I'm not able to delve into the business end of screenwriting as much as I'd like, largely because I either lack the personal experience OR could only offer examples that are so specific as to instantly earn the wrath of a former employer or two. Sure, I could offer examples in the abstract, but I find that stories like this are more effective when specific examples are used.
I've been reading C.S.I creator/producer Anthony E. Zuiker's memoir Mr. C.S.I., and in it he discusses the complications he ran into while selling his first screenplay The Runner. He wrote it back in the late 90s and having few other connections, managed to get hooked up with Mike Marvin. Marvin's greatest claim to fame was as producer of a low budget teen comedy called Hot Dog... The Movie. Marvin liked the script so much, he said wanted to direct it and he offered the struggling writer $35,000 for the screenplay.
In his book, Zuiker looks back on that offer with wiser persepective.
"That was huge money... But what sounded like a fortune would turn out to be a terrible business decision. What did I know? What did any of us know? We were as inexperienced as we had been told. Yet when I said we had a deal, not only did Ron [Moler, Marvin's financial partner] shake my hand, he had me sit at his computer and write out a simple straightforward deal memo.
"'Just say we have a deal,' he said. 'Write that you are selling me The Runner for thirty-five thousand dollars.'"
How did this come back to bite Zuiker? I'm glad you asked. Time passed, and The Runner was a strong enough sample to get representation at CAA. That's when things got complicated.
Sony Pictures is so over the moon for the script that they offer Zuiker a two-picture deal - six figures for The Runner and six figures for a subsequent script to be written later. That's basically the dream, right?
Take it from here, Tony...
"But then Ron refused to relinquish his right to direct. He reminded everyone he had a signed contract. He owned the project. I saw my million-dollar fantasy disappear."
A couple lessons here:
First, don't sign anything without consulting a professional who's looking out for your interests.
Second, beware of attachments that hinder your film rather than help it. With a director committed to the picture, the big studios had no interest in funding the film because they had no enthusiasm for working with Ron Moler. Look at his credits - he had no directing experience before The Runner and his producing credits aren't terribly distinguished either. An attachment like that is less a selling point and more of an anchor, dragging down your film.
Less notable talent can be a stumbling block for a sale. If you're trying to sell a Bruckheimer-level project and somehow you got a Troma-level producer attached, that guy becomes a pain-in-the-ass whom the buyer might have to accommodate. Even if a director on Hannah Montana might be your neighbor and your only industry contact, it might not be wise to let him attach himself as director to your erotic thriller - even if he says he can get it to the big boys at CAA.
What might have worked - and possibly may have been tried in this case - would have been to buy out Ron Moler's stake in the film. Basically, they could have paid him NOT to direct. That scenario would require two things:
(1) Ron's willingness to part with the film - if he was really determined to make his directorial debut with this script, it would probably cost quite a bit to meet his price.
(2)The Studio would have to be enamored enough with the script that it would be worth it for them to pay extra.
But since that series of events didn't come to pass, Zuiker's dreams of Hollywood glory ended up being deferred temporarily. He got lucky - a second shot eventually came around. A lot of naive writers might not have gotten that second chance. Don't let your desire to have your script produced let you make bad snap decisions about who to get into bed with on a project.
Ideally, the Studio could have bought Ron off with an extra sum, perhaps with a producer credit. Notice I said "credit." When this sort of deal goes through, guys like Ron often become what we call a "PINO." That's "Producer In Name Only."
What's a PINO? Why don't we explore that on Wednesday.
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