Glory! Fame! Heartbreak!
I am a 25-year-old hot new Hollywood screenwriter. Yet after signing a six-figure “blind script” deal with a certain Major Motion Picture Studio* in December 1997, I have been writing and rewriting and rewriting rewrites of a script outline that needs to be approved before I can even type the words “Fade In.”
It all began back in February 1997. I was 24, in my final semester of film school at USC and ready to tackle the screenwriting world. One gutsy night, I cleverly crashed a university-sponsored “meet and greet” gathering meant exclusively for students in a TV sitcom class. I wasn’t registered in the class, had no desire to write for TV, had never written a TV sample script. Armed with a rough draft of my thesis screenplay and a surplus of log-lines on the tip of my sassy tongue, I finagled my way into the room. And that’s when I met Lorianne Hall, agent extraordinaire.
Five months later I walked into Kinko’s with the $300 my father (God bless him) had lent me and walked out with a hundred-pound box of 45 screenplays. Lorianne was speccing out my first feature script to the studios.
“Almost,” a dramatic comedy about the 1986 World Series, caught like wildfire. Calls from executives poured in. Brilliant but small, they all said (translation: not enough guns, guts and gore). Still, they all wanted to work with me. Buck Moneymaker, guardian angel producer at our major motion picture studio, phoned Lorianne from a plane bound for Europe: Let’s get this girl a deal!
Lorianne called to tell me the good news. Immediately, I let out a scream heard in Katmandu. I quit my paltry-paying internship at the New Yorker. I phoned my parents, who phoned my grandmother, who phoned all her friends in the Revere, Mass., chapter of Hadassah. Faster than you can dial the operator, the entire Eastern seaboard knew about my deal.
Overnight, I became a screenwriting sensation. Development gurus were touting me as Hollywood’s latest prodigy. The next Cameron Crowe! I was the envy of all my friends, the shining star of my film school class. You’re going to be the next Steven Spielberg! everyone squealed.
For a short while, I even felt like Steven Spielberg. Moneymaker and his assistants treated me like the grand duchess of development. You’re sooooo talented, they all cooed. Sweeter still, Moneymaker’s production offices were in the former digs of Pacific Pictures*, where I once was a studio slave (also known as an intern). I used to be the girl who brewed the coffee. Now I was the girl who drank the coffee. What a perk!
And then, Lorianne called again. Turns out, somebody (cough, cough) hadn’t checked with the head of the studio before promising me a deal. I contemplated suicide. Lorianne took up chain-smoking. There were days when I had to talk her down off a ledge. After a few sleepless nights (and dozens of frantic phone calls to my shrink), everything worked out fine. Mister Head of the Studio scribbled his signature on the dotted line. Signed, sealed, delivered, my deal was mine. Again.
Swanky parties, fancy lunches and holiday gift baskets ensued. Visions of vacations to Paris, shopping sprees at Saks Fifth Avenue and trendy dinners at Spago danced in my head. I could stop dodging my student loan officer! I could pay off my Visa bill! I could buy a couch for my unfurnished apartment! I was going to be rich!
But before I could book that ticket on Air France or purchase those Gucci mules, I had to invent (as stipulated in my contract) an idea for a script. I plugged away indefatigably to come up with a concept (brilliant but big, I hoped) to satisfy the attached producers. A story about a group of rich kids in a Beverly Hills mental hospital, that’s what I wanted to do. Buck Moneymaker loved it!
Night after night I burned the midnight oil, typing away diligently on my computer. I drove all the way from my apartment in Santa Monica (up to a two-hour trek in the height of L.A. traffic) over the river and through the woods across three different freeways (stop me if sound like a kvetching grandparent--I walked five miles every day through the snow . . .) to the studio for story meetings. I’d sit in a room with four different people shouting 12 different things. At the end of the meeting they’d turn to me and command, Go write! And write I did. For two solid months.
By February we had a working outline. I made changes. The studio made changes. And changes and changes and changes. What began as a bittersweet comedy about troubled youth holed up in a psychiatric ward became, over the course of four months, everything from a romantic comedy about a teenage suicidal surfer who falls in love with his golf-obsessed psychiatrist to a love triangle involving a bisexual bulimic, a pill-popping nurse and a sex-starved savant who thinks she’s Natalie Wood in “Splendor in the Grass” to a twisted tale in which a bipolar writer bound for Harvard falls madly in love with her attending phlebotomist and vows to go bloodless in order to prove her undying lust, aptly titled “Crazy.”
What was next? A script about manic-depressive high school valedictorian student council terrorists staging a coup in Cedars-Sinai?
Meanwhile, I still didn’t have a couch.
Just one more tiny change, Moneymaker and his assistants kept saying. Stupid me, I actually believed them. What did I know? Here I was, a novice screenwriter still wet behind the ears, still unpaid, still waiting for that nod of approval on her outline and the OK to plow ahead with the actual script. This process was supposed to take no more than two weeks. But two weeks turned into one month. One month turned into two months. Then three. Then four. It seemed that no matter what I wrote, no matter what they told me to write, the outline always needed to be reworked. And it always needed to be shorter, because studio moguls have zero attention span. Simple and stupid, that was the key.
Eventually, we settled on our “Crazy”’ idea (double-entendre very much intended). Of course, not without a few glitches, such as when it was discovered that another movie also dubbed “Crazy” was already in pre-production at another studio. After we renamed our script “Pins and Needles,” it was finally ready to roll. I wrote a 20-page outline. Too long. I wrote a 15-page outline. Still too long. Ten pages. Seven pages. Five pages. Bingo! Just the right length for restless studio executives.
We submitted the outline to the head of the studio.
We waited. And waited and waited. . . .
And then, after all the work, after all the outlines and rough drafts, after all the psychiatric sessions (still unpaid for) and cigarettes, my finished script was now in the hands of every young actor with the first name of Leo in Hollywood. Right?
After all the work, after all the outlines and rough drafts and psychiatric sessions and cigarettes, Mister Head of the Studio decided he didn’t want to make this movie.
He didn’t want to make this movie.
I screamed. I cried. The blood boiled in my febrile body. I called Lorianne and told her I was moving to New York to write novels. I called up my shrink and threatened to kill myself. You can’t! snapped my shrink. You still owe me two thousand dollars!
Lorianne called the studio’s office of legal affairs. My father called every relative who’d gone to law school, dropped out of law school, applied to law school. My mother spoke to the other mothers with kids on my brother’s high school hockey team. I faxed a copy of the 20-page agreement to my Government 101 professor at Cornell and had him take a look at it. My shrink gave it to some of his lawyer clients. Everyone and his mother took a magnifying lens to the contract.
Moneymaker urged me to remain calm. Writers all over Hollywood are waiting for their checks, he said. Suddenly, images of fellow starving screenwriters, my people, my breed, flashed before my jaded eyes. Screenwriters rich on paper but indebted on bank statements. Screenwriters all with college loans, all with maxed-out credit cards, all without couches. I considered starting a support group called SCAR (Screenwriters Who Cannot Afford their Rent).
To everyone not involved I lead a glamorous life filled with movie stars and fancy cars. My entire family is banking on my Success! Relatives have put in requests for retirement homes in Florida. A kooky aunt is threatening to move to L.A. and take acting lessons. Everyone from my accountant (as if I need one) to the rabbi who bat-mitzvahed me is begging for a bit part in my first feature film. Like a studio that puts off paying its writer (but for a tiny advance) for five months is actually going to let her have a say in casting decisions.
So what happens now? According to my contract, it’s the studio’s turn to give me an idea. It’s the studio’s turn to smoke the cigarettes and burn the midnight oil, the studio’s turn to rack its fickle brain for a plot line that’s profitable and commercial, brilliant and big. It’s the studio’s turn to do all the work. It’s my turn to do all the waiting.
While I’m waiting, I’m devoting my time to other projects. I’m working on an independent feature script, and I’ve just landed a job writing an animation special for TV. Great. More money I’ll probably never see.
Of course, there are some upsides to being an as-yet-unpaid, yet widely popular, screenwriter. Hopping from one pitch meeting to the next, I’ve become a bona fide expert in the fine art of panhandling. I filch candy from bowls, swipe ice cream from freezers. When an assistant offers me a can of Diet Coke, I gladly accept two or three, sometimes an entire six-pack. I once polished off a producer’s complete box of Godiva chocolates, a Valentine’s Day gift from his wife. Lorianne says I’m gaining a reputation around town as quite a moocher. My response? Hey, if they’re not going to pay me, the least they can do is feed me.
As the weeks go by and my funds whittle away, I’ve started to grow slightly hysterical. I’ve toyed with the idea of selling blood, selling stock, selling ova (funny how selling screenplays doesn’t apply here). I’ve spent more than $50 in postage stamps on deferment letters to Sallie Mae, Nellie Mae, Come What Mae student loan services.
Thank God for my journalism career! The money is not nearly as good as it is for screenwriting, but at least papers pay on time. Special thanks to my overworked, underpaid schoolteacher father, who’s come to the rescue on several emergency occasions, always making sure that there’s a roof over my head and food in my refrigerator. Don’t worry, he’s prone to joke. I can always sell the other kidney.
Lorianne’s growing antsy as well. After all, my money is her money. She’s given away entire weekends to lighting up skillfully rolled joints (trading up her Marlboros for marijuana) in her apartment, leaking scores of brain cells, her lungs progressively turning black, wondering when she’s ever going to see her 10%.
Will I ever get my commencement check? Will I ever write my script? Most importantly, will I ever get a couch?
The answer is yes. The question is . . . when?
* Some names have been changed to protect my career.