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Behind the Lines with DR: Writer in a Chicken Suit

With your permission, let me set the scene. The place was a casual-styled conference room at a movie studio. The characters in the room were the studio’s president of production, his younger executive VP of development, a pair of even younger creative execs marking on trademark legal pads, and yours truly, El Scribbelador. The subject was a page one rewrite of a screenplay the studio had been developing for a couple of years. They’d wanted to start over with just the idea. I was very interested in landing the gig and had just performed a detailed presentation on how I planned to turn the script into a castable, commercial movie. Over my career, I’d been in many versions of this meeting. After I finished a pitch, it was usually followed by ten or fifteen minutes of discussion. By the time I walked out of the room I could usually tell by the tenor of the meeting if there’d be a call from business affairs to begin negotiations or if my agent was going to have to chase down the executive to find out why they were “going in another direction.”

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Then I got a question I’d never heard before.

“Tell me, Doug,” began to the studio president. “Do you think this is a movie I can sell?”

I have to admit, I was somewhat blindsided by the query. It wasn’t as if I was pitching an original script. This was the studio’s movie. The studio’s idea they’d already spent some significant dollars on. It was the studio who’d baited the hook and tossed it in order to troll for a new writer. How was I to know if they could sell it?

“Hard for me to say,” I replied. “Isn’t it your movie?”

This was the part where I wondered if the studio president had suffered some sort of post-weekend-box-office-fail-brain-aneurysm. Did he suddenly forget the script we were discussing was studio property? And had I just embarrassed the head honcho in front of his staff?

“I know it’s our property,” he said. “I’m just asking your opinion. I don’t want to throw more money at something I can’t sell.”

Fair enough, I thought. So I answered honestly and in the affirmative. Moved on. Was eventually offered the job and accepted. But what lingered was that question. Why on Earth was a studio president asking the writer if the property he owned was something he could sell? Didn’t he have an entire marketing division to answer that question?

Over the years, it’s become so evident. Movies are treated more and more as products that must compete for shelf space with a host of other entertainment options. Sure. Content is still king. But the new emperor in every room is marketing.

Now, I may not like the way things are. As a writer, I want to be right where I am now. Seated in my word-jockey cockpit, keyboard on my lap, letting the excitement of the story guide me to the next page. Once I’m finished, I’d prefer to move on to the next challenge, be it movie, novel, or blog. But facts are facts. We live in a competitive world. And the buyers, be they the recreational reader or a studio bigwig, are subject to a consistent bombardment of advertising pitches.

Why as a screenwriter did I pretend I was above wrestling over the same question every studio boss since Louis B. Mayer has asked? Sure it’s good, but how the hell do I sell it?

Rewind to about a decade ago. I was on the road, in the midst of doing some major city media hits to promote my second novel, True Believers. And no. The publisher wasn’t paying for it. Their primary sales push for the book was dedicated to reviews, newspaper ads, and praying like hell I succeeded in getting the book made into a major motion picture with gazillions in ad bucks behind it. That would allow them to slap the movie’s poster on to a paperback and start up the money-printing machine. No. This was an eastern seaboard publicity tour set up by my publicist. The final destination on the trip was New York City. I’d just finished a radio talk show in Baltimore when my publicist called with a bit of a warning.

“Listen,” she said, finally getting around to the meat of her call. “Lost a couple of media spots in New York. Still have the Judith Regan show. And I’ve booked you with a talk at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU.”

“And I’m speaking at NYU because?” I asked.

“Thought it would be fun,” she said. “You’ve got a lot to teach film students.”

“Yeah? And how many hardcovers do you think that’ll sell?”

That line shut her up. I know it sounds rude, but I was paying her some significant coin and this wasn’t the first time I’d been twenty-four hours out from showing up in a city and she’d called to inform me she was about to under-deliver on her over-promises. To make matters worse, the week the hardcover was released, Avon-Morrow (my publisher) had been purchased by Harper Collins. Knowing they were all about to be fired, much of Avon-Morrow had cashed in on unused vacation days. I’d done four media hits in Boston only to find out that when the independent bookstores called my publisher to reorder their supply of True Believers, there was nobody in the warehouse to crate and ship a box.

“Here’s how it’s gonna go in New York,” I said to the publicist. “You stay in the office and grind out some decent media for my book or I’m gonna get out the chicken suit.”

“Chicken suit?” she asked.

“Yup. I will put on a chicken suit and dance out in front of that Barnes and Noble at 5th and 46th, waving around one of those pointy arrows that says ‘Buy My Goddamn Book!’ And when people ask me who was the genius behind the chicken suit marketing idea, I’m gonna tell ‘em it was you, my big time New York City publicist.”

That’s when my concept of Writer in a Chicken Suit was born. Yet still, I hadn’t fully embraced it. As a novelist, I was clearly willing to do just about anything in order to jazz up my book sales. But as a screenwriter, I was still put off by dressing up a pitch or a spec with a little extra salesmanship like visual aids or sizzle reels, let alone having to assist the studio head when he asked me if or how he should sell the movie.

Maybe it was about tradition. Historically, a screenwriter’s job was to write something that sparked the studio, producers, directors or stars with the excitement of what could be. If the script turned into a movie, there were entire marketing departments full of artists and copywriters and advertising wannabes dedicated to lighting a fire under the public’s movie-going butts. The system allowed writers to stand or fall based entirely on the way their words fell on the page. As I write this it sounds so damned idyllic. And equally unrealistic.

Think about it. As human beings we’re natural salesmen. If we want just about anything in this life—be it the teacher we want to notice us or a chance at dancing with that girl we’ve been eyeing across the gymnasium floor—we gotta find something magic in ourselves worth selling in order to stand out. Why then should I expect film and TV moguls to divine my writerly intentions for box-office glory only through my words? If my ultimate goal is to convince a studio to BUY, I shouldn’t be reluctant to SELL or assist them in brainstorming a marketing scheme.

I’m self-publishing now. Which means I’m responsible for both producing and selling my product. But now that I think about it, haven’t I always? I don’t blurt out every idea that streaks pale and naked through my brain. I’m always pitching stories to myself and am either passing or buying or kicking the idea down the road until I can bring it up in a staff meeting with me, myself, and I. And that bunch of know-it-alls is always asking the same damn questions. Is it marketable? Would anybody want to see it, read it, buy it?

Is there a moral to the story? If you haven’t already found it tattooed to your forehead, then ask yourself this question: Why did the chicken suit cross the road?