Monday, September 12, 2011

VENICE BEACH, CALIFORNIA: “The Townhouse Bar” (Or, “How Not To Sell Your Screenplay In Hollywood”)

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This is Part 2 Of 2 in my 2-Part series about Venice Beach in Southern California. (Be watching for the next installment in this series, which I will be posting here soon.)

Brother Nappy and I recently paid a visit to our homemegalopolis, Los Angeles. One of the things on my “To Do” list was have a drink at The Townhouse Bar on Venice Beach. If you’ve been paying attention to my blog, then you know that The Townhouse Bar was a principal location in my 1992 screenplay “Billy And Billie”. And if you haven’t been paying attention, then you have missed a whole lotta nuttin’.
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At any rate [a-dollar-a-minute for the first 10 minutes, .50 cents per minute thereafter, or an all-day flat rate of $19.95], The Townhouse Bar was such an important part of my screenplay that I consider it to be almost an actual “character” in the story.


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[I bought Nappy a Sierra Nevada ale. For me? The "CLASSIC MARTINI", of course, 'cause I gots lotsa class!]
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I was fortunate enough and weird enough to grow up not more than a 10-minute bicycle ride from the Venice Beach Boardwalk. To say that I’ve spent a good deal of time there is an understated horse of another color until the cows come home blue in the face. That’s to say that I know the Venice Beach area pretty well and I felt qualified to utilize it in my old screenplay.

“Billy And Billie” is an urban, interracial romance about a drunken and nerdy White man who is a writer-wannabe, and a sassy Black girl who sings Blues and Jazz songs on the Venice Beach Boardwalk for monetary contributions.
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[Inside The Townhouse Bar, looking toward the front door.]
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[A photo of our great, Old School, story-telling bartender, George. Not sure why he's so out-of-focus. Maybe he'd been drinking. Behind George is a chalkboard upon which was written that classic W.C. Fields quote: "Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water."]
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Back when I was attempting to shop this script around Hollywood in 1992, I came up with what I believed was perhaps one of the most original and clever query letter ideas ever.

Below is an example of how it looked.

[Incidentally, this screenplay was copyrighted in ‘92, so don’t even think about trying to rip me off. If you do, I will kill you until you are dead, then I’ll sue your lawyer, violate your dog and walk your wife! And that’s nothing compared to the wrath of evil Doctor Karma which you will suffer after I’m finished with ya.]:

Dear ________ :

The name’s not Hemingway but thanks to the books of Syd Field, Linda Seger and Irwin Blacker, I’ve written a feature-length, romantic drama (with comedy). The 16-hour screenwriting seminar with Richard Walter and 12-hour character development course didn’t hurt either. Structure and format are nailed down!

Putting pencil to paper for the first draft (yes, I’m a dinosaur), the following developed:

He lurches from the bar into the rain; seeking cover, nearly trips over it. What’s this? Passed out – a Black girl, unsheltered. Something’s wrong. She’s dressed too well to be homeless. Sober, he looks the other way and we have no movie. Lucky for us he’s in his cups again and “Help her” the gin in his blood seems to sing. In his arms, four blocks through a downpour to the apartment.

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Tomorrow she’ll awaken and that sets him on course to be tongue-lashed, pummelled by thugs, dumped for another man, and goosed by a goose. He will also fall in love and be alive for the first time in 21 years.

Want to know this story? Clip the coupn below, mark the appropriate space (Psst! The correct answer is “YES”) and return in the self-addressed stamped envelope provided.

~ Ol’ Stephen T. McCarthy
1728 Sunset Ave.
Santa Monica, CA. 90405
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___ YES, Ol’ Stephen, please send the script for my free trial examination. I understand that I am under no obligation and no salesman will visit my door.

___ No, all new writers stink.

___ No, not now, I have a headache.

___ No, your flippant approach should get you run out of Hollywood preceding a red-hot poker. You’ll never write in this town again.


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So, how did my query letter work? Well, have you ever seen the movie “Billy And Billie”? (I didn’t think so.)

Actually, no one asked to see the screenplay, but a couple of the recipients did state that they found the query letter entertaining and really enjoyed the originality of it. Now, one might think that the person capable of concocting an original and entertaining query letter like that might also be capable of writing a good screenplay. But that would be to assume that the decision-makers in Hollywood possess intelligence, an eye for talent, and an ability to think rationally.

However, I discovered that Producer/Director/Actor Tony Bill had a production office in Venice and that he was willing to receive unsolicited screenplays, so I sent him “Billy And Billie”. Well, evidently someone at his production office read the story and felt it warranted an interview with the author (that would be me, by the way).

I was called to Tony Bill’s production office and was interviewed by the man himself. An interview that I pretty much blew, and blew deliberately. You see, me being something of an outlaw generally (and a Hollywood outlaw quite specifically) I went into the interview with Mr. Bill holding a bit of a grudge.

It was my belief then (and is my belief still) that what a writer writes ought to sell itself; I resented having to try to use my personality in the interview to help sell the “Billy And Billy” story. My mind-set was basically this: Everything’s on the page. Do you like the story or do you not like it? What has my own personality to do with it?

That may seem unreasonable to you. Why did I not enthusiastically try to verbally sell my screenplay to Tony Bill? Did I not have sufficient personality to sell it?

Ha! Oh, come on! Have you not read anything on this blog? Do you really think I am devoid of personality? Sheesh! I might sit in a corner by myself most of the time, but that’s by preference, not by necessity. When I choose to flip the switch and turn it on, I have personality to burn.

But here’s the thing: I had spent some years trying to establish an acting career. I had done readings for casting directors in which one absolutely MUST sell himself via his personality. I was sick of that. I had finally given up on the acting career and had now turned to writing instead, so that I could sell whatever talent I might have on stacks of paper rather than through the vehicle of whatever personal charisma I might possess.

And now here I was, sitting across from Mr. Tony Bill, my screenplay in his hand, and I was being expected to sell the “Billy And Billie” story by utilizing my personality again. And I simply wasn’t willing to play that game anymore.

And that’s why, when Tony Bill asked me what “Billy And Billie” was about, I literally told him: “Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back again.”

I don’t think Mr. Bill was too turned on by my answer. Ha! And I really don’t blame him for thinking that I was a dimwit. But to my mind, the bottom line was that the story was now its own entity - that it should stand or fall on its own merits - and shouldn’t have needed an assist from me. Read it. Like it? Buy it. Dislike it? Ignore it. End of issue.

I don’t regret what I did. Despite the fact that it’s egregiously missing a 45-second scene that I should have included, I still believe that “Billy And Billie” is a good un-produced movie. And for the record, I know that I'm a loser, but I do not think I am a poor writer. I think I’m just . . . misunderstood.

“Even the losers get lucky sometimes.”
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And sometimes they don’t.

Below are a few photos I took of a portion of the Venice canals:
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~ Stephen T. McCarthy

YE OLDE COMMENT POLICY: All comments, pro and con, are welcome. However, ad hominem attacks and disrespectful epithets will not be tolerated (read: "posted"). After all, this isn’t Amazon.com, so I don’t have to put up with that kind of bovine excrement..

4 comments:

Sheboyganboy VI said...

It was interesting to read more of the tale of the tale of the screenplay.

Needless to say, I disagree with your choice to blow the interview. I think that one aspect of the interview process must be to gauge the writer to see how it will be to work with him. Screenplays invariably get some tinkering, and the producers don't want to try to deal with a grump-ass curmudgeon if they want a change. Maybe if you were Harlan Ellison, they'd put up with surliness.

There is a sense I am getting from there trips back "home." Hmmmm... Mere nostalgia?

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

MR. SBB 6 ~
I'd like to think you're right, and I never got "inside the beast" far enough to know, so I can only make a semi-ign'ant guess but...

Methinks that's not it. It's true that those in Hollyweird don't like trouble from writers who bitch 'n' moan about changes to their screenplays - (and, by the way, every cockroach in Hollywood has one) - but new, young writers have no clout and are easily bought off.

For most of us unestablished cockroaches, once someone buys your screenplay, you have no more authority and no right to object to changes - which WILL be made... like prostitutes on Hollywood Blvd.

So, as much as I'd like to accept your explanation, I really think it's more about making the writer "sing and dance", metaphorically speaking.

And, really, if it was MYSELF I sought to sell at that point, I would have still been working on an acting career... or hanging out on Hollywood Blvd.

>>...There is a sense I am getting from there trips back "home." Hmmmm... Mere nostalgia?

I don't get yer meaning. Are you hinting that perhaps I have a girl stashed away in the speakeasy basement of The Townhouse Bar, or somethin'?

If so, not so.

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'

farawayeyes said...

Misunderstood – Maybe. Good writer – Definitely. Loser – Not a chance.

Somewhere you asked me about ‘voice’. Did I perceive a particular voice in your writing? Interesting question, I hear a lot of different voices – in your writing. I guess it depends on what you want to ‘show’. Sometimes you are extremely kind and sensitive – EXTREMELY. Sometimes you’re a real smart-A. Sometimes you sound tired and lonely. Sometimes you sound really old and sometimes really young. I can keep going, but I think you get the idea. I think it’s a talent to capture and portray so many different voices, so well.

I understand your point about the ‘hard sell’ of yourself, but I agree with your friend Sheboygan Six. I get it, that once you get the check, they own the story and can do with it as they please. {CRINGE} But, sometimes I think someone might want to see exactly who you are and how important your work is to you. No matter who is buying it or what they intend to do with it, it’s still a part of you, however small or big that may be.

Thanks for sending me here.

Stephen T. McCarthy said...

NITRO ~
Sincere thanks for the kind words!

About the "voice" question... yes, that's how it seems to me as well. I really don't perceive any distinct "voice" to my writing, so if there is one, it's so natural to me that it goes unnoticed.

Some writers possess a very pronounced literary "voice" - I immediately think of Thomas Wolfe, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and even Ernest Hemingway (whose writing you know I don't like) - but as I stated in my Email, if I do have any sort of written "voice", it probably changes according to the subject matter I'm presenting, as you suggest here.

By the way, I think I like my "smart-A" stuffs best.
;o)

~ D-FensDogg
'Loyal American Underground'