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Todd Longwell reports on unsolicited screenplays and the new screenplay consulting services.

ILLUSTRATION: MIGUEL VILLALOBOS

Oscar-winning producer/director Tony Bill (The Sting, Five Corners) is fond of saying that if you’ve got a great script, you can throw it out of your car on the Hollywood Freeway and it will find its way into good hands. But there’s a new crop of script consultants with names like Storybay, Scriptshark, ScriptP.I.M.P. and Studionotes that claim what you really need to do is pay them a few hundred dollars and sign over 5 to 10 percent of your potential profits, and if they think your script is worthy, they’ll pitch it to the Hollywood big shots who regularly peruse their Web sites. If you’re an aspiring writer with no connections, you might think this is a pretty good deal. After all, if they’re able to break you into the big leagues, a few hundred bucks up-front and a piece of the profits is a small price to pay.

“They think, ‘I’ve only got one chance on this script, I’ll try anything,’” says Grace Reiner, senior director of negotiations and policy planning for the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW). “It’s sort of like playing the lottery in that, very often, the people who can least afford it are the ones putting in the most money. [These companies] prey on people’s fantasies.”

“I think the fact that they call themselves ‘pimps’ and ‘sharks’ sort of speaks for itself,” says Natalie Chaidez, a writer/producer whose credits include such TV shows as New York Undercover and Judging Amy. “On the other hand, for someone in Des Moines, it may be their only option.”

Jim Harrison is not from Des Moines or anywhere else in Iowa. A 42-year-old divorced father of two living in Oregon, he had briefly flirted with a screenwriting career in his early 20s. But back then he lived in California, where it was easy to make the acquaintance of the proverbial somebody-who-knows-somebody. When it came time to sell his new script A Street in Rome, he was forced to go the query-letter route, pitching various agencies and production companies via mail. He got a response back from Paradigm, a respectable mid-level Hollywood agency that handles stars such as Randy Quaid, Billy Baldwin and Tyra Banks. The letter stated that Paradigm does not accept unsolicited submissions, but there are other options available, one being Storybay... Web site and phone number follow.

In truth, although the missive was printed on Paradigm letterhead, it was actually sent by Storybay. The mailing was the result of a unique deal Storybay cut with approximately 70 agencies and production companies last year. They agreed to turn over all the queries they receive and, in return, Storybay would sift through the dreck and notify them of the few scripts they felt were worthy of consideration. The first and foremost test of worthiness is the willingness of the writer to pay $150 for coverage of their script, or $200 for coverage and a few pages of notes, in hopes that Storybay will like their script and recommend it to their industry clients, who will in turn generate a seven-figure sale.

“I would be upset if I was a writer sending my query to a specific company and that company turned my query over to them,” says Frederick Levy, vice president of development at Marty Katz Productions (Reindeer Games, Titanic) and author of Hollywood 101: How To Succeed in Hollywood Without Connections. “It’s one thing if they’re not interested. You can pass, not respond — it’s your prerogative. But to take my letter and give it to somebody else? That just doesn’t seem right.”

It’s also not quite kosher with the WGA.

Most companies that use Storybay (including Paradigm) are signatories of the WGA, which has a “no fees” policy prohibiting them from charging writers to read their material or referring them to companies that do. The queries-for-coverage arrangement would seem to be a clear violation of Guild rules.

“It’s my belief — through Armstrong/ Hirsch, my lawyer — that the law is gray in that area,” says Storybay president and co-founder Bill Papariella. “My understanding is that if we contact only non-WGA writers, we’re okay.”

Reiner responds: “What he’s saying is, ‘We understand that many people would find what we’re doing unethical, but not illegal. So it’s not inappropriate for us to be doing unethical things, where we take advantage of people and take money that we don’t actually deserve.’”

Papariella says they last heard from the WGA in November, 2000. “Since then, we haven’t had any problems, so I’m assuming that we’ve been operating under guidelines that they feel are fair to both parties, even though they still don’t like us.”

“The idea that we think it’s okay is a misunderstanding on their part,” says Reiner. “It’s simply that it’s not under my jurisdiction. I can only exert influence over signatory companies and members. So while they deal with non-members, they’re not in the Guild’s sphere of influence.”

In truth, the WGA has managed to exert some influence. Endeavor, the most prominent agency to sign on for Storybay’s service, pulled out due to the WGA’s concerns. And, according to Storybay, ICM and UTA refused to use them for the same reason. (Storybay didn’t bother to solicit William Morris or CAA.)

But Jim Harrison didn’t know any of this. He had searched the Web archives of the Hollywood trade papers for info on Storybay, and what little he could find made it seem like a reasonable deal. So he sent his script off to Storybay along with the $175 fee. (The initial fee has since dropped to $150.)

“The first reader at Storybay wrote back with glowing remarks,” recalls Harrison of the initial coverage: “If the writer does x, y and z, this could be a fantastic movie.” But in spite of the positive comments, the script received a “pass.” He could still post his logline on the Web site, but the negative rating would likely scare away any potential readers.

Harrison says that when he talked to Storybay creative executive Bobby Schmidt, he got the impression that Paradigm was eagerly awaiting word on his project. Whether this feeling was created by heavy Storybay spin or Harrison’s overflowing optimism is open to debate, but Harrison was excited nonetheless.

“I busted my ass on [a rewrite] for almost a month,” recalls Harrison, who paid a discounted $150 price for a second look. But when he sent the script to Storybay, the reader claimed that he hadn’t changed a thing, apparently ignoring the five pages of notes Harrison had sent detailing how and where he’d implemented 90 percent of the suggested alterations. “They said, ‘You didn’t do what we said.’ Actually, I did. ‘Well, do you want somebody else to read it?’ Yeah, go ahead. The second reader goes through and basically rips me a new orifice.”

“When I got that second comment, I went, ‘Okay, I was just suckered,’” recalls Harrison. Extra scorn was heaped on the script’s erotic content. “He told me if I really wanted to have a hot, passionate scene, I should watch The Thomas Crown Affair. He was going on and on about that and the movie in general. Okay, fine. I just said goodbye to Storybay.”

If Harrison had sold his script through Storybay, he would have owed them 7.5 percent of the gross earnings from the property resulting from negotiations begun within six months of its final appearance on their Web site. Scriptshark and Studionotes have similar clauses that claim 10 percent of the profits, while StoryXchange (a company that allows you to post a logline with no upfront fee) and ScriptP.I.M.P. demand a mere five percent.

“It doesn’t affect me, so it’s up to the writer,” says Storybay-user Boyd Hancock of the Irv Schecter Agency about the cut, echoing the attitude of many industryites.

As hefty as these so-called “success fees” are, they have largely been a moot point. To date, only Scriptshark can claim an actual script sale: Mark L. Smith’s The Devil’s Kiss, which went to Paramount and Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions for “low against mid-six figures.” Apart from this, all they and the other companies have to brag about are a handful of development deals and agency signings.

Some say that, with their sales tactics and commissions, these companies are acting an awful lot like talent agencies. But Papariella says that, with Storybay (which boasts of its “direct presentations to key industry buyers”) it’s simply not true. Their Web site clearly states that they do not act as an agent or a manager, and besides, he says, “We tend to consider ourselves a facilitator of the project.”

The California Talent Agency Act, Labor Code § 1700.4, defines a “talent agency” as “... a person or corporation who engages in the occupation of procuring, offering, promising, or attempting to procure employment or engagements for an artist or artists.” This seems to indicate that, by offering writers’ works for sale, these companies are indeed acting as talent agents. And, in California, talent agents have to abide by pesky regulations, many of which prohibit them from collecting fees from clients.

“Yes, they do have regulations,” says Papariella. “And, yes, there are laws to it that we’ve looked into. We feel like we’re acting outside those regulations.”

Another legal gray area, perhaps?

“The argument is that they’re not ‘officially procuring employment,’” says the WGA’s Reiner. “Look at their Web site. They talk about hooking you up through their ‘Dream Team.’ They may make a direct presentation to key industry buyers. Doesn’t that sound like ‘procuring employment’?”

But, once again, this doesn’t fall under the WGA’s jurisdiction. So whose jurisdiction is it? The Association of Talent Agents (ATA) declined to comment. The California Labor Commissioner’s Office? They’ve been reluctant to deal with the obvious conflicts of interest that arise when personal managers form production companies that hire the very stars they represent. Storybay only has the potential to hurt no-name wannabes, and it helps the powerful manage those pesky queries. True, some industryites don’t like any of these companies, but why should they bother to do anything about it? The agents are still getting their 10 percent and everyone has more than enough material to read. The bulk of it sucks, but, then again, it always has.

But while the Armani-ed masses that buy and sell talent might see this as some other sucker’s problem, a few are beginning to speak out against the tactics of these companies.

“[They] just take advantage of the ignorant and doe-eyed optimists,” says Wade Major, editor for the industry trade magazine Box Office. “Any self-respecting aspiring screenwriter would do well to save their money and not buy into what is essentially the movie business equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme by a bunch of take-the-money-and-run types.”

Some say that writers who don’t like these services don’t have to use them, but if Storybay continues to enlist more and more companies to divert queries, even skeptical aspiring scribes might begin to believe that they have no choice but to use third-party consultants to get their ideas heard by Hollywood.

Ironically, the man who says all a good script needs is a careless toss onto the Hollywood Freeway is a Storybay fan. “I think it’s a very good idea,” says Tony Bill, himself an avid reader of queries, who says that virtually all his projects originally came to him as unsolicited scripts. “If I was an unknown writer sitting out there in the ether, wondering how I could get somebody who’s reputable and professional to read my script, I would definitely send it to Storybay.”

And what about Jim Harrison? Would he use them again?

“Oh, God, no,” declares Harrison, who says his script (pre-Storybay version) was recently named a quarterfinalist in the Nicholls Fellowship screenwriting competition. “I would find any other way into the industry.”

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