“How well do I know Sam?” I asked the Prez of King Kong Entertainment.
“Have you worked with him before?” asked the Prez.
I tried to answer succinctly, catching him up on my relationship with my partners on the project: Mikey the actor, the super cool D-Guy for that popular TV actress, and producer Sam-I’m-the-Man, who was the genesis of the TV show we’d just pitched him.
“Aside from what I told you and our copious meetings, all I know is that he created that one TV show,” I clarified.
“A show on which he is no longer producing,” corrected the King Kong Prez.
“Says he’s still consulting.”
“That sounds right.”
The small but telling spaces interspersing themselves throughout the next few exchanges of dialogue spoke mega-volumes.
“You’re being polite,” I said.
“Always,” said the King Kong Prez who, if he has a personality flaw, is that he’s the paragon of politeness in a business fueled on crass, behind-every-back, passive-aggressive prickishness.
“I take it you are implying that Mr. Sam-I’m-the-Man has a reputation for not playing well with others,” I said.
“Like I said before,” repeated the King Kong Prez, “We love you. We love the pitch. We’d love to produce the show with you. But King Kong, he’s got a thing about non-writing producers. And Sam-I’m-the-Man’s reputation is going to be a hindrance moving forward at both studios and networks.”
“So without him…”
“With him it’s a pass, unless you can figure out how to get him to accept that co-created by credit, leave it at that, and let us go make the show.”
Yeah. Like that was gonna happen. I knew it. King Kong knew it. It was time for me to reexamine the business plan. But first I had to make a few calls around town to confirm what the King Kong company had inferred – that Sam-I’m-the-Man had a history of behaving not-so-nicely in the schoolyard. And imagine how hard it is to get that kind of stain on you in a business plagued with bad behavior.
Rumor or truth, it pinged back so positively I had to inform my other partners of my conundrum.
“Think this is where we step out,” said the Super Cool D-Guy.
“Wherever your conscience leads you,” said Mikey, who hadn’t a clue about Sam-I’m-the-Man’s lousy rep. He was honestly embarrassed for serving me up as the writer. “Really, really sorry I wasted your time.”
“Don’t,” I insisted. “Best we learned this now instead of way down the road.”
Even though Mikey had been the one to draw me in, I still took it upon myself to break the bad news to Sam-I’m-the-Man that I was going to remove myself from the project. I phoned him from my home office and kindly explained that I felt there were too many obstacles for success with the pitch. He argued. I listened. He argued some more. Somewhere along the way, I explained the difficulty I’d discovered starting off with so many non-writing producers.
“What do you mean non-writing producers?” Sam-I’m-the-Man fought.
“You’re a non-writing producer,” I said. “So is Mikey. So is D-Guy and his actress boss who won’t even be in the show.”
“So what?” he asked.
“I apologize for not recognizing this going in,” I explained. “It’s not so much a problem in pictures. But I’m discovering it’s a bigger problem in TV.”
“So because I’m a non-writing producer…”
“Let’s be accurate,” I finally cut to the chase. “A non-writing producer is a non-producing producer.”
“You’re saying that I have no value as a producer?”
“No,” I said. “But you’ve said going in that you don’t want to be exclusive to the show. That’s a commitment I’m making because as a writer-producer I have to. You want to come and go as you please.”
“Because this isn’t the only idea I have.”
“I’m not just a guy with an idea,” he said. “I have a track record of creating big hit shows!”
“You don’t have a track record,” I retorted.
“The hell I don’t!” insisted Sam-I’m-the-Man. This was when I described to him the difference between a single point of reference and an actual track record.
Let’s just say, it didn’t go over well.
It was shortly thereafter that Sam-I’m-the-Man hung up. The call hadn’t ended as I’d wished. In fact it had gone far beyond the basic acrimony than I’d anticipated. It wasn’t the first never-got-out-of-the-gate project I had to put in my rear view mirror. Nor was it the last. I had other things to focus on. Work. Family. My golf swing.
Oh. And my mom was dying.
I’d almost become used to those urgent road trips to northern California. On one particular drop-every-thing-and-hit-the-road afternoon, Sam-I’m-the-Man dialed my mobile. Curious – or simply needing the distraction – I mistakenly answered. After a few minutes of listening to his lackluster mea culpas and claims to cling to no-hard-feelings, Sam dropped his reason for the sudden communiqué.
“I really believe in my idea,” he said, referring to our ill-fated pitch. “I just wanted you to know that I intend to find another writer.”
“Be my guest,” I encouraged. “Just be careful not to include any of the characters, story, or plotting I created.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” he asked after an indignant moment where I could practically hear him sucking air.
“Very carefully,” I suggested.
“But it was my idea,” he said. “I own it.”
“You own what you brought to the party,” I clarified. “But after that was a couple of months of meetings, development, characters and structure and story which I invented, not to mention the pilot pitch itself. All of which are documented in emails and outlines.”
“Right, right,” he said. “But still you realize it was mine at the very beginning.”
“I’m not arguing that,” I said before carefully chronicling for him the chain of events that had led to this very phone call. What he’d had before he convinced Mikey to engage me was his and his alone. What developed after belonged to me and anybody else in the meetings.
If Sam-I’m-the-Man were to move forward on the project, he would be doing so at his own peril.
“That’s not what the first writers claimed.” Sam-I’m-the-Man explained in a fluster.
“What first writers?” I asked, wondering if I’d heard him correctly.
“The original writers,” he said. “I hired them to turn my idea into a pilot story.”
“There were other writers involved before you came to me?”
“And they developed a pilot story?”
“An outline. But yeah. I paid them with my money so they don’t have any rights to it.”
I paused. Summoned a deep, cleansing lung-load of central valley 02.
“They wrote something,” I said. “Documented? It’s on paper?”
“And I own it. They signed away their rights. I have that on paper too.”
“I have an issue with that. As well, I believe, will The Writers Guild.”
“Why The Guild? These guys were just baby writers. They’re not WGA members.”
“Doesn’t matter. They are writers and they have rights. Where The Guild comes in is that they don’t like writers of any kind signing their rights away to producers.”
“So? Doesn’t matter. They signed anyway.”
“And you never thought to tell me there had been previous work done on this idea of yours. Not me, not Mikey?”
“Why would I?” asked Sam-I’m-the-Man. “I own it. It’s mine.”
“You’ve said that,” I reminded.
Strange, but I recall the precise spot on Interstate 99 where this conversation took place. A massive grove of sky-tickling eucalyptus trees flanked the highway. I decided that was a proper spot to conclude the conversation, warning the one-hit-wonder that should he proceed with any of the documented work I’d generated he would be hearing from my attorneys. End of discussion.
But not quite.
Fast forward to a year hence. And I swear what I’m about to write is the chilling truth.
I was returning from one of my many annual drives up north to visit my family since my mom had passed on. And it was while driving through that exact same grove of mid-valley eucalyptus that my cell phone buzzed. I didn’t recognize the number, so I mindlessly answered. It was – you guessed it-Sam-I’m-the-Man. We hadn’t spoken since our last jaw-dropping conversation. He cut right to the chase, explaining that he still believed in his grand idea – with my contributions, of course — and wanted to know what it would take for me to unbuckle it and let him run wild with it.
I didn’t really need to think long. It was a stymied project. I couldn’t develop it without him. Nor him me. Not without some lousy, legal shenanigans. So I decided to put the lot of it behind me forever.
“Sure,” I said. “I can be convinced.”
“Great,” he said. “What do I need to do?”
“Write me a check,” I said.
“You want me to pay you?” He was once again employing that oft used indignant tone.
“You paid those first writers,” I said. “Pay me. It’s not like you don’t have the money. You’re the producer of a big hit TV show.”
Sam-I’m-the-Man didn’t pause for very long.
“How much?” he asked.
I guess you could say I had him right where I wanted him.
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