Castaway in Hollywood

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June 17, 2008

'We all live in a little Village . . . . Your village may be different from other people's villages but we are all prisoners.' ~ Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) I was sitting on a gold mine. Three top movie scripts and six, really good Reality TV shows, plus one quirky, fictional crime novel that, ironically, came true two years later, a rarity among crime novels. Ten projects in all. Plus I knew a couple of people in LA, Hollywood insiders I was assured. I had come to the land of Beemers and Benzes, Hummers and Escalades to submit my work to a larger audience. Even before I arrived, all the writers went on strike. 'The fallout of the Writer's Guild of America (WGA) 100-day shutdown,' wrote David McCrary for Counterpunch, 'cost $2.5 billion in lost wages and production.' But since I wasn't part of the writer's union then, the studios would still need Reality TV shows, or so I was told. For some reason, Reality producers aren't really considered writers in Hollywood but networks would still need programs to fill the empty viewing hours on 999 channels, now that the writers had walked. A friend bought me a thick, hugely expensive book ($70) called The Hollywood Creative Directory. Inside were listed all the film and TV production studios, plus their personnel. Must have been over 50,000 names listed there, and hundreds of studios. Certainly I too, like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald before me, could find a niche here in Hollywood. 'Without shmoozing, networking, or encountering some Hollywood figure, the chance of an individual breaking into the film industry is nearly impossible,' said writer Simon Rucker. 'Writers are often the lowest on the totem pole.' No problemo. I'd known that well beforehand, having read numerous books on the subject, from Some Time In The Sun to the excellent Adventures In The Screen Trade. Besides, like author and successful screenwriter William Goldman's unforgettable character, Butch Cassidy uttered, 'I got vision while the rest of the world wore bifocals.' I proudly registered my nine new projects at the WGA West, the writer's guild headquarters in Los Angeles. At the guild, they politely give newcomers a pamphlet listing all the WGA agents willing to rep new writers. Must have been several dozen agencies, I thought, perhaps a few hundred agents just waiting to sign me. Not. 'As a writer, producer and director,' wrote script consultant Jim Mercurio, 'I have sent out probably a thousand screenplays and, ironically, neither of my two produced films were a result of those submissions. I found, unlike Hollywood, other industries have a measurable and immediate need for decent writers.' 'Agents are there to keep people like you from gaining access to the actual people who might help you,' said an Indy filmmaker, NN. 'What you have to do is build relationships to those people, yourself.' The great Goldman himself advised: 'Whenever I meet anyone interested in screenwriting, there is really only one question in their minds: How can I get an agent? Obviously, it's impossible. But you can try. Intelligently. What can an agent do for you? Nothing magical. You have to think and act and, most of all, hustle . . . . Pester is the password here.' Others before me, thousands of others just like myself, had to overcome the same inertia. Allegedly, famous film director David Lynch had to deliver newspaper to raise money for his first flick, Eraserhead. At times a newcomer to Hollywood feels trapped in Lynch's cult classic, Mulholland Drive. Said the star of that film, Naomi Watts, 'I remember driving along the street many times sobbing my heart out in my car, going, 'What am I doing here?'' How quickly the newcomer learns that angst and agent occupy the same adjacent space in Hollywood, like stars and paparazzi. Hollywood, more than anywhere else, is less a meritocracy than an industry built on nepotism, charm and connections. Hardly mattered if you had penned the next Gone With The Wind or the next The Great Gatsby in a prior life. To an agent, you were just an unknown amoeba, swimming in the muck. Heck, if you didn't even own a Porsche or Beemer how could anyone take you seriously? To prove my amoeba status as an ignorant newcomer, I actually rode my bicycle to a production studio, called Live Planet, founded by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. I planned to drop off a personalized copy of my crime fiction novel to Affleck. Only recently Ben had directed his first film, Gone Baby Gone, based on a bit of crime fiction set in Boston. Perhaps he needed another similar project. The idea seemed sound at the time, as all ideas do to the naive. Only one problem, however; Live Planet had died months earlier and another production studio now occupied the place. Like King Fu wisdom, everything seemed wonderfully simple at first. But, as exactly happens in those teenage horror flicks, newcomers (like myself) stumble through dark doors and down twisting labyrinths that lead directly into danger while onlookers shout: 'Go back!' All too soon we become lost in Hollywood, no matter how strong, no matter how savvy we think we are. Our confidence broken, most of us become just another bruised and broken body, unworthy even of Central Casting. The list of agents given to me at WGA? About as valueless as a paper airplane in a cyclone. Immediately after the acrimonious writer's strike was settled, a financial planner connected to the film industry told me. 'Agents are dumping their clients and not adding new ones.' Nevertheless I still sent 60-70 query letters, with stamped, self-addressed return envelopes, outlining my ten projects to agents on the WGA list. Reality would not be allowed to dampen my optimism. Not yet. 'They just throw those letters in the trash,' said longtime friend, Robert Shaw (not the actor). 'You have to learn to work the phones, Doug.' Instead, ignoring his professional advice, with the thick directory as my guide, I sent another 50 or 60 letters with SASE to producers. Outlining my ten projects in the query letter, I tried to convince them with my best sales pitch. The Discovery Channel sent me a polite letter but Paramount Pictures was a bit more blunt. 'Douglas Alan Herman. RE: Unsolicited screenplay/ teleplay/ book queries, CATCH A FALLING STAR, LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, WARRIORS OF THE WHITE ROSE, HOW TO HIT IT BIG IN HOLLYWOOD, GREAT GHOST TOWNS OF THE OLD WEST, WIN YOUR WEIGHT IN GOLD, DIED YOUNG, THE GUNS OF DALLAS: Because so many unfounded claims of plagiarism are asserted against motion picture studios, Paramount Pictures has made it an inviolate rule that its employers are not permitted to read or consider unsolicited literary material, musical compositions, lyrics, ideas or suggestions of any nature whatsoever.' But at least they wrote. Most agents and producers rarely bothered to scrawl a hasty rejection to my query letter. Through my friend Annie I spoke to an old TV writer. An Emmy Award-winner long ago, Bob lived in a tiny cramped apartment surrounded by piles of his old shows and episodes. 'Hate to rain on your parade,' he said, 'But the average Hollywood executive of today, age 34, grew up in the age of free music downloads off the internet. They have no qualms about listening to your ideas and then stealing your work.' Oh great, I thought, one more thing to worry about. No agent, no producer and now property theft to worry about. 'Forget agents,' said longtime friend and documentary producer, Adrian. 'Make your own movie. The Brother's McMullen cost $35 grand to make and grossed millions and made a hot A-list director out of Ed Burns.' Pretty tough task to ask a newcomer like me, I thought, a 58-year old former commercial fisherman with negligible savings. Maybe I could take some solace from the words of quirky starlet Naomi Watts, who auditioned for many parts and encountered hundreds of people who failed to follow through with real or imagined opportunities: 'There were a lot of promises, but nothing actually came off. I ran out of money and became quite lonely.' Later Watts would star in The Ring and Mulholland Drive. Two dark pictures perhaps indicative of the industry here.

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Columns on STR: 136

Award winning artist, photographer and freelance journalist, Douglas Herman enjoys exploring the occasional ghost town or spooky conspiracy and can be found wandering the back roads of America. Recently Doug finished writing, directing and producing an independent feature film, naturally a "road movie," and credits STR for giving him the impetus to write well, both provocatively and entertainingly. A longtime gypsy, Doug completed a 10,000 mile circumnavigation of North America, by bicycle, at the age of 35, and still wanders between Bullhead City, Arizona and Kodiak, Alaska with forays frequently into the so-called civilized world of Greater LA.