The continuing saga of a sucker’s adventures in Hollywood
A writer with a screenplay in Hollywood is forever on the prowl for good contacts to pitch a sale. Anybody who is a producer with a studio deal is a legitimate target. For every studio employed producer there are thirty self-employed scavenging for projects.
Ninety out of a hundred times those who say they know of a freelance producer with influence don’t actually know anybody of any worth, but they enjoy feeling important, you giving them attention, including a free lunch and a beer.
Some contacts expect a kick-back, a small fee if a deal is done, or maybe a small fee plus a producer credit on the movie. Films not funded by studios need multiple-funders. This is why you see movies with more producers than there are crew and actors and none ever worked on the film. It can all get a bit silly.
In a few instances a contact will tell you of a real producer who has muscle and ‘leverage’. They are cautious. They don’t want to send an idiot to a professional. The reverse counts for a lot too. A writer should check out the producer’s credentials.
Producers and wannabee producers
Wannabee producers will waste your time, weeks of it, unless you’re tough and weed them out immediately, or if unsure give them a strict time limit to achieve a meeting at a studio. The ineffectual will fail to meet their own deadline and plead for more time. Desperate for the work you give them one more chance. Wrong. You showed them you’re starving and will roll-over for a dodgy biscuit.
Workaday freelance producers hoover up as many projects as they can from tinhorns new in town. They give you the impression you are the best writer they have ever encountered, the work before them of outstanding quality. You are flattered. The smart bring their wives along to create a feeling of trust. There she is, agreeing with hubby, your work is pure genius, a sure fire Academy nomination.
If you’re a good writer and know it, you won’t be seduced. But blocking opportunity doesn’t come naturally. The impetus is to grab any passing chance of remuneration.
What you don’t realise is that nice freelance producer has at least five other screenplays in his briefcase from other writers. He needs only one more in his portfolio for his annual sales tally – yours. He’s the small-time dealer, six cars on his lot.
If a studio doesn’t like the storyline in your script, hell, he has a different one to sell. Yours gets put aside. His sales pitch can amount to one sentence, “What do you think of the Scotch guy’s storyline? Oh, not what you’re looking for? Okay. I got this other one.”
Never trust a layperson
A layperson will tell you they have a close friend who is a producer. They will make a call to him or her. There is no guarantee their producer friend will be interested in your work, or any new work, for that matter. In my case it was a friend who told me of a child minder of a wealthy business couple. She had just landed a deal with Steven Spielberg. I swallowed the fly, hook, line and sinker
The magic words were ‘Steven Spielberg’.
To cinephiles Steven Spielberg is one of the three kings of Hollywood. (The other two got deposed.) If he likes your work you’re quids in, on the up, the latest hot tip. An experienced filmmaker knows Steven Spielberg will never pick up a screenplay unless it is represented by one of the big literary agencies. But that reality doesn’t occur to you.
Don’t worry, they are nice people
Anxieties, uncertainties and angst aside, my friend was highly reliable, the ennui-ridden Jewish wife of a Rodeo Drive philandering plastic surgeon, a man who, for some bottles of decent Napa Valley wine, removed three small skin tags from under my arm, sweaty armpits a product of the Los Angeles heat.
The contact of his affection-starved wife was another Jewish couple but happily married. They lived in a big house in Beverly Hills. Almost all the houses there are big or ginormous. This one was truly grand, designed in the mock Palladian style so beloved of Americans with loads of money and a taste for ersatz styling. Proportion to volume is not a consideration. What these buildings tell you is, the owner has no aesthetic education but they do have a ton of money.
With exceptions, houses in Beverly Hills’ palm-lined boulevards are open to the street, no wall or fence, just lawn, the exact opposite of privacy loving Brits. We surround ourselves with boring privet hedges or high walls and railings. Beverley Hills maxim is if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Only if the house is set in grounds and you’re a celebrity, or mafia boss, will there be high walls and an automatic gate. Those open to the nosy always have a large sign on the lawn, ‘Armed Response’.
One step forward, two back
I approached the residence with care, making sure I didn’t look like a suspicious Mexican gardener, shook hands with the middle-aged successful duo, some sort of handbag dog running around my feet, removed my shoes, and after a cup of coffee, they told me of their delight for their children’s nanny. “Such a talent, a godsend, a mensch, already”, and how proud they were her writing ability was recognised by that “nice Mr Spielberg”. They told me Spielberg had bought a script from her and now she was aiming to be a producer of other people’s scripts. My luck was in. I felt blessed.
“She’s led such a troubled life”, confided the wife, desperately keen to tell me all about it. “Don’t ask her about her troubles.” I changed the subject. My host looked displeased. Her stare was best unmet.
She, the nanny with the golden keyboard, wasn’t at home when I arrived, having taken the children a walk, an annoyance for she knew I was arriving. Bemused at her absence, my hosts arranged a meeting for me with her in a nearby eatery for the next day.
The meeting with my new-found soon-to-be celebrity screenwriter was something of an anti-climax. She was small, plump, short blonde hair, an Australian with a strong Sidney accent, attentive if a tad addicted to small talk. After ten minutes of stilted pleasantries I wondered what she had to say that could fill ninety pages of a screenplay.
I ordered lunch to break the ice and congratulated her on her success. Getting a script accepted by Spielberg was a great achievement for a beginner. She corrected me.
“Two screenplays” she said firmly.
“Two? That’s marvellous. Two different subjects, or one and the same?” I asked.
“Based on my book.” That was the first I heard of a book.
“I had a troubled childhood. Alcoholic father … sexual abuse. Won’t go into detail. I ran away from home, lived with a guy who was another version of dad. Used his fists too. I survived, eventually got enough money together to get to India, lived in a commune for a while, got sick, got better, then a kibbutz in Israel, and then to the USA and here.”
It took a few moments to recover. What a sordid tale of betrayal, despair and resolve.
“You’re a real survivor, then. Is that the story you’ve written about?”
“Yeah” she answered. “My struggles and adventures all the way from a poor background in a suburb of Sydney to rescue by the wonderful couple you met who took me in, gave me a job as their children’s nanny. Steven-“
“Spielberg, asked me to rewrite it in two parts. Took me a whole year, but I managed it.”
Thoroughly impressed I enquired of her what was it like to deal with Spielberg’s company. “He’s great, a charmer” she said. “I got lots of help from his scripting staff.”
When we ordered from the sweet menu I judging the moment right to tell her about my projects, keeping information brief, gently prodding her to choose one to submit to him, one with which she was comfortable, something she could talk to with enthusiasm. Knowing how easily a script can go astray, or get plagiarised, I had taken the precaution of typing three different storylines, two pages each. She chose all three. That seemed odd, indiscriminate, but I thanked her.
“There’s no need to do this if you feel it will jeopardise your standing with him”, I said, genuinely concerned she might feel exploited or Spielberg feel she was moving too fast.
“No problem” she said, breaking into a first smile. “You can pay for lunch.”
I paid, mildly discomfited anyone with a million dollar contract would not first offer to share in the cost, but hey ho, she was doing me a good favour.
The sting in the tale
Two days later I got a call from my friendly contact who had put me in touch with the nanny’s employers. They had called my friend in deep distress. The ‘nanny’ had disappeared overnight, packed her bags and skedaddled.
The Spielbergian luck she spun out over so many months was complete fabrication. Her past was a bunch of hooey. The daughter of a bitch was a serial liar. A fabulist. She had reached the point where she had to show something was real or be exposed as a fraud. The only solution was to disappear. I was shocked.
How could I have been so stupid to be so easily hoodwinked?
The thing is, what she did is quite common among day-dreaming Angelinos and incomers. Lala Land is full of Walter Mittys. They all have a phony calling card. Most know where to stop. She didn’t.
I am sure she’s still out there now spinning the same yarn, and there’s a wide-eyed writer thinking, this woman is really cool. Only now she has three storylines to flash around boasting, “An’ I got three more projects to sell to Steven, my old mate.”