Rules of the Game

There’s an old joke in Hollywood about the aspiring starlet who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriter. You hear this one over and over in film school, usually delivered by some Big Deal Alumnus visiting class with the Dimwitted “Actress” he’s sleeping with. You sit there entertaining their assorted complaints about how mean and stupid The Producers are, how shallow and predictable the Agents, Managers and Studio Chiefs. When they detail their objection to the latest indignities against writers proposed in the new WGA agreement, you silently hope the whole lot of them go out on strike so you can stick your own foot in the tiny opening that would create in The Big Closed Door. All you want to do is work. Everything that happens afterward, you remain convinced, will be filled with joy and wonder as you skip across the lot punching the air like Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch while humming the theme from Rocky.

Yesterday I met with a Bright and Accomplished Producer who’s decided to back me as her top choice on a book adaptation she’s optioned. To say that landing this assignment could make or break my career is an epic understatement, since I don’t technically have a career, unless you count selling off family heirlooms at the Fairfax Flea Market .

It’s important to note how much "Bright and Accomplished" deserves that moniker; she was a long-time literary agent with a Big Five Agency, earned an Ivy League degree in both theater and business, and formerly practiced entertainment law. Obviously very well-versed in the art of the deal, she called me in to get our ducks in a row before our joint meeting with the assigned Mini-Major Studio Exec, who reserves the ultimate right to choose the writer.

The book is about a married woman who re-connects with her college sweetheart at their fifteenth class reunion. She makes a snap decision to marry this long tortured artist, her first and only love, but not before finding her husband a new wife.

“Let’s go ahead and cast this thing for the pitch,” Bright and Accomplished suggests. “Who do you see as the husband?”

Matthew Broderick,” I say. “There’s just no movie without him. And Johnny Depp for the one that got away and probably should have stayed there.”

“Brilliant!” declares my avid fan. “Fabulous!” There may have been another superlative injected here, but I can’t exactly remember which one. Let’s go with “Magnificent!” for now.

“What about the girl?” she wants to know. “She’s the one whose face has to carry the poster.”

Renée Zellweger, Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock," I suggest. "Anyone in our general age range."

Hmm,” muses Bright and Accomplished. It’s the kind of hmm, I can’t help but note, that only pretends to consider these choices while actually being somewhat disturbed by them. The sort of hmm, I know in my heart, which can irreparably break even the strongest Newfound Hollywood Alliance. “We'd like to go a little younger,” she finally says. “What do you think of Rachel McAdams?”

I think she just played an eleventh grader in Mean Girls.

“She's adorable,” I gush as though I’ve just given birth to the kid. “But, um, these people all went to college together. Fifteen years ago.”


Darnitall, there goes another one.

“Well, maybe it's a five-year reunion," she muses. "And Johnny could have been her T.A. instead of a classmate.”

“Love that!” I lie.

“And Matthew Broderick could be this older man she up and married later, you know, for security.”

I counter with something about Gwyneth Paltrow being over thirty now. Drew Barrymore, too. "You could see them at least starting to deal with the aging issues the author explores.”

She throws up both hands like a crossing guard determined to stop a speeding car. “Oh, we don’t want to get into all that.”

But the book is about "all that." Remember the hilarious eye and butt lift consultation? Oh God, please tell me you read the book.

"What do you think of Kate Hudson?”

I think she’s nineteen but she has a strangely unattractive baby and a weird-ass rocker husband she's always dragging around so she comes across as an adult.

“Perfect,” I say, nodding my head like a bobblehead doll. “Hey, why not go younger with the guys, too? Maybe Freddie Prinze as the T.A. and Owen Wilson as the wiser and more secure husband.”

“Beautiful,” concludes Bright and Accomplished, punctuating the end of this particular discussion by fluffing some papers on her desk.

On the drive home I decide that the good news is I have no delusions of ownership on this one. It’s not my book, they’re not my characters and sending another offensive media message to women everywhere is not my problem.

Best case scenario for what happens next is I do a draft, two sets and a polish, all written by committee, at which point I’m fired for being unoriginal. They bring in Carrie Fisher to re-work my dialogue and take sole screen credit—before the WGA arbitration in which we’re ordered to share it with an ampersand. At this point they’re already shooting from a script that’s such an unholy mess we’d both prefer our names be removed altogether. Until, that is, the movie does forty-five million plus on its opening weekend, besting studio predictions in all four quadrants. Carrie and I hit the talk show circuit with little Dakota Fanning, who ultimately lands the re-worked role of our lead in a series of girlhood flashbacks. Under back end incentive to do so, we all three pretend it’s some feminist masterpiece in the grand tradition of Ninotckha, An Unmarried Woman and Thelma and Louise.

That, my friends, is Your Big Hollywood Compromise.

Today I’m wondering how it is I haven’t even landed my first gig and I’m already compromised. One thing they won’t tell you in film school, however, is that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem—humiliation, degradation and chronic unemployment being most problematic of all. The truth is, I never set out to change the world—only the state of my life.

My meeting is at four o’clock, so I have to go iron my dress now. I have the pull-down kind of ironing board hanging from the back of my closet door. I’ll have to position myself very carefully so as not to catch a glimpse of myself in the full length mirror, wishing I were younger and thinner. Wishing I weren't another dumb bunny dying to be a star but instead woke up in bed this morning between the twisted sheets of another insignificant screenwriter.


  1. Um, yeah. Do you think you'll have ownership even when it's your book, screenplay, characters, and story?

    My favorite pitch meeting/producer story. I don't know if it's true or not, but if it's not it should be. Barry Morrow, the original writer of RAIN MAN, is having a meeting with Peter Guber. Guber says, "I have a great idea. What if Raymond gets a chance to pitch for the Dodgers at the end of the movie and he ends up pitching a no hitter?" I'm not sure what Morrow's reaction was to this, but I can imagine that it was akin to being kicked in the nuts.

    I wouldn't really look at yourself as a compromised person. You're going into a business where a teamster is looked upon with more fondness [and has more power] than a writer. I don't see how it's possible to compromise in this situation. It's merely part of the game, or job as it were.

  2. My thinking is if the story and characters originated in the recesses of your own brain, you always feel they're somehow yours, even long after you've sold them out. But maybe I'm wrong. Most of all, admittedly, I just want a chance to find out.

  3. This is one portion of your story that elicits no envy from me. I probably would have puffed up in pride, said something I was REALLY proud to say - maybe using the words "I won't be a sell-out", and doomed my future in the space of about 90 seconds. I DO envy your ability to "suck it up" and say exactly the right thing most of the time. A girl's gotta eat, right? Sigh! I never know where my next meal's coming from...

    If I can ever afford to option a script of yours I will be a marshmallow to your writing skills, I swear.