I’ve written about theft before. Both stories and ideas nicked by scumbag producers without consequence. What follows is an epic tale. All true. With multiple endings that, to this day, still leave me and others gob-smacked.

This sordid trip down memory lane begins like most in LalaLand. With a meeting. The sit-down was a “general.” That’s where an agent or manager puts a writer client and producer together. There’s no particular agenda, only a hope that some kind of creative marriage will sprout and grow into a movie or TV show of some kind.

At the time, the producer in question—let’s call him Mr. Jellyfish—was working for a Brand Name talent management company with a film and television development wing. We met, chatted over who knows what, then Mr. Jellyfish told me of an old French comedy he had the rights to. Based on the story he told, I wasn’t interested in the adaptation. But something in the conversation stirred me to think aloud of an interesting protagonist. Next came the antagonist. Then a thriller story structure with three simple acts. Yes. Sometimes it happens that fast. Like manna from God.

Mr. Jellyfish not just loved my story, was stoked to go out and sell it. We shook hands and said our goodbyes. I got my parking validated, climbed into my car and phoned my agent.

“How’d it go?” my agent asked.

“Good, I suppose. And not so good,” I said.

“Let’s start with the good.”

“The good is that I came up with a legal thriller. Great characters. Super castable.”

“And the bad?”

“This producer guy. (Mr. Jellyfish.) He gives me the heebie jeebies. Somethin’ really sleezy about the dude.”

“Yeah. Know what you mean,” agreed my agent. “But if you came up with the story during the meeting, he’s attached. No getting around it.”

That much I knew. No matter that Mr. Jellyfish had less than zero input into the story I’d spun in his office, industry protocol pretty much cemented him as a producer. Whether I liked it or not, we were stuck with each other.

“How’s this?” I suggested. “What if we pitch this to some mini-studio with strong producers?”

“That might work,” said my agent.

At the time, there were a number of big producers around with piles of development and co-production financing, some of them with Grade A credentials. We called them mini-studios.

With my agent coordinating the pitches, I attended one more “rehearsal” sit-down with Mr. Jellyfish. This is where I was introduced to his friend, Mr. Euro, a fellow producer who I was told owned the rights to that old French comedy.

“I’m confused,” I said politely. “I’m not adapting the French film. I’m here to rehearse the pitch for the legal thriller we talked about.”

“Yes, I know,” said Mr. Jellyfish. “But since I brought you in to talk about the one thing, I think it’s only fair to kiss (Mr. Euro) in as a producer on our other thing.”

Whatever, I thought. Mr. Euro didn’t offer much in the room. And as long as I sold the pitch to one of our target mini-studios, I’d feel more confident about the producing package.

I scored at the very first mini-studio I pitched. They bought my legal thriller in the room. The Mini-Studio Mogul shook my hand and promised to get things closed in matter of days. And, true to his word, my deal closed practically overnight. I understood, though, because Mr. Jellyfish worked for those Brand Name talent managers, that the producing agreement might take a little bit longer.

CUT TO: Six weeks later. This is when I get a phone call from Mr. Mini-Studio Mogul.

“Sorry the deal’s taking so long,” he began. “Lotta producers to wrangle. But that’s not my biggest problem.”

“So what is your big problem?” I asked.

“The rights,” he said. “Simple question. Who owns the story you pitched me?”

“Me, myself, and I,” I answered. Yes, it was a glib as all get out. But one hundred percent correct.

“That’s what I thought,” said Mr. Mini-Studio Mogul. “Then why the fuck am I in negotiation for the rights to some stupid French comedy that I’ve never heard of?”

Lordy. Not that again. I tried not to imagine the motives for Mr. Jellyfish’s insistence on including the French film into the deal. But something about the situation seemed pretty damned nefarious.

“I have no clue why,” I answered, my blood pressure elevating like mercury.

I explained the origins of my story to Mr. Mini-Studio Mogul, including my surprise introduction to Mr. Euro. And that was when I was informed Mr. Euro was the rights holder to the French comedy that I was NOT adapting and where Mr. Jellyfish had explained his involvement as a matter of producers scratching each others back.

“Have you ever tried to buy the rights to a French film?” asked Mr. Mini-Studio Mogul. “It’s a nightmare. And for the record, neither of those clowns you came with OWN the rights to anything!”

Another lie. I was already flipping through my notes in search of Mr. Jellyfish’s phone number when Mr. Mini-Studio Mogul summed up:

“So lemme make sure I’ve got this right. You are the sole owner of the story you pitched me. And it’s not based on some stupid old French comedy.”

“I own it. Nobody else. And those clowns you spoke of are only attached because I made the mistake of generating the story during a general meeting.”

“Thanks. Got it. Lemme see if I can sort this out.”

The mogul hung up. Meanwhile, I dialed Mr. Jellyfish.

“Why in Christ are you trying to sell my thriller as an adaptation to that stupid French comedy?” I shouted. “We pitched a legal thriller that has NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO with some foreign comedy I’ve never even seen.”

“I know that,” said Mr. Jellyfish. “It’s just that Mr. Euro and I—”

“You assured me that Mr. Euro was just along for the ride. What the hell are you doing?”

“Know what? You’re right. I’m sorry. I fucked this up. Lemme fix it and call you back.”

Hours later, my agent called to tell me Mr. Mini-Studio Mogul was so incensed at Mr. Jellyfish and Mr. Euro and their shady shenanigans that he’d pulled the plug on the deal.

I cursed myself for not trusting my initial instincts to steer clear Mr. Jellyfish. I should’ve kept my writer’s trap firmly shut during the meeting and developed the story inside the safety of my own skull.

“I’m out too,” I told my agent. “I never wanna talk to that prick again.”

“You realize what you’re doing?” he said.

I did, indeed. My pitch couldn’t go forward without Mr. Jellyfish. Nor could Mr. Jellyfish go forth and sell it without me.

My legal thriller was dead.

What followed were the stages of grief. One of which was denial. I sought advice from both my attorney and a mentor friend. Both assured me that, even though I had the right to sell my story without Mr. Jellyfish, those Brand Name Managers for whom he worked were known to be litigious you know whats. So unless I wanted to battle things out in court…

Nearly a year passed. Then came word that Mr. Jellyfish had received his walking papers from those Brand Name Managers. He was on street and looking for a new job. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy, I reckoned.

Once again, I revisited my legal thriller. Though my options in Hollywood were nil, I pitched it as a novel to both my book agent and my publisher. They loved it, but were concerned about my entering such a crowded literary space. We all agreed to marinate on the prospect and bid each other a happy holiday.

It was just after the New Year when I received a call from a fellow writer pal, congratulating me on having sold my legal thriller to a cash-rich independent studio.

“Haven’t sold anything,” I replied.

“Really?” said my friend. “Coulda sworn I saw the trade announcement. Mr. Jellyfish with (Celebrity Screenwriter) attached to write it. One-liner sounded something like your story. Figured you’d sold it to them for a bunch of dough.”

My blood was rising. I’d been on vacation for two weeks and way out of the loop. Still, I checked the back issues of Variety and landed on a front page announcement of a huge spec sale by someone we’ll call Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter. The article told the tale of a three-and-a-half page treatment (along with the celebrity screenwriter’s services to pen the script) that he’d sold for nearly four million dollars.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the numeral FOUR followed by SIX ZEROES before the decimal point.

And sure enough. There it was in ink on newspaper. A legal thriller with a one-line description that appeared scarily close to MY legal thriller. And attached as producers, none other than Mr. Jellyfish and Mr. Euro.

Couldn’t be mine, I reasoned. It was too pagan. Too obvious and public. The writer of the treatment was the most famous screenwriter on the planet. The odds seemed astronomical that the spec treatment that sold for record millions was anything related to my WGA registered tale.

So I cautiously did what most self-respecting screenwriters would do. I phoned my lawyer.

Coming next week, Part 2 of THE SMOKING GUN.

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.
  • Guinea Pig

    Oh. Oh dear.

    What a story Doug.

    I hope you did the decent thing and hunted Mr Jellyfish down, tied him to some railway tracks and allowed the 4:35 pm commuter train flatten him into oblivion.

  • Sweet Jesus. That’s all I have to say.

    • Not sure if Jesus involved himself in this story. But we’ll see…

  • Holy smokes.

    Wow, Doug, I’m sitting on the edge of my seat. Looking forward to the next installment.

    From the outside looking in, I have to say that I’m building what I suspect is the mistaken impression that these stories are unusual. Tell me, this sort of thing happens all the time, doesn’t it?

    • Jenna. On the scale of this tale, no. Pretty rare. But it happens. How this story plays out? Might be a first. Stay tuned.

  • Steven Axelrod

    It’s official. Your blog is more entertaining that 99% of the movies I saw last year, And you may have written the other 1%. It wouldn’t surprise me.

    • Thanks Steve. But I think that’s more of an indictment of the movies.

  • Tim O’Connell

    Wow Doug. I can just imagine how red your face got upon reading that issue of Variety. I imagine the words that came out of you right after that are typically reserved for the golf course or heavy traffic. Can’t wait for the next installment.

    I *think* I might know who the celebrity screenwriter is, but I’ll keep that to myself of course. I’m really curious to see if I’m right.

    -Tim

  • Michael

    Doug,

    Thank you very much for posting this story. You have me on the edge of my seat. There are so many ways in which clever producers can leverage their relationships around town to steal ideas and drain creative writers of their sanity. It’s ugly and has happened to me too. I cannot wait to see what comes in the next post.

    As for me – I have been advised to wait to the movie to come out and makes money because I will be able to sue for so much more.

    And I have “hard” evidence in the form of my pilfered script mailed to me in a studio envelope. Oh yes I do.

    Thanks again.

    • Oh my. A smoking gun. Well, let’s see how this one turns out and maybe you can learn from my errors or successes. Thanks Michael.

  • VBG

    Oooooh, I don’t know if I can wait until next week!!

    • Sadly, you will have to. But I promise you it’s worth it.

  • Clive

    I’m wondering if you are doing it again? This is a truly great story- possibly better than the legal thriller- judging by the hook of act one.Surely this would make a blinding novel? I’ve just read the holden age of hollywood- (which was very good) so you even have a genre for it to fit into.

    I am looking forward to part two, but i do think the narrative of this is that strong that it’s highly nickable in itself.

    • Thanks Clive. We’ll see if this is thievable. Don’t know if I want to see the movie, though.

  • I always wonder with these things – and maybe this will be explained in part 2 – why someone like The Jellyfish would mess up a potentially lucrative deal for all concerned by doing something that stupid.

    Was he always thinking of stealing the idea, do you think? Or did he have some sort of handcuffs deal with the Euro producer?

  • Greg M.

    Oh man. I’ve never met you, Doug, but I like you quite a bit based on your blog. And when people I like get screwed over, it fills me with MURDEROUS RAGE. Not kidding. I really, really hope this has a happy ending, but somehow I doubt it. I feel the rage rising already…

    • First of all Greg. I promise you’ll get over your rage. I did. There is though so much more to come. So much…

  • paul

    So much of me wants Mr. Jellyfish to end up with one shaved eyebrow in this recounting…, I’m truly waiting on the edge of my seat until next week, Doug.

    • Okay. I’ll give this up. No shaved eyebrows. Maybe worse, though.

  • johnny H

    Just tell me where they live or work…I’ll do the rest

  • Alex

    oh please, please, please tell us who this is!!!

    • Alex. Might have to buy me a coupla drinks first.

      • James Hornsby

        I’ll buy you a bottle of Scotch for that!

  • Eva

    AAAAAAAAAAAAHHH! The suspense will be killing me! I hope Mr. Jellyfish gets what he deserves at the end but in Hollywood one never knows…

  • Fred

    Doug: If you don’t mind, I’d like sidetrack for a moment.

    If I’ve written the next “Citizen Kane,” (which I haven’t) but am over 40, is it true that the studios won’t give me the time of day, regardless of how good my script is? The other day I was reading a review of a book on Amazon, and one reviewer said the book was excellent, but the author left one important factor out: If you’re over 40, forget about anyone ever taking you or your script seriously. Of course, we’re not talking about someone on your level; just someone trying to sell their first screenplay. Your thoughts, please. Thanks, Doug.

    • Fred. Good thing about a screenplay is that it doesn’t come with your birthdate. So if it’s great and you get creative about flogging it, the sky is always the limit.

      • Fred

        Thanks, Dr. Doug. I’ll feel better now. Appreciate your taking the time to answer.

  • Wow. The way your friend recognized the work as yours was extremely telling. Did you start to feel like you were set up from the start?

    Sorry, I know…wait until next week. But it feel like my weeks have gotten longer, waiting for your next blog.

    • No. I certainly wasn’t set up. Taken advantage of, sure. But as you read on you’ll discover that sometimes things don’t turn out the way you expect.

  • Doug, I always knew you were great at writing thrillers and action movies…but who knew you lived through your very own literary thriller?! Can’t wait to find out how this whodunnit (or should I say howdunnit) ends.

  • Oh. My. Good. Grief. Open mouth, engage foot! Done that a few time myself, but in different circumstances. Must be something to do with the name!

    Perhaps it’s about time we saw the sequel to THE PLAYER: PLAYERS! The tagline could be, “In Hollywood, no one hears you scream!”

    D.

  • Doug, Looking forward to meeting next month in Dallas. I am waiting for my pitches and somebodies else riches to come to the “Big Screen” soon too.
    So enjoy listening to you, can’t wait till part 2
    Heather

  • Haha! 🙂

  • James Hornsby

    Damn, I’m out for a few weeks and I miss all the fun. I really need to catch up. The narrative is awesome. Thanks for posting

  • Hello Doug,

    Hmmm…after a little research I could only find one spec sale for $4 million. Could it be Shane Black? The Long Kiss Goodbye?

    Nosey here wants to know.

    Wink twice if yes.

    : )

  • I wrote The Holden Age of Hollywood, so it was great seeing this mention. Thanks, Clive.

  • Alan Tregoning

    You mentioned in your post “But if you came up with the story during the meeting, he’s attached. No getting around it.”

    I would love to hear about more about this industry protocol. Is this more of a courtesy/cover your butt so you don;t get sued move or does it have a more formal structure to it?

    • It’s more of a protocol, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been tested in court. Essentially if you develop the idea in the presence of others – especially producers – they’re pretty much considered to have contributed to the creative process even if they never opened their mouth. I’ve been in similar situation more times than I care to count

  • Alan Tregoning

    Thanks for the reply. As I start having my own meetings in the not too distant future it will be good to keep this in mind.

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