MONEY FROM THE SKY
I was sitting at my desk one day, trying to write, when the phone rang. It was a lawyer telling me that a project I’d worked on was being made into a film starring Robert Redford. The news wasn’t as good as it sounds.
You see, five years before this phone call I’d been hired by a producer to write a script that was an adaptation of a New Yorker article. The producer hadn’t liked my work and we agreed to part ways. This happens. I moved onto something else and forgot all about it.
However, in the intervening period the producer had found a different writer to take on this project and this new guy had rewritten the script. No, in fact, he had completely reimagined the script. This lawyer on the phone with me represented the financiers of the movie and according to him the new writer didn’t even know I existed. In fact, he had never even laid eyes on what I’d written. And this more recent incarnation that had nothing to do with me was what was going to be made into a film starring Robert Redford.
OK, so then why was this lawyer calling me? Well, in his words, “we just want to take care of you.” He offered me 25K.
This was puzzling. I’ve never gotten a phone call in the middle of the day and, out of the blue, been offered 25K for doing nothing. I’d written on a lot of different projects. There were a handful that went the way this one did. The producer didn’t think my draft was good and I was given my walking papers. In every case that was the last I ever heard of it. So what was up here?
My first instinct was that the new script must surely have borrowed something, perhaps something significant, from my version. I felt fairly certain the whole bit about the new writer not having read my draft must be a lie. Why else would they be calling me and offering me 25K? I told the lawyer on the phone that I needed to speak with my lawyer. He readily agreed, like that’s what he was expecting. I kind of got the feeling that he was hoping that just maybe I’d jump at the 25K and he’d get this thing wrapped up with one phone call. Part of me wanted to jump at the 25K. I really needed 25K. I was already thinking of ways I could spend it. My financial life had gotten pretty bad in the last couple years. I had some debt. But mostly it was just the month to month reality of trying to have enough money to get by. It would be nice to inject 25K into that reality.
I called my lawyer. He didn’t know what to make of it. He told me he’d ask for a copy of the new script. It arrived a little too quickly. I read it and was surprised to see that the new writer had indeed completely reimagined my take on the source material. It was nothing like my version. There was not a word or a phrase or even a hint of a plot point that seemed borrowed from my work.
I still felt like my version was a little better. It was the story of a man who’d spent his life robbing banks, in and out of prison the whole time. Then in his 70’s he’d been let out only to rob another string of banks and eventually get caught. My version was big, covering decades and filled with a Goodfellas sort of voice over. The new version was smaller and more contained. The new writer had framed the material differently and invented a character that was sort of a Javert, determined to catch the bank robber. This was the central tension of the piece and, I admit, pretty good. More importantly, he’d contained the action to the bank robber’s later years which made it a more appealing role for Robert Redford which is what was getting the movie made. So even though I thought my version was better; his was smarter.
But, back to the main point. What the hell was going on here? My lawyer looked at my contract more carefully. As it turned out there was a stipulation we’d forgotten about. You see, I’d written this script at a time in my career when things were going much better. I’d booked a bunch of jobs and my price had gone up. But since I really loved this story of the bank robber I’d agreed to write this script for around 10% of my usual price. In exchange it had been agreed that as long as the producer was attached to the project I was too. If the script was rewritten I then had to be credited as a producer and also paid like one.
So this was the hang up here. They weren’t just trying to “take care of me”. They were fulfilling the terms of my contract as they were legally bound to do and only doing it because they knew they’d be sued if they didn’t.
My lawyer told me 25K wasn’t enough and that he thought he could get me more. How much more? He didn't know. There was a lot we didn't know. Most of all, how much leverage did we have here?
If the film was being made in a month and Robert Redford had already signed on and been paid we had a lot of leverage. No movie needs the threat of a lawsuit hanging over it. When they went to sell it and find a distributor the chain of title would have to clean. They didn’t want to let all this be threatened by some guy who’d written a draft of the script 5 years ago. However, it was also possible that the financiers hadn’t totally decided to make the film. Maybe they were just considering it and Robert Redford hadn’t officially signed on. Maybe he was just thinking about maybe playing this role. In that case we had very little leverage and if I made too big of a fuss perhaps the financiers and Redford would decide it was too much trouble and walk. In which case I’d get nothing. It’s also not uncommon for movies to enter the early stages of pre-production and then fall apart. Maybe it was best to get the 25K now. That way even if the movie didn’t wind up happening or if Robert Redford died or if any number of things happened I’d at least get some money out of the deal.
My lawyer also pointed out that they didn’t have to give me anything. They could just go make the movie and force me to sue them. My lawyer said it was a winning case for me in his opinion. But I’d have to hire a litigator and that would cost some money. And there’s a chance I could hire a litigator, sue and still lose.
It was all too much to process. I wanted the 25K. At the same time I wanted more money if there was a good chance of getting it. I didn’t know what the wisest path forward was. I finally just told my lawyer to draw on his many years of experience and use his best judgment to maximize the situation here. He came up with a plan to go back to the other side and ask for 150K plus a producer credit. He didn’t think they’d go that high but told me to start thinking about what I’d accept if they came back with an offer.
Things got more complicated. As soon as we presented this counter offer I got a phone call from the producer, who I hadn’t spoken with in 5 years. He explained the situation to me. He had managed to set up the film with financiers and had gotten Robert Redford interested with this new writer’s draft. But it was far from a done deal. He told me that if I didn’t accept the 25K that the financiers were going to fire him from the project and that when they fired him I’d be gone as well. He said his option on the material had lapsed and the financiers were only keeping him on the project out of kindness. He asked me to please, please just accept the 25K. He needed the money and he also needed the producer credit. His career had been going as badly as mine the past few years. He was out of money and living on his credit cards.
The problem here was that I didn’t know if he was telling me the truth about all this. Also, my experience with him when we’d worked together hadn’t been very good. He’d been one of those producers who was just so frustrating. I’d turn in a draft and he’d give me notes. I’d turn in the new draft and he’d have additional notes that contradicted the old ones. Most of his ideas were bad. At one point I turned in a draft that he said he liked. A little while later he asked me over to his house to take a meeting with a new development person he’d hired who had a whole new set of notes which were all terrible. I just didn’t respect his sense of story or his ability to develop a script. And now the way he was speaking to me about the business situation we found ourselves in felt manipulative and possibly dishonest.
Still though, I didn’t know for sure. I told him to speak to my lawyer. I told my lawyer to just handle it. My lawyer told him if he wanted this resolved it would take 150K and a producer credit. The producer called a couple days later. He told me he was going to dip into his fee and get me an additional 25K but not a penny more. That was 50K and his final offer. I told him I’d speak to my lawyer.
My lawyer felt like we could get more. The producer had come back with an extra 25K pretty quickly. He didn’t believe the producer’s story about only being kept on the project out of kindness. No one does anything out of kindness when it comes to business. The feeling was that the producer was attached to the project and couldn’t be fired. This meant I was attached too.
Still, this was just my lawyer’s best guess. He didn’t know for sure. Maybe the producer was telling the truth. It was possible I’d wind up with nothing. I wasn’t sure what to do. I really needed 50K. And it was found money. A month or so ago I had nothing and expected nothing. Now I had 50K sitting on the table. My lawyer told me he felt like it was worth another shot at trying to get more money. But he felt like we needed to set a final price to go back to them with and just live with the results. I suggested the following. Either 100K cash or 75K cash and a producer credit. That was our best and final. I told my lawyer to go ahead and present that.
At around this time I began thinking about something else. It had been a few years since I’d made a film. I had fantasized about having the money to finance my own films. Whenever the Powerball got over 100 million I’d buy a ticket and picture myself getting to write a screenplay and then just greenlight it myself and go make it. There was a script I’d written that I thought I could maybe just barely pull off for 100K. I made a promise to myself that if somehow I got 100K out of this that I would use it to make this film. I kind of felt like I had to. No one was lining up to give me money to make a film. Nothing was happening with my career. Unless I did something like this nothing was going to continue to happen. And this money had fallen from the sky. I shouldn’t think of it like money I’d earned. I should use it to do something special and creative.
I started telling friends about my plans. I was playing games of fate in my head. If 100K appeared it would be used to make a film. If it was 75K I’d pay off some debt, buy a new computer and live more comfortably for a while. If I got nothing I’d be right where I was that day when the phone had rung and a lawyer was on the other end offering me 25K out of nowhere.
The producer called me and said it was over. They weren’t willing to meet either of my prices. As he’d warned me, 50K was the limit. I’d fucked him and also fucked myself. He even sent me an email with a forwarded message from the financiers telling him that they were sorry but they were going ahead without him. I told him I was sorry but this was the advice I’d gotten from my lawyer and even if it meant both of us got nothing that I was sticking with it.
For whatever reason I still felt fairly certain that the producer was lying. My lawyer told me all there was to do now was wait. Time went by. A month. Then more than a month. Then several months. I began to think that perhaps it was over and I really wasn’t going to get anything. Every time I spoke to my lawyer he told me not to give up hope. I made a google alert under “Robert Redford”. One day it sent me a notice that was a link to an article where this project was mentioned. It was still alive and happening. At least according to the Daily Mail.
I asked my lawyer to contact the financier and tell them that we were preparing a lawsuit. Negotiations started up again. I’d gotten that first phone call in May. By now it was November. My lawyer called one day with the bottom line. The offer was 75K but no producer credit. However, they did agree to mention me in the end credits as “special consultant” or some credit that would be determined later. I didn’t want a “special consultant” credit. I didn’t even want the producer credit really. I had no money at this point. I was close to dead broke. I told my lawyer to just accept the 75K straight. He asked me if I was sure. He felt like he could maybe get more. I told him I was tired of all this. It had gone on long enough. Just get me the 75K. I needed it.
Part of me was relieved. I’d get more money than I ever imagined. I’d been happy about 25K. This was triple that. And I didn’t have to go make the film. I love making films but doing one for 100K is close to impossible. I’d have to ask everyone to work for free or minimum wage. I’d have to kill myself trying to get the film shot in 3 weeks. And even then I didn’t know if it was enough money. It was just too hard.
Then my lawyer called. Even though he’d agreed with me to just close the deal at 75K he decided on his own to make one last push. He told them I was really upset I hadn’t gotten the producer credit. They finally just agreed to give me 100K.
It arrived on January 1st, 2017. There was a Fedex envelope on my door step. Inside it was a check for 100K. By June 15th every cent of it was gone. It had been spent on a low budget independent film. It was really hard work getting the thing done in 3 weeks and a crew and cast all worked for nothing or minimum wage. But, as with every film I’ve ever made, it was one of the best times of my life.