Just a few weeks ago I was guest-speaking to young screenwriters at an L.A. film school. It was a theater stuffed with young alert faces. The future of American cinema spread out before me, all ears, hanging on my every word. Why? Because for some reason, I’m supposed to have learned a thing or two after a couple of decades of show biz success and survival. I was there to pass along some wisdom. That said, somebody asked me about “leave behinds.”

Wait. Speak up. What’s that, you ask?

A “leave behind” is something a writer might give the buyer after a pitch meeting. Usually a blurb or some kind of outline that reflects what the writer just spent the past twenty minutes drilling into the producer or executive’s ear.

The student asking the question was concerned that ending the pitch by giving away something written down was an invitation for the recipient to steal.

“Look. It probably hurts more to hear this than for me to say it,” I said. “But if you’re going to have any success as a writer in this biz, you’re going to get ripped off. That’s just a fact.”

Judging by all the gob-smacked faces, I may as well have stood up, flapped my arms, and squawked my affection for anesthesia-free colonoscopies.

“I know. Getting stolen from is supposed to be a form of flattery,” I continued. “But that’s a buncha crap. It sucks. It’s never fun. But it happens all the time.”

Okay blogfans. Here’s a SPOILER ALERT: If you’re planning to make a splash in show biz but imagine that it’s populated by characters from the kinder parts of Mary Poppins, please turn back now, don’t read on, and politely exit while whistling the opening bars to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

To find success in the Land of Milk and Movies, writers must write, pitch, and sell. And if the writer is any good at his craft, there are wolves in sheeps’ clothing waiting to take a bite of your good work and sell it as their own. Like this one:

I was at lunch with a producer I’d come to know through one of my movies. Sometime between the entree and my third refill of Diet Coke, he began talking to me about an idea he had for a movie. Now, this “idea” was more like snippet of information about a special unit of cops serving in the NYPD. There were no characters and zero story. Just a thirty-second recitation of this particular cop detail and their dirty assignment.

Usually, I nod and say something like, “That’s a good start. Lemme simmer on it for awhile.”

Instead, during this particular slice of my day, I’d already grown bored with the lunch conversation and this guy’s nonstop tales of scamming sloppy supermodel seconds off his former boss’s conquests.

So keying off the producer’s faint description, I deftly spun a tale. Why? Because I’m a writer and that’s what I do. Making up stories has become second nature. In twenty minutes hence, I created two dynamic characters, three solid acts, and even a surprise ending.

Not that it’s always that easy. I’ll sometimes toil for years over half-assed ideas in search of a getaway car. And other times, stories arrive almost instantly like gifts from heaven, fully formed and barely in need of tweaking.

This was one of those days. From idea to characters to story to a perfectly pitchable movie before the check even arrived. The producer dropped his Platinum card, shook my hand goodbye, and promised to follow up with me the next day.

True to his word, the producer called me the following afternoon.

“So here’s what I did,” said the producer. “After our lunch yesterday, I drove over to Fox and sold that story I told you.”

“You what?” I asked, wondering if there was some kind of infection that had flooded my ear canals with crazy talk.

“Sold the story. Set it up as a development deal at Fox.”

“Without informing me?” I asked, incredulity raising my voice.

“No worries,” he said. “You’re on top of my list of writers for it.”

“Top of your list?” I’d quickly moved from incredulous to steaming. “Are you kidding me? I’m the only writer you can possibly do this with.”

“I believe you. And you’re obviously my first choice. But the studio’s gonna want to hear more than one take. That means a bunch of writers.”

“How dare you!” I shouted. “It’s my story! You had no right to sell it without me in the room!”

“Hey. It was my idea and I paid for lunch,” was all the asshole producer pretended he needed to say to settle the issue.

“And if I knew you were gonna f**k me over I woulda ordered more than the lousy Cobb salad.”

His logic was tortured and numbing. As if anyone with a willingness to flash an American Express card coupled with describing to a writer the distinctive features of a DeLorean awarded him the intellectual property rights to Back to the Future.

I was incensed then and, as I beat these words into a blog, I remain pretty peeved. But because I hadn’t had time to register the story with the WGA I didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. The S.O.B. beat me to a defense by rushing from our lunch to the gilded gates of a movie studio with an open wallet. My only remedy was to gin my agent and lawyer into gang-calling the studio and, in all likelihood, the action would quickly devolve into such a who-came-up-with-what twist that the primary byproduct would be gallons of bad blood spilled between myself and the innocent movie studio. It was either that or lick my wounds, write off the unscrupulous bastard, and learn to keep my mouth shut.

It wasn’t first time I’d been stolen from. It wouldn’t be the last. Because the truth is that the job demands a certain measure of creative risk. These dangers must be accepted as potential job hazards. And no insurance policy or writers’ collective can totally insulate an ambitious word merchant from every cunning shark in the Show Biz Sea.

In the end, I probably could have fought my way into the studio and demanded my screenwriting services be attached the story. Yet something about beginning a movie project forged with an already malignant distrust for the producer made me too ill to put up a fight.

Smart businesses write off their mistakes, failed partnerships, and affronts of chicanery every damned day. Then they get up, dust themselves off, and move on to Plans B or C or whatever. Writers need to follow that example.

I have similar stories with happier endings that I will soon make blogworthy. But more often than not, stories about intellectual thievery usually end in more sting than bling.

Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • This sounds an awful lot like a few dates I’ve had in Hollywood!
    Whatever happened to this project?

    • It so far has never been made. Nor has it lately shown up on any development rolls. But you never know.

  • I’d like to know what happened, too.

    Sat next to a guy at Starbuck’s once, that related a similar story, although, his thing was, if you went to a pitch meeting, and they offered you a sandwich, they didn’t have to pay for anything else, and he states a judge would do this to you, and not for you….

  • Bill Machin

    Since I started writing movies in the early 1980s, I’ve been ripped off three times..But those are just the ones I know about..Part of the game is having a sense of when and how much to divulge, I believe.

  • Nicholas Fargher

    Yikes. i ust finishes my first script and registered with WGA. Was curious if there an actual legal benefit to registering with the WGA even if you’ve got an email record of your script?

    • That’s a great question. Legally, email records and etc would most likely hold water in an actual court case. But it’s still not as iron clad as your WGA registration, which the U.S. Copyright and Patents office recognizes as your best legal protection.

      • RJ

        WOW. I have written Four original screenplays and have gotten nowhere.

        I cannot even imagine selling one, let alone being ripped off three times.

        I did have a Manager ( who I wouldn’t dare MENTION for your safety ) that thought she was God’s gift as his shoe kicked her ass out of La La Land.

        her scripts fluttered in the wind behind her…

        Anyway, this manager never sold any of my properites and I haven’t been able to shit in a shoe.

        Jesus, Mary and Joseph…. I’m comiung, Elizabeth!

  • Great – great stories, cant wait to get there myself. Not the stolen part. I am wondering thou .. what was the- two dynamic characters, three acts, and even a surprise ending– that you came up with? if you wouldn’t mind sharing in a brief descriptions – AND what’s to stop you from taken it -across the street ( and please, I am from Northern California were things like this just don’t happen.. ) what’s to stop you from taking it across the street …fully developed…to another studio or producer?

    • Wayne. The dynamic characters were a pair of dudes issues or agendas that create a moral dilemma considering the situation they found themselves in. The three acts are too much to recite here. But it was a journey. And the surprise ending? Well, that’s for me. A better question is why I didn’t take it across the street. The answer is the same reason why I didn’t shoehorn myself in as the writer. Bad blood and litigation. It’s been some years hence and nothing prevents me selling it on my own. Though I no longer think it’s attractive in the present market.

  • James

    Once again I read this and I’m blown away. I was told however that a U.S. Copyright is iron clad and the WGA registration hold less water if in the case of theft.

  • Em_Boogie

    Reading your blog is like a damn mirror of my life as a writer.

    It beggars belief how many people in this town think that an idea constitutes story and ownership. They ask you to put meat on the bones, then they want to call the steak theirs.

    • Mirror mirror on the wall. Now that I think of it, that’s a much easier job just telling a mean queen that she’s still hot.

  • Pertinax

    Please excuse the flippancy. An upside to the downside is if that did happen, at least you’d know your ideas are marketable 75 percent of the time.

    In all honest emotion count me as a supporter of Doug’s point, thievery ain’t flattery, but 100% crap. And too bad it’s frowned upon to express your gratitude with a punch in the guy’s throat. It is, so, it was probably best to let the matter go and move on.