Few moments are more exhilarating for a screenwriter -- you know, other than that whole artistic breakthrough thing -- than becoming a millionaire off a mere pitch.
And few moments are more miserable than being told that, well ... the studio has, uh, changed its mind.
When Geoff Rodkey ("Daddy Day Care," "RV") shopped around his idea for a "Scary Movie"-like parody of the family film genre back in mid-April, he was in a particularly strong position. It was two weeks before Sony's "RV" would open, and Rodkey was flush in Disney's good graces since his late rewrite of "The Shaggy Dog" was helping to push it toward $60 million at the domestic box office that week. When they heard his pitch, Sony, Disney and Dimension all expressed interest in the lush seven-figure range, until Disney executive Karen Glass and production president Nina Jacobson pocketed Rodkey's idea for a monstrous $1.25 million.
Yes, and a pleasure doing business with you too.
But three months later, as the executives were still developing the story outline with Rodkey, everything changed: One-fifth of the live-action studio department's staff, Jacobson and Glass among them, were suddenly asked to pack up their desks. In July, when Oren Aviv walked in to begin his stint as Disney's new production head, he faced a huge stack of projects in development and a Dick Cook-mandated change in direction that included reducing Disney's annual live-action slate to around a dozen features.
Whether or not the perception that this was a frivolous purchase was one of the reasons Jacobson got fired, Aviv clearly viewed this particular idea as unworthy of its humongous cash outlay.
In September, Rodkey was notified of the bad news: Disney was no longer interested in producing his idea and wanted him to accept a lesser payout.
This situation is not uncommon. Fresh ideas, scripts and relationships go stale in mid-development all the time, and screenwriters are often shuffled out of frame clutching 20 bucks for cab fare.
But Rodkey had turned down enormous offers at competing studios to sell it to Disney -- bids unlikely to be re-proffered even if he bought his idea back. As a result, he was in a stronger position than most to ask the studio to honor its commitment. Rodkey obviously wanted the boffo bank he was promised, but rather than potentially alienate the studio that is the likeliest home for the broad, big-budget family comedies he likes to write, he offered to work on some other Disney project instead.
A few weeks ago, Disney finally took the bait. It moved Rodkey onto a different untitled family comedy being shepherded by producer Sean Bailey ("Matchstick Men," "The Core") that had long ago stalled but which Rodkey liked. Meanwhile, Rodkey's original movie idea remains the property of Disney while its chances of becoming an enchanting theme park ride taper to never.
On the plus side, he did pretty well on his negotiated settlement: He's getting the entire $1,250,000.
Hungry for a break on 'Eat'
I don't know how talented a screenwriter Josh "The Scribbler" Heald is, but the man can eat 11 hot dogs -- with buns -- in 12 minutes. And surely that's something we can all celebrate.
For the last few years, Heald has been making a living as a screenwriter by spinning raunchy comedy out of the baser male desires: food, sex, booze and breasts.
Exhibit A is his first screenplay, "All You Can Eat," a very physical comedy about the world of competitive eating that Heald likens to "Hoosiers" or "Rudy" -- an "inspirational sports movie, except it happens to be about a sport that's completely disgusting," as he puts it.
In early 2002, Heald was slouched in front of the TV with friends Hayden Schlossberg and former roommate Jon Hurwitz, the writers of "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." They were transfixed by a Fox special called "The Glutton Bowl," a two-hour eating competition that featured the sport's newest phenom: Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi, who has since become the world record holder in the hot dog category, with 53 3/4 consumed in 12 minutes. (Five weeks ago, the peerless Kobayashi set a new Krystal hamburger record by devouring 97 in eight minutes.)
Inspired, Heald wrote a feature-length script (with Hurwitz and Schlossberg as producers), and though he couldn't immediately sell "All You Can Eat," he eventually sold a pitch for an '80s-style comedy called "Open Bar" to New Line in April 2004. When "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" came out two months later and laughed its way past the $100-million mark, New Line saw the potential for "All You Can Eat's" similar exploration of an odd sporting subculture (this one real), and picked up Heald's script too.
And then the writer's unquenchable pursuit of truth kicked in.
Last January, Heald attended an IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating) World Chili Cheese Fries Eating Championship on the Queen Mary in Long Beach and ended up crashing an Italian sausage eating contest the organizers held as an opening event. Despite having never competed before, Heald blew away the rest of the field using the Kobayashi method he had learned during his script research -- he downed three sausages in less than 90 seconds. (For the uninformed, the Kobayashi method requires separating bun from dog and dipping the bun in water before consuming.)
This stunt provoked IFOCE Chairman George Shea to invite Heald to an official qualifying event at the New York New York casino in Las Vegas on May 18. This time, he arrived with a dozen members of his entourage -- his agent and managers, Hurwitz, Schlossberg, producer Luke Ryan, Terra Firma Films Co-President Josh Shader, director Phil Dornfeld -- all dressed in mustard-yellow "Team Heald" T-shirts. With his personal posse and a crowd of onlookers making a scene behind him, Heald went up against the No. 2 ranked eater in the world, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut. Heald was managing a respectable fifth place until the competitor next to him passed out and was removed by stretcher, pushing Heald into a fourth-place finish with his 11. (Chestnut set a U.S. record that day by swallowing a nice round 50.)
Such feverish public deglutition permeates Heald's script, which has Farrelly brothers protege J.B. Rogers ("American Pie 2," "Say It Isn't So") attached to direct. In the story, Heald portrays competitive eating as bigger than pro wrestling. In the years since he wrote it, the mania around the sport has, much like its "athletes," grown ever larger. Star competitors are winning endorsement deals, and at events, adult fans show up in face paint while their kids seek autographs from heavyweights such as Rich "The Locust" LeFevre, "Jalapeno" Jed Donahue and the league's lone female powerhouse, 105-pound Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas.
Unsurprisingly, the major challenge in moving "All You Can Eat" into production has been casting -- it would take some very game comic actors who are willing to be seen stuffing food in their faces for two hours while potentially risking a disqualifying "reversal of fortune," in the lingo of the sport.
Perhaps Heald will have better luck with the bawdy, post-Hurricane Katrina Mardi Gras comedy script he just turned in. "It's an underdog story about guys trying to see naked breasts and live the college American dream," he says, with attendant irony. "It's something that is going to appeal to a lot of base interests."
If not, there's always the new spec he's finishing up, a heartwarming John Hughes-style love story about a bunch of high school nerds looking for revenge on the school bully via the sexual conquest of his girlfriend.
Unprintable, of course.
Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. For tips and comments, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.