I am sitting in the Beverly Hills office of my entertainment lawyer. In front of me is a contract. It’s for a writing assignment. My gig. The project name: “Bazooka Joe.”
That’s right. Bazooka Joe.
I flip the page to check the compensation amount one last time. Yep, it’s still the WGA minimum (I’m going from memory, but let’s just say it is for $69,834).
A few years back, our quote was several hundred thousand dollars. How had it come to this that I was about to sign a contract to adapt bubble gum characters into a movie which most likely would never get made for WGA minimum which was about a quarter of what I used to make?
Simple: I had changed writing partners. Little did I know at the time that everything I wrote with my first partner was considered off-the-table in terms of who I was as a writer and what people in the industry thought I could do now.
In effect, I am starting all over again.
Hence Bazooka Joe. And $69,834.
I could say no. Indeed those of you with minds like steel traps will doubtless remember I made a passionate argument in this post that sometimes a writer must pass on projects, especially the soul-sucking kind.
Now I’m going to tell you the other side of the argument: Sometimes you just have to say “Yes”… even on crap projects.
Reason #1: Money. When you are starting out or starting over, you have a fundamental choice: Either make money by writing, albeit a shitty project, or make money spending your day muttering, “May I take your order.”
Reason #2: Craft. This is an argument I have used a lot: No matter what the story is, I can always learn something about the craft. I must warn you, this is a dangerous line of reasoning because in theory, you can use it to justify writing a quadrasexual biker alien snuff movie [definitely a candidate for a soul sucking experience, unless you are a fan of quadrasexual biker alien snuff movies]. But when you are breaking in as a screenwriter, it is hugely important to write. If you can somehow manage to get paid to do it, all the better.
Reason #3: Career. When you’re starting out, naturally you are pretty much bottom-feeding, unless you are Diablo Cody or Michael Arndt who hit Free Parking on their first script in which case you pass Go, collect $200 — with several zeroes at the end — and just keep on rolling double sixes all the way to Boardwalk Avenue and a life of A-list writing projects. As a Baltic Avenue bottom-feeder, you go up for writing assignments like… well… Bazooka Joe. The idea is to take a troubled project, an almost-dead project, and bring something to it. If you can revitalize it or actually turn in a script people like, then you move up a notch to the not-so-bad projects. Same thing, if you can turn in a good script at that level, you move up another notch until finally — hopefully — you’re vying for good writing assignments.
But first, you must earn your stripes writing the Bazooka Joe’s of the development hell world.
So back to the Beverly Hills office of my lawyer: What do I do? It’s a no-brainer. I scrawl my damn name on the contract, cash my check, and write the hell out of the Bazooka Joe script.
Only thing is… it turns out the company who hired us to write it? They never officially finalized their rights deal with the company that owns Bazooka Joe.
Ergo — and only in Hollywood, right? — we get paid to write something that doesn’t really exist.
But our script does. The execs like it. And that bumps us up a notch, starting a process whereby in a few year’s time, we are making mid-six figures, and writing 3-4 projects per year.
Ironically enough, as I was about to start writing this post, an item popped up on my Twitter feed about Bazooka Joe leading me to this: Worst Idea Ever: Hollywood to Make Bubblegum Adaptation:
Has it really come to this? The search for the a bankable property or popular story started off simple and innocently with adaptations of popular books, sequels, and comic book films. And in the last two decades, we’ve had video game movies, theme park ride adaptations, cartoons/anime turned live-action, tv to film, movies based toys and action figures, and most recently board game film adaptations.
But now Hollywood is sinking to new lows. Tonight it was announced that Michael Eisner is adapting a a film based on bubble gum. That’s right — GUM!
Just like I said yes on Bazooka Joe, another writer has said yes. I knew it then and he knows it now: Bazooka Joe sure as hell ain’t Gone With The Wind.
But it’s money. It’s craft. And it’s your career.
Which is why sometimes, you just have to say “yes”… even to crap projects.
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.
[Originally posted January 27, 2011]