It's 1997. My writing partner and I are seated in a screening room on the Paramount lot. We are there with a handful of studio execs watching a movie: The 1955 comedy The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye.
In an earlier meeting, we have pitched the studios a basic take on a remake of The Court Jester. Now as we watch the movie unspool, we are cackling along with Kaye and co-stars Glynis Johns and Basil Rathbone as they circumnavigate a fun plot written by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, who also acted as co-directors. Here is just one of the classic bits from the movie:
Great stuff, right? How fun to take the basic story and provide a contemporary spin on it. As the movie flashes "The End" and the lights come up, the Paramount execs seem to be wholeheartedly in agreement. We toss around ideas right there in the screening room, each one topping the other. Perhaps the single best meeting I've ever taken in Hollywood.
Sure enough, within a few days, we get a call from CAA: "We are good to go on The Court Jester". The studio has agreed to our deal and they've kicked contract details to business affairs. Meanwhile pumped up to have the opportunity to adapt one of our favorite comedies, we leap into brainstorming, exploring ways to expand the story while honoring the fast-paced wit of the original.
Things are going along swimmingly. Indeed, I'm thinking to myself, sometimes life as a Hollywood screenwriter is a wondrous thing.
Then another phone call from CAA.
Agents: Uh, guys. Bad news. When business affairs dug into it, turns out… [dramatic pause]… Paramount doesn't own the rights to the movie.
What?! One of the very first images in the movie is the Paramount logo. We have a copy of the original script. Same thing: Paramount Pictures. Look at the poster. Right up top, it says, "Paramount Presents".
Agents: Sorry. They don't own it. [click]
You know how sometimes, a dial tone can be a really irritating sound? This is one of those times.
As I stand in my kitchen, mouth agape, the current soundtrack of my life the annoying 'errrgggh' of my phone, bastard deliverer of bad news that it is, one question seeps into my consciousness and across my lips.
"If Paramount doesn't own the movie rights to The Court Jester… who the hell does?"
This is Part 1 in a three-part series on the Birth, Life and Death of a Movie. Come back next week to read about some real-life plot twists worthy of the movie we were trying to adapt.
The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I've made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you'll be the wiser for what you learn here.
The Business of Screenwriting: The Birth, Life and Death of a Movie (Part 1) was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.