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.
- PrimeTime: The Truth About Protecting Your Work
- Balls of Steel: Managing Expectations
- Query Letter Catastrophes
Tools to Protect Yourself: