Serving the Story, Not You

Here's an excerpt from an excellent blog post from UK TV writer James Moran about abusive fans…a post that preceded Josh Olson's much-discussed, incendiary piece on a similar topic.

I'm a professional writer. That's my job. I write what I write, for whatever the project might be. I have the utmost respect for you, and honestly want you to like my work, but I can't let that affect my story decisions. Everybody wants different things from a story, but this is not a democracy, you do not get to vote. You are free to say what you think of my work, even if you hate it, I honestly don't mind. But the ONLY person I need to please is myself, and the ONLY thing I need to serve is the story. Not you. I will do my work to the very best of my ability, in an attempt to give you the best show, the best movie, the best story, the best entertainment I possibly can. Even if that means that sometimes, I'll do things you won't like. I won't debate it. Either you go along with it, or you don't. None of it is done to hurt you, or to force some agenda down your throat, or anything else. It's all in service of the story.

I urge you to read the whole thing. I can't tell you how many times I've been through the same experience that he suffered through…

I Will Not Read Your F–king Script, Part 2

Yesterday, I talked about how Josh Olson wrote a great piece explaining why he won't reading your script…and that, on the same day that I read his article, I had an experience that proved him right. Here's what happened. A stranger wrote me:

I have a great idea for a TV series…oops, you've heard that a million times. But really I do. Can I send you the Treatment I have written and get some help pitching it?

I replied:

Nope. (And you are the 27th person to ask me that today. No kidding. And the day isn't over yet).

…and I sent him a link to Olson's piece. And within minutes, he was twittering things like this:

Sick of arrogant TV writers who write crap that we have to watch on TV.

And this:

I am talking about Lee Goldberg…what a f'n snob…and he sucks.

Today, he sent me this note:

I joined Facebook in part, my arrogant friend, to sell my book and to network. That is what Facebook is for in part, as well as reconnecting with family and old friends. Therefore, I reached out to you to network. But like the arrogant prick you are, instead of simply saying no thanks, or ignoring my request, you slap me around as if I was a moron. I had a bad day yesterday, involving one of my children, and didn't need your snotty lecture. So go away. I get your drift. You got lucky and think you are somebody now. But know this, my arrogant friend, what you dish out to the world comes back to you.

And the replies from his friends to his twitters reflected a similar point-of-view:

fuck Lee Goldberg and his arrogance. He lives in a phony world of recycling idiot ideas. Perhaps I'm missing something, but has any Hollywood writer *lately* managed to write a good work of fiction? I dunno, perhaps Lee Goldberg has some sort of defense for that episode of "She Spies" that he helped write in committee.

And this from the guy who initially wrote me:

What does Lee Goldberg write – that Monk nonsense? That's why I spend the evening (when not writing or reading) flipping through the numbing crap on TV that is written by the arrogant "professionals" full of themselves that they can't mentor a struggling author along.

Of course, he thought well enough of me to hit me up to read his stuff…I became an arrogant asshole and author of mind-numbing crap after I said no.

I am stunned by the arrogance of these people, telling me that my professional success isn't the result of talent or hard work, but rather it is some kind of entitlement. And that by not reading their work, or listening to their ideas, or coaching them on pitching, I am an asshole. My time is their time to do with as they please. They also assume that I am not interested in helping anyone else achieve what I have.

These jerks know nothing about me, or the time and effort I devote to sharing my experience with others. They don't know about the many days I spend each year teaching TV writing, giving seminars, or speaking about writing at high schools, universities, conferences, and libraries locally, nationwide and around the world, mostly for free. 

In the last six weeks, for example, I spent seven days at the International Mystery Writers Festivalin Owensboro, Kentucky teaching, speaking, and moderating seminars on tv and mystery writing to the public. At no charge. I taught a three-hour course on TV writing to students at Cal State Northridge. At no charge. And I spent a day giving a seminar on TV writing to a delegation from China Central Television.

But what I didn't do is drop everything in my life to read some stranger's treatment, listen to his idea for a TV series, and coach him on how to pitch. 

So obviously I am an arrogant, talentless, asshole.

I have committed the unforgiveable sin of deciding how to use my time and how best to give back to others. And not letting some stranger decide for me. 

So, when it comes to this guy and all those outraged, wanna-be writers who they think own me and my time, I think Josh Olson really nailed it when he said:

I will not read your fucking script.

UPDATE 9-11-09: The pissed off stranger who wanted me to read his treatment has responded. What follows is his email to me, verbatim, minus the title and link to his self-published "manifesto" on new belief system that will revolutionize society.

Blah, blah, blah. Whippy shit. Whining ahole. If you spent all the time trashing me trying to help me instead, we might both have a better feeling about you. Doth protest too much, my friend. You have a guilty conscience as you should. Hard work, my ass, you got lucky, friend, pure and simple. Given the chance, I would write you off the page.

And look who's talking about people skills. All you had to do numbnut, was ignore me, or give me a website where to send my treatment, an address, something. Instead, you bastard, you give me a snide, insensitive stupid article. And a bunch of messages that are just pure mean-spirited. I might be dying of cancer or have a kid dying of cancer, but you don't care.

Who says I want to succeed in Hollywood anyway – if it's populated by untalented, arrogant mean-spirited likes of you, I don't need it. It will be TV's loss not to have my treatment.

Read my book, XYZ

Know what it says, you strunes – death is the only reality. I will certainly see you at some point there, in some afterlife. And maybe I'll buy you a beer, and then again, maybe I won't.

Pondering the Ponderosa and Steve Cannell


I've been reading a bunch of TV and movie reference books lately, most of which have been a disappointment. 

There's a great book to be written about the writing and production of BONANZA, something akin to the brilliant and comprehensive GUNSMOKE: A COMPLETE HISTORY. Sadly, A REFERENCE GUIDE TO BONANZA by Bruce Leiby and Linda F. Lieby, now out in paperback, isn't it. A scant eight pages — eight pages!– are given to the creation, writing and production of the show. The bulk of the book is a workman-like episode guide to the 14 seasons and brief synopses of the TV movies, hardly worth the price of purchase. The only thing interesting and worthwhile about the book are the appendices listing various BONANZA merchandise, books, comics, and records. However, I wish the effort the authors put into gathering so much pointless information — like listing all the shows available on video featuring Tim Matheson — had been focused instead on giving us the definitive history of the show. Consider this a lost opportunity.

The same can be said of STEPHEN J. CANNELL TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS: A HISTORY OF ALL SERIES & PILOTS by Jon Abbott. While the book is far more substantive and detailed than the BONANZA book, it draws entirely on previously published articles and books. The author, based in the UK, doesn't appear to have actually interviewed anyone himself, either at Cannell or at studios or the networks that Cannell worked for. The one person he should have talked to, and didn't, was Steve Cannell, the subject of his book. That is a glaring and crippling fault, obvious in every chapter. The author tries to make-up for that major weakness by relying heavily on his own ponderous and uinformed commentary (often repetitive, obvious and pointless), his critical overview (often meaningless and ridiculously fannish) and his interpretation of events (often dead wrong). That was a big mistake. What is especially irritating is the author's tendancy to make an assumption, and then afterwards treat it as fact. For example, in the RICHIE BROCKLEMAN chapter, he writes:

"The intention may have originally been to introduce the aggravating Brockleman into THE ROCKFORD FILES as a semi-regular partner for Rockford (to take some of the pressure off Garner's aching back). Fortunately, reason prevailed, and the character was instead written into the 1976 pilot film before surfacing in a double-length 1978 episode of ROCKFORD."

Most of the Cannell series, even from his days at Universal, are given full chapters and sketchy (to the point of almost being useless) episode guides…but after UNSUB, for reasons not explained, only passing reference is given to TOP OF THE HILL, BOOKER, BROKEN BADGES, 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE, PALACE GUARD, MISSING PERSONS, THE LAST PRECINCT, COBRA, STREET JUSTICE, HAWKEYE, MARKER and three of his all-time biggest hits, RENEGADE, THE COMMISH and SILK STALKINGS. Perhaps the author just wasn't able to get video tapes of those shows from his circle of collectors, who he thanks in his acknowledgments, which noticeably doesn't include the names of any people associated with Stephen J. Cannell Productions or his shows. It begs the question — why didn't he actually talk to anybody? I know many of these writers, producers and directors, and I can tell you, they aren't hard to find or unwilling to share their experiences. Maybe he couldn't afford the long-distance phone calls. 

All that said, there is a lot of useful information in the book and, since the definitive book on Cannell has yet to be written, this is not a bad place-holder until somebody writes it (hopefully, Cannell himself will do it some day!). 

I Hate The WGA Elections

Writers-guild-of-america-west-logo I hate it when we're asked to vote for new WGA officers and board members. We get inundated with mails, each side attacking the other, and then we get that bulging election packet, with its candidate statements, candidate rebuttals, rebuttals of rebuttals, rebuttals of rebuttals of rebuttals, the non-candidate statements, the rebuttals of non-candidate statements, and the endorsement ads. Accusations, counter-accusations, and counter-counter-counter accusations.

I don't bother with most of that crap. I read nothing but the candidates statements and make my decisions based on that, my personal knowledge (if any) of the individual candidates, and my own take on where the industry stands and what I believe the direction of the Guild should be. I do not vote according to slates. I vote according to a candidate's principles, experience, ideas, and vision. But most important of all, I vote. 

If you are a WGA member, I urge you to vote as well.

For what it's worth, here is who I voted for:

President: Elias Davis

Vice-President: Tom Schulman

Secretary-Treasurer: Christopher Keyser

Board Members: Patric Verrone, Howard Rodman, Carleton Eastlake, Dan Wilcox, Ian Deitchman, Linda Burstyn, Chip Johannessen, and Luvh Rakhe.


BeyondblogThis article originally appeared in Mystery Scene Magazine back in 1997. I thought I'd repost it here to mark the publication of the Kindle edition. 

An awful lot of people in the television industry see shrinks. Those who don't, write novels.

Well, that's my theory, any way.

I figured it was either write a book, or go into psychoanalysis. Writing a book seemed like a better alternative, since you can actually make a few bucks while you sit and whine about how crazy the business is and what the craziness does to you.

I wrote my first novel, My Gun Has Bullets, while writing/producing a really terrible, syndicated action show. In that book, a good, decent cop named Charlie Willis is gunned down by a lunatic TV star on her way to a sale at Neiman-Marcus. To cover up the crime, the studio buys him off by making him the star of his own action series. But things go bad when someone loads his prop gun with real bullets and he kills his guest-star. I trashed everything and everyone that drove met nuts about the TV business…and there was a lot, having written and/or produced such series as Hunter, Baywatch, Spenser: For Hire, Cosby Mysteries and Diagnosis Murder, to name a few.

I felt a lot better after I wrote the book.

But I didn't get around to writing the sequel, Beyond the Beyond, until a couple years later, when I became a writer/producer on SeaQuest. Within weeks, I was getting email death threats from deranged fans, including one lady who was enraged weren't consulting her for advice or staying true to the "fanfic" (fan-written, self-published fiction). Another lady, calling herself an "Admiral in the United Earth Oceans," was convinced one of the characters in the show was in love with her.Beyondcover900

Of course, it reminded me of what the actors and writers on Star Trek must go through (which I knew well, since many of my friends have worked on the show). And that reminded me that a spin-off of Star Trek was the cornerstone of a new television network. And that made me think about the whole Star Trek phenomenon…and the emergence of new TV networks…and the consolidation of media empires.

Before I was a TV producer, I worked as a reporter covering the entertainment industry beat for Newsweek, Starlog, American Film, Electronic Media, and Los Angeles Times Syndicate, among many others. During that time, I wrote extensively about the birth of the Fox Network and was the first person to break the story that Paramount was reviving Star Trek as an all-new, syndicated series. So I already had a lot of background in both the business of TV and the business of Star Trek and had given this stuff some thought before.

Suddenly, I felt a book taking shape…

What if someone bought a studio decided to use it to launch a new network? And what if the cornerstone of that new network was a revival of cult, 60s science fiction series – with an all-new cast? How would the lunatic fans and original cast react?

There was a story there…and I also had a lot more personal demons to exorcise now, too. And I was fresh from my experience on SeaQuest.

In Beyond the Beyond , Charlie Willis is now a special security officer for Pinnacle Pictures. When the studio revives the cult series Beyond the Beyond as the launching pad for a new network, two forces fight for control of the show, a vicious talent agency that uses blackmail, torture and murder to keep its clients on the A-list, and a homicidal legion of rabid fans led by an insane actor who thinks he's in outer space.

The publisher calls it a dark/comic thriller about TV. But I'll tell you a little secret: most of it is true, drawn either from my own experience or those of my friends in the TV business.

And like the first book, I felt great after I finished it… though somewhere out there a shrink is going hungry because of it.

Money Woes in UK TV Biz

The Guardian reports that series cancellations and budget cuts at ITV are renewing fears about the precarious state of the UK TV Biz.

Having sent the dinosaurs back to extinction earlier in the week, ITV decided to banish the vampires on Friday, cancelling the Saturday evening show Demons only days after Primeval got the axe. A budgetary ice-age seems to be sweeping through UK television – raising fears about British broadcasting’s delicate eco-stystem.

The cuts are not a problem confined to commercial channels. The morning before Demons’ fate was confirmed, the BBC instructed all six of its television networks to find record efficiency savings of 7.5% – over the next five years the channels will lose £1bn from their budgets. And matters are little better at Channel 4. In March, head of programming Julian Bellamy said the broadcaster would like to commission more drama, but there was no money in the budget with which to do so.

[…]Despite ITV performing well in drama this year – it has broadcast the five highest-rating new dramas, Whitechapel, Above Suspicion, Unforgiven, Law & Order: UK and, ironically, Demons – rating success is clearly no longer a measure of survival at the broadcaster. But if ITV is getting rid of relative successes, what will it have left?

There is some good news. ITV renewed LEWIS for a fourth season, which comes as a relief, since early reports were that the hit series was doomed for financial reasons.

The Mail I Get

I received this email from an agentless, aspiring screenwriter:

I just moved to LA about a year ago.[…]I've hooked up with a producer who is a former exec at a major studio. We talked about an idea he has for a sitcom. I like his idea a lot and I agreed to collaborate with him. The thing is, I've been helping him for a while now and even wrote a pilot, all with nothing but a verbal commitment from him to "do right" by me. I do trust him and we've become friends outside of "work."

Now, I've decided it's time to get more than just a verbal commitment from him. But I am at a loss as to what to ask for.[…] So far I've written a pilot and have helped out with character descriptions and episode outlines. Now he wants me to write another episode. Do you have any advice for someone like me?

Yes, I do. You are being screwed. The producer is taking advantage of your enthusiasm, inexperience and desperation. He should know better…and, if he is truly your friend (and the seasoned exec you say he is), and if he genuinely wanted to "do right" for you, he would have put a deal in writing before you started writing a word…for his protection and yours.

Don't do ANY more work for him or let him send out the script to anyone unless a deal is in place between the two of you.

Since you don't have an agent, you should consult with a lawyer. You should also visit the WGA website and get a copy of the applicable minimums and/or go to the Samuel French Bookstore and get a book on Entertainment industry contracts.

I'm not a lawyer or an agent, but some of the things you should seek are compensation (at least WGA minimums) for the scripts you have written immediately upon sale of the project, a minimum royalty per episode produced (you need to negotiate an amount), a shared created by credit with the producer (though that will be arbitrated by the Guild), a producer credit & salary on the show (whether you provide services or not) and an equal share of any and all monies that the producer is getting for ancillary rights, backend, etc. That's just for starters.

Hat in Hand

The most interesting thing about Ken Follett's THE PILLARS OF EARTH mini-series isn't the international cast (Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland, Rufus Sewell etc) or it's location shoot in Hungary and Austria — it's the complex financing that had to be put together to get the German/Canadian coproduction made. As the press release notes:

TANDEM COMMUNICATIONS and Muse Entertainment's broadcast and home video partners on The Pillars of the Earth are ProSiebenSat1's German FreeTV Group, Canada's Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The Movie Network and Movie Central, Spain's Socable, Austria's ORF, Germany's Universum Film Home Entertainment, Hungary's TV2 and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment – to name a few. In addition, the financial entities involved were gap financier FIDEC, Germany's DZ Bank and The National Bank of Canada. Legal counsel for the project was Mathias Schwarz in Germany, Cari Davine in Canada, Randolph M. Paul in the USA and Monika Horvath in Hungary.

Did you notice that it says that those are just a few of the financial partners? And did you see that the deal-making itself is  such a big part of the production, that the producers feel obligated to thank their lawyers in the press release? Incredible. 

The folks at Tandem obviously had to go, hat in hand, all over the world to get the money for this. Even more surprising is that the mini-series doesn't even have a U.S. or U.K. broadcast yet. This illustrates just how difficult it is to raise financing for TV productions these days…and how global the business has become. Tandem's managing director Rola Bauer says in the press release:

"The fact that we have been able to raise the production financing in these economically challenging times is testimony to the enduring strength of fictional television Event programming […] and could not have been achieved without our international networks as well as our financial and production partners."

Scott Free TV president David Zucker told the Hollywood Reporter that putting together such a complex deal and going into production without a U.S. broadcaster is  "the new world order."

"Yes, there is more risk at the top, but there's more latitude on the creative side. It's not dissimilar to the indie film biz in this respect. Given how difficult the economy became here, we decided to plow ahead and get funding and casting done before trying to do a licensing deal in the States."

Zucker said there was "a lot of interest" among yank broadcasters, cablers and pay cablers but did not specify how close to a deal the producers were.

For what it's worth, the last big mini-series that Munich-based Tandem put together, LOST CITY RAIDERS, ended up on SciFi. 

Living on TV’s Death Row

Writer Josh Friedman, the showrunner of TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONCILES, blogs about his final days on the series…and what it's like to be cancelled. 

Everyone says having your show cancelled is like a death but I've been dead before and at least when you're dead you don't get thrown off the Warner Bros. lot for haunting your old parking space. They probably mean it's like the death of a friend or a family member but that shit only hurts when it's YOUR friend or family member and even then it's mitigated by age, lifestyle and whether that person was a Hollywood friend or a real one and whether that family member left you money.

Losing your show is more like a surprise divorce where you get served papers in the morning and your (ex)wife is fucking Human Target by three in the afternoon using the same time slot your child was conceived in and also where she did that one thing that one time on your birthday.

People say the bright side to losing your show is gaining time to spend with your family but I'm pretty sure that waking up next to your ex-showrunner spouse whom you haven't seen for two and a half years is pretty close to waking up next to that special someone you met the night before at Carlos n' Charlie's in Cancun on Spring Break.

His lengthy post is very funny, bitter, and oh-so-true. I've been in his position, feeling many of the same things that he did, more times than I care to remember…and it never gets any easier or less uncomfortable. 

Check Twitter Before Meetings

Twitter-logo Last Tuesday, I had a meeting with a showrunner about filling an open writer/producer position on his new series. I learned yesterday, a week later, that he was going with somebody else. That's no big deal, it happens all the time. But here's the twist… it turns out that an hour before my meeting last week, the showrunner tweeted that he'd just made an offer to a guy I'll call "Producer X" and that he was "crossing his fingers" that the offer would be accepted. So when I had my meeting, the showrunner had already decided to go with someone else…and had announced it to the world…but not to me. He was seeing me as, at best, a back-up in the case the other guy passed…which would be fine, if he hadn't already announced publicly that he really wanted somebody else.

But wait, there's more. Last Wednesday morning, the day after our meeting, the showrunner tweeted that he'd just hired Producer X.  But he didn't get around to telling my agent it was a pass until yesterday…a full week later. He couldn't wait to tell the world his decision…but blew off my agent for a week.

The moral of this story? I'll be checking Twitter before and especially after my meetings…and so will my agent.