Monday, August 22, 2016

Gee, that "sounds" great! But...

At first blush, this sounds like a fantastic thing for writers. A newly formed production company, Adaptive, is going through discarded studio screenplays and giving some of them new life.

All screenplay writers bitch about the dreaded “Development Hell.” You do draft after draft and eventually the studio says “Nah, we’ll just reboot SPIDERMAN again” and your project is dead. Sometimes you can get it in turnaround, and sometimes another studio will be interested, but most of the time the script just sits in a warehouse that must look like the final scene of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC.

Once it goes there, rarely is it ever heard from again. I don’t know a single feature writer who doesn’t have at least two screenplays in that graveyard. Maybe three.

Only one time did David Isaacs and I enjoy a second life with a screenplay. We had written a movie for Columbia (now Sony) called PLAY-BY-PLAY, based loosely on my experiences as a minor league baseball announcer. By the time we turned in the draft there had been a regime change at the studio and as is usually the case, the new execs toss out everything developed by the old execs. I don’t know if anyone there ever read it.

Years later, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE became a big hit and its director, Tom Shadyac became the flavor-of-the-month. He was given stacks of scripts to consider for his next project. Somehow, through all the rubble, he unearthed and loved PLAY-BY-PLAY. It was once again in play. We spent that summer with him rewriting it, and the day we turned in what I still believe is a killer draft he got offered to step in last minute and direct THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. He took that, moved on, and our project was once again “strike three.” Welcome to the world of Hollywood – and this was 20 years ago when the business was way better.

But that was still one of the GOOD stories because at least we got paid.

Getting back to Adaptive. They bought up a number of screenplays that languished in development purgatory. Then they novelize some and make movies from some. (Their first movie hasn’t been released yet. Let’s see how well they fare. Lots of start-up production companies come and go. There seems to be an article in the LA or NY TIMES once a year about this. Here’s the recent one for Adaptive. )

So all of that is the good news.


The scripts get torn apart and re-imagined by the Adaptive executive team. And the original writers are usually kicked to the curb. Plus their compensation is minimal. Something like $1000. And Adaptive then owns the intellectual property. If it goes on to be the next HUNGER GAMES, everyone gets rich but the writer.

If Adaptive decides to novelize the script they “audition” five or six writers, who are asked to write sample chapters, ON SPEC. And I’m sure Adaptive asks those writers in the bake-off to come up with treatments, their take, suggestions, etc. FOR FREE.

Something about the original script had to spark the Adaptive execs. It seems to me that original writer is entitled to more involvement or more compensation. The whole approach by Adaptive is ingenious in that it can develop terrific material while still paying very little. Not that they’re remotely interested in anything I’ve done, but my discarded screenplays are worth at least the WGA minimum. I also deserve the option to write the novel or redevelop the project with them. And you know what? If the resulting book and/or movie is a hit, it was still a bargain for them.

When something sounds too good to be true it usually is.

The one place you won't find Hollywood endings?  In Hollywood.


BA said...

I remember "development hell" being used as a red herring in Martin Amis' "Money" novel to cover up various larcenies by a hustler (Amis had worked on the SATURN 3 script and we get benign caricatures of Heston, Keitel and Farrah Fawcett).

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

2 questions (for anyone that can answer them): 1) Why can't the WGA do something about this? Seems the Writers' Union is about the weakest union I've ever heard of. 2) Once you send in a manuscript, is it now the complete property of the company? or after a while can you send it somewhere else?

Stephen Gallagher said...

In any other business it's called asset-stripping. Although a gameplan in which they first novelize the scripts is strongly suggestive of a very brash form of cluelessness.

Matt said...

Posted this on facebook this morning. An homage to Ken Levine!

Seems like you can't go more than two seconds these days without hearing the word "penis." None more than on current TV shows. Could you imagine if this had always been the case?


AUNT BEA is putting the finishing touches on the dinner table. ANDY and BARNEY enter from the living room. Barney is limping.

Hello Andy. Hello Barney. You’re just in time. Dinner is almost ready.
(noticing Barney)
Barney. You’re limping. What’s wrong?

Nothing Aunt Bea. Let’s just eat.

No. No. No Barn. I think you should tell Aunt Bea what happened.

(becoming agitated)
I said forget it so let’s just forget it. Alright? Forget it!
Andy stands unmoved. He crosses his arms and stares at Barney.

Oh come on Ang.

Oh leave him alone, Andy. If he doesn’t want to tell he doesn’t want to tell. It’s that simple. Now let’s eat.
Barney mumbles something.

I don’t believe Aunt Bea heard you, Barney.

Barney mumbles a little louder.

How’s that Barn?


Oh goodness! Let me get you some ice.

Seems Barney forgot to unload his bullet last night. It was still there this morning when he caught Miss Walker crossing against the light. Barney drew his gun and shot himself right in his penis.

Alright. Alright. Let’s not make a federal case outta this. It’s all fine. Let’s just eat. Okay? Can we just eat? What are we having anyway?

Oh I saw this recipe on TV. It’s Asian Chicken with celery and peanuts. I hope you boys like it.

The SOUND of the front door opening and closing and running feet. OPIE rushes into the kitchen.

Pa! Pa! Barney shot himself in his junk.

Opie Taylor, that’s enough of that talk! I’ll not have that kind of language in my house! The word is penis.

Pa! Barney shot himself...

I know. I know. Now sit yourself down and let’s have our blessing before we eat.

Smells great. What’re we having?

Chinese chicken with celery and penis...PEANUTS!

Aunt Bea, Andy and Opie burst out laughing. Barney stands up and throws his napkin on the table. Red faced, he storms out.

Dain Schult said...

That's it - absolutely spot on - you nailed it. Having been in the arsty-craftsy world of radio and records for decades, I too understand this conundrum all too well... Whether it's the writer, the artist or band or the actor, they're all going to get screwed when the it comes to the rules of engagement with management in Hollywood studios or with the record labels.... and then they wring their hands in despair with diminishing returns on movie ticket sales and paid for music wondering why is all of this happening.... Dain L. Schult, CEO,

Brian said...

I would love a new baseball movie. Just please don't make it a musical.

Jeff C in DC said...

I hate to say it. but this is exactly how The Discovery Channel started.

Cap'n Bob said...

Nice little Mayberry skit but it's Aunt Bee.

Matt said...

Hi Ken,

This might be too boring of a topic, but I was wondering if you could go into the ownership of copyrights.

MikeN said...

People weren't getting any money for these scripts to begin with. Now this studio comes along and decides to take a chance, on things that at least one other studio decided was a dud. Seems there should be tremendous upside for this to be worthwhile. Most likely the vast majority of what they produce will fail to make money.

Jenn said...

Wow, that last line was SO good! "Where's the one place you won't find Hollywood endings? Hollywood." I'm gonna remember that!