HAPPY HOLIDAYS! edition
2) WGA Arbitration: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
3) The Easiest Genres to Sell by Steve Kaire
4) Agent's Hot Sheet - Know When to Fold 'Em
If you don't know what I'm talking about, allow me to explain. You see, for the last 857 years The Hollywood Reporter (a.k.a. THR) has been required reading here in Tinseltown. One of the two "trades" along with Daily Variety, it was the go-to place for industry news, movie reviews, executive hirings and firings and much more. Rather remarkably, this slick little mag would arrive every day in a timely fashion, despite delivery via US Postal Service, ready to be savored over coffee or, most importantly, as yer go-to bathroom reading selection. A subscription to THR made you feel like you were part of a community, one of the privileged few who were on the inside. And now it is gone. As of a few months ago, the daily edition of THR has been replaced by a digital daily edition and an oversized glossy weekly edition more akin to "W" magazine or "Vogue" than anything Reporter-like.
And then there's the whole eco aspect of it. As a crusading activist, how could I rationalize clear-cutting entire forests just so I could have my little print magazine every day?
All right, all right, thank you, Mr. Adams. So yeah, I get it. And I even kind of like the new glossy magazine format. It looks nifty on my coffee table, whereas the old THRs did not (and in fact would generally accumulate in teetering, messy piles, threatening to spontaneously jettison themselves all over the place at the slightest accidental nudge.)
And yet... it just doesn't feel right to me. When those daily digital editions arrive in my in-box, do I read them? Most of the time, no. Getting a paper magazine that you've paid for in the mail every day, that demands your attention. Just another e-mail betwixt a cacophony of 10,000 others? Not so much. The old version you could easily carry around, read on the train or power through a stack of them if you fall behind. The new version, again, not so much.
I asked my source at THR for a comment, and this is what she said:
"We moved from a daily to a weekly to be more competitive in the consumer landscape, simple as that. Oversized weekly = more visibly aligned with publications like W, Rolling Stone, et. al. The day of the daily [print] entertainment trade is done. I've got no idea how much longer Variety can keep doing what they're doing; but you'll notice they've put their digital content behind a paywall. They also recognize that online deliverables have to be the focus now. Daily isn't good enough anymore when it comes to news. You've got to be up to the minute. There needed to be more focus on breaking news, and the digital shift we made makes that clear.”Fair enough. And yet, I can't help but feel like I've lost an old friend. Compounding the problem: I just received my annual bill. How do I justify spending the same amount for a digital subscription that I don't bother to read? I doubt I will renew. If others think the same way as I do, it will be a shame, but it may well be that by making the very changes necessary to stay in business, that THR has committed seppuku. Only time will tell. What do you guys think?
Quite a few things cooking here. We have the imminent return of the Cyberspace Open coming up in January, as well as Writers on the Storm in the spring. We have the usual news, tips, blather, but above all, hopefully a sense of community. We're all united by our frustrations and rejections and (hopefully) occasional triumphs; by our sacrifices for our art as well as our desire to enthrall or thrill, enlighten or frighten, shock or mock. I applaud all of us for pursuing a challenging profession -- and for sticking with it in the face of the inevitable and repeated smackdowns. We are warriors. Damn it, we are writers. Keep on bringing it, and let's all up our game and turn up the gas in a big way in 2011.
Peace on Earth,
Founder, Coverage Ink
Writers on the Storm
P.S. As our special holiday thank you to you, we're giving away our Spec Format and Style Guide. This indispensible, easy-readin' 80-page e-book will help transform your screenplays into rip-snortin', quicksilver reads and break you of all the bad habits you didn't even know you had. Includes sections on common grammatical and formatting mistakes, page count reduction tricks, and the crucial "Where the Hell is the Title Page in Final Draft?" Just e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and put FREE STYLE GUIDE! in the subject line. We'll then e-mail it to you as a PDF. Offer expires midnight 12/31/10. Happy holidays, everyone!
HERE'S THE WINDUP... HERE'S THE PITCH... It's been an exciting past year. In addition to covering what's going on in the biz of interest to screenwriters in my Agent's Hot Sheet column in Creative Screenwriting, I've also written a bunch of Anatomy of a Spec Sale articles (the latest, "The Color of Cash is White," streets shortly.) Meanwhile, over at Script magazine, I've also been covering big, dare I say important, feature stories. The most recent one, "Rating the Pitchfests," is a comprehensive analysis of the four major pitch festivals. On newsstands today! And big thanks to Script for allowing us to reprint "WGA Arbitration: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" in this newsletter. Think the Guild has your back? You'd best read this piece. -- Jim C.
As always, entry into the contest will be FREE with any script submission to Coverage Ink during the contest period. Stay tuned as we will have much more on the return of WOTS in the next few months.
TRACKING B RAFFLE WINNER. Last month we raffled off a free entry into the amazing Tracking B screenwriting contest. 73 of you responded, and the randomly chosen winner is: John Collins from Owatonna, MN. John's screenplay is now squaring off against all the rest of us who actually had to pay to enter. Wouldn't it be awesome if he won and got all that industry exposure? Go, John!
download the demo right here.
MEET THE NEW CI ASSOCIATES. Coverage Ink is proud to announce we are expanding. We have added six incredible new readers. They join our existing team, and will be helping to pick up the slack for our beloved senior reader GD, who is on sabbatical, and KU, who has had to scale back her CI work due to her ever-increasing DreamWorks workload. Say hi to the new guys!
LO hails from DreamWorks Animation’s story department, where she has worked since 2005. Her recent credits include the hits Megamind and Monsters vs. Aliens. She has also worked in development at three other production companies and graduated Magna Cum Laude from BU. Strong on comedy and character, LO is our resident animation expert.
AA has had two features produced, one directed by a Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee, and the other starring an Oscar-nominated Best Actor. She has three features currently in development, but continues to work as story analyst for an international producing legend whose projects have garnered 65 Oscar nominations -- nine for Best Picture, of which four took home the award. AA started her career teaching Political Science at University in Ireland where she was born and has written and produced documentaries for Channel Four in Britain and the Discovery Channel in the U.S. She is a full-time working screenwriter based out of Los Angeles.
TIME TO GET SOME OF OUR MONEY BACK FROM AMAZON. In the face of an ever-shrinking marketplace, the arrival of a new studio is definitely good news. So let's all welcome Amazon.com's innovative new Amazon Studios. The 15-year-old online retailer has launched a new program wherein it will seek out and develop new talent based on user submissions and then turn the best of these into features. The company has first-look deal with Warner Bros.
The Hollywood Reporter's Jay Fernandez writes, "To feed the studio’s development, filmmakers and writers around the world are invited to upload feature-length films and screenplays to the site, which triggers an 18-month option on the material. Each month starting in January, based on community feedback, two scripts and one test film will be designated the best of the bunch and awarded cash grants — $20,000 for each screenplay and $100,000 for the film. Upon the release of a finished film from Amazon Studios, the filmmaker or screenwriter who originated the project will receive a rights payment of $200,000. Should the film gross more than $60 million domestically, a $400,000 bonus will be triggered." Over 1,000 scripts have already been uploaded, according to Amazon. Check it out right here.
MAKE A DIFFERENCE. We're all pretty overextended this holiday season, but here's one good cause worth your attention. This from screenwriter Christopher La Voy:
"This is an attempt to raise contributions for my wife to go and receive some needed medical treatment to combat her cancer. If you can't donate, pleaase forward to everyone you can. The treatments are proven, and effective, and of course my insurance company will not touch it... There are no steps... There is nothing gradual about it. It happens suddenly and is irreversible. You rotate into a new dimension."
La Voy is trying to raise $42,800 for his wife's Hodgkins Lymphoma treatment. So far they have raised $5,000. Please consider making a contribution via PayPal to: email@example.com or mail to: Lourdes Colon, 12415 Ralston Ave., Sylmar, CA 91342.
Thank you so much! -- Christopher La Voy
CYBERSPACE OPEN 2011 -- IT'S BAAAAACK. Creative Screenwriting's Cyberspace Open (formerly the CS Open) returns for year NINE (gasp!) Our team is once again bracing for the onslaught (we're talking *thousands* of entries.) Most of you know the drill by now, but for those who don't, the Cyberspace Open tournament challenges you to write your best interpretation of our tricky scene prompt in a very short amount of time. The scenes are judged and scored by the Coverage Ink team (every scene receives feedback.) The top 100 move on to Round 2, where they will write one more scene based on an even more dastardly prompt. Sure, all of us can write a great script -- but can you write a great SCENE? ;)
Prizes include $2500 cash for the winning scene (judged by you on YouTube!) as well as $200 each for four genre prizes. Register before January 3rd, 2011 and your entry is only $10.99! The tourney begins January 7th. For complete rules, please visit The Cyberspace Open page right here. Good luck, everyone!
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Hey, a movie you wrote got produced! Think you’ll receive screen credit? Don’t be so sure. The WGA Arbitration Committee has a little something to say about that.
by Jim Cirile
Reprinted courtesy of Script magazine
Congrats! The big studio film you wrote has just wrapped production. But before you swig that flute of Dom, realize this: there is a chance you may receive no credit -- zip, zilcho, goose egg -- and that decision rests in the hands of a panel of three anonymous arbiters whose decisions are final. Warm and fuzzies kicking in yet? Welcome to the world of WGA feature arbitration.
Everyone reading this, of course, hopes to some day have such platinum-plated problems. Who cares who gets credit, as long as the check clears, right? Well, for many of us, the idea of toiling on a screenplay over successive drafts, creating characters and dialogue used in the movie, and then being shut out without our name appearing anywhere, well, that chafes our egos just a bit. Too, credit determination doesn’t just affect whose names appear (and do not appear) on a finished feature film. It also affects things like residuals and ancillary rights, not just on that one film but potentially on all future films based on that material. In short, who gets the credit also determines who gets a lot of future dough.
So come with us now as we set sail deep into the roily waters of the WGA Arbitration process, where nothing can go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…
PLOTTING THE COURSE
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you’re Sue D. Nimm, and you’ve worked on one or more drafts of a screenplay which was produced by a Guild signatory production company. The producers submit to the WGA all the drafts along with a timeline of who did what. The producer also submits to the WGA their proposed version of the credits. In this example, you were brought in to rework a spec script written by Norm de Plume & Ry Turr. So the producer recommends to the WGA that the credit should read “Original Screenplay by Norm de Plume & Ry Turr and Sue D. Nimm.” (Note that the ampersand denotes a writing team, whereas “and” indicates a separate writer.) This proposed credit is also sent to all three writers. If all the writers accept those credits, then there is no arbitration. The credits are awarded according to the producer’s wishes, and everyone is pleased because the credits fairly reflect who did what. All ship-shape so far, right?
But suppose before you came aboard, the producer hired Werd Smith, who replaced Ima Hack, who replaced Eiben Scrood. And suddenly they’re all hollering, wait a minute! Where’s my name? Thus the arbitration process begins.
According to everyone interviewed for this article, most of the time the system works quite well. “The WGA has always been fair in my experience so far,” says manager Jake Wagner from FilmEngine, “specifically in situations where a client wrote the original draft, even in cases where ten other writers had rewritten a client’s original screenplay.” But as former WGA President Frank Pierson once said of the arbitration process: "The large majority of credits are still straightforward and uncontested," but "when they go wrong, they go horribly wrong." Batten down the hatches...
Indeed, Sears says he’s been “screwed out of credit” repeatedly by the arbitration process. “I was hired for one particular movie and instructed to surgically remove the work of the previous writer. I (did that,) and I rewrote the rest of the script. Lo and behold, the production company put (only the first writer) up for credit.” The development executive explained to Sears that (the first writer) was really famous and that his name being on the finished film would make people go see it. But wait – shouldn’t the Guild be protecting writers like Sears from getting the shaft in this sort of scenario? Sears says just the opposite. “It says in the Writers Guild codicils, ‘we want to foster the appearance of fewer, more powerful writers.’ So they admit that they cherry-pick the people who get credit based on an appearance of fewer, more powerful writers.”
Want more? Sears also fills us in on a studio movie he wrote recently. “The original writer had written a cop story that took place in late ‘80s Los Angeles. I transformed it to post-Katrina New Orleans with the water still in the streets and different bad guys, etc. They shot the movie, and the studio said (the original writer and I) should share credit, because he’d laid the groundwork, while I’d written the script that they’d shot. Okay, great. My manager called me and said, hey congratulations, you got credit! And I said, no that’s their proposed credit.” In other words, there was still plenty of chance for Sears to get the ol’ shaft. “Of course, the first writer, who had never had a credit on another movie, said, ‘I deserve sole credit.’” Sure enough, the Guild awarded sole credit to the original writer, and Sears was shut out completely. “But in the process of this first arbitration, it turns out that the original writer wrote his draft with a policeman, who told him these stories. Now that guy wanted credit. After a second arbitration, the original writer had to share Story credit with the cop, but then he still got sole Screenplay credit. Once again, Sears was left out in the cold. “It’s not called arbitration for no reason. It’s very arbitrary,” he grouses. “It doesn’t have rules that we can understand or that they actually follow.”
A producer we’ll call Ty Morse says, “Obviously, they lean towards the original writer.” He recalls a 2-hour TV movie project his company was developing. “The network decided to make it a 4-hour – a 2-night miniseries. The writer who had written the first two hours (was unavailable,) so we brought in a second writer. That writer took the two hours and turned it into four hours. It went into arbitration, and the Writers Guild gave sole credit to (the original writer.) We all scratched our heads and said, okay, let’s assume (second writer) hadn’t changed one word of (the first writer) and just doubled the amount of words. He should at least get half credit. With no disrespect to (first writer,) the obvious conclusion is you split it 50/50. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to figure that out.” Morse now uses this knowledge when breaking it to writers that they’re going to be rewritten. “I’ll say, hey, I know for a fact they favor the first writer. You may end up sharing credit, but you’re not going to lose credit on the movie.” Oh, yeah? Our next writer has something to say about that...
Think this voyage is getting a bit tempestuous? You ain’t heard nothing yet. Meet Larry Ferguson. You may know him from movies like “The Hunt for Red October” and “Highlander.” Ferguson says, “I’m one of two people who I know during that period of time that took the Writer’s Guild into a court proceeding.” In fact, Ferguson took his case to the Supreme Court of the State of California. And lost.
Venture back with us now a couple of decades to the Paramount backlot, where producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were having no luck coming up with an idea to entice Eddie Murphy to commit to “Beverly Hills Cop II.” Ferguson recalls, “My idea was that we do a series of killings based on the alphabet, that went from ‘A’ through however long it takes to catch (the guy.)” Ferguson pitched it to Murphy, and the project was a go. Ferguson was hired and wrote the first couple drafts.
After the film wrapped production, Paramount sent their proposed credits to the Guild: Story by Eddie Murphy and Robert Wachs; Screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Warren Skaaren. “I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Ferguson. “I called Don Simpson and I said, who is this guy (Skaaren) that you want to have credit on this? And he said, ‘Oh, he got screwed on the credit on ‘Top Gun.’ He should have got credit for that, so we’re going to make sure he gets credit for this.’ And I said, did he do some work? And he said yeah, he wrote a draft. And I said that’s great, but now I’m getting screwed on ‘Beverly Hills Cop II’!” Even more outrageous to Ferguson: why was Eddie Murphy getting story credit, when he had pitched the idea to Murphy? Says Ferguson, “To me, that was just beyond the pale.”
Ferguson contested the decision using the Guild appeals process. “I said, show me the written material that Eddie Murphy submitted to you in order to get story credit. (The Guild arbitration representative produced) a memo written by (Paramount exec) David Kirkpatrick, with no copies to anyone, dated two days before I was hired.” That memo ostensibly said that Eddie Murphy had pitched Kirkpatrick the alphabet killer story two days before Ferguson was hired. “I said to the Writer’s Guild, you cannot use (that memo.) It says right here in the credits manual that only literary material will be considered. I figured I had them.” But the Guild refused to budge. “I got a lawyer and I went to court and I sued them,” says Ferguson. “(My position was,) I believe you guys have screwed me in collusion with the studio.” But the Supreme Court decided that Ferguson had signed away his right to sue when he joined the Guild and agreed to abide by the terms of Guild arbitration. “They said I didn’t have any rights.” Later, Paramount head Ned Tanen took Ferguson for a walk. “He said to me, ‘Larry, I know it’s a crummy deal, but that’s the way that it is. We can always get another writer. We can’t get another Eddie Murphy.’ He was the only one who ever told me the truth. I’ve never had anything but respect for him.”
DEPLOY THE LIFEBOATS
If this all sounds pretty frightening, remember these stories are exceptional. Oftentimes, the seas are calm. Just ask writer Rick Jaffa (“The Relic.”) He and his partner Amanda Silver were brought in to do a production polish just before principal photography. “When we took the job, we didn’t even consider that we would get credit,” says Jaffa. “But we really did a lot of restructuring and complete reinventing. We consolidated characters, did a lot of work on the existing characters and a lot of structural work. Based on the Guild rules, we felt we fell within the guidelines of deserving credit. We’d done a lot of heavy lifting. There was a lot of rewriting, right up to the final few weeks of shooting. So we arbitrated.”
PATCHING THE BOAT
Screenwriter Josh Stolberg (“Sorority Row”,) who wrote the spec script (with Bobby Florsheim) that “Evan Almighty” was based on, yet received no credit, sees a move the Guild can make that could go a long way towards assuaging the feelings of writers like himself. “The thing that really irks me about ‘Evan Almighty’ was one day you wake up, and the Guild’s like, ‘No, you have nothing to do with this whatsoever.’ Morgan Freeman has a bodyguard that’s listed twice in the credits – once as a bodyguard and once as a driver. All right, so even if we’re saying that a writer does not deserve to have his name on the poster or whatever, okay, but why can’t that person have his name in the same place as the caterer?”
WGA Communication Director of Communications Neal Sacharow says that there is a mechanism in place for members who wish to change Guild policies. “The Guild currently has a committee of members that is charged with reviewing the existing credits rules and making recommendations on how the existing rules can be improved upon. The work of that committee is confidential. Any recommendations it makes would eventually be subject to membership approval.” So there you have it, folks. I suppose if we all lobby this committee, perhaps credit for all writers might someday rise to the level of an action item for the Guild. In the meantime, like it or not, we’re stuck with what we’ve got.
"I love the Guild I want to be a part of the Guild,” says Stolberg. “They do amazing things, and I understand that this is a very difficult process. They’re not just representing you, they’re representing the guy who rewrote that script. They’re not going to make everybody happy. But I know a lot of other people in the exact same position I have been.” WGA Board Member Dan Wilcox says, “It’s clearly not a perfect system, but if we didn’t do it, the companies would. And we know what that would mean. We’ve seen it.” According to Wilcox, the big issue is that by its very nature, arbitration is contentious. “It puts writers in the position of disputing each other. No matter which way you roll, one side is attacking the other side.” Veteran agent turned producer/manager Richard Arlook sums it all up: “I think the process is kind of like our justice system -- compared to other people’s justice systems, it’s still the best, but it doesn’t mean that innocent people don’t go to jail, and it doesn’t mean that guilty people don’t walk free.”
So when you find yourself sailing towards an arbitration, learn well the lessons from this article, and remember, you’re fighting against a fellow writer(s). Why not instead try to change the system so that ALL writers get credit? Oh, and if you’re thinking of taking the WGA to court – sorry, Charlie.
3) THE EASIEST GENRES TO SELL
There are genres that are much easier to sell than others. Below is a list of genres that are divided into three tiers. The easiest genres to sell are in Tier 1. More difficult genres are included in Tier 2. And the most difficult genres are in Tier 3. Writers can improve the chances of selling their scripts if they choose Tier 1 genres. Examples of recent films are given in each genre. Some films fall into more than one genre category.
TIER 1 GENRES
ACTION - Action films are the easiest to sell because they are popular in foreign markets since they are not dialogue-driven. Examples: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Terminator Salvation,” “Fast and the Furious 3,” “G.I. Joe,” “Quantum of Solace,” “Transformers,” “Live Free and Die Hard.”
ADVENTURE - “Land of the Lost,” “Up,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.”
THRILLER - Also known as suspense films. “Angels and Demons,” “Whiteout,” “Taking Of Pelham 1, 2, 3,” “Michael Clayton,” “88 Minutes,” “Disturbia.”
COMEDY and ROMANTIC COMEDY - “The Proposal,” “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” “He’s Just Not That Into You,” “Yes Man,” “What Happens in Vegas,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”
CRIME - “RocknRolla,” “In Bruges,” “The Bank Job,” “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “The Lookout,” “Flashpoint,” “American Gangster.”
TIER 2 GENRES:
HORROR - “The Happening,” “Quarantine,” “Saw V,” “The Collector,” “Last House on the Left.”
FANTASY - “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Twilight,” “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “The Golden Compass.” Note that all of these are adapted from source material.
SCIENCE FICTION - “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man,” “Fantasy Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” “I Am Legend,” “Spider-Man 3.”
TIER 3 GENRES:
DRAMA - “21,” “Milk,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Atonement,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Sunshine Cleaning.”
MUSICALS - “ Fame,” “Mama Mia!,” “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” “Cadillac Records.”
WESTERNS - “3:10 to Yuma,” “Appaloosa,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
PERIOD - “Sense and Sensibility,” “Across the Universe,” “ Becoming Jane,” “The Patriot,” “Jane Eyre.”
Steve Kaire (HighConceptScreenwriting.com) is a Screenwriter/Pitchman who’s sold 8 projects to the major studios without representation. His top-rated CD, “High Concept--How to Create, Pitch and Sell to Hollywood” is available on his website along with original articles and national screenwriting contests.
Know When to Fold ‘Em
Comes a time in every writer’s career when throwing in the towel seems like the move. But sometimes hanging in there just a little longer can make all the difference in the world. Just ask Jeff Maguire.
By Jim Cirile
Richard Arlook, The Arlook Group
Nicole Clemens, International Creative Management
A.B. Fischer, The Shuman Company
Emile Gladstone, International Creative Management
Julien Thuan, United Talent Agency
Jake Wagner, FilmEngine
We’ve all been there. You spend months, years maybe, on a piece of material, and it fails to get any traction... just like the last one. And the one before that. Every rejection like another pound on a weight belt dragging the writer down. And it’s not just writers struggling to break in—happens to established writers, too. Even after you land your first deal, the struggle doesn’t end there, folks. I chatted with our panelists--and a special guest star--about how writers handle the vicissitudes of the business and when or if you should call it a day.
The ‘80s were tough for Jeff Maguire (The Gridiron Gang.) While he’d found some early success with Victory (“the Stallone soccer movie which I was completely rewritten on,” he says) and landed a few small sales and rewrites, he was still working odd jobs and plunging further and further into credit card debt. As the legend goes, after 12 years in the trenches, he was about ready to pull the plug. He and his wife were discussing moving back to New Hampshire. Then, on the very day the DWP was going to disconnect his power for nonpayment, a bidding war broke out over his spec In the Line of Fire, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“That’s all pretty true,” laughs Maguire, who recalls he was finally starting to get some real interest when the '88 strike hit. “One of the companies that had wanted to hire me was out of business, and another company decided not to develop (my idea.) I ran up credit card debt, and I’d taken out strike loans from the Guild, and that’s what I was burdened with from ’88 through ’91.” Enter producer Jeff Apple (The Recruit,) who had an idea about a Secret Service agent who lost Kennedy and wants to redeem himself. “He thought if I did a good job with it, he could get it set up.” In September of ’91, Apple brought the script to CAA. “They tried to attach their stars--Robert Redford, Michael Douglas I think was there,” recalls Maguire. “And it kind of wallowed for about six months. (Meanwhile my wife and I) were going deeper and deeper in debt. By March of ’92, I was on a first-name basis with the guys from the credit card companies. They’d be calling, ‘Hey, it’s Mike over at NorWest Capital. Did you ever hear from Robert Redford?’ They knew all the details, because I was telling them, hey, if this sells, I’ll be able to pay you guys, no problem.”
Then a friend slipped In the Line of Fire to UTA agent and cofounder Jeremy Zimmer. “CAA actually got angry,” Maguire says, “because they said, ‘Hey, we were trying to sell this!’ But they wouldn’t return my calls.” Zimmer wisely decided to forgo attachments and simply send out the spec. “We got the first real offer on April 1st, and then it sold I think on April 3rd. The ironic thing was, CAA had sent it to Ron Howard (Imagine.) Imagine was looking desperately for a vehicle for Tom Cruise. They sat us down and said, instead of going with the character the way he is now, (what about) making him a younger agent? And I said, but then you’d lose the whole Kennedy backstory.” Maguire then had to break the news to his wife he’d turned down a $150,000 deal. “She said she’d rather live in a shack,” he laughs. (Note to Jeff: sounds like a keeper.) Maguire also feared Zimmer would be angry. “He said, ‘A 28-year-old actor? That’s a great idea,’ and I thought, oh, crap.,” recalls Maguire. “And then he said, ‘Better yet, how about we make it an 8-year-old agent? We’ll get Macaulay Culkin to play the role. Those assholes.’ And it was the following Wednesday that we got the first concrete bid.” The day In the Line of Fire sold, Maguire’s wife had to sell a blouse he’d given her as a birthday present so they’d have the cash to go out and celebrate.
“Those are those Cinderella stories that you really love,” says UTA agent Julien Thuan. “I have a client who had a very similar story. He had been knocking on the door for years and years, and no one answered. And then one day he wrote a script that really resonated with people in a way the other scripts had not, and it radically changed his life from being somebody who had really struggled to someone very desirable with the ability to make a living as a writer.” It took Thuan’s client a decade. “I think you should always give yourself ten years,” agrees manager Jake Wagner. “Those stories in the trades always sound like an overnight sensation, but when you dig deep, it’s always someone who has been laboring away for years and years.”
Maguire’s has become iconic, inspirational, something we writers remind ourselves of when the going gets tough. But keeping in mind the odds, and your own skill level, are important too. “If you’re a writer and you’ve sent out queries and never heard anything back,” says Wagner, “or if you have a sample that friends in the industry have slipped to people, and you never heard anything back, and this is not only with your first script, but your second and third and on and on, that speaks for itself. Trust me, people in the industry find the good material. If you’ve been at it for a while and still not a single meeting, I would start to think twice.”
Maguire notes that after he did finally break in, at every meeting, execs would say to him, “Where have you been all this time? How come we’ve never heard of you?” Maguire’s response to them should make us all think--"I wasn’t that good." Thuan marvels at Maguire’s humility. “All writers improve if they really work on their craft. The voice remains intact, but they hone the craft as they unlock the secrets of screenwriting. I think an aspect of that is true--he improved, and then they paid attention. But sometimes I think it’s luck. As a brand-new writer, if you don’t know anybody, you’re lucky to get people to read your material. Each step of the way you improve your chances. Once you find good representation, or once you build a good network, you minimize the luck factor. But at the beginning, a lot of luck’s involved.” Wagner agrees, “Every script you write, you’re going to get better. As a writer trying to get noticed, I would suggest write something, try to get it out there. If you don’t get any bites, move on to the next one. Always be writing something new. The writers that are stuck on that one script that still nobody has noticed, that’s going to be doom and gloom.”
Still, many of us get burnt out, fed up with the rejection, not to mention lack of income, that goes accompanies the long, harrowing trek to breaking in--which, by the way, continues after you break in, too. “It happens sometimes with very talented people,” notes Thuan. “It’s a tough business. There are very few writers who can write something original and have it sell every single time, or sell a pitch every single time. After a while, that can become a bit draining. They might retire or decide they want to do something else because they get too frustrated with the business.”
Richard Arlook, who recently departed Gersh after 18 years to form production/management company The Arlook Group, says thinks it’s obvious when it makes sense to convince a writer on the edge when they still have some life left in their career, “And it’s pretty obvious when they don’t. The fact is, the older you get, the harder it is. Every year, there’s new, young execs. If you’re somebody who went to film school wanting to be a producer, and you finally get that position where you can hire a writer, you’re generally going to want to work with someone from your generation. That doesn’t mean that the person who’s 50 or 60 or whatever isn’t talented or a great guy, but if you have to make a decision, you’re going with the person you have a relationship with.”
So when you feel like you’re getting nowhere, and you’re ready to throw in the towel on making it as a writer, remember Jeff Maguire. But also recall that Maguire was actually getting at least a little attention before In the Line of Fire. That part of the legend people tend to leave out. “When I meet people who’ve been doing it for 12 years, and they’ve never had anybody say, ‘This is good work,’ I would think, well, maybe you should just take that as a hint. You’re in the wrong line,” Maguire observes.
And also keep in mind there are plenty of other creative outlets for your creativity. “You have to be realistic about what the market wants and doesn’t want,” says Thuan. You can watch movies, see who releases them and know very quickly what they will and won’t make. There are lots of different ways to practice your art form, be it with prose, theater, etc. Perhaps the medium doesn’t work for you. I think people have to be honest with themselves. In a business like the movie business where stakes are high and people make staggering amounts of money, you’re going to have to make compromises. It requires a real understanding of that business. If it doesn’t work, then maybe you can write in another medium.”
Mike J. writes: Thanks, Jim! Really appreciate the quick turnaround and the wonderful service you provide. Doug and I are really happy with the feedback the reader gave us. RD was spot on and there isn't one thing that we disagree with. You will be seeing (script) again once we finish the next draft. Have a safe and happy holiday season!
Jim C. replies: Hey, terrific. That's great to hear. RD is one of our new guys and he gave me really great notes on my new script, too. Keep me posted as it develops, and happy holidays!
RS writes: I referred you guys to Blake Snyder's writing group. Alden and his friend seem very interested in submitting their scripts. I referred another writer friend a few months back. She got it read by one of the readers and was not happy. She felt the reader was trying to give her screenwriting basics instead of suggesting some ways to fix the problem. But she is not happy with anyone, so it is okay.
Jim C. replies:Thanks! But I don't like anyone going away unhappy. Granted, you can't please everybody, but our goal at CI is to have everyone feel empowered no matter what the notes are, and if your friend wasn't happy, then we failed. Send me the script name and I'll look into it.
Linda writes: Hello, I would like to know if our screenplay gets a consider or recommend grade do you have a list of agents or managers that you can submit it to?
Jim C. replies: Hi Linda, we do that for our contest Writers on the Storm, but generally speaking we don't promote that we will help people market their screenplays. I feel that's a bit of a carrot and stick approach, and some companies I've dealt with that make those promises don't deliver. So while we have helped people in the past, it's a rare thing and should be considered an exception. CI's goal is to help you make your script the best it can be; the marketing is up to you. That said, when you have something really strong, it tends to attract its own buzz all by itself anyway. Check out the How Do I Get an Agent? video on our videos page right here.
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