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The Anti-Oscar

For Every Screenwriter Who Wins an Oscar, Thousands of Impoverished Scribes Are Working Feverishly, Lost in the Realm of Mystical Potentiality

March 23, 2003|Martin Booe | Martin Booe is a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Tonight some lucky and surely deserving scribe will mount the stage to accept the Oscar for best original screenplay. In some far-off parallel universe, I'm sure I've been awarded something similar.

It's like this: Just as there is matter and antimatter, for every Oscar I'm sure there is an anti-Oscar. That's what I won. It was for having my name attached to perhaps the worst movie ever made, although you wouldn't know this because the only people who ever saw it were four to six Egyptians at the Cairo International Film Festival.

But, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, I can see that I'm starting wrong. So let me try again: Here is a cautionary tale for anyone flirting with screenwriting, anyone tempted to enter that realm of Mystical Potentiality--that place where the present is put on hold and the future recedes ever farther into the distance, transformed into a pinhole through which is glimpsed a life of riches, glory and deliverance from the toil of daily life.

I didn't move to Los Angeles to get into the movie business, but rather to further my journalism career. In November 1989, I lost my job when the Los Angeles Herald Examiner folded. I started working as a freelance writer, and made less money than a third-tier word processor. As it happened, in 1990 I wrote a story for this magazine called "Taxi Dancers." It documented the shadowy world of taxi dance clubs in downtown Los Angeles, where lonely men at that time paid 35 cents a minute to dance or keep company with younger, mostly troubled women.

After the story appeared, I got a call from a woman I'll call Monica who had teamed up with a man I'll call David who had one credit along the lines of deputy associate assistant producer on a withering third sequel to a lame comedy. They loved my article and thought it had movie potential. Could we set up lunch? And by the way, did I have an agent?

I got one the next day. He was married to a friend of my girlfriend. He was acquainted with the "producer" in question and suggested we have a story meeting. It went like this:

David: I'm thinking this could be the next "Dirty Dancing."

Me: Have you been to one of these clubs? It's not about dancing. It's about loneliness and desperation. It is a dance, but it's a dance of deception.

David: Who's our main character?

Me: Let's call her Nicole. She is in a tight spot, having to taxi dance to pay the rent day by day at a welfare hotel. The big question for her, is there a way out or does she succumb to prostitution?

Monica: Why do we like this character? What's her character arc?

Me: We don't like her! We pity her. Her soul is on the auction block. She represents the compromises we all make in life.

Monica: (Offended) Nobody's soul is on the block in this movie. Now why do we like this character?

David: What if she's a medical student paying her way through school?

Me: She's not a medical student! She's a fallen woman.

David: I can see her leaving home for the big city. She's driving a yellow Volkswagen. A convertible.

Historians spend careers looking for defining moments, those turning points when opportunity and choice come together to change everything. Looking back, I realize that my conversation with David and Monica was just such a point for me. By the time we finished, my concerns about their misunderstanding of my story had drifted away. What difference did it make, as long as I was writing a movie? I no longer saw myself as a low-paid journalist. I had entered the realm of Mystical Potentiality, where I joined thousands of other Angelenos projecting themselves into that iridescent future when they sell their screenplays for three-quarters of a million dollars and retire to the country.

To be a producer, you need lots of money, or access to it. To be a director, you need a producer. To be an actor, you need a part and lots of time for auditions. To be a screenwriter, all you need is a computer, a copy of Syd Field's book on screenwriting and maybe some software. This gives screenwriting the illusion of relative accessibility. Take a seminar from screenwriting guru John Truby, learn those 22 Building Blocks! One brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, and the world is yours!

A few days after my story meeting with David and Monica, I got a call from the development assistant for a well-known television actress, married to a TV producer. I referred them to my agent, who set up a meeting, with the caveat that David and Monica come along since they were already nominally attached to the "project."

"We'll go to their house, sip Campari and soda, and see where it goes," the caller said. He seemed to have a thing about Campari.

Where it went was nowhere. The meeting went south when the actress asked if there was a part for her in our story.

"To be honest, we were thinking of someone younger," Monica said firmly. Meeting over. Campari denied.

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