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04/13/2002 - This Means War

Say you're buying a car. That is, you're at the showroom, you've researched the car for months and now you're in that interminable farce of negotiations, waiting for the godless salesman to return with yet another unthinkable tactic.

Now imagine that you're not alone - there are at least three other people sitting there with you. And they're all trying to buy the same car - not just the same kind of car, but the exact same car that you want. Not only that, but none of you even laid eyes on it until the night before. You all got to look at it, drive it briefly and think about it overnight and now the salesman is pitting you against one another, trying excite a huge amount of cash for this one car.

Now put everybody on the phone, turn the car into a script, the salesman into a literary agent and the customers into production companies/studios and you have a spec bidding war. More often than not, the astronomical sums you see paid out to (often first-time) writers are the result of this kind of induced frenzy.

It's dangerous and costly, but an exhilarating game. Since our company participated successfully in such a bidding war this week, I thought this column might well focus on the spec sale experience. It's a unique event, which starts (as do so many Hollywood experiences) with a phone call.

The phone rings and it's one or two agents announcing that they want to speak to the Development Czar about a spec script. This call typically happens after lunch, or so it seems to me. The agents don't want a lot of chatter during the lunch meetings / lunchtime cell phone bonanza, I suppose. They describe a spec that they are "going out with tonight", which means we (and several other companies) are getting it overnight. The script is high concept, genre, with a slam-dunk one-line. Whoever makes the best offer first gets it. In other words, someone's going to buy this and don't you want to be that someone?

So the script arrives and everybody has to assess it in less than twenty-four hours. Set the VCR and grab a protein bar because you're reading tonight, girlie. Often entire screenplays must be faxed to someone out of town who can't wait for FedEx to arrive the next morning by 11am. By then it'll all be over.

Everyone reads it overnight and huddles the next morning. Is it good? Should we do it? The agents field a hailstorm of calls, wheeling and dealing while the writer freaks out over the sudden spotlight shining on them after years of quiet desperation and Top Ramen.

In a spec bidding war, most of the involved companies truly want the screenplay (as opposed to just wanting to capture the flag) and the bids can be comparable, with different elements thrown in to sweeten the pot. One company may have a better track record with the genre in question, while another may have a housekeeping deal with a desirable director/producer. Another studio may have an actor with a producing deal who is perfect for the lead role.

Soon one company makes that magic bid and the agents pound the gavel. They can't wait too long lest buyers start dropping out, decreasing the leverage. The last thing the agents want is for the buzz to fade, because auctions succeed due to pressure. Snap decisions yield to the positive side, for nothing is so motivating as the fear of regret.

The agents do quite a job in these situations. It's where they show their stuff, serving their clients impressively, playing a three-dimensional chess game as the studios/production companies play rough and deadline their offers or try to go around the agent's back. Say what you want about agents, but the combat they do on the phone in these situations is not for the thin of skin. In a scenario like this a writer wants a snarling agent standing between him and a business affairs exec.

Finally, whether the project eventually triumphs or bombs at the box office, the experience puts a writer and his screenplay, at least for a short while, in the center ring of the development circus. If for that reason alone, the practice is worth the price.


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