Sunday, September 09, 2018

Infuriating rejections

Getting rejected is part of the game in Hollywood. For most of the time it IS the game. No one is immune. NBC once passed on Tom Cruise to star in a pilot. I consulted on a pilot that rejected Annette Bening. ABC demanded a series be recast to replace Tim Robbins. Chuck Lorre has unsold pilots. So does Woody Allen.   Jennifer Hudson got booted off AMERICAN IDOL. You get the idea.

My writing partner, David Isaacs, and I have had our share of rejections over the years. But every so often we'll get one that really gets our attention because of the explanation. Here are a few.   If you've been in the business for more than twenty minutes you probably have six examples of your own. 

We did a pilot once for NBC. We turned it in and they said, “This is exactly what we’re looking for.” We were feeling great.  A few days later they passed. Their explanation: “This was exactly what we were looking for… last week.”

I once wrote a spec screenplay. A studio executive rejected it, but said, “The writing was so good it almost fooled me into liking this movie.” Gee, thanks.

A pilot we developed for Fox was rejected as being “too NBC.” At the time NBC was the gold standard for comedies and Fox was a mess.  So I guess that was a compliment... maybe?

Early in our career ABC came to us to develop a family pilot. We did. They rejected it. Why? Because they had also developed one with Erma Bombeck but she had a commitment. So ABC said to us, “If it’s any consolation, yours was much better.” No. Not really.

Very early in our career we had a two-pilot deal at NBC. They had to produce at least one of the two scripts. They chose to greenlight the first. The pilot process was a struggle, filled with “creative differences.” The show didn’t get on the air (losing out to PINK LADY AND JEFF), but we still had another script commitment. So we worked with them, developed a new project, turned it in, and the VP of Comedy Development called us to say, “Wow. Guys. I’m really impressed. You guys really put a lot of effort into this even though you had to know there was no way we were going to make it.” Again, thanks.  Were we pros or schmucks?

When Les Moonves pulled the plug on ALMOST PERFECT he told me “it was the best show he ever cancelled.” Yes, on one hand that’s gratifying, but on the other – seriously??? (I’m still waiting for the reverse – someone to say, “This is the worst thing I ever bought.”)

No matter how you get rejected, the key is to shake it off and move forward. I’m not saying it doesn’t sting, or was fair, but you have to rise above it. You don’t have to sell everything. Just enough. And if you do sell enough and become hot enough, then suddenly everybody will want to buy all the stuff they had rejected.   Even the stuff that wasn't "the best."


Joseph Scarbrough said...

" The show didn’t get on the air (losing out to PINK LADY AND JEFF)"

Ouchtown. Population: Levine & Isaacs.

Frank Beans said...

One thing I've been wondering: Do you ever reuse your rejected pilots/scripts later on down the road, with a different network or even the same one? Is this a common thing to do?

VincentS said...

Good advice, Ken. An agent once told me over the phone he wasn't going to represent me. What's so unusual about that? HE called ME to tell me! And, no lie, other than that (Mrs. Lincoln) it was a very pleasant conversation. He told me the reason he was rejecting my script was because it was about an historical event that a major filmmaker was already making a movie about, although with a different main character. Then when I read your posting pointing out that DUNKIRK and FINEST HOUR were about the same historical event and still got nominated for Oscars in the same year I couldn't help but think, "William Goldman was SO right!" Then he told me he would shop it around then after I got off the phone I realized he didn't ask me to send me to send him the script. He was going to shop around something he hadn't read! PS - The major director's movie he mentioned never got released. Ah, showbiz!

Matt said...

"William Goldman was SO right". Sorry I didn't get it. What did he say?

Eric said...

Talking of Les Moonves; he has wronged so many people. I hope now he gets his just deserts.

Laura said...

The notion of revenge is sweet.

Has anyone or any network turned down your pilot or idea or shut down your show, and then later came crawling back for your help? How did you react?

I love hearing such stories.

littlejohn said...


A Friday question for you about the whole process of picking shows, network interference, etc.

In any business that I can think of, if you have proven talent, everyone wants to hire you. To use a baseball analogy, since I know you like baseball. Not everyone is Mike Trout, who every single team would hire if they could. However, take John Smith, who bats 3.15, hits 25-30 homers a year, steals some bases, and at least plays decent defense. EVERY team would love to hire a player with those talents. So why doesn't Hollywood think the same way ?

Take John Smith, now a high level network exec, high enough so he / she can calls shots on what shows to accept, talent to use, etc. Assuming he / she didn't get handed the job to them by dad or mom, they have a skill set, a talent of their own, to do what they do. Now other than the ego factor of "I work in Hollywood", I think it's fair to say they are interested in making more money for themselves and their network.

So, I'm John Smith, and I look around at all the talent out there, and I want to hire the best, so they can make successful shows, I get more stock options, the company makes more money, etc etc. Again, assuming I am smart enough to be running the show, why wouldn't I automatically look at you & David, or similar proven talent ? I never saw Big Wave Dave that you often mention, but it is not an exaggeration that you have been involved in some of THE most successful shows - ever - on television, with shows like Mash, Cheers, & Frazier. I'm thinking you have to be doing something right !

So why wouldn't I come to you with my check book, tell you here's the budget you have to develop a new comedy, here's the bonus agreement if the show hits certain thresholds, penalties if you don't succeed, and by the way, don't purposely slam a product made by one of our advertisers ? Other than that, here's my number, call me if you need something, or someone interferes. (Some call this the Warren Buffet approach . When he buys a company, he leaves the management in place, and says keep doing what's you're doing, and call me if you need me.)

If I give you the money and the freedom to succeed, since that's what you have done, I like my odds.

Sorry for such a long set-up and question.

bruce said...

I know a distinguished professor of computer science who applied to MIT as an undergraduate and was turned down. He applied to MIT for graduate school and was turned down. After he he got his PhD, MIT wanted to hire him, but he happily turned them down.

DBenson said...

What were the BEST rejections you ever received?

I find myself thinking of Penn and Teller on "Fool Us", lavishing praise on performances that, in the end, didn't fool them. Maybe not analogous to rejection, but an interesting twist in a genre that demands winners and losers.

Janet Ybarra said...

I doubt that anyone who can "negotiate his own exit" after sexual assault and harassment claims will get their just desserts unless he is charged criminally.

Janet Ybarra said...

Even the NCIS franchise is not immune to rejection. Ever since NCIS itself was spawned as a backdoor pilot during JAG, a few seasons ago there was a two-part episode about a team of NCIS agents roving the country in trucks and RVs.

The plan, of course, was for this to be the next spin off in NCIS juggernaut. But it was not to be and even the team behind CBS' biggest series was shot down in flames.

Gary said...

Ken, here's a Friday question, completely off topic, but something I've wondered about for a long time.

When an actor/actress is giving their acceptance speech after winning an award, and thanks their "team" -- does that confirm that the actor/actress is a conceited jerk?

(I've never had a "team," so it always sounds that way to me.)

Peter said...

RegardIng sweet revenge discussed above, I saw an interview with Steven Spielberg once in which he talked about attending a party during a break in shooting Jaws. He said an actress came up to him and said she'd heard the shoot was a disaster, that the movie was going to suck and be a bomb at the box office and his career would be over.

When it became a blockbuster, I really hope he rubbed his success in her face. I'd have invited her to read for a part, made it look like she was going to land the role, then rejected her.

Wally said...


Short answer: No, not at all.

Alan Iverson said...

Ken, I only just heard that Thad Mumford has passed, back in August.

I'm actually quite shocked that there was not a single article to this fact, or any articles celebrating his life. He and Dan were incredible writers and wrote wonderful MASH scripts.

Do you mind sharing a couple thoughts, if you had met him.

Many thanks

Mike Bloodworth said...

Speaking of "Infuriating rejections" I just watched the new FOX sitcom "Rel." NOT FUNNY at all! Imagine being a team that put together a reasonably funny sitcom that got rejected by FOX and then turning on the television and seeing "Rel." The collective, "They picked that show over ours?!?" is so loud I could hear it from here.

Janet Ybarra said...

Alan, the Thad Mumford who passed away was not the TV writer but rather Thad Mumford Sr., the dentist and father of Thad Mumford Jr the TV writer.

Just wanted to clear that up.

But, who knows, perhaps at some point perhaps Thad Mumford Sr. was Ken's dentist.

Janet Ybarra said...

Here are more details:

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Prior to M*A*S*H, Thad Mumford (and Dan Wilcox) wrote scripts and songs for SESAME STREET. In fact, here's a moldy oldie you may remember that Mumford not only wrote, but also did the vocals for as well:

Janet Ybarra said...

This is nice but just to reiterate, That Mumford, the TV writer is very much alive tonight.

Honest Ed said...

@ Matt

'"William Goldman was SO right". Sorry I didn't get it. What did he say?' Nobody Knows Anything.

Anyway rejections... Yep, had my share over her in the UK. Like the time I was developing a show for a network. The head of drama loved the pilot but asked for a rewrite, saying it's too male. I found a way to make it more... female. She loves it, passes it onto the network head. He passes, saying it's too female. There's no record of what the Head Of Drama said...

And the time an executive producer binned one of my scripts, saying that the brilliance of my writing almost discussed that the ending didn't work. To be fair, I wasn't happy with the ending either and he immediately re-hired me to write another script.

Or the time I was asked by a show to write a spec script. Which I did. Two days later I got a response - verbatim - 'this is f**king brilliant, you are clearly much better than anyone else writing on the show'. Then not a peep from them for 9 months. My agent contacted them and they claimed to have sent a pass 6 months previously, a blatant lie which has led to me not going near the individual or the company again and warning anyone I know dealing with them.

Which brings me to my point - almost any means of rejection you get is better than the most common, and insulting, form - silence.

A quick no, no matter how bizarrely expressed usually gets some degree of respect!

RockGolf (not his real name) said...

As of today, being cancelled by Les Moonves is a badge of honor.

VP81955 said...

"In Hollywood, nobody knows anything" (or words to that effect).

VP81955 said...

Always love to see people give the figurative finger to elite institutions.