The following true Hollyweird story is long and detailed, and I debated whether or not to share it because the filmmaking community is small and I'm not trying to call out people, even if they deserve it. However, I think it's important for budding writers to be aware of how unscrupulous people will try to take advantage of them, and I also think it's important for people to realize that abuse in a professional or any setting should never be tolerated.
LIFE AFTER BLUECAT
In 2010, I was a finalist of The BlueCat Screenplay Contest for my script The Physicist, a family drama about a Chinese-American family adjusting to life in a small town in Kansas. The story was very personal to me because I was raised Chinese-American in a small town in Kansas, and my script was an ode to my childhood and my town.
After my finalist placement was announced, the head of Bluecat, Gordy Hoffman, met with me for coffee to give me script advice. He was blunt with what I needed to fix, and he said that once I made changes, he thought that I should make the film. He gave me some information about how to put an indie movie together and his suggestion about how much he thought it would cost. His advice was reasonable and he was encouraging, but after the meeting, I knew deep down that I was not going to make my own film that year. Because of my debt from film school, the idea of asking people and spending a large sum of money scared me. The Physicist would metaphorically sit on a shelf and collect dust.
MERCEDES IS THE MAN WHO WILL MAKE MY HOLLYWOOD DREAMS COME TRUE!
About a year later, I was contacted by a man, who I will refer to as Mercedes. Mercedes told me that he was a director looking for Chinese-American writers and scripts. He had contacts in China who were only interested in Chinese or Chinese-American content, and he had learned about me because of my placement with Bluecat and through an Asian-American organization where we were both members. He said that he wanted to speak with me about writing feature scripts for him for deferred payment, and as per his request, I sent him The Physicist as a writing sample.
Shortly after, I met with Mercedes at his production company, and he told me that he had directed one short film that starred Asian-American actors I recognized. He then told me that his producing partner had made several films that had gone straight to video. He and I connected with our passion for the need to create quality Asian-American stories, and I liked that he seemed hungry to make a name for himself as a director the way that I was hungry to prove myself as a writer. He shared with me that he wanted to direct The Physicist, that he wanted me to rewrite his Asian-American script, and that he wanted me to write a third script based off a pitch from a Chinese production company. He then showed me a budget breakdown and his proposal for his Asian-American script, and in the proposal, he included the actors who would star in the film. One actress was someone I had met years ago, and I really respected her. If she was signed on to be involved, then I definitely wanted to be a part of the project.
Overall, after our meeting, I was ecstatic. I was only two years out of film school, and I had proven my talent with screenplay contests and now I was being offered a three-picture deal.
"This would be a good opportunity for all of us, but it's dependent on funding," he said, "But if you're a team player, then I think we can make this happen." He then stressed to me how important it was that everyone he worked with was a "team player" because he was passionate about filmmaking and only wanted to surround himself with passionate people. He told me that even though I was the writer, he wanted to keep me updated with the producing aspects of the films, and I thought that was cool.
YOU CAN'T MAKE A MOVIE WITHOUT FUNDING
Our next step was to get the funding from the film investors from China. Mercedes, his producing partner, and I had dinner one night with the investors. The few there who could speak English told me more about what their company did, and I told them about my background. They thought my life story of growing up in Kansas was fascinating, and then Mercedes showed them information about my books, my film school education, and writing awards. They seemed impressed, and they gave me their business cards before the night was over.
The next day, Mercedes gave me the call that changed everything. The investors had liked Mercedes and his partner's business plan and they had liked me. They wanted to fully fund Mercedes' three projects: The Physicist, his original script, and the script based off the pitch from the Chinese company. Mercedes wanted me to start working right away on the pitch script's treatment, and I asked him when he would give me a contract to sign. He stated that he would get me a contract later, but that the Chinese investors were only in town for a short while and that they needed a treatment before they left. Wanting to be a team player, I quickly wrote what he wanted, and he submitted my work to them. He told me that they were satisfied with what I did but that they would probably have more notes. I brought up the contract again, and he stated that he would probably budget $1,000 for each script. I was shocked at how low this was, considering how demanding he was with my time and how this number was a discrepancy from the budget breakdown he had shown me in our first meeting. I asked him if the upfront payment was low but that I would be getting a share of profits if the movies did well. "Um, no," he said. I was confused because I thought that was the whole point of deferred payment. People got shitty upfronts in the gamble that something paid well in the future. "You're not sounding passionate," Mercedes said. "I don't like how you're only caring about money."
"But are other people getting a portion of the profits?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, "But they've been investing a lot more than you, so it's fair that they'd earn more."
I was upset, but I didn't know how to argue with him considering how I already done so much work for free. He then told me that he had one final meeting with the head of the Chinese financing company before everyone left town. Even though I wasn't invited to go to the meeting in person, Mercedes wanted me to be involved. I asked if a translator would be there, and he said probably not but Mercedes needed to speak with me in case the head of the company had notes about the story.
"What time are you meeting?" I asked.
"We're going to go out on Sunday and then we'll have the talk afterwards," Mercedes said.
"So what time is that?" I asked.
"I'm not sure. Just stay by the phone."
During this period of time, I had a boyfriend who was a talent assistant, and I asked him if this kind of scheduling was normal. "Absolutely not," he said. My boyfriend and I had a date planned for Sunday, and he thought it was weird that I wanted to cancel my plans to sit around, waiting for a phone meeting. Needless to say, I ended up agreeing with him, and we went out. During those hours, never once did I receive a phone call.
"MAYBE IT'S THAT YOU'RE TOO YOUNG AND THIS SITUATION IS NEW FOR YOU"
Later that night, my boyfriend and I returned back to my place, and we got ready for bed. That's when my phone rang.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" my boyfriend said.
"Should I answer it?"
"He calls you at night on a Sunday to be on a phone call in a language you barely understand?"
My boyfriend was tired, but the logic from his crankiness could not be ignored. Plus, I worked an office job that I needed to be at the next day.
"I don't know if I should answer it..." I said.
"No one sane conducts business like this!"
By the time we got done debating, my phone stopped ringing, and I received notice that I had a voicemail.
"Just go to sleep," my boyfriend said. "Deal with it in the morning like a normal person."
I should’ve listened to my boyfriend, but I still wanted to be a team player even though the myriad of red flags should've scared me away. I went ahead and listened to Mercedes' voicemail, and he was urging me to call him back. I called him back, and he didn't answer.
“Just go to sleep,” my boyfriend urged. I agreed to just deal with it all in the morning. What a mistake that was. Mercedes called me two other times that night, berating my lack of professionalism and telling me that I was dropped from the project. Angry that I had done work for him for free and upset that he was firing me, I decided to just cut my losses and send him an acknowledgement that morning that our working relationship was severed. See my email below:
His response was priceless, and by priceless, I mean abusive and condescending. Also, when you read this, please note the discrepancy of the money that he claimed the Chinese investors were giving him to pay for a writer and how much he had offered me earlier. See Mercedes' email below:
This whole story was unnecessarily dramatic and occurred in a span of approximately a week. (Yes, that was the timeline. Amazing, right?)
I left the experience feeling exhausted and exploited, but I was also thankful that I hadn't given up any rights. Luckily, unbeknownst to Mercedes, I had been repped by an entertainment lawyer for a few years and I was somewhat educated in deals for writers. I should've consulted with my lawyer before ever starting work for Mercedes, but that was a rookie mistake on my part. Plus, Mercedes' manner was so chaotic, abrassive, and rushed that I tended to do things quickly for him without thinking.
Lesson learned: Assholes will try to manipulate you to doing things that are in their best interest but not yours. Be smart. Tell them to fuck off.
THE STORY IS NOT OVER
Some time after the fall out, Mercedes began to contact me again, but to my surprise, he approached me with humility and he even apologized. However, I wasn't interested in working with him. If he acted like that in one week, what would he act like once I had signed something and was obliged to put up with his behavior? Plus, he had already shown me his greed and lack of respect for me as a person, for my time, and for my talent. No amount of money would ever make his abuse worth my energy. He attempted to contact me several times, but I ignored him.
In May of 2012, Mercedes called me again, and in his voicemail, he informed me that he needed a rewrite for his script and he had secured funding. He stated that he needed the rewrite done in one week, and he offered $1,000. Based on the timeline and money offered, I deducted that he hadn't really changed from my experience with him before. I listened to this query without responding directly, and I sent the information to my lawyer, asking him to deal with Mercedes because clearly Mercedes had no respect for me.
My lawyer spoke with Mercedes about the deal, and Mercedes now offered $2,000! I'm a fast writer, and making $2,000 in one week sounded awesome, but at the same time, I had friends who made $10K off of an indie film rewrite where they were give several months to complete the project. Taking a lower number with less time just made me feel undervalued. My lawyer countered back with an absurd number, which I knew would scare Mercedes away. My plan worked, and Mercedes said he didn't have that kind of dough and that he was talking with another writer who was repped by CAA anyway.
Good riddance.To this day, I have heard nothing about Mercedes making movies, and this is quite telling considering that he actually was able to secure funding, which is usually the main barrier for a filmmaker to make his film.
The button of this story happened shortly after when I attended an event, and I ran into the actress that Mercedes had listed in his film proposal for his movie. I asked her what was new with the project, and she had no idea what I was talking about. Although she had met Mercedes once in a professional setting, she had never signed up to be in his movie.