Here’s a little powder keg for a Friday afternoon. Screenwriter Justin Samuels is suing CAA and WME for not taking him as a client, alleging systematic racial discriminatory practices. The lawsuit was filed in October 2010, but I first heard about it in a blog post forwarded to me by AJ Todaro.

Samuels is suing under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and New York State human rights law. The actual court filing is illuminating, because it reflects common misperceptions about how screenwriters get paid:

I wrote 8 scripts, and I estimate them to be worth a million each. Therefore I am do [sic] 8 million in damages.

By this math, the collective readership of this blog is worth several billion dollars. Congratulations, everyone! First yacht is on me.

The facts, as Samuels sees them:

In order for a screenwriter to submit to the defendants, one must have an industry referral. Such a referral is a referral from a major figure in the film industry that does business with them, such as a director or producer. Unfortunately, as most of the people in these positions are white, this effectively locks out black non white screenwriters. This effectively bars me and all others deemed to be outsiders from being able to realistically pursue a career as a screenwriter. I personally received an e-mail from Creative Artists Agency telling me that they didn’t accept any unsolicited submissions or communications on 09/23/2008. I got a similar e-mail from William Morris Agency on 11/19/08.

A few points are correct and familiar to aspiring screenwriters. The major agencies won’t read unsolicited material, so to get on their reading list, you need to be brought to their attention. That could mean a referral from a client or buyer, or gaining acclaim at a film festival. Someone meaningful needs to say you’re brilliant.

Samuels’ use of “outsiders” should resonate with any reader living somewhere other than Los Angeles.

Other than sending query letters to agencies, it’s not clear what other steps Samuels has taken to initiate a screenwriting career. He apparently hasn’t moved to Los Angeles, or interned, or worked in an agency mailroom, or gone to film school, or applied for one of the diversity programs at the studios or networks.

I can’t guarantee Samuels would have been successful if he’d tried any or all of these steps, but I think he’d have a better case. His attorney will have a hard time finding any screenwriter of any race who has become successful doing as little as Samuels has.

Like a lot of aspiring screenwriters, Samuels perceives the industry as walled-off wonderland filled with riches. Given how media portrays it, I can understand why: you only hear about the screenwriters who make it. That’s one reason I’m showcasing more of the First Person articles, to let aspiring screenwriters understand what a slog it really is.