True Hollywood Story: The Integrity Card

Radiohead has a new record out, In Rainbows. It’s wonderful.

Radiohead has chosen a unique distribution plan for In Rainbows: you can go to their website and download it, for whatever price you feel it’s worth.

This is alarming, and Radiohead know it is. When you place your order at their website, a question mark appears next to an empty price box. When you click on the question mark, the screen says “IT’S UP TO YOU.” And then there’s another question mark. When you click on that question mark, the screen says “NO REALLY, IT’S UP TO YOU.” It is a weird, thrilling experience to download an album for whatever price you feel like paying.

I came across a column on a music industry site where the columnist praised Radiohead for their business acumen: the pricing plan for In Rainbows, says the columnist, may result in a profit shortfall, but the resulting credibility for the band will be immeasurable and lead to much greater wealth. Ah, yes, I said, good plan: credibility will allow you to sell more records. It would, of course, never occur to a music-industry professional that a band might actually desire credibility for its own sake, or might wish to simply reach a broader audience by giving away its music for free — “credibility” can only be part of a devious scheme to hoodwink the people and make more money.

Which reminded me of this story:

It is December 1997. I am in an enviable position for a screenwriter: I have co-written a big-budget spectacle, but it hasn’t been released yet. I am living in the best of possible screenwriting worlds: everyone knows I’m hot, but no one can quantify what exactly I’ve done. For Hollywood, my hot, mysterious writing crackles and shimmers with infinite possibility.

My representation calls me one Friday evening, at my home in NYC, with a proposal:

A Big Important Producer has a project, which I will call Heist Movie. Big Star attached, heading into production. They have a script but it needs work. They would like to pay me Substantial Sum of Money to tweak Heist Movie. Not too much work, four weeks tops, in and out, neat and clean.

I say to my representation: but I don’t need a job. I have a job, I’ve committed to the job I’m already doing, I can’t very well stall on the job I already have in order to work on Heist Movie, even if it’s only for four weeks.

Still, it is Substantial Sum of Money.

I say let me read the script. It is at my door within moments. I read it. I say to my representation, what exactly does Big Important Producer (BIP) want me to do with this script? My representation is very clear: BIP wants better heists. The heists in the script are good but not great; BIP wants them to be great. And he wants me in his office on Monday afternoon to tell him my ideas for the great heists.  They’re looking to make Heist Movie a gigantic, shiny, spectacular smash.

Monday is three days away. The clock is ticking. And, as I say, I have been offered Substantial Sum of Money.

I set aside the job I’m working on. I go to the video store. I rent a stack of heist movies. I study the heists. I spend the whole weekend examining heists, thinking of new spins on old ideas, cunning innovations, wild turns of events, spectacular derrings-do.

Monday I fly to LA, brimming with ideas for cool heists. I’ve got one wonderful idea that’s fully fleshed-out, but in case they don’t like it I’ve got several back-up ideas that I can probably make sound fleshed-out in the room.

I am being lodged at Pretentious A-List Hotel, for I am a Wonderful New Screenwriter.

I drive to BIP’s office, a charming bungalow on a studio lot. BIP is there with at least two cohorts. Also there is Excellent Young Director (EYD), who has a hit in theaters at the moment and has just directed an episode of Prestigious Detective Drama. There is the usual small-talk, and then the fangs come out. “So, Todd,” says BIP, “What do you have for us?”

I rattle off my ideas. I’m charming and funny. I detail just how intricate, humorous, spectacular and thematically relevant my heists are, how they will fit into their script and place it into the pantheon of Great Heist Movies.

BIP is pleased. He turns to EYD and says “What do you think?”

EYD says “What is all this Mission: Impossible shit? I don’t care about any of that. I want to know about the characters. How are you going to fix the characters?”

At that moment, I should have said “Gosh. I’m sorry. You and BIP obviously need to have a conversation about what movie you’re making, and I shouldn’t be in the room for that conversation. I’ll leave now, you can reach me at Pretentious A-List Hotel.” But I don’t. What I say is “Okay, let’s do that. Let’s talk about the characters.” Luckily, I have been thinking about the characters, and I can talk a pretty good game when it comes to discussing narrative. But in the back of my mind I’m thinking “BIP has a completely different movie in mind from EYD’s. This project is doomed.”

My chat about characters pleases EYD and we have lunch on another day where we talk the movie out.

Here’s the problem: I don’t have time to do what EYD wants done with the script. I signed on to do four weeks’ work, not a page-one rewrite with an open-ended commitment. That was not the deal.

Now then: there is another wrinkle. I learn, right about now, that I am not BIP’s first choice for this rewrite job. BIP wants Great Screenwriter (GS) for the gig, but GS is not available for another six weeks, as he is writing Adaptation of Great Children’s Novel. Now, I am told, I am to write a screenplay for the heist movie that is merely a rough draft for GS to come in and perfect later.

What? I say. How is that supposed to work? Have you even spoken to GS about this plan? How does he (GS is a he) feel about that? What makes you think that, on top of coming up with great heists and re-vamping the characters, I’m going to be able to somehow magically create a script that GS is going to be able to perfect? What exactly is going on with this project?

I have a long phone conversation with GS. GS is a swell guy — really helpful, totally understanding, a genuine pro, full of great advice and tips. His vision for Heist Movie is small, dark, gritty, personal and very realistic — the total opposite of everything I’ve discussed with BIP and EYD.

This is now a nightmare. I make several frantic calls to my representation — who are these people, why are they doing this, what should I do, why am I doing this, why did you get me involved in this insane project where the producer, director and first-choice screenwriter all have completely, utterly, not-even-overlapping different ideas of what the movie is? My representation tell me to hang in there, everything will be taken care of, it’s a great project, it will help my career, and it is, after all, a Substantial Sum of Money.

Somehow this all gets ironed out. They still want to move forward with the project, they still want me to do the rewrite, they’re still positive that this will be a wonderful movie that will make a lot of money.

A meeting is scheduled. I am to go to Big Studio, with BIP, EYD and cohorts to lay out the whole plan to the Studio Executive (SE), the Guy Who Can Say Yes. This meeting is to occur at 10:00am.

At 9:00am I am in my room at Pretentious A-List Hotel, getting ready for the big meeting. My representation calls me at Pretentious A-List Hotel. Excellent news, they report. The Business Affairs office of Big Studio has settled my contract and they are prepared to offer me Insubstantial Sum of Money.

What? I gasp. What do you mean, Insubstantial Sum of Money? What the hell are you talking about? The only reason I took this gig to begin with was that they were offering me Substantial Sum of Money, why should I be happy to get Insubstantial Sum of Money? The Big Meeting is scheduled to happen in less than an hour, and I’m going crazy now. Why would they do this? Why would they put me through all this crap, offer me Substantial Sum of Money, drag me through this confusing maze of personalities, change every particular of the deal, and then offer me Insubstantial Sum of Money? “Well,” my representation says, “that’s how they do it. It’s called Getting the Writer Pregnant. They get you all excited about their project, then they lowball you on the contract. It’s nothing personal, they do it to everyone.” Yes, I say, but you don’t understand: I don’t need this job. I didn’t ask for this job, this job is getting worse every day, the time commitment expands every day, I’m neglecting the other job I already have, there’s no reason for me to do this job. I say, forget it, I’m not doing it, call a car service, get me to the airport, tell them whatever you need to tell them, I’m going home, I don’t mind being a whore but I’m not going to be a cheap whore.

I hang up.

A few minutes later, my representation calls back. Business affairs, they say, has come back with an offer of Insubstantial Sum of Money Plus. I go ballistic. What the hell are you talking about?! I told you, I’m not doing the project! It’s a nightmare! No one knows what the hell is going on with it and I DON’T NEED THE JOB!

I hang up.

A few minutes later, my representation calls back. Business Affairs, they say, has come back with an offer of Substantial Sum of Money — that is, the original agreed-upon fee. I say, it’s too late. They blew it. I have no faith in this project any more. Please call me car service to take me to the airport, I’m going home.

I hang up.

A few minutes later, my representation calls back. Business Affairs, they say, has come back with an offer of Substantial Sum of Money…Plus.

Well. All right then. So it turns out they were prepared to pay me after all, they just wanted to insult me as much as possible first to see if I’d take it. All right then. I say okay, that’s a horse of a different color, where do I sign?

I still have time to make the Big Meeting. My representation congratulate me on my fierce bargaining skills. “Let me tell you,” my agent says, “It’s not a choice I would have made, but I really admire the way you played the integrity card.”

Ah yes. There it is: The Integrity Card. Don’t leave home without it. Integrity being not something one possesses, but merely a useful and canny bargaining strategy. If one holds The Integrity Card, those money bastards will lay down at one’s feet like puppies. Works every time. Shrewd move, Alcott, playing that Integrity Card.

Oh, and PS:

For reasons completely beyond my control and having nothing to do with any of the above, the project falls apart, I never do any work on it, GS never does any work on it (that I know of), the movie never gets made, and I never get any sum of money, Substantial or otherwise. BIP remains a Big Important Producer with many excellent, hit movies to his name, GS remains a Great Screenwriter and is now a Director of Note as well (and, in fact, has written a heist movie of his own which can accurately be described as small, dark, gritty, personal and very realistic), EYD went on to much success in both movies and television.

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14 Responses to “True Hollywood Story: The Integrity Card”
  1. Well, your rehash on your integrity experience was certainly entertaining, if nothing else.

    On Radiohead’s marketing scheme… my husband bought the album and he said he paid 1 pound for it. They’re such a big band anyway, he said, he didn’t mind not giving them money for it, but he reasons a smaller, indie band would be more in need of the money, and he would pay them full price for an album. I’m not sure Radiohead’s scheme is going to work, integrity or not. Once you’re so big, people only want to use your popularity against you.

  2. kusoyaro says:

    It’s fun trying to figure out who all these players actually are, using whatever hints there are within the story.

  3. greyaenigma says:

    My first thought: “what this heist needs is more ants!”

    These weren’t the same producers that gave us the movie version of Mission Impossible, were they? Because what I loved about the series was all that intricate stuff. Tom Cruise on a motorcycle blowing stuff up isn’t Mission Impossible to me.

    • Todd says:

      These weren’t the same producers that gave us the movie version of Mission Impossible, were they?

      No, although BIP has many excellent action movies on his extensive and impressive resume.

  4. moroccomole says:

    As the old saying goes, “The key to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

    And I think I know who GS is.

  5. rennameeks says:

    I know you love it when having some sort of personal pride and self-respect is played off as an “angle.”

  6. greyaenigma says:

    I’m also reminded of this article, in which the article seems to sayr that LA is the greatest city ever because no one cases about anything.

  7. smithereen says:

    The Integrity Card is always easier to play when you don’t need the job. *G*

  8. noskilz says:

    I hope the Radiohead’s experiment succeeds. Even if they get stiffed on a certain percentage of sales, I wonder how much they’re coming out ahead on publicity, distribution, and the like. If this approach becomes successful, it will stop being newsworthy, but since some music publishers seem to screw over their bands and customers with equal zeal, it would be nice to see a few middlemen cut out of the picture.

    It’s a little strange the way some treat integrity and credibility as if they’re qualities can be picked up and set aside as needed, as they’re both very easy to lose and very hard to recover.

    • Todd says:

      It’s my impression that bands rarely, if ever, make money on record sales, that the music industry has figured out a way to take all the profits. A band, generally, must rely on touring revenue in order to keep afloat. Even massively successful bands would never receive more than a dollar of the $18.99 list price of a CD sold.

      With that in mind, if everyone who orders In Rainbows pays something, if the average payment for the album comes to more than, say, a dollar, chances are Radiohead will end up making substantially more money with their “giveaway” plan than they would going through a record company, and in any case can only help their touring revenue.

  9. teamwak says:

    Its proper Swimming With Sharks, isnt it?

    Great story (although not from your perspective). That, and the other story you told about the meeting where they just humoured your pitch, just shows what a hard business show business is.

  10. eronanke says:

    Entourage and You have really shown me the business/ridiculousness of Hollywood. Why would a BIP hook up with EYD if he knew EYD didn’t want to make the same movie? That’s like Michael Bay producing for Woody Allen or something. I’m sure it happens all the time, but there MUST be directors who WANT to make big-budget blockbusters, and are good at it. Why bother with an EYD who is not suited for the project? This is just as bad as miscasting, (ike Ms. Paltrow in *anything*).

    • Todd says:

      To his credit, BIP is not a one-kind-of-movie producer. He’s produced big-budget action spectacles, prestigious art-house fare and character-driven drama. He knows story and and he knows script and he knows that real artists can bring fresh perspective to genre material. It worked for Doug Liman and the Bourne movies — I can totally see why he was interested in EYD, what I don’t understand is why they didn’t talk about any of this before they hired a writer.

  11. A Radiohead man? Great to hear – I love The Bends and especially OK Computer. They are from Abingdon and my second wife knew many of them from school. I have met the drummer Phil Selway a couple of times and he is a very level headed and genuinely decent guy. And his drumming is great too!

    His wife, a sweetheart from university days, told me that he just does it every day, for hours on end… How to keep the commitment and the passion up for years? That is the question! For me as a dreaming writer, not only do I need to take first steps, but clock up the years as well. You are a good model for that! Kudos and keep smiling!