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April 15, 2013
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A Million Dollar View.

In a rare early collaboration, I co-penned a script with friend and former agent, Rick Jaffa. Though the partnership eventually collapsed under the weight of unreasonable expectation, the screenplay we wrote possessed a certain fire. It was a World War II action comedy titled Hell Bent and Back. Over six weeks, we’d channeled the best of what remained of our twelve-year-olds’ souls, and concocted a rag-tag tale of heists and heroics. I pressed the print button, the script was spit out, and while Rick and his lovely bride, Amanda, flew off to honeymoon in Tahiti, I confabbed with our mutual reps in order to determine strategy to sell it to the town.

Okay. So there really wasn’t much of a strategy. We assigned obvious producers to cover each of the major studios and essentially tossed the script to the wind and hoped it landed in a warm pool where the big fish were biting.

As an agent, Rick had sold his share of specs. But he’d never been on the nail-biting end of relinquishing your baby to the fates of the marketplace.

“All it takes is one yes,” I reminded him before he disembarked. It was advice I’d received a few times before. “Lucky for you, you’ll be on a beach somewhere.”

Speaking of beaches, my plan was to be enjoying the sand and a stack of paperbacks somewhere on Cape Cod before attending a wedding in Rhode Island during the spec sale… if there was even to be a sale.

It was a Tuesday when the script was messengered from of the William Morris offices in Beverly Hills. By my calculations, it would most likely be read overnight by the assigned producers and passed on to the studios by Thursday or Friday. If we were lucky, there’d be nibbles by Sunday or Monday. I’d been through similar dances a few times before. And because my recent script of Die Hard 2 had just received a green light from Fox, I felt pretty good about Hell Bent’s chances.

The soon-to-be War Department and myself were readying ourselves for a drive to Los Angeles International when somewhere around eight AM the phone rang. It was Mike Simpson from William Morris.

“Got a fish on,” said Mike.

“It’s only Wednesday,” I said.

“What can I say?” said Mike. “They bite when they bite.”

“So what? A producer likes it?”

“Studio. At least that’s what Bob Cort says. Passed it along to Disney before he even read it.”

“Okay,” I said, experienced enough to keep my expectations below room temperature.

“Not just Disney,” Mike continued. “We’ve got producers trying to get offers from Warners and Fox.”


“Didn’t I tell you? Cort said Disney’s gonna come back to us with an offer.”

No, he didn’t tell me. I wouldn’t have missed the word offer. Still, if producers find themselves in a competitive situation, they’ve been known to blow smoke up an axe sharpener’s ass if they think it will gain them a perceived edge. I told Mike I’d check in with him during my short layover at Dallas-Fort Worth. With that, I tried to put the spec sale out of my mind as I loaded the car and queued up in the Wednesday AM traffic. We were going to be late. Thank God the airline was running late.

Fast forward about four or so hours and we’d only just completed the first leg of a long, transcontinental travel day. After hiking what seemed like a mile through DFW, we’d arrived at the assigned gate just as the aircraft was boarding. With a kiss I promised my War Department-to-be I’d join her on the plane before our connecting flight pushed back.

“Hey, Mike. It’s Doug,” I said into a payphone with a ridiculously weak speaker output while standing in the middle of a loud, crowded airline terminal.

“One million dollars,” said Mike.

“Sorry, Mike,” I said. “Crazy loud in here. What was that?”

“One million dollars. Preemptive bid from Disney to take it off the market right now.”

Yes. I’d definitely heard the million dollars part. But he’d followed by saying the offer was from Disney. This is where, once again, I questioned the pay phone’s actual working condition. Disney had an iron grip on the mantle of Hollywood’s most tight-fisted studio. So cheap that if it weren’t for the lousy pre-nup he’d signed, Mickey Mouse would’ve demanded a divorce.

“Yes, Disney!” shouted Mike. “They want it so bad that they want it off the table at a million.”

Now, let me tell you a thing or two about spec sales. There’s a lot of big numbers tossed around. And the amounts that usually end up making news are floated by agents and managers looking to advertise their brand. The final figure that’s printed isn’t necessarily what the writer ultimately receives. Instead it’s often a best-case contractual scenario, assuming the movie gets made, the writer receives sole credit, and Lindsay Lohan gets actual jail time.

But this wasn’t one of those times.

“Million dollars guaranteed,” said Mike. “No option on anything. They wanna buy it lock, stock, and everything else.”

“I gotta get on the plane, Mike. What do you need from me?”

“I need permission to close.”

“You talked to Rick?”

“He’s somewhere over the Pacific, on the way back from the honeymoon. He doesn’t have a clue.”

“Then close it,” I said.

“You said ‘close it,’ right? We’re good at a million?”

“Whaddayou think, Mike?” I laughed. “I gotta go.”

I hung up and rushed for the gate. I ran down the ramp as the doors shut behind me, then worked my way to the back of the aircraft and found Karen with my unoccupied seat right next to her. I slid in, buckled, and eventually exhaled.

“So?” she asked.

“So we sold it.”

“Sold it? Really? Already?”

“Just told Mike to close.”

“How much?”

Because we were squeezed into the middle row of seats in a slam-packed DC-10, I whispered the number in her ear. If there ever was a picture of a gobsmacked face, it was the War Department’s on that summer Wednesday.

Now, it’s my nature to underplay things. Especially good news. Not that I want to appear too cool to care. I’m just not necessarily public in my displays. Yet what I would’ve given for a cell phone to call my mom and pop, both of whom had once thought I’d never make a tarnished nickel in the writing biz. Instead, Karen and I sat sandwiched between total strangers in the steerage of an American Airlines wide body.

Then, shortly after we taxied from the gate, the aircraft malfunctioned and, before we were even in wheels up and on our way to Boston, we ended up sitting on the hot Texas tarmac for three steamy hours.

The irony wasn’t lost on Karen and me. We’d just closed a record script deal yet we were stuck in the stuffy cheap seats of a broken down jet. Had there been an automated upgrade-to-first-class button I would’ve pressed it, skipped up the aisle, and ordered champagne for the plane. In retrospect, though, I’m glad it went down the way it did, sharing the moment and tiny packs of mixed nuts with the only person who truly mattered.

Our arrival in Beantown was so late I didn’t feel like calling anybody. If I recall correctly, we drove directly to the Cape and melted into the clean sheets of my in-law’s rental house. Sometime near noon, I excused myself from the beach and padded down to the pay phone near the lobster shack. I dialed my answering machine and, mixed with the sound of waves, wind, and seagulls, listened to what seemed like an endless rewind. The audiotape on the device had been run dry with calls of congratulations from just about everybody who’d ever possessed my number. It would’ve been more satisfying if I hadn’t run out of spare change.

Despite Hell Bent and Back becoming a record spec sale for a screenplay, our hold at number one didn’t last long. It was as if it opened the floodgates. A spec script war of mutually assured destruction broke out amongst the studios. For the next year, it seemed a month didn’t go by without a new team or writers finding their feet atop a growing monkey pile of million-dollar babies.

Next came a whole bunch of free press. Most of which painted our newly-minted club as a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears lottery winners, when in fact more most of us were in our thirties, credited with other movies, and more than experienced at our trade. (For more, read New York Magazine article.) When the gold dust finally settled, studios pulled back the reins on their spending once they realized that getting caught up in high-dollar script auctions had become more much about agents learning to manipulate the market and less about profitable movies. In fact, most of the million dollar scripts never made it into production.

Included on that ignoble list is Hell Bent and Back.

A few years after my short-lived partnership with Rick exploded into a fireball only Michael Bay would cherish, I found the time to pen another spec. My first since Hell Bent. I released the new script to the market on a Friday. Then on Monday came a front page Variety headline:

Movie Spec Sales. From Heyday to May Day.

Years later, I still find time to laugh. To me, that trade paper headline proved a fitting and ironic bookend to a wondrous, spec script adventure. Not to mention a lesson in understanding the always unpredictable and ever-changing tides of the marketplace in which we play.

Reading this blog was free. But reading my new thriller BLOOD MONEY as an ebook will cost you no more than a mocha latte. A little more if you want to read the trade paperback. Help keep the pirate ship afloat by clicking here:

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  1. Jeff Turner says:

    Always a pleasure to read your blogs, Doug. A couple questions for you: 1) Do studios typically lose lots of money buying spec scripts that never make it to production and do you still get paid even though they aren’t produced? 2) Have you ever had a script you loved so much that you decided to finance it personally to see that it gets made…or anything in the past that you currently feel would still make a great film? Thanks for your knowledge and info. It’s always refreshing to have a personal take on Hollywood business!

    • Last question first. Like all professionals, I have many scripts that I’ve written that I’d love to get made. Though I don’t possess the dough or poor sense to finance them myself. As for studios and whether buying spec scripts that don’t get made is good business, I suppose that money invested that is not returned is usually considered a negative. That said, the spec script game is cyclical. The market heats up then cools based on the needs of the biz. Presently, it’s stuck in a cooler cycle compared to twenty years ago in that fewer dollars are earmarked by companies toward any kind of development. The pendulum will swing back. Maybe not to the heyday. It will be something different, I expect.

  2. Monique Mata says:

    Wow, what a rush that must have been! Do you think that kind of spec craze can ever happen again or was it just a blip?

    ps. greetings from wet and dreary Rhode Island

    • Dear Rhode Island. The cycle will return. Maybe not as crazy as it once was. But to better days than now. Most likely with more independent money controlled by producers and not studios.

  3. Nayan Padrai says:

    Love reading your blog and war stories. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Guinea Pig says:

    Another stellar blog Doug.

    I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to have been paid a million dollars to do something you love, especially back then, when a million dollars was worth so much more than it is now*.

    *Although of course, you wouldn’t kick a million dollars out of bed for eating biscuits today either.

    Were you tempted to ignore Disney and allow a bidding war to happen or would that have been too risky a move?

    • There was no temptation to risk a bidding war. It was grab the brass ring and pull hard. As for the million, remember that I split the bounty with my one time writing partner. Then there were agent fees, attorney fees, and taxes.

  5. Cahuenga1712 says:

    Great article, Doug. Like the best entertainments, it leaves the audience wanting for more. Re: the tantalizing mention of the implosion with Rick. Seems to me you could write a whole book about the perils of creative partnerships in Hollywood.

    As for “Blood Money,” I just started reading it, and it looks like I won’t be getting much work done this weekend. From the very beginning, where a bad circumstance forces the hero to do something really, *really* terrible (I won’t say what, so as not to spoil it for others), I was completely hooked. It’s dark and intense. Alfred Hitchcock meets Elmore Leonard, with the moral murkiness of Jim Thompson and a high-octane splash of Sam Peckinpah.

    I think the fact that you’re a veteran screenwriter is one of the things that makes you such a skillful novelist, because there’s no “dead air,” no meandering irrelevances, and everything is so intensely visual, it’s almost like watching the movie. Not long ago, over a couple (or a couple of dozen) drinks at one of my favorite old-school, cave-like watering holes, I was telling a pal what a terrific movie “Dark Horse” was. I described the scenes and characters, and talked about what a great sociopathic villain it had–almost like Max Cady, except that he was a Southern politician instead of an ex-con. My drinking partner wrinkled his brow and confessed that he hadn’t seen it. He wanted to know who was in it, at which point I realized it wasn’t a movie at all. It was a novel. (Which, I believe, is now being made into a movie.) Aside from reminding me that it was time to cut myself off, the incident illustrated how effective good writing can be at projecting a story onto the internal “movie screen” of the reader.

    Great stuff, Doug! “Blood Money” is a terrific, white-knuckled thriller. Very intense. Can’t wait to read the rest of it–and can’t wait to see the movie!

    Whenever I read a novel, I instinctively envision certain actors. It’s a terrible habit that I’ve never been able to break. In “Blood Money” I immediately saw a couple of people as Beemer. Without jinxing anything, were there any particular actors you envisioned as that character?

    • Some very kind words there, Cahuenga. Appreciated. As for actors, sometimes I envision them in my tales. But mostly not. I want to write from the character I created and not so much the iconography of particular, though very gifted actors. But now that you mention it. Jeremy Renner comes to mind for Beemer. Thanks again and please post a quick, two line review on Amazon.

  6. Thomas Ballard says:

    I would ask if you joined the mile high club that day, but I’m guessing no after being delayed in the Texas heat for three hours.

  7. Colin Holmes says:

    Thanks Doug!
    The event is legendary, glad to read the real story. My significant other is also glad to know The War Department has an actual first name.

  8. Glenn McGee says:

    You must possess an inner calm being able to sit on a tarmac with such a sweet deal closing. The suspense would have had me imitating John Lithgow in Twilight Zone (seeing gremlins on the wing) to get off the plane and near a phone. Very helpful info on the 90’s spec market that explains more about why bigger bucks existed back then. I’m curious what you have seen changed in writing a script to make a sale today vs. back then. Thanks for the optimistic forecast that the spec market will get better. You rock Doug!

  9. Thanks for another great article Doug. I’m learning lots from your experience and appreciate the entertaining read. More success to you.
    Cheers, Amanda

  10. James Hornsby says:

    Finally got a chance to catch up on my reading. I have one question, if you chose to write with a partner ( again ), do you think that parameters could be set that both parties comply? Thaks again for the great read.

  11. Chad says:

    Great story. I actually met Rick and Amanda late last summer through my girlfriend (who knew their daughter). But I had no idea what they’d written or who they were, just that they were writers. They were both very nice, offered their phone number if I needed any help or guidance, talked to them a few times since. Hollywood is indeed a small world.