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.