NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Scam Artists Part 3 – “Producer’s Fees”

Manny Fonseca is a former Hollywood creative executive that gave up a life in perpetual development for a life in perpetual development as a Hollywood screenwriter and author. His first book, BURST!, Is currently looking for a publisher and his first script, Whittier, is in pre-production. Twitter: @mannyfonseca

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It’s been awhile! I’ll have updates next time, but for now, let’s finish up with what I started…

Scam Artists.

A couple of columns ago (you can catch up HERE), I ended the story at the after-party for a movie, with “top tier talent.” A movie Cheryl and my long time friend (and producer) Michele had invested in. The project was being produced by my friend, Jonn Jonzz.

As it turned out, the film was just God awful and all of us knew IMMEDIATELY that no one was ever going to see any of that money back.

I mentioned the fact that the premiere wasn’t just a premiere, but an introduction to Jonn Jonzz’s next project. The screenwriter, who we are calling She-Ra, of that script was in attendance with an actor friend of hers and I can’t tell you how awesome these two were.

They were both from Texas and just… There’s no other way to say it… They were amazing “down home people.” People you’d want to hang out with all day, every day.

At this point, all I knew was that Jonzz had “optioned” She-Ra’s script and, because I was doing script consulting at the time, asked me to sit down with her and work to get the script in better shape.

SCRIPT CONSULTING

I want to go off on a little bit of a tangent here and talk about script consulting. Yes, I did it. I was a script consultant. I can’t tell you how much I hated it. It literally made me feel dirty. Before I offend anyone who is a script consultant, many of which are friends of mine, let me explain my position…

First of all, why did I even do it in the first place?

The answer was simple: people were asking me to. Not a lot of people, but enough to consider it as a career move. Apparently not everyone hated my “blunt attitude” towards writers and wanted the harsh truth about their scripts. I’m not stupid, I saw an opportunity and wanted to try and capitalize on it.

Problem was, I had no idea what my self worth was, so actually charging people for my input made me violently ill. And that’s not being hyperbolic. I lost sleep over it. I can’t tell you the round and round that Cheryl and I went through trying to figure out how to make this “a thing.”

Why should anyone listen to me? I had no “ultimate secret” to getting your screenplay sold, so why should I charge for my opinion? Sure, I had a master’s degree in screenwriting. Yeah, I had taught screenwriting at a college level. Yes, I worked in development and yes I had been writing a column about screenwriting. BUT, I had never optioned or sold a script at this point.

Who the fuck was I? I had Woody Allen’s joke from Annie Hall on a loop in my brain:

“Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach gym. Everyone else taught at my school.”

I had built up in my mind that script consulting was the last bastion of those who are trying to be a part of an industry who clearly didn’t want any of their ideas. YES. Totally a dick thought. But that’s where my arrogant ass was (for the record, I no longer feel this way, but that’s for another column).

Even though I hated the idea, I decided to announce that “my services” were open to the public in one of my columns.

BIG MISTAKE

If Hollywood is a constant chess game, I sacrificed my queen with this move.

After I announced my services, Jonn Jonzz emailed me and told me that I couldn’t “announce such services” because it apparently upset a few of my fellow columnists in the newsletter. They reached out to Jonzz upset, because it seemed like, naively, I was encroaching on their turf and that wasn’t cool.

What made it worse, is that one such colleague posted on Facebook, a couple of days after I announced and before I had a single client, the following:

Yup. I was the bad guy and I felt like utter shit about it, so why the hell was I doing this?

Even though it wasn’t my thing, Jonn Jonzz sent me one client. She-Ra. I don’t know if it was out of guilt for telling me I couldn’t advertise my services or if he was just trying to throw me a paycheck. Looking back on it now, I’m fairly convinced that it was a ploy to keep me compliant.

Either way, I got involved WAY too deeply on a project that my opinionated ass shouldn’t have been involved in.

 THE STORY OF SHE-RA

A lunch meeting was set to get introduced to She-Ra. She asked if she could bring her producer… lets call him Light Hope. Yes, an actual character from the She-Ra universe.

Anyway, Hope, She-Ra and I met for lunch and had a discussion about what my services would cost and what I could offer. That’s when they told me their story…

Hope was a stellar producer. He was only, I think, maybe 21 at the time and had figured out a way to raise money for films, his method, as odd as this sounds, was to attach himself to dentists. Apparently dentists had a ton of disposable cash and they all wanted to be a part of the movie making business because it was way cooler to say they were a producer than to simply say they were a dentist.

So this “kid” (no disrespect attached) had the formula and would go to dentists and raise the funds needed for She-Ra to write and direct movies. They had been fairly successful in making little low-budget films in the $10K-$12K budget range. After a couple of… Let’s call them test runs… They were finally trusted with a bigger budget and had raised 50K to make a film based on this script She-Ra had written.

I had no other agenda, going into this meeting, than finding out what they needed, giving them a price and moving on to reading the script.

At first, that was all that was on their agenda, too. Then Light Hope started asking me questions. Good questions. Legit, “How Does Hollywood Work?” questions. And, not having any agenda other than answering their questions to the best of my ability, I gave them honest, blunt answers.

There was a moment at that lunch where things shifted. Light Hope and She-Ra shared a nervous look and clearly had an unspoken conversation with one another. That’s when they started sharing with me WHY they were in LA and what kind of deal with the devil they had made.

HOW PRODUCERS GET PAID

Producer’s have to get paid for their work. How they get paid comes through in what’s known as producer’s fees. Established producers (take Cobra Commander for example) usually have an upfront deal. They are established in the industry and people know they can bring a film in on time, under budget and make a substantial amount at the box office.

These producers typically have “pay or play” contracts. That means, they get their money, upfront, whether the film gets made or not. So Lorenzo di Bonaventura gets his millions whether or not Marky Mark “finds a Transformer” or not.

With a lower-budget flick, there’s not really money in the budget for a pay or play deal. Again, in theory, the producer is going to bust his ass on the flick with a standard, “This is what I get paid at the end of the day,” deal. After the film is made, and once it’s sold for distribution, he or she is one of the first ones to get paid from that money.

Makes sense right? There’s zero harm in all of this logic. It’s the way of Hollywood.

CUT TO:

I’m sitting at lunch with She-Ra and Hope and they tell me about the $50K they raised to make this movie. Having made a couple of films (student films but they still count!) and having Michele in my back pocket (as well as other contacts I had made at this point) we start talking about the logistics of the script. What do we already have to work with and what can we get for free?

After learning about Hope’s background with finding money, I wanted to unleash him onto everyone I knew. I set up a couple of lunches and wanted him to meet as many people as he could while in town. She-Ra and Hope rented a house and moved out here for a couple of months to help get this movie made because all signs pointed to YES.

Anyway, while we’re chatting about budget, I keep dropping the $50K dollar amount. “With $50K you can do this and you can do that…blah blah blah.”

After more than a few times of dropping that fact, She-Ra and Hope stopped me and said, actually it’s only $25,000.

“$25,000?”

Apparently, how all of this got started was She-Ra had met Jonzz at some convention. She heard him speak, wanted to introduce herself, did so and that was that. During this conversation, she mentioned the fact that her and her producing partner were about to dive into their next film with their highest budget yet. $50,000.

DING DING DING! She said the magic words. Money. We have it.

It was then that Jonzz told her that she should abandon their plans to shoot it back home and to come out to L.A. and make it there. He even had a director in mind. He then laid down the fact that this “director” had just finished making a low-budget film with “top tier talent” and dropped said talent’s names. You guessed it, the movie that would later become the shitty movie Michele and Cheryl invested in.

Completely getting sucked into the glitz and glamour of making a Hollywood movie, She-Ra agreed to abandon their production plans and move out to L.A. to make this movie. Even more powerful of an aphrodisiac, Jonzz said that “he would produce the movie, that it would be an award-winning film AND would guarantee sending it to Sundance.”

Those last two parts were in the contract they signed. I know. I saw it.

AAAAANNNNNDDD…

Jon Jonzz would make all of this happen for the low, low price of $25,000. His producer’s fee. To be paid. Up front.

“Whoa! Wait! Fuck that!”

All of a sudden, this situation made me feel super icky. I didn’t have the knowledge that I have now (thanks to working with Big Dick Barney) but something didn’t feel right about this situation, and I told them so.

What made it even worse was that Jonzz was telling Hope that this movie couldn’t be made for $25K and that he had to go back to his dentists and raise another $25K… Making the “budget” in total, $75,000. I was NOT okay with that and told them so. It was complete and utter bullshit. Clearly Jonzz was taking advantage of a situation which wasn’t surprising given some of the things he had told me throughout my years of knowing him.

Let’s put a pin in this for now and come back to it. Meanwhile…

SWEET MICHELE O’ MINE

I’ve always believed in “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It’s literally the backbone of Hollywood. With this in mind, I’m always in the mindset of making connections. When Jonzz came sniffing around for $13 grand, I dropped Michele’s name. Not only did I drop it, but I told him that this was a person he should know. She can get shit done, on budget, more so than any other human I had come across.

She was the definition of a producer.

While we were still waiting for post-production on Shitty Movie to finish, I arranged a meeting between Jonzz and Michele under the umbrella of “seriously, you guys need to work together.”

I was not present but from what I understand the meeting couldn’t have gone better. It also helped that Michele had just sunk $6,500 into Jonzz’s latest project.

Michele told me that Jonzz had proposed that she come aboard his latest project. A script she had acquired by a writer that he had met named She-Ra. He promised that he would mentor Michele, as a producer, and she would get full credit on the film as an executive producer, if she just paid the low low price of $25,000.

$25K. Sound Familiar?

Even though this was a man I trusted and owed a small part of my career to, I knew this didn’t sound right. Was he asking her to invest? Or was he charging her to be a mentor? Either way, it was a lot of money to hand over for what? To learn the same shit she already learned in film school with me?

There were many drinks had and many cigs smoked on the balcony of our apartment discussing what she should do. I told her the same thing that any sane person would, NOT to give him money to act as her mentor, BUT if she wanted to invest in the project itself, to do her due diligence and make sure it was a project worth being a part of.

I can’t exactly remember the timing of this.

I’m not entirely sure we had seen Shitty Movie yet. This meeting might have come right after she gave Jonzz the $6,500 and before the premiere. Obviously, had we known how Shitty Movie was going to turn out, there’s no way she would have given him a dime.

At the end of the day though, it was her money and she could spend it how she saw fit. Plus, it was a major promotion for her. Ultimately she told Jonzz that she didn’t feel comfortable giving him $25,000 and told him that she could do half. From what I understand, Jonzz got super pissed at her, chewed her ass out saying some ridiculous Hollywood shit like “wasting my time” etc., but ultimately agreed to take her $12,500.

This, among other things, should have been the first clue some shit smelled in Denmark. Also, it was then that Michele learned that she would essentially be helming this project herself. Oh yeah… that’s right…

JONZZ WASN’T GONNA DO SHIT

Even though Jonzz had sold this as a mentorship, what it actually turned out to be was that Jonzz needed someone to act as his “eyes and ears at meetings” as he had no plans to actually make an appearance at any of this shit. He wanted his $25,000, but was going to be 100% hands off. In fact, the only person he even planned on dealing with was Michele. No one else.

To throw in even more chaos… because She-Ra’s script wasn’t up to snuff, they decided to move ahead with a completely different script because they had all of the crew from Shitty Movie AND a couple of the other actors. Not the “top tier talent” mind you, but a couple of walk ons. So the plan was, while She-Ra and I worked on her script, the cast and crew, under Michele, would go off and make this OTHER movie, then circle back to She-Ra’s script after that.

Michele’s first job was to cut 10 pages from the script.

One night I asked to thumb through it, just to see what she was working on. It was SO poorly written, that they could have cut 10 pages from the script just by reformatting it and never cutting a single word and I told her as much.

I think Michele later conveyed this to Jonzz, along with a couple of her own notes and came off as a total genius in his mind.

To the best of my recollection, Michele had several meetings with the crew, none of which were attended by Jonzz nor were very productive. Several crew members were agitated about money (or lack thereof) as they hadn’t gotten paid yet and others had better shit to do.

THE DIRECTOR GETS SHUNNED

Shitty movie was such an epic failure that the director decided that he “needed some time off” and retired to somewhere in… Florida I think. It was only supposed to be for a week or so, but from what I recall, he was never heard from or seen again. He gave it a shot and the people had spoken. Believe it or not, Shitty movie won some film festival award. Not from any film festival you or I have ever heard of.

If I remember correctly, as funny as this is, it was for Best Director.

Still, he decided that directing movies wasn’t for him so he was out. That left Michele’s movie and She-Ra’s movie in limbo.

BACK TO SHE-RA

Her and I went back and forth for weeks talking about the script and getting it in decent shape. Eventually, she asked me if I just wanted to do a re-write on it. Being the control freak that I am (and not much a team player) I opted for “just let me do it” and I completely rewrote the script.

She loved it and passed it on to Jon Jonzz and the soon-to-be “star” of the movie, one of the OTHER actors from Shitty Movie.

He, uh… ahem… “had some notes” and decided to do a complete rewrite on his own because, obviously, he fancied himself quite the writer himself.

Spoiler alert: he made the script MUCH, much worse. While it was a comedy to a certain extent, it was really a drama about a man overcoming dealing with the loss of his family and taking over the family business.

The “actor” thought there needed to be “more farts” in it (TRUE STORY) and wanted a scene that involved “pie throwing.” (ALSO TRUE)

At that point, I was out. She-Ra came back to me and told me that the actor made some changes and asked me to do a rewrite of his rewrite to “clean it up.” I respectively declined, telling her that it was her project and that she had what it took to make this script sizzle. I was very supportive of her.

I don’t think she saw it that way and ultimately felt like I abandoned her.

THE FINAL DAYS OF JON JONZZ

As I mentioned earlier, at a certain point, it just didn’t look like She-Ra’s script was gonna fly. At least not with the timeline Jonzz had originally proposed. Because of this, She-Ra went back to Texas leaving Hope behind to continue to make connections and hopefully, usher the film forward.

They had rented a house in Venice and he was pretty much alone knowing no one in town. Cheryl and I did our best to try and keep him entertained. There were a solid number of weekends we spent showing him around, introducing him to friends and showing him the California lifestyle… which is code for eating and drinking on the beach.

At one point we even gave him a makeover.

New hairstyle and a while new wardrobe. We wanted him looking more like a producer and less like a kid from a small town in Texas.

One day, we had picked him up at the house and were on our way to Venice beach to take him to one of our favorite places… The Sidewalk Cafe. We were gonna grab dinner and drinks and people watch.

On our way, my phone DINGS, alerting me of a new email. I check it and find it’s an email blast from none other than Jonn Jonzz who had a “special offer and unique opportunity!”

Well shit! Let me waste no time opening THAT email.

Apparently, for the first time ever, Jonzz was gonna open up his email inbox to YOUR script. If you were looking for real feedback and an insider’s opinion* from a “REAL HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER,” here’s your chance! And the best part was…

It’ll only cost you $500 a pop! HO-LY SHIT! Whatta deal!

Oh, the * I added in there? That was to denote the fine print which stated that he would only READ your script, not actually comment on it. If it was good enough, he would pass it on to some of his “Hollywood Insiders.” None of which he mentioned and there were no promises that he would actually pass on your script to Hollywood Insiders.

So basically you were gonna pay 500 bucks just to have a guy read your script with the CHANCE you might entice him into helping you out. Maybe. If he felt like it. No guarantees.

What. The. Fuck?

Yeah, we had a few laughs over drinks that night at Jonzz’s expense. It really put a bad taste in Hope’s mouth and he was clearly getting the picture that they had hitched their wagon to a shitty horse.

FOOL ME ONCE…

The whole 500 bucks to read a script thing was… well, slightly embarrassing to most of us. At this point, Cheryl and I were knee-deep in our podcast and started having talks about leaving “that other newsletter” and breaking out on our own.

We had agreed that, as much as being a part of that newsletter had helped us, it was growing increasingly difficult to produce a podcast where we bitched about the exact practices that the newsletter was promoting. It’s hard to say publicly, “don’t fucking believe ANYONE who tells you they have the ONE secret to screenwriting,” when at the top Jonzz was telling everyone he had the “one secret.”

Another thing that concerned us was, as I’ve told you the and time again, this is a small town… people talk.

That being said, we found out or at least heard rumors, that Jonzz was taking this money and not even reading the script. He had “hired” an intern (intern = not paid) who was a bartender friend of his to comb through the scripts. IF there was one she liked, she gave it to him.

Jonzz told me on several occasions that he hardly ever read past page 10. That was all he needed to determine if it was a good script or a bad script. While I agree with this logic, if it’s a good script, I keep reading past page 10. He didn’t.

FOOL ME TWICE…

Our decision to bail from his crumbling empire couldn’t have been made more clearer a few months later when, again, he reached out to his audience to offer his reading services.

Still… for the low, low price of $500 a pop.

Apparently the first round was successful enough for him to do it again. I have no idea how successful, but given the amount of effort he put into this whole thing, even if he got ONE script, it would be worth his time.

What made this time so egregious, was how he presented it. He had met a new lady friend (that’s a whole OTHER story) and they decided to take a trip around the world. In his email blast, he told all of us screenwriters that in his travels “he’d have plenty of time to read.” He also included a factoid about reading “your script on the beaches of France.”

It was gross.

To Cheryl and I, as well as several others, it read as “funding my European vacation!” We weren’t cool with that and really couldn’t have our reputation brought down by him. After all, we were working on becoming legitimate screenwriters and couldn’t imagine some or future peers finding out we were ever associated with that kind of shit.

Plus, we had been asking for numbers on our podcast for months and neither Jonzz or his “business partner” would give them to us. Over brunch one day, Cheryl and I drafted our VERY professional email saying that we were leaving. We told him how thankful we were for all of his support and every opportunity he gave us. Said something to fact about “conflicting ideologies” and wished him all the best.

I wrote a farewell column. He never published it.

INTERNET TV SHOW

A few weeks later, he called me out of the blue. I think it was on Christmas or Christmas Eve. He had a harebrained scheme to get me back by pairing me up with another columnist… One who was just as outspoken as me… And do a Siskel and Ebert type review show. It was his theory that, given the fact that this other columnist and I clashed so much, it would make for good TV.

Once again I told him no. This time though, I didn’t give in. He claimed there would be money involved and I won’t lie, my interest peaked, but the more he talked about it the more he used words like “possibly,” “eventually,” and “maybe.”

Fuck that. I declined.

Even if there was money involved in any form, there was no way I wanted to be a part of that.

A few days later, that other columnist bailed too. After the loss of the two of us, and with his continued shifty business dealings… The newsletter slowly fizzled out.

Trust me when I say, most of the working professionals in the screenwriting community weren’t sorry to see it or him go. Which brings me to…

HOLLYWOOD AIN’T FOR EVERYONE – SHE-RA EDITION

As far as I know, her time in Hollywood was extremely short-lived. She returned home to her Texas home and continues to make small movies. I have no idea if Hope is still helping her out or not, but if he is, I know she’s in good hands. From what I understand, the script we worked on DID eventually get made although I have no idea if it was under Jonzz’s watch or not.

It did NOT get into Sundance.

I do know, that the best (and smartest) thing that came out of the whole ordeal was it got She-Ra into the WGA. So that’s something. Whether or not she’s still a member (as this was a couple of years ago) I have no idea.

I should also add this disclaimer: after I sent that email stepping away from the project, that pretty much ended contact between Cheryl and I and She-Ra and Hope. We never heard from them again. Clearly they weren’t happy, but you have to ride the horse you chose, right? That being said, most of these updates come from random Facebook posts through the years.

Cause after all, you may not talk to a person ever again, but you definitely don’t want to delete them from your Facebook page… Right?

HOLLYWOOD AIN’T FOR EVERYONE – MICHELE EDITION

Between the loss of money, the stress of trying to hold a project together for a guy that was checked out at best and the overwhelming loneliness of Michele being in a city she didn’t know with only me as a support system… Hollywood finally got to her.

We tried to help as much as possible. Cheryl often invited her down to Long Beach for lunches and drinks and dinners and whatever. I was working crazy hours for Cobra Commander and The Baronness, so I was hardly around during the week. Often, I wouldn’t even get him till 7:30-8 at night.

Then on the weekends, I would take off and go down to Long Beach to spend the weekend with Cheryl either working or recording podcasts or just hanging out.

This meant that Michele spent an awful amount of time alone. At a certain point, I think she even stopped leaving the apartment unless we invited her out. I encouraged her to explore or try to get an internship or a job.

She never did any of that.

I think she also underestimated just how much she’d miss being around her family. Which is funny because she couldn’t wait to get away from them, but I guess the grass is always greener.

Her angst and depression finally erupted a few months after she arrived. I won’t go into details but let’s just say it was fairly explosive. Enough to bring a 10-year long friendship to an end. I got a text while at work that she had hired movers and was leaving a week later.

We lived under the same roof for another 5 days without speaking to one another. She didn’t even tell me she left. I found out from Facebook when she checked in somewhere on the drive back to Michigan. That was the beginning of 2012. I wouldn’t talk to her again until the end of 2014 when she called me to tell me about some old bill collector was calling her looking for me.

She never reached out after Cheryl’s brain broke, but she knew it happened, thanks to Facebook.

We had a long talk and buried the hatchet, but we’re hardly friends any more. Now, we’re mostly cordial with one another on Facebook when we comment on each other’s posts every now and then. Sucks, cause I could of used her friendship throughout this whole ordeal with Cheryl.

On the brighter side of things, I got two new roommates to take her place. A husband and wife from Kentucky. She got her PhD in psychology and he is an improv actor. Let me tell you, after losing a long-time friend, nothing cures the sole better than living with a therapist and a comedian. They are truly great people and there was no shortage of laughs to be had when the improv team would hang out.

I can’t recommend it enough. Live with smart, funny people.

HOLLYWOOD AIN’T FOR EVERYONE – JONN JONZZ EDITION

Jonn ‘s exit from Hollywood was far less explosive. It was more like a slow walk into the desert of death. Eventually, you heard less and less from him. The “newsletter” just sort of died off. His email blasts became less and less. The phone calls and events just went away.

At first, I heard he was spending more time in New York with his new woman. A woman he once told me that he would, and I quote “do anything for that pussy.” I know. Gross. Side note: Literally the most “dude” thing that’s ever been said to me… And I spent time living in the O.C.!

Cheryl and I were off doing our own thing. It really didn’t matter if he was around or not. Only randomly, every few weeks we’d say, “What ever happened to John Jonzz?”

There would always be whispers. Most of it was just Hollywood gossip. I eventually found out he and the his lady got married. Remember… Small town.

Which started one of the greatest rumors I have ever heard…

For the sake of not getting sued, I won’t repeat what I heard (from multiple sources mind you, so it’s pretty verifiable) but let me just say “outlandish” would be an understatement. It was the scheme (con?) of a lifetime. Something you’d only see in the movies. From what I understand, he made several attempts to get it off the ground, but they all failed.

After that, he fell into obscurity.

Then, a couple of years later, I got an email from him in an email blast. Apparently I was still in his email chain.

It read…

I would love to meet as many good people as I can. I’m particularly interested in individuals in the Media space i.e. music bloggers, music  and/or health living/inspirational journalists, tv news and/or day/primetime talk show hosts and/or executives, music lawyers, music executives, music managers, music agents, and artists in the music business, music supervisors, film/tv executives, producers, agents, managers, talent, casting directors, ad executives, media creative directors, music placement execs, film/tv/commercial directors, social media experts, and chefs & mixologists.

I’ve decided to turn to you for help. Please let me know if you know someone awesome I should meet. Especially, if they are in the fields of interest. However, the most important quality is a positive person.

Sure. I’ll get right on that.

EPILOGUE

Every now and then, I’ll get an email pushing some charity event or some update on Join Jonzz’s lady. Maybe, JUST maybe, everything he’s doing is on the up and up. Given his past, I find it hard to believe.

As for Michele?

She’s back in Michigan. Working a good job in downtown. In a long-term relationship. Bought a house. Got a dog. One day, she can regale her kids and grandkids about how she once worked in the movies.

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