Saturday, July 29, 2006

Chronicles 30 - The Early Years - Part 2

Autumn 1999 - Hitting Hollywood

2 years after Cannes '97 where we pitched the VP at Columbia Tri Star along with execs at Fox, USA films and other prod. co's our script was ready. It had taken us some time to actually create a draft we felt was 'market ready'. This was for a number of reasons:

Very soon after Cannes '97 my friend, who at that time was struggling to get work even in non-salaried fringe theatre productions, suddenly got transported into another world. He was selected in the lead role of a VERY highly rated and popular UK TV series. Suddenly he was having back to back interviews and getting featured in Hello magazine. He was also under a very heavy filming schedule so he had to juggle working on the script with preparing his lines for the next day's shoot. I was also doing a lot of research on the script at the time as well as working on a couple of theatre projects. One was the rewrite of my first full length play and the other was a Theatre in Education play which was staged in a couple of schools. So, all in all, things slowed down somewhat on the script writing front.

Progress Report 1994-1999

Five years after my initial impulse to write a novel and get 'creative' I had:

1) Staged a short play
2) Staged a public reading of my full length play
3) Staged a full length children's play
4) Co-written a screenplay
5) Written a few short plays that didn't get anywhere
6) Not finished my novel. Actually I hadn't even started. I still only have 6 pages!

What is 'success'?

Mmmh...I wasn't exactly going to go down in history as one of the more prolific writers of my time and so-called 'success' as a writer was looking elusive.

How does one define success? Well, we all have different definitions of success but for me I would say that success is the full realization of a project, whether it be a play, a film or a novel, which is then met with a positive response from an audience - where they laugh, they cry, they are moved, engaged, entertained, drawn in, where they feel and fear for the characters and experience directly the resulting dramatic catharsis. Of course the side-effect of this may be awards, fame, fortune, houses in Malibu, wall-to-wall Plasma TV's but these are the spoils - the success, for me, is getting the damned thing produced in the first place - and that, as I was beginning to learn, was no mean feat. Sure, I had experienced some success, according to my own definition of the word, in theatre, but film, phew, that was a tough one.

Get me an agent - Now!

I was about to enter into the belly of the beast - Hollywood. But, before that, we sent the script out 'wide' to a whole host of UK agents in the hope that they would approach Hollywood on our behalf. I'm not sure how many agents in the UK have strong Hollywood connections. I suspect not that many. Still, we must have sent out about 20 scripts and we were met with a few positive responses and one invitation to a meeting. We went along to the meeting and the agent seemed like a nice chap but he didn't really commit to anything. I think he gave us a few notes and later passed. A couple of other agents expressed interest in the script/story but no-one committed.

It was time to go it alone. It was time to approach Hollywood directly. Now, having sold life insurance where you have to make hundreds of cold calls and knock on many doors to secure a sale I was used to the concept of 'the numbers game'. It was a good training ground for rejection.

How to break into Hollywood

A life insurance salesman told me that you should thank each 'No' that you get because statistically you need the 'No' to get the 'Yes' and therefore since you need X number of 'No's' to get a 'Yes' each 'No' actually has monetary value. You will not get your commission fee without enduring a number of 'No's'. The 'No's' are part of the deal. It's simple maths and statistics. My approach to Hollywood would be no different.

I was used to cold calling so I ordered the Hollywood Agent Directory and the Hollywood Creative directory. The former is a directory of Hollywood agents/managers and the latter is a directory of Hollywood production companies.

My strategy was to start my phone campaign around 11 o'clock on a Friday evening. This was about three in the afternoon in Hollywood and I figured everyone would be in a good mood getting ready for the weekend. This worked well in many cases but my initial experience phoning Hollywood agents was very frustrating. The receptionists and assistants were well versed in their standard response to un-repped, newbie writers i.e. "We do not accept unsolicited submissions". A line I would hear again and again.

In the beginning I really didn't have a clue. I would phone companies like ICM and ask to be put through a literary agent. No name. Nothing. Still, knowing their names didn't make much difference. I was just put through to the second gatekeeper, the assistant, and was met with the same response, "No unsolicited submissions, referral only". Mmmh, this wasn't working very well.

At the time I was working in a big advertising agency in London and one day I noticed that the security guard was reading a book on screenwriting. We struck up a conversation and it turned out that he was also a screenwriter and a good one to boot. We became good friends and ended up shooting the breeze about films and 'the biz' almost every day. One day we were talking about breaking into Hollywood and the well known Catch-22 scenario where you need an agent to submit your script to a production company but you can't get an agent unless you have a referral from a production company.

Having got nowhere approaching the agencies directly I knew that I needed to get me one of these 'referrals' or get a deal directly with a production company. My screenwriter friend then gave me a great tip. He said that production companies will also accept script submissions from entertainment lawyers and he gave me a list of UK law firms. I approached a media lawyer at one of these companies and surprisingly she agreed to represent me, on a speculative basis! That meant I would deliver the scripts to her office and whenever a Hollywood exec would request a script she would send them the script, and for this I would not be charged! This was amazing!

I hit the phones and contacted production company development executives directly. This time it worked. I got through, again calling late on Friday afternoons when people were in a good mood and very soon I was getting script requests from major production companies such as Robert Redford's Wildwood, Alec Baldwin's El Dorado productions, Wendy Finerman productions and many others.

The passes started coming in but I did start getting voice mail messages from a number of dev. execs. Robert Redford's development executive left a message that I should call him. He said that the script was a great story and even though it was too political for Redford at the time he would try and help set it up. Nothing ever came of this, still it was encouraging.

I tried to get through to the exec that we'd pitched at Columbia Tri Star 2 years earlier in Cannes '97 but I couldn't get past his assistant. It took some convincing to actually get him to read the script and after asking me a number of questions regarding 'the package' he finally realised what was going on and said, "What, you're JUST the writer?" as if my evolutionary status was somewhere between a single-celled protozoa and a cockroach. He then said grudgingly, "Okay, I'll read your script". A few weeks later I phoned him and he said, "No studio will ever make this movie", (because of the political subject matter) and that he "just didn't like it". Another dream crushing moment. After the enthusiastic response from the VP we thought we were onto a winner at Columbia. Welcome to Hollywood.

Another producer phoned me up, she had some notes and said that if we re-wrote the script she would reconsider it. Some of the other responses were also positive. An exec from Wendy Finerman's company called saying, "Well done on the script" but, again, that it was a "tough sell". On the positive side, it looked like I could get some meetings out of this baby.

LA - The first time - November 1999

I decided to fly to LA. I told the few production companies that had responded positively to my script that I was flying into town and they said they were happy to meet me. With this interest in my writing I managed to get a few agents on the phone and to read my script. I flew into town and had about 5 meetings with various dev. execs and heads of production. There was a good response to the writing so I pitched some other ideas but at that time I didn't really have anything fleshed out. It was more a bouncing around of ideas rather than a pitch. I didn't really know how things worked back then. Maybe I had some vague idea that they would hire me as a writer but that wasn't going to happen.

One producer invited me to her home and I actually spent three hours with her in the Hollywood Hills talking about film, politics, life. It was great. We got on well. She liked the script but she wanted a major rewrite and with no commitment such as an option from her side I just didn't feel enthusiastic about spending another 6 months on the project for nothing. My friend was very busy working on the TV series so the rewrite would have taken some time and I just felt that the project, instead of being the slam dunk sell that we thought it was, was in fact a tough sell and I ran out of steam. It was a great experience and I had learnt a lot about screenwriting (and life!) and had made a few Hollywood contacts but it was time to move on. The producer gave me one of those precious agency "referrals" but nothing came of it. The agent passed.

I managed to get the script to some other agents and the following year, one agent agreed to meet with me for breakfast. He told me that selling a spec script is very difficult. He said that the script was "very well written and well structured" but since it was a mix of drama, fantasy and politics it was a very tough sell in Hollywood. He said he liked my style and my approach to Hollywood but that he couldn't represent me. He gave me a few tips on how to break in to Hollywood, paid for my breakfast and left.

Somehow, things had come full circle and the tips he gave me inspired me to set up a production company which I started in 2002. I tried to set up the script elsewhere but there was no interest. It was slowly turning into a writing sample and in the summer of 2000 I had the idea for my rom-com. That was the beginning of another journey from writer to writer-producer. For all the gory details please read Chronicles 1 onwards :-)

Ciao for now.

See Chronicles 29 (or 0)