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Irreverent Screenwriter Does Hollywood His Way

May 24, 1985|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

These are fast times in the life of stereo-salesman-turned-screenwriter Dale Launer. Two months ago, Launer met with development executives at four major studios to pitch an idea for a movie called "Blind Date," the story of a date that turns into a nightmare. (The tag line: "She's gorgeous, just don't get her drunk.") The proposal was such a hit that a small bidding war ensued. In the end, only one studio, Tri-Star Pictures, was willing to meet Launer's screenwriting price of about $175,000--an outrageous sum for a writer without a produced movie to his credit.

Launer started writing "Blind Date" the day he received his check (Tri-Star paid him about $125,000 up front) and finished in just 3 1/2 weeks. The script received rave reviews from Tri-Star executives, who are expected to give the movie the final go-ahead sometime in the next two weeks.

On the first of May, Launer moved into a newly purchased four-story high-tech condominium in Santa Monica about 1,000 feet from the beach. Later that week, in a meeting about some revisions on the script, Tri-Star Pictures President Jeff Sagansky asked, "So, how's the condo Tri-Star bought?"

Launer's reply: "It needs furniture."

The heat is on for this 33-year-old dropout from Cal State Northridge's film program, ("They didn't have a camera that worked," he explains), and now Launer is playing Hollywood in his own unorthodox way. He has no uncle in the business. He has no manager. He is listed in the phone book and handles his own negotiations.

Most surprising of all, he has no agent--a strategy that practically puts him in a field of one. By breaking rules seemingly etched in stone, Launer has created even more interest in his writing. Says Lynda Obst, creative head of Geffen Film Co.: "Dale is a throwback to the '60s. He's not buying the marketplace sensibilities. The irony is he writes very commercial scripts. He just wants to be commercial on his own terms."

In the past year Launer has been courted by some 30 different agents on the strength of a previous script. They call from ICM, from CAA and from William Morris. He has heard from the smaller "boutique" operations, but each time Launer politely turns them down. "The main function of an agent is to get you work and I've already been offered a lot of work," Launer says. "Another part of an agent's role is negotiation. I like negotiating. I wouldn't want to give that up to somebody else. I wouldn't want someone else to play poker for me."

Thus far the strategy is paying off handsomely. Launer's irreverent writing style--a kind of hip black comedy--has been well received. "He came out of nowhere as anyone can with a great piece of material," says Paramount's Executive Vice President of Production David Kirkpatrick, who was one of the bidders on "Blind Date." "In this town a great script is your calling card."

As is often the case in these kinds of stories, Launer did not succeed overnight. A low budget 16-millimeter movie ($5,000 budget) went bust halfway through production, and two early writing attempts failed before a script called "Ruthless People" caught the creative community's attention. The story of a husband (Sam) who refuses to pay his wife's ransom is now in development at Columbia. In this morbid story, Launer's offbeat style comes through, as the criminals confront the husband who is ironically overjoyed by the kidnaping.

Kidnaper: If you call the police, we'll kill her. If you contact the media, we'll kill her. Do you understand?

Sam: Yes, If I don't do exactly as you say--you will kill my wife.

Kidnaper: That is correct. Her life is now in your hands. . . .

The phone disconnects. Sam hangs up the receiver and stares at the palms of his hands. He smiles.

"Ruthless People" was originally going to be directed by Howard Zieff ("Unfaithfully Yours"), but Zieff is now working on another film. Even though Zieff and Launer had some creative differences on the script, Zieff admires Launer's talent. "He has this bizarre sense of humor; it's kind of black comedy rooted in reality," Zieff says. "He came out of nowhere but his stuff reads and sounds like someone who's been at it for years."

Launer expects to be treated that way as well. David Permut, who is producing "Blind Date," read "Ruthless People" and took Launer to lunch. Permut first wanted Launer to work on a different project for Paramount. "He asked me if I could get him half a million dollars," Permut says. "I started choking on my swordfish."

That blend of tongue-in-cheek arrogance and genuine confidence has landed Launer detractors along with the backers. "Sure, the heat is there but I don't know how good a writer he really is," says one veteran agent. "What are you writing about him for?" asks another. "He's just the flavor of the month."

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