten to know. But Jacque went on and on about Freddie being a snake who is too old to make another movie.
I went home and didn’t know what to think, I made no commitment, but Jacque thought he had me on his side. I didn’t have a meeting set up for Freddie for 3 days, but he did expect me I guess to call the office. Instead, I did some touch ups on Knox. Jacque tried to coerce me over a lunch to sign an agreement, but I said I wanted to finish the script first.
Freddie has great radar. He called me out of the blue and said, “Scott, I can feel you’re pulling away from me. Come in, and let’s talk.” I did. When I sat down, he said, “Scott, a lot of people will want this script. But it’s not ready to go out. It almost is, but it’s not. They will tell you all sorts of things. But you don’t know enough about the business to know if it’s worth anything. I can tell you something that I think you will understand. Anyone that tries to convince you to take out this script needs to have a game plan that is solid and based on success. If they don’t have one, then they are wasting your talent. I’m going to tell you my game plan for how to build heat on this script right now.” And he proceeded to tell me over about 15 minutes his strategy, the strengths of the script, the worries a studio has on it, the burden on the producer – stuff I never in my career learned! I loved it. Then, he said, “Okay. Now, I think you have some things to tell me, some questions or concerns. What’s on your mind?” There was a moment of silence as I decided if I should be coy or tackle this head on. I figured the script was so good I could say what I truly felt. So this is how the conversation went.
“I’ve been telling people that I’m doing my new script with Freddie Fields.” He smiles proudly. “They’re telling me a lot.” He smiles broader. “What this one person said is – Freddie Fields can’t be trusted. He’s a snake. He’ll fuck you.” There was this dramatic pause, then he said with a smile trembling behind anger, ‘Who said this to you?” “I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you this. My father retired last year, and the Wall Street Journal ran a third page article on him being one of the last incorruptible men on Wall Street. And he told me, “When you hear bad things about a successful man and they do not agree with your gut feelings, just put the cards on the table, bring it out into the open, let him explain himself, but most of all, let him start fresh with you if your gut tells you you feel good around him.” So here’s what that means to me. You know so much more about the Industry and have all the power in this situation that you can screw me and there’s nothing I can do about it. But I don’t think that is going to happen. I told you this because I decided just now to go with you. I’m going to shake hands on that. And once I do, nothing will coerce me to break my word, you are my producer. Even if things go bad, I’m on your team. Now you have a choice. Regardless of your past, good or bad, you have a chance to start fresh with me as if you never in your life ever sold out or betrayed trust. This is like a rebirth. So, let’s be partners, and you do what you decide, but for right now, all I want me mind to focus on is writing the best words for you.”
Wow, that was heavy.
I didn’t know it for sure then, but he actually did have his eyes water up. He picked up the phone, and said to Keri, “Cancel my next meeting and order lunch in here for us. We’re booked until 2.” Then he walked out from behind his desk, had me take a seat on the easy chairs, while saying, “I have never in my life heard such a meaningful start of a writer partnership. I’m going to show you who I really am. And I’m going to teach you more than you ever imagined about this. I’m taking you under my wing and making you happen in Hollywood. Now, write down on this paper what you hope to get from Paramount.” I wrote in $250,000. I read it, chuckled, and said, “I’ll get you double that even if I write the check.”
This started a wonderful father/son sort of mentoring on Hard Knox. He took 3 hours a day for three days to go over every single sentence I wrote to tell me its value, to keep it as is, or to change it. He brought out many scripts, comparing key set piece moments or character dialog from award winners. He evolved my writing 3 fold. He told me the full story of how Glory got to be made into a movie even though all of Hollywood said a $50 million Civil War film staring Broderick and blacks would be the bomb of the year. He told me all about agency deal structure and motivations. It was fantastic. He also told me of his two key regrets then. One was his son, who was estranged from him and I was seen as a way to do right and hopefully start fresh with him. And the other regret was he drove into his driveway and somehow the maid let the dogs out and when he backed up he ran over both dogs.
In the meantime, his money literally saved my mom’s life on medical payments and kept our family together. My mom sent him a Christmas card that was so honest that
Then came the day the script was presented to Paramount and Fox. He knew it was a Paramount film. We began deal making and I was in on the talks in his office via phone. It was a push for him to go from Glory to Hard Knox. But we closed the deal. He knew I needed money and that Paramount would take a long time to close his deal even though my script deal was set easily for $375,000 plus $125,000 in rewrite fees, and $75,000 in bonuses. So he wrote me a personal check for A LOT! Then told me to pay him back when I get paid. Six months later I was paid, and on that day, I walked in and handed him a check. He was flabbergasted. He said, “No one in Hollywood every pays back, and not on the first day. You’re just like your father.” That was the greatest compliment.
The deal went well. We were on the fast track to filming. We got the writer from RoboCop wanting to direct it as his second directing. He did a polish on the script, and we were going for actors. Then something happened that was out of our control. Speilberg announced he was doing Twister. And he was going to lock up all the latest CGI for it. Paramount didn’t want to risk coming out with a movie that was good but Speilberg would overpower it. They were on a super fast track for production and would beat us to theaters by 3 months. Our movie went into turnaround. I had made about $175,000 on it, but was sad it was not made.
I can pull it out of Turnaround if needed. It still works as an action film, and is no longer that expensive to do. It could be done probably for $15 million now due to advances in CGI.
Working with Freddie also got me a open door at ICM. I should have really pushed to stay there. That was a big mistake of mine. But the agent that met with me had read Hard Knox and liked it. But, there was this odd sort of vibe in the agency. They were chasing the hits. Which means they focused on what was hit now and trying to ride the tails to script sales. I’ll tell you what I mean. I meet, and one of the first things the agent says is, ‘Do you have any scripts about Big Babies? I mean, giant ones? Because they’re this script about big babies and it got dumped and now a few studios think it’s a good idea.” I told him no, somehow I had left Big Baby themes out of my reportoire. “Can you write one fast about big babies?” No. We didn’t ever recover from my lack of Big Baby scripts, so I went from there to Gersch Agency and Jim Lefkowitz, who later went on to claim fame for selling a script for the most money ever. I think it was over $5 million. Not sure.
After the deal went into turnaround, Freddie and I tried keeping in touch, but he was getting very old. Hard Knox was going to be his last film. I really wish I could have done it with him. Keri set up some meetings at Bel Air. They didn’t result in a film. But, she was also key in getting Hollywood wired into the new technology we all use today. She hyped me up for High Definition, making me one of the first film makers to experiment with it and shoot a real show with it. Thanks, Keri.
I believe Freddie has died. There goes a true legend.
Albert Magnolic penned and directed Purple Rain right out of USC film school. He gave me a lot of pointers. He told me things about Tarantino’s talents long before he was famous. And, he also told me to never let anyone else direct Catapult. And it is turning out to be my first major film. It’s an action film so good that the funders will take a chance to make it my first huge release movie.
Sydney Pollack met me through a female he was friends with, and I ended up being close and learning from him during some of his many tutoring or speeches on great film making. He never got close to doing a script of mine, though. I mainly learned about directing from him.
I didn’t work in production with Tony Scott, but I did spend time with him for 28 days in Utah. Learned by observation and listening.
I learned so much from Barry London that there is a special blog about him.
SCREENWRITER FOR HIRE
Some people wonder why I tell stories in which I don’t fare well. One, because they tell you more about the industry than bragging. Two, so you avoid the same mistake. Three, they’re actually pretty zany, entertaining stories … and above all else, writers need to be entertaining to read if they are someone you want to hire as a screenwriter. My overall intent to wisen you to the trade while building your passion for it can be met this way better than lecturing you.
And ultimately, I am very confident in my status and achievements as a screenwriter in Hollywood. I can laugh about the misadventures then, and do now. It doesn’t ge more bizarrely random or oddly-timed than this …
From a previous blog I was left with a new agent, Justin Dardess. Justin was great, he really knew how to improve a script. He bonded well with his clients. He was at a small but good agency on San Vincente, can’t even remember the name of it. I was only there for 4 months. Justin had read a script of mine sent to him by Bettina. The script was Blood, Sweat, and Gold. It all starts with a script named Buffalo Gods, though, written about 5 months before that when Bettina repped me. Since her old office was close to John Badham, of Saturday Night Fever/War Games/The Hard Way, and finally Heroes TV show fame. His partner was Rob Cohen (State of the Union, The Running Man, Witches of Eastwick, Bird on a Wire, and television series.
Buffalo Gods was a futuristic film, but only slightly futuristic. I wrote it in the 80’s, and the things happening in the world now are the subject of a Think Tank in Seattle, owned by an unimaginably rich man (this predates Bill Gates’ fortune by a few years.) A group of seven genius (music, bioscience, tracking, anthropology, etc.) are hired to go to where an oil drilling expedition ran into trouble and the people vanished. These people are a Seven Samurai band, the archetypes of mythology: the hunter, healer, seer, protector, mother earth, artist, and greedy mankind. Even now the opening is quite true: Africa has been blockaded to contain the spread of a virus, seas are rising, communication is done via something like global Wi-Fi, nanobots can be injected into bodies – I was way ahead of the imagination curve. They go there and find that an Orb is being sought by aliens (think Transformers) that take on the shape of anything they overpower. They are drawn to geniuses of survival, so it makes a b-line for our team. The script did not get bought, the biggest complaint is that it happens in the Artic, and no studios had teams wanting to shoot a snow mega-budget film. Now it would all be CGI.
Buffalo Gods captivated John Badham. He called me for a meeting, but said, “I’m really passionate about making a movie in South America. You’re a fantastic writer, I felt I was really in there in Alaska, freezing to death and trying to save mankind. Can you find out the hottest action story in South America, and I’ll pay you as a Writer for Hire, $200,000. Hell, I was lit up and singing! I did a few days of research and found out that renegade gold mines were the hottest Soldier of Fortune arena. (Later they did The Runaround in the same mine that I found twenty years earlier.) So I drew together a treatment, pitched it, and they said Yes. I was writing so feverishly then that I think I was almost finished within 3 weeks. I had to go through my agent at the time. John was an A-list director, getting about $3 million a movie, which was one of the highest, and Cohen was getting a million to produce. Universal was balking at it, and fighting his requests to be allowed to take it to other studios (he had an exclusive deal with Universal.) Bird on a Wire flopped, and John was going through a bad divorce. He wanted Sean Connery, who he knew well, and we were about to approach him. Justin got the idea to go to two funders that were in a pissing contest to see who could fund the most mega-budget movies—Andy Vanja vs Mario Kassar. Cinergy vs. the old head partner of Carolco. Dubbed “The Boys Who Burned A Billion Dollars,” they were blamed along with CAA’s Michael Ovitz for blowing up star salaries. They were best buddies for years, and did Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Rambo, Terminator, etc. Their secret to fame and fortune was that they knew the international distributors by name at a time when few in Hollywood did or cared to know. At one time, their company Carolco was overspending on directors and actors so much that on just one floor they had Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, Renny Harlin, Oliver Stone, James Cameron, Paul Verhoevan, and others working at one time. This feud got us traction. Kassar loved the script first, Vanjay went for it, a few volley’s back and forth. First bomb came when news of nightmarish situations on the set of “At Play In The Field Of The Lords” – the mega-sale shot right about where we would shoot – flooded Hollywood. Stars got diseases from bugs, attacks, sickness from water and bad food. Then headlines about Kassar crashing financially after the split began reeling, and Vanja suddenly dropped out. Vanished, and we found out soon enough way. Meanwhile, desperate, Kassar loved the script, Badham, if Connery would go for it. But surprisingly the agent for Connery was not available. In a few days, we knew why: his rival Mario Kassar beat us to Connery, and they would do Medicine Man. A shitty script, but it had the funds and overpaid Connery for it. Damn! So close! It was a mega-deal days away from closing. Badham lost interest as his divorce started taking over his life.
That’s when I was getting involved with Justin. If I stayed with him, I would have surely been a multi-millionaire writer-director. He had the eye for talent and the magic touch with people, and closed deals like a Terminator. But this is what happened, and Justin never found this out.
Justin had a friend named S.B. that was a mid-level agent at another boutique agency. S.B. read all my scripts, and thought I was one of the most talented rising stars he’d met. He was making a move to a major management company near Paramount that repped among other Jodi Foster and I think also Julia Roberts. Their A-list of actresses was very strong, and all the movies I wrote up until then had excellent female leads. Stuart needed to go into the management company with some talent. So he began working me behind his best friend’s back. He told me any story he thought I would believe about Justin, and how he had forgotten about me and would never push me. He advised me on just how to leave Justin, and what to say. He promised me immediate writing or script sales to the actresses in the management company. I felt badly. Justin was nice, good, and was referred by Bettina. But, S.B. was on the phone that morning to me, saw me in the gym the day before, and was really urging me to do it.
So I go into his small agency, and sit with him, and when I said I was leaving, he was stunned. Shocked. This never happened to him, and if I was smart, I would have listened as he urge me to stay, promising he’d make a sale for me. He said he had big plans for me, but wouldn’t say what. S.B. told me he would say that, and told me what to say. And most of all,, listening to S.B., I never let Justin know about where I was going. I called S.B. and he said, “Atta-boy.” Three days later, Monday morning, I called him. In a flat tone, he says there has been a misunderstanding. The company won’t take any new writers. Sorry. Click.
He fucked me! Fucked me royally. I had already heard through the grapevine that Justin was upset and would not take me back. Shit.
In a few months, Justin made his move, and quickly became the head seller in Paradigm. A fantastic agency. He would have made me a star, like he promised! Damn S.B.. betraying bastard. He saw me later and gave me a “What? I didn’t do anything wrong” look.
Justin was listed as one of the most influential literary agents in Hollywood. The fees for if someone wanted to hire a screenwriter were starting at $300,000 per script. Rewrites at $150,000. Dozens of films produced off his script writer for hire to his credit.
I spent the next year and a half trying to get a good agent. I don’t know if they heard I dumped a beloved agent or not. It was tough.
What I learned was, “Don’t trust agents. Trust your gut. My gut told me Justin was terrific, I let S.B. tell me he was the devil.”
Oh, as a footnote, a powerful partner I had two years ago called me, very excited about an major agent at CAA that was going to champion our project. He talked for 5 minutes, about how he met him in a CAA meeting in the music division. My partner was involved big with American Idol, and had back stage passes to any concert. S.B. now has kids, and sucked up to my partner for two tickets backstage to (I think) Justin Timberlake. How random. In return, S.B. would get us the meeting we needed with a major company tie in that would secure our film. The moment I heard who it was, I told him, “Forget it, S.B. will sell you out, never return on his word.” My partner swore S.B. was a great guy … until he got burned.
Moral of the story: if you ever get in with an agent that loves you and your work, don’t sell him out for a pipe dream blown by an asshole.
BONUS POINTS! I had met a gorgeous girl – sort of out of my league. She was enamored with Hollywood. I didn’t have much money at the time. I went to pick her up at her apartment in my fairly new Mazda. We went to dinner and the vibe as only so-so. We then went to a movie in Westwood. I felt I had no chance with this girl. Then, just before the movie started, I got a tap on the shoulder. A total stranger asked me, “Excuse me, but aren’t you the writer that wrote Blood, Sweat, and Gold?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I worked at Fox. Our office read over 200 scripts this year, and that was by far the best script. What happened to it? We didn’t have the history to produce a $70 million film, and we were sure it would go to bidding war, but we never read anything about it.” I told him the short version of Badham. And he told the girl I was with, “This guy is the ultimate! He’s gonna be one of the biggest in Hollywood, he’s amazing.” From that moment on, the girl was tucked around my arm. She got to be the sychophant, and I got to fake it a bit. We dated about 2 months, but, alas, I was not discovered fast enough and she moved up the ladder of success. Ahh, but for the frills of good writing …
There is more to hear about Blood, Sweat, and Gold in the Jean Claude Van Damme Blog.
(And Pitch Festivals)
When you read interviews with writers and agents, they advise you to enter screenplay competitions. This is one way that new writers can get recognition in the business. They also recommend Pitch Festivals. Both can lead to representation and/or you could meet someone that needs to hire a screenwriter. However, there are many other benefits seldom discussed.
Before getting into the festivals and competitions, look to yourself for answers. Why are you screenwriting? For the money, or because you love writing? And do you want to find out if you truly have talent? If you are screenwriting solely for the money, which few will admit, then your emphasis should be on getting an agent out of these events. If you love writing, then the competitions will tell you which of your scripts has the best appeal to agents.
Competitions and pitch festival readers/listeners are looking for the easiest project to sell. Both benefit from sales. This means that a beautifully written script – possibly one of the best scripts an agent read all year – won’t go anywhere if it has no marketing appeal or hook for it to gain momentum unless it is circulated within an agency that has actors willing to read an unfunded script. I know this personally because when Suckerpunched won second place in Scriptapalooza, I had 13 companies and agencies ask for it. The script did, after all, beat out (approximately) 3,200 other scripts. That puts it in the top .03%. Pretty amazing odds and a reflection of how few scripts are any good, since only the top 50 are probably considerable. In fact, most writers never meet anyone that won or placed in the top 10 their entire lives, and here I am with several second place, ties for first, and top tens.
Yet when it was sent out, no one called except ICM. Which is pretty damn great! But, then again, they read it and called me in for a meeting. I think the agents name was Dave. Dave said, to my face, “This was the most amazing, moving script I’ve read all year, we loved it. But good God, please give us something to sell. This is impossible to set up. Maybe in a few years when you are famous someone will star in it and get a nomination, but this has no trailer moments, no hooks, no foreign appeal at all.” Even green in regards to my experience I knew what he meant.
Suckerpunched is about a genius graduate that has a nervous breakdown giving his speech to the graduating class of Princeton (based on a true event) and then slips out of the hospital and goes in search of the American spirit , while being pursued by police for a murder he did not commit. Along the way he drags a bubble girl out from the hospital for a last week of freedom in her suicide trip, and the reporter going through a mid-life crisis follows and eventually hooks up with them in Kansas.
But it’s all about “thoughts” and “trying to connect.” No explosions, just a few rough scenes. Very, very hard to sell. Brilliant dialog they all said, but still …
When I compare that to my mindless easy-to-sell scripts like Hard Knox or Supertanker, or even the comedies Burnt! I see the difficulty of setting it up.
Suckerpunched is an example of half of the scripts that will maybe be winners in a competition. The good competitions like Scriptapalooza are teamed by other writers usually, so they recognize great writing. Some smaller ones are manned by agents or junior agents looking for a hit to champion through so they can be producers. I don’t want to mention the names of which contest is best, though, they all have a ton of reading and work to make their awards valuable and valid.
I have entered so many scripts in competitions I lost count. Every single one made the quarterfinals, and almost all made the semi-finals, and 6 or 7 made the top ten. I’ve tied for first (the competition would have all top ten be the “winner” since they came from variable genres) I’ve gotten Second Place with Suckerpunched, Second Place in a Television Pilot competition, placed in the top ten in ScriptPimp, placed one more time in the top ten in Scriptapalooza, another top ten for a tv Pilot in Scriptapalooza’s TV compeitition, then had about 5 scripts in the Finalists, and a few in Semi-Finals. I only had I think 3 not make it past the quarterfinals. Every script I ever entered made it past the first stage of elimination and I think only one didn’t make it to Quarterfinals. Oh, and one more was unusual, I won top ten in the Sundance Women In Film contest because I wrote it for a woman who came up with the story and shared credit on the script with me. It came down to three scripts to see which would get funded by Sundance, and we did not get picked. That one was called Girl On Fire, and was a comedy about a girl given a wish on her birthday that backfires (of course.)
From all these scripts, I got about a dozen meetings that led to valuable connections and sometimes work if they wanted to hire a screenwriter. But most of all, it proved that compared to other writers, I was consistently superior, and had many scripts worthy of production, whether they got picked up and made or not.
This is one of the hardest things for a writer to get proof of – “Do I have talent? Should I stick with it? Is my talent enough to beat the odds so that now I should focus on networking and luck?” These are key questions for all writers to get answered. Aside from making good money writing, which is the next step, then you need to be produced and your work respected by actors and the public (hopefully.)
But will a screenplay competition result in a sale? I think on average, the contests I track have 1-3 or 4 scripts bought by producers. Some producers hire the writers. So, there are some real winners. But the odds are 1 in 3,000 sometimes. Or one in 1,000.
The best benefit is that it gets you representation. ICM was on the fence with me, and I had had some odd times with an agent there before. But it never jelled. I should have pushed for it. You really can’t do much without an agent, and a big one at that. If you review the trades, about 50-100% of scripts sold in a month are sold by either CAA, ICM, WM, Endeavor, or Brillstein Grey. Because they can package. And, well, because in packaging all sorts of creative financing can go on, but that is another blog story. A big one that I might never tell openly. Some things you don’t need to or want to know about.
At any rate, I had won a lot of contests and have a few winner scripts I can always give as superior writing samples to new clients. That much I got out of contests.
As for Pitch Festivals … hmm, where do I begin?
There are several Pitch Festivals. My favorite is Screenwriters Expo. The least favorite is Fade In. In between there are several good smaller festivals like the Hollywood Pitch Fest.
Screenwriters Expo used to be a massive event. They have a very fair system on the computer for buying tickets. This last year they had some glitches. Attendance has fallen to 50% due to the economy. That effects how much they can pay their staff. An understaffed Pitch Fest usually runs behind in set up. But they still do a great job .
Fade In is the spawn of the magazine. They trumpet it all year long and get a great turn out. But … and this is a BIG BUTT (Pee Wee Herman) …
I am not a novice, and one of the very few, if not the only writer there, that has been produced, much less won awards for directing and writing. So suffice it to say I know what is acceptable behavior on the part of writers, and on the part of the runners of the show. I’ve seen this bitch yell down confused writers, single them out and punish them. I once had a run-in with her. The script that ended up winning Sundance Women in Film was shared credit by me and a female doctor named Joyce. A really wise doctor, who had written 3 big selling books and been on television several times. She also knew what was respectable behavior. We had a time slot for a company, I think it was Searchlight or some really great score.
The way pitch fests work is that you buy a 5 minute time slot. If you miss your time, you’re screwed, you lose out. In the case of Fade In’s Pitch Fest, you had to show up at about 5:30 a.m. to stand in line the first day to buy a good slot with a good company. We knew the drill and had our stub, which they take at the door as you walk in. When we came to the table, someone was ripping off our time slot. We were calm, and it was obviously the other guy in the wrong, but he was already seated and starting to raise his voice. So the producer said, “I don’t have anyone for the next time slot, it was supposed to be part of my break time, so why don’t you two (meaning me and Joyce) stand there at the wall and wait, and just sit down next round and pitch me?” Sounded like a plan. So with smiles on our faces, we backed up 10 feet and leaned against the wall. Well, this bitch came in and saw us. She attacked us without any facts, just with anger and power. “What the hell are you doing?” She said this loudly enough to draw all close attention. Which immediately makes the producers we will see later have a prejudice against us. So in a very polite way, I started saying, “Actually we are supposed to be sitting down right there but this other person took out time and the –“ “Get out! Right now! You missed your time.” Joyce, “The producer told us to stand here –“ “I don’t care what he said, and if you don’t leave now I’m going to throw you out of the festival.” Joyce – well I forgot what she said, but the conversation continued, and then the buzzer rang and the producer asked us to sit down. The rest of the event this bitch would fume at us and confront us. The whole ordeal was more complicated than I explain, she said a few choice things to us loudly enough to make us look like losers. The damage was done. Even the producer could not believe what he saw her do. We ended up getting traction from Sundance about that time and ran with that.
And then there is the rumor that Fade In was paying the people to attend, so that means they are there just for the money.
Overall, you will find that most people you pitch to don’t want to be there, and many will admit that they are not supposed to take on any one that pitches. So why do they do it? For good PR. For publicity. Because they want to be quoted as a champion for new writers. But when I talked to some of the people honestly, they later told me they were instructed to attend and immediately throw every script in the garbage. I am … well, I will just explain this way ….
After honing my pitching talents with the guidance of Freddie Fields, that year when I went in for my first pitch, it was about 9:45 the first morning. The Producer had a new Junior Producer trainee with him. I pitched, and on the last word he slammed his palm down on the table and exclaimed, “Now THAT is how you PITCH!” All the people looked over. I was a rock star for the day. And they did call me in for a meeting. There is a talent to pitching, a system, that makes it work. One day I might tell you all the system, but not now.
Most people in pitch festivals nod politely and say things like, “Wow, that’s something. You should make sure it is ready to be submitted to an agent.” Or, ‘Good pitch, we don’t do films in that genre or range but it shows promise.” But they are just trying to feed your ego and get you away with a smile and not a confrontation. They really find almost all pitches worthless. In part because the writers are too new or outside the loop to write something easy to set up, and in part because they do not know how to pitch. But overall, remember … they are here because they were forced to be here. Almost none of them want to listen to 7 hours, faking interest, in worthless stories.
I am one of the few that got great meetings with the likes of Radar, 3-Star, Rami, and a dozen other producers. It got me some screenwriter for hire connections, but no paychecks. And I really stood out, being maybe the only writer repped already.
When you go to Fade In, they are relentlessly trying to upsell you private lectures or software for writers. They make a killing off of you. Like I said, it is primarily a money making machine for them. Only one thing I would suggest you do. Attend the lecture on HOW TO PITCH. If you luck out, like I did, the talk will improve your skills at pitching dramatically. That is the only real given benefit you can get from the pitch festivals – improving your pitching.
A good pitch should tell enough in 3 minutes to get a second meeting. Time yourself. Can you cover it all. Can you go from Title to Genre to Period to Element of Irony to where we first meet out Lead Character Hero and then tell the story, set up the start to engage the listener, include one dazzling set piece, then wrap it up with a summary of one run-on sentence – and not raise one red flag about the production or idea?
If you can, you are ready to pitch!
I bring this talent with me when I someone ends up in a “hire a screenwriter” partnership with me. I pitch the script they share credit on to producers and agents. And so the Pitch Fests the best warm up for that moment.
I’d go to Fade In for the experience, but be ready for bumps in the road and roadblocks to your enjoyment and fruits.
Being a chef and the whole deal with catapult and ted
Making playing solitaire
THE MUSCLES FROM BRUSSELS
A year had passed since I wrote Blood, Sweat, and Gold (also temporarily titled Matto Gross for the reason of the mine – which is significant in this story.)
It was 8 at night, in March. A bit cold, but not freezing or wet. The phone rang. I answer and hear, “Is this Scott Morgan?” I say, “Yes.” I hear, “Scott Morgan that wrote Matto Grosso?” “Yes.” “This is Jeane Claude Van Damme.” Long pause. Me, “Rigggghht. Who is this, really?” Jeane Claude, “This is Jeane Claude Van Damme. I just read it, and it’s the best script I’ve ever read. I want you to write one for me like it set in Hong Kong.” Long pause. Me, “Right, who is this, really?” “It’s Jean Claude Van Damme. The Muscles from Brussels. I’m working on a night scene north of the city. Can you come out here? I want to hire you to write for me. A script set in Hong Kong.”
After some more dialog and his giving the phone to a P.A. to give me instruction, I believed him. I drove out into the middle of nowhere, some place in Valencia. They were filming some action scenes at night out there.
I was directed to his trailer. And there he was. Good natured. Pretty funny, really. We hit it off well.
And I loved his motivation. He said that Matto Grosso really captured the true feelings of the people in a region that are being exploited, yet did not slow down the action. His own words said that he owed the people of Asia, especially Hong Kong, a tribute, to thank them for being such great fans. And he wanted a script set in Hong Kong on the year of its return to China rule.. One that shows how the people there feel while he had an action story going on. He was ready to hire a screenwriter, me, and pay all expenses while over there, for over two weeks while I tracked down the real underground stories. I would be given a guide, and a nice hotel room. And $25,000 down. He would share the writing credit. None of the usual writers were willing to go underground into the darker areas of Hong Kong, and to me, that was a bonus, not a threat.
So I got a passport update, and flew there three days alter. Business class. Cathay Pacific. I was met at the airport by a man from Salon Pictures. They are a local production company in good standing with both the Hong Kong government and the Triad, which is mandatory. (You can’t really film there without getting the okay from the Triad, they will hold up production or your raw film at customs.) I do not remember his name. But I do remember that he took me to my hotel, then to a very expensive Asian massage spa. He said that this was the only way to get over jet lag in one night and wake up at 7 ready to go. It was 1 at night, but in US time it was only 10 in the morning. The flight was overnight. And 19 hours long.
Now to me, at 30 years old, I was not into Asian culture yet, and surely not one with a lot of massage experience. Especially a two person in one room massage. That’s right, this round guy was being massaged at his table only 8 feet away. Odd for me. But I will say that that was the best massage of my life – without the sex. Very skilled, trim young Chinese girl was working on me. He kept talking the first 30 minutes about location we would see. And he asked me what was important to me as a writer. Then about 35 minutes we rolled over and he got quieter by the minute. Which I liked, I was talked out. But then I started to hear grunts and realized he was being jerked off by the masseuse. My girl raised my towel and nodded, asking me with gestures if I wanted a happy ending. I shook my head “no.” He orgasmed, and then started talking again. Too odd for me, but I just ignored it. Surely the most unusual screenwriter for hire situation to date for me.
We got bathed by two other girls, and then he sent me to my room. The next day his assistants picked me up, and I began touring Hong Kong. It took two days of solid driving and pictures. Then we went to tour South China. In Hong Kong I went to the Walled City.
The Walled City was the brainchild of a city planner that wanted organized housing for all low-income people. They had built hundreds of these cubes of apartments, sort of like Lego’s. You could stack them. So they made a figure 8 out of them and started stacking up to I think about 11-14 stories. This was the center of the Triad prostitution, drug dealing, and crime. As I approached it, I noticed the sidewalk turning red. By one more final block it was all red, and this was due to being stained by blood. Nice, huh? We entered, and no one messed with us. But I could see why this was the headquarters of crime. It was impenetrable. The alleys were at times only 5-6 feet wide. There was so much done without permits that many apartments had no utilities. But in these walls, the crimes originated. They loved Jeane Claude so they let me and my guides pass in. They were dismantling it soon, and most tenants had been relocated. But still it had that evil feeling. Great location that we could use for the first time because it would be vacant and soon dismantled.
The other locations I wanted to use were The Bird Alley, a bar that had a pig as a bouncer named Dog that was trained to kick ass on command, and an opium den inside some alley in Kowloon. Very trippy. In China we went to a derelict shipping bone yard. What this means is that this is where they take tankers to dismantle them. There were stacks of metal like daggers going straight up in the air over stories that you would swear would tip over and kill everyone! It would be a domino effect. Then there was this great mall with a glass ceiling.
Then the second to last night, the Salon guy took me to this private call girl club, built under the city buildings. It was so big, that it had a Rolls Royce with an electric engine shuttling clients from one end to the other. It was staggeringly expensive. As they paraded Asian beauties past me, I would pick one and talk to her. It costs me about $115 for ten minutes of talk. Paid by Salon of course. I was asked if I wanted a girl, and did not know it was an insult to say no. What an idiot. I talked with about 30 people about what is going to go down when Asia talks over, and they told me some juicy underground stories, including how the top man got control and toppled years ago.
They flew me to Bangkok. I was in a smaller hotel for a day, and when I asked the bellhop if he would show me where to have fun, he said, “Thank you, but no sex with tourists.” He thought I wanted sex with him, and it was a good laugh. In Bangkok, that is where I found some of the true caged fighting arenas. We went into the country side. The best moment there was when I picked up a giant 20+ foot boa constrictor, not knowing how fast they move. The trainer’s eyes got huge, and they raced to save me. Idiot.
But I had my story by then. I flew home, and started writing. It was the story of an alcoholic newspaper reporter with all the dirt on the local political men, and how he tracks his wife as she is kidnapped for white slavery. All this amid a major drug score. I got a call from Jean Claude who was flying on a private jet to his next movie. He said he loved the script except for his ideas. Then we both found out the bad news. Warner Brothers said the writing was way over his talent as an actor. They needed the script dumbed down for him, and made into a chop suey film. They had to do a new script, and take my best scenes, which appear in The Quest. The earthmover scene, and the motorcycle ride, and a few other scenes ended up in the movie.
I must say this about Jeane Claude. He was a stand-up, caring guy. He knew his limits and wanted a chance to work on good dialog. He paid my way, he was really cool, and I to this day would love to work with him. I think he has grown a lot, and his recent semi-autobiographical movie got good reviews.
Now, I love Asia and have gone back many times. I plan to shoot some movies there next year.
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