Saturday, March 13, 2010

Clifford Meth's Welcome to Hollywood

Clifford Meth recently posted this cautionary tale of his dealings with a semi-major Hollywood producer. For a long while Cliff has been proudly promoting the fact that producer Richard Saperstein had optioned his property, Snaked, and had given the usual promises that the property would be developed further with a view of making a film. And Saperstein isn't some bum off the streets. His credits include movies such as Se7en, Lost In Space, Hancock, The Punisher and The Long Kiss Goodnight - in short his films make money, with the execution of the excruciating Lost In Space, which means he'd generally be listened to when he pitches an idea to a studio. Saperstein's role in Snaked was to option the product, make the pitch to the film studios and then either walk away with a credit and a pile of cash, or remain involved with the movie acting as the main go-to man when it came to raising finances and making decisions, from casting through to catering, protecting the investment of the studio and being somewhat of a mentor to the film-makers themselves, a role that the likes of Steven Speilberg does so well. Saperstein is a player, as they'd say in that brilliant Robert Altman movie.

Sadly Saperstein ended up like most of the snakes that roam the grass in Hollywood, all promises and no real substance. It wasn't like Saperstein wasn't going to deliver on his promises, I expect that he found something a lot more commercial and just moved on. The unfortunate aspect of this was that he moved on without telling Cliff, a major, major mistake as you'll soon discover. What happened to Cliff shouldn't happen, but sadly it does happen on a daily basis, not just in Hollywood but everywhere in the world of writing and publishing (the stories I could, and will one day, tell), but what happened to Saperstein is a perfect example of a bastard getting what was coming to him. I doubt that Snaked will be made into a movie anytime soon, but then I doubt that Saperstein will be connected to it if it ever does get to the big screen

Read on, and, most importantly, learn from this. If someone options your idea, get the money up front and remember, Hollywood is the Palace Of Lies. Believe nothing that you're told. Everyone wants to believe that Hollywood is the end result of all their hard work and that they've created the new blockbuster film that'll earn them millions, but the reality is that for every blockbuster there's another thousand ideas that end up like Snaked has - a great concept that's being screwed into oblivion by an absolute prick.

Be warned.

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Welcome to Hollywood by Clifford Meth

I've been away from this column for so long that an explanation is in order. I'm tempted to say it was something like a summer vacation where, by virtue of missed flights, I didn't come home for years…but the truth is I sank belly-deep into a myriad of projects, most of which were destined to fail. So before we go any further, let's get some closure:

Dave Cockrum's Futurians and I have been attached at the hip for what seems like a lifetime. Besides being a fan of the project, I penned a back-up story that Dave illustrated for Futurians #0 (1995, Aardwolf Publishing) then personally walked the intellectual property into Starz Entertainment (nee IDT Entertainment) a decade later. How excited was I—and how excited was Dave—when they optioned rights and Stephen Brown, executive producer of Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series, asked me to write the treatment and first draft for what they planned as a theatrical release. This came back-to-back with a script-editing assignment working with Peter David on Gene Roddenberry's "Starpoint Academy" as well as script vetting for Stan Lee's POW Entertainment. Seriously fun stuff. And happening fast.

Then came the long fizzle.

The animated "Everyone's Hero," which you've likely never heard of (and good for you), the first and only IDT-E motion picture, was such a piece of offal that it dragged everything else down the crapper with it. Subscribing to the infinite monkey theorem, IDT-E took a bedtime story from IDT founder Howard Jonas and handed it to Rob Kurtz, a mediocre writer at best with several unimpressive episodes of TV's "Will and Grace" on his resume. I remember when Kurtz's script was dropped on my desk and I was asked to give it a read. The next day I turned in detailed notes. Four words, to be precise. "This stinks on ice," I wrote with a red felt pen. Why waste words? Kurtz had polished a turd. With turd. But apparently there was too much invested politically so "Everyone's Zero," as it was prophetically known around the water cooler, was produced and then released to unsuspecting audiences on September 15, 2006 where it enjoyed a paltry run at the box office before disappearing. IDT would have been better off investing its mad money with Bernie Madoff. Game over.

By the time rights for the Futurians reverted, Dave Cockrum was already long gone, having passed away in November, 2006, from complications resulting from diabetes. My sweet friend had gotten a big kick out of seeing Halle Berry play his Storm character and hoped like hell to see the Futurians up on the big screen, too. I took small comfort in knowing he'd enjoyed the option money and knowledge that his characters were alive in the minds of many.

Enter Richard Saperstein.

When we first met, Saperstein, a former president of The Weinstein Company, had already accumulated impressive producer credits on such real films such as "JohnQ" and "Se7en" (starring Brad Pitt) and, for you comics fans, that first ho-hum "Punisher" movie. He told me Bob and Harvey Weinstein referred to IDT-E as the yarmulkes.

One of Saperstein's scouts, a distractingly beautiful blonde (whose name, alas, escapes me), had encountered some of my short fiction and recommended me to her boss. Then Harlan Ellison connected me with crackerjack agent Marty Shapiro. Several sold options later I'd learned a little something about the Hollywood game of sell it and maybe, just maybe, they'll get around to it before rights revert.

Flash forward: Rights reverted. The stories that I'd written were mine again when Saperstein resurfaced to option my series Snaked from IDW Publishing. The clear-eyed, charming, disarmingly frank, unreasonably tall (for a Jew that is), Long Island-raised producer and I were now having regular chats. Consequently, at my suggestion, Saperstein also made overtures to Dave Cockrum's widow Paty Cockrum and eventually delivered a contract that would tie up all entertainment rights to The Futurians. I couldn't wait to see the Blackmane action figure! Further, the deal attached me as first writer and executive producer of the film project. The Futurians, it seemed, would fly again.

But nothing happened. Again.

Was it bad timing? Bad luck? A whispered story I heard from a big kahuna at United Talent Agency was that Saperstein was looking for funds. It was certainly possible; the economy had gone all to hell and I have no idea what my producer friend had in the hopper besides my own Snaked. I clearly recall Steve Niles backing away from one of Saperstein's offers; maybe he knew something I didn't. All I can tell you for certain is the Futurians contract was never consummated, despite an agreed-upon price, lengthy emails back and forth from Saperstein's attorney, and three-way phone conferences with Saperstein, myself and Mrs. Cockrum.

And then Snaked went all to hell, too.

I'm not a member of The Writers Guild of America so, via IDW's young agent and not the aforementioned Mr. Shapiro, I'd been contracted as a non-guilded writer to do the film treatment for Snaked. If the treatment passed muster, the contract said the first draft was mine. There were various payment schedules including a reasonable kill fee, should my treatment be rejected. IDW and I split the option money.

So off I went to write a treatment. One treatment. But I gave them 16 drafts. I'll say it again: Sixteen. Uncle Harlan screamed that I was being taken advantage of as the contract only called for a single pass, but imagine, my friends how it is: you're so hungry to see your baby grow up and become a movie that you bend over backwards until your own chiropractor can't recognize you. Each set of notes generated a page-one rewrite.

"Make it a little more like The Dark Knight" they said when that film was released. "We're looking for something a little more Iron Man-esque," they said when that one was released. Clearly, they didn't know what they wanted, but what they didn't want was my story. A protagonist eating his own baby? What were they thinking?

Yes, 16 drafts before I finally said enough. And then they sat on it. And then they sat on it some more. And then they decided that they wanted to go with another writer. Saperstein broke the news to me over dinner in New York, somewhere between the dessert and the check. Such is life. Frankly, at that point, I was relieved. Just one small matter left:

Pay me.

Weeks went by. Then months. Still no check. I had a kill fee of $5K coming and I wanted it. Calls to Saperstein brought nothing but empty promises and then they didn't even bring that. So, reluctantly—because I'm the last guy to go tell teacher—I phoned my young agent.

"Bad news, Cliff," said the agent. "Richard's not going to pay you."
"We have a contract," I said. "Of course he's going to pay me."
"No he isn't. He's pretty sure you won't sue him. The fee is too small and you'd have to fly to Los Angeles to file for damages. Apparently this is how he does things."
"Tell me this is a bad joke."
"Sorry Cliff," said my agent. "Welcome to Hollywood."

I paused for a moment. Took a deep breath then exhaled. Then I took another one. "Don't go anywhere," I said. "I'll call you right back." Then I exhaled.
Thirty minutes later, we were back on the phone.
"Get a pen," I said.
"I've got a pen," my agent replied. "What is it?"
"Write this down." I proceeded to read him Richard Saperstein's parents' names and home address. I spelled the street slowly so there'd be no mistake.
"What is this?" asked my agent, a nice young man whose heart was palpitating so audibly now that it came through the phone like tom-toms. I'd have worried about him but he's half my age. Guy that young should have a healthy heart.
"That's Richard's parents' address," I repeated.
"Are you out of your mind?"
"Tell Richard his parents didn't raise him right," I said.
"Cliff, you can't do this!" said my agent.
"Welcome to New Jersey," I said.

Two days later, I received a check from The Genre Company, Richard Saperstein's production company. I took the check to the bank. Eureka—it was good.

Charles Manson walks into a room and says, "Is it hot in here or am I crazy?"

And that, my friends, is how I spent my summer vacation.

7 comments:

Michael Netzer said...

Meth on Meth as only Meth can be! And you're the only one carrying the story right now because Comics Bulletin pulled it. Nice work.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand the ending. Did Meth just implicitly threaten the parents of someone he was in a business dispute with in order to get his money?

Daniel Best said...

That's not how I read it and I'd say without a shadow of doubt that Clifford ever had any intention of threatening anyone. What Meth did was to advise his agent that he'd be phoning Saperstein's parents to tell them what their son had done. There was no threat implied at all.

Personally I think it's a valid response. Saperstein acted poorly, perhaps his mother and father should know what kind of business he does. It's an old ploy.

Anonymous said...

Well, "I'll tell your parents what you did and they'll take care of you" seems like a ploy that really stops being effective when the culprit is around 12-years-old, and I'm guessing Saperstein is older.

"Tell him I know where his parents live", coupled with the "Welcome to New Jersey" (post-SOPRANOS, at least), directed at an adult, that seems to have a different connotation. But I don't know Meth, so maybe he meant it the way you took it.

Daniel Best said...

Oh, absolutely Saperstein is older than 12, but the whole, "I've lost interest, so I'm not going to honour our deal and pay you," is the actions of a petulant child. If that's the way Saperstein conducts himself then I'd be very wary about entering into any agreement with him and would advise anyone that, if they are approached by him, to demand full payment up front.

The way things are done in Hollywood, and even New Jersey, are totally different to the way things are done in Elizabeth, where I grew up. In our case someone would have knocked on Saperstein's door and informed him of the way things should be done.

CLIFFORD METH said...

Daniel--
I would caution you about taking comments from anonymous lurkers. Dangerous business.

Daniel Best said...

Cliff, all the comments here are moderated. I see them before they're published, so if it's something I think is out of order then it simply doesn't get posted. I learnt that lesson long ago.