“The wonderful world of Disney: They like me, they really like me.”
By Margaret Webb
For Flare Magazine
• I never enter screenwriting contests. I resent the entry fee, the photocopying costs and the postage, only to have my work tossed into a pile with thousands of other scripts. I don’t play the lottery. I don’t like the odds. I don’t like paying to lose.
• Then, one fine spring morning, a friend put an application for the ABC Entertainment and the Walt Disney Studio Writing Fellowship Program in my mailbox. I had never even heard of the Disney fellowship, though it, the Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project and the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting comprise the “Big Three” Hollywood screenwriting contests to discover new writing talent. Rather than awarding cash, the Disney awards a job—$34,000 US (plus health benefits and a relocation stipend) to write in Los Angeles for a year, under the mentorship of Disney executives. Plus, the Disney application has no entry fee.
• I had just finished a Disney-esque screenplay about a Canadian racehorse. Though optioned, the script was deemed too expensive for Canada, too Canadian for foreign markets. My career was also stumbling in the starting gate—I needed more experience and some confidence-boosting glamour. Then, I recalled a premonition I’d had year earlier: I would move to L.A.
• Why not gamble on Disney? Given that 2,000 writers apply for the four fellowships, I didn’t sweat the application. “Why do you want to be a Disney fellow?” Because I love the Wonderful World of Disney.
• Four months later, I passed beneath seven massive columns—each one a Seven Dwarf—guarding the entrance to the real world of Disney. I was attending a cocktail reception hosted by then-Disney Studios chairman Joe Roth to honour the fellowship winners. I was the lone Canadian. I was still in shock. Roth told us the biggest obstacle to a studio career was getting “in.” Now, we were in—all we had to do was write and be creative. The three executives assigned to guide me told me how much they liked my script and how everyone was on the lookout for “the next big horse film” (though not mine—too Canadian). One even liked my application.
• After this first exhilarating feed of Hollywood hype, I settled into the work of being a studio screenwriter. I bought my dream car, a convertible Miata, bleached my hair surfer-blond, spiffed up my writer’s wardrobe of black jeans with a Jones New York leather jacket and moved into a vintage ’50s Hollywood apartment leased by another Canadian writer, Brenda McFarlane, who was starting a TV-writing career in L.A.
• We lived in the epicentre of the city: a five-minute walk from premieres at Mann’s Chinese Theatre; 10 minutes from the Sunset Strip’s Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi OD’d; two minutes south of Runyan Canyon, over-looking the Hollywood sign, where, in 1922, actor Peg Entwistle jumped to her death off of the “H” ; around the corner from the Landmark Hotel, where Janis Joplin OD’d.
• We worked at home but met at the studio for weekly breakfast meetings with real insiders invited to speak to us, including The West Wing co-creator and director Tommy Schlamme, Coyote Ugly’s Gina Wendkos and Spike Lee scribe Reggie Blythewood. They gave us their scoop on everything from pitching to score the $250,000 and up a studio pays for a high-concept idea to landing rewrite assignments that pay up to $50,000 a week to handling endless meetings (about 60 to introduce a new writer to studios), even how to dress—which is like a writer, so no expensive suits or flashy labels and never better than an executive. Nearly all were men, most wrote with a partner and few seemed fulfilled: screenwriters yearned for the power that TV writers wield while TV writers yearned for the artistry of film.
• I met with my executives about once a month to pitch ideas and get critiques and career guidance. First round, I took 45 minutes to pitch one idea. They gave me notes (“feedback” in the industry) and sent me away to write the script. Before handing in the draft, I nearly fainted in the elevator, gripped by a premonition that they wouldn’t like it. They didn’t.
• A friend and I visited a psychic on Venice Beach, who said my friend would become famous. She told me I had premonitions.
• Journal entry: The absolutely cool thing about yesterday’s horrific meeting is that I’m in the program, so they still have to pay me.
• We four fellows commiserated. Except for one of us, our first projects met with less enthusiasm than we wanted. We went to nightclubs and about a million movies and still invited the successful one. We pitched each other ideas, read screenwriting books, studied Hollywood (what films made money, who was up, who was down). We took screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s seminar—thanks to Disney shelling out the $600 fee.
• Journal entry: Realized I’m in a pretty good space after meeting new writer friend who’s been in biz for years. Think he’s suicidal.
• In L.A., community, friendships and working relationships are as fragile as the city’s substratum: at any second, a fault can open and suck you into the black pit. But I was learning to repress, dress, press on. I emailed home news of celebrity sightings: saw Brad Pitt drive by while dog peed on Hollywood Boulevard; passed Ellen jogging up Runyan Canyon; scored big with fellows at a retrospective when I invited Election director Alexander Payne out for drinks and he picked up the tab; went to not-so-screaming party at Wes Craven’s house; dog roughed up by Shirley MacLaine’s pooch while walking on a Malibu beach—Shirley not so endearing.
• The winter rains stopped and spring arrived in March, bringing 10 more months of solid sunshine and another pitching session. This time, I pitched five ideas in 45 minutes. The executives really liked two. One was a family feature about a gang kid who, in taming a wild horse, tames himself and his pals—potentially a big studio flick. Two executives thought I should write it if I wanted a studio career. The other was a quirky, gay romantic comedy, deemed an indie film. The third executive thought it a better showcase for my writing.
• They let me decide. In the pressure cooker, it felt like choosing between Hollywood and my soul. Everyone knows what happened to William Holden in Sunset Blvd. I drove into the desert and watched a wild-horse gentler at work. He was very patient, very calm, teaching one lesson at a time. I chose Hollywood. I could always write the quirky indie later.
• Time was ticking. I researched exhaustively, wrote 10 hours a day, worked weekends, dreamed wild horses. I turned in a first draft. The morning I was to get notes, I hiked up Runyan Canyon at daybreak, prayed to the Hollywood sign, tripped on the way back down, severely spraining my thumb. Would I ever type again?
• At the meeting, the executives gave no notes, instead spending the hour talking about how much they liked the script. They kept comparing it to the soon-to-be-released film Remember the Titans. Behind the scenes, the Disney film was market-testing through the roof. Execs were already on the lookout for the next Titans. “Listen, we can’t make any promises here but, if you can work our notes into the next draft….” A producer came on board. He gave notes.
• In 10 years of the fellowship program, Disney has not made a fellow’s film. The four executives now on my team wanted to make mine. I took a day off to recover from a hangover.
• With less than a month left in the program, I started to rewrite. The September heat wave hit. I jammed two keys (including the comma) and broke the space bar on my keyboard. (Later, a repairman said it looked like my laptop had been through the holy wars.) No time to fix it then. I avoided commas, telling myself I was inventing a breathless style of dialogue.
• With a week left and 50 pages still to rewrite, Titans was released. It made about $21 million in its first weekend. A Disney exec called Monday morning: “Do you know how much Titans made this weekend?” Tuesday morning another executive called: “We think your script could be the next Titans.” Wednesday, another exec: “Could I get the rewrite in a day early so the president can read it?”
• Over the next month and the three executive meetings that Disney took to make the decision, I prepared myself for the worst but went to see houses in the Hollywood Hills, just in case. I saw some very nice bungalows selling in the $1-$2-million range. Disney sent my script to about 10 L.A. agents and managers. I had meetings with four. They said the same thing: they liked my script, but no one’s making family films anymore except Disney, so if Disney passes…. But they really wanted to read my next script, that quirky indie one.
• The morning I was to hear, I read an article in the L.A. Times about the market-testing of Titans. It quoted Disney’s co-president of marketing, who said the test audiences wanted Hollywood to make more movies like Titans. The phone rang. It was Disney.
• I sold the Miata, said goodbye to the Hollywood apartment and my new L.A. friends and left the real world of Disney. Apparently, the other executives saw my script more as a horse film than a Titans and who was making horse films anymore?
• Back in Toronto, Canadian producers seemed eager to meet with me, if only to bombard me with questions about my Hollywood experience. I feel a bit like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown being slapped by Jack Nicholson. I won. Slap of another question. I lost. Slap. I lost and I won.
• They want to read that quirky indie film, too. And I think the odds are getting better.