Monday, July 16, 2012


I was having a lively discussion with a friend about submitting scripts to producers.

He was a touch annoyed about the 'no unsolicited submissions' policy most producers have. The policy generally means that, if you send in your script that they have neither asked for, nor been recommended, the producer will very likely return it to you unread and, in most cases, unopened. 

Their fear is being sued for plagiarism.

My friend felt this was an overly bureaucratic response to a small risk, and unnecessarily created an industry for 'middle men'. like agents. 

It's a tough argument to win, either way. Yes, you could argue that adding too many processes and 'filters' diminishes our ability to see, and therefore produce, new and interesting work. You could also argue that being sued for plagiarism, losing and being declared bankrupt also diminishes your ability to produce anything.

To get us both thinking, I told my friend about a case of alleged story theft that I had heard of. It relates to the Tom Cruise blockbuster film, 'The Last Samurai'.

The Producers of the film, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, were sued by two brothers, Aaron and Matthew Benay. The brothers claimed they wrote a script called 'The Last Samurai', also about an American war veteran going to Imperial Japan to train the Japanese army, and pitched it to the Producers verbally. 

The brothers claim their story was then used as the basis for the eventual film that Zwick and Herskovitz produced, 'The Last Samurai'. They were paid nothing.

Warner Brothers, the studio involved, argued that it was coincidence, and that multiple writers accidentally developing similar storylines is common place in Hollywood. It is part and parcel of having so many writers trying to get their work produced, in a world where only so many films are made a year.   

In what would be especially upsetting to the brothers, the film went on to make over $400 million at the worldwide box office. Ouch.

And here is where it gets really interesting. 

On the eve of the trial, an anonymous letter arrived, purporting to have emails showing the Producers' guilt. 

The brothers argued it was damning evidence, with emails clearly showing theft and deception.

The studio argued that they were forgeries and that the brothers had not taken any steps to verify the documents were not tampered with. In fact, the studio alleged, it was likely that the brothers had played some part in the creation of the anonymous letter an the forged documents.

The brothers claimed they played no part in the letter and alleged the documents showed handwriting and email signatures that demonstrated their authenticity. 

In response, somewhat dramatically, the studio had the documents forensically analysed to show they were forgeries.

At this point, it no doubt seemed like the case had reached the peak of its intrigue.

But the most dramatic allegation came next.

The brothers alleged that the studio, after a meeting, took the glasses of water they were drinking from and sent them for DNA testing. The DNA evidence was to be used to show that the brothers had a connection to the anonymous letter.  

Amazing stuff.

In the end, however, the Producers, Zwick and Herskovitz, were vindicated and won the lawsuit.

When I finished telling the story, my friend blinked really hard and said: "Nice story, but what does that have to do with the whole 'unsolicited submission' problem?"

I thought about it for second.

I said: "It shows how complicated the whole unsolicited submission process can get when it goes badly, hence why they don't take the risk."

Not a bad answer.

Ironically though, it actually shows that the stories behind making movies in Hollywood, can be far more interesting than the movies Hollywood is actually making.

It's great fodder for writers.

If you can get anyone to read the script.

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