A guy, who kind of looked like Dracula, except he had to remove his fangs to talk, asked: "All those horror stories about writers getting ripped off in Hollywood - are they true?"
Chris said, "Rip-offs in Tinsel Town are like muggers in The Big Apple. Sooner, rather than later, it's gonna fucking happen."
A cute girl vampire - with two bloody puncture wounds on her pretty neck - said, "Isn't there anyway you can protect yourself?"
I said, "Sure, but sometimes you forget... Just like you forgot to wear your garlic wreath to the party."
The girl giggled and gave her Vampire boyfriend a swat. "You should see the hickeys," she said.
During the laughter and catcalls Chris and I signaled one another. Time to switch to our spiel about Theft: Intellectual Property Of.
We were at DagonCon in Atlanta, Georgia to hype The Far Kingdoms Series. The second book - A Warrior's Tale - was about to be released and Del Rey had come prepared with many, many cartons of books. Over the course of the convention Chris and I would sign more than ten thousand books (That's right - 10,000!) and would leave happily grinning through our carpal tunnel pain.
Besides the wall-to-wall signing events, we managed to participate in a few panels, and now we were putting on our specialty act -The Bunch And Cole Show: How To Survive Hollywood With Only The Loss Of All Bodily Hair. It was delivered sort of Improv style - taking cues from the audience, then moving in that direction.
Chris said, "It's like riding a motorcycle. It's not a matter of If You're Gonna Go Sky-Ground - it's When You're Gonna Go Sky-Ground. And if you pitch stories in Hollywood for a living there's a theft - or three, or six - in your future."
I said, "And there's not a lot you can do about it."
A black girl in a Lt. Uhura outfit cut to show off her long legs, said, "You could sue them, couldn't you?"
"Sure - if you've got Gene Roddenberry to pay for the attorneys," Chris said, giving her a sly grin. (He was making a reference that probably whisked over everyone's head: The long-time affair between Gene and Nichelle Nichols, the beautiful and talented actress who played Lt. Uhura.)
"Even then," I said, "it can be tough. Art Buchwald is a famous syndicated newspaper humorist. Pulitzer Prize winner. But he ended up suing Eddie Murphy and Paramount for ripping off 'Coming To America.' Eddie said it was his idea. Art claimed that he had it first, and his agent had sent it to Eddie as a movie idea. Eventually the Court agreed with Buchwald and gave him a piece of the profits. But, then Paramount said that although the picture grossed nearly $300 million, that it didn't break even. In fact, they suffered a big loss."
Gasps from the audience. "Hollywood economics," Chris said. "$300 million minus the $20 million it cost to make and distribute the flick, equals not just Zero, but less than zero."
"For a couple of years," I said, "the only satisfaction Buchwald had was they made the Studio put his name on the VHS Story-By credits. Later, another court declared Coming To America profitable and Art finally got paid for his work."
"Guy wins the fucking Pulitzer Prize," Chris said, "and he still gets ripped off."
"And then there's Harlan Ellison," I said. "Harlan had to sue The Great James Cameron over the Terminator. Cameron said it was his idea. Harlan said it was ripped off from a couple of Twilight Zone episodes that he wrote.
"Who was right? Chris and I screened the episodes and we agreed with Harlan. In the end, the evidence was apparently strong enough that they settled out of court in Harlan's favor."
Chris added, "But Cameron couldn't let it go. Said Harlan was a parasite who could 'kiss my ass.' Big mistake to play word games with Harlan. His reply? 'Anybody who sticks his hand in my pocket is going to 'pull back a bloody stump.' When it comes to suing, Harlan is a Terminator all on his own. He just keeps coming."
I said, "In both cases, it would have cost a whole lot less money to just pay Buchwald and Harlan for the rights. You'd think it'd also be less of a public embarrassment."
Chris said, "Never happen. You can no more shame a Studio Suit for being a greedy ass than you can a politician or a crack whore."
I said, "As for Cameron and Eddie Murphy, they were motivated by pure Ego. Nothing more. James Cameron wanted the writing credit to go with his director's credit so he could maintain his 'artiste' pose."
"Same thing with that knuckle-head Eddie Murphy," Chris said. Can't be just a great comedian, or comic actor. He wants to pose as a guy who writes his own material as well.
I said, "Eddie Murphy's agent once set him up with the legendary scriptwriter, William Goldman. We're talking All The President's Men, Butch Cassidy, that sort of legendary writer. But Murphy spent the whole meeting giving Goldman a lot of shit. No respect whatsoever."
Chris said, "So Goldman walked out. Told Eddie's agent: 'I'm too fucking old and too fucking rich to put up with his shit."
After the applause for Goldman's line died down, a guy in a Robocop outfit asked, "What about you guys? Have you been ripped off?"
Chris sighed. "So many fucking times we lost count," he said.
I said, "On our first sale we got ripped off for half the story money." (See Episode #6 - How To Steal A Million Dollars.)
"But you know," Chris said, "if somebody had told us before that getting a break in Show Biz was sort of like joining the Pipefitters Union - you had to cross somebody's greasy palm with silver - we would have done it sooner."
"On our second sale," I said, "we lucked out by running into an honest story editor. He could have ripped us off easy - plus made some major points with a Network Bigshot. But he didn't."
"We not only got paid," Chris said, "but we got paid fucking double. Plus we shared credit on a TV series pilot. " (See Episode # 7 - The Shark That Ate Bunch & Cole.)
"On the other hand," I started...
"...You have a foot," Chris broke in, going for the cheap laugh and getting it.
"Okay," I said, "on the other foot - sometimes what you think is a ripoff is pure coincidence."
"Your Genius Idea comes from something you read or saw in the news," Chris said. "Naturally, you can't be surprised if a zillion other writers come up with the same thing."
Somebody shouted, "But what if you had the idea first?"
"There's no copyright on ideas," Chris replied to the audience's great surprise. "It's only what you do with the idea that counts."
"Sometimes," I said, "It's not theft, but a weird kind of convergence," I said. "It's in the atmosphere. If you pitch for a living, you're always thinking story, story, story."
Chris said, "Then, fucking boom! Out of nowhere you get this God damned notion of pure genius."
"But so do all the other writers in town," I finished for him. "And if then you read that some Studio or Producer is going to do something exactly like your idea, you think - 'Hey, I've been ripped off.'"
"Except, to prove theft," Chris said, "you have to prove access. Art Buchwald's agent apparently had proof that his notion about an African prince in America had been sent to Murphy, or Murphy's people. Otherwise they wouldn't have fucking settled out of court.
"Harlan's stuff was televised. Seen by millions. How could you miss it? And if you watch the episodes yourself, you'll think - 'Damn, that's The Terminator!'"
"So, if you can't show access," I said, "the conclusion of most Legal Eagles is that it must be a coincidence. And mostly, that's what it is. It's also the main reason Studios and Producers refuse to look at unsolicited material - and insist on some kind of go-between like an agent before they'll read a script, or treatment for a script."
"But what if the agent rips you off?" asked a guy dressed like Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Show.
"Oh, they do," Chris said. He shrugged. "And then, you're just fucking fucked."
I said, "Some thefts are the result of what Chris and I call the Dishonest Subconscious Syndrome."
"Guys who hear pitches," Chris said, "have so many ideas thrown at them that they forget Who's On First. Sure, the stupid asses pass on your brilliant idea during the meeting."
I said, "But, then later on something triggers a vague memory.
"Maybe they're in the shower," Chris said. "Maybe they're sitting on the toilet with the drizzles from too much Blow. They get the Big Ah-Ha! But they don't realize they're the same numb nuts as before and it was somebody else who not only had the idea, but pitched it to them in a meeting."
"We've had cases where we've made a sale on a show," I said, "but then later, something else we pitched that they passed on ends up in a story by one of the people on staff. People we know and like and there's no question of their honesty."
"Besides, we know where their kids go to school," Chris said to laughter.
"Had it happen on Magnum," I said. "We pitched half a dozen ideas to Don Bellissario. He passed on them all. Finally we sold something we made up on the spot." (See Episode # 21: Tom Selleck Meets The Ugliest Dog In Hawaii.)
"But later in the season," Chris said, "we saw an episode on the show about dope growers in Hawaii who plant their shit in the boonies. Not your friendly neighborhood pot dealers, but fucking thugs armed with automatic weapons who set deadly man traps on the paths leading to the marijuana crops."
I said, "We pitched that very idea, but Don passed. Much as we think Bellissario is a jerk of the first order, we doubt whether he deliberately stole the idea. Our idea was sitting in the back of that raisin Producers call a brain, but he thought it was original to him."
"Then there are situations, where producers deliberately set out to rip you off," I added.
"Mostly happens at Cattle Calls," Chris said. "That's when they call in twenty or more writers. Show them the pilot. Give them a little talk. Then invite them to pitch."
"They have no intention of buying," I said. "The Guild has this rule that shows have to interview a certain number of freelancers a season. The idea is to discourage the staff from Bogarting every script, and thereby encouraging the freelance market."
"There's a fucking big ass Catch 22, though," Chris said. "The rule says they have to let freelancers pitch, but it doesn't say they have to buy."
"We refuse to attend Cattle Calls," I said, "unless the Exec Producer guarantees our Agent up front that they'll buy a script. Then we go, sit with all our fear-soaked brethren, then when the dog-and-pony show is over, we're whisked through a secret entrance to the producer's office."
"Meanwhile," Chris said, "they hear pitches from the other writers. Tell them not only 'No,' but 'Fuck No,' and send them on their way. But they keep notes of the best stuff then have their staff fuck with it so the theft can't be proven."
A girl in a Sigourney Weaver Alien get-up called out, "They're just cherry-picking people's brains."
"Right fucking on, sister," Chris said.
I said, "They can steal any idea they like, change it just a little, and there's nothing anybody can do about it."
Chris said, "Then there's the really big rip-offs. Not just ideas for single episodes of television, but whole fucking movies."
"For example," I said. "We pitched a modern version of Robinson Crusoe to Touchstone, not long ago."
Chris made a face."That's Touchstone, as in Touched By A Mouse," he said.
I grimaced. "It's a division of Disney," I said. "As you might gather, we're not big fans of Disney."
"What's wrong with Disney?" a guy in a Teen Wolf getup shouted.
"Long story," I said. "Remind us some other time to tell you about the Pissing Dwarves. (See Episode # 55 - Screwed By The Mouse: Or, Michael Eisner And The Seven Pi$$ing Dwarfs.)
I continued, "It was a Romancing The Stone type action comedy. Our lead was an outdoorswoman. A descendant of the real Robinson Crusoe."
"Guy named Selkrik," Chris interjected. "A Scotsman and an actual castaway whose rescue was played up big by what sufficed as the British media back in the early 1700's. Old Danny Boy Dafoe interviewed Selkrik and even paid him real money for the rights to his story. Which is where the novel came from."
"Meanwhile, back at Touchstone," I said in mock exasperation. Jerked a thumb at Chris. "He knows shit like that, so don't get him started, or we'll be here all night."
After a few guffaws, I said, "In our story, the lady winds up on a desert island just like her ancestor. Except, instead of a shipwreck, she's in a plane crash. Then it's just her and her hunky but flaky pilot."
Chris said, "Instead of threatening them with cannibals, we had bad ass drug smugglers who use the island as a midway stop on the way to the States."
"Pretty good idea for a shoot-em up, don't you think?" I said.
There was enthusiastic agreement.
"It's so good," Chris said, "that it was announced in Variety two weeks ago that they're gonna make the movie. Harrison Ford starring."
There was applause. I held up a hand to stop them. "You won't see our name anywhere on it," I said. "Not our movie."
"They passed at the meeting," Chris said. "But now, guess what? They're doing a movie just like ours."
"You're so damned suspicious, Bunch," I said. "It was just a coincidence." I turned to the audience. "Right?"
There were loud replies of "Bullshit!"
Chris and I grinned at each other. An audience after our own hearts.
"Second example," I said. "You've all heard of Nightmare On Elm Street, yeah?"
Man, had they. Lots of applause for Freddy Krueger and his young victims.
Chris said, "Our former agents - CAA, the worst of the fucking bunch - also repped some of the guys at New Line, the company that makes Elm Street. One of them was Mike De Luca, their fair haired boy."
"He was on his way up then," I said. "Later he became head of the company."
"And became infamous for his X-Rated public behavior at a party with the top celebrities in Town in attendance," Chris added. "His host was so disgusted that afterward he threw out the chair De Luca was using during the incident." (Click Here For Dirty Details. Parental Guidance Very Much Advised!)
"We'd met De Luca before on a show called Dark Justice," I said. "He was on loan from New Line and we thought he was pretty much of an asshole then. Our buddy, Jeff Freilich, spoke up for him, though, so we let it go."
Chris said, "Long story short - CAA sends us to see De Luca who had just been put in charge of the last Elm Street movie. Mainly because he'd worked the last season on the Elm Street TV series. The really important thing about the project was that it was supposed to be the final movie in the Franchise. The last Nightmare On Elm Street."
"What we didn't know," I said, "was that De Luca's writing credits were mostly bullshit, and he really needed something major he could call his own if he wanted to climb the Suit Ladder To Success."
Chris said, "We didn't particularly want to write an Elm Street, but we were asked to go pitch as a favor to our agent. So we watched two of the movies they sent over, came up with some ideas, and went in to see De Luca."
"Mike passed on a couple," I said, "but we figured he was the kind of jerk who dumps the first two stories on general asshole principle. But we were holding back a really killer idea - a for sure sale - that Chris had come up with."
Chris said, "I asked Mike, 'This is supposed to be the last Elm Street, right?' He says, yeah, the last one. So, I said, 'After all these Elm Street Movies and TV shows about Freddy in other people nightmares, what if we do a big switch?'"
I said, "Mile looks real interested. He asks Chris - 'What big switch?'"
"And Chris told him, 'What's Freddy's Nightmare?'"
I said, "Mike jumped at that. Like he'd been goosed. He started to get real excited. And Chris went on to pitch him the idea, which started with Freddy having an accident - hits his head on a rock, or something - and gets amnesia. Then it spooled out from there, bringing in characters from the past."
"Mike went along at first," I said. "Damn, was he excited. I figured we had then sale. Then he drew back. Started hating the idea."
Chris said, "I asked him what was wrong. "And he said, 'It's a premise breaker. We can't do it.'"
"I jumped in then" I added. "And said, 'It's the last fucking Elm Street. There's no reason you can't break the premise.'"
"But he didn't see it," Chris said.
"Or, at least he told us that," I put in. "And so we packed up and went back to our office to do something sensible, like write books."
Somebody in the audience shouted, "But they did the movie. I saw it last year."
"No shit," Chris said. "And guess who got the writing credit?"
"If his initials are Mike De Luca," I said, "you guessed right."
Once again, somebody yelled, "You could sue them."
Chris and I both shook our heads.
"Life's too fucking short," he said.
I said, "Every hour you spend in court, or in an attorney's office, is an hour lost writing books."
And Chris said, "The only time it's worth suing, is if it's the only idea you'll ever fucking have."
In the back of the hall where Kathryn and Karen sat keeping time for us, I saw Karen point to her wristwatch, and Kathryn make throat-cutting motions with a finger.
Time to end this sucker.
Chris turned to the fangless Dracula. Popped him a mock salute.
He said, "So, to finally answer your question about what's true and what's not in Hollywood, I have to say this: Every fucking thing you have ever heard about Hollywood is true...
"...Except what they say about me. And only some of what they say about Cole."
I flipped Chris the finger and the audience roared. I had to shout over them."Oh, yeah! Well tell them about that starlet at Quincy who flashed you the whole damned meeting."
Chris raised both hands for silence, and got it. Head bowed in mock humility he said, "As God is my witness I thought she was there for an anatomy lesson."
He appealed to the audience. "I mean, it was a medical show, right?"
And to much laughter and applause, it was a wrap.
It was also the last convention Chris and I attended together. And when we flew home, it wasn't to Hollywood, but to a little seaside dot in the map, called Ilwaco, Washington.
The Golden Chains had been broken.
NEXT: WHAT DID WE LEARN ABOUT HOLLYWOOD, BOYS AND GIRLS?