So here I am. Looking at a trade announcement trumpeting a multi-million dollar deal for Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter’s three-and-a-half page treatment that, based on the one-line description, sounded eerily like the legal thriller I’d concocted, pitched, and sold a year earlier. Making matters more suspicious were the attached producers, Mr. Jellyfish and Mr. Euro, the same pair I’d dumped due to what eventually turned into a failed deal because of their tragically bad behavior.
Still, I had no proof. All I had as evidence were three long paragraphs in Variety and the hairs on the back of my neck.
“Listen,” said my lawyer. “Let’s not pull out the guns yet. You dig up your (WGA) registration and I’ll put in a call to the studio and inform them that they might have a problem.”
While my attorney attempted to throw a temporary chop-block on the dizzying spec sale, I dove into my funky filing system in search of my proof of copyright.
Then the phone rang. It was Mr. Jellyfish. And he sounded as if he’d just dropped a toaster in the bathtub.
“I’m gonna sue you!” he screamed at me. “You ever hear of a thing called tortuous interference? That’s when somebody purposefully fucks with somebody else’s contractual dealings.”
“I’m not looking to mess up anything,” I said.
“I’m gonna sue you until you’re nothing!” he continued.
“Calm down,” I said. “I don’t want a legal hassle. I just wanna make sure that wasn’t my story you and (Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter) sold for four mil.”
“It wasn’t. Okay? End of argument.”
“All I gotta see is the treatment. If it’s not close to my registered material I’ll be totally happy to stay outta your business.”
“That’s right. My business!” he screamed. “And just so you know, all I did was show (Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter) the same French film I showed you. Whatever he came up with was on his own.”
“You never showed me the film,” I corrected. “You gave me a thumbnail sketch of a comedy. I rejected adapting it. What I built was a whole new story that had nothing to do with the stupid French movie. So I’d find it hard to believe that some other screenwriter working with you could magically come up with the same story I invented then legally registered with the guild.”
“You got documents? Well so do I. Me and (Mr. Euro) wrote up our own story.”
“Did you register it?” I asked.
“No. But the date on it predates when you and I ever met.”
“Listen,” I said. “All I need to see is the treatment, okay? Send me what (Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter) sold to the studio. I’ll read it and we’ll go from there.”
“I’ll do you one better,” said Mr. Jellyfish. “I send you the whole fuckin’ file.”
Mr. Jellyfish hung up and, while I was relaying the details of the conversation to both my attorney and agent, my fax machine began to chug, spitting out pages of documents.
I assembled the pile of paper. Shuffled through a variety of memos concerning Mr. Euro and that old French comedy. There was also a strange, poorly sketched outline “written” by Mr. Jellyfish and Mr. Euro, supposedly based on the aforementioned film. The one page doc reeked of illicitness and was conveniently pre-dated before my ever having met the producing duo. My attorney assured me it would hold no legal water.
Finally, I landed on Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter’s golden treatment. Just as advertised, it was three-and-a-half pages long. Sadly, I didn’t have to read very far. The very first paragraph was nearly identical to my verbal pitch, even using the exact names of the movie stars I’d referenced for the thriller’s protagonist and antagonist. The rest of the treatment followed my story closely, veering away a bit in the second act, but completely aping my work in the finish.
My stomach twisted. This was no small infraction I’d stumbled on. And right in front of me was a document that stem to stern had completely ripped off my legally copyrighted property. There would be no pissing this problem away or writing the event off as showbiz collateral. This was going to be a dogfight. That’s because despite the sleazy actions of two producers, at the center of the action was a top-of-the-list celebrity screenwriter and his very public—not to mention record—multi-million dollar sale of a three-and-a-half page treatment. He would surely defend himself and truly test the legal boundaries of the WGA copyright.
Things were about to get bloody.
I was prepping to redial my lawyer when another document from the fax-pile caught my eye. It was typewritten on two pages of those Brand Name Managers’ letterhead.
The title of the document was called “DOUG’S PITCH.” And below was written “transcribed from audio recording.”
Jesus, I thought. They’d actually recorded me pitching my legal thriller?
That’s right sport fans. Without my knowledge, Mr. Jellyfish had secretly taped me pitching my own story and somewhere, somehow, some no-name assistant had been assigned the dirty task of transcribing the recording and stuffing it into a file.
Even more shameful was how close the transcription of my verbal pitch tracked with the multi-million-dollar three-point-five-page golden treatment penned by Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter.
Hell, I thought. I don’t even need to dig out my WGA registered legal thriller. It was all here in front of me—on letterhead—in my voice.
The smoking gun.
I dialed both my attorney and agent. Passed on my sterling discovery. My lawyer, practically giddy at the news, asked me to fax him the evidence. My other line rang. I picked it up. Guess who?
“Did you get it?” barked Mr. Jellyfish, still hot but reduced to a low boil.
“I did,” I said. “Thanks.”
“And I read Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter’s treatment. I gotta be frank. It’s my story. You guys have a problem.”
“But you also received the document I wrote with (Mr. Euro.) It predates our meeting. Proof it’s not your story.”
“C’mon. We both know you wrote it after the fact and just typed a different date on it—”
“You can’t prove it didn’t pre-date you!” He was back to screaming again.
“It’s not a legal document,” I argued. “My registered material—”
“Your registered stuff doesn’t mean shit! I going to argue that you stole from me! I’m gonna sue you and when I’m done you’re going to have no fuckin’ career—”
“May I read to you from another document you faxed me? It’s on letterhead and titled ‘Doug’s Pitch… transcribed from audio recording.’”
The phone line went dead silent. Mr. Jellyfish, a man known for his gift of gab, was at an immediate loss for dialogue. So he did what most clowns do when the laughs stop. He hung up and exited stage right.
What followed was a carpet-bombing of phone calls. Hard nosed negotiating. A studio, their lawyers, and Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter’s super agent all wondering why the hell I was so hellbent on a precept called principle.
“(Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter) had no clue whatsoever that it was somebody else’s story,” argued the super agent. “He was of the understanding that it was (Mr. Jellyfish’s) story to give away.”
“For almost four million dollars?” I asked. “Please.”
“Why you gotta be an asshole about this?” shouted the super agent. “Don’t you know there’s a negotiated deal already in place? And it’s based entirely on my client’s cache. Not your stupid-assed story.”
“I’d watch who you’re calling an asshole,” I cautioned. “That’s my intellectual property that your client was caught selling.”
“And you and I know my client didn’t steal it! Those dirtbag producers did!”
In the end, I had to agree. Hollywood’s a pretty small town. The only black mark on Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter’s was his arrogant rep. There was nothing on his rap sheet that led me to believe he was a story thief.
“There’s a first time for everybody,” said my lawyer. “Sure you want to let him slide on the thievery deal?”
Once again, I tried to be pragmatic. I had the power to completely torpedo the high profile deal and sully the rep of a big time scribe. But an act that rash would gain me nothing and, when the dust finally settled, nobody in town would be brave enough to touch me or my legal thriller for fear of a lawsuit or reprisal from Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter and his super agent.
Or I could compromise. Negotiate some kind of bargain.
But could anything I ever work out of such a mess end up in the same zip code as fair? I found myself hanging the horns of one helluva dilemma. Blow it all up? Or deal?
I promise there’s so much more that you will not believe. Stay tuned for Part 3 of THE SMOKING GUN.
Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.