Behind the Lines with DR: Screwed

Just a few months ago I was guest-speaking to young screenwriters at an L.A. film school. It was a theater stuffed with young alert faces. The future of American cinema spread out before me, all ears, hanging on my every word. Why? Because for some reason, I’m supposed to have learned a thing or two after a couple of decades of show biz success and survival. I was there to pass along some wisdom. That said, somebody asked me about “leave behinds.”

Wait. Speak up. What’s that, you ask?

A “leave behind” is something a writer might give the buyer after a pitch meeting. Usually a blurb or some kind of outline that reflects what the writer just spent the past twenty minutes drilling into the producer or executive’s ear.
The student asking the question was concerned that ending the pitch by giving away something written down was an invitation for the recipient to steal.

“Look. It probably hurts more to hear this than for me to say it,” I said. “But if you’re going to have any success as a writer in this biz, you’re going to get ripped off. That’s just a fact.”

Judging by all the gob-smacked faces, I may as well have stood up, flapped my arms, and squawked my affection for anesthesia-free colonoscopies.

“I know. Getting stolen from is supposed to be a form of flattery,” I continued. “But that’s a buncha crap. It sucks. It’s never fun. But it happens all the time.”

Okay blogfans. Here’s a SPOILER ALERT: If you’re planning to make a splash in show biz but imagine that it’s populated by characters from the kinder parts of Mary Poppins, please turn back now, don’t read on, and politely exit while whistling the opening bars to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

To find success in the Land of Milk and Movies, writers must write, pitch, and sell. And if the writer is any good at his craft, there are wolves in sheeps’ clothing waiting to take a bite of your good work and sell it as their own. Like this one:
I was at lunch with a producer I’d come to know through one of my movies. Sometime between the entree and my third refill of Diet Coke, he began talking to me about an idea he had for a movie. Now, this “idea” was more like snippet of information about a special unit of cops serving in the NYPD. There were no characters and zero story. Just a thirty-second recitation of this particular cop detail and their dirty assignment.

Usually, I nod and say something like, “That’s a good start. Lemme simmer on it for awhile.”
Instead, during this particular slice of my day, I’d already grown bored with the lunch conversation and this guy’s nonstop tales of scamming sloppy supermodel seconds off his former boss’s conquests.

So keying off the producer’s faint description, I deftly spun a tale. Why? Because I’m a writer and that’s what I do. Making up stories has become second nature. In twenty minutes hence, I created two dynamic characters, three solid acts, and even a surprise ending.

Not that it’s always that easy. I’ll sometimes toil for years over half-assed ideas in search of a getaway car. And other times, stories arrive almost instantly like gifts from heaven, fully formed and barely in need of tweaking.

This was one of those days. From idea to characters to story to a perfectly pitchable movie before the check even arrived. The producer dropped his Platinum card, shook my hand goodbye, and promised to follow up with me the next day.

True to his word, the producer called me the following afternoon.

“So here’s what I did,” said the producer. “After our lunch yesterday, I drove over to Fox and sold that story I told you.”

“You what?” I asked, wondering if there was some kind of infection that had flooded my ear canals with crazy talk.

“Sold the story. Set it up as a development deal at Fox.”

“Without informing me?” I asked, incredulity raising my voice.

“No worries,” he said. “You’re on top of my list of writers for it.”

“Top of your list?” I’d quickly moved from incredulous to steaming. “Are you kidding me? I’m the only writer you can possibly do this with.”

“I believe you. And you’re obviously my first choice. But the studio’s gonna want to hear more than one take. That means a bunch of writers.”

“How dare you!” I shouted. “It’s my story! You had no right to sell it without me in the room!”

“Hey. It was my idea and I paid for lunch,” was all the asshole producer pretended he needed to say to settle the issue.

“And if I knew you were gonna f**k me over I woulda ordered more than the lousy Cobb salad.”

His logic was tortured and numbing. As if anyone with a willingness to flash an American Express card coupled with describing to a writer the distinctive features of a DeLorean awarded him the intellectual property rights to Back to the Future.

I was incensed then and, as I beat these words into a blog, I remain pretty peeved. But because I hadn’t had time to register the story with the WGA, I didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. The S.O.B. beat me to a defense by rushing from our lunch to the gilded gates of a movie studio with an open wallet. My only remedy was to gin my agent and lawyer into gang-calling the studio and, in all likelihood, the action would quickly devolve into such a who-came-up-with-what twist that the primary byproduct would be gallons of bad blood spilled between myself and the innocent movie studio. It was either that or lick my wounds, write off the unscrupulous bastard, and learn to keep my mouth shut.

It wasn’t first time I’d been stolen from. It wouldn’t be the last. Because the truth is that the job demands a certain measure of creative risk. These dangers must be accepted as potential job hazards. And no insurance policy or writers’ collective can totally insulate an ambitious word merchant from every cunning shark in the Show Biz Sea.

In the end, I probably could have fought my way into the studio and demanded my screenwriting services be attached the story. Yet something about beginning a movie project forged with an already malignant distrust for the producer made me too ill to put up a fight.

Smart businesses write off their mistakes, failed partnerships, and affronts of chicanery every damned day. Then they get up, dust themselves off, and move on to Plans B or C or whatever. Writers need to follow that example.

I have similar stories with happier endings that I will soon make blogworthy. But more often than not, stories about intellectual thievery usually end in more sting than bling.

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19 thoughts on “Behind the Lines with DR: Screwed

  1. Michael Eddy

    Jimmy – I followed the WGA guidelines for the above deal – I was a long term member at the time. Had a big agency that negotiated my writing deal – still got ripped off. I was the first writer of an original screenplay and still – was blocked from being part of an AUTOMATIC credit arbitration at the WGA (after the director and his producer partmer put in for writing credit) and went to the union for help. Not only got none – but ended up suing the studio that made the movie along with the union. Always nice to see your union – formed to protect the credits of their members – sitting at the defense table with reps from a major studio who purposefully left your writing credit off the film but amended the contract of another writer to give him his sole credit bonus even if he got a shared credit. this was some nasty shit – which is why I admonished people to do everything possible to protect their work – and still hold their breath.

  2. Jimmy O'Brien

    If you follow WGA guidelines for protecting your script (please go to their Website at http://www.wga.org)and you use an agent who is listed with the WGA (http://www.wga.org/agency/agencylist.aspx)you should have no problems.

    It is also an exquisite but not unexpected irony that a generation where there is an anti-copyright movement and millions upon millions of Americans think nothing about downloading a film or music album without a thought given to paying for it should complain about theft of their own intellectual property.

  3. Michael Eddy

    Wow – I’m actually shocked at all the venom floating Doug’s way in light of the fact that it was the producer who was the asshole. Frankly – I could care less about the legalities (or all those commenters who think a registration at the WGA will help – any more then having an agent or a signed contract – when a studio wants to hose a writer – they will do it – regardless of the consequences – because they have a battery of lawyers on retainer and dare you to take the time and money to sue them. And if you’re on firm footing and do it – they blacklist your ass for having the temerity to do so). Producers are a strange breed – some are classic intelligent resourceful one man shows who actually love movies and great stories and know how to stir the two together and make a deal. others – like this butt wipe that Doug dealt with – are con men and ripoff artists and guys with the IQ of cinderblock who think for the price of a lunch – they can dip a bucket into your creative well and sell whatever comes out – with or without you. I’ve had a producer bring me into his office (based on his love for a spec I had written) for a meeting set up by my agent – and “pitch” me a movie – which was not a movie – not a concept – just a title. The title actually triggered an idea for me and I pitched him back on the spot – got the job – and was hired to write it. And paid for my work. But this guy was an indie with a housekeeping deal at a studio and paid me out of his own pocket. I’ve also had a “producer” – doubling as a “friend” – who was encouraging me to write a new spec – and listened to a half baked idea I had that I hadn’t started writing on spec yet because I wasn’t ready and hadn’t thought it all out – who then went to a separate meeting of his own to pitch an indie production studio – and when they told him what they were looking for – he decides to pitch them MY idea (he never called me first to get permission – because it was the heat of the moment and he told me “that’s how I roll”) as something I was “writing for him”. they repsponded positively – he calls me and tells me all he needs is a 12-15 page outline. I agree. write it – 17 pages. He gives me notes. I rewrite the outline. More notes. It’s up to 27 pages – and according to the would be producer – “more detailed then anything he’s seen and more then he’d normally give anyone without money changing hands” – but he submits it to the company. they pass. they love it – but out of their price range – budget-wise, even thought it’s exactly what they wanted. Coincidentally – since this is Doug Richardson who got the ball rolling on this – they wanted “something like Die Hard”. So with the encouragement of the producer – who says it’s a small step to go from my detailed outline to a first draft – and then he’ll have his agents run with it as a spec – I write it. Again – notes galore. I do about 6 drafts. At one point – asking the producer (who is signatory to the WGA BTW) if I can get paid – even a token payment well below my “quote”. I tell him I’d take WGA minimum for a one hour primetime TV episode – enough to get my health insurance for a year (which was an issue at the time). He tells me if he could “afford” to do that – he would have already offered. This from a guy who had just sold his 2nd home in Carmel and casually dropped the fact that he and his own writing partner had taken a “small” rewrite job themselves that only paid them $750,000. Upshot – I do all the drafts gratis – his agents run with it (I was sans agent at the time) – get great reads all over town – including from Fox – the franchisee on the “Die Hard” series – where a VP of production calls the producer and says, “Man – this could be Die Hard 5”. He calls me and tells me the same and in 30 seconds over the phone – I tell the producer how I could rewrite the script and make it Die Hard – using elements/characters from the previous 4 – including one that hadn’t been used since the original and fit perfectly into my scenario and made for a great emotional understory for the John McLane character. In addition – I had read that Willis was chomping at the bit to fo a 5th – and wanted it to be “international” – which my origin story already was. the producer called the VP and relayed the idea – and then…nothing. He wouldn’t take a meeting. Wouldn’t take a phone/conference call. Wouldn’t respond to the agents (at a very high powered agency). To give the “producer” his due – he did pester his agents to do something – but A). the WGA strike was looming and B). they didn’t rep me – although I would have been happy to sign with them had they asked and they got mad at their own client and told him to back off. the payoff is – Die Hard 5 was made – itcomes out in February – Willis got his wish, It is set in Russia. And from what I’ve been able to glean – it uses very similar villains to mine and absolutley incorporated the dormant element from the original Die Hard that I had pitched. Am I pursuing matters legally? No. I’ll buy my ticket and go see the movie and probably like it. I’ve been down the legal road before. No picnic. I wrote an original screenplay that was produced with a major star and grossed close to half a BILLION dollars worldwide – and the studio – in cahoots with the director/producer – managed to not only leave my name off the credits – but partner with the WGA AGAINST the first writer and screw me over 4 and 1/2 years. Since then – I’ve been recommended for jobs I am perfect for – and can’t even get a meeting. Agents have loved my work and then passed on signing me as a client because of some bizarre excuse – one even saying they didn’t want to “take the time and energy to resurrect” my career. I got screwed. I was robbed of my credit. I fought back. And I’m the one who needs resurrection. So I am clearly on Doug’s side in this. He got screwed. Short of hiring some Hell’s Angels to cross paths with the thieving producer – I’m not sure I’d do anything other then what he’s done. But for those who throw him e-mail beatings because he’s successful and smart and should have known better – trust me – you can do everything by the book – and cover your ass at every angle of the compass – and some nefarious shithole with the brains of a pissant will nail you anyway. My advice – wear kevlar to the meetings – tell them you’ll “ponder it all” – go home – get it on paper – register it with the Guild – tell it to your agent – and don’t give them a crumb until the deal memo is signed. Go through channels every step of the way to the guys at the studios who green light and sign the checks. Cut out every middle man possible. You may lose out on some gigs – but you won’t have your work stolen. Maybe.

  4. Richard H Rees

    Neil’s comment, at 12.34, infers that Hitchcock might have stolen the idea for “The Birds”? The film was an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same title, set in Cornwall, England.

  5. Jimmy O'Brien

    To me, the real story outlining the dynamic of the intrigue of the war for possession of one’s own work is prosaically described in Mr. Richardson’s bio: his day job, scriptwriting, is the meat-and-potatoes which covers the rent for what pays the long-term dividends which are his novels.

    Just like a mall job, scriptwriting is where all the players get screwed even including the mall owner but somehow everyone lives to fight another day. You trade off a bit of what is your precious life’s creativity for the continued strength to do what you want to do with your quality time crafting works of long-term value and referee’d enforceable residual payments.

    That instantaneous media pays anything is a product of continuous warfare starting with a young and guilt-ridden Mr. Mankiewicz donating $1,000 to the starving members of Writers Club in the 1930’s out of pity and his personal integrity as a good man. That grew into the Writers Guild of America and also the HUAC massacre of the innocents. Dorothy Parker is the Achilles of that Iliad.

    Writing novels is a different story. Its wars for possession were fought and won long before cinema was even an idea. Silly, celibate George Bernard Shaw was the one-man army which made writing print literature a paying livelihood. The probity and spirit he forged for that industry persists today. If Hollywood were structured in the manner the publishing industry is there would be no more than three feature films made per year.

    Hollywood is the Candy Factory. If you want to work for Sardi’s or Four Seasons, write books.

  6. Julie H

    Great writers are great people who DON’T steal, but have enough brains, heart, intelligence, and creativity to write their own great work! The writers who DO steal will, sooner or later, have their deeds come back to bite them.

  7. Steve Singer

    You breached a legal doctrine: “ideas are as free as the wind”. You can’t control their dissemination after releasing ideas. You can’t copyright or register verbally expressed ideas — only fixed-forms (script, video, etc). In theory, you can register spontaneous verbal expression — such as a live performances (singing). But as these are usually distinct events, and the people performing usually work from outlines or music scores or scripts, its the performance, outlines or scripts that are protected.

    All you really did was throw out several possible scenarios in a private setting. He did what most producers do: ran with it. In Hollywood “everyone is a producer”. Or, as a famous producer once remarked, deadpan: “writers write and producers produce”. It sounds obvious, but the implications are profound. He pitched it as his own property. Producers buy and sell properties; how “Da Biz” works under the hood. If he disclosed that he didn’t actually own the property he was pitching just how far would he get?

    Out of every thousand pitches a handful get optioned (what he probably got). Out of every hundred options ninety-five don’t go anywhere. The challenge is to develop the property beyond the second or third rungs of the ladder; a crap-shoot under the best of circumstances.

    Your mistake? Failing to take all this into account — something that I find inexplicable given your experience. You’re like Gen. Custer at the Little Big Horn: whatever else might be true you should have known better.

    Always anchor your political position before airing ideas. Any meeting with production is, by definition, a business meeting. You both arrive to do business. So do business! Why didn’t you conduct yourself in a businesslike fashion.

    You failed to preface your disclosures with, “I can help you score a development deal but what’s in it for me?” The ball is firmly in his court from that moment on. He either fishes or cuts bait. He either pitches a development deal to you then-&-there or he fades; plays you for a fool; plays around. If he’s serious, before you say two words you call your agent and attorney so they can coordinate with his agent and attorney. If he becomes diffident and evasive you know everything you need to know: he’s fishing. You, being a clever fish, evade his net.

    The real stealing happens later, after the deal is done. The producer or producing entity reneges on one or more of the deal’s provisions. Or studio executives surreptitiously clone a competing project and set it up across town (for a fee, or an ownership piece). As for studio accounting … don’t get me started.

    The solution, I think, is found in creating a quality product like “The Simpsons”, something so distinctive and successful that, as a practical matter, it’s impossible to clone or steal. And it’s too dangerous for any executives or D-staff to offend its creators. Trite cheap derivative crap gets stolen. Paddy Chayevsky’s “Marty” or “The Hospital” didn’t get stolen.

  8. Tieuel Legacy! in Motion

    I agree that you have to trust someone especially as a new writer and director. But writers, and bloggers, should leverage themselves when you have solid products to sell or create. Going that far into a GOOD story without an agreement is asking for a dispute. I can see basic premises being discussed instead.

    Registration with the WGA or copyrighting are accepted practices but they aren’t perfect either. The guild nor the government will argue whether your ideas are really YOUR ideas. They are timestamps. Now in the days of email, you could also consider sending your story to yourself much like the poor man’s copyright of snailmail. Email pieces of your story to yourself as your think of them. They don’t argue that your work is original over someone else’s. Once the litigation comes, they provide what you uploaded to their systems along with the timestamp. The courts are still left to decide whether someone else has beaten you to the punch with particular story rights.

    Technically, Doug could’ve registered the story idea right after the producer mentioned that he sold it. My guess is that the producer hadn’t registered a treatment or an incomplete script before he pitched it. They definitely hadn’t had time to develop it or create re-writes. If that’s true, Doug would’ve had a registration number or documentation once the product came to fruition and he would’ve been in a good position to recoup some of that money, at least with “story by” cred. That’s about 30 minutes worth of work that could turn into thousands. Tieuel Legacy! in Motion

  9. Gary Gray

    I am an” Idea Generator” not a writer or producer or …….
    I have been successful because I learned that being well-versed in the financial side, was the way I got my baby to college!
    I have had very few things ash-canned because I cover my ass on both sides.
    Why would you enter a contest, or submit a script where you had to give up all
    your rights. Somebody just kidnapped your baby – and you agreed to it.
    I don’t submit. And if someone tries to hi-jack it in a meeting I can tell really early and
    get the hell out of the room.
    Hey you are “IN THE BUSINESS OF MOVIE MAKING!”
    It’s just as bad being a painter and working with galleries. It’s the way of the world.
    A legendary head of a studio (Mayer or Cohen?) used to lay on a couch and say:
    “You got five minutes. Tell me the movie.”

  10. NoniB4

    the story made me nauseated; darned near had a flashback to the mid-80s when I found my two young readers books in print (under another individual’s name). It was not a fun experience and I was too stunned to think to either purchase the books and pursue the issue or even to remember the name of the thief. (Yes, I know there are loads of books with similar ideas floating about; however, I quoted the liens on the next page before looking and they were, god’s honest truth, verbatim what I’d written, right down to the colors and finest detail in location descriptions. so I spent several years so upset, bitter, and paranoid that I never let anyone see any of my work. My stolen manuscripts (yeah, I literally lost them during a move from one apartment to another) both won literary prizes. I’ve considered tracing down the crook/s but have no legal leg to stand on as the original scripts (handwritten at that) were no longer in my hands and I had not registered them. Now what I write is immediately registered with WGA-W and US Copyright Office. I re-register any work that is altered to any extent in a rewrite. And my writing/business partner and I are producing our own scripts…all because we don’t want the stories messed with more than we, ourselves, are in control of. Yes, we will collaborate with others on the films, but I have not interest in selling my work to anyone else at this point. That day may come but it’s way out there on the horizon.

  11. DebbieJscreenwriting

    I agree. Producers wonder why screenwriters are wary and your experience is the reason. It happens all the time and there doesn’t seem to be any protection beyond moving on and hoping your writing is better than the skunk who stole the idea.

    Do artists have this problem when they hang pictures on the wall at an exhibition? The only correlation I can think of is actors being ripped off for appearance money by lookalikes. You can copyright everything but you can’t allow the passion in the script to overflow into your professional persona because that would pollute a relationship insisted upon by producers. When will they learn that writers only want to write?

  12. Liz

    I’m a writer and producer and I guess I’d say don’t do anyone the favor of developing their idea for them without an agreement in place. This producer is a user, obviously. Guard your ideas, register and copyright your work, retain an attorney, use your head and trust your intuition.

  13. Neil

    Actually, I recently read a story about Alfred Hitchcock and The Birds. I have no idea if it is true or not, but it was used to elucidate the complexity of story credit. And, based on that, I actually think that even if you were to have recorded your pitch with that producer and had concrete evidence of your developing the idea that he pitched – the copyright would have rested in the producer’s hands. This is because he germinated the idea, and you riffed on it. A producer is not required to credit everyone who helps him/her develop a story, and in most cases writers who made significant leaps in developing stories aren’t credited. Now, if you had called him in to the meeting, and pitched him your germ of an idea, and then he left the meeting and went to Fox to sell it. Then you’d have a leg to stand on. Otherwise, as much as it sucks – c’est la vie. I’m not a producer. I’m a writer.

  14. Melissa Webster

    Personally, I think great writers come up with their own ideas and don’t need to steal. Stealing work and ideas from others, or even borrowing, only denotes a complete lack of originality and talent, and eventually catches up with the thief. So that quote you include needs to be changed to “Great writers get stolen from.”

    And accepting this practice as if it’s no big deal only encourages it, and that disgusts me.

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