The Business of Screenwriting: Anatomy of a Deal (Part 2)

December 20th, 2012 by

In Part 1, I describe how Siegel & Myers met with Rodney Dangerfield’s ‘people’ and I came up with a high concept idea for a movie: Rodney Dangerfield: Mr. President.

Our agents love the idea. So we head off to work up a pitch. Here’s the catch: It’s my first one. I have zero understanding, knowledge or awareness of what is involved in the pitching process.

Fortunately we stick to the basics: It’s about telling a story.

I have recently read an autobiography of car czar Lee Iaccoca. He’s a guy who is prone to saying things like this:

In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product, and profits.

I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way.

One of the things the government can’t do is run anything. The only things our government runs are the post office and the railroads, and both of them are bankrupt.

Why not make Rodney’s character a former CEO of an automobile company? Those are his sensibilities. He’s selected as a Vice Presidential candidate due to his connection with the masses, caught up in his populist persona. He and his running mate win.

Then the President dies.

Oops. Rodney is President. And he brings his blue collar auto sensibilities to the White House. Hijinks and mayhem ensue.

We spend the better part of 2 weeks working through a three-act structure of the story. At some point, it occurs to us to write up a treatment. I specifically remember typing it up, then tightening it, and tightening it some more.

It comes in at about 1 1/2 pages.

For some reason, I become obsessed with getting it down to 1 page. Maybe my intuition has kicked in, understanding even in my short time in Hollywood that buyers have the attention spans of gnats. 1 page, no more.

So after days of editing and trimming, we have it: A single-page story treatment.

Our agents set a meeting at Warner Bros. with some execs we have already met.

We walk in… my first pitch meeting.

We take them through the broad strokes of the story. It’s more like a conversation than an actual formal pitch, and it’s going over quite well.

Then we produce our 1-page treatment.

“Here’s a little something we wrote up to… you know… summarize the story.”

Hand it over. They peer at it. Then at us. Smile widening.

“This is great!”

Evidently providing a leave-behind like this is unusual, perhaps even unheard of. All I know is the execs seem happy by what they’ve heard and especially this 1-page treatment.

Cut to a few days later.

We are in the offices of screenwriter Jeffrey Boam and his then producing partner Carlton Cuse, as it so happens on the Warner Bros. lot. Your basic meet-and-greet.

Boam is hot off his work rewriting Lethal Weapon, and writing Innerspace and The Lost Boys. Cuse will later go on to exec produce a little TV series known as “Lost”.

Early on in the meeting, their assistant pokes her head into the room. She nods at us.

“You have a call from your agent.”

Then she points specifically at me.

“He asked for you.”

This is really weird. First of all, agents don’t interrupt meetings. Second, I’m the outsider guy, the one with much less experience about Hollywood. But our agent insists on talking with me. I discover why in a few seconds.

“Scott?”
“Yeah?”
“They want to buy it.”
“Excuse me.”
“Warner Bros. They want to buy Mr. President.”
“Uh-huh.”
“Don’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Uh-huh.”
“Still finalizing it.”
“Uh-huh.”

Click.

And that’s why the call went to me. See, my agent knows I have received training to be a minister. I know how to listen to people, hearing their innermost secrets, then not divulge any of those secrets.

Keeping one’s mouth shut in Hollywood is, as I learn, a rare commodity.

Thus when my agent wanted to communicate the deal to us, yet not let the cat out of the bag until it was official, he talks with me.

I hang up, all eyes on me.

“Just… you know… it’s okay. Sorry.”

Awkward chuckles, then back to the meet-and-greet.

We sit there, chatting and joking, schmoozing and gossiping. And the entire time, I’m sitting on the information that we just sold a pitch — our first pitch — to a major studio for several hundred thousand dollars.

As we walk out of the office, I share the news with my partner.

Which means my third screenplay (K-9) = sale.

My first pitch (Mr. President) = sale.

Wow. This whole Hollywood screenwriter thing is easy!

Yeah, right.

Next week: Some twists and turns in Part 3: Anatomy of a Deal.

One thought on “The Business of Screenwriting: Anatomy of a Deal (Part 2)

  1. Erica R Maier says:

    OK, more stories from the trenches like THIS, please! I LOVE IT! Totally hooked.

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