The Business of Screenwriting: You will fuck up

September 15th, 2011 by

If you work in Hollywood, you can be assured of one thing: You will fuck up.

How do I know this?

Because everybody who works in Hollywood has fucked up.

Here are some enormous cinematic examples:

In 1963 Twentieth Century Fox almost went out of business due to the excessive costs and poor box office performance of the movie Cleopatra, originally budgeted for $2M, ending up costing $44M.

In 1980 Michael Cimino followed up his Academy Award winning movie The Deer Hunter with Heavens Gate, that due to cost overruns forced the sale of its studio United Artists.

In 1982 Francis Ford Coppola self-funded [through Zoetrope] the movie One From The Heart to the tune of $25M. It grossed $630K and put Coppola into bankruptcy court.

In 1986 at the height of his TV career, Bill Cosby wrote, produced and starred in Leonard Part 6, a movie that earned only $4.6M and earned three Razzies.

Also in 1986, George Lucas produced Howard the Duck, one of the most ridiculed movies of all time.

The 1995 movie Cutthroat Island loses a reported $90M and is ranked the #1 movie flop in history by the Guinness World Book of Records.

In 1997 Kevin Costner starred in The Postman with a production budget of $80M and B.O. revenues of $17.6M

A pet project for John Travolta, the 2000 movie Battlefield Earth was reviled by critics and lost more than $50M.

In 2002 the movie A Sound of Thunder was released to the sounds of silence, the $80M movie grossing a mere total of $1.9M.

In 2007 Eddie Murphy starred in The Adventures of Pluto Nash, a movie that grossed minus $95M.

On and on it goes, a loooooooooonnnnnnngggg history of Hollywood fuckitude. Silent film producers thought sound movies would fail. Film people were certain TV would never catch on. None other than Steven Spielberg publicly claimed that videocassettes would kill the movie business (instead of resulting in the boom market that was VCRs and DVDs). Hell, up until a few years ago, anybody who asserted that young people would watch movies and TV shows on their cellphones was laughed out of offices all over town.

I have noted many of my own F-UPs in past TBOS posts: How I should have gotten a damn good lawyer, how I pitched a character-driven story when I should have worked up something for a movie star, how I sent out a script before it was ready, how I thought “Forrest Gump” was “the stupidest idea I’d ever heard of… and that’s just scratching the surface of my own fuck-up-ed-ness.

Now you are probably asking yourself, “Why is Scott bumming me out with these multiple tales of woe and suggesting that I am going to make mistakes in Hollywood? Heck, that’s rather…

I know. Effed up.

Two reasons. First I want to remove any shred of a possibility that you may think your life in Hollywood will be pure perfection, all puppy dogs and rainbows. Those are wonderful fantasies. But they are fantasies. Hollywood is a town where, as William Goldman famously noted, “Nobody knows anything.” How can you expect to go through a career in a place where nobody knows anything is the working business mantra without making mistakes? Accept that fact and adjust your expectations accordingly.

You will totally blow a pitch meeting.

You will butt dial the agent you just fired.

You will accidentally send a PDF of the latest draft of your script to an executive at a rival studio.

You will spill ink from a leaky pen all over the new couch of that producer you’re meeting.

You will swear at the asshole driver who cut you off only to see that asshole is the director you’re desperate to work with.

You will forget key people’s names, tell jokes that deflate social situations, make stupid comments, meet your most favorite actor not knowing there is bird shit in your hair, sleep with the wrong people, not sleep with the right people…

You will fuck up.

But here’s the other thing: Nobody forgives fuckydoodles like Hollywood. Here is perhaps the greatest proof of that fact.

In 1977, David Begelman was the head of Columbia Pictures. He had been involved in the production of hits such as Shampoo and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

In February of that year, actor Cliff Robertson (who died last week) reported to the IRS that a check made out to him for $10,000 had apparently been endorsed and cashed by a forger. The LAPD and FBI identified that forger:

It was David Begelman.

You can read more about the case here, but bottom line, Begelman was reputed to have embezzled $65,000 in forged checks.

As I recall Begelman’s attorneys came up with a clever defense: Temporary insanity. On what basis? Since Begelman was pulling in millions of dollars a year in salary and bonuses as the head of a studio, the fact he forged checks for $65K could only be construed as irrational behavior.

The upshot: Begelman pleaded no contest to grand theft in the case involving Robertson, was fined $5,000, and escaped jail.

Now here is the kicker. After the scandal — and you can imagine how much attention was paid to the case in Hollywood, resulting in the best selling book “Indecent Exposure” — and Begelman being forced out as head of Columbia Pictures, can you guess what happened?

In 1980 MGM hired Begelman as its CEO and President.

That’s right, a guy who had fucked up big time — like acting totally loony and breaking the law — got hired as the head of another major motion picture studio.

Moral of the story: In Hollywood you will fuck up. And when you fuck up, you learn what you can from the experience, and you move on. Because if you have talent, if you bring your A game, if what you have and do is what the studios want…

They will still want to hire you.

Next week: Chilled white whine.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

6 thoughts on “The Business of Screenwriting: You will fuck up

  1. John Geraci says:

    Went back to look at your “Get a damn good lawyer” fiasco. That sucks. On the K-9 P.I. link, you are listed as one of the writers. That means they trade off of your name/rep and STILL don’t pay you? Maybe you could sue for character defamation.

  2. Nick Oleksiw says:

    Whoa, whoa, whoa… Pluto Nash was 2002! I can’t forget such abysmal failures!

  3. Ferdinand says:

    Speaking of Cut Throat Island which was directed by Renny Harlin. He had an interview on KRCW “The Business” explaining how he didn’t cause the studio Carolco Pictures to go bankrupt by that movie.

    http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tb/tb110912action_director_renn

    - Harlin talks candidly about Cutthroat Island, the pirate move he made with his then-wife, Geena Davis. It cost reportedly $98 million but only made $10 million and has been a blotch on his career ever since.

    BTW he’s back on the horse with a new action movie “5 days of war”

    1. Scott says:

      Re Cutthroat Island: As I recall, Michael Douglas was attached as co-star. They rewrote the script considerably to amp up his role (it was originally written with the female as obvious front and center Protagonist), but ‘creative differences’ sent MD packing. Just found a link to a headline I saw the other day. Go here for details of the KCRW interview with Harlin where he “begged” Carolco not to make the movie.

  4. Le Témoin says:

    Nice Post ..
    But –
    ” You will accidentally send a PDF of the latest draft of your script to an executive at a rival studio. ”

    I didn’t Understand this Line … ??

    1. Scott says:

      There was a famous incident some years ago, where a screenwriting team (not me) faxed a treatment for a project to the wrong producers, who actually happened to be working on a rival project. I was trying to draw upon that and update it to email.

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