NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Scam Artists Part 2 – Welcome to Being a “Producer”

After years as a development executive, Manny Fonseca is now on the other side of the table as a full-time writer and Podcaster. Now living the life of a writer, Manny is navigating a whole different side of Hollywood. You can follow him on Twitter: @mannyfonseca

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I want to start this column by elaborating on the term “scam artists.” The term obviously comes with a negative connotation, but also can infer “illegal practices.” In reality, while these “scams” are super shady, they’re pretty much legal in the sense that you’ll never see your money again.

Sadly, these kind of “scams” have been going for eons in Hollywood. If you don’t believe me, watch the third episode of the new season of Fargo. In the episode, a writer ends up handing over thousands and thousands of dollars to a “producer” who essentially robs him blind by lying to him about his project. The project is in a continuous state of “in development” and needs money to keep going.

When you're starting out in Hollywood you have to learn the ropes quick. Sometimes, it's the people you trust that turns out to be a "scam artist."

Sound familiar?

Since there are no real legal ramifications for these people, the best we can do is spread the word and hope that either enough people speak up or that these “scam artists” fuck up SO badly that they’re figuratively run out of the business.

This story involves the latter of those two scenarios.

Last time, I told you about a “studio” who uses its writers to fund shitty projects and to sign more writers to keep the cycle going.

This week, I’ll tell you how “we” got involved in a similar situation by someone we thought was our friend.

Unfortunately, “friends” is a loose term in Hollywood.

For the record, with the exception of a couple of people in the inner circle, I’ve never told this story. Mostly out of embarrassment of how green I was back then. I should have known better and in the end, I take the blame for my friends losing thousands of dollars.

I should also add, that due to this story (and the one that follows it) long time friendships were lost. But I’ll get to that part later. Now, let’s go back to…

THE BEGINNING

I’ve talked about Jonn Jonzz before. I met Jonn in Austin at the Austin Screenwriting Festival. I ended up sitting next to him at a dinner, and we became fast friends. As it turned out, he was a producer with a little bit of street cred.

And by street cred, I mean IMDb credits. Credits attached to legitimate movies that more than a few of you have probably seen. I ended up partying with Jonzz well into the morning. We hung out for the duration of the festival and kept in touch with one another afterwards.

Eventually, based on his suggestion, I came out to Hollywood to do an internship. One was with Cobra Commander (which I got myself) the other one was with Winkler Films which Jonzz got me.

Jonn was also the one that got me started in the pitchfest scene.

You can read about that story HERE.

After I moved to Hollywood permanently, I started to hang out with Jonzz because he only lived a few minutes from me. One bright, sunny Saturday, we were at a swanky bar in WEHO and he asked me about what I thought about pitchfests.

What followed was a 20 minute “fuck-laden” rant about how stupid writers were and how they have no basic marketing skills. It was pretty comedic and there was no shortage of chuckling on his part.

At one point, he had a look in his eye. It was obvious that the wheels were turning and when I finished my rant, he offered me a column in his newsletter.

Without missing a beat, I said no.

I hope, that someday, all of you can can find a level of success where you can see the face of someone in Hollywood who offers you an opportunity and hears the word “no.”

It’s exquisite.

Anyway, after he got over his initial offense, he asked me why. This was my response verbatim:

“Dude, I say fuck ALOT. Like a lot ALOT. And I wouldn’t be able to censor myself when talking about this shit. It would so bring down the quality of your newsletter.”

You know. Much like I’ve done to the credibility of Script Magazine.

He talked me into it In one breath:

“Yes, but it’s THAT voice that’s unique. Don’t censor yourself. I want that voice and hopefully others will read it and want that voice too.”

Thus, “Detroit Manny” was born. Much to the chagrin of many readers and a couple of my fellow columnists.

Detroit at Night.

I remember having brunch with Jonn well into the run of the column…maybe a year or so later. I was pretty depressed about the sheer number of people that hated me. Readers AND colleagues.

Jonzz blew it off:

“Dude. Don’t worry about it. Let me tell you something. People who love you? Read your column religiously EVERY week. Those that fucking hate you? They read your column several times because they’re looking for a way to prove you wrong.”

Clearly we were getting the clicks. And by “we,” I meant him.

Still, I was a naive noob to the industry and he had street cred. So I bought into it hook, line and sinker.

AND THEN I MET CHERYL

During all of this, I met Cheryl and her and I became joined at the hip. Jonzz loved her… I mean, who wouldn’t? She was a tour de force when it came to events and everywhere we went I didn’t have to work hard to network. Like my publicist, she would go mingle with people and then bring them back to wherever I was. Every time she came back, she brought SOMEONE in the industry and always started with “Manny, ya gotta meet…”

Script EXTRA: Online and Offline Networking Tips

Funny story: So in one of his early hair-brained schemes, Jonn started this “Dinner Tour.” The premise was simple: new restaurant every time where he brings in a renowned chef to prepare a menu. It would be a flat fee and the price of admission would get you food, booze, music and hopefully contacts.

He had a partner, a friend of his (who he later screwed over) and they only had one event. Cheryl and I were there. At the end of the night, after most had left and the inner circle of Jonzz were left, Cheryl… ever the lovable dick that she is, told the chef everything he did wrong with his menu.

The balls!

It didn’t take long before Cheryl and I became regulars in Jonn’s inner circle. We hung out at his house, tolerated the *AHEM* mean fucking woman he was dating and even went to Disneyland with them.

SIDENOTE: If you EVER have the chance to do Disney with a group of wild friends… do it. No matter how much it costs. Especially if they’re all drinkers. Disneyland is wine and beer only, but Cheryl and I found a fabric flask that could get past the metal detectors. So we snuck in Seagrams and had 7 and 7’s all night. It was the most fun I’ve ever had at an amusement park.

Moral of the story… get yourself a Cheryl.

THE PODCAST

After writing 99 columns, I decided I would do a podcast to celebrate 100. I had always wanted to do one, but knew I couldn’t do it myself. Naturally, I asked Cheryl to be my co-host.

Podcastin’ Cheryl!

What was supposed to be a one off, became a legit, weekly show. A show that replaced the column.

While we were our own entity, meaning we were in iTunes, on Sticher and had our own site, we were still submitting the podcast to Jonzz to be included in his newsletter.

While I could follow our analytics via our website, we never had any idea how many people were truly listening to us because they would never share the numbers with us no matter how many times we asked.

There were a couple possibilities why. A) they didn’t want us to find out how few people were actually listening to us through their newsletter, or B) they didn’t want us to know how MANY people were listening to us because of them.

Either way, it was all super shady as to why they wouldn’t tell us.

We assumed it was scenario A.

POST PRODUCTION

One of the benefits of working for Cobra Commander was Oscar season. We got all the screeners and everyone I knew, knew I had them. Without admitting to any federal crimes, lets just say that inner circle screener sharing runs rampant in Hollywood.

Okay, moving on…

So one night, Jonn Jonzz comes over to my apartment to get loaded up on the latest screeners. While I’m hooking him up, he starts pitching me. Apparently, he’s in the process of finishing a movie but has come up short on the post production costs. He needs $13,000 to finish.

At first, I thought he was asking me for the money, then I thought he wanted me to hook him up with Cobra Commander. As it turned out, he really wanted me to sell Cheryl on the deal.

Yes, back then, Cheryl had a little bit of money and Jonzz knew it.

I stopped him immediately and told him that, if he wanted to pitch Cheryl, he should do it directly with her. Not me. So I got her on the phone and handed it over to him.

He launched into his thing and she listened.

After he left, Cheryl and I talked. There was no fucking way she was going to hand him 13 grand. At best, she could do half.

Ultimately she was in for $5,000. She had found a silent partner, a friend of hers, who tossed in $1,500 for a percentage of Cheryl’s percentage of her return.

But where was the other half going to come from?

ENTER MICHELE

The story of Michele is long at best. Here’s the quick and dirty version: I met Michele through a friend I was “seeing” in undergrad. While the “friend” was in my film classes, it was Michele that showed more interest in filmmaking than her friend did.

We were the three amigos. We did everything together, hanging out endlessly. Eventually, even though Michele didn’t go to our school, she became my producer. She was great at organization and had the ability to get things other couldn’t.

Once I went to graduate film school, Michele quickly engrained herself as one of the group. Especially after they saw what she could do.

A fact she would prove almost immediately.

Our first project was to create a silent film with 400 feet of 16 mm B&W film. I wanted to create an homage to Charlie Chaplin and wrote a script about a guy (played by me) trying to impress a girl.

Unfortunately, his evil twin (played by me in a store bought fake mustache) kidnaps her and ties her to a train track. The hero has to swoop in and save her before evil twin runs her over with a train.

Now, it was never my plan to have an actual train. I just wrote that because I couldn’t think of any other silent film tropes. I had a meeting with my professor and assumed we’d figure out a reasonable alternative. Something we could easily film.

It did not go down that way.

Our meeting ended with “Now you gotta find a train.” I was like, “um… okay? But I thought…” He then gave me a couple of resources to check into. I went straight to the bar to meet my friend Mark and called Michele.

“Hey! Guess what?! Ya gotta find a train!”

Fucking chick did it too. After that, other people approached Michele to produce THIER films. Here’s how it turned out…

When I moved out to Hollywood, there was a plan in place that Michele would follow me. Eventually, she did. After driving cross country. She finally made it to the two-bedroom apartment I had found.

The same day that Jonn Jonzz had come over sniffing for screeners and money.

She was sleeping while I was hooking up Jonzz with screeners. Sleeping while Jonzz pitched Cheryl on the phone. And sleeping while Cheryl and I were on the phone trying to come up with the other half of the 13 grand.

NOW YOU’RE AN ASSOCIATE PRODUCER

Duh! Michele! She wanted to be a producer and had come into a large sum of money. So I woke her up, pulled her out on the balcony, put Cheryl on speaker and hashed it all out.

All signs pointed to this being a legit project with top tier talent by a producer who had legit credits. While it was an independent feature, given the talent involved, it hardly reeked of a piece of shit.

SIDE NOTE: I’m using the term “top tier” to you, the readers. I use that term because these were actors who all of you know. Actors that have been involved in some of my (and probably your) favorite flicks. In terms of the “Hollywood marketplace” though, they were nowhere near the top of anyone’s “get list.” These were working actors. Actors who never really carried a film.

I say this not to be insulting, it’s just the reality of the business. A reality I was naive about at this point. All I heard were their names and thought, “Really? THEY’RE in it?! Fuck yes! We love those actors!”

The next day, contracts were sent and signed and money was wired.

Cheryl and Michele were now officially associate producers on an indie film. Michele had been in Hollywood less than 24 hours and she already had legitimate street cred… i.e. IMDb credits.

THE CONTRACT

Now, I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve studied contract law and dated a lawyer for 3 years. In fact, there was a moment where I almost took the LSAT’s because I was considering law school before I fell into law school.

Point is, I LOVE contact law and I should have known better.

Script EXTRA: Demystifying Contracts

The problem was, I didn’t really understand the business and how these deals worked. It wouldn’t be until a few months later, because of this experience, that I would start studying the financials of how a movie works.

Cheryl and I also got enthralled in the whole Viola Von Shitstain situation, which forced us to get a crash course on exactly how money moves through these Hollywood “scams.” The fact that we had people sending us contracts and financials helped a lot. We definitely got ourselves a serious education.

This also wasn’t the last Jonn Jonzz “deal” I would be involved in, but we’ll get into that next time. Given my limited experience, I asked the one other legit producer I knew… Big Dick Barny.

Everything seemed to be on the up and up.

It was a pretty standard, boiler-plate deal. It was also pointed out by Barny that I should have gotten credit as a producer for finding money late in the game.

It’s not something I pursued because, believe it or not, I didn’t have the balls to fight for it. I should have on principle, but I didn’t. Which ultimately became a good thing.

Anyway, here’s the contract:

What I want to do is focus on section 2. It was the language used that we chose to ignore. Lines like, “subject to actual proceeds” and terms like “if ever.”

It’s this language that allows scam art… I mean “producer” to work safely within the law. Obviously these kinds of movies DON’T make money.

The most important part of section 2 is the last bit. The bit about “in advance of the FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLAR allocated to (INSERT JONN JONZZ’s NAME).”

In theory, this sounds like we get our money back, as well as 25% ROI, BEFORE Jonzz gets his money.

What we didn’t know is that Jonzz already made his money on this flick in the form of upfront “producer’s fees.” He got paid whether the film sold or not. A fact he didn’t need to disclose up front.

That 50 grand? That was on top of the money we already took before the flick even started rolling.

THE PREMIERE

The night of the premiere was kind of glorious. It was held at the famous Silent Movie Theatre on La Brea in Hollywood.

Cheryl and Michele at the Premiere.

Keep in mind we had not seen a single frame of the movie that “we” had invested in. But it was an open bar and there were a lot of important people there. Including one of the stars. A guy I had grown up admiring.

There was ample room to mob the dude, get pictures and do all of that Hollywood shit, be we didn’t. We politely said hello and I’m not even sure we even shook hands or introduced ourselves.

After a long pre-screening party on the back patio (remember, open bar) we were called into the theatre.

Jonzz did his thing and then called the actor in question to say a few words. He was a delight as expected.

We took our seats, the lights went down and the screen lit up.

THE FILM

Honesty in Hollywood is not pleasant. My defense, when it comes to quality, is summed up in one simple statement: “you HAVE seen movies, right?”

There are literally hundreds of thousands of examples of what a movie should look and sound like. It’s very easy in this day and age, to hold up your film next to all of those examples and say: does THIS, look like THAT?

I have high standards, as I’m sure most of you do. This film did NOT meet those standards.

It was a fucking trainwreck.

The movie was shot on location in a Victorian house. There was no money for shooting on set. The house had old, wooden floors and lots of empty space.

For those of you that have never made a film, let me explain some of the issues:

First… there was never any room for the camera, which meant it had to be “crammed” in certain spots to capture the action. This caused a lot of the angles that were obviously shot from atop a ladder shoved in the corner. In the end there were a lot of angles that were like, “Why are we seeing this? It doesn’t even capture what’s happening correctly!”

Second… sound. I have a friend from film school who is an audio genius. I’ve worked with him all throughout film school and he’s now in the union and working his ass off as an “audio expert.”

Script EXTRA: Why Not Use Camera Directions for Screenplays?

This movie would literally hurt his ears.

Hardwood floors? Echo? The movie heavily relied on dialogue. Everything that was said had a reverb to it thanks to the floors and the empty space.

Thirdly… direction. Actors are tools. I don’t say that negatively, they are just one aspect of getting your vision made. Clearly, the director was going for a Honeymooners thing. So everything the actors did was BIG and LOUD and OVERACTED.

The camera picks up every big movement and exaggerates it.

We’re dealing with “top tier” talent, so it’s not like they don’t know this. But as professionals, they’re gonna put their faith in the director. He or she is seeing the performances and will adjust them accordingly.

The director did not adjust. Ever.

Their performances were big and gaudy and horrible. Again, NOT their fault and solely MY opinion.

I TOTALLY MADE AN ASS OUT OF MYSELF

I’m a dick… I get it.

I’m also aware that most people share the same opinion. Even my friends, to a certain extent, know this to be true. A lot of the time, I wish I could be different because it doesn’t necessarily make me feel good when people consider me to be an asshole, even in jest, but like I said… I get it. I am what I am.

Me being a dick comes with an inability to hide my emotions when I see something that bothers/irritates me. I have no poker face and, as much as I know how the game is played, I still can’t hide my displeasure.

Especially when my friend’s money is on the line.

Michele, Cheryl and I were sitting in the second to the last row of the theatre while watching this atrocity, and I couldn’t hold back. I was shaking my head, forehead slapping and whispering comments in Cheryl’s ear.

I was appalled and my body language let it be known. The open bar beforehand didn’t help.

Finally, I checked out and closed my eyes. I didn’t want to be there anymore and I admit, it was super unprofessional.

Cheryl nudged me awake towards the end, and it was still awful. I finished out the third act and the lights came up. I gave a half-hearted golf clap when the credits appeared and turned to Cheryl and said, “That was awful.”

We were ALL disappointed, and Cheryl and Michele pretty much knew they weren’t ever going to see any return on their investment.

It was about this time that I was informed, by Cheryl and Michele, that during my annoyance, the actor (one of my idols) and Jonzz were sitting directly behind us. There’s no way he didn’t see my reactions. Thank God they were in silhouette.

Said actor was not present for the after party.

THE AFTER PARTY

It was time to celebrate the hour-and-a-half abortion we just endured, and I’m pretty sure everyone there who had “invested,” tried to drink back some of their money.

Cheryl and I at the afterparty. Cheryl hated wine and loved whiskey so that’s not soda in that cup.

We were all ushered out on to the patio for the second half of the open bar shenanigans. It was there that we found out, once a few more drinks were sprung on us, that I wasn’t the only one that shared my opinion.

The opinionated ones whispered their horror while the polite ones didn’t speak of the movie at all. The welcome party had an air of excitement to finally see this movie.

At the after party, everyone tried to ignore that it happened and acted as if we were just all there partying.

It was “Hollywood Amnesia.”

EPILOGUE

At the after party, we met a couple of soon-to-be partners. While the premiere was meant to celebrate the film, it was also a calling card to Jonzz’s next “business partners.”

Apparently, Jonzz had already set up his next project and invited the screenwriter to the premiere to wine and dine her.

For the sake of this column and the next, let’s call her She-Ra.

Not only was she there to get on board with Jonzz, but also to see the work of the director as he was brought in to direct her script.

Jonzz would later pair me up with She-Ra to help with her script. I was doing script consulting at the time and Jonzz felt like “I would be a good fit” for her.

Unfortunately, what he didn’t expect was that I was going to get balls deep in the project as well as Cheryl and Michele.

We learned a lot off of this God awful film and it would turn into us not supporting his cause.

Sadly, not before more money was spent.

TO BE CONTINUED…

More articles by Manny Fonseca

Get tips on achieving screenwriting success in Lee Jessup’s latest book, Breaking In: Tales From the Screenwriting Trenches

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