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The Hollywood Hand-Off

There’s no doubt about it — it’s exciting as hell: you, the struggling screenwriter, finally get lucky enough to have somehow stumbled onto the right combination of spec screenplay and hard-working manager or agent, and you find yourself “taking meetings” all over TInsel Town. That’s when the Hollywood Hand-Off begins.

The time: 1999. The script: a little comedy number called Kittysitter. The manager was a cool young guy who I’d met while he was working for another manager who handled a friend of mine. That friend had given her manager a copy of Kittysitter, but he passed on representing me. Enter the young guy, who read the script, really dug my writing, and wanted to take me on as a client.

Now, if you read my last column, you may recall that I’d had a manager previously who had sold my script Road to Ruin, which became a movie called Drive. This manager had gotten me one or two meetings, but nothing that went beyond a meet n’ greet and only once at one of the majors. While I appreciate to this day what she did for me, I parted ways with her in mid-1998 over reasons that I won’t go into here.

When Manager #2 said he was going to “go wide” with Kittysitter, I really didn’t know what to expect. I was pretty wound up with anticipation, however, and when Manager #2 began asking me to meet with people, my excitement only grew. You can probably imagine how I felt when I found myself wandering the lots of all the major studios — Paramount, Warner, Disney, Fox, you name it, I was there — and meeting development execs and producers at what seemed like every production company in town.

At my very first big-time meeting, the development exec in question raved about Kittysitter: how it was the first script he’d ever read that had made him laugh out loud, how much he loved my writing, even enthusing over the songs I’d written into the script. His company, however, was passing on the script.

Then it happened: he told me they had a project that had been kicking around for awhile but they’d never hit upon a direction they liked for it… and would I be willing to take a look at it and give them my take on the material?

Holy freaking crap, thought I. Here I am taking a meeting in the big leagues and they want me to work on something! Heck yeah, I was willing to give them my take on whatever it was.

The development exec handed over the materials they had on the project and graciously sent me on my way. At that time, I had anywhere from four to ten meetings scheduled each week, thanks to Manager #2’s incredible ability to get people to take my work seriously, so I headed off to the next meeting.

That second meeting was at a production company on the Warner lot. I was astonished to hear the development exec at this company wax enthusiastic about Kittysitter as well. Then she told me her company was passing on the script because the guy in charge “doesn’t like cats.” I mentioned that I don’t particularly care for asteroids that destroy the Earth but I’d watched two movies about them. The exec laughed and apologized for the shortsightedness of her boss.

Then she mentioned that they had a project that was kind of in limbo, and she wondered if I might take a look at it and see if I had any new ideas.

God DAMN, I thought. If this keeps up, I’ll be working for everyone in Hollywood! Not to mention I’d be able to do little things like eat.

I gladly agreed to take a stab at their project. She handed me the materials and I went about my business.

Later that night, ensconced in my tiny Los Feliz apartment, I cranked out treatments for my take on both projects. Pleased with the opportunities I’d been given and with the work I’d done, I went to bed feeling like a king.

The meetings continued the next day, and on through the week. To my surprise, every single development exec or producer I met with was interested in getting my take on a project that had stalled out. The next week brought more meetings, and still more the week after that. When I wasn’t meeting with someone new, I was returning to meet with the previous execs and pitch my versions of all those projects — none of which really seemed to move forward at all, even though my pitches were met with at least a moderate level of enthusiasm. In fact, they all just sort of hung there, dangling in front of me.

And that’s when it hit me: With very few exceptions, none of those execs really cared that much about the projects they’d asked me to pitch for. You see, in many ways, Hollywood is driven by fear. Nobody wants to be the exec who takes a chance on the new guy (although I’d already had a movie produced, since it went direct to DVD I was still, for all intents and purposes, “the new guy” and hence, an unproven commodity). But what all those execs do want is to be the person who’s got your next project lined up if someone else decides to take a chance and buy your spec script.

So what all those development execs and producers were doing was trying to keep me on the hook in case Kittysitter blew up somewhere. Since then, I’ve seen the same thing happen to other screenwriters I know, so I can assure you, it wasn’t just that all those people really loved my writing.

Is this a bad thing? Of course not — just the opposite, in fact: it’s freaking awesome to have any interest in your work whatsoever. If there’s a downside, it’s that you wind up doing a shit-ton of writing without ever receiving so much as a dime for your efforts. Well, that and the fact that these same execs who raved about your work will desert you like rats from a sinking ship if your spec doesn’t sell.

In the end, Kittysitter was indeed a spec that failed to sell, although it came painfully close at two companies. Surprisingly, though, one of the Hand-Off projects I pitched for kept rolling along for over a year, during which time I wrote nine drafts of the treatment for it. Then, out of the blue, the company decided to bump it to the screenplay stage. I wrote one draft of the script and then the project went to hell in a hand basket, which is a story unto itself and best saved for another time.

And I went through all of it again when my spec Broke Sky hit the market. Because what else are you gonna do? Get a job in a shoe warehouse?

Scott Phillips and Gunnar Hansen

Scott Phillips. Writer of Films. Director of Movies. Lover of Trek. His friends and coworkers have included B-movie starlets, Steven Seagal, various porn stars, the Chairman of Iron Chef America, Leatherface and Lloyd Kaufman… Now he’s come to the ECN to tell tales and ripping yarns of derring-do in moviedom.

Check out his blog and watch his latest project KAMEN RIDER DRAGON KNIGHT Saturday mornings on the CW Network.

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