The Business of Screenwriting: Anatomy of a Deal (Part 4)

January 3rd, 2013 by

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

In Part 2, I write about how we work up a pitch and a 1-page treatment, pitch the story to one studio [Warner Bros.], then get a phone call while we’re in a meeting informing us the studio has bought the pitch.

In Part 3, I cover how the sale of “Mr. President” leads to an overall deal with a studio that segues into an extended deal with another studio, an example of what good agents can do for a writer.

In this final post on the “Mr. President” saga, I transport us into the office of Lauren Shuler-Donner, a convivial meeting between writers and producer, both of whom have deals at Warner Bros. Amidst the schmoozing and chatter, Lauren asks, “So, what’s happening with ‘Mr. President'”?

We note how we are working on a second draft.

“Things are going pretty well, then,” she asks.

We chat a bit more about the project, Lauren asking this question and that. Eventually we depart and that’s that.

Well, as it turns out, there was a point to her probing. Shuler-Donner is a producer on a project called “Dave.” Yes, that “Dave”:

“To avoid a potentially explosive scandal when the U.S. President goes into a coma, an affable temp agency owner with an uncanny resemblance, is put in his place.”

Huh. Regular American becomes President. Sounds like… “Mr. President”. And what’s more: Both projects are at Warner Bros.

Three takeaways from this scenario:

* It is unusual, but not unheard of for a studio to develop multiple versions of one idea, the thinking being if the story concept is strong and timely, why not take two [or more] cracks at it with different writers to see which one clicks.

* Unless Warner Bros. is interested in producing two President movies — which clearly they are not — then if they move forward, it will be with one project.

In the end, the studio produces Dave, a terrific movie starring Kevin Kline. That project gets made. Ours does not. And that leads to the third takeaway:

* A majority of studio projects do not get made. Is it considered a strike against a writer if their project dies on the vine? Not necessarily. Everyone knows it’s damn hard to get a movie produced. That’s the baseline of assessment. If your draft creates some movement, say an attachment or two, or generates even a little heat, that can be come off as a plus, even if your project doesn’t get produced.

I’d say most screenwriters have way more projects that don’t get made. In fact, I know one writer who was worked pretty steadily in Hollywood as a screenwriter for over 15 years, setting up multiple pitches, selling specs, landing OWA’s, and has never gotten a single film writing credit. Yet he owns a $750K house, sends his kids to private school, and is by all rights a successful screenwriter… just one without a movie to his name.

So in the end, “Mr. President” is nothing more than a tiny blip in Hollywood history. But for me, it translated into hundreds of thousands of dollars in income, a pair of overall studio deals, and the legacy of a pitch sale to a major studio.

Not bad for a project that never got produced.

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.

5 thoughts on “The Business of Screenwriting: Anatomy of a Deal (Part 4)

  1. Erica R Maier says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the telling of this … thanks so much for the insight!

    1. Scott says:

      I think I’ve got another year’s worth of TBOS posts in me. If you or anyone else has a subject you’d like to see covered, feel free to post or email to me.

  2. Erica R Maier says:

    I would love to hear stories about the challenges in keeping/letting go of creative control of your script.

    Being open to legitimate improvement is obviously wise & important, but what happens when the powers that be change it beyond recognition — for the worst? What do you do?

    1. Scott says:

      Erica, this is always a risk for screenwriters. Movies are primarily a director’s medium. That is it is they who go off and make the movie. In the best of worlds, the director shares your vision and even has a collaborative relationship with you. And that does happen. But there are times when that is not the case. Moreover the process of losing control over the story can happen much earlier – in development with producers and studio.

      The only true way to avoid having someone ‘fuck’ with your material is to become a writer-director or write novels. You can also write / write-produce TV where writers have much more power than directors, but there you have to deal with networks and their input / control

      The reality is all screenwriters have to learn to accommodate themselves to the reality that the chances are significant your script will change. Hopefully those changes benefit the story. When they don’t, you live with it. Every writer discovers how to do that… or else they won’t have much of a screenwriting career.

  3. Erica R Maier says:

    Thank you! I appreciate this feedback. Yes, I could only assume it’s a brutal reality. I suppose it’s safe to say if we are willing to take the risk of being a screenwriter, then the chances your story/vision will someday be torn apart is simply part of that risk. You just have to press forward no matter what and scoop up any nuggets of wisdom that come from it along the way …

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