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12/08/2001 - The One That Got Away
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Soon after script reading became a full-time occupation I became familiar with an experience that befalls every reader or development executive sooner or later. This phenomenon could be loosely called Being Very Wrong. It involves the voluntary act of passing on a project that goes on to be optioned by another company, or worse yet optioned and produced with a high-caliber cast.

By the time I first experienced Being Very Wrong, I had already experienced Having Your Opinion Ignored. This is a different phenomenon, one that happens so frequently that it can't honestly be qualified a phenomenon, but is annoying all the same. Having Your Opinion Ignored happens when you recommend a project only to see it passed on anyway.

As maddening as it can be to Have Your Opinion Ignored, the experience at least leaves you with a romantic sense of martyrdom because your enthusiasm is rarely challenged. The script heads back to the mailroom as you shrug your shoulders and wonder what the effort is for when good writing is boxed indifferently like the Lost Ark of the Covenant, sent to the warehouse with all the other crap. "If only they'd listened to me", you sigh. Once the script leaves, you don't know what happens to it at other production companies because it isn't news when a script gets passed on. Even if it was news you could always argue that no one shares your unique eye for material. Don't we always hear about the mine of fantastic screenplays that go tragically unproduced?

Being Very Wrong is different. Being Very Wrong means that your opinion wasn't ignored, it was listened to carefully. You were believed, trusted, and now some other company out there has bet mid-to-high six figures that you're an idiot. There's nothing like shaking open Variety to see that little article announcing the option of the script you wrote snitty coverage on two weeks ago.

The first time this happened to me was several years ago when I passed on a screenplay for "The House of Mirth". Shamefully I had never read the Edith Wharton novel and the adaptation I read failed to deliver, or so I thought. When I learned that the project was picked up by another company (albeit a different adaptation) I was naively shocked. I thought I had failed to do my job. If someone else had seen a project's potential, shouldn't I have seen it too?

The next project that got away was "I Am Sam", which opens this month in a theater near you. I really didn't go for the story and was perplexed by its eventual sale. Now I don't know what I think. I suppose I'll have to see the movie to find out. I have the sneaking suspicion that it'll be great and I'll be left with this awful, nagging self-doubt.

These experiences have made a definite impact. Now I read screenplays for both the writer's skill and the essential plot and if I'm unsure, I say so. A while back I handed the Development Czar a screenplay that I didn't much care for. The script had already been purchased, but we were checking it out as a writing sample. Along with my lukewarm coverage I included a printout of the Hollywood Lit Sales' record of the recent option. I pointed out to the Czar that although I didn't like the script, somebody else did, so she might want to linger on it to make sure that I wasn't missing the potential.

"Why?" she asked, "Because somebody bought it? That means nothing." I appreciated her words, for if they're not true how do we explain movies like "Spice World" or "Battlefield Earth"? Even so, the desire to have taste that is simultaneously unique and universal is something many of us can't help. Hollywood is driven by the fear that someone is going to get rich with a project you missed. This lurking fear may partially explain why a hit about, say, Pygmy warriors can engender a decade of lesser Pygmy warrior films. Do we really need to copy movies year after year until the concepts are exhausted? Or worse yet, sometimes one producer's interest in a project inspires another producer to swoop in and steal the rights away. What are they so afraid of? That the ideas are going to run out?

Let these experiences be the beginning of insight into the chaos of development. As with other areas of life, decisions made in fear rarely turn out to be sound. Just because a project's been rejected doesn't mean it's bad, and just because a movie's been greenlit doesn't mean it's going to work.

Being Very Wrong for me has turned slowly into Being Different, Being Unsure, or Just Not Getting It. It's got to be all right to miss a few. I think the Czar is right. She's the voice of sanity in the fearful zoo of those who stifle their natural reactions in the pursuit of conformity. Do it long enough and you'll be so concerned with the opinions of others that your own no longer even bother to surface.

That would Be Very Wrong.


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