Learning the Hard Way

In Essays on March 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm

By R.P. Rodgers

I started to write screenplays in 2007. I’m eager to get on with my life as a writer for movies. So eager that I’ll take any seemingly legit opportunity that I can either scare up or that finds me by whatever channel.

Last May, one found me.

I got hooked up with a TV pilot writing gig by a contact from the world of stand-up comedy. It seemed promising but ended up as a total shit-storm.

I emailed a 30 Rock spec script to the producers and they liked it. We took a meeting. Two young people who had a mysterious third partner who was never available—these were the ‘producers.’ They had a legit director attached, a guy who has done a lot of Letterman and Conan segments. He was at the first meeting, and his involvement was a big draw for me.

I wrote a 36-page pilot for a half-hour show based on their bible, and they loved it. After that, I never heard back from them. About three months later I get a text saying the project is still on and they have a connection at Lionsgate who loved it but was thinking of it as a one-hour project for Showtime. Further, the concept had gained the interest of the actor John Turturro. Wow! I expanded my half hour to a one hour, rethinking and rewriting to accommodate a new lead character. We met again and the vibe was, well, okay.

I hadn’t seen the name director since that first meeting months before. At the next meeting, I asked about him. I was eager to get feedback on my first script from an industry heavyweight. He was no longer on the project. The three ‘producers’ had misled him about having funding. There was no money, and the director didn’t appreciate being lied to and having his time wasted, so they had a big blow-up and director-man bolted. This crucial piece of information had been kept from me as I labored rewriting the one-hour pilot AND an additional 10-page “teaser” script—which was now all they had money enough to film.

But, they still maintained that their connection to Lionsgate was legit and that casting and filming were going forward. I was extremely pissed and on the verge of telling these kids to fuck off. That night I went to sleep, very bitter. In the morning I awoke with the thought, “Maybe this is just par for the course. Maybe this is as good as it ever gets in show biz.” I decided to see it through to the end—whatever the outcome.

I received a text that the casting and filming were scheduled for the following Friday evening.

They ran an ad on CRAIGSLIST!!! The ad stated: “Major network sitcom casting this Friday.” There was also a character breakout followed by the phrase, “No compensation available.” Even student films offer lunch and carfare.

Somebody at Craigslist must have been paying attention as the ad was flagged and pulled, but not before getting a few dozen responses. So CASTING WENT FORWARD! WITH CRAIGSLIST RESPONDEES!!!

I attended the casting session, which was like being in a bad comedy about, well, casting a movie off of Craigslist. Imagine the worst community theater actors who ever appeared in your hometown production of The Music Man. Many of these people couldn’t speak English, some were downright thuggish.

They were hacks, hams, amateurs and yet still more professional than the ‘producer’ who sat filming their performances with his iPhone. Most of them refused to sign a release, as they feared the whole sorry mess would end up on Youtube.

I felt so bad about the whole thing that any slight thrill I might have received from seeing my words performed couldn’t mitigate the feeling that I had just been a party to a terrible hoax.

Weeks passed. I’d figured that I’d never hear from the ‘producers’ again, that even they had finally realized what a sham the whole thing was. And just as the anger and resentment were beginning to fade, I get an email letting me know me that a “rough  cut” is now up on Youtube. Would I look at it and see whether I thought it was ready to be shown to Lionsgate?

I looked.

There were two versions. The first was terrible. The second was terrible and 25 seconds longer. They had simply had all the ‘actors’ IMPROV it. Didn’t use a single word of what I had written. I guess that was a blessing.

The moral of this story? There are three:
First—Know who you are getting into bed with.
Second—Make sure you have protection.
Third—Make sure the money is in place first.

All good advice for either a screenwriter, or a prostitute. And as I was willing to be the latter in my attempt to be the former, I’ve got no one to blame but myself.

  1. Hi,

    I really feel for you. But as a bottom-feeding screenwriting myself, there are multiple lessons here.

    First, “TALK IS CHEAP.” The “Tales of Oz” that (even legitimate) clients can spout is bottomless and costs them nothing. They can make up any nonsense they want to lure you into their plan. What matters is how they treat you and your work.

    Second, ALWAYS get something in writing at the outset. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, you don’t need a lawyer or an agent, and there are many online documents you can use for a template. The document should define the roles of the individuals, the delivery dates, work period, and ownership of material. It should define the structure of the partnership–50-50? 30-70? . If there’s a potential sale involved, there should be some adherence to WGA structure and fees.

    Third: NEVER proceed without a fee. Call it “car-fare”, “stipend,” or “parts & labor”. But if your client is at all serious about you and your talents, then they gotta pay you something up front. It can be anything from a $1 to $100,000, but SOMETHING to show they’re serious and–more importantly–to cover your time and labor resources for the work period. No, you won’t get even close to WGA minimum from any of these types, but you can get a couple of grand(I do) and it at least pays for the potential heartbreak down the road.

    Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to walk around with your head in the clouds, but you can be a down-to-earth freelance entrepreneur too.

    Good luck.

  2. Thanks Joe, I appreciate the advice.

  3. Thanks for the advice Joe, I appreciate it.

  4. Wow!! As I reading I was waiting for you to say that Lionsgate came through. I’m SO sorry that you experienced that mess. I would have been pissed too. Man! Well from one writer to another I feel your pain and your advice was spot on.

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