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The Hollywood Script-Writing Lottery

By Max Newsom

My first lunch in Hollywood found me staring at a plate of lettuce leaves, a glass of water and six egos the size of planets.  The Head of the production fund, for which I was Head of Development, turned to me, saying I would like to tell the group what I thought of their script.

In the split second when twelve headlamps bore down on me, I wondered if I would tell a lie or the truth.  It seemed to me that truth was the only road in life I wanted to follow. The only problem was that I had hated the script.  

There is a list of all the scripts bought by Studios in Hollywood in any given year: it reveals the project’s title, its log-line, the name of the writer(s), agent, the purchaser, the price paid.  In 2005, the last time I saw it, the average was $400 000 per script and there were a thousand scripts on the list.

If you read the entire screed from top to bottom, a number of almost identical scripts came up: each sold to a different studio, usually within a few months of the first entering the system.   

Many of the loglines seemed plausible, if a little obvious. Others caused me to scrunch my brow and wonder what kind of madness had seized the Studio Executive who’d bought it.   

It’s an interesting list.  If you wrote a script, or proposed a script somewhat like those that sold or, better still, pitched a script very much like one sold last week to a rival Studio, there is every chance you will be taken seriously.

Of course, you’ll need to have got into a Studio in the first place. That won’t happen unless you have a Pass. To get one of those, you’ll need to know Somebody who will get you an appointment with Someone Else, be project-pitching-perfect and have an agent and lawyer that the Business Affairs department (the Studio lawyers) has heard of.  They don’t take people in off the street.   

Nor do they take scripts out of the post-room.  In fact, they don’t take scripts from people who have got off the plane from outside America at all. It’s actually illegal to try and sell a script in America, unless you have been specifically invited to do so when in your country of origin. Sometimes, if Immigration thinks you may not have been in LA for a holiday but to sell the sweat of your writer’s brow, they will oblige you to go through every file on your hard-drive before you leave. If they should find evidence of your having contacted anyone within the US production community to sell your script, without a legitimate request pre-dating your arrival in the country, you may never be allowed back to the US. Ever.  They may not replace the WP they break in the process of finding that out, either.   

It costs about $4 000 per month to do Hollywood in plausible style and you’ll need to be there for at least three months, have been invited before you entered the country and also know people already inside the system.  If you already have an Agent, this process may be easier but it will still take you three months to be taken seriously. Ideally, you’ll stay for six months.  Sometime between these two dates, someone will believe you’re committed to a career in the US.  The problem you face is then that you won’t be able to come back for another three months once you leave. If you over-stay your 90-Day TOURIST visa, you’ll be frog-marched to LAX on a one-way ticket home.

You could always marry someone. For that, you’d better be in love, manage to stay married for two years and be able to prove that you’ve enjoyed frequent conjugal exchanges.  Should you be tempted to cheat the Immigration officials sent to check up on you, you may get found out.  I’m sure you can guess the consequences of such an ill-advised action.

It’s not enough, of course, to write a script of which the Studios will be buying similar versions in a few months. Nor is it enough to pitch a concept that will be collecting Oscars two years after you’ve put the final full-stop to your final draft.  You’d be surprised how common it is for great ideas you pitch never to be made while you’re attached to them but for a very similar story to be made in three different versions, shortly after you return to the UK.   

It won’t be because your idea was bad, or early or even stolen.  It’ll be because no one in Hollywood can tell the difference between a good and a bad idea. Yours was just unfashionable. But it will be one day: it’s just you won’t be there.

Back to my first lunch in Hollywood.   

I slowly opened my mouth and told the truth: for precisely two minutes, I told them exactly where the script was weak but also ventured some suggestions about how it could be made much stronger.  The hostility directed at me over the lettuce leaves was very reminiscent of a blow-torch.  My throat dried and I stopped talking. For a moment, there was silence.  I hung my head, feeling I may have made the wrong choice about Truth versus a Lie. No one spoke to me again for the entire, but now somewhat truncated lunch. It was as if I was a child who’d made a deeply inappropriate joke about an elderly host’s sex-life.   

The next day, the phone rang. It was from one of our luncheon hosts.  He solemnly promised we would never work again in Hollywood.   

For two days afterwards, my boss and I drove around LA, getting alternately slightly hysterical and then slightly afraid.   

Two days after that, the phone rang again. It was our luncheon host. He had changed his mind.  He, especially, wanted to work with us: specifically with me. He and his (very) famous director colleague wanted us to have lunch with them the next day.  

As I walked up to the table, the (very famous) director handed me another script with a smile: he wanted me to read it. Perhaps I’d like to come by chat about it at the mixing theatre the next day?

I did so.  I sat on a sofa and told him what I thought. He smiled through-out. His Oscar-winning Sound Designer made a special journey from her seat to mine and shook hands: she was delighted to meet me. They were all delighted to meet me.

I was invited out to the (very) famous leading lady’s ranch, along with my boss. We got drunk. I warned her the Zeus-like actor who was interested in their project would pull out if his part were not re-written, along with most of the rest of the script. She declined to agree.

A month later, he pulled out. He never said why to her.  But I’d already told her why: the script sucked. It was just that they weren’t listening: why would they? I was in. That was all that mattered. No one was listening:I was in.

Three months later, I was home on a plane to the UK.  I landed in fog so thick I couldn’t see my friend from the passenger seat and she was driving me home. It was by now a familiar a sensation.

Script-Writing Course from Max Newsom

Following his appearance on the Café of Ideas panel of "Lose the Britches: Creating High Concept Drama in the West Country", Max Newsom will be offering his Two-Day, Script-Writing Course in Bath. Claiming to cut seven years out of the learning process, it brings his extensive experience to bear as a professional script-development executive as well as his own adventures in the screen trade as writer and director.

If interested please call Max on 07931 500575.

Biography of Max Newsom

MaxNewsom has been in the film and TV industries for twenty years.  He has worked in every area of film production and and was also a professional script-development executive, ending up as Head of Development for a $130m film fund in LA.  He is now a director/writer. His first film is being released next year and he has several other projects in various stages of development both in the UK and elsewhere.

Created by Hubagent on 01 January 2011.

Last updated by Hubagent on 21 May 2011.

Posted in category: COI Articles

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