where the writers are
Lighting Out for the Territories

The time has come once again for a script of mine to go out to producers. This is a script I wrote in just under three weeks, then revised according to notes sent by my manager. But “going out” means it’s finished and ready to be seen by the eyes of Those Who Hold the Pursestrings. You have to be very careful at such times that you don’t 1) court failure (“No one, but no one is going to like this”) or 2) expect instant success (“They’re going to love this, they’re going to make this, I’m going to win an Oscar, and the speech is already written”). Neither is particularly helpful, especially as, in this business, the odds are weighted heavily against you. It’s the spin of the roulette wheel, really; if the concept and execution click with a reader, than you have a shot at a sale or option; if the story can be told economically and doesn’t involve blowing up tall buildings, car-chases involving more than two vehicles or is set on the bottom of the sea, all the better, since then it won’t cost upwards of a hundred-mil. If the characters have great lines and are well-rounded starting on page one, you may even attract some excellent actors. (Okay, I will concede that I have one very brief car-chase involving two vehicles on an interstate, leading to one shooting and one fiery rollover. But it’s important to the story, I promise, and it’s a realty, really good scene.)

I’d been through this going-wide business twice before, first with my script “Chasing Daylight,” which is still now and again read and which I hope one day to see produced, and then with a script I co-wrote, “Tumbling After.” “Chasing Daylight” was not sold because of George W. Bush. He was directly responsible for its inability to gain a foothold (though a lot of people really liked it), and had he not started a widely unpopular war based on a false premise, I would still have written this and set it just after the conflict in Sarajevo. Or in some other part of the world.

The script earned me meetings. I got to fly to L.A., stay at the Beverly Hilton (where the Golden Globes are held) for a bargain-basement rate of $89/night (plus $20/day just to park my car) and sit in traffic for very long periods of time while I drove two miles away to yet another production company’s offices. In New York we call that ten minutes. In L.A. it’s a major project, even when the destination is, on the map, only an inch-and-a-half away. Lunch with my then-manager was not at the conveniently-located Ivy just next door, but at Jerry’s Famous Deli. But the meetings were fun. And on each occasion I was told the same thing: “We love the story, we love the concept, but no one is going to pay to watch a movie dealing with the Iraq war. Unless you can get George Clooney involved.” No dice; Clooney’s company, Section 8, had received, read and passed on it. Maybe now he’d think differently, I don’t know. (Memo: ask manager if she’ll send it to him.)

They were right, of course. Specifically Iraq-war movies have failed miserably at the box office. But mine isn’t a war picture. Nor is it overtly political. It’s about a Pulitzer-Prize-winning, war-addicted photographer who, just back from the conflict in the comfort of his Westchester home, is being threatened and sought by someone who wants photographs he took while in Baghdad; photos that implicate certain American soldiers—and one mercenary—in a crime involving the theft of a sacred amphora from the National Museum there. Very few scenes were set in Iraq, and none involved warfare. In fact, this is about a man who lives his life behind the protection of the lens of his camera, who only when he realizes people need more from him can he step out from behind it and connect with another human heart. One reason why “The Hurt Locker” did so well at the Academy Awards is that it was a war picture that was apolitical in nature, turning out to be more a psychological thriller about man having to make decisions when facing inanimate objects full of very dangerous materials. I thought it was a completely original movie that was as much about men in war as a study in addiction.

Anyway, I went to meetings at a number of production companies, among them James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment in Santa Monica. This is located in a stand-alone building, with offices accessible by elevator, at which point, having been given the traditional bottle of water, you’re invited to sit in the plushest leather sofa you will ever get to plant your tush on, beneath the most gigantic “Titanic” poster ever printed. Of course, my meeting wasn’t with Cameron but with one of his development executives, and though I knew very well that Cameron would not be making my movie—he tends to generate his own material according to his own interests, much of them about water, and if you’ve read an earlier blog of mine you’ll know that I don’t do very well in the deeper parts of that medium—we had a very pleasant hour-long conversation. What’s called a “meet-and-greet.” It’s what Hollywood is all about, really: creating relationships and hoping they’ll go somewhere.

My new script, “Cell 71,” will go out on a limited basis first, to producers who have liked previous work of mine; the next day it goes wide to a large number of people in L.A. Whether it happens this week or next depends entirely on the spec market; if there are too many scripts going out to people there’s always the danger yours could be lost in the shuffle. So timing, the other important thing about the movie business, is central to how this is marketed. What will I get out of it? In the best of worlds, a sale or an option; in the next best, a handful of new relationships, new producers who will be interested in seeing further work. So until then I’ll just wait for the croupier to set the ball rolling above the spinning wheel and wait for it to bounce into place. And come up with a fistful of new ideas for scripts.