The Business of Screenwriting: Anatomy of a Deal (Part 1)

I’ve sold several pitches in Hollywood. This was the first.

It’s 1987. Siegel and Myers are meeting with Rodney Dangerfield’s ‘people’. This sentence may surprise you for two reasons. First, actors in Hollywood have… ‘people’? Yes, it’s true. In fact, back in the good old days when lots of actors had vanity producing deals with studios, there were many of these ‘people’ running around, meeting with writers to discuss possible projects for the actors for whom they worked.

The second thing that may cause you to scratch your head: Rodney Dangerfield? He was that big, a substantial enough name to have his own ‘people’? A few reminders. First, the 1980 golf comedy Caddyshack:

Caddyshack did $40M at the box office, a strong total back then, and the movie has persisted as a cult hit for years, still popular with college students who have Caddyshack drinking games.

Dangerfield was a co-star in Caddyshack, but his turn as the outrageous loudmouth Al Czervik led to a big starring role in the 1986 hit Back to School:

The movie did $91M. In other words, Back to School was a huge hit. That made Rodney Dangerfield a movie star. That meant Dangerfield had his ‘people’. And that’s who we were meeting with in 1987.

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Dangerfield rode his “no respect” schtick all way to the cover of Rolling Stone.

This fellow, a former studio exec turned producer, is in a great mood. Everybody is pitching him potential Dangerfield projects. In fact, that’s why we are there, a meet-and-greet to suss out what type of stories they are looking for. It’s great to be hot in Hollywood and Rodney is hot.

So we talk, we listen, we schmooze. And as we are sitting there in the meeting, my mind goes to this:

Dangerfield doing stand-up based on his classic line: “I don’t get no respect.” I have been a lifelong student of comedy and spent the two years previous to selling K-9 making a living doing stand-up in clubs all over California. Thus, when we walk out of the office, I turn to my writing partner:

Me: What’s Dangerfield’s big schtick?
Him: I don’t get no respect.
Me: So what job could he have where he’d get total respect?
[beat]
Me: President of the United States.

Certain we have a winner, we drive straight to our agents’ office, burst in and say these words: “Rodney Dangerfield… Mr. President.”

They love it.

What if a guy known as a man who gets no respect becomes President, the most respected person in the world?

Off we go to work up a pitch: “Mr. President”. A pitch we eventually sell. To a major studio. In our first and only pitch meeting for the project.

Next week: More on “Mr. President” in Anatomy of a Deal, Part 2.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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