A Brave New World
I’m not trying to be the Ronan Farrow of this cause. I don’t actually think any of this will make much of a difference. But if you wake up one day and realize someone stole your idea and ran with your project, you tend to look for answers, so this series serves as a summary of my findings when researching the matter.
Let’s face it: Hollywood has existed for a very long time and it shall exist in its current form for decades to come. Yes, Hollywood as we know it is over: that’s mainly because the world wide web has crashed the gates and emancipated creators, but when it comes to larger productions, the reality is independent creators can’t pull it off alone.
When you pitch such concepts to scripted distributors like Amazon, Netflix, CBS or HBO but lack a track record in developing or producing scripted programming yourself, they encourage you to partner with someone that’s experienced in the genre. Usually, agents protect you from meeting scrupulous producers. Ideally, you meet the right would-be partner, but sometimes you cross paths with unethical people and later on find out they took your concept and cut you out. Other times, you don’t hear back and the project magically emerges with someone else. If you invite someone over to dinner and then realize they’re shopping your candlestick on eBay, you have a legitimate reason to be a bit peeved. Of course, if you trust the wrong people, I suppose you get what you deserve.
Given my experience in digital media — where competitors had to sometimes collaborate to help build this nascent industry — I’m always a fish out of water when I seek to partner with people in traditional entertainment (i.e. regardless of whether the producer is based on Los Angeles or Montreal) and serve as an ally. Personally, I’m not trying to change Hollywood, I’ve diligently adapted my tactics to respect the norms of the industry and community, but I don’t want to change my principles for Hollywood, either – which may explain some of the motivation here (of course, there’s more to it).
When I started my company, VCs disapproved of my philosophy then too, today they all realize maybe my emphasis on people ahead of profit wasn’t so foolish, neither was the focus on culture and servant leadership management style. Most of them are phonies – and not in that Michael Jordan kind of way!
The Paradox of Screenwriting
Scriptwriting is a paradox. It’s an art form, which I’ve yet to master, aimed at distilling a narrative to its most basic form so that a director can easily convert the story into visuals. The more you cram in, the worse, it would seem. You want a style that is very descriptive without it being too detailed; like you are reading a painting and not text.
But, I’ve noticed that as a collective, screenwriters do not command the respect from the industry that actors or directors do. Sure, some of it is due to demand and supply: there are thousands of aspiring scriptwriters, but the good ones are in high demand.
I know of many projects that don’t move forward due to the inability to find a good (i.e. the “right”) writer. I would know, in one instance in 2016, I signed a development deal with Tom Lesinski at Sonar Entertainment to produce something in the Succession/Billions genre. That odyssey went nowhere, partly because we couldn’t match it with the right writer (whose scripts had previously been sold to a network or streamer and could nail the tone/voice).
Billions was created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin (whom in addition to hosting a show on CNBC penned Too Big To Fail); Succession is the brainchild of British author, screenwriter and producer Jesse Armstrong. In the former scenario, it’s unlikely for Hollywood to rip off someone like Sorkin; in the latter, Armstrong served as a one-man show to prevent someone from ripping him off.
I certainly wish I’d read Powerhouse on CAA before venturing into this universe. Who is Michael Ovitz is a nice complementary book to Powerhouse.
The Boss & King of Kings: Show runners, Directors and Head Writers
With no disrespect intended to the director or show runners, who very well may be boss on the set, I refer to the top screenwriter as the so-called King of Kings, because if the story can’t be written, it can’t be directed let alone produced. Actors are drawn to the best scripts. The top writers command a king’s ransom per script (and yes, sometimes the show runner is the writer, for said reason).
Speaking of Michael Ovitz, in 1989 he threatened to destroy (natch) writer Joe Eszterhas’ career after the writer notified the powerful agent of his desire to leave Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to join a rival. In his response to Ovitz’s threats, Eszterhas noted that he “knew when [he] walked in that [Ovitz] wouldn’t be happy — no other writer at CAA makes $1.25 million a screenplay.” Eszterhas responded by defending himself, reflecting on his experience as an immigrant, standing up for himself.
“Maybe it's because I came to this country as a child and was the victim of a lot of bullying when I was an adolescent, but I always fought back; I was bloodied a lot, but I fought back."
Getting the last laugh, Eszterhas would go on to command $3M subsequently for “Basic Instinct.” Speaking of being blacklisted, is there a chance Hollywood blacklists me for calling out this practice?
Perhaps, but privilege is being able to live by your principles (and not merely telling people FU).
While reading the oral history on SNL, I recall reading a quote about how “of all of the industries in the world, Hollywood may be the one that draws the most insecure people, seeking fame, fortune, or simply a creative outlet to remedy whatever ails them.” If you decide to take a meeting with Crazy Joe Davola, hear of one of his projects and then pursue it without him, how do you think he’s going to react?
In the next part, we’ll discuss how perpetrators of Idea Theft gaslight their victims, before exploring some of the court cases and precedents. Meanwhile, if you want to share your experience or contact me, you can do so using this form.
The pen/sword image? Courtesy TheOdysseyOnline via Pinterest.