I've taught writing formally for 20 years, screenwriting for 15 years, and still offer an online course that was at one point available in 1500 schools. My students have won awards like the Sundance Film Festival Online Viewers Award. I've written a lot of highly successful books like the Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting, and edited others like The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design, which became the bible of video game creation for writers and designers. Now that I've bored you with all that, here's my cautionary Hollywood tale.
In 2009 I was approached by Fred Andrews, a production designer just off a few seasons of Without A Trace. He loved my writing and wanted help with a script he called "Lockjaw." I read it, saw some potential, and spent many hours giving him notes and going over copious amounts of photos and other material. He began calling me his "best friend."
Mistake #1 — I didn't do a contract between us.
I had a producer friend, Paul Mason, who had always wanted a new monster character to build a movie franchise around. I called him and told him I'd found it and he and Fred got together. But I noticed another name on the script - Tracy Morse - and asked Fred to assure me he had the rights. "Oh sure," he said. "Tracy doesn't care, he just wants 10%." It said "based on a screenplay" by Morse on Fred's script.
Mistake #2 — I ignored a big red flag.
Paul takes the script to his buddy Sid Sheinberg at The Bubble Factory. Fred gets invited in. He brings along a clay statue rendition of the new monster. I tell Fred that will sell them on the idea, and it does. The movie gets financed for $2 million, with $500K in production deals from the state of Louisiana where it is to be shot. Fred promises me a job on the set, a part in the movie (maybe), and a part for my young handsome son Haley.
Don't you know it, there's just no room in the budget for all that. No room in the budget for me to receive anything. No moolah, nada. Fred apparently doesn't think it's appropriate to pay me even a finder's fee. Ain't that peculiar, chilluns?
I complain to Paul, who thinks I'm asking him for money, though I'm asking him to talk sense with Fred. Wrangling ensues. Finally, I get an offer to be associate producer, highest ranking of two, as long as I won't go after Fred for money. I decline and let it slide.
Mistake #3 (maybe) — I figure my "friends" will come to their senses. Ha ha ha.
So the movie goes into production. It seems Fred has ignored most of my notes. I'm busy making a living. Then I read some articles about the production. I try email. Nothing. Finally, I decide on small claims court. Almost two years have gone by. I lose - no written contract. The lawyer sitting in as judge doesn't care about my emails, calls, or hours.
Then the movie comes out. "Lockjaw" has become Creature. Tracy Morse has equal credit on the screenplay and gives an interview explaining how it all [cough] worked. Apparently, he didn't think "just 10%" was equitable.
Then karma happens, as it always manages to do. The Hollywood Reporter says the movie has set a new record, for lowest number of paying customers per screen, ever. About six people per theater. It's like the tag line on the original poster for Lockjaw: "Some things are better left alone."
I noticed that my old "pal" Fred hasn't been too happy with the comments that have been made about his first-time director movie. "Bottom feeders"? Oh, really? Thirteen percent on Rotten Tomatoes? Oh, my. And Den of Geek! calls it "arguably the biggest box office bomb of the year." Oh, lawdy, lawdy.
And there you have it, kids. A monstrous little story, ain't it? But that's Hollywood, where people think they can get away with doing the nastiest little things until they discover that - just like in the real world - it always comes back to bite them in the butt.
In the words of Tony Joe "Poke Salad Annie" White...
Chomp. Chomp, chomp.