Sunday, June 8, 2008

Genius Meeting

When I first announced I was moving to L.A., my New York writing agent told me not to bother boarding the plane unless I had a freshly-minted screenplay under my arm. I'd never written a screenplay, but I'd seen lots of movies, so I wasn't particularly intimidated. How hard could it be? Tossing caution to the wind, I just started typing with no particular game plan in mind. That, of course, is the worst possible way to begin a screenplay, but God occasionally looks out for the insufferably stupid and within a few weeks I had myself a big 118-page-mess of a script that I was extremely proud of. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my script lacked any sort of viable structure, had a hugely overcomplicated plot and would have required a budget somewhere around one billion dollars. In short, I had written a completely unmake-able movie. However, in its defense, I will say it was a pretty entertaining read. It had a solid comic engine driving all twenty-seven of its intertwining plots and was consistently surprising from beginning to end. I headed for L.A. with high hopes.

It’s sort of a long story, but shortly after the plane landed, I parted company with my lit agent and drifted for a few months until somehow my script wound up in the hands of some execs at a major studio who introduced me to my first mega-agent. Unbelievably, she loved my script and with a zeal approaching religious hysteria, proceeded to introduce me to all the producers and development people in Hollywood – and I do mean all of them. Soon, I was taking a ridiculous number of meetings (30 in the first month alone). Based on this single script, I managed to stay on the “hot writer" list for the better part of a year. At the time, it struck me as odd that not one of the people I was meeting had even the slightest interest in actually producing my script. They just wanted to meet the guy who wrote it. Over and over again, the word “genius” was kicked around. I was a “genius” or my script was “sheer genius." Apparently, I was an innovator, a ground-breaker, a visionary. And a damn nice guy.

Almost everyone I met assured me that they couldn’t wait to work with me. They had numerous ideas they wanted to discuss. Books that needed adapting. Scripts that needed rewriting. My future was bright. I was assured I would be hearing from them, "next week at the latest." It was like a dream. Apparently all I had to do was sit on my ass and tons of high-paying work would soon be dumped into my lap. Why had I waited so long to move to Hollywood? Unfortunately, this influx of attention proved to be not so good for me as a new writer. My ego soon inflated to the size of a dirigible and I began to turn down perfectly good opportunities because they didn’t fit my new status as a cinematic “genius.” My agent began to lose patience with me; hinting that this party might not last forever. Secretly, I was developing a huge case of writers' block fueled by a rising terror that I would never be able to live up to my new fan club's expectations. In the end, that would never become an issue since most of my fans never called back. A few did, but most simply dissolved into the ether. Apparently, a new wonderboy had come to town and the crowd stampeded after him. It was a painful lesson.

For a while, I felt like a jilted bridegroom left at the altar, but disappointment can be a great teacher. Within a couple of years, I began making friends in the producing community and suddenly the whole mystery of the “genius meeting” began to reveal itself to me. Like everybody else, producers and execs are drawn into the entertainment industry by the slick and shiny veneer of creativity. But soon, the veneer cracks and they can find themselves up to their asses in so-so, uninspiring material (some of which they have paid handsomely for). When a new script by a young writer comes across their desk that’s fresh or funny or innovative, they are of course galvanized by it. Naturally, they want to reconnect in a personal way with that same sort of creative energy that attracted them to this business in the first place. Who can blame them? We all need to believe that miracles can still happen. Hence the general meeting (AKA “The Meet and Greet”). Bottles of water are cracked open and the lovefest begins. A friend of mine refers to this as “The Evian Tour.”

Yes, there are some sleazy, duplicitous jerks out there, but the producing community is primarily made up of hardworking regular Joe's – totally human and prone to periods of intense, unwarranted excitement. In my experience, at the exact moment a producer or development exec is saying that they love you, love your work and really want to work with you, they probably mean it. But then you leave the room, and the phone rings and shit starts to happen. Perhaps they suddenly remember that you are a comedy writer and their bosses want only action movies right now. Maybe they are in production and quickly become embroiled in problems emanating from a troubled set. Or there’s always that new serial killer novel that arrives at 6 PM and has to be read by 9 AM the following morning. The sad truth is your inventive little script soon becomes buried under an avalanche of time-consuming, ego-based projects that tumble in their door on a daily basis. Having spent time in many producers’ offices, I can say with some authority that they seem to only operate in two distinct modes: “pleasant, surreal boredom” or “dangerous, blinding shit storm.” It's a nutty job and the attrition rate is staggeringly high.

Having been in L.A. for fifteen years, I’ve now (professionally speaking) outlived about three generations of movie producers and executives. Some of them I adored. Others I wasn’t so sad to see go. Even now, when I walk into one of those cramped studio offices, my heart sinks a little when I see the piles and piles of scripts cascading off shelves and tables and stacked against the walls. I can’t help but think of the investment that went into them and how soon (when no one can walk in here anymore), some assistant will cart them all down to the recycling bin where they will soon start their new lives as recycled greeting cards, file folders and of course, toilet paper. The good news is that if those writers are in fact real writers, then they will have more stories to tell. And if their new stories are well-told, there’s always a chance that some intrepid producer will discover one of them in the stack and fight like hell until that writer’s vision becomes a reality. Sort of amazing when you think about it: everything that goes into that moment when the lights go down and an image starts dancing across the screen. I'm always a little awed by it. Some might not be so impressed and simply declare it business as usual, but I'm a sucker. I prefer to call it by its real name: “genius.”

Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment

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David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being beautifully middle-class in Hollywood at

1 comment:

Marc said...

My script was flavor of the month way back in '95, and I called it the Icarus Tour for the heady feeling of flying so close to the sun. I don't know if you're working on a book, but I'm thinking it's time for a successor to Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade, because you get it just right while acknowledging that these are not bad or mean people, merely products and part of a system that can provide a good living for maybe 10% of those who want to work in it.