How wide to take your spec script

questionmarkAssuming you have an agent, manager, lawyer and all the other must haves to sell a spec, do you think it’s wise for your reps to take the material wide (20-30 producers) or for them to slip it to individual producers three or four at a time in order to sell the piece?

– Alexander NYC, NY

There’s no right answer. It depends on the script and the market, and even then you’ll get conflicting answers.

By targeting a few select producers, you hopefully put the script in the hands of the people who are most likely to (a) love it and (b) get it set up at a given studio. For a script that deals with challenging subject material, or which lacks obvious commercial appeal, this might be a smart move.

For instance, say you’ve written a sophisticated romantic comedy with leads in their 60′s, maybe a blue-collar version of Something’s Gotta Give. It might be smart to look at what producers (such as Scott Rudin), directors (such as James L. Brooks) or hyphenates (such as Clint Eastwood) would be natural fits for it. Target them first, so that they can take it to the studio with themselves attached.

On the other hand, if a script is just flat-out commercial, you can sometimes sell it for a lot of money by going to all (or most) of the studios at once. That was the case with The Island, a thriller that’s now in production.

The downside of going wide is that if your script doesn’t receive a great reception, it’s over pretty quickly. You don’t have a chance to change strategy mid-way through, such as targeting a specific director or piece of talent.

My best advice is to trust your instincts, but listen to your representatives.

What became of American McGee’s Alice?

questionmarkI’m just wondering what ever happened with the production of “Dark Wonderland,” with the American McGee characters of Alice In Wonderland. I haven’t heard anything about it in a while, and can’t seem to find much info on it.

– Dan
Ontario, Canada

To the best of my knowledge, nothing’s happening with it.

The brief history: Miramax/Dimension hired me to write a (long) film treatment based on American McGee’s Alice videogame — a trippy retelling/continuation of Alice in Wonderland. Wes Craven was supposed to direct it, but he didn’t really care for my treatment, and things quickly fell apart.

It’s so interesting how (mis-) information spreads on the Internet. For instance, the title “Dark Wonderland.” Don’t ask me where that came from. It was never real, nor was any of the “casting” that was supposedly taking place.

I had lunch a few weeks ago with American, and asked him about it. He didn’t really know what was going on either, except that the project’s apparently at Fox now. He posted everything he knows about the movie at his own site, so people would hopefully stop asking. (Link is now dead.)

I’ll ask around, but as far as I know, there’s no script, no director, no actress, nothin’. But it’s still a kick-ass game. And for his part, American has become a screenwriter himself, so if anyone should take the reins, it’s him.

The Dead File

While writing about the non-existent Columbia thriller on my resume, I got to thinking about all the other scripts I’ve written that haven’t been produced. I thought it might be alarming comforting for aspiring screenwriters to see how much work never makes it to the screen.

This list is only projects for which I’ve written entire 120-page drafts. Pitches, treatments, rewrites and aborted attempts would be a much longer list.

Unsold. My first script, a romantic tragedy set in Colorado. Under-plotted and over-written, but it got me an agent.

Universal/Imagine. My first paid screenwriting assignment, an adaptation of Thomas Rockwell’s book.

Miramax/Dimension. An adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s book. Technically, it was made, as an ABC TV movie. But the draft they used pre-dated mine.

Unsold. Zombie western set in a Colorado mining town, circa 1859.

Fox 2000. Adaptation of David Small’s book about a man’s suit which comes to life.

Paramount. Two prep school girls have to save Manhattan from the Apocalypse.

Columbia. Big-budget tentpole adaptation of the ABC TV show.

Universal. Adaptation of Clive Barker’s novel.

Columbia. Page-one rewrite of comedy about phobic brothers.

Fox 2000/Warner Bros. Based on the comic book character, not the movie.

Unsold. Violent action thriller.

This, dear readers, is what sucks about being a screenwriter. Added up, this list represents five or more years of my writing career, but I don’t have a frame of celluloid to show for it.

Not one of these projects is “the best thing I’ve ever written,” I’m happy to report. Still, many of these scripts are near and dear to my heart. Demonology, for example, is the unholy spawn of my two favorite movies, Clueless and Aliens. Others, like Fantasy Island, I’m happy enough to forget. Even though I spent months on various drafts, it never connected for me or the studio.

When asked what kind of movies I prefer to write, I’ll sometimes glibly anwer: “Ones that get made.” I don’t think that’s cynical as much as it is pragmatic. I never think about writing a script. The goal is always to make a movie.

Whatever happened to…

questionmarkWhile wasting time on, I came across a sci-fi/thriller you sold to Columbia back in 2000. The log line was: “Three explorers, searching for fossilized evidence of a prehistoric species, discover the true cause of its extinction.”

Sounds cool. Any plot details you can share? Any chance we’ll ever get to see it produced?

Los Angeles

The real question is if I’ll ever write it.

I sold this project as a pitch. Basically, I had a good idea for a scary, expensive tent-pole summer movie, so I met with Amy Pascal (who runs Columbia Pictures) and she liked it. Deals were made. Contracts were signed.

But then things got busy with the second Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish, and a half-dozen other movies I worked on. In the meantime, a long-dormant project at another studio came roaring back to life, and it was clear that I’d have to make some big changes to avoid overlapping with their story. (And no, I’m not going to say what that other movie is, but it is being made.)

So, as often happens, my project was put on a back burner. I never typed so much as a “FADE IN:”, nor have I been paid anything. Still, I may get around to writing it one day, because there’s some very intriguing stuff in the concept, which isn’t obvious in the press release.

One thing to bear in mind when reading about any project in the trades is that filmmakers will often be a little disingenous about the actual plot, for fear of spoiling the surprise. That’s certainly the case here. Suffice to say the movie is much less Jurassic Park-y than you’d think.

Who knows. Maybe one day I’ll do it.

Big Green Envelopes

One of the less-documented joys of being a working screenwriter is when you open the mailbox to find a big green envelope. It’s a very distinctive shade of green…

…which is only used for one purpose: a WGA residual check.

You never know quite when these envelopes are coming, or how much will be inside. Half the fun is guessing before you rip it open. If a successful movie you wrote has recently come out on DVD, the check could be for tens of thousands of dollars. Or for a movie like Go, it could be a few hundred, for showing on Cinemax. Regardless, it’s found money, and cause for jubilation.

Recently, I’ve been getting a bunch of little checks, on the order of $425.60. They’re payments for D.C., the staggeringly unsuccessful show I created for the WB in 2000. Although it only ran three episodes in the U.S., apparently all seven episodes ran in Europe.

Unbeknownst to me, the WGA did an investigation, and figured out that I was owed residuals for this. So they got Universal to pay me.

It’s not a lot of money, but strictly on principle I’m very grateful for it. Accountants are rarely lauded as heroes. So here’s a shout-out to the WGA collections department, and David DelVecchio in particular, for tracking down every last cent writers are owed.

Glossary: Residuals

Payments made to a film or television writer when his or her work is sold to another venue, such as a feature film sold on DVD, or a network television episode shown in syndication. These fees are negotiated and collected on behalf of the writer by the Writers Guild of America.