From all over the world, the treasured products of the best hopes and talents of screenwriters arrive at a storefront office in West Hollywood for safekeeping.
Every day, upward of 100 scripts and treatments for film and television reach the Writers Guild of America, West's three-person registration office, where they are recorded by date, sealed in manila envelopes and stuffed into cardboard file boxes for transport to a warehouse whose location is kept secret. There they are stored for five years.
The quiet efficiency with which the office workers do their jobs belies not only a growing volume but the sensitivity of the registration office's mission to guard against piracy. It is a goal whose importance, once again, was underscored this week as columnist Art Buchwald and his producing partner were awarded $900,000 in their lawsuit against Paramount Pictures over the use of Buchwald's treatment for the film "Coming to America."
Documented cases of theft in Hollywood are rare, but the fear of having one's creative yield stolen is real. The number of scripts and treatments registered at the Writers Guild office has steadily increased by about 5% annually, so that in 1991 about 30,000 came in, officials said.
"A lot of writers will register anything they can," said Ken Beattie, manager of the registration office. "We get a continuous stream. Our day is steady from the time we open to the time we close."
The estimated 150,000 to 175,000 files currently housed in the guild's warehouse seem to lend seriousness to the oft-told joke that everyone in Hollywood has a script ready to thrust into the hands of any producer, director or movie star who happens by.
Screenwriters from as far away as Berlin, Madrid and Australia have sought out the protections of the guild's registration office in recent years, sending their foreign-language submissions via air mail, Beattie said. But the vast majority of scripts come from those who hand-deliver their material, like the 34-year-old screenwriter who zipped up to the Beverly Boulevard office the other day in a sleek, late-model black Mercedes.
"You get a little sense of security that your ideas are somewhat protected," said Joe Ferullo, a Westchester writer who estimated this was his 20th trip to the registration office. "At least it provides a bit of ammunition in case questions of authorship come up."
John Bowton, 33, of North Hollywood, who said he is mainly concentrating on producing a sketch-comedy show, was at the guild's offices to register an episode for Fox TV's "The Simpsons" that he wrote in the hope of selling to the cartoon's producers.
"I always feel that if I put the WGA number on it, it's like a little shield, like the sign of the cross keeping the vampire away," Bowton said. "This way, they know it's on record and it's the best thing to prove that you came up with the story."
Actually, the guild likes to stress that its registration process is not a fail-safe method of protection. For that, they recommend a copyright attorney. A notice posted on the office's glass entryway serves as a reminder that the guild does not compare scripts to look for similarities. Privacy rules prevent employees from reading incoming material.
However, should a dispute arise, the guild's record of who filed the story first is often enough to settle matters out of court, said Charles Slocum, director of industry analysis for the guild. The guild hears about 300 such cases a year, and usually smoothes out problems in arbitration.
"They can bring this material into court, but the number of cases that go that far is small," Slocum said. "Most of the time it's worked out informally. We see more depositions and declarations than court actions."
For writers who are still nervous about having their ideas stolen, Slocum recommends keeping notes on whom they talk to about their projects. Sending a script to oneself through registered mail--another tactic sometimes used--is not advised, Slocum said, since seals can be tampered with.
Another tip is to always register material before it is presented for sale to prospective buyers, Slocum said, to deflate temptation. He also recommends re-registering if substantial changes are made to the story.
Slocum, who said he could not discuss individual cases, called the Buchwald vs. Paramount suit "an example of a general instance" in which authorship was in dispute. Buchwald and his partner, French film producer Alain Bernheim, claimed the studio stole the humor columnist's 1982 story--about a wealthy African king who comes to America in search of armaments--after Buchwald's contract with Paramount expired in 1985.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Harvey A. Schneider ruled in January, 1990, that the origins of the film "Coming to America," starring Eddie Murphy, can be traced to Buchwald's earlier treatment. On Monday, Schneider ruled that Paramount must pay the plaintiffs $900,000 in the closely watched breach-of-contract suit.
The Writers Guild, which collects $10 from members per registration and $20 from non-members, has operated the office since the earliest days of the organization, founded in 1933.
"This is a very matter of fact, but critical, part of the infrastructure of Hollywood," said Slocum. "It's something the industry has to have. Hollywood needs this, and always will."
These days, two-thirds of the works registered at the office are treatments for film and television, or summaries of stories. The remainder are full scripts. Radio writing is welcome too.
By its nature, this is material written "on spec"--nascent stories and treatments that have yet to mature in the buyers' market, and thus need more protection than the work of writers who are already under contract.
Beattie, who runs the day-to-day operation of the registration office, has his regulars. "A core group comes back again and again," he said. "One gentleman has just registered his 11th draft in a few months. The last time he came in, he said, 'This will never be finished.' "
Once a week, boxes of scripts are transported by pickup truck from the West Hollywood office to a "secured" warehouse whose location is revealed by Slocum only as "somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area."
"For obvious reasons, we can't tell people where it is. We don't have armed guards or anything like that, but let's just say it's secure," he said.
Inside the warehouse, Beattie said, "There are miles and miles of shelves. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of boxes. There are walls and walls of boxes and shelves. . . ."