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Spec Sale Spotlight: From Bartending to Bidding War

Professional screenwriters love carving out stories. Agents and managers love the business of carving out deals and careers. Then there is the perfect storm, the meeting of these two forces. In Hollywood, it’s called a bidding war.
Matt Aldrich

Matt Aldrich

Professional screenwriters love carving out stories. Agents and managers love the business of carving out deals and careers. Then there is the perfect storm, the meeting of these two forces. In Hollywood, it’s called a bidding war. In May, in a week that Matthew Aldrich will surely never forget, he saw a decade of work come together in a frenzy of excitement, culminating in the biggest sale of his career. The script, Father Daughter Time: A Tale of Armed Robbery and Butterfly Kisses, was one he never even expected would attract studios, much less sell for $500,000 against $800,000. “The movie is very contained. No explosions or car chases ... it’s father and daughter on the run from the law. There’s nothing big about the idea or the execution, so the idea wasn’t to start a bidding war among the studios. It floored everyone, especially me.”

The Well-Traveled Screenwriter
Aldrich’s career began in theatre, writing stageplays for a traveling children’s theatre company. He attended UCLA, originally to become an actor, but was a writer by the time he left. When he graduated, he found work at the Sundance Institute. “Power of the pen. I guess I wrote a good letter,” Aldrich jokingly recollects. He explained that he’d applied for a different job than the one he got, but it wasn’t a disappointment. “My job was to set up the International Sundance Labs. Within three months, I had to get a passport and go to Havana. I had never been out of the country before, so this was just blowing my mind.”

For a self-proclaimed “theatre guy with a chip on his shoulder,” the position had been an ideal first job. “Sundance was the perfect way for me to get introduced to the movie business. If I had done ... the agency, assistant route, I think I would have turned around and left town. [Sundance] ... was just as touchy-feely as the theatre school. It was also really respected.” For Aldrich, this meant getting a foot in the door. “I had access to professionals who I had no business calling,” he remembers of the job that led to the start of his screenwriting career; at first on small budget projects with pay so little it required him to maintain bartending hours. “I got to talk to a lot of people,” Aldrich continues. “It helped strip away some of the fantasy of the spec sale. When I made the decision to come to a career in screenwriting, I was coming from a much more informed position.”

From Tips to Bids
Aldrich broke in with his first spec sale for his script Cleaner. “From the time I sat down to write it until the time I saw a first cut was five years,” remembers Aldrich, who identifies this as the point when he was able to stop pouring drinks behind a bar. “The gods smiled upon me about four-and-a-half years ago, once Cleaner got made,” he says. At this time Aldrich met literary manager Jewerl Ross. “Jewerl really got me working solidly. Things really took off once he got involved. It led to more meetings, which led to more jobs.”

The writer’s big week started when he turned in the script for Father Daughter Time to his new agents at CAA, who felt a big attachment was needed to get the movie produced: “We made a short list of directors, maybe 10 names that we wanted to submit to.” While Matt Damon’s name wasn’t on that list of directors, Ross had a relationship with Matt’s producing partner. “Matt’s guy really flipped for the script ... and he flips for very little,” says Aldrich. “Just the fact that he was forwarding it on to Matt was in itself a victory. And when word came back that Matt wanted to do it AND direct it, it was so much more than we expected.”

The Dawn of War
Aldrich was self-aware enough to keep a log and Microsoft Excel-generated “Stress vs. Optimism Graph” tracking his emotions, hour by hour, throughout his big week. At this point, Aldrich’s reps were having their fun. “They create interest and then they create paranoia and they create a little battle,” says Aldrich admiringly. “It’s what they live for. I stood back on the sidelines and watched them do their thing.” I joked that it must have been fun to see his manager earn his 10%; he leaped and said “more like me TAKING his 90%!” For Aldrich, it really was an experience. “I’m very rarely in Jewerl’s office, but I got to watch him with a phone on each ear. I was like ‘HOLY SHIT!’ He’s amazing.”

Offers began to come in Monday afternoon. “Matt called me Tuesday afternoon to congratulate me ... and we chatted for about 10 minutes.” By the end of the week, there were several interesting offers. One of them was from Damon himself. “Matt wanted to buy it with his own money. They were competing against Warner Bros. until the 11th hour.” Ultimately, Aldrich’s reps were able to help bridge the gap. “Thursday night they came to an agreement that entailed Warner Bros. coming in [to help Damon] with studio money.” Friday morning, the deal was done. Aldrich spent that evening with his wife, watching a musician friend perform near the beach, unwinding from the wildest of weeks.

In the Distance
With Damon’s acting schedule, directorial notes and subsequent rewrites will not begin until 2012. This will be an interesting film to watch out for, though. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar® for Good Will Hunting. Affleck, after directing the Oscar-nominated The Town, has become one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. If Damon can find similar success with his directorial debut, Aldrich may have more “Stress vs. Optimism” charts to begin graphing.