Monday, June 11, 2012

What I Wish I’d Heard At Graduation, Part 10: Stay Out of Fantasy Camp

The most reliable way for an aspiring screenwriter to secure representation is to win a contest, and that’s what I did.  I wrote a bio-pic of Alan Turing (who broke the Nazi codes during World War 2 and helped invent the computer) which won a Sloan award and a Columbia award. 

Based on that script and a lower-budget thriller script, I got managers, who circulated the Turing script to a few small companies.  As it turned out, it got me a lot of meetings, and it’s still getting me work as a writing sample, but it never sold.  My reps weren’t that surprised, since they said the subject matter was a hard sell.  Maybe it would have sold a few years ago, but there weren’t a lot of spec sales anymore because money was tight…

So imagine how it felt when I read one day that a studio had just paid a cool million dollars for an Alan Turing biopic from a first-time screenwriter…who wasn’t me.  I can’t help but think of that as the million dollars that I didn’t make. 

Of course, that screenplay might be a lot better than mine (I can’t bring myself to read it) but as soon as it sold, I knew what I’d really done wrong… I chose to live in fantasy camp. 

There are several biographies of Turing, but only one that really goes in depth.  I knew that I should attempt to option that book, but I never did.  Instead, two producers optioned it and hired another first-time writer to tackle it.  Obviously, if I had already been attached, these producers would have had to come to me with their proposal, and if they liked my script enough to back it, we would have been in business…

I complained in my “What’s the Matter With Hollywood” pieces about Hollywood’s insistence on owning a property, but I never took that lesson to heart.  If you bring them a bio-pic that you just sniffed out of the air, then they’ll be suspicious… if this story is just lying around, how come nobody’s used it before?  But if you bring it to them as something that you’ve locked up…and you can sell them the exclusive rights to, then that will seem like something of value. 

So why did I never attempt to option the in-depth biography, which was long out-of-print, and quite possibly not under option when I first wrote my script?  Because I was still living in fantasy camp.  I convinced myself that I didn’t really need to secure the rights, because I had drawn on five or six books, so I could claim that I had used less than 51% of any one book. 

But honestly, I was afraid that I’d track down the author and find out that somebody did have the rights.  I was so enamored of the potential value of this subject that I was terrified to discover the actual value.  If they said “Someone else owns the rights, so cease and desist” then even though I still might have been legally able to pursue a competing project, I would have been too bummed. 

And besides, what if I had been unable to afford the option?  When every script is just fantasy camp, then it seems silly to lay out any money.  Don’t screenwriters create value out of thin air?  Why pay for that? 

I’ll tell you why: One Million Dollars…that I didn’t make because I was more interested in the fantasy of writing a screenplay than I was in treating this like a business.


j.s. said...

Yeah, but the other part of fantasy camp in this story is the idea that it's wise to throw money around optioning stuff when nobody knows who you are. And paradoxically it's actually harder dealing with obscure out-of-print authors than, say, Stephen King, for whom there's a known price and process. I've been there twice. It was a complete waste of time both times and ultimately went nowhere mostly because the authors in question had even less of an idea what they were doing negotiating for their rights than I did.

If you were in the same situation now that you've had some success and professional legitimacy, it would make more sense to pursue that option.

Matt Bird said...

I'll bet I could have pulled it off-- I'd won awards (and money) with the script, I had another biographer's support, I had the Sloan Foundation backing the script... Like I said, I was afraid of the possibility of the sort of experience you describe, but now I obviously wish I'd taken the chance, regardless.

j.s. said...

I misunderstood the order of things. I thought you had meant securing the literary rights before you wrote a single word of the script or had any success with it. (Which is unfortunately still the way its supposed to work with fiction.) Of course my lawyer would mess himself hearing any of this. If there's anything I learned from him it's that negotiations for literary rights are a business deal plain and simple. You should never fall in love with a property too quickly or put the cart (script) before the horse (book). The best thing you can hope for is to have an author on the other end who's done it before or knows someone personally who has. At least then he/she will have some sense of reality about the terms and the actual money involved (generally no more than 2-5% of the finished film's total budget, which is a lot if the film costs 100 bajillion, and considerably less so if you're shooting it all in one borrowed location).

Beth said...

Wow, i guess this means it's time for me to leave Fantasy Camp, too, and actually start my online comic book.

thanks for kick in the rear as you slam the blog door on us!