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Hollywood Ambulance Chasers Go for Gold

September 08, 1986|ERIC ALTER | Eric Alter is a writer in Los Angeles.

Hollywood moves quickly. In Orange County a teen-age girl turned in her parents for drug possession, and within a week the family received more than 100 offers for film rights to their story. When an adulterous Midwestern minister murdered his wife his small town was besieged by producers eager to snap up the story.

Hollywood writers camp out at newsstands in order to be the first to get the papers or the weekly news magazines. Armed with a pair of scissors and a pocketful of dimes, they can put together a TV movie deal before the newsprint dries. They are so aggressive that they even outrace litigation attorneys in pursuit of ambulances and paddy wagons. When major criminals are released, instead of being surrounded by reporters they are surrounded by producers waving deal memos.

The other day while I was driving on a quiet Hollywood street a police car pulled me over. I was wanted for overdue parking tickets. I was handcuffed and put into a squad car while the police read me my rights.

"You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an agent with solid studio connections. You have the right to a Movie of the Week or a mini-series from your crime," the policeman said. "You have the right to $25,000 for the option and bonus money when it goes into production."

Incarcerated in a holding cell in the Los Angeles courthouse, I found myself surrounded by dangerous-looking men.

"What're you in here for?" I asked one of them shakily.

"Sex offense," the man sneered. "Soon to be a Movie of the Week. Farrah Fawcett and Mark Harmon are set to star."

"That's nothing. I'm in for racketeering," a tougher man said. "It's a mini-series with Richard Chamberlain and Joan Collins."

"You guys are wimps," a terrifying man said. "I'm a serial killer. Feature film with Al Pacino and Kathleen Turner." He turned to me and sneered, "What are you in for?"

I cleared my throat. "Parking tickets. Maybe a 30-second public-service announcement with Cal Worthington." This put me so far at the bottom of the jailhouse pecking order that I was very happy when my attorney bailed me out.

"What's the deal? Drug bust, major scandal or violent crime?" he asked breathlessly. "I'm going into independent production."

"Parking tickets."

"What??? I left dinner at Mortons with Brandon for parking tickets?" he screamed. "I can't go into indy prod with that!"

He was right. I needed something big. When I got out I went over to see my friend, Steve, a scriptwriter. "I've got a great idea for a Movie of the Week," I said. "A writer murders another writer in order to sell the movie rights."

"Good idea," he said. "But how do we give it the kind of spin that the networks will notice and buy?"

"It has to be a true story so that people will fight for the rights."

"A true story?" he asked suspiciously.

"One of us has to murder the other," I said. "We flip a coin to decide who dies."

He stared at me, incredulous. "One of us has to die in order to get a movie deal? Who gets the screen credit and the paperback deal?"

I explained to him that we would split the credit 50/50. The money from the paperback sale would go to the estate of the deceased. Since it was the hottest idea that we had, we flipped a coin. Steve lost.

He sat stoically in his Mercedes as I pushed it over a steep cliff at Pacific Palisades. His last words were: "Don't let them turn it into a comedy! Get Hal Holbrook to play my role."

I watched as the car crashed in flames into the Pacific. Then I called the police and turned myself in. The same tough crowd was waiting in the jail cell. "Murder one," I bragged, swaggering in. "Prime-time Movie of the Week for sure. Hal Holbrook and Robert Redford."

I was allowed one phone call from jail. Scratched into the wall above the phone were the numbers of the William Morris Agency and International Creative Management. I dialed my agent. "David! Break out the champagne," I shouted. "I've got a real-life Movie of the Week for you."

"Thumbnail it to me in one sentence," he said.

"A scriptwriter murders his partner in order to get a movie deal. I own all the rights."

There was a pause on the other end of the line. "I can't sell it, babe," he said. "I've got three others just like it sitting on my desk, and ABC is already shooting "Rewrite to Death." It's the true story of an Emmy-award winner who shot his producer and is doing life in San Quentin."

I hung up the phone, despondent.

"What's the matter," the serial murderer asked. "Did they turn down your appeal?"

"Worse," I said. "My movie's in turnaround."

"Bad luck. What do executives know about what people want to see? We should have our own production company so that we're not dependent on them," the killer said.

"Great idea. Since we have a monopoly on the stories, we can package the movie from inside prison," I chortled. "We've got the market all locked up."

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