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Survival Strategies for the Unknown Screenwriter–William Morris Remembered

December 26, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Originally posted on ScriptGodsMustDie.com

Paul Peditto

Long, elephant years ago, I was with William Morris. Back then the air was clean, the economy robust, and the logo at William Morris looked like this:

Then came the ’08 economic implosion and the ’09 merger of William Morris and Endeavor. Endeavor, of course, famous for the agent Ari Emmanuel, portrayed on Entourage by an ex-Chicagoan and noted sushi-eater…[Jeremy Piven].

The William Morris Endeavor merger added to the unemployment lines and list of “well-paying” gigs that won’t be returning. The new company logo looks like this…

 

This post isn’t a memory lane stroll so much as a discussion on certain questions and protocols you might need when you make your own way down those corridors of power.

  • SIGNING WITH WILLIAM MORRIS

My agent came from the publishing world, new at WM, looking to expanding his new writer client list and with a liking for casino screenplays. I was a casino dealer who happened to write a script about the inner workings of casinos and scamsters at that exact moment. He asked to see the script, then asked to see me. One meeting later, I was signed. The script was strong, sure, but the signing was just as much about luck and timing. Fact is, in today’s environment, getting a WME agent through a query letter is impossible. They don’t accept queries from unsoliticed sources. Look to the Guild Signatory list at wga.org for a list of agencies, then call to find out which agencies still accept queries.

  • CALLING FOR UPDATES

Hollywood speaks in silences. What I mean is: If there’s news, you’ll hear about it. Back in the Ice Age when I was at WM, there were no text messages. Communication was via telephone. Being new to agents, I had to learn the hard way how often to call for updates. Patience isn’t my strong-suit but you need patience.  Don’t be the stalker, calling your guy every other day. Managers can be more hands-on, but constant calls can get wearying. You have to trust the agent is working on your behalf. You trusted the guy when you signed with him, so let him for work you. Give him space, especially if you’re…

  • THE RUNT SAUSAGE

Your agent has a client list that includes a major A-list movie star, two stars from Seinfeld, three up-and-coming B-listers, and you. You’re the runt sausage. Runt sausages don’t make demands. Runt sausages should just be happy they’re on the sausage chain.

Here’s a question I hope you have to ask yourself someday:

Do I go with a smaller “boutique” agency where I’ll get more pampering, or do I stay the runt sausage?

Such decisions might feel out of your realm but believe me, there may come a day you’ll have to answer that one.

  • NEVER TURN DOWN AN ASSIGNMENT?

My agent got me on the phone: “Got an interesting possible assignment. It’s about an elevator that becomes animated, and starts to kill people.”

The ar-tist in me responded: “Sounds like shit, man. An elevator? C’mon.”

“You might want to take a swing at this. It’ll get you into the Guild.”

My lack of interest was clear enough, long enough for my agent to say he understood and would find someone else. What he didn’t get just yet was just how clueless was this newbie writer.

Another question you might get at agency level: Do you ever turn down an assignment? An A-list writer getting his quote might have that option. But as a newbie (baby, in today’s lingo) it’s probably not wise.

If someone today came to me with an elevator-coming-alive concept, I’m thinking contained thriller ala Buried. I’m thinking what it would be like to drop 42 stories to your death. I’m thinking I’d write the story to the best of my ability, cash the check and get the Guild health insurance. Ah, the perspectives of age!

  • GETTING ONE OPTIONED

We got the casino script optioned. The beauty of optioning then was you could collect on multiple projects even if they didn’t get made. Times have changed. Zero-dollar options, one-step deals. Will you write a producer draft for free? Will you option your script for dollar $0? If you squeal, will it cost you work in the future?

The option the production company offered on my script was $5000 for a year. They paid another $5000 for the second year. After two years, despite several close calls and much interest, they couldn’t find the $6 million they needed, leading to…

  • HOW YOU KNOW YOUR DEAL IS DEAD

“It speaks to your level of commitment on the project.” I always loved that. It came from my agent’s mouth when the production company offered us $1,000 for an option extension for a third year. They wanted to hold onto the property but it wasn’t a priority. It spoke to their level of commitment and pretty much signaled the end.

You have to decide if you want to lock your script up for that period of time, accept the diminished returns, or move on. We cut ties and moved on.

I cut ties, too, with my William Morris agent not long after that.

The Development person at the production company that WM introduced me to later moved on to found her own company. I called her and she gave me six names for representation. These were heavy-duty power players she was routinely lunching with over bourbon-glazed pork bellies at BoHo.

My next query letter had her name in the first sentence. Another door magically opened. R-e-l-a-t-i-o-n-s-h-i-p-s. Who do you know.

What if you don’t have these magical contacts? Sad tribes outside the country club gates.

Here’s the good news: If I can find my way inside that country club, so can you.

Nail your script down, get it out there. Write every letter you can, take every meeting, and get the script to anyone who can help.

Don’t give up.

PAUL PEDITTO wrote and directed Jane Doe, an A-PIX Films release starring Calista Flockhart. The film was awarded Best Feature at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival and grossed over 2 million dollars.

Six of his screenplays have been optioned, among them Crossroaders to Haft Entertainment (Emma, Dead Poet’s Society).

His screenplay for Roundabout American is currently in pre-production, scheduled to shoot in July, 2011.

He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College and Chicago Filmmakers, professionally consulting on thousands of screenplays since 2002. For Peditto’s complete bio, click here.


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