So it was my plan not to post while I was traveling but the Infinite Monkey's in-laws made the mistake of leaving their computer out in plain sight while taking my child for a walk in the park. Some of you may wonder what kind of father chooses to hunch over a keyboard instead of playing with his son in the park. To that I can only say this: the crappy kind.
I'm in Chicago and while I wish I was channelling my inner Mamet I'm unfortunately channelling myself from ten years ago when I sold the (set in Washington) script DEAD DROP which became the (set in Chicago) movie CHAIN REACTION. I spent a grand total of three hours on the Chain Reaction set--I happened to be in Chicago for a wedding---and was invited to the set by the producer. It was my first movie set and I can honestly say I saw things that blew my mind. Namely, when introduced to Keanu Reeves, I saw him unhinge his right hip from his pelvis so he could actually turn his back on me and walk away while the rest of him was still walking towards me to shake my hand.
But this is not that story. This is about spec scripts. Many of you (okay, two) asked about spec scripts. And why wouldn't you? The big spec script sale is the Moby Dick for all the Monkey-Ahabs sailing alone on their little one man schooners in the Sea of Coffee Shops Around America. It's a Holy Grail--mythologized in screenwriting books and blogs and seminars everywhere...But it's also A Big Metal Cup--a real world way to get noticed, get an agent, and get on with your career.
Notice I didn't say "Get paid." Because most of the time you write a spec script you're not going to get paid. Not anymore. The market isn't the way it was back when I was just an Infinite Monkey Baby and Joe Eszterhas was getting paid 3.5 million for an outline written on the back of a napkin at the Polo Lounge. Come to think of it, back then back when wasn't even back when.
But this isn't a career advice column and I've got no insight beyond what everybody knows. The spec market's a bitch and nobody should write a script expecting to sell it. Everybody should write a script expecting to sit alone in a dark room and wonder whether anybody will ever truly give a fuck about them and what they have to say.
And again, like I've said before...it doesn't even matter if anyone gives a fuck about you. It does matter if they give a fuck about what you have to say. But that assumes facts not in evidence. That assumes you have something to say. That you have a voice. That you have an original story to tell. That you have the talent to tell it well. Now of course once you become a working screenwriter you'll be asked to stop all that bullshit. But for now you better put on your Scrappy Cap and find yourself a motherfucking Wangdoodle.
But this is a story about one spec script.
And one actress.
Ten years ago I worked as a reader for New Line Cinema making fifty bucks a script doing coverage. I read ten scripts a week and in the year I did the job I read two scripts that later became movies. I passed on both. One was Red Rock West and who the hell knew John Dahl was that cool and the other was Rudy and I fucking HATE Notre Dame. I passed on Rudy knowing it was a movie and knowing someone was going to make it. But I think Lou Holtz was coaching the Irish back then and damned if I was gonna help that self-righteous old woman recruit one more linebacker. It's people like me who read your work.
So I'm reading forty scripts a month for a couple grand and not making much of a dent in my student loans to SuperMax. Do the math and that's almost five hundred scripts in a one year period and TWO became movies. I cannot remember recommending a script. Ever.
This was the boom time.
And into this mine of fool's gold I carried my own pick and helmet. A line producer I knew wanted me to take an old script he wrote with a stuntman friend of his and rewrite it. The script was eighty pages long with a forty page first act, a ten page second act, and (only by process of elimination) a thirty page final act. It was a mess and certainly called into question whether simply using the correct formatting gives you the right to call something a script.
Line Producer was a sweetheart and offered me a deal: if I'd rewrite the script for a month he'd pay me the same amount I would earn for a month of New Line pay. If we sold the script we'd share a story credit and split the sale price 75/25 with him attached to produce. Now as many of you know I had previously suffered from what we like to call inadequate legal counsel by relying on a lawyer friend of my father's whose only connection to the field of entertainment law was driving past CAA on his way to a dope deal.
(Libel note: This may not be true. It may have been William Morris.)
So this time I called a DIFFERENT friend of my father's who actually worked in the entertainment business. Granted, he was a performer in the blossoming world of cable variety shows.
ME: So whattya think Mr. Cable Variety Show Performer...Should I do the deal?
CABLE VARIETY SHOW PERFORMER: Sure. You'll never sell the script anyway so who cares.
ME: Thank you for your help sir!
Thus buoyed by this enthusiastic endorsement I agreed to the deal (only after exaggerating my New Line pay an extra five hundred bucks). Twenty-five hundred dollars. Half when I started. Half when I finished.
One year later I'd been paid $1250 dollars and written TWENTY-TWO DRAFTS. And although I was living off the $20,000 the Dumb Fucking Lesbian had gotten me for the serial killer rewrite, this new exercise in white slavery was starting to put a crimp in my ultimate plan to become richer than my parents.
Now maybe twenty-two drafts over a year for an average of about fifty bucks per draft seems a little perverse. After all, I was previously making the same amount reading a script as I was currently being paid to write one. But I was stuck in a classic if/then expectation loop and couldn't escape. And these weren't small little changes I was making. To wit:
Six months and a dozen drafts earlier (before the DFL), a writer friend of mine had arranged for his agent to slip the script to a Fox executive. Everyone got all hopped up smoking the spec crack and the executive took it home to read it over the weekend. I counted the hours. When I reached FIVE HUNDRED AND FOUR I called the producer. No answer. I called my friend's agent. No answer. Around FIVE HUNDRED THIRTEEN I bellied up to the bar and called the executive, herself.
ME: Uh, Hi. This is Josh Friedman. I wrote...that script you were reading.
EXECUTIVE: Oh yeah, Josh Friedman. That script.
ME: I was kinda wondering. What happened with that script?
EXECUTIVE: What happened?
EXECUTIVE: I passed.
ME: You did?
EXECUTIVE: Two weeks ago. No one told you?
ME: Well of course...Everyone told me. I just wanted to hear it from you personally because rejection makes me hard.
God it would've been so cool if I'd have said that. Actually I said:
And then she told me something that very few executives in the ten years since have told me: the truth.
EXECUTIVE: Honestly, Josh. You've taken one of the most commercial premises for a movie and rendered it in one of the most uncommercial ways I could imagine.
She then spent half an hour listing the various screenwriting sins she believed I'd committed. And she was kinda right.
The next day I called Line Producer and told him A) he was a serious dickhead for not calling me after Fox passed and B) I was cutting sixty pages out of the script and starting over.
So after a year and twenty-two drafts it's more hobby than spec script but I've stuck with it. There's a poker term called "pot committed" and it happens when there's already so much money in the pot that it makes mathematical sense for you to call a final bet even if you're an underdog. I'd like to think this is where I was at.
Of course there's also a poker term called "loser."
Now the other part of the story started a couple months earlier when I began dating a woman who will for the sake of this blog and this blog only be referred to as THE ACTRESS. She is no longer an actress and it can be debated whether she truly ever was one. Much like my line producer's script, her acting talents significantly called into question how broadly we want to define the term "ACTRESS." Unfortunately for those poor souls who run across actresses in their daily lives, there is no practical difference between working actress, out of work actress, wanna-be actress, bad actress, good actress, used-to-be-good-but-now-an-infomercial actress, or star. They're all crazy.
Here's the type I was dating: the My Father is a Huge Director Who Puts Me in his Movies and got Me an Agent and Pays for My Acting Classes ACTRESS. Her career consisted of five cameos in her father's movies with enough lines to get her SAG health insurance. She was very sweet and quite smart and had her father not been a big director I'm sure she would've been successful working out in the real world doing something productive that didn't involve short, strained conversations with her agent, making me run lines with her for a part as OLDER SISTER #2, and staring at her ass in a mirror.
In the days preceding the day of my big spec launch things had gotten a little dicey between ACTRESS and myself. She had a touch of Social Dyslexia and whenever we were in groups larger than two she became convinced I was an absolute stranger and spent the evening flirting with the male whose body language most resembled her father's withheld approval.
But I knew if I could isolate her in a male-deprivation tank she'd probably be on her best behavior. I invited her to sit by the phone with me while my spec made the rounds. I was not a very bright boy.
Now even though back then wasn't really back when back then, it was still a time in the spec market when you'd send your script out in the morning and by lunch you'd have a pretty good idea if you were gonna be invited to the screenwriter poker game at Dominick's next week.
So the Dumb Fucking Lesbian's amped and even though Line Producer's ICM agent is taking the lead it's a group effort and she's in serious capital letter mode.
"OH MY GOD JOSH YOUR SPEC IS ON ITS WAY BY THIS AFTERNOON YOUR WHOLE LIFE COULD CHANGE ISN'T THAT AN AMAZING CONCEPT SERIOUSLY HOW ARE YOU GONNA SPEND YOUR DAY WAITING FOR MY CALLS BY THE PHONE?"
ME: Actress is bringing over bagels and we're gonna read the New York Times together on the couch.
DFL: Really. I thought the two of you were done.
ME: I think things are gonna work.
DFL: Are you still subverting her by suggesting bad line readings when the two of you rehearse?
ME: I did that one time and she deserved it.
DFL: I never said she didn't.
But everyone's gotta be torched by lightning once before they'll stop walking rainy golf courses during thunderstorms wearing tap shoes and waving a three-iron over their head. Actress showed up and she'd even brought lox and it did cross my mind that maybe this was the woman for me and today was going to be the best day of my life. I couldn't even hear my tap shoes clicking as I walked.
Two hours later the first call came in. Junior studio executives had read it and the response was great. Bosses were reading it over lunch and I didn't need the DFL to tell me that if you can get an upper-level studio executive to read your script between 12:30 and 2:30 you're doing something right.
By the end of lunch the first offers starting coming in. I have to be honest and tell you I don't remember what the numbers started at or how quickly they went up but the DFL started calling me every half-hour with updates. I'd just hung up with the DFL for the seventh time and was wondering how the AMG class Mercedes compared with the new BMW M3 when suddenly the rain started falling. Hard.
ME: (humming a little tune) I'm gonna be rich rich rich, richer than Dad...
ACTRESS: Josh. We need to talk.
ME: Rich rich rich hm? What? Talk?
ACTRESS: I don't think I can do this anymore.
ME: Are we out of lox?
ACTRESS: You're a great guy. I like you a lot...It's just...I can't...do this. Us. Anymore.
DFL: OH MY GOD JOSH FOX HAS JUST GONE UP ANOTHER FIFTY AND I THINK SONY'S CALLING--
ME: I'll call you right back.
ME AGAIN: Actress...Sit down. Think this through...Things are going great here...We can work it out...I'm gonna be rich and you can stop worrying I'm dating you for your dad's money...
ACTRESS: I know this is your big day but--
ME: Hold that horribly wounding thought...Hello? Where's it at now?
By the end of business two things were clear: a) I was going to sell my script for a lot of money and b) to commermorate the day this crazy bitch was dumping my ass.
The next morning Dead Drop sold to the same executive at Fox who had passed on it six months earlier. I don't like to talk actual dollars but because the numbers were public knowledge and because I think it's instructive I'll break the whole thing down for you.
Amount of money paid to me by Line Producer three days before spec went out: $1250
Amount of money script sold for according to Variety: $1.2 million
Amount of money an executive told me I missed out on by not selling to his studio because they weren't willing to pay as much in "producer's fees": $50,000
Amount of money out of the $1.2 million that Line Producer's agent negotiated as "producer's fees": $600,000.
Amount of the remaining $600,000 also taken by Line Producer due to 75/25 split: $150,000
Amount taken by the DFL and Josh's brand new professional real lawyer: $67,500
Amount left for Josh before taxes: 382,500
Amount left for Josh after taxes: 200,000
Amount of Josh's SuperMax loans: $25,000
Amount of a BMW M3: $60,000
Amount I missed out on by not rewriting the script one year later: $750,000
And in case you're wondering, here's the Variety headline the day my sale made the trades:
'FOREPLAY' FOR PAY: ESZTERHAS' SCRIPT TO SAVOY FOR $3.5 MILLION
It was a fucking boom time.
And as far as the Actress is concerned...well, there's a happy ending there. I got a phone call from her the day my sale was in the paper. This is exactly what happened:
ACTRESS: Hi, it's me. Actress.
ACTRESS: Look...I don't know how to say this but...did you shellack your Variety article to my apartment door?
ACTRESS: Just tell me. Did you or did you not polyurethene your Variety article to my apartment door?
ME: I did not.
ACTRESS: Well I'm a little freaked out. Do your friends know where I live? Did you tell them?
ME: I have nothing to do with it. I swear to God.
ACTRESS: All right. Gotta go...Oh yeah, by the way...I've got an audition coming up...I thought maybe you'd help me run lines...You know, just as friends.
ME: My pleasure. As friends.
ACTRESS: Great. I'll call ya...
Needless to say she didn't get that job. Perhaps it had something to do with her line readings...
But she did find out who pasted my Variety article on her apartment door:
Now that's some parenting I can get behind.