never been a bitch so I don't act bitchy

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Celebrity Poker Showdown

Like everyone these days, I've been playing a lot of poker. (Though, in my defense, I've been playing Hold 'Em for quite a number of years, but anyway, but anyway...) And though if faced with top level competition, I'm pretty sure I'd get my ass handed to me before the waitress could bring me my first Bud Lite, I've developed my game a lot in recent years, honing my ability to read opponents, tearing myself away from marginal hands, and mostly steeling my nerve when it comes to bluffing--and re-bluffing if I've been called the first time.

And while there is certainly no shortage in usage of Poker As Metaphor, nowhere is it so apt as in The Hollywood Negotiation.

It's a realm I only have peripheral experience in, both because I've only been an actual working writer for 3 years, but also because I have a cadre of people (manager, agents, lawyer) who do the actually deal-making. But even at my relatively low level, every move, every offer and counter is high-stakes, with neither side wanting to give, and the studios and networks digging in and tightening the belt more and more every day. (Witness the complete failure of SAG, DGA, or WGA in getting any advances in DVD royalties, and the current capitulation of the casting directors in light of their desire to unionize and one-time threat of a strike.) Every single deal I've been involved in, the studio or network has claimed poverty and nickel-and-dimed me in a way that would make Shylock proud. Their arguments are almost convincing, too--until you turn around the day after caving, only to see the same studio pay five times what they were paying you to acquire the hot new spec.

It sometimes gets really silly: My lawyer spent three weeks in a fight with a network last year over what was actually fake money. (It was what they call an "if-come" deal, which basically means the contract they were negotiating would only become real "if" a certain someone said yes. In the end they said "no" and the hard fought-over contract was moot.)

But sometimes it's not just men in suits arguing over a tied-in third year on a television contract or what my box office performance bonus is going to be. Sometimes it comes down to me, just me, having to make a simple decision--to fold, raise, call, or bluff. And recently I had to make two of these, with very different results.

Three years ago I had my first script sale. It was technically an option, but saying "sale" was much easier than actually explaining that I was getting money for the option and also for rewriting my own script--plus sounds a whole lot cooler. Anyway. That option period ran out and the company exercised their right to a second option period. That period ran out, during which time the company was acquired by another company, and then in turn they asked for a third option period, one which I was not required to give them, but one that I was urged to as they "really wanted to make it" but "just needed some time to get the elements together after the transfer of power." I knew what was going on here, though. They were hedging their bets. Sure, they "wanted" to make the movie, but they were going to do everything they could to stave off having to purchase the script outright from me, which would have cost them a lot more than another option period. I super-reluctantly agreed. Well, that third option period ran out and guess what? Yup. They asked for a fourth.

Now yes, they would have had to pay me yet another option fee, which was not trivial money. And yes, they were already meeting with directors trying to find the right fit and get that elusive and all-important Green Light. My agents urged me to do it. "It'll be so good for your career to actually have a movie in production." It was a tempting idea, but my argument was that if they were serious about the thing, they could just pay me to buy it and not have to worry about this shit anymore. But this company is notoriously cheap, and my refusal could have put a shaky, tenuous project into the "not worth it," category. It was a quandary.

In the end I made a choice and told them that they had to buy it, and that a 4th option period was simply not going to happen. I threw my chips in the pot and tried to look as cool as I could, though my heart rate was rising like I had 8-3 offsuit and I had just gone all in. But they folded and bought the script. I "won."

A year ago a company was interested in an old script I wrote with a partner. This script, when it "went out," got a lot of interest, but in the end nothing happened with it and it went on the shelf. Well, Company A called me in and said they'd remembered it and maybe wanted to buy it. Problem is that Company A is a famously nightmarish place to be in business. So as the mating dance was taking place, I had lunch with an executive from Company B, who I knew and liked very much. I didn't know her new company, but she was one of the first people who ever took a meeting with me in town yada yada, and I told her the situation and jokingly asked her to buy this old script so it didn't end up with Company A. And she did.

Now, the deal sucked and once the offer came in I only really did it because it was very important for my partner to have a sale under his belt. (An option, but as I said, it sounds cooler this way!) So they got the script--and then promptly pitched it around town... with two other writers attached to rewrite us. When I found this out, I was furious. This woman had never called me, nor had they let us know this was their plan. They had told us they "loved the script AS IS" and were going to "try to get some talent attached." But yeah, I shouldn't have been surprised. It is Hollywood after all. But ooooooh, bitches be sneaky!

So I wanted to kill the deal, but it was too late, and so I fumed and waited for the day we got the script back. Well, they took out a second option, sneaking it into the contract and sending us a check the day before it expired. So there was nothing we could do about it. We had to wait again to see if it would be made, or revert back to us when the option lapsed.

Now soon after, or probably before the second period started, Company B took the script to Studio C. Big Boys With Money. And they wanted the script! Why were we so happy? Well, in the contract with Company B was a point that said we got Hella Money if they entered into a partnership to develop the script with A Major Studio. We were counting our money. My partner was going to quit his job. I was going to send orphans through school--that or buy a dope flat screen TV. It was very exciting.

But then Studio C announced, "Oh, yeah. No. We're not going to honor the contract."

"What? Can they just do that?!" I screamed into the phone.

"I guess so," said my agent. "They don't respect Company B and won't honor the contract."

Yeah, I don't know how they could do this either, but I was told it happens a lot. Okay. Fine. And so Studio C offered us a tenth of the quit job/orphans/flat-screen TV money for an option. We countered with what was owed us in the contract. They eventually countered, with a bit more money than before, (but only because they found my union guaranteed me a rewrite on the project--see! The WGA is good for something!). Now it was about a third of the quit job/orphans/flat-screen TV money--a third of what was LEGALLY PROMISED to us--but now at least it was a real offer.

And we countered for a few more dollars just to round it up and were going to unhappily take the money and suck it up.

So the studio, realizing we didn't like our hand very much, "sensing weakness" as the poker analysts say, told us that, oh yeah, they would have to pay back Company B for the money they just paid us a couple weeks ago for the second option period, and that money would be coming out our fee.

"Can they do that?!" we both shreiked.

But there was no time to answer. Why? Well, because Studio C had given us a "by the end of the day" deadline for the offer to expire and only dropped the last piece of information on us at 6:15 and so we had 15 minutes to decide, but then less because my partner's cell phone was dead and so I finally reached him with 5 minutes left to go. I had him on one line, and my agent on the other line holding, waiting for my decision because HE in turn had Studio C on the phone awaiting our decision and time was ticking and we only had a few minutes to decide... And so we decided to pass. To say No.

A scary, scary thing to do, but we were going to stand up and say, "Okay, you can VOID a CONTRACT. Fine. But then you can't also nickel and dime us and do it at the last second when you know we're under the gun. You can't take advantage of us because we are low on the food chain and we allowed ourselves to bend over and take it twice already, why not go for the hat trick?! No! WE TOLD THEM, NO! We called their bluff! Ha. Take that!"

Only one problem. It wasn't a bluff.

They'd found their very low threshold of desire for our script and priced it accordingly. And when we went over that price, they shrugged and hung up.

And what that means is that it's time for us to go sit in the Losers Lounge and have a gin and tonic with Chris Kattan.

So what is the moral of this long, rambling story? It feels really good to stick it to the Man. But no matter how successfully you stick it to them once, don't forgot that sticking it to people is the Man's job. It's how he became the Man in the first place.

Also, Dave Foley is a drunk.


Blogger David Grenier said...

I'd like to think that if SAG, AFTRA, DAG, IATSE, the Writers Guild, and the Musicians Union (am I forgetting anyone) actually got out of 1920 and merged into an industrial union it would give folks like you a lot more power in situations like this.

But of course, that only works if the leadership is bold and the membership "acts union"... which is tough when you're all sort of in competition with each other anyway.

6:37 AM

Blogger The King of Pants said...

The WGA is good for something? I am Teh Shocked!!!

11:30 AM

Blogger Carol Elaine said...

But is Dave Foley at least a funny drunk?

Sorry about the jerk-around, stee. That sucks. I'm never surprised by the assholetry of studios, but it still makes me mad.

5:14 PM

Blogger purplefishy said...

Wow Stee. The jerkitude amazes me. But, should it? Should it really? I will use this as a lesson for later in my life when I actually become a "real" writer.

2:21 PM

Blogger Glark said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:10 PM

Blogger Maxwell said...

I'm sorry you had to go through all that, but I'm glad you wrote such a great entry about it. It's nice to be reminded that dealing with the studios is always a gamble.

12:29 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The union merger...that would be a good idea. Equity and SAG were good to go, for about a minute.

1:32 PM


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