Script gets the better verdict
In the film business, personal tragedy, mistakes and an occasional criminal conviction are just credentials. Even better, they’re material.
Take the case of Douglas R. Dowie, the former public relations executive convicted of fraud against the city of Los Angeles and sentenced last week to 3 1/2 years in federal prison. (He’s set to surrender to authorities on March 30.)
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Feb. 8, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Dowie conviction: In the Cause Celebre column in Wednesday’s Calendar section, it was incorrectly reported that former public relations executive Douglas R. Dowie was convicted by the federal government of defrauding Los Angeles taxpayers, possibly by as much as $6 million. In fact, the jury never determined the amount of the fraud. At sentencing, the judge ruled the amount was about $529,000.
Searching for some catharsis amid his lengthy legal woes, he spent his evenings alone in his Westside apartment writing a screenplay about something he believed he understood: the labyrinth of city politics, with all its characters and inner connections.
It didn’t take Dowie long to find that, while he had been ostracized by his government friends (he was, after all, convicted by the federal government of defrauding Los Angeles taxpayers, possibly by as much as $6 million), he was nevertheless welcomed into Hollywood, a place where a guy with a good yarn, a few well-placed friends and a quest for self-reinvention can find a home.
His screenplay, titled “Anonymous Sources,” was recently optioned by Jonathan Sanger, a producer on “The Elephant Man,” “The Producers” and “Vanilla Sky,” among others. The project is now in development, and Dowie -- who maintains his innocence and plans to appeal his conviction -- said he’ll spend the last few weeks of his freedom doing a rewrite, fine-tuning his plotline.
“It’s kind of an ‘L.A. Confidential’ meets ‘City Hall’ meets the Internet,” said Dowie, 58, sitting in Sanger’s office across the street from Paramount.
The story goes something like this: A beautiful political fundraiser is found dead in the trunk of her car. As City Hall buzzes with gossip and speculation, a blogger posts anonymous comments with profound implications: Maybe the mayor is involved? The mayor’s PR advisor -- a former Marine and ex-newspaper editor (a character Dowie based on, well, himself) -- is called in to do damage control.
Sanger, who has produced more than 40 movies and television episodes since starting his show business career with the help of Mel Brooks in 1979, said he loved the idea. “I read it and was most remarkably surprised to see not just how good it was but that it was already miles ahead of first-time writers who are trying to figure out what the form is. He got it.”
He gave Dowie’s screenplay to his partners at his production company, Grand Illusions, for their opinion. “They said, ‘Boy, this is a really terrific story, and it’s a contemporary story. It would make a great movie.’ ”
Sanger’s company and Dowie signed a contract for an undisclosed amount last fall. For the last two months, Dowie has been working on rewrites with Sarah Black, a former senior vice president of actor Tom Cruise’s production company at Paramount.
(The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on Dowie’s efforts. “We wouldn’t react to stuff like that,” said spokesman Thom Mrozek. “We stay above the fray.” He also said there’s no law on the federal books to prohibit Dowie from writing or profiting on a screenplay, or anything else, that even remotely involves the case).
Dowie, who once served as managing editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, said the prospect of doing a movie kept him going in recent weeks; it saved him from plummeting into overwhelming despair about the fact that his career and personal life are in ruins, he has few friends left (enough to count on one hand) and he’s headed to prison.
“When you’re in a situation like this, it is -- and you hear it described exactly the same way by almost every human being who finds it -- it is a nightmare,” he said. “It is an absolute nightmare, and you can’t find a way out of it.”
His civic downfall began nearly three years ago: Several employees at PR giant Fleishman-Hillard, the firm Dowie headed in Los Angeles, came forward to say that they were ordered to submit inflated bills for their consulting work at the Department of Water and Power. Dowie was fired, and the firm paid the city $6 million as part of a settlement.
Dowie was charged with 15 counts of conspiracy and fraud. (The judge later described Dowie as an “extremely calculating” man who had lost his “moral compass.”) The case dragged on and his legal bills started to mount (eventually topping $3 million). Dowie sold the house, split with his wife, moved into a little apartment and started looking for ways to make money.
He toyed with the idea of writing a book. Then during the summer, while having lunch with Sanger’s wife, who heads the city’s LA’s BEST after-school program, he proposed a plan: Maybe he should write a screenplay. Steadfastly believing that her friend was innocent, Carla Sanger, who had met Dowie at City Hall years ago, encouraged him to pursue the matter with her husband.
“He was nice enough to meet with me for 90 minutes,” Dowie said of Sanger. “I told him what the idea was and he said, ‘Let me read it first.’ ”
As his sentencing was delayed, and then delayed again, he forced himself to work. “I couldn’t let Jonathan down,” Dowie said. “I could never call him and say, ‘You know that idea I had and I was going to write this screenplay? Well, I got distracted.’ I wouldn’t do that.”
Dowie, who felt he had been the target of vicious gossip during his fall from grace, said he was intrigued by the idea of exploring the role of political bloggers, especially ones that use anonymous sources.
“The story is propelled, to a huge extent, by an anonymous Internet site where people leave blind comments that have dramatic effects on the characters and their lives,” Dowie said. “It is something that I don’t think has been dramatized yet. People are beginning to appreciate it.”
Sanger said he hopes to get the project funded and into production by year’s end. “We would definitely want to release it to a major studio,” Sanger said. “It’s just a matter of how we finance it. We’re still a little early in that process, but this is something we like very much. We believe in it.”
In the meantime, Dowie said he is working on another screenplay (again about City Hall). He plans to collect fodder for future projects in prison. But he hopes he’ll be a free man -- if there’s ever a premiere.