Let’s review. The story for my legal thriller was stolen and resold for millions. The producing thieves had been caught. I’d negotiated a hard but wisely political deal that allowed the celebrity screenwriter to scribble the script while the company paid me handsomely to stand aside. If the film ever got made, I stood to earn most of the perpetrators’ coin and receive the moral victory of a credit on screen and all paid ads.
But no. The story couldn’t end there.
The cash rich indie-studio which made the original mega-deal was seeking a capable writer to fix the lousy script the celebrity scribe had delivered. Believe it or not, I was the word jockey who got the call. And because it had been more than a few years down a twisting, Hollywood road, I was inclined to believe that they’d entirely forgotten from whom the original story came. Me.
The moment the celebrity screenwriter’s screenplay arrived at my front door, I tore open the envelope and sat down to pore over what nearly four million dollars had wrought in printer paper and ink. I’d read a few high-dollar screenplays. None had been perfect in my view, but most were pretty darn well-crafted. Having also read a number of rewrites of my own work, I expected a relatively similar feel. My characters. My structure. Someone else’s voice, crayoned scenery, and ham-fisted word-play.
What I encountered was none of the above.
Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter’s script contained so little of my thriller story that I wondered what all the hubbub had been about in the first place. I’d read his golden treatment. And it was a nearly paragraph for paragraph ape of my stolen pitch. Why the hell had he departed so completely from the characters, plot and construct?
Then it hit me. In those earlier negotiations for me to take a giant step back into the shadows, the one thing I couldn’t sign away was the story credit. This is because of a simple WGA tenet (and part of the collective bargaining agreement) that forbids studios and producers from enticing writers to take money in exchange for forgoing the basic right for their name to be forever etched on the picture.
Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter, in his megomaniacal zeal to avoid sharing credit, tossed most of the stolen story and wrote a radically different movie.
Talk about your bait and switch.
My new agent arranged a meeting with the studio. I marked the date in indelible ink and made certain I showed up on time.
If anything, this was going to be entertaining.
“Nice seeing you, Doug,” said the studio boss man, shaking my hand like an old friend.
The studio boss and I had worked together some years earlier on another picture. And I’d enjoyed most of the process until the cigar-chomping immigrant decided he didn’t want to pay me for the final draft, arguing that the reason he’d stiffed me was because the movie star had screwed him over. I suppose he figured screwings were something to be re-gifted. I fought back and eventually won my paycheck. I wondered if there were going to be some residual hard feelings.
We met over a lacquered conference table tucked in the corner of his massive, art-stuffed office. Along with a pair of derigueur development execs, we were joined by the boss man’s former business partner, a man of equally foreign origins. Though both men grew up on different sides of the planet, after years of financing massive, worldwide hit pictures they’d come to possess nearly the exact same cartoonish Soup-Nazi-meets-Steve-Buscemi accent.
“So, Doug,” said the studio boss. “You like the project.”
“Oh, I very much like it,” I said, grinning widely on the inside.
“Now, you understand the script you read wasn’t the story I bought,” admitted the studio boss. “Did your agents send you the treatment too?”
“They did, yes.”
“So now you know (Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter) totally fucked me on the script.”
“Appears that he did,” I concurred. “Sorry he did that to you.”
“Okay. So you read everything.” He said. “So tell me why you think you’re the writer to fix my broken movie?”
“You don’t know?” I asked.
“No,” said the boss, glancing to his D-crew as if he hadn’t received an all-important memo.
“I have an extraordinary affection for this story,” I said, squaring myself to keep a straight face. “And I feel really, really close to it.”
“So you like it a lot,” added the former partner, attempting to move the conversation along.
“I don’t just like it,” I said. “I love it.”
“I do too,” said the boss. “That’s why I paid that bastard four million to write it.”
I think I must’ve been grinning like Charlie Sheen high on Charlie Sheen because I suddenly felt the stares.
“Seriously,” I said. “You don’t remember?”
The studio boss looked around the table and shrugged, completely at a loss.
“Do you recall when you acquired the treatment?” I asked. “The big deal. Big trade announcement. Then there was this… problem?”
“Okay,” said the boss. “I remember something, now. Some kind of legal thing.”
“The story you bought,” I said. “Something about it having been ripped off from another writer.”
Once again, the studio boss looked to his compatriots for help, but received none.
“I know,” I said. “It was supposed to be a secret. Only the lawyers and the original writer were supposed to have actual knowledge of it.”
“But you do?” asked the studio boss. “You have knowledge of the situation?”
“More knowledge that you can imagine,” I added.
“Because you’re the writer!” burst the former partner as if he was deaf and just formed his first BINGO. “The stolen story was yours!"
“The very same,” I said. “We have a winner.”
“Oh my God,” said the former partner, slapping the table with both his palms. The development duo looked suitably perplexed, completely unaware of the secret deal to conceal the theft of my legal thriller.
I turned to the studio boss, fully expecting a look of astonishment. But I was wrong. Not that he wasn’t surprised at the lottery-like coincidence.
The boss man was just that cool, snipping the butt end of a Schwarzennegger-sized stogie and putting flame to it with five practiced puffs of smoke.
“So I guess this means you’re the right guy for the job,” smirked the studio boss.
“Ya think?” I glibly sat back in my seat.
And that was it. Maybe the shortest audition of my writing career. The studio boss stood and shook my hand. Then he laughed and added:
“(Mr. Jellyfish) is not gonna like this one bit.”
And he was so right.
The moment Mr. Jellyfish was informed that I’d landed the gig, he began a series of angry protests, all of which fell upon deaf ears. In addition to my old deal, a new agreement was negotiated that paid me a premium to pen a spanking new script.
Upon my delivery, the screenplay was received with great excitement.
All’s well that ends well?
Not so fast. The once cash-rich independent studio, after financing a sudden succession of big budget bombs, eventually ran out of green, selling the rights to my movie off to another indie company which, soon after, also flipped belly up in the tough economy. Sadly, the ownership of the property remains murky and the picture has yet to find cast or a director. But I’m hopeful that star-spangled legal thrillers make a comeback to the big screen.
As for the other players? Well, like many in showbiz, Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter has moved from hot to cold. From time to time he shows up on the Hollywood radar. And not long ago, a studio talked to me about taking on a TV project that Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter had been long attached to. Over a year had gone by without the famed scribe having so much as come up with a log line. Clearly having tired of waiting, the studio wanted to move on to someone else. I declined and wished them luck.
Mr. Euro has pretty much turned into a vanishing act. I have absolutely no clue to his career whereabouts nor do I much care.
Then there’s infamous Mr. Jellyfish. After unraveling his whole heinous act, I repeated the tale to a major film and TV producer. It turns out he knew Mr. Jellyfish all too well, having once caught the thief with a dirty hand in an entirely different cookie jar. I obviously wasn’t the first intended victim. I sincerely doubt I was the last. Despite his lousy rep, Mr. Jellyfish has been able to forge a career, stenciling his name as a producer on no less than ten movies and TV shows in the years since our unfortunate encounter.
If the cream rises to the top, so apparently does the scum.
For those of you who still wonder if I made the right decision in choosing to negotiate a deal instead of blowing up the entire thieving enterprise, I stand by my political decision. The super agent who once repped the celebrity screenwriter eventually left the agency biz and turned to producing. We developed a number of projects together, one of which turned into a hit movie.
So I rest my case.
Read Doug's new thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.
- Legally Speaking, It Depends: They Stole My Movie Idea!
- More Behind the Lines with DR articles by Doug Richardson
- Primetime: The Truth About Protecting Your Work
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