A&E’s Check Book

A&E couldn’t afford to continue making the series NERO WOLFE, which cost them less than a million per episode…nor have they had the bucks to produce  a single,  original, weekly dramatic series since then…

…but they can lay out $2.5 million per episode for edited reruns of THE SOPRANOS. 

Conflict of Interest

Bernard Weinraub is retiring from the NY Times. For ten years, he was their  LA correspondent covering the entertainment industry beat. Along the way, he  married Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal…but kept on reporting about the biz as if nothing had changed.

In his parting shot, he finally acknowledges what everybody, even those without any journalism experience, already knew and what he strenuously denied…that it was a conflict of interest for him to be reporting about the industry, and impossible for him to be truly impartial, once he married a major player in the movie business.

Clearly, I stayed too long on my beat, clinging to a notion that I
could sidestep conflicts of interest by avoiding direct coverage of
Sony, and learning too late why wiser heads counsel against even the
appearance of conflict.

Well, duh, Bernie.  If a reporter covering the U.S. Senate married a Senator, he would be yanked off the beat in an instant. If  a reporter covering the automobile business married the top exec at Ford, she would be reassigned to something else. But it’s okay for a reporter covering the entertainment industry to marry a studio chief and keep covering the business? C’mon. A kid in a high school journalism class would know better than that.

But my marriage, and some of the events that
tumbled out of it, also taught me something about the ferocity of a
culture in which the players can be best friends one day and savage you
the next.

It took marrying a studio exec for Weinraub to figure that out?  Most people discover that the first week they are in L.A. Doesn’t say much for Weinraub’s keen observational skills, does it?  But the true nature of Weinraub’s naivete and lack of journalistic ethics is betrayed by this stunning admission:

I’d written about Jeffrey Katzenberg, then president of the Walt Disney
Company. He returned every call quickly and often phoned me; he dished
over pasta at Locanda Veneta about all the studios in town and became
such a pal that I once showed him off-the-record comments made about
him by Michael Eisner.
That was wrong and foolish, and years later I still regret it. As soon
as I stopped covering movies, Mr. Katzenberg stopped responding to
phone calls. I was surprised but shouldn’t have been.

Weinraub revealed off-the-record comments to the person the comments were made about? That’s an outrageous breach of ethics. It wasn’t just foolish and wrong, it was reprehensible and shameful.

Weinraub asked to be taken off the movie beat in 2000. The fact is, the New York Times should have reassigned him themselves the day he acknowledged he was dating Pascal…but then again, this is the newspaper that gave us Jayson Blair.

What Weinraub’s article reveals is that the Blair’s behavior wasn’t really an isolated incident, but rather a by-product of  a reporting cultures at the New York Times that, casually disregards basic  journalistic ethics.

How sad for the Times. How sad for its readers. Shame on you, Bernie.

Bad Agents

A friend of mine told me an agent horror story today. A few years ago, his publisher accidentally sent him, instead of his agent, royalty statements on his book. The royalties showed that he’d earned $350,000… but his agent had sent him a false statement that said he’d earned only $11,000. My friend sued his agent, the case dragged on for years, and (for reasons I don’t understand) the parties involved ended up settling for about ten percent of what he was owed.

This story reminded me of a couple of other recent agent scandals. This one was covered by the Sacramento Business-Journal:

Celebrated local chef Biba Caggiano writes cookbooks, yet her
relationship with her literary agent has turned into the stuff of
detective novels.Caggiano is seeking more than $400,000 and alleges that Los
Angeles-based Maureen Lasher Agency kept two advances that were
supposed to go to her.  The suit says the agent
even attempted to pass off an incomplete Italian recipe book, written
by someone else, as Caggiano’s work.

Caggiano — who owns Biba restaurant
in midtown Sacramento and once had a cooking show on cable’s The
Learning Channel — learned of the advances only when her publisher
contacted her in July about two books for which it had paid advances of
$106,250 and $143,750, the suit says. It was, Caggiano alleges, the
first she heard about the advances or the negotiations for two new

Advances and book royalties go to the agent and are then disbursed,
along with financial records, to the author. Caggiano says she hasn’t
received any checks or any accounting from her agent. The suit says the
amount owed Caggiano exceeds $400,000.

A spokeswoman for publishing house Harper Collins said that the
company couldn’t comment about the issue and that it is a matter
between Caggiano and her literary agent. In addition to Caggiano, New
York-based Harper Collins has a stable of best-selling cookbook
authors, including Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse and Marcella Hazan.

In October of 2000, unbeknown to Caggiano, Harper Collins delivered
$106,250 as an advance for a cookbook; Caggiano was not paid any part
of the advance nor was she made aware of its existence, according to
the suit. A second advance of $143,750 was paid by the publishing house
for a second book, and again, Caggiano says, she was not paid any of
the advance or made aware of it.

Then, the suit states, Lasher "attempted to deliver to Harper
Collins an incomplete and unauthorized manuscript" without Caggiano’s
knowledge or consent.

The agent hasn’t responded to calls or letters about the incidents,
the suit states. The suit seeks an accounting of Lasher’s books,
records, receipts and disbursements.

This was no fly-by-night agent, either.
Lasher’s clients included Barry Manilow.  Another well-known case of agent fraud involved Marcie Wright who, at one time, represented DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES creator Marc Cherry as well as many other top screenwriters and writer/producers.

According to Variety, she told screenwriter Robert Kuhn that Castle Rock never paid him for a rewrite he did on a script, and that DreamWorks wasn’t going to pay him for a  "quick  polish" on another screenplay he’d written.  The truth was that Castle Rock paid him $150,000  for the rewrite and DreamWorks  kicked in $87,000 for the polish.

Kuhn wasn’t the only client she was robbing. Her client Marc Cherry made a $100,000 pilot script deal with Paramount Network Television in 2001 that was later tabled.

Wright allegedly went to studio and said Cherry wanted to
settle out of the deal and walk away rather than pick it up at a later
date. The studio agreed and cut a check for $25,000, made out to "Marc
Cherry, c/o the Wright Concept," that never made it to Cherry.

Wright was arrested on grand theft and fraud charges and  ultimately pled no contest to embezzlement,  agreed to pay some $270,000 in restitution to her clients,
and serve 12 months in county jail.  The amount ballooned to nearly $500,000 with interest and legal fees. She paid the restitution and was released in September after serving 160 days in prison. She is on three years probation.
According to media reports, Wright  is forbidden
from holding a personal checking account,  may not act in any fiduciary
capacity, and is currently  "undergoing psychological treatment."

The Joys of Stock Footage

I was channel-surfing last night and stumbled on SUBMERGED,  a schlocky Fred Olen Ray movie from 2000 about a hijacked plane that crashes into the ocean, and the attempts to rescue the passengers. If the plot sounds identical to Universal’s cheesy AIRPORT  ’77, that’s not surprising. SUBMERGED was built entirely around AIRPORT ’77 stock footage. There’s nothing illegal about it… Fred simply bought/licensed the footage from Universal. What’s surprising is that Universal sees so little value now in their AIRPORT franchise that they’d allow a virtual remake to be made by another studio using their footage.

Stock footage is a wonderful thing, especially if you’re working on a tight budget.  I’ve certainly used my share of stock footage over the years, particularly on a  low-budget  syndicated action series called COBRA, starring Michael Dudikoff, that we wrote & produced for Steve Cannell up in Canada. We had virtually no money… so we relied on stock footage from the vast Cannell library to make our show look bigger than it was.  For example, we took an action sequence from the WISEGUY episode…used the same Vancouver location, matched the cars and the wardrobe, and crafted a new sequence using the same footage.  To make our scene a bit fresher, we used alternate takes not used in the WISEGUY episode.  The new footage and the stock matched perfectly.  The trickery was unnoticeable to the untrained eye, or someone unfamiliar with the WISEGUY episode.

For another episode, our hero’s car was trashed…so he drove a Corvette Stingray…which allowed us to use lift several action sequences from Cannell’s series STINGRAY.  That was probably our least creative use of stock…on the same level as SUBMERGED. But we saved a huge amount of money and it made us heroes around the Cannell building.

In still another COBRA  episode, we used stock footage from an action sequence in RIPTIDE, which used stock footage from an episode of HARDCASTLE AND MCCORMICK, which used stock footage from a STINGRAY. So our sequence was created from footage patched together from three other series.  I remember Steve Cannell watching the sequence in the screening room with a huge grin on his face… he’d never seen stock footage used so well. We looked at it as a challenge…and had a wonderful time.

My favorite use of stock footage was for a two-hour sweeps episode of  DIAGNOSIS MURDER about a plane crash in a corn field. We used stock footage of a plane crash, and sweeping, overhead shots of the wreckage, from the movie FEARLESS. We then bought out a cornfield in Oxnard, set it aflame, and  filled it with scorched airplane wreckage.  We also put our actors in the cornfield.  Our original footage matched seamlessly with the stock.  It gave our episode a scope we never could have managed on our tight budget…and I doubt the average viewer was the least bit aware of our trickery, even if they were among the few who’d seen FEARLESS.

I see stock footage used all the time in feature films and TV shows…mainly because the best stock (mostly explosions, battle sequences, car chases, establishing shots, etc.) gets used over and over again.  When it’s used well, the viewer rarely notices. When it’s used badly, it makes whatever you’re watching look like hack work… which, of course, it probably is or they wouldn’t have needed the stock footage in the first place!

Stories from the Frontlines

My writing partner William Rabkin and I had just turned in the seventeenth draft of a screenplay based on .357 VIGILANTE, a novel I’d written under the pseudonym “Ian Ludlow” (so I’d be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum). We were a few weeks away from pre-production on the movie. The producer called us in, saying he only had a few minor notes that would only take a few minutes on the computer.

“I just need a tiny polish,” he said. “Just a few little nips and tucks.”

”I’m ready,” I said, having already figured out where I was going to put the framed movie poster on my wall, and how I was going to spend my production bonus. 357coversmall

“I’d like you to flip Act Two and Act Three,” he said.

I laughed. He didn’t. “You are joking, right?”

“No,” he said. “It will be easy with your computer. Just flip the two acts, make Act Three Act Two, and make Act Two Act Three.”

“But you can’t do that,” I said.

“Why not?” He asked, genuinely perplexed.

I walked out and never came back, leaving Bill behind. I’m not sure he’s ever forgiven me for that, by the way. Other writers came in, including Michael Blake, who would later win an Oscar for “Dancing With Wolves”. Not surprisingly, the movie didn’t get made… though every few years the producer will call us up with some new scheme to resurrect it.

WGA Reaches Tentative Accord

The WGA has struck a tentative deal with the networks and studios… which, while giving us gains in our health and pension program, screws writers out of DVD royalties (at a time when the industry is booming and entire seasons of TV shows are being packaged for DVD). The deal also grants networks the right to rebroadcast the first episode of a drama mulitple times without paying residuals. Apparently, no gains were made in the foreign residual pay structure.

Granted, there are big gains in our health plan at a time when we need it… but I think this deal also signals the death of meaningful royalties & residuals for writers in the future from any existing or future means of distribution (DVD, internet, foreign networks, etc.). The networks are airing fewer and fewer reruns, so gains there are really window dressing. Foreign and DVDs, for the moment, are the future for reruns and our portion of those revenues are miniscule. In the long run, I believe the elimination or extreme diminishment of royalties and residuals will have a devastating impact on screenwriters and their ablity to earn a living at their craft.


Los Angeles – The Negotiating Committee for the Writers Guild of America, west and East has reached tentative agreement on a new three-year, $58-million contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, ABC, CBS, FBC, and NBC covering writers in the film, broadcast and cable industries.

“It’s been a long five months since we walked away from negotiations without a contract on June 2nd,” said Daniel Petrie Jr., President of the WGAw, “but it has been well worth the wait. This tentative agreement is projected to be worth almost $58 million by the end of its term, nearly double what the producers offered us on the June 1st. The new agreement will fully address the needs of our health plan, ensuring us a six-month reserve at the current level of benefits by the end of the contract in 2007. We consider this a major victory that was critical to protect the health benefits of writers and their families. What’s more, the companies have also agreed to recommend to the pension fund directors that they increase pensions.”

“Looked at purely on dollar terms, the deal is unusually rich, and for that our negotiators should be congratulated. In other ways, the gains fall far short of what we had hoped for and what our members feel we deserve,” said Herb Sargent, President of the Writers Guild of America, East. “The deal ensures that our health plan will remain viable for the length of the contract – no small matter – but the companies have refused to acknowledge the need for an improvement in our “abnormally low” residuals formula for DVDs and home video, and the deal includes some roll backs for TV writers and news writers, and only very minor gains for screenwriters. Nevertheless, our negotiators believe that this was the best deal possible at this time. Now it’s up to our members to decide.”

“The WGA should be commended for their professionalism and resolve that made it possible to reach a fair deal that keeps writers working, keeps the town working, and addresses their most crucial concerns,” said J. Nicholas Counter, III, President, Association of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

Health Plan

Starting at the beginning of the new contract, an increase in the contribution rate from 7.5 percent to 8.5 percent. In the last year of the contract, there is also an option to increase the contribution rate to 9.0 percent, by reducing the percentage increase in minimums by the same half percent. All told, the companies will be putting an additional $37 million over current levels into the health fund.

Pension Plan

Effective January 1, 2004, the contribution limits on writers’ earnings will go up by $35,000 per company, which translates to an annual increase of as much as $1,000 in pension payments for every year the writer earned more than $170,000. The trustees will also raise the payout ceiling by $10,000, so writers can enjoy more of the benefits they have earned.


Three percent increase in each year of the contract commencing November 1, 2004. Two and a quarter percent increase for reruns on network primetime and non-primetime serials. Five percent increase for Excerpt fees commencing November 1, 2006.


Three years: November 1, 2004 through October 31, 2007.

Reality TV

We made significant headway developing a mutual understanding with the Companies on reality television, as did the DGA before us. Like the DGA, we expect that these discussions will lead to future gains for writers.

Internet Download Sales

The companies agreed to 1.2 percent of the licensing agreement for internet-download rentals in the 2001 agreement. The guild sought to clarify that the same formula would apply to download sales. Reserving their positions, the guild and AMPTP will form a joint committee to address the problem.

Made-for-Pay TV

The agreement will provide for a 20 percent annual increase in half-hour residuals and a 15 percent increase in one-hour residuals.

Late Pay

Writers have often been unaware of various legal impediments that impact their contract, contributing to the affront of late payment for writing services. To ensure that a writer is aware of any conditions to his/her employment that must be satisfied before commencing services, the company will now outline the conditions precedent (such as securing underlying rights, the execution of the producer’s contract, etc.) when the writer and studio come to terms.

Previously or Currently Employed Writers

The companies will state in the writers’ individual employment agreement the names of all other writers then or previously employed on the same material.

Training Program

The tentative agreement also calls for a producer-funded program to provide training for episodic writers to enable them to develop the skills required to be a successful showrunner/executive producer.

Promotional Launch

To help establish a wide-viewing audience for new one-hour dramatic series, the contract will allow for two of the first three episodes (including the pilot) to be rerun within two months of the launch of the series without residual compensation.

“There is no question that this tentative agreement was heavily influenced by pattern bargaining, for good and ill,” said Petrie. “While we are very pleased with the total dollar amount of the deal, which is equivalent to the DGA’s success, we are disappointed that our deal, like the DGA’s, contains no gains in DVDs. In the end, we felt that protecting the health benefits of writers and their families had to be our top priority, and continuing to pursue a DVD increase would mean putting those gains at risk.”

Writing Partnerships

On my website discussion board, someone asked me about the pros-and-cons of writing partnerships…. so I dug up this article I wrote on the subject a decade ago. I thought you might enjoy it:

Screenwriting Partnerships

The meeting with the TV series producer was going very badly. We were going to lose the writing assignment until, as a joke, I suggested we add a dozen scantily clad models and a psycho killer to the plot. Bill grimaced in embarrassment. The producer thought the idea was brilliant. We had a sale.

At that moment, Bill probably was torn he was glad he had a partner… and wished his partner had died in a car crash on the way to the meeting.

Perhaps that is the nature of partnerships. Everything is torn in half: emotions, responsibility credits, and., worst of all, paychecks.

When I was a kid, and dreamed of my name in lights, the name I saw was MINE, and mine alone. I saw it on book jackets, TV screens, movie posters … a “shared credit” never entered my mind.

But now, most of the time, I share the credit with William Rabkin Not just the credit, but the money, the work, and everything that goes along with it.

So I’ve revised my dreams a bit. When I see my name in lights, there’s another right next to it. And that’s okay by me.

It’s not that I don’t like writing alone, I just like writing with Bill better, for some simple reasons. For one, I like the company. I like hashing out the idea, developing the story, and overcoming the obstacles of actually writing the script with someone else. Like sex, writing is a lot more fun with a partner than doing it all alone. It’s also motivating. We nag each other far better than our individual consciences would

Of course, we argue a lot. But out of those fights actually come better ideas. It shakes us out of complacency, out of going the easy way, out of using those same tired cliches. And it scares the hell out of our assistants, who are convinced that we are killing each other behind our closed doors.

After one such row, our assistant came into my office, gravely concerned. He wanted to know if we were “okay.” Sure, I said, we were just brainstorming. He didn’t buy it. So he went into Bill’s office, and asked if him the same question. Bill said, are you kidding? We’re on a roll! The assistant decided we were both in extreme denial and that our partnership was doomed.

Of course, the arguing isn’t restricted to our offices. We were once on a series with a small staff, four writers in all, including us. The executive producer was a kind, fair¬individual who felt everyone had an equal say in the direction of the series so he warned us he didn’t want us to always present a united front, to use our partnership as a blunt instrument to cram ideas down his throat.

We left his office, and thought to ourselves, what a brilliant idea! We had never thought of being a power block before, much less a blunt instrument. So, we decided to give it a try. We would always agree publicly, and argue privately. So the next meeting we went in, I presented a story idea, and Bill promptly said “that is the single dumbest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.” So much for the power block idea. If he hadn’t done it, I probably would have. Such is partnership. It can’t be locked in an office.

I’m also a better writer with Bill than I am on my own. We are hard on each other. We force one another to go beyond “good enough” and to try for something better … and usually harder. And we are good at different things, we compensate for each other’s weaknesses and enhance each other’s strong points. Sometimes it can be confusing.

We work differently on different scripts. For example, on one script we divided acts. I did Act One, he did Act Two, and then we switched. I was enraged to discovered he had created a subplot that didn’t exist before. How could he do that without talking to me first? Probably the same way I added a new character in Act One and forgot to mention it to him. As it turned out, both changes helped the script enormously.

On those occasions when a script is due next week, and I wake up without the creativity to write a grocery list, it’s nice to know Bill is there to pick up the slack. And vice versa. It’s especially nice when one of us has to leave town two days before the deadline we know the other poor schlub will do the work. Of course, the downside is schlub duty is shared, too. It’s also great when it comes to pitching, and later story meetings, too. I tend to dive, roll, and come up firing literally when describing an action sequence. Bill, on the other hand, will discuss the thematic, symbolic, metaphoric and religious implications of a scene, and how it relates to great scenes in film history. We know whatever the sensibility of the executive, one of us can deal with it. On one weird occasion, we were facing producers whose partnership was frighteningly similar to our own. At casual moments, Bill would discuss with one producer how our project evoked Faulkner, while I would debate with the other which actor was the best James Bond.

On another, abortive, project, Bill was so frustrated by a producer’s indecision, that when he tried to tell the guy off, he couldn’t find the words. So, I said, “what Bill wants to say is that you change your mind constantly and have no idea what you want. Call us when you get a clue,” and I walked out. Finding words for one another often extends, we have learned, beyond the keyboard.

We have strong egos, but that doesn’t seem to get in our way, either. We view the finished product as /our/ script not HIS lines and MY lines, but /our/ lines. Our styles are so alike, and we work over the scenes so many times, who did what blurs.

It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m just as proud or our shared credit as I was of my single one.

I just wish he didn’t get half of my money

Why I Won’t Read Your Script, Book, or Epic Poem

Lots of people ask me to read their books and scripts… relatives, friends, my Mom’s friends, friends of my Mom’s friends, and as you’ve noticed from postings here over the last few months, complete strangers. My brother Tod, in his weekly column, describes one reason why I offer any excuse I can think of *not* to read people’s stuff…

there was a letter waiting for me from a man named Kevin. A month earlier, my cousin Leigh asked if I’d read Kevin’s epic poem as a favor to her–he cuts her hair–and see if I could help him on his quest to get it published. I said sure. I read the epic poem, offered some advice to Kevin on it, including an honest critique, and spent a good two hours of my life on his work. He sent me a two-page, single-spaced letter in return essentially calling me an idiot who obviously didn’t appreciate quality writing and that I should re-evaluate why I’ve chosen the career I’ve chosen and that he hopes I choke.

The smartest thing I ever did was co-write a book on breaking into television… now I just tell people to buy my book. All the advice I have to offer is there…

(Oh, I should add one exception…my wife’s best friend showed me her first novel. It was incredible… certainly better than any book I’ve ever written. She writes with such confidence, power and grace… I knew as I was reading it that she was a natural born writer. I immediately tried to convince my agent, and a couple other agents I knew, to take her on. Sadly, she’s still looking for representation…)