Friday, January 01, 2010

The Writing Year - Year Two: Managers, Lawyers, Producers, Option Agreements, and Giving Someone the Ax

Happy new year!

If for no other reason than we have to throw out our calendars and open new ones to January once again, New Years celebrations tend to go hand in hand with evaluation (or re-evaluation) of one's life. As far as my writing life went, 2009 was a pretty interesting (and sometimes frustrating) year. Actually, you could say the same thing for my personal life, too. I really learned a lot about the business in 2009, and though I didn't find "success" in terms of a major sale, I continued to fight my way toward Hollywood's door. Hopefully what I went through will help shed some light on your situation or reassure you that you're not the only aspiring screenwriter fighting an uphill battle.

It was just over a year ago that I officially signed with my first manager. I pitched him ideas for follow-up projects to my post-Apocalyptic spec when we met in late December of '08, and I spent my holidays working on the one we settled on. By February, he was transitioning out from the company he was with when I signed with him, and he was making the move to someplace else. Agents and managers hop companies all the time, so that wasn't a red flag for me. I did, however, grow suspicious when he had me emailing his private email because he couldn't tell me where he was going or what the situation was. At the same time, a manager at his former company was embroiled in controversy regarding slander and a lawsuit. I quietly (and not so quietly to The League) hoped that this was why my manager was leaving.

At that point - two months into our manager/client relationship - I didn't have anywhere else to go. My manager had contacts I certainly didn't, and I wasn't an in demand writer. So, when he asked if I would go with him to his new company, I quickly said yes. I had to officially fire the first company, which I did via email (as per my manager's instructions). I hated the place that put me in; after sending the email, his former colleague told me that I had to inform them which projects he had repped me on, where they had been submitted, and that any sale made on them would mean 10% for the old agency. My manager's response when I worriedly asked him how to deal with that - "ignore it."

Things got more and more unsettling. March came, and still no word about where he had transitioned to. In fact, I had very little word from him at all. I enquired about the status of my script a month after he supposedly submitted it nine places, and he said he would check in a week. Finally, a mutual friend who we had submitted my script to emailed me; she'd received an eblast from my manager informing his friends and professional contacts of his new home. Right then, I did two things. I emailed my manager to see if he would finally tell me what was up, and at the same time I googled the new place. The new agency - primarily a literary one - very clearly said "we are not the right place for screenwriters" on its homepage. They repped writers for almost every other medium, but were adamant about that. When my manager did get back to me, he did so with no explanation. All he said was that I should email him at his new address from that point on.

By the beginning of April, I'd had enough. I felt like I was doing more work for myself than he was. It was also right aorund that time that a family friend - Gretchen Somerfeld - read my script. Gretchen's an LA based producer with recognizable credits to her name, and she was into my script. Smartly (though certainly not advisable in many cases), I slipped her the script wihtout going through my manager. I was growing so displeased with his actions that I didn't want to cut him in on 10% of a potential sale made from my direct contacts. Within the span of just a few weeks, I fired my manager, found out that a production company with a first look at Warner Bros had strongly considered my script but ultimately passed on it, and I agreed to work with Gretchen.

May passed by pretty quickly. I scrambled for a lawyer to take a look at the option agreement Gretchen sent me. The phone calls to entertainment lawyers were all over the place. Some of the larger companies refused to have any sort of conversation without a $15K retainer, while others gave what little advice they could before telling me that I would have to pay $200 to $600 an hour to speak further. One junior at one firm actually agreed to look everything over and take me on at the standard 5% of the sale, then got back in touch a week later and said he would have to do it at 7.5%. Finally, I managed to get some help from a very kind woman at the WGAEast. Though she prefaced that she's not a lawyer, she works closely with contracts and option agreements, and she assurred me that my agreement was one of the more favorable she'd seen.

I went on vacation at the end of May, and I signed the agreement with Gretchen upon returning in early June. By signing with Gretchen, I also acquired a manager in Kevin D. - Gretchen's manager who would rep me for the project (and then potentially longer, based on our work together for the first spec). With that, the re-writes began. The first major change was the title. For the record, I either hate titling my scripts, or I love it. A title can make or break interest in a project (and sometimes a project itself), so unless I get a great one, I'd rather hit myself in the crotch than give my baby an unworthy title. 

After weeks of waffling and tossing while trying to fall asleep, I settled on a new title that Gretchen and Kevin both really liked. Kevin started talking the script up to a few people around town, while I spent the summer re-writing. The script underwent some major changes, finally settling into its second real incarnation by the third week of September. 

We sent it out to a few places, including giving an exclusive to the production company with the Warner Bros deal that passed in the Spring. Since I'm an unknown writer, my "team" and I agreed to try and attach an agent first, and then go wide. Unfortunately, after a long day at work, I found out that the production company passed a second time, and the agents we were hoping to hear from either hadn't read or also passed. 

Finally, in October, a bite! Another production company, this one with a first look at Universal, was interested. The head producer (Oscar nominated) hadn't yet been made aware of the script, but one of his right hand people had read and liked it. She had some notes, which would ultimately send the script into its third major revision, but was offering us an exclusive deal. In a money-less handshake agreement, we agreed that I would do re-writes per her notes. If she liked the new draft (which she has not gotten yet), then it was off to the producer and, fingers crossed, to Universal with an A-list producer attached. I've been working on the new version since, and just about finished the first stab at the revised Act Two today.

So, 2009 has been quite the rollercoaster ride. I don't mean to belabor my first failed management experience, but I do think that it's important for all new writers to know that they don't have to take someone's crap just because they're unproduced. Don't get me wrong - the key to my relationship with Gretchen and Kevin so far has been my willingness to work with them and take their feedback, and I'm sure they'd tell you the same. On the other hand, though, if a working relationship isn't, well, working, then you're not obligated to stay in it. This is your career, so you have to do what's best for that. And for you. 

All in all, though I didn't make a sale and am not yet an in-demand writer, I would say that 2009 was a very good year for me. I got closer than I have ever been to launching my screenwriting career, and I did manager to land on a few people's radar, if only for a few minutes even. I've been working on this post-Apocalyptic spec for two years now, and I know there's still a lot of work to go. 

So please, if you take nothing else away from this post, take these two things: work well with others, but make sure that they're working well for you, and be patient. Some people might have the great fortune of being a legitimate overnight sensation, but if you read between the lines in most articles on "overnight" screenwriters, you'll see that they worked in the industry (as a producer, reader, grip, caterer, etc.) for years and had been writing for more years than that. 

May 2010 be yours and my best Writing Year yet!

1 comment:

king suckerman said...

Great read, Cake Man. I find these weekly installments to be really helpful in motivating myself.

Here's to a big 2010 for all of us!