The following is one of three case studies presented in a longer essay entitled “So You Wanna Write a Television Pilot?” in which I discuss the many things that can go wrong in the process of developing a television series. Believe it or not, the trainwreck described below is not the worst of the lot. On the advice of my attorneys and my loved ones, the circumstances below have been heavily fictionalized to protect the innocent, and the guilty… and the wanton, the cruel, the venal, and the ones who just happened to wander into the crossfire and caught some shrapnel as a result.
For the whole story, check out my book Shoot This One, currently on sale at Amazon.
I was toiling away on The Hepcats — a doomed series about a team of Vespa-riding messengers hired by a top secret government agency to use their highly acrobatic scooter skills to take out the criminals the Feds JUST couldn’t nail — when I got a call from a friend at the UBS network…
Apparently UBS had just signed a contract with an up- and-coming young actor fresh out of one of their daytime soap operas — let’s call him “Armando Peludo.”
Armando Peludo had the kind of charisma that makes women swoon and men want to shake his hand. Total Mutual-of-Omaha’s-Wild-Kingdom-animal-magnetism combined with incredible acting chops.
Armando also had a very unique look — over six feet tall, beautiful dark skin, intense cobalt-blue eyes and long, curly hair. A physical presence this unique would pretty much be wasted in something as mundane as a cop show.
Did I have an idea for a single-lead show for a slightly off-center actor?
Why, yes I did — and it was called… The Asskicker!
An Aztec warrior, brought to the 20th century (yes, Mr. Peabody, set the Wayback machine to that long-ago time known as “the late ‘90s”) by mysterious forces and blessed with the ability to speak English, The Asskicker! now roams the streets and highways of America using unique Mesoamerican martial arts to take down the bad guys in the name of Quetzalcoatl — winged deity of pre- Columbian justice!
UBS hated it. They thought it was “too sci-fi.”
My agent liked it, however, and suggested that we take it to the Big Time Network (BTN) — a young, upstart channel with a taste for more “out there” programming.
BTN loved The Asskicker! They bought it in the room — where they also approved both the series concept and the pilot story. The game was afoot…
But BTN didn’t think I was a veteran enough producer to deliver a good pilot — I talked a good game, but did I have the chops to back it up in script? They suggested that we (and by “we” they meant me) recruit a successful guy with a major track record — let’s call him “Producer A.” He happened to be one of BTN’s favorite people — with whom they claimed to have a long-standing relationship.
Which made me wonder: If they had a long-standing relationship with the guy, why did they send me off to make the contact instead of calling him up themselves? That should have made red flags go up immediately…
But more on that in a minute.
Anyway, I dutifully arranged a meeting with Producer A, and sent him the script in advance. Yes, the script.
See, in my free time, I actually wrote the script to prove to myself that the story for The Asskicker! actually worked. I didn’t show it to the brass at BTN, but it made the pitch easier to sell because I wasn’t speaking theoretically. I had answers to all their questions because I knew the subject matter in and out.
By the way — about this meeting I arranged — well, I contacted Producer A, not through my agent, but through a friend who happened to be Producer A’s assistant.
Big mistake. Because from the beginning, Producer A saw me not as a peer, but as his assistant’s “little buddy” who lucked into selling a pilot and needed his help.
Lesson learned: Don’t ever make a call you can have your “people” make for you. Also, never let anybody call you “buddy,” if you aren’t willing to let them see you as an inferior.
Anyway, Producer A read The Asskicker! and loved… the premise.
Yep, the premise… and only the premise.
But he still wanted to get involved. Why? It turned out that Producer A’s first writing gig ever was the short-lived cult hit Nightboar of New York — the darkly romantic tale of a young policewoman’s impossible love for a noble, crime-fighting anthropomorphic man-pig who lived in a cave in Central Park (it still shows up on cable every once in a while). For a long time, Producer A had truly yearned to do something in a similar vein.
Before continuing, let’s revisit the issue of why BTN didn’t call Producer A on my behalf. At the time, Producer A was under contract to do a show for another network… but he liked the premise of The Asskicker! so much that he decided to get involved.
BTN didn’t want to make the call themselves because they would be poaching on another network’s contract — by sending me in, a little guy who lucked into selling a pilot, they had plausible deniability. Not to mention that what I did by getting him “pregnant” with The Asskicker! meant that he would go the extra mile to smooth things over with his other corporate overlords who would balk at the idea of him doing a show for a rival network.
Lesson learned: Don’t be anyone’s monkey. If some big organization isn’t willing to make the call on your behalf, don’t make the call for them — ask them why.
Did I mention that The Asskicker! was sold very late in the development season?
That’s an important detail: Because we sold The Asskicker! in October, when most networks have already closed up shop — having bought their pilot pitches between July and September — I had to execute Producer A’s page-one rewrite in about a week and a half in order to get the script in to the network brass in time to decide whether or not to greenlight the thing.
So I moved into the office next door to Producer A. While he worked on his other show — and before anybody could protest, but also before a formal deal could be made — we created a new story and I wrote nonstop.
While still called The Asskicker!, the new script was a lot softer now and featured considerably less kicking of ass than promised by the title. Heavily influenced by the urban-gothic-fantasy tone of Nightboar of New York, this version of The Asskicker! was a dark, brooding romance in which The Asskicker voluntarily transported himself from pre-Columbian Mexico to modern day Los Angeles to protect a beautiful, crusading Chicano lawyer who may or may not have been the reincarnation of his dead Aztec Princess wife.
In the meantime, the other network with whom Producer A had a contract got massively pissed off that their man was working on a series for another network and came to think of me as the antichrist for diverting Producer A’s focus. To this day, I have not worked on a show for that network.
Now, during the rewriting process, the Vice President in charge of Drama Development at BTN was told — very specifically — by both me and Producer A, about the changes being made to The Asskicker!
However, on the day the script was turned in two things happened:
Producer A went out of the country on vacation and I received a very peevish call from the VP: where the hell was the show I sold them, the show they bought in the room? I pitched an edgy action/adventure about an ass-kicking Aztec warrior and delivered a brooding romance about a Chicano lawyer!
So, being the go-get-them guy that I am, I decided that if Producer A chose to leave the country at this crucial moment, the responsibility was on me to save the project… and I told the VP that I had already written the script for the series I pitched.
Naturally, he asked to read it… and the next day, I got an ecstatic call. He loved it!
His next question? Why didn’t I give them this script in the first place? (Uh…because they were so hell bent on getting Producer A involved at that time that it wouldn’t have mattered!)
Then came the kicker… would it be OK if I did script revisions on both my version and the one I wrote with Producer A? You know, since we’d come this far, why not have two scripts to choose from?
I got no sleep for the next three days. I did all their notes and rewrites — and, for a moment, I was in the weird position of having written competing projects, both named The Asskicker!, and both at the same network.
The word finally came in a week later. I won the lottery! The network wanted to greenlight The Asskicker! My version. The show I sold them.
Producer A — who, in spite of everything, truly had done me a big favor by getting involved — and I parted ways amicably and remain friends to this day. But I was right back where I started: an untested writer/ producer who, in spite of having written the script the network wanted to produce, was not trusted to head the production, manage a multi-million dollar budget, hire a director and deliver a great pilot.
BTN, and Big Time Studios (BTS), the network’s corporate partner, was handed the project for production… and they went on the hunt for a showrunner. Ultimately, they settled on Producer Z.
Being a Huge Deal, Producer Z would not deign to sit down with me and talk about the project until his deal to Executive Produce the pilot and series was complete. However, during that time, I met with the BTS brass and they assured me that just because they were going to pay a guy a huge amount of money to come in and executive produce my pilot and showrun a potential series didn’t mean it wouldn’t be my project anymore.
At most — I was told — Producer Z would do a “dialogue polish” to show that he was involved, and I would still be able to see my creative vision on the screen and be actively involved in the running of the series.
Several days passed after that meeting. Producer Z’s deal finally closed, and he called to tell me that we needed to “swap some spit.” Rather than to tell him that his metaphor was not entirely correct and more than a little inappropriate — I rushed over to his office to talk to him.
Actually, I didn’t rush to his office. I went and bought a new shirt and had my car washed. Why? Because I expected us to get along famously… and after talking for hours, we would go to lunch together, and at that lunch, we would see all sorts of famous celebrities, and brag to them about how I wrote a great script and he was just the man to bring it to the screen in all its glory.
Seriously, I was like Dirk Bogarde in the lead-up to the closing scene of Visconti’s adaptation of Death in Venice…only in a bowling shirt and a Kangol beanie.
Fuck you, it was the ‘90s.
Upon arriving at his office to meet me, Producer Z’s opening was to tell me that, for the past four days, he had been working closely with BTS on his complete and total rewrite of my pilot.
You heard that right: For. Four. Days.
Producer Z and the very same people who — less than 12 hours before — told me to my face that my creative vision would be respected had been completely revamping my pilot in their image long before his deal had closed.
After a few further awkward words, Producer Z excused himself because, he “had to get to the gym.”
I called my agent. He screamed. I screamed. Everybody screamed… and before the dust settled, a messenger from the production office of my own pilot (an office I didn’t even know existed, and to which I had never been invited — much less offered a space) showed up on my doorstep with a script.
The cover read:
THE HISPANIC ANGEL OF BOYLE HEIGHTS: Written by Producer Z
Not only was my name nowhere to be seen, but the script told the heartbreaking, magical-realist story of a young Chicano cop, killed in the line of duty during the Watts riots and mysteriously brought back to life 30 years later to protect a single mother and an alcoholic priest trying to keep their neighborhood safe from gangs. This “Hispanic Angel of Boyle Heights” also played the saxophone on the roof of his tenement at night. You know, because he was a sensitive, artistic kinda guy.
Not unsurprisingly, the network got this script and screamed “where’s the project we bought?!?” Big Time Studios — which, along with Big Time Network was a wholly owned subsidiary of Big Time Global, and with whom they should have arguably had that mythical simpatico known as “corporate synergy” — claimed that the network had agreed on Producer Z, and surely must have understood that “you don’t get Producer Z without letting Producer Z do what Producer Z does.”
Although that’s the price you apparently pay when you get Producer Z, BTN nonetheless insisted that Producer Z go back to my original version of the script. You know, the show they bought.
In a spectacularly misplaced display of integrity, Producer Z held his ground, insisting that he would only produce his version of the show. Throwing their arms up in the air, the network pulled the greenlight and called it a day.
Lessons learned: trust no one. Believe no one. They’ll suck your soul and then complain about how awful it tastes! The world wants you dead! Dead! Dead!
Uh. Sorry. Unresolved. Moving on.
After the debacle that was The Asskicker! I went through a long period of mourning. I wondered why anyone would subject a potential collaborator and ally, someone coming to them in good faith with a golden egg — a greenlit pilot at a network — to so humiliating a level of betrayal.
There are two answers to this.
One is that BTS had spent a long time developing their own projects for BTN — some of them even in the action/ adventure/supernatural arena — and they didn’t want a project they did not have their fingers in to succeed. It would have made them look bad.
The second explanation is simple. Have you ever wondered why big kids beat up smaller kids and take their milk money? Because they can.
Though best known as one of the Emmy award-winning producers of Lost, and as creator of The Middleman, Javier Grillo-Marxuach is a prolific writer of TV, comic books, movies, transmedia content, and the occasional essay. Grillo-Marxuach currently co-hosts — with Agent Carter co-executive producer Jose Molina — the Children of Tendu podcast, which aims to teach new writers how to negotiate the entertainment industry with decency and integrity. He tweets here.