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A Telling Style : Preston Ransone took one of his unsold screenplays to a studio, put it on tape and sold it at truck stops. Now he's planning more.

December 26, 1991|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Preston M. Ransone's problem was not unusual. After a decade of struggling to break into Hollywood, he was still living near Oxnard with a dozen unproduced original screenplays in his office files.

But listen to his solution: The 54-year-old screenwriter and playwright took one of his favorite unsold stories and rented a few hours in a Ventura County recording studio. Taking on all 43 speaking parts himself, Ransone told the tale of a secret Army mission to China, called it "The Second Team," and started selling the result as a three-hour "book on tape"--even though it was never a book in the first place.

In September, Ransone placed 1,000 copies of the tape, priced at $15.95, in the entertainment aisles of truck stops nationwide.

Three months later, the writer-entrepreneur says the project has passed the break-even point, with the first edition sold out and a second edition in the works. In January, he'll go back to the studio to transform another unsold screenplay, this one about a family rafting vacation that takes a dramatic turn.

"Most books on tape run about three hours, and you have to really chop them up to make them fit. With a screenplay, you really just enhance the visuals," says Ransone, who estimates that he spent just under $10,000 making and marketing the tape. "This is offering me a way to take the screenplays I've written and make money with them, rather than letting them gather dust."

Long-distance truckers are a natural target audience, he adds, because "those guys crank up some miles, and they have their CDs and their radios and their tapes going."

While the motion picture industry produces about 300 feature films a year, the Writers Guild of America's Los Angeles office annually registers an estimated 25,000 scripts, most of them unsold film properties sent in by writers hoping to protect their ideas.

In search of exposure for all those spurned stories, says Writers Guild spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden, frustrated writers have held open readings, proposed publishing anthologies of unsold scripts, and even floated the idea of an awards program for unpublished material. But a self-produced book on tape, says Rhoden, "is a twist I've never heard of. . . . He's come upon a new idea."

Among other publishing veterans, word of Ransone's gambit brings surprise, followed, in some quarters, by skepticism.

"My hat's off to him," says New York publisher Steven Schragis, owner of the Carol Publishing Group. However, Schragis cautions, Ransone "is not going to get rich doing this," because most book-on-tape listeners lean toward familiar authors.

"I don't know if it will work," says Ed Elrod, co-owner of the Ventura Bookstore in Ventura, where just one copy of "The Second Team" was sold in all of October and November. In a conventional bookstore, Elrod says, a tape like Ransone's "kind of falls in between the cracks, because no one's ever heard of him."

Those familiar with the truck stop business are less surprised by Ransone's success. By the count of the Virginia-based National Assn. of Truck Stop Operators, there are some 2,500 24-hour truck stops nationwide, and another 2,000 roadside operations with more modest facilities. The truckers who stop there spend eight to 10 hours a day on the road, many of them listening to tapes.

"There are millions of dollars spent," says Tommy O'Leary, buyer for Southeastern Tape Distributors, a nationwide firm that stocks truck stops and convenience stores. Big sellers, O'Leary says, include authors Louis L'Amour and Tom Clancy, along with Star Trek stories and Desert Storm-related titles. Super Driver, a monthly magazine on tape for truckers, says it has a circulation of more than 35,000.

For a small-scale producer, says O'Leary, Ransone "has got really nice packaging. I can see where he's sold 1,000. . . . I've got to give the guy credit for what he's done. This is a pretty rare situation."

Ransone served in the U.S. Army and State Department through much of the 1960s, and worked in the wholesale seafood business through much of the 1970s. In 1979, his screenplay "King Crab" won him an invitation to the prestigious National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn.

Soon after, ABC bought the screenplay, which was produced as a two-hour television movie in 1980, and in 1984 Ransone and his family moved from Maryland to a beach-area home in Silver Strand, near Oxnard.

"It's a hell of a pull, to come out here and make it as a Hollywood writer," Ransone sighs.

Since then, Ransone has had a handful of television scripts produced, but as in the case of many screenwriters, his unsold scripts far outnumber those that have gone into production.

The tape venture grew out of a comedy tape Ransone produced in 1987. For that project, Ransone recorded several humorous tales from his time in the military and collected them under the title "War Surplus."

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