The perps had been nailed red-handed. One of whom had mistakenly faxed me a transcript of an audio recording that featured me pitching my legal thriller. This was the very same legal thriller they later handed to a celebrity screenwriter, who subsequently sold it as a spec treatment for nearly four million dollars.
I was holding all the cards. I had my lawyer on the phone. He was waiting on me to either nuke the entire high-profile deal or negotiate some kind of settlement.
My decision was to deal.
Now, for those of you who view this as a weak move, you may want to put a temporary cork in your judgment. Read on and remember that if I used my position to dynamite the deal, it would’ve meant nobody would ever be able to move forward with my story—including me. That and there were some behind the scenes stakeholders who might see my behavior as intractable. Not quite the rep I was looking to curry in small town with ears the size of Dumbo’s.
“What do you think we should ask for?” I queried my lawyer.
“For starters, an immediate cash payment. Then whatever you think is fair.”
The nearly four million Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter would be paid included his incredibly expensive writing services, well-earned from having penned a successive string of boffo movies. And, once again, I didn’t consider him a thief as much as an egocentric opportunist who was accustomed to producers visiting him on bent knee, offering up their first born in order to secure his imprimatur.
“What I want,” I began, “Is everything (Mr. Jellyfish) and (Mr. Euro) will ever make on the movie.”
“As in money?” asked my lawyer.
“Every penny. They’re the thieves. They shouldn’t make a cent on the movie. Not a dime.”
“But they still get to produce the movie, right?” he asked. “Credit and all.”
Produce? Credit? If I could’ve denied the bastards the legal right to procreate I might’ve considered that.
“I suppose I can’t deny them credit.” I said. “I just believe they should never be able to profit from the movie.”
“Agreed,” he said. “You know (Mr. Jellyfish) is going to blow a gasket.”
“Let him.” I said. “Those are my terms.”
Another round of calls began, melting the phone lines with incendiary words and assignations about my character. But I held my ground. Gave my lawyer permission to hit the self-destruct button at any moment he felt was appropriate. Then sometime around seven PM I recall a messenger arriving at my house with a cashier’s check. I won’t divulge the precise amount. Let’s just say it was enough for a down payment on a waterfront villa on Lake Kiss My Ass.
As for my demand to receive all moneys the producing duo would ever earn on the movie, they threw the requisite snit fit. Claimed I was the actual thief upon realizing their distinct lack of leverage.
Meanwhile, I decided that I also wanted a producing credit on the picture. Not just any producer credit. Just the lowliest. Associate Producer. On screen and in the credit block of all prints and advertisements.
For some reason, the Associate Producer request flipped some kind of hellfire switch in the celebrity screenwriter’s super agent. He phoned me, shouted into the phone, charging me with extortion.
“Extortion?” I asked. “Who was the one who got ripped off?”
“It’s already been established that my client didn’t know the story was yours,” argued the super agent.
“And what does that have to do with anything?”
“My client is still going to write a script. You will be producing nothing. Yet you still want credit?”
Like that ever stopped anybody in Hollywood from seeking a producing credit, the most abused title in cinematic history. Much later—and I’m talking years down the road—when that super agent turned into a movie producer, he received a “produced by” credit on films where he never stepped on a set, never read the script, nor secured a lick of financing. And years after, the chance arrived for me to tweak him for his lousy argument, his pithy response was “Fuck you.”
“Here’s why I want a producer credit,” I told the super agent. “Because I invented the legal thriller which your client is getting paid four million to write. Why do I want the Associate Producer credit? Because nobody else will want it and that way I won’t have to share. And why do I want that credit on all prints and ads? Because one day, my children will want to know why my name is on the movie. And that’ll give me the opportunity to tell them a real life morality tale of thievery, bullying, and unchecked arrogance.”
Yeah. It was a mouthful. I still recall that I’d spent the entire phone conversation pacing around our upstairs nursery, surrounded by pastels and tapestries depicting little puffy clouds.
Sometime the next day, I heard the entire deal was in peril. Not because of my demands, but because that cash-rich indie studio who’d made the high profile agreement had unknowingly found themselves trying to purchase the rights to that stupid French comedy on which the story was NEVER based.
Somehow, the lines of communication got untangled and the deal points were settled.
As for my demands, everybody pretty much caved and I received what was right. My deal closed. Legal papers were generated for me to sign away the rights to my legal thriller… and I indeed signed.
You would think that would be the end of the tale. I can imagine blog fans racking their brain for recent legal thrillers, wondering which movie I’m writing about. But we’re not there yet.
In the years that followed, I’ve miraculously never had the unpleasant experience of bumping into either Mr. Jellyfish or Mr. Euro. Though my attorney hasn’t been so lucky. At the few events where they’ve had social encounters, my lawyer has offered his hand in a gesture of détente. Mr. Jellyfish has yet to reciprocate.
Meanwhile, remember when I said that Hollywood is a small town? One day I’m having a getting-to-know-you-lunch with a young development exec who’d been overseeing couple of my screenplay projects. During the meal I decided to amuse him with the smoking gun story. He sat across from me, gob-smacked at nearly about every turn. Sure, I thought. It’s a helluva tale. But something in his reaction piqued my curiosity.
“It’s a great story. But not that great a story,” I told him, sensing he was over-reacting.
“No,” said the sharp young exec. “That’s not it at all. You see, before I worked at my current job, I worked for (Mr. Jellyfish).”
“Totally serious,” he said. “And I think I’m the dude who faxed you the file.”
“The file with the smoking gun?”
I nearly fell out of my chair as he recounted his side of things. His crazy boss, storming around his condo screaming, “Fax him the fucking file!”
“The whole file?” the former assistant had asked.
“The fucking file!” screamed Mr. Jellyfish. “I said fax it now!”
As I write this, I’m still laughing. As I said earlier, how often does one have a chance to hold an actual smoking gun? Let alone get to meet the unlucky minion who accidentally faxed it to you.
That young development exec has since left the business for saner pastures. But to this very day, we remain the closest of friends.
Fast forward a few years. I’d moved on. But for the story of my cinematic victimization and vindication, I’d heard not a syllable about a forthcoming movie. Then came a call from my new agent.
“Hey,” he said to me. “There’s this project over at (the independent studio). Legal thriller by (Mr. Celebrity Screenwriter). They say he botched it so bad they wanna know if you’d like to take a whack at it.”
“You’re joking,” I said. “Seriously?”
“Seriously what?” he said. “They wanna talk to you about doing a rewrite. Should I send the script over for you to read?”
“Ha ha ha,” I said, thinking I was getting punked. “Really. Stop messing with me.”
“I’m not messing,” he said. “Why would I mess about a writing gig? That’s how I make my money.”
“You seriously don’t know?”
“I seriously don’t know.”
“I’ve never told you?”
“Told me what?” he said, totally confused by my tack. My relationship with this agent was still pretty fresh. I hadn’t yet shared with him the sordid tale.
“So look,” he said. “Are you interested in a meeting or not?”
“Oh yeah,” I said. “I’m very interested in meeting. More than you could EVER imagine.”
Next week, the fourth and final installment of THE SMOKING GUN.
Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.