Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Bad Timing: A Nonsensical Obsession.

From 2009...

While pulling links for Wednesday’s (complete filler) blog entry, I happened upon a completely non-sequitur comment about my ALTITUDE script. It seems that someone else has a script with the exact same plot and title, so I must have ripped it off. Except *my* ALTITUDE script was written and copyrighted first...

If you read my Script Tips everyday (and you should - that’s where the good stuff usually is, this blog just being my rants and appreciation of Kate Beckinsale nude scenes) you probably already know much of the backstory on this script, since I’ve used it as an example several times. But here’s the full version...

Back in 1992 my friends and I went to see this new action flick starring Wesley Snipes (who was a great actor before he decided to do that Steve McQueen imitation) called PASSENGER 57. Well, about halfway through the film, the hijackers *land the plane*! I turn to my friends and quip, “Hasn’t he seen A RAID ON ENTEBE?” And, just as in that film, as soon as the plane lands the SWAT Team attacks and it’s all downhill for the hijackers. Whenever the hero wins because the villain is an idiot, I lose respect for the film. Instead of the villain doing something stupid, I prefer films where the hero does something clever. The film was kind of disappointing, but I kept thinking about that quip - what if the hijackers *had* seen A RAID ON ENTEBE and knew the moment they landed the plane they were dead. In the air, who can get to them? Sure, the Air Force might shoot them down, but not if the plane was full of passengers. Once they land, SWAT Teams and Commandoes and everyone else has access to them - and they can’t win that fight. So, how do you prevent the plane from landing? Well, you could wire a bomb to an altimeter, and if the plane goes below 20,000 feet - kerblam. It’s SPEED on a plane!

The other thing I hated about PASSENGER 57 (and every other plane hijack script) was the lazy writing when it came to how they got the guns onboard. It’s *always* through food services. Always. Now, I would think about the third time that happened in a movie, the one thing that they would make sure they searched was food services. I know in real life things really are stupid sometimes, but our job is to make things believable, even if security really is lax at food services. You don’t want the audience to be rolling their eyes in the cinema (they'll get stuck in the puddles of Coca-Cola), and you can’t stand in the lobby and explain to everyone that in real life you could probably do that. A movie has to be believable, real life does not. (Side note: In real life, in the 60s, it was almost impossible to rob an armored truck. But these bumbling crooks realized that the Brinks garage had cheap alarms, and was easy to break in to... so they stole all of the armored truck *keys*, made copies, replaced them, then swiped an armored truck and went out to pick up money from a bunch of businesses. They stole millions! But, would you believe that scenario in a movie? No - because stealing millions shouldn’t be that easy.)

Well, I had to find some other way to get weapons onboard, and having once cut myself on a plastic picnic knife, thought that might be a solution. What if the hijackers had *plastic* weapons that could get past metal detectors? Remember that plastic gun from IN THE LINE OF FIRE? They could have real guns and the bomb in the luggage section, and retrieve them once they had taken control of the plane.

So, I wrote up a treatment to make sure I didn’t forget any of this stuff, registered it with WGA, and then went on to do other things...

In 1994 I actually had some sort of screenwriting career, and my friend Brenda (from my home town) who does make up and costumes on commercials was telling me about this Apple laptop commercial she’d just done on a 727 airplane that was owned by San Jose State College. A real plane! At the airport. And it rented for $1k a day, and you could easily get the acting class as extras for free (that’s what they did) and use the airport background. She remembered my treatment and thought we might put together a movie project. Great idea! I toured the plane, and wrote up my script (having the opening take place in San Francisco to keep the film in Northern California). Sent it off the LOC and my copyright form is dated September of 1994. So, while I tried to put ALTITUDE together as a Bill Martell Production, I also tried to get it set up at one of the low budget companies I had access to. No agent, no manager, and I didn’t know Tom Cruise’s gardener, so I had to just do whatever I could do. We could never find the money to make the movie ourselves, but some strange things happened with that script.

Many of those 19 produced films and many of the script deals that didn’t make it to the screen, happened because someone read the script and passed it to their best contact who passed it to their best contact who passed it to their best contact and then someone I do not know calls me and wants to meet on this script of mine. So, I get a call from the D Girl for Peter MacGregor-Scott’s company at Warner Bros (I want to say it was Building A, but that was over a decade ago, so I’m not sure). Hey, could I meet with them about this ALTITUDE script? Sure!

So, living in Studio City, and knowing that they make you park in some far-off lot, I rode my bike to Warner Bros... which confused the hell out of the security guys at the gate because the rules said they had to tape the lot pass to my car windshield - and I was on a bicycle. They actually had to call a superior to find out that they needed to tape the pass to my handlebars. So, I met with the D Girl and she tells me they really like my script and would have probably bought it, but... there’s another film on the lot with a similar plot. Called EXECUTIVE DECISION. What else did I have? Well, the problem was that all of my new scripts (including ALTITUDE) were written for Made For Cable budgets - and because of the success of HARD EVIDENCE I had a bunch of “suburban thrillers” that were kind of written for USA Network. None of those screamed Warner Bros Big Summer Tentpole Movie - and that’s what they were looking for.

They send me a pass to a press screening of EXECUTIVE DECISION, and it kicks ass. What I thought was funny about it - it’s kind of the airplane version of my CRASH DIVE script (which had been filmed and aired on HBO by then) - brainiac gets stuck as reluctant action hero. Both even took place in a “tube” (plane / submarine).

So I decided to do an e-mail “auction” of ALTITUDE to every AFM company I could find, as the potential low budget rip off of EXECUTIVE DECISION. Here’s what I learned from that - those AFM guys don’t like it when a writer tries to take control. Half of the companies sent me nasty e-mails telling me they did not want to ever get another e-mail from me. I couldn't even reply that I was sorry... that would be another e-mail form me. Three places were more open and read the script (I FedExed it, had to go to Toluca Lake to do that because there wasn’t a Fed Ex office in Studio City). All three wanted to know where the hell I expected them to get an airplane... and didn’t expect for me to tell them. One place said there was too much action... um, had they seen any of the films they produced? One guy told me I had to blow up the plane at the end or the script wouldn’t work... Um, I disagreed. That company really wanted it, though. We had a couple of meetings on it during AFM that year.

When EXECUTIVE DECISION came out, I used my ace-in-the-hole and went to the producers of CRASH DIVE. One of the producers really wanted to make an ED rip-off movie, and, script unread, put together a meeting with a director and a star (okay, it was American Ninja Michael Dudikoff, who was a kinda-star. He was on the HBO approved list and got $1m a movie). Everything went well - they had coverage on the script that was completely positive, which is good, because sometimes the same script that gets me accidental studio meetings might not get good coverage from the office boy intern at the low budget company.

It looked like it was going to be a movie... until this producer read the script and asked me where’s the scene with the other plane that attaches to the passenger plane so that the commandoes can get on board. I said, there is no other plane. The hero is a passenger on the plane, who organizes the passengers against the hijackers. The producer tells me that EXECUTIVE DECISION had this stealth plane that connects to the hijacked plane and we need the same thing!

So, I try to explain to this guy about copyright and outright theft of ideas and how my script actually came before EXECUTIVE DECISION so it’s not a rip off but an original and...

He told me he didn’t care about all of that, he wanted the plane-to-plane transfer.

I told him I’d write a new script that had that in it instead of ruining my script. He said I should call it EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE... um, isn’t that the tagline from American Express Card? I left the office before he began throwing things at me.

Here’s the page from Cannes listing the film, even though there may not have been a script at this point: 1996 Cannes Royal Oaks Films - note that part of the ALTITUDE story is still in there - the explosives that blow up if the plane flies below 20,000 feet.

Oh, the Vice President part... So, here I was, stuck writing a complete rip-off of EXECUTIVE DECISION when I *had* an original script that the studio which made EXECUTIVE DECISION had been interested in. I was going crazy! So I read in the trades about a script that had just sold called AIR FORCE ONE by Nichol Fellowship winner Andrew Marlowe, and was joking with a friend that they would never make a film called AIR FORCE TWO about the Vice President’s plane being hijacked, because nobody would care... and that joke became the inspiration for the American Express Card movie.

I wrote up my 15 page treatment while they were still putting together my contract and met with the producer to pitch him the new version (because, you know, it would save him from reading the treatment, and save him from reading the coverage of the treatment and save him from reading anything else). It would be the Vice President’s plane that got hijacked, and in that big scene in the White House Situation Room where they debate what to do, someone says: “It’s only the Vice President, let them blow him up!” But they have to send in a commando team anyway, because it may be a biological or chemical bomb and the population *under* Air Force Two may suffer if the plane explodes.

Well, the producer thought it was okay, but it still wasn’t *exactly* like EXECUTIVE DECISION. I told him he could not make a movie that had already been made, not only would he get his ass sued off for copyright, who would want to see the low budget version of a big budget film? The more EP was like ED the cheaper it would look. You want to do something different and unpredictable and cool...

And I just lost myself a job... before the contracts were signed.

See, the writer isn't supposed to tell the producer what to do.

So, some other writer or writers were hired... and they used some of the stuff from my treatment (which I hadn't been paid for), and the rest was a direct rip from EXECUTIVE DECISION. The guy they hired to direct it, Rick Jacobson, told me the characters in the script had the same *names* as the characters in EXECUTIVE DECISION. He’d had to go through the script and fix that. And for some stupid reason, the new writer dropped AF2 and have the Vice President flying on a commercial plane! What? That's just plain silly! Rick wasn’t happy with the script at all. Oh, and somewhere along the line enough people told the producer that using the American Express Card tag line was silly, so he called *me* and asked what he should title the film! I brainstormed up a list which included STRATEGIC COMMAND (because there was an old Jmmy Stewart movie called STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND) way down at the bottom. Of course, he didn’t pick any of the *original* titles I came up with. I don’t think the film sold well at the next AFM... but it was what the producer wanted - a rip-off of EXECUTIVE DECISION.

Meanwhile, everyone I tried to sell ALTITUDE to said the same thing: Too much like EXECUTIVE DECISION. There was an AFM company that made airplane movies, and I tried to sell it to them, but they never got around to reading the script!

In 2001, five years after EXECUTIVE DECISION, I did a rewrite on ALTITUDE and started sending it out again... and then on September 11th hijacked airplanes stopped being entertaining. And the hijackers had used plastic knives and other plastic weapons. And on United 93 the passengers had organized against the hijackers... just like in my script. I shelved my screenplay.

Even though my script was *not* about terrorists, it was about a hijacked plane. A big part of my script was that it *looked* like a hijacking, but the hero discovers it's actually a robbery at 30,000 feet. A valuable cargo is secretly being transported to Washington DC on this plane, and this team is stealing it and using the hijacking as a smoke screen. Even though it wasn't terrorists, it was action on a plane... and no one wanted that.

If you wondered why the Jodie Foster movie FLIGHT PLAN was so lame, it began as an actual terrorist plane hijacking script... bought before 9/11. Since they were stuck with it, they sent it though the big development meat grinder to remove all traces of terrorism and hijacking, and what came out was a lame LADY VANISHES rip off with an end that makes absolutely no sense. You know, the end is the very last thing the audience sees before leaving the cinema and telling their friends what they thought of the film. You need a great ending.

Well, a couple of years ago, a director friend of mine knew a producer who was looking for an action film they could shoot for $15m with a once-famous action star and asked if I had anything. I pitched ALTITUDE and asked if it was too soon after 9-11. He said he didn’t know, he’d give it to the producer and see what they thought. I did a quick rewrite that added 9-11 to the story, and had the hijacker-thieves preying on our post 9-11 fears... and had an over-zealous Homeland Security Agent order the plane shot down. This added to the suspense and I hoped would allow the hijack story to work in a post 9-11 world. My director friend read it before passing it on, and really liked it. The producer also liked it, but thought it was too soon after 9-11 to make an airplane hijack movie... what else did I have?

Because I had just done a rewrite on the script, I started to use it as a sample. Whenever there was a producer or agent or manager interested in reading something, I sent ALTITUDE. I had been at a couple of Screenwriting Conferences with the head of a management company over the years, and had pitched ALTITUDE to him a couple of times. I’m pretty sure they said the same thing everyone else did - too soon after 9-11 for anything scary on a plane. That logline is still one of the first on my Available Scripts Page, but no one seems to be interested in an airplane action script...

Except, in January or February of this year, that management company sends out a script called ALTITUDE that was also “SPEED on a plane”. And, someone posted a comment on my blog that I had ripped off the writer of that script. Well, this copyright form seems to prove otherwise. Of course, I’ll bet money that the person who posted that comment *did not* post or e-mail the same comment to the management company after I mentioned I had a 1994 copyright form. Though, as I said on a couple of message boards back in January when the script went out, I’m sure it’s probably parallel development. A coincidence.

So, now I have a completely dead script... a victim of bad timing.

The thing that pisses me off is when I get there first, and still get screwed. That script was floating around town for fifteen years, and everybody liked it... it got me meetings all over. But it was never the right time... then some other script comes along and it *was* the right time for that script! And then I'm the copycat!

Every once in a while I bump into a DVD review for my NIGHT HUNTER film that calls it a complete rip-off of BLADE... many even note all of the scenes that are "identical" Vampires in a rave, the "Vampire family" boardroom scene, even that the lead is a leather-clad biker-samurai vampire killer... the last of his breed. A couple of times I've written these reviewers and mentioned that my film was released 3 years before BLADE. I was there first. And the response is always the same: I still ripped off BLADE. There is no way that the cheapo Cinemax Original could be the orginal and the big budget New Line film be the rip off (intentional or accidental or just synchronicity - I'm not accusing anyone of theft, here, just noting who got there first). No matter what facts I produce, my film ripped off BLADE three years before it was released! Oh, and for those of you who are thinking, Wasn't BLADE based on a comic book? Check out the comic book, I did as soon as BLADE came out. Not a match.

Bad Timing can be getting there first and even getting there first and best. You can be ahead of the curve and miss it. Just wish someone would notice the writers who often seem to be ahead of the curve, buy one of our scripts, and wait for the curve to come. Wow, that was just me bitching and moaning and whining for a couple of pages. Sorry about that. Okay, next blog entry will *not* just be me complaining like a wimp...

It'll be about Kate Beckinsale...

Screenwritng Classes On CD - Recession Sale! - $5 Off!
Brand New Classes CD - Structural Freaks!

PS: The mock up poster for ALTITUDE went to just about every AFM company and a bunch of others a few years back.

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: No Money Options - should yu accept them?
Yesterday's Dinner: Carl's Jr - that double burger thing.
Bicycle: Just up to NoHo.

SCRIPT SECRETS: LONDON - October 10 & 11, 2009 - BIG IDEA class, using GHOST as our primary example and it includes the new Thematic element!


Sam Lobashev said...

Hello! Thank you for the blog! It has some wonderful entries. I love the idea of Hitchcock Fridays. And also your articles from

I'm an editor of a website for Russian screenwriters. Many of them don't speak English, so we thought it would be great to give them a chance to read articles on screenwriting originally written in English by Hollywood professionals.

We have already agreed with Terry Rossio to publish his great columns from

Can I, please, publish translations for some of the articles from there? They will be posted with links to original articles, of course.

You can reply here or e-mail me at slobashev()cinemotion. ru

Thanks a lot!

carpet said...

Bill, it may interest you to know that AIR FORCE TWO was made. I worked on it (in post production). Terrible movie, but it has a few hearty unintentional laughs thanks to some nepotistic casting.

Not much of it takes place on a plane, but I understand that the confusion the title creates (is it a sequel?) was enough to get the film greenlit because the confusion is very beneficial to the visibility of a very B movie.

Christopher said...

It is always frustrating to write something that later gets made. It always leave you thinking, "I was so close."

Years ago when I was actively trying to break into comics I wrote a script and an outline on the death of Batman. In my script Dick Grayson takes his place.

I got a really nice rejection notice and then later a really nice discussion with a DC editor about the story. One of the things they told me was that they would 1) never kill Batman & 2) they would never let an untested writer kill Batman.

Years later they killed Batman & replaced him with Dick Grayson. Someone who reads comics and knows that I pitched this idea asked if I was going to do anything about it. Which got them a hearty laugh. People just don't seem to understand how common it is for writers to come up with similar ideas. Happens all the time.

I did dust off the script and pass it on to my friend who read it and told me that it was nothing like what they had done. I wasn't surprised killing Batman isn't that unique of an idea. Now that script I just wrote on Wonder Woman, that's going to get me noticed.

carpet said...

wcmartell said...

Yes - when you are the first one there and they say, "We don't want this" and then a couple of years later someone else comes along with pretty much the same thing and suddenly it is *exactly* what they want. Hey! What about me!

(now I'm going to check out AF2 on IMDB)

- Bill

Anonymous said...

I made this comment about the similarity, but I never meant to accuse you of ripping off another persons´ idea. I apologise. I was just saying that it´s difficult to find an original concept.

wcmartell said...

No problemo! It was more about the frustration of having the script that got there first, but still didn't win.

martinb said...

The bitter taste of success.

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