“If you’re going to Hollywood, go for fun … and get a bloody lawyer!”
That’s wise advice from Sean Connery. You can be at the top of your fame and still get stiffed. Even he got cheated out of fees. In fact, you’re more likely to be swindled if a successful artiste than a beginner. If ambitious but untalented there’s a shortcut: steal the other guy’s work.
Money, money, money
The annual sales output of Hollywood to all world territories and ancillaries is reputed to bring more inward investment than any other industry in California outside weapons manufacturing.
With big money comes big temptations, the reason California is home to twenty-five percent of America’s lawyers. Money means power. The unwary are brought down, vultures and jackals skilled at picking the bones clean.
A rookie abroad
A never-ending line of scumbags waits to pilfer work and wages at the drop of a paperclip. Master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was revered by Hollywood types yet wasn’t too big or too famous to be ripped off. A studio remade the Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven without paying him. They simply stole his copyright. He sued and won, but it took years to get justice. Visiting Hollywood, writer, composer, cinematographer, director, Bengal’s own polymath Satyajit Ray, mentioned his children’s story of a little alien coming to earth befriended by a small boy and, hey presto, it appeared as ET.
With those examples in mind I took Connery’s advice and got an entertainment lawyer, one with her own firm, honest, robust, and caring. But having a signed contract doesn’t protect you from theft or a court case. Lawyers can’t stop you from getting ripped off .
The ‘Hollywood Sting’ consists of luring, bribing, or blackmailing a victim to hand over his screenplay, and before the victim has time to recover, sell it to another person, or actually put it into production having engineered legal rights to it. That process requires patience, anything from three to six months.
Tools of the trade
To conduct a successful sting you have a few things in place. You have some sort of industry track-record, a back-catalogue of projects that can be traced. A high profile is good because status always impresses the easily impressionable.
You should have an office, and meet at an expensive eatery where you pay the tab, the waiter greeting you as a long-time valued diner. A glamorous female assistant to flatter helps with the seduction.
The Mark, the Flake, and the Scumbag
The victim, the man or woman with the original, commercial screenplay, is called The Mark. He is the rookie in the story, Mr Everyman.
Chief villain is the man with money who makes money, the executive producer, the power broker, The Scumbag. He has the mentality of a mole-strangler. He has no artistic ability whatsoever. Making money is his forte, not being humble. Materially he has everything except parents.
The Scumbag is easy to spot. He has a face like a squeezed teabag. He never wears his jacket. He carries it draped over his shoulders. He talks of employee loyalty but offers none himself. He has photographs of idiot movie stars in bed with hookers, and boasts they work for him at half their normal salary.
A fox in wolf’s clothing
The Scumbag has a willing go-between to do his dirty work, a flaky producer trusted to deliver the Mark. He is The Flake. The Scumbag is plastic, the Flake is elastic. He’s pliable because he has a weak personality. His private life is usually a mess, two divorces, short-stay girlfriends, rented digs, and a predilection for the booze, an unreformed alcoholic. He’s adept at skating on thin ice, but never there when it breaks.
Working boozers hide their illness well; ask any battered housewife. That’s a skill borne of years of practice, as is the Flake’s ability to worm a jammy donut from the mouth of a crocodile.
I met my first industry Flake on a project in Scotland; drunk by midday, obnoxious by mid-afternoon. The soak came highly recommended by a famous English filmmaker whose name rhymes with Button ‘Em. I often wonder if the sly sod had it in for me.
Preparing the Mark
Scouts bring production companies news of writers uninitiated in Hollywood’s nefarious ways. This is where the story really starts: The Scumbag offers the Flake a large fee to groom the Mark to steal his screenplay.
The Flake befriends the Mark by a series of apparently spontaneous social meetings, lunches, and invitations to industry parties, eventually expressing praise for the Mark’s work, and offering to do his level best to find a backer.
Though cautious and perceptive, the Mark dismisses his private qualms of the Flake’s character. After all, the Flake must have good judgement; he praised the script and has made movies. The Mark, by now energised by hope, ignores the warning signs in pursuit of a production, and his name established.
The Flake, a man without conscience or dignity, sets up a meeting for the Mark with the Scumbag. The Mark is given a guarantee of production. He leaves the building elated. At this point a rookie might be tempted to go out and buy a car. Stop! Where is the contract?
While negotiating his contract the Mark is given expenses-paid preproduction duties to undertake. It might be location work, or actor auditions to conduct. This creates a false sense of security. The grooming is almost complete.
Next, with impeccable timing, the Flake suggests the screenplay needs some fine tuning. He tells the Mark he can fix it in a jiffy. Though he thought the script endorsed, the Mark drops his guard and hands over his original work.
The Flake gives the screenplay to the Scumbag and collects his thirty pieces of silver. He then withdraws from the project isolating the Mark.
The Scumbag closes down preproduction abruptly. The scam is successful. The screenplay is extensively rewritten by some low-grade hack until barely recognisable from the original, copyright effectively in dispute. The Mark is left confused and angry.
A true story
There are many Hollywood scams to wheedle work from its rightful owner. The scenario I relate is one of the most sophisticated. It happened to many writers. I am one. Sigh. But here’s the thing: crooks are good at intimidation, crap at administration. Detail doesn’t interest them. About a year later, and a lot of grieving, I got a call from an advertising agency out of the blue. They wanted my curriculum vitae or résumé as they call it.
“We have everybody résumé, sir, but yours is missing. And we can’t release the DVD until we have all the publicity material.”
The Scumbag’s lackeys forgot to take my name off the purloined, rewritten script. My lawyer called the Scumbag. “My firm is placing an injunction on your company to halt distribution of all 10,000 DVDs to stores and other outlets. Your film is based on my client’s original invention. My client wants all of his fees plus ten percent interest, and my costs. You have one hour to comply.”
A kinda happy ending
The cheque was couriered to my Los Angeles bank, cashed on the spot. Later, facing multiple law suits, the Scumbag got jail and a $70 million fine for improperly inflating his movie budgets, a fraud to sell his ill-gotten projects to distributors at artificially high prices.
As for alcoholic film crew: I learned to take interviewees out to lunch. If they order a whisky or a gin after two pints they do not get the job. And before anybody says that’s sleazy Hollywood for you, I should add I’ve had original work stolen by scammers in the British film and double-dealing television industry, but that’s another story of liars and betrayal altogether.
“They all steal from you” said Connery. Aye, they do, Big Man, they do.
[A version of this essay appeared in iScot magazine, the thinking Scot’s periodical]