Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Another Hollywood Tale; or, This is What Integrity Gets You

Reproduced with the kind permission of James A. Owen (comics creator and novelist – author of Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica series)

Originally published on his FaceBook page on Saturday 8 January 2011.

I've gotten lots of supportive comments about my recent adventures with Hollywood, along with a few incredulous ones from people who are utterly shocked that the sort of bait-and-switch I described actually happens. The thing is, not only DOES it happen, but that IS the norm for most players in Hollywood. That is simply a reality. That's why it is so, so important to hang on to the ones in the business whom you find who are truly honest, and deal with integrity.

And, I stress, the only real power you have in doing a Hollywood deal is the power to say no. So don't say yes until you're certain that you want the deal in front of you.

I once was friends with someone who knew a very powerful director-producer team in Hollywood, who offered to pass along my comics for consideration. These were no bottom-feeders, but cream of the Hollywood elite. I happily agreed, and we sent them a package. I got back a sixteen page agreement letter which said that just for looking at my comics, the director and producer would be attached to the property, FOREVER. Whether or not they picked it up, they would have a permanent stake in it. If someone ELSE picked it up, they'd be paid first. And on, and on, and on. And I called them and said there was no WAY my entertainment attorney would agree to let me sign that - and they responded with "Oh - you have representation? Well, just tear that up - you don't have to sign it."

Like I said - careful is the word.

But, as bad as my recent experience was, it was FAR from the worst experience I've had with Hollywood - and I didn't even find out how large a bullet I'd dodged until after the fact.

When I was trying to sell SOMETHING over there, or to publishers (before HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS happened), I often stayed with a friend and his roommates there in LA. One day, he introduced me to a young President of Production for a small studio called Limelight Films. We hit it off really well, and he took me to their offices on Sunset Boulevard to meet the rest of the team.

All of the staff was thirtysomething, and all had some kind of film experience or credits. The President had been a screenwriter; the VP was an actor, and so on. The Chairman, Bruno, was older and had been in film distribution in Europe. But it was the backers that were really intriguing: the main investor in Limelight was a European photographer named Ale, whose family owned a Swiss Investment Bank. And almost as importantly, he was engaged to the other principal - Charlie Chaplin's granddaughter, who gave the studio its name, after he grandfather's first film.

Swiss banking royalty plus Hollywood Royalty plus a young, hungry production team was a good combination.

Bruno and his team were so taken with me that they actually came to Arizona to visit the Coppervale Studio, and for a little while, Limelight Studio's offices on Sunset became my second home in LA. They loved EVERYTHING I had worked on: the different books, and comics, and all the ambitious things that I wanted to do at Coppervale. And one day, they made me an offer:

They wanted to invest in me, and buy half of EVERYTHING I owned. The Studio, and all the intellectual properties. And they intended to make my projects their base working slate not only for Limelight, but for use in their upcoming European Stock Offering, in which they expected to raise more than a hundred million dollars to fund expansion.

I was, as you can guess, more than thrilled.

I talked to Ale, who was excited, and to Miss Chaplin, who was very nice, if a step removed from all the stuff her fiance and Bruno were doing. And the whole team at Limelight was excited, because adding all my properties (Starchild, Mythworld, Dragons, and others) suddenly gave them more to work with than just running distribution on a bunch of Eastern European films.

So we started in on the negotiations - during which, I was pretty broke, and at risk of losing my actual Studio. So, on my next trip, I asked Bruno if there wasn't some way, pending the deal we were discussing, for Ale to arrange a mortgage on my Studio. He said sure, and called Ale, who debated it with him in French for forty minutes - and then declined. They didn't want to put ANY money into anything until the stock offering.

I said I was worried about defaulting - and he advised me to do just that, saying that after the stock offering we'd just build something bigger down the street. I said that wouldn't work for me - that I lived in a small community where I was trusted, and I couldn't just walk away without repercussions. And he said that people do that all the time - it's just good business if you can screw someone over.

This opened a window of clarity for me - so I got them to admit that yes, if I did the deal, it would be for stock only, in the company going public. Until then, no money. Which did not sit well with me, OR with my attorney. To give up half of everything with no guarantee did not make sense. So I held out.

And the more time I spent there, the more holes I saw in their plan. They had basically taken over all of their European distribution partners in the same way they proposed taking over Coppervale - half ownership, in exchange for participating in the stock offering. But in two years, they hadn't moved that forward. Bruno explained that it was because the investment bank required intellectual properties, which I could provide. So I was the key to making it all work.

And I almost agreed - until the visit where I overheard Bruno arguing with their electric company about why they were late on a light bill. And he explained it wasn't THEIR bill, but the debt left by the previous tenant, which they'd agreed to pay in six installments. I asked why a Swiss Investment Bank couldn't just write a check, and he said Ale doesn't like to put money into businesses - he expected them to fund themselves.

That was enough. In a long, six-hour meeting, I told Bruno that I didn't think they were really legit, and I wanted to walk away.

He pleaded with me by phone and email, and had Ale and Miss Chaplin call me - and I finally wrote him an email that said VERY clearly, "I will not be doing business with you, or Ale, or Limelight Studios in ANY way, now, or in the future. Period."

And that was that. And I went on my way, and got busy doing other things.

Then, a couple of years later, I was driving with my friend down Sunset and asked how our buddies at Limelight were doing - and he nearly wrecked the car. "I can't believe no one told you!" He said, incredulous. And then HE told me what happened after I left.

Because they were building the WHOLE IPO structure around ME and my properties, when I left, the ENTIRE PRODUCTION STAFF followed. They got some funding from a fashion mogul and set up their own studio elsewhere, and completely severed themselves from Limelight.

Then, later that year, both Bruno and Ale were arrested as the endgame of a two year long Federal Investigation. They were using Limelight's European Distribution network for illegal hijinks, and were charged with money laundering, drug smuggling, and gun running. Ale was sentenced to twenty years in Federal Prison, and Bruno to fifteen. And obviously, Miss Chaplin broke off her engagement, and that was the end of Limelight.

After my head stopped spinning over what I'd almost gotten into, I asked how I'd managed not to get pulled into it, and he told me the FBI had in fact recorded my calls, and tracked my emails - and it was my conclusions about Limelight's legitimacy and my refusal to work with them that put me in the clear.

So I suppose my best advice to those reading this to learn about Hollywood dealings is this: take your time. If someone wants you to do something in a hurry - as with that offer I got in December - it may be because they're worried what you'll find if you take the time to look more closely. Just remember - no one controls anything you do until you say yes. And there is NOTHING wrong with saying no until you're absolutely sure.

If I didn't believe that, then the story above might have had a VERY different ending.

Find out more about James on Wikipedia and at Coppervale International.

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