Last week I attended a party at my friend Nim’s post-production facility. I found myself in the kitchen, chatting with a handful of independent moviemakers (as if I know any other kind…). They were sharing war stories of pitches gone awry. And of theft—Hollywood-style. One producer detailed a pitch meeting he’d had with an actor’s manager. The actor passed on the high concept project, and lo and behold, one year later, he was staring at an almost exact replica of the script. Needless to say the producer’s name was nowhere in sight and nary a credit or percentage was on the horizon.
A writer at the festivities recounted a pitch he’d made to a studio. One half year later, a project with the same name and logline was announced in the trades.
So, how to protect oneself in Hollywood? The truth is… theft happens. And usually, there’s not a whole hell of a lot one can do about it. People steal ideas all the time. Every experienced screenwriter I know has pulled out their Medal of Theft honor from their pocket and displayed it proudly: I’m theftable, I must be good!
Okay, so I’ve never had anything stolen. But I would like to believe that the results of my endless mind machinations merit someone’s keen commitment to fraud, the attention of a random agent or one of some Hollywood honcho’s henchmen.
Seriously, as I complete my first “billion-dollar studio comedy” screenplay, I’ve become concerned—no, paranoid—about sharing my precious work of genius with anybody in the industry. Or even out of the industry… I wouldn’t even divulge the title to a prospective producer yesterday.
What’s a writer to do?
You’ve eventually got to show the goods, or nobody’s buying. Here’s a brief look at how to pitch a story without divulging a single detail. And the ensuing consequences:
Producer: So what’s it about?
Me: It’s about two hours.
Producer: No. I mean what’s the story?
Me: Well… it’s about a guy who meets a girl and something big happens.
Producer: Yeah, but what’s it about?
Me: It’s about $20 million.
Producer: Not the budget. I meant…
Me: Oh no, that’s not the budget, that’s my fee.
Producer: Your fee?
Me: The budget is $200 million.
Producer: Is it a sci-fi?
Me: I can’t tell you that.
Producer: Okay. Let’s start again. So, this guy meets this girl and something big happens. Is it bigger than a breadbox?
Producer: What? Like… a meteor hits the earth?
Me: Well, then they’d be dead.
Producer: Not if the hero knows the meteor’s coming and he invents an underground shelter that protects them and they are the only survivors, or so they think, and they emerge to find utter destruction on the planet, but they have each other and must find a way to live life in a world of desolation.
Me: That’s a great idea.
The producer pulls out a piece of paper and a pen from his pocket.
Producer: Here. Sign this non-disclosure agreement.
Me: But that’s my idea.
Producer: No it’s not. I just made it up.
Me: But I instigated it.
Producer: So, you’re refusing to sign the NDA? I could make sure you never work in this town again.
Me: Again!? I’ve never worked in this town. This script—(I hold up my screenplay) is my key to the universe.
Producer: Okay, we’ll let this slide. I’ll have my assistant’s assistant “read” (he does that quotation thing with his fingers) it and I’ll get back to you.
I open the script and tear out a few pages. Hand it to him.
Producer: What’s this?
Me: Pages 53 to 60.
Producer: What about the rest of the pages?
Me: If you like 53 to 60, I’ll send you more. But you’ll have to sign this first.
I pull out a massive 500-page manuscript.
Me: It’s my own NDA. You just can’t be too careful in this town.
The producer signs it.
Producer: But if I ever get even a whiff of a meteor in any of your scripts—ever—I’ll sue your fucking ass.
I smile, thinking, “Yeah, right, buddy. Not in a million years.”
Anne Norda is an award-winning artist, writer, director and producer with one feature, Red Is the Color Of (Best Feature Film, 2007 LA Femme Film Festival), under her belt. She was born in North Hollywood, schooled at the Parsons School of Design and was a Fulbright Scholar in photography. She’s a Finnish and U.S. citizen and has lived in Paris, Helsinki, LA, NY and Bangkok. Her dream is to run a major movie studio. Or be a Pulitzer prize-winning poet and dedicate her life to art and the transformation of humanity. Whichever may come first.