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The Problem With Civilians

Along the way in this business, I’ve partnered up with various people for various projects.  Most of them were already in the business, but occasionally I’ve found a project that involves someone outside the industry.  Generally, it’s an author or expert or someone with a real interesting life story.  I make a deal with them for their book/life rights/story/whatever, and then we work on it to develop a pitch.  Sometimes we agree up front that they will come on in some kind of producer role — this is generally when I feel they bring an authenticity or weight to the project that the network/studio/buyer can’t do without.  Now usually everything goes OK, we either sell the project or we don’t.

And then, sometimes it doesn’t work out.  It’s often the wannabe producer that upsets the applecart.  People seem to get it: the buyers don’t know them, they have no track record, they’ve never been in the business, they’ve never sold anything.  Oftentimes, the buyer doesn’t want anybody from the “outside” attached to a project.  It’s bad enough walking in with a partner or two, but it often seems like a really bad idea to attach someone who’s not in the business.  The buyers don’t know them, don’t know what they bring to the party, as it were.

Chili
I’m going into the movie business. I’m thinking about producing.

Tommy
What the fuck do you know about making movies?

Chili
Well, I don’t think the producer has to know much.

(From “Get Shorty”)

Everyone usually agrees upfront that they’ll take a back seat, go along for the ride, see what they can learn about the business, make a little cash along the way.  After all, it’s their first time at doing something in the business, and, from my viewpoint, they should be happy with just getting some interest in their project.  I explain that not everyone who comes to Hollywood for the first time ends up walking away on their first project with a million dollars in the bank and a three-picture deal.  I explain that it’s particularly hard to get the studio to agree to have them involved in a meaningful manner, as a writer or producer or director.  The studios don’t trust people they don’t know, and what they are buying when I walk in the room with a new project, is my track record of having delivered a lot of shows, and the project.  All that being said, I try to be honest and fair in making a deal.

Oftentimes, though, the trouble starts at the beginning.  The person, even though I suggest they find a reputable, experienced entertainment attorney, somehow ends up finding some attorney who doesn’t have much knowledge of the business, or used to be a player 20 years ago (and hasn’t kept up with current trends), or has nothing to do with entertainment law at all.  So then the dealmaking process becomes difficult.  I usually bail at this point, as this does not bode well for the future, if, we’re so lucky as to sell the project.

Anyway, we usually get past that stage and they have a contract, an established producer who can hopefully get their project sold and made (me) and someone who cares about the show (also me!).  And then we work on it, sometimes for many months (or several years), developing it and the pitch, working it into something the studios or networks will want, sometimes attaching talent or directors, and then we go pitch it.  And pitch it and pitch it.  Although I have sold projects “in the room” as they say, meaning the buyer says they want it right now, before we go anywhere else, more often than not, we pitch and pitch — on one project I sold, we pitched it about 40 times before it got bought.  Oftentimes it doesn’t work out and the project eventually dies.

But sometimes, in that magical world of Hollywood, it all comes together and a buyer wants it and we move forward into dealmaking…  And this is when the most civilian problem usually occur — the civilian, in their six months in Hollywood, has talked with a lot of people and has heard all the stories (of the extremely rare events that do occasionally happen) — a million dollar script sale; the waitress who worked with a big producer and is now making (20 years later) $4 million a year as a writer; the unknown first-time director who held out and got to direct that big studio movie as his first film; the nanny who now makes $20 million a year… and all of this sounds astounding compared to the “bad” deal they now think they have with me.

Anyway, the call comes in, sometimes directly, most often from their lawyer to mine, that they are not happy with the current deal.  They’d like to renegotiate.  Or sometimes it happens in the negotiations with the network/studio… the civilians wants some outrageous amount of money or some unobtainable/unjustified credit and/or position.  And they continue to demand more and more and more… and eventually, even though I’ve talked with them, and my attorney and agents have talked with all of their people, the deal just falls apart because the network/studio does not like being held hostage — they’ve got 20 other projects they can switch their attention to.  And then the project is dead.  And it’s a shame, because ultimately, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere with a project I didn’t think was cool, sellable and amazing.  It could have been a good show.  And usually, later, the civilian who walked away from the deal because they thought they could do better, ends up getting nowhere with their project.

So a word of advice — if you’re new to the business, don’t expect to get rich and famous from your first show — be in it for the long haul.  Certainly take care of yourself — there are bad people out there — get a good lawyer, and feel comfortable about moving forward with whomever you’ve teamed up with.  But in the end, be reasonable and level-headed.  Trust me, you’ll get much farther along, and will no longer be a “civilian”.

Posted in Career Advice, Hollywood.

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