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.