As millions gather in front of their televisions tonight to watch the Oscars, and root for their favorite stars, I’m reminded of the truth about the “Hollywood system” and its’ long history of depriving artists of fair compensation and credits. If you know me personally or you’ve read my book, “Confessions of a 40 (something) Year Old Bachelor,” then you’re probably familiar with a chapter entitled Hollywood Burn.
In this chapter, I describe my experience as a young writer, trying to navigate the “Hollywood system” and establish myself as a successful screenwriter. I had recently moved to LA from Atlanta, making the cross country drive in just 3 days! I quickly settled in with a friend from high school who had numerous connections with successful actors, writers and directors.
Being a neophyte to LA was daunting, but I was encouraged by all of the people that I’d met who came to LA to pursue their dreams from all over the country. Prior to moving, I had written a few spec scripts, in hopes of securing an option for a movie or at least a writing gig on a TV show. I quickly learned that in order to be taken seriously as a writer in Hollywood, you had to have an agent. However, the process of securing a literary agent was essentially a Catch 22 process.
Established literary agents only signed writers who were referred by one of their established clients, such as an actor or another writer. Like most newbies to LA, I didn’t have a trusted referral and I had to rely on clever ways to get my material read by the studios and the agents.
At one point, I created a phony production company with a catchy logo and letterhead. I would send my scripts to the studio executives and pray that they would respond. I received a few responses from Fox Searchlight, The Farrelly Brothers (Something About Mary), Danny Devito and a few others, however, none of those meetings materialized into a deal.
One of the scripts that I had written was called, Perfect Cuts, it was named after my favorite barbershop in my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC. It was intended to be a short film, based upon the lives of a diverse set of characters who worked in a black barbershop. I shared my script with a few of my new Hollywood friends, and they all loved it.
I also shared my script with a music executive, whom I had met at the gym. I knew that he and his father were managing some of the biggest names in the music business, such as Toni Braxton, Missy Elliott and Timbaland. My “friend” reviewed the script and seemed excited about the potential of creating a movie based upon my script.
I was excited about his feedback and assumed that I was one step closer to realizing my dream of becoming a successful screenwriter. As time passed, he became elusive. Whenever, I would ask about the script, he quickly changed the subject. I eventually chalked it up to just another Hollywood tease.
I was making good money as a tech recruiter, but still continued to write in my spare time. A couple of years later, while watching TV, I noticed a trailer for a new movie called Barbershop and immediately noticed a few similarities with my script. I called up my “friend” and calmly asked him about his role in the development of the movie. However, his reaction was anything but calm! He started cursing me out and becoming irate. I was baffled by his reaction as I stared at the phone in disbelief.
This an excerpt from my book, I changed some of the names as a matter of courtesy.
“Hey Kojo this is Barrington, I wanted to ask you some questions about this new Barbershop movie.”
“Questions?! Questions?! I got some mother fuckin’ questions for you!”
“What?!” I replied.
“Yea I got some questions, like can I fuck yo’ wife?”
“What are you talking about fool?” I said.
“I made my money the right way and cats always tryin’ to claim that somehow they got somethin’ to do with it.”
“Look man, I don’t care about any of that nonsense. I just want to know what’s up with my script and this movie.”
Suddenly, I heard his dad in the background asking what was wrong. I heard him say, “This nigga callin’ me about this Barbershop shit.”
At that moment, I knew for certain that he had stolen my script. Why would someone who’s innocent react so violently? He was probably shocked that I caught him off guard and had the audacity to question him.
Needless to say, I was shocked. I hung up the phone in disbelief. I immediately called a friend who had read my script, and they agreed with me that there were similarities.
One of the problems with a copyright infringement lawsuit, which I quickly discovered was that neither of their names were on the movie. They had managed to insert a couple of their musical artists on the soundtrack, but they intentionally avoided any association with the actual production of the movie.
After consulting with a few attorneys, I slowly began to realize that even though my script was copyrighted, my chances of winning a major lawsuit against the studio were slim. I couldn’t prove how the studio received my script or that Kojo and his dad were involved. At best, I probably could have received a meager settlement, but no writing credits, which is much more important than money to a young writer. Being able to establish your credits, is the key to getting more work.
Sadly, this was not the only time that I’ve been ripped off by Hollywood. I wrote a dark comedy called Mafia Misfits, around that same time and I recall submitting it to a few different production companies.
About a year later, I just happened to be watching the animated movie Shark Tale which was produced by Dreamworks when I noticed a familiar storyline. While watching this movie, I suddenly realized that the premise of the movie was almost exactly like my storyline in Mafia Misfits.
My story was based on a shady character named Frankie who was a New York street hustler who everybody called “Frankie the Con.” He suddenly discovers that his biological father is a notorious well-known gangster who wants him to be part of his “family business” before he passes away.
So Frankie is reluctantly brought into the “family business” by his father’s henchmen. His first assignment was to meet with the Godfather of their rival family who suddenly dies from a heart attack during his visit. People start to assume that Frankie intentionally killed the rival Godfather and he quickly transforms from “Frankie the Con” to “Franco the Don.”
Shark Tale is based on a very similar storyline about a care free shark who suddenly finds himself the center of attention after allegedly killing a well-known gangster shark which was played by Robert DeNiro.
The main character of the animated movie transforms from being a lovable loser to being a respected gangster. See any similarities? So did I, but there was one major problem with pursuing a copyright lawsuit; I had never sent my script to Dreamworks. To further compound my situation, I had no idea who could have presented my script to their studio.
As profound as my experience may be, it’s not very unique. Hollywood thrives on stealing material. I believe the reason it’s so prevalent, is because the studios can’t employ enough writers to generate blockbuster ideas. So, they help themselves to unsolicited material or they tweak an idea from a book or a pitch and develop it as their own. They also calculate the cost of a copyright infringement lawsuit into their development plans, because no one remembers or cares about the original writer.
Case in point, very few people are aware that the movie ”The Shape of Water,” which won an Oscar for best picture in 2018, was a rip off of a 1969 play entitled “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”
I was bitter about my experiences for a long time, but I’m currently working on a one-man stage show entitled 40 Confessions, where I tell stories from my past and engage the audience with the assistance of a large screen projector.
My advice to young writers who can’t secure a literary agent, get an attorney to submit your material and keep track of where your material was sent.
Thanks for reading and check out my book!