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The Manager

A few weeks ago, my friend Mark announced that he had taken an unpaid “e-internship” reading scripts for a manager in Los Angeles. He told me it was great: dude e-mails him scripts, he reads them and e-mails back coverage. He could do it all while working a full-time job in Chicago. At the end of the summer, he gets a good reference and/or a letter of recommendation, plus he gets all that experience, and maybe a guy who will look at his scripts. I thought it sounded nice, but maybe not the thing for me…

…until he gave me the icing on the cake: “So I’ve been doing this for a couple of weeks, and the guy offered me a paid position this fall.” Paid position, eh? He told me, “This guy seems desperate for readers—I sent him my resume, not even expecting to hear back, and he responded in a few hours with a message that said, ‘Welcome aboard’ and a screenplay attached.” He gave me the contact info, and I sent my resume. Just as he said, that night, the guy e-mailed me a script.

When I interned last summer, I had the joy/torture of reading scripts that were mostly “production-ready,” or close to it. Some of them were pretty good; most of them weren’t, but they had certain elements that distinguished them from amateur work—usually professional dialogue and tight structure. “Professional,” of course, doesn’t mean “well-written”—definitely readable, natural, but still usually on-the-nose or plot-centric instead of character-centric. And some people like William Goldman, and probably these latter-day “script gurus” like Syd Field and Robert McKee insist that structure is the most important thing to a screenplay. I agree with that, but the key that many of these writers seemed to forget was that structure isn’t the only important thing. A series of meaningless plot points don’t make a good screenplay.

But alas, now that I’m on the other end of the spectrum—unpolished newbies looking for a shot—I’ve read some real crap. Unprofessional, not entertaining, no dramatic structure, no characters, some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever read, and sadly, many of these scripts won or received “honorable mention” in UCLA’s recent screenwriting contest. I’ve read many of the scripts on that list, and I thought one of them was very good; the rest are awful.

This has a two-pronged effect on me: on the one hand, it builds my confidence. I know I’m better than stuff that’s won a reasonably prestigious contest. On the other hand, it really depresses me that I haven’t yet “made it.” Yeah, I know, time, hard work, perserverance, et cetera, but it’s tragic to me that agents and managers are spraying their shorts over the UCLA winners, and the scripts are terrible. I have no idea how these people won, but I’d pay money to read some of the screenplays that ended up on the reject pile.

So I thought it was a good thing when this manager called me about 10 days ago, ostensibly to shoot the shit, then said, “You’re a writer, right?”

“Yup,” I said.

“Well, you do great analysis, so I’d really like to take a look at something you’ve written,” he said.

“Sure,” I said, thinking this was my chance: if this guy was seriously considering such rotten material, what I had would blow his mind.

“Yeah, so, just send me something in the next couple of days and I’ll look at it this weekend,” the manager said.

I agreed…but I didn’t trust him. Googling him and his company hadn’t really turned up anything, which made me a tiny bit suspicious—I knew, if nothing else, that he’d never gotten anything sold. I’d also noticed some weirdness in the e-mails he’d sent me that, combined with the phone conversations I’d had with him, led me to concoct and elaborate and (I now know) erroneous theory:

I originally thought he had a huge network of unpaid interns, all across the country, reading scripts for him. After a couple of weeks, he’d ask to see their material, then farm it out to other writers. Essentially, he played a numbers game: if he sent it to 10 interns and got 10 positive responses, he’d maybe send it to 10 more and say what kind of response he got, but more likely he’d just read the script himself and make a judgment. I thought two things when I realized this: shady, and…well, clever. But it explained the anonymity, his apparent animosity with interns knowing each other, strangely blind-carbon-copying what I assume is a whole mailing list but trying to make it seem like a “personalized” e-mail, et cetera.

I had one of my good friends in Los Angeles do some detective work for me. She has access to sites like IMDb Pro and Filmtracker, which I do not, and she’d be able to find out his contacts. She e-mailed me back and said he’s listed in the Hollywood Creative Directory and on Filmtracker, which could either be a sign that he’s legit or a sign that he has a lot of money to burn. (This led me to think that, in the grand scheme of things, if he wanted to do something like steal good scripts from people, it’d be much cheaper to get listed in legitimate places than to buy the screenplays.) She also uncovered some stuff that made me believe he was, quite simply, insane.

Strike one: a lot of bizarre, inflammatory (literally, what people on Usenet call “flaming”) posts regarding some hip-hop television show he supposedly produced (Filmtracker doesn’t show him as having any credits). The initial post would be hyping up the show; this would be followed by several posts mocking him or the show; and finally, he’d strike back with bizarre, obscenity-laced rants.

Strike two: he spent a lot of time planning, with a guy on a random fan forum, treatments and screenplays for a trilogy of live-action movies based on a semi-obscure comic book, which he claimed he’d pitch to a major studio. This was in October of last year. He personally posted several times in the thread, vacillating between stuff like “I’m a wannabe, too,” and “We pitch to the studio next week.” From there, I simply wasn’t sure of his credentials. Most people with the connections and access to pitch a big-budget franchise idea they don’t even own to a major studio don’t call themselves “wannabes.”

I didn’t know what to make of any of these forum posts. In both cases, one side showed an overall ignorance/naïvete that I don’t think would be acceptable as far as representation goes, while the other side showed an intense passion for the stuff he wants to do. I could think of worse qualities in a manager than passion for my work.

I still didn’t trust him, though. Mark’s bottom line was, “Don’t give him any money. Ever.” This is obvious, of course, but—not to sound too arrogant—to me, handing over my screenplays all willy-nilly is pretty much like handing him money. I happen to think, based on my own opinion and the opinions of several I trust, that I have a good store of material built up. I can’t just hand it out to any asshole who calls himself a manager. Sure, I’m desperate for steady employment in a field I care about, and I’m desperate for anything like a foot in the door, but I’m not desperate enough to be an idiot.

I had a plan. I have a friend in a band who’s an entertainment attorney; in exchange for updates to her band’s site, she’s offered me free legal advice (always prefaced with “I AM NOT YOUR LAWYER, but…”). I’d ask the manager for a release form. If he gave me a hassle on that, I’d know he was shady and refuse to send him anything. If he didn’t, I’d send it to my lawyer friend. She’d look it over, tell me whether or not it was acceptable, and either I’d sign it if it was or she’d rewrite it if it wasn’t.

You might be wondering, “Gee, Stan, why are you so obsessed with a release form? Surely you had your screenplays copyrighted and registered with the Writer’s Guild of America…” I did the latter, because it’s easier and cheaper: just e-mail them a PDF and PayPal $25, and you’re registered for five years. For reasons I can’t figure out, I’ve been told that WGA registration is “meaningless,” and copyrighting is the only thing that affords real protection. But I…hadn’t done that, because it costs almost twice as much and you have to go to the effort of printing a hard copy and mailing it. Damn my laziness!

But that’s only part of the story—even if I sent out the copyright stuff before I sent this guy the scripts (and I sent them out last weekend), there’s another layer to the horror of intellectual property law. Because there are so many derivative movies being made all the time, I have the burden of proving not only that I wrote a similar screenplay (because that’s old news) but that I had a business relationship with this person and that he did, in fact, read my screenplay prior to selling his own similar screenplay or making his similar movie. That’s where the release form comes in handy.

Of course, it’d be nice and fun if you could go on down to the Library of Congress, pull out my screenplay, and say, “Ha-HA! This is exactly the same.” But it won’t be, because if he’s smart enough to have a system to steal screenplays, he’s not going to be dumb enough to start sending around my script, verbatim, with his name on it. Even if he does, it’ll go so far through the development wringer that it’ll come out unrecognizable. Chances are I’ll never even know about the theft until it either sells or goes into production, and it’ll be far beyond what my script looks like.

Some might wonder, if the burden of proof is a direct result of every movie in Hollywood having similar ideas behind them, can’t you still shop around your original script around? They always say, ideas aren’t copyrightable—it’s all in the execution. Well, it’s probable that I could. In fact, it’s probable that if a movie that started out as my stolen screenplay is successful, that’ll be better for me in the long run, because it’ll be easier to sell something that’s already succeeded. If it fails, though, I’m screwed.

Besides, what if they change it just enough for me to theoretically not have any “actionable” claims, but enough that I could never sell the screenplay? Intellectual property law is a nightmare, so I’d rather not have to get embroiled in anything crazy. As such, I’d like to be safe and smart.

So I asked the manager for a release form, and he wrote me back, “No release form is unnecessary.” I still haven’t figured out if this is a typo or some kind of shrewd, crafty response to confuse me. If it’s the latter, it sure worked; on top of this puzzling statement, he reaffirmed (for the third or fourth time in two days) how much he looked forward to reading my scripts this weekend. What is the fucking rush? I’ve always learned that in business, if the other guy is trying to put a clock on things, run away.

I wrote back and insisted he send me a release form. I actually figured he wouldn’t, and then I could cop out and refuse to send anything. Sadly, he called my bluff. Ironically, his release form made me trust him even less. Of the six terms listed, three of them were clauses that essentially said, “I hereby give you the right to steal the ideas presented in my screenplay and will be entitled to no compensation or legal action if you steal them.” I didn’t even need a lawyer to go over this—it was pure bullshit.

I was at a crossroads. I wanted to have it both ways: not send him my scripts, but still read for him. This was mostly motivated by my desire to get steady employment as a reader in the fall. He can be as shady as he wants with other people, so long as they’re sending him scripts for me to read on a full-time, paid basis. (At the time, I was way ahead of myself; he hadn’t even offered me a job. He has since then.) But I also saw it as a good opportunity to continue feeling him out, to try and figure out if he’s a total fraud who wants to steal scripts, or just a newbie manager who really is passionate and wants to do well but just…isn’t so competent. Maybe from inexperience, maybe from ignorance—who knows? I certainly didn’t.

Sunday morning, I hit on a good excuse. I told him I was blowing off e-mails and being evasive about sending him stuff because I thought the scripts needed minor polishing, but it turned into major revisions, and I didn’t feel comfortable sending him anything that was less than perfect. He accepted that but maintained he was eager to read them “soon.” Since then, he’s kinda gotten off my back. I’ve also had more time to seek out information about him.

I still don’t know whether or not he’s a fraud, but I looked up many of the titles and authors on the screenplays I’ve written and have discovered that a number of these scripts—while terrible—are written by actual, professional writers in other areas (mostly comics). So he has clients. He’s also “opened up” a little more in the e-mails he’s sent me, and I’ve been swapping info with my e-intern friend. From that, I’ve deduced that he does know what he’s talking about regarding these scripts. Or, at least, he and I are on a similar wavelength as far as what we think is good or bad. I was worried that, even if he had the production company and studio contacts he claimed, he might fuck himself by sending over a lot of inferior scripts. So far, the only one he’s suggested sending out has been the only one I thought was exceptional. That’s a good sign.

In my Googling, I found a list of companies he supposedly has contacts with. Over the next week or two, I intend to call most (or all) of them trying to dig up information on him—have they heard of him, his company, the writers he represents, and what do they think of him/them? If I get a lot of positive responses in the first few, I probably won’t go down the whole list. So we’ll see. Like my e-intern pal says, either we’re getting in on the ground floor of something great, or this guy will fold like a cheap card-table and we’ll be cut loose.

But at least we’ll have the experience.

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I’ve Made a Huge Mistake

It’s been a pleasant month, interning for The Manager, reading some of the worst screenplays in the history of mankind for no money. For me, it’s actually kind of nice. You learn similar things from bad screenplays that you do from bad movies. It’s nice to read a script and say, “Jeez, this was bad—but why, and do I have the same problems in one of my screenplays?” Even better, it makes me say, “Good God, this is a piece of shit—I can do better.”

This happened to me recently; reading an awful adventure script, I said, “Fuck, I can do this better,” so I dusted off an extremely old and awful script I wrote, gutted it, and rewrote it from top to bottom. I sent it to my friend Mark—the guy who told me about The Manager in the first place—who loved it. He said it “could be an Adult Swim series,” which insulted me but it was meant as a high compliment, so I took it in the spirit he intended. It’s nice when something inspires me to do better, even if it’s “Adult Swim series” better. What would happen if the flow of bad-to-slightly-above-mediocre scripts dissipated?

This week, I almost found out.

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The World Is Way Too Small

One of my reasons for not liking The Manager’s script: it read like propaganda for an actual, real-world dance contest he sponsors. It creates a bizarre, goofy mythology for the competition and beyond that has no real reason for existing. That was one of my main sources of disappointment, but I felt like I couldn’t use that as a criticism because The Manager didn’t know that I’ve spent enough time Googling him to find loads of information about him, his hopes and dreams, and this particular dance contest.

Yesterday, my sister called me up. I haven’t talked to her in a long time, mostly because every time she calls my mom puts it on speaker phone so the whole family can enjoy scintillating conversation about University of Illinois sports and other things I don’t give a shit about. Also, she’s a total motor-mouth, and the speaker phone makes us hard to hear, so it’s impossible to get a word in edgewise. It’s amazing to me that an asthmatic can talk for so long without breathing.

It’s easier to hold a conversation on an even keel when we aren’t on speaker phone. The only way to take part in the conversation is to flat-out interrupt her (which she does to me as much as I do to her), although when it’s been a long time since I’ve spoken she does usually ask questions about what I’ve been up to. So I explained to her the entire saga of what’s happened over the past week, everything about Mark, The Manager, the script, et cetera. I finally told her a few reasons why I didn’t like the script—chief among them, that it’s propaganda for a real dance contest he’s sponsored in a major city near Seattle.

“Wait a minute,” she said, recalling the title and making note of the city, “I think I’ve heard of that.”

“No shit?” It probably won’t surprise you that I was flabbergasted.

“Yeah,” she said, “I think they play that on public access, on the same channel where they show all those weird Japanese game shows.”

I couldn’t believe it. A lot of the advertisements and shit I had seen while Googling had mentioned the competition was also a “hit TV show,” but I figured that was bullshit.

“I didn’t realize it wasn’t based in Seattle,” she continued, “but I’m sure I’ve seen it before.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. “So it’s like, people dancing in what looks like a big boxing ring—”

“Yeah, and the winner is picked based on the scream-o-meter!” Both of us were getting excited at this bizarre, amazing coincidence. She was thrilled and amused I’d heard of this stupid public-access show; I was shocked and amused that she knew what I was talking about.

I agreed with her on the scream-o-meter; while there’s no reference to that in the script, it’s definitely made clear that the winner is chosen based on audience reaction.

“I’m not kidding, Stan, everybody around here has heard of this stupid thing,” she said. “We’ve all seen it, to the point where I’ve actually had a long conversation with the girls at work about just what the fuck it’s supposed to be. It’s even weirder than the Japanese game shows.”

I couldn’t believe it. Not only did it strike another blow to my waning fear that The Manager is a some kind of small-time con artist, I was once again amazed that The Manager really does have this amazing passion for what he does. I’m not a dance fan, so I’m not exactly leaping on board the lovefest with him, but his intensity and passion for it—so much so that he wants to make a movie about it to make the contest even more popular—goes a long way toward making me more comfortable with him as a Manager.

Mark e-mailed me the other day saying sometimes he doesn’t bother writing coverage on a script that’s truly awful, but if The Manager is hyping it up, he’ll do the coverage no matter what. We both see that passion, and even if something has a bunch of problems it not only makes us want to do the coverage instead of just saying “This is a waste of time”—it actually inspires us to try harder to solve the problems and make it good enough that we’re passionate about it. The Manager is just starting out, maybe he’s not totally sure what he’s doing, but if he could be as passionate about mine (or Mark’s) scripts as he is about these other projects, that’s a desirable element to have: our advocate, always rooting for us and wanting us to get better. That’s what makes a good manager.

Well, that and business sense. He’ll get there someday.

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Opinions = Assholes

As I slowly approach that all-important 60-day mark, at which time I will finally get paid to sit in my underwear reading crappy screenplays (formerly just a hobby, along with sitting in my underwear writing crappy screenplays), the gears are starting to grind, and I’m a little more irritable than usual. Also, I smell terrible. What a world.

I’m soon-to-be paid to give my opinion, which I’m currently handing out free of charge (its actual value). This is all I do. I read things, and I explain why I like or dislike it, what could be improved or eliminated, and whether or not the author has “what it takes.” I’m not really clear on the definition of “what it takes,” so I usually skip that part. It seems to be implied that if I actually bother to write full coverage on it (rather than writing a short paragraph explaining how much time I wasted and make suggestions about places it could be lodged, rather uncomfortably, in the human body), the author has “what it takes.” So that’s good enough for me.

Over this past summer, The Manager has cultivated a small group of Actual Clients. I like to think I had a small part in that, because I’ve read billions of submissions, and in general the few that I’ve liked have ended up sending more, and soon they’re sending rewrites, and finally The Manager announces that he’s sending one out to production companies, so let’s hope it’s “the one.” Usually the rewrite stage is where I realize they’re “clients,” but sometimes I don’t even know until he says he’s sent something out. I’m not sure if this is part of the disconnect from doing this job from 2000 miles away, or if it’s part of the disconnect of being an intern nobody cares about.

I want the scripts he sends out to be good. As good as humanly possible, if not better. I don’t actually care about these writers or their scripts; through e-mails mediated by The Manager, I’ve come to realize that—like most writers—they’re a bunch of assholes. Which is fine, because I’m one too, but I want their scripts to be exceptional because at the point when I decide I’ll become The Manager’s client, I want production companies to still accept material from him. Like everything else I do, this theoretical act of selflessness and dedication to an unpaid internship is motivated by greed, abuse, and self-interest.

The trouble started about two weeks ago, when The Manager asked me to take a look at a script that he thought he could “start sending out.” It was a period piece about a guy who can communicate with ghosts. It had some good stuff in it (or maybe I’m just a sucker for period pieces), but there was a complete logic breakdown in the third act. I don’t ask much from horror or action movies, but they least they can do is be sorta coherent from beginning to end; this didn’t deliver on even that meager request. I made a half-dozen suggestions to clarify the problems, which would have constituted a time-consuming, major rewrite. Maybe the writer is some kind of speed-demon (or perhaps speed-freak), but before the week was out I heard it had been sent out.

My infamous friend Mark explained it pretty well: “He finds great high-concept, commercial ideas in terrible scripts, but he seems to think that’ll work itself out later on down the road.” As I say, I’m no expert, but all I’ve ever heard or seen is the opposite: you sell the Earth-shatteringly great screenplay, and then as more cooks start peeking at the broth, it’s slowly ruined as they try to turn it into every other movie ever made.

But long gone are the days of Joe Eszterhas scrawling a drunken, coke-fueled idea onto a napkin and being paid $4 million for it. And those days were never there for the unestablished newbie; simply put, nobody will even buy a script that’s mediocre, much less one that’s flat-out bad. Life’s too short, and believe it or not there are too many good scripts out there to waste time trying to make a bad one good. Part of a manager’s duty to his client, and to himself and that wonderful 15% he earns, is to make sure that client is writing the best possible screenplay, especially a newbie manager who will be breaking through along with his client.

So I was willing to let it slide; maybe the writer came up with some kind of brilliant way to fix all the problems with a few simple changes. Maybe The Manager was even right that somebody will see the potential and they won’t worry about everything that’s wrong with it. I neither knew nor cared. Later in the week, The Manager sent me a screenplay by an author whose previous script I really liked (which had been “sent out,” and I could say with pride that it should have been). It was disappointing compared to the other script, but it had some good stuff. It’s basically the story of a prostitute and a mob enforcer, bookended by elaborate, mob-related goofiness. The beginning sets up way more than it has to for a payoff that basically involves all the mobsters dying.

This was my only problem with it: the relationship is the story, and yet it doesn’t start until the midpoint. The enforcer and the prostitute meeting is the act break; I thought they should meet in the first act, all the pointless mob stuff should be scaled way back, and the relationship should be expanding. In the end, even the mob enforcer dies, but as written, I had a hard time buying that these two people met and fell in love in the 48 hours before he’s killed. I’m not saying I can’t believe that would happen; there’s not enough of them connecting for me to buy it. If there were more relationship, the ending might be easier to take.

Last week, I got a rewrite of the same script. This didn’t surprise me, because unlike the script about the Prohibition-era ghost whisperer, a major revision wasn’t necessary; I saw deleting or changing a lot, then writing a few new scenes. What did surprise me was that…absolutely nothing I had suggested ended up in the script. In fact, with the exception of a few new scenes that just explain more mob bullshit, the script was exactly the same. And the new scenes actually weaken the rest of it—the rare rewrite that’s worse than the previous draft—because they exist solely to explain information that we already know. I wrote The Manager and explained that I think the changes are worse and every suggestion I made in my coverage still stands.

The Manager wrote back that he made the suggestions for the new scenes. He explained his reasons, which actually kind of made sense, but then he said something that really stuck with me: “In the end, I want [the mob enforcer] to live.” I realized that the dying was the problem all along. The convoluted mobster stuff really isn’t bad. It’s unnecessary, but it’s actually kind of interesting at first, until you realize that it’s actually about a relationship and the enforcer’s redemption. And then since that suffers because there’s so much mobster stuff, then that stuff becomes expendable. To me, anyway…

…but if the enforcer lives, that changes everything. I could easily believe everything that happens in the first draft I read, from beginning to end, if the enforcer lives, and he and the prostitute go off to live a quiet life. Even if it’s implied that things won’t work out between them, I could easily buy their entire relationship as the start of something. I just can’t believe it as the whole relationship, especially with the prostitute’s reaction when he dies, like she’s lost her one true love.

But, The Manager went on, the author is very insistent that the mob enforcer must die. Why? I don’t know. He’s a screenwriter. For some reason, screenwriters are obsessed with their main characters dying at the end. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this before, and I even did it once myself before I realized how fucking moronic it is. Nine times out of 10, the “main character dies” ending isn’t earned, just like it’s not earned here. Some movies really justify the hero dying at the end, and the fact that I can’t think of one off the top of my head is evidence that it’s a pretty rare thing.

So, fine, the author doesn’t want to change the ending. All that means is he needs to change everything else. I was a little irritated, though, because it seemed pretty clear that the writer—apparently with The Manager’s approval—dismissed my criticisms. At times like these I wish there were more of a dialogue—preferably not going through a third party like The Manager—so I could really understand what the writer is going for, and maybe help them get there. Of course, whether or not he agrees with me, the mere fact that I say, “This is what the story is” should perk his ears up. If he disagrees, that’s a flaw with the screenplay, not the reader.

I started to think, “You know, if they’re just going to ignore me, I’d really like to start getting paid now.” If they want to pay me for my opinion and then ignore it, that’s fine; but I’d rather not waste my time handing out free advice if it’s not going to be used. Especially when said advice, if followed, will help me in the long run.

But hey, this was just one script. If The Manager really can’t convince the writer to change things, maybe he’s just inordinately argumentative. I could understand The Manager wanting to keep him around for that one really good script, even if his others are crap that he refuses to change. I figured, as long as he didn’t keep doing this over and over, I wouldn’t feel so useless and unappreciated.

And then came a doozy. I still can’t figure out if The Manager ran out of scripts, but over the weekend he sent me something of his own—again!—but it wasn’t even a screenplay; it was a 20-page treatment for the movie version of an established comic-book/TV-series. The first thing I thought was, “Does he even own the rights?” but then I realized I don’t care one way or the other. I read through the entire treatment, and while there was actually a lot of good stuff there, it reminded me a lot of the new Star Wars movies, all three of which failed creatively.

While there are too many reasons to list, a big one (in my opinion) was the focus on tedious intergalactic politics, pre-Empire. You gotta admire the Empire, at least, for keeping it simple: rule everything with an iron fist, and crush all dissenters. Watching Darth Vader strangle a guy from 20 feet away is way cooler than spending seven hours watching Galactic Senate hearings, praying for something to happen, for the love of God…and then when it finally does, it’s retarded, but that’s unrelated. The main thing that sunk this treatment for me was the attention paid to overcomplicated politics that, ultimately, don’t matter to the story a bit. It’s planned as a franchise (i.e., as many sequels as possible), so from beginning to end this is mostly set-up. Hell, the only character that I recognized from the TV show isn’t even born until the end. But here’s the thing about starting off your franchise with a movie that’s all setup for sequels: it will suck. Especially when the core of your story revolves around characters who will be dead by the second movie, dealing with politics on planets that they’ll flee at the end of the first one…

Remember in the first Superman movie, the way they handle Kal-El being sent away from Krypton? It’s 15, maybe 20 minutes at the most, to set up Jor-El, the politics on Krypton, what ultimately leads to their doom, and Kal-El being sent to Earth. This is a similar idea (including the birth of a baby and fleeing the planet), stretched out as an entire feature. I didn’t have the heart to say, “Cut this down to 20 minutes, then start your movie,” but I was honest enough to say that the politics bored me to tears. It’d be so easy to take everything but the essentials and hang the stories on the central relationship, which is pretty interesting, and then you’d have a pretty decent movie loaded with action and tension and drama, instead of people sitting around discussing peace treaties.

I had a few, more minor complaints, but the big thing was the politics. I wrote The Manager back, and he e-mailed me back almost two hours later on the nose with a revised treatment, which he believed I’d like a lot more, but he specifically pointed out that he “could” not address the political situation. Why not? It’s “too essential to the plot.” It is? The revision is almost identical to the first one; the only changes address one of my minor complaints (note that I had more than one).

It irritates me because, especially when The Manager sends me his own material, I see this as a favor to a friend/colleague. I see it as someone seeking my advice because he trusts and values my opinion. It bugs me when I’m totally ignored for reasons that are either unclear or stupid. It’d soften the blow quite a lot if I were at least being paid, but it’d still bother me a little bit. If you’re not going to listen, why bother asking? If you disagree with my opinion, why do you trust it? I don’t get it.

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What Happened to The Manager?

Does anyone remember The Manager? I’ve been asked about him by a couple of people, why I’m not working for him anymore, what all happened there, so I figure since not much is going on today I’ll dive into that.

A brief recap for those two lazy to re-read all the links: last summer, my friend Mark said he responded to a vague ad on a job list for an unpaid “e-internship” reading scripts. He sent his resume to The Manager and the response was two scripts and coverage templates. He did it for a few weeks, decided the guy wasn’t completely shady, so he let me know about it in case I wanted to participate. I figured, what the hell? I was unemployed and wanted something to do, and at the time we thought maybe this guy would make something of himself and we’d be getting in on the ground floor.

Gradually, a combination of bizarre behavior and general asshole-ishness led Mark and I to believe two things: (1) The Manager had no idea what he was doing, and (2) we were not getting in on the ground floor of anything. For awhile, we had plenty of conspiracy theories that this dude was really smart and playing us for chumps, but evidence kept rolling in and it’s really, sincerely true that the man has all the business sense of a jar of bolts. Mark actually abandoned ship around October or November of last year. He was tired of reading shitty scripts for no pay, tired of The Manager ducking Mark’s requests for feedback on his own scripts (which The Manager asked to read), and tired of the bullshit idea that maybe The Manager would make something of himself and we’d ride the wave.

I kept going with it, mostly because I wanted to maintain some connection (no matter how useless) to The Industry, but also to continue building up an extensive, varied portfolio of coverage. But my heart wasn’t in it; as I complained in September, it didn’t seem like they were listening to my ideas (except for a yea or nay on submissions). They also never started paying me, which was another reason Mark decided to bail. He figured he’d let the paying slide if The Manager wanted to take him on as a client, but that didn’t happen. I bitched to The Manager a couple of times about getting paid, and he came back at me with false reassurances that they were about to break through, and as soon as he made a sale I’d be compensated. I didn’t believe it then, and obviously it never happened.

As a result of my disillusionment and lack of payment (and all the crappy scripts that simply became a chore to get through), I took more time to read them, took more time to write coverage; at one point, The Manager just told me to stop writing detailed coverage on really bad scripts, just give him a paragraph on why it sucks. Unfortunately, I ended up doing this for nearly all of them, but I’d still take the time to write a full report for my portfolio. He just didn’t want to read them.

But the real breaking point came in December. He sent me a script, an adaptation of a stage musical (trailer here, horrible and baffling short film by the author here). Because it’s not entirely evident in either of the YouTube links, here’s a brief synopsis of the plot: a preacher dies during his Sunday sermon and is sent to hell in spite of his service as a man of God. He takes a semi-guided tour through hell, encountering several sinful stereotypes and having an occasional war of words (and song and dance!) with Satan himself. That’s…basically the entire story. It also has the baffling, religious-awakening equivalent of the “it’s all a dream” ending—at the eleventh hour, just as Satan is going to strike the preacher down, God explains that He sent the preacher to see what hell was like so the preacher would make sure his congregation never strayed from the flock. Then he wakes up in the church, alive and well, and they all burst out in song. I know it’s a musical, so I’ll forgive the bursting out into song, but how is that ending not simultaneously obvious and retarded?

But wait—it’s not actually obvious, because of all the baffling “filmic” changes that were made to the script. It is evident that the author did a rushed hack job to turn her stage script into a film screenplay. It’s obvious when “cinematic” scenes are added between the stage-show musical numbers. The “prologue” is basically a long series of non sequiturs that are supposed to make sense later (arbitrary vignettes featuring each stereotyped character pre-death); they either continue to not make sense by presenting plot inconsistencies and continuity errors, or the scenes are re-explained by the characters when they appear later (meaning either the early scene or the dialogue should be cut, but it wasn’t because the script is so poorly changed). More awful problems: certain characters have random name changes, sometimes on the same page, as if she wanted to change the names but did a half-assed job of find-and-replace. The dialogue is just terrible, and somehow the lyrics are worse. The characters, including the preacher, are cardboard cutouts.

I know musicals aren’t known for exceptional storytelling, but look: it’s hard to judge a musical without hearing the music. I can’t do much without it except judge it based on story, character, and lyrical content. It’s awful across the board, walking the fine line between crappiness and incomprehensibility. Usually it stumbles and falls to either side.

There is one interesting moment in the script. Early on, the preacher sings that he doesn’t know what he did wrong—can’t somebody show him why he’s in hell? There’s an arbitrary flashback, one of many (because it’s cinematic!!), that shows this preacher, this man of God, swearing on a Bible before getting on a witness stand and lying his ass off. It’s never explained who he’s lying for, what he said, or why—just that the preacher lied, and he knows it. Now, you might say, one act of perjury is justifiable if it’s for the greater good, but the script portrays God as an Old Testament hardass, sending people to hell for minor infractions like getting into a car accident because the driver was on a cell phone (this is strictly forbidden in the Book of Numbers).

You might also say, “Wow, what an interesting road this script is taking, 22 pages in: you have a preacher who’s sent to hell, basically because he’s one of those corrupt douchebags who uses the ‘man of God’ thing to excuse all sorts of sinning.” You would be wrong; the flashback, like so many others, has no bearing or impact on anything that happens afterward. It simply exists as yet another non sequitur and continuity error, because afterward the preacher keeps complaining that he doesn’t know why he was sent to hell, and then at the end God basically says, “You shouldn’t be here—hope you enjoyed the tour!”

Needless to say, I savaged this script. It might have been my longest coverage ever, chronicling every logical inconsistency, plot hole, and continuity error in detail in the synopsis so I could rip it apart in the analysis. I was proud of this handiwork, and I sent it to The Manager…

…and never heard from him again. By that time I was disillusioned and irritated; I’d had long stretches where he simply stopped responding to e-mails, but then enough “begging” on my part would get him to “remember” me and e-mail another script. This time, I had had it. This was one of the worst scripts I’d ever read, after a long string of other crappy scripts, and I felt like what he was handing me came from the bottom of the pile. When I first started reading for him, he did send a lot of bad scripts but there were also plenty of scripts that had potential and even several that were legitimately good; while I think it’s probably more valuable to read bad screenplays than good ones (both are important, but I’d rather look at where people are going wrong and avoid the traps than look at what people are doing write and trying to imitate their success). Now, he wasn’t sending any of the good ones* to me and I had to wade through a sea of shit. I figured if he kept me in the loop and sent more, I’d still read it, but I was tired of begging for scraps.

Is it surprising that I never heard from him again? I’ve googled him and some of his clients on occasion, especially in the weeks immediately following. I wasn’t sure if he had dropped me or if he got busy actually doing something. I’ve only learned a couple of tidbits about him, none of them particularly good:

  • One of his worst writers has a novel coming out next month. I won’t deny that this is part of the reason I believe I can get my novel published. No screenplays, but if the “audiobook” version of his first chapter is any indication, the dude’s novels aren’t any more coherent than his screenplays. Seriously, it’s a tiny press that’s publishing it but they have a good reputation. I don’t know how they misfired so seriously.
  • From The Manager’s “LinkedIn” profile, I gleaned that he has “expanded” his management/production company buy creating a holding company. I swear to you that in January or February when I first found this, he suggesed that the holding company would be there to “hold” film financing for his productions. I didn’t really know what a holding company did at the time (I just know that I rarely hear the term outside of a corruption/scandal context), but when I eventually discovered that this isn’t what a holding company does at all, I re-googled the LinkedIn profile and found that he had changed it to say that the holding company exists that owns his various assets, many of which exist in the form of theoretical business ventures.
  • He has not, to date, sold any screenplays or produced anything.
  • His one big project, based on a Saturday-morning cartoon property that I don’t think there’s much of a current market for, was rejected. Apparently a big studio was looking at a bunch of different takes on the property; he had one that I thought was awful, an attempt to clone Star Wars using all of the worst aspects of the new trilogy (to sum up: politics politics politics bland love story politics politics). At any rate, it was announced earlier this year that the property would return as an updated Saturday-morning cartoon that re-imagines the characters as rock star superheroes drawn in an anime style. I honestly believe that is a better concept than the treatments I read from The Manager; I do think his take could have worked, but he chose to ignore my feedback and just kept sending more of the same.
  • Saving the best for last: I found a quote from The Manager dated September 2004, in a press release for the stage version of the horrible musical, where he is listed as “producer/co-promoter.” Obviously this little project meant more to him than he let on. I don’t have any confirmation, but I do think this is why I never received a response from him.

So that’s that: The Manager and I have parted ways, and I’m probably better for it. I have a coverage portfolio that is largely useless in the Midwest, but at least I was able to spend the time honing my skills. That, and a miniscule amount of money to cover one script, are pretty much all I have to make me better off than I was before I knew The Manager.

*I attribute this to my criticism getting a little harsher, even on the stuff I liked—because it could all be better, but often I lobbed softballs because I thought he was going to pay me and didn’t want to piss off his “clients.” [Back]

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The Mountains of Indiana: A Story of Disdain

Long-time readers know I have a tendency to act bitter and vindictive mostly for entertainment purposes; sometimes I really am bitter and vindictive for various reasons, but usually I just enjoy being mean. Not mean-for-meanness sake like Bluto or something; I just don’t take life seriously enough to get worked up over much, yet I find it entertaining when others do, so I try to provoke those feelings. It’s not one of my better traits, but it is one I’ve tried to work on (often with unfortunate results). Once in awhile, though, people stumble into my crosshairs and turn into an arch-nemesis, usually without even knowing it. Would I really announce an arch-nemesis to the person? That’s not how I roll; I prefer to quietly plot their demise while maintaining a ruse of friendship. I believe it’s a strategy laid down in Machiavelli’s The Prince, but I might have that confused with Crazy from the Heat by David Lee Roth.

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Slight Update

  • Hate my job. “My” new girl (I forgot to mention I put that in the title only because every single person in the building started referring to her as “my” girl, as if she were a personal assistant or sex slave or something) ended up quitting not too long after I started, which was fine because I wanted her to go away as soon as humanly possible. Things were fine for about a month, when my boss decided he was going to hire the niece of an employee with more seniority…to be trained to do my job. After we had come to an agreement (built largely on lies I was finally prepared to tell) that I would stay, so he didn’t need to find a replacement. On top of which, he was going to move me to a different job I have even less interest in doing. And, as the weeks have gone on, “my” second new girl has revealed herself to be one of the biggest fucking idiots I’ve ever met. Ever. On the plus side, I’ve made her cry twice so far.
  • Yeah, this whole entry was going to be a bulletpoint list of all the shit going on my life, but it turns out I’m already tapped out. Obviously, I haven’t found a good job, despite still looking (and harder than ever, since I have no interest in spending the next six months babysitting a retard), so there’s no news on that front. Even if I could afford a girlfriend, I’m not really in a place right now where that’d be a good idea. At all. Don’t have any scripts sold, and thanks to the strike, I won’t any time soon. I got nothing.

Oh, except a few updates on The Manager:

  • Turns out, he embarrassed the shit out of himself, Internet-style, by appearing “in-person” on a well-known screenwriting message board, claiming to rep three of the six finalists on Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett’s disastrous competitive reality show, On the Lot. When a cursory investigation of this claim led everyone to realize he was full of shit, the board turned on him. On top of this, he mentioned a goofy service he started, its reputable clients and success, but when asked for specifics, he ducked all the questions. Then, he elected to pick some small fights with the most vocal people in the thread, until the point that a moderator locked it. Since this is a public board, it’s now one of the top Google hits if you search his name. Not exactly a stellar way to make a name for yourself.
  • His obsession with a certain 1980s Saturday-morning cartoon, and the fact that it is indeed making a comeback, have led him to petition. I intended to wonder, since this “Digg” was apparently dugg only 12 days ago, why it took him six months to gather this information. However, according to a (now-deleted—thanks, Google cache!) post on his defunct blog, The Manager has gone awesomely insane. Essentially, he tries to take credit for hyping up the franchise enough that they’d buy somebody else’s spec script, even though they either didn’t like his idea or didn’t even hear him out (it’s unclear which is the case). He’s trying to pass off his idea as better, even though he hasn’t read the spec script. He sent some insane e-mails to high-level people at the studio and somehow they didn’t just ignore him. A few days later, he started this “petition,” although it looks like he thought better of the whole mess since he deleted the posts from his blog.

My only response: strange things are afoot at the Circle K.

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Ethical Lapse?

One of the problems I found myself having as a reader (and continue to have, even in my unofficial capacity as “guy who reads things”) was probably the most basic for a writer: everything I read, I knew how to make better. It didn’t help that when I read for The Manager, he had both general submissions and a “client” roster of awful, awful writers with very good ideas.

Knowing how to improve a story is actually helpful because, rather than just dumping all over a shitty script, you can hone in on the potential goodness and tailor your suggestions that way. I tried not to be the kind of guy who would look at something and say, “Here’s how I’d do it,” so I’d try to look at things as objectively as possible: what’s the story they’re trying to tell, where does it go wrong, why does it go wrong? It helped that many of these screenplays suffered from what I’ll call “objective badness,” plundering such depths of crappiness that any person with basic reading comprehension would know it’s bad. They may not know how or why they feel that way, but they know it with every fiber of their beings.

It turns into a problem when you find a script that is loaded with so many good ideas—but is so poorly executed—that giving feedback isn’t enough. You want to just swipe that idea and make it your own, to do it the justice it deserves.

It’s what we in the biz call “plagiarism.”

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