Monday, June 28, 2010

The Emperor gets roughed up

Picking up from the last blog wherein I had two options for Emperor of Mars and neither materialized, my agent had shown the screenplay to Chance Dubbin, who was head of Fox Family Entertainment. Dubbin loved it, wanted to make it, couldn't say enough about it.  Dubbin dressed in black and looked like a Vegas entertainer. He also kept a huge cutout of Elvis in his office as well as some Elvis souvenirs. 

Are you suspicious yet? 

Well, it turned out he was pretty worked up about Emperor and did want to make it. A deal was made, and it went "into development".

There's an old joke in Hollywood about scripts; "this script is brilliant, every word is fabulous. Now who can we get to rewrite it?"

Well, somehow I managed to avoid being rewritten for almost all my career, I think maybe a episodes of TV series and one movie called Maiden Voyage where the development exec called in a close friend to rewrite my story of a cruise ship being robbed. But I have rewritten others, many others, most made, some not.

Well, so far on Emperor, Fox was pretty nice. I got my option fee, usually 10% of the purchase price of the screenplay, the full price is paid on the first day of principal photography. The Guilds insist that the full price is paid or they can threaten to close down the movie although I've never seen that happen.

Then came Ellie Berg.

I had heard about Ellie from a friend of mine who directed a movie for her and Dubbin. Ellie was barbed wire in his side throughout the whole shooting schedule. She hated everything. Even after everyone was pleased, she took my friend aside and said that even though everyone liked it, she didn't.

Most development executives are easy to work with, a lot of them don't know what they're doing, some manage and a few, and I mean a few, are brilliant and can save a screenplay. I worked with a woman who had been let go by most of the studios in town, probably because she drank more than her share and cursed like a trucker.

We met like two cats in a small room circling each other, ready to pounce and I was pretty arrogant about my script her company wanted to make. She didn't give a damn either and then proceeded to give me notes.

I got the notes and couldn't believe it. She was right in tune with the story, an oddball script about Siamese Twins and 1950's gangsters. Arguably one of my weirdest screenplays, inspired by my director friend Paul Lynch.

Her notes were helpful, critical and inspiring. And I've rarely had notes like that before, or since. She knew what she was doing and I became a fan of hers to this very day.

Ellie was not like that.

Ellie liked to start off by saying Emperor was okay but not great. And her notes often mimicked what Dubbin said. His notes were usually pretty easy to handle but she would add obstacles to them.

So it was good cop (Dubbin) and bad cop (Ellie).

I made changes, she didn't like them, I was trying my best to figure out what she really wanted, her mood was almost always confrontational and I did my best to not strike back. Riding down on an elevator with a secretary, she mentioned I was working with Ellie, tow which I responded, "the Anti-Christ"? The employee laughed and nodded her head. So I wasn't the only one who had problems with Ellie.

I did another draft, still not to her liking and finally said I want to talk to Dubbin. I got a meeting and he said it was going well, that Ellie loved the script and Fox had high hopes for Emperor. Ellie came into the meeting and went on about how great everything was going.

I kept looking for that guy who knifes you in the back.

But he never showed.

As it happens in Hollywood, all good things come to an end for me, Ellie and Dubbin as Fox Entertainment went into one of those acquisition deals where everything gets thrown into a laundry dryer and tossed out to be picked through. Ellie and Dubbin were gone.

One of those tossed aside was Emperor as it was a project that Dubbin championed and since he was gone, his favored projects were the first to be sacrificed.

Emperor was dead in the ground again.

Or in "turnaround", a euphemism for a project that was dumped. Turnaround means that a project  is not dead; it's just giving others an opportunity to become involved in it.

Whatever it was, that was the end of Fox Entertainment's participation. Emperor had been optioned now three times and was nowhere near being made. I would get calls every six months or so asking about it,  but no takers.

When a project is dumped, it almost acquires a bad smell. If it didn't get made, it obviously wasn't all that good. At least that was the easiest way to figure out why it hadn't been made. And really, nobody cares about movies that don't get made.

Years later I had lunch with a producer who knew Ellie, he said her luck had ran out and she ended up without a job around 2004, when Survivor aired and single-handedly changed television forever. All of a sudden the TV movie was dead and reality TV reared it's ugly head, cheaper to make and... well, cheaper to make.

Trouble was, my friend said, Ellie had made too many enemies over the short time span of her career and now was finding out that those people you meet on the way up are the same ones you meet on your way down. That's why it's always smart to be nice, you never know who can help you.

I'm not above suggesting chocolates, the real ones.

Nothing much happened to Emperor besides the frequent questions about it and I kept looking for someone else.

After 2 years, someone else did appear. And this time it was a man who had won a gold statuette.

(Thurs: The Emperor Strikes Back)


  1. Is it possible to read the Emperor screenplay? You got me all curious ...

  2. Yes, it's posted now under Materials