Timeliness

Most of my ideas for TV or movie projects are inspired by actual events or people I read about in newspapers and magazine articles. The twists I add usually come from either some personal connection to the subject matter, or playing the “what if” game that combines elements from two different, seemingly-unrelated stories.

But the news angle doesn’t stop there for me. As a former journalist and marketing professional, I’ve always tried to tie my pitches into today’s headlines, while anticipating what might be trending tomorrow. The problem though is you will often find that the people you are pitching to are more interested in what’s doing well right now at the box office, and your idea might be ahead of its time. Then a few years go by, and you see a new movie/TV series or book come out, which is similar in concept because other writers were inspired by the same news item or event… and they stuck with it, while you (or your agent/manager) felt you should shelve your draft if it didn’t get any traction.

Sure, I agree you should move on to new projects if your work is getting passed on when it first goes out. However, as a veteran screenwriter once told me, good screenplays or books are like real estate. Just because it didn’t sell right away, does not mean it won’t sell later depending on what’s currently hot in the marketplace. Sometimes you can find a new, timely angle that can transform a fixer-upper into a property with great potential.

I’ll give you a personal example. When Whitney Houston died, my first reaction was sadness. As a recovering alcoholic. who did copious amounts of cocaine in the ’80s and smoked a lot of grass in the ’70s during my college days, I’m no stranger to substance abuse. I also party’d with a number of talented musicians in NYC when I was hanging out at jazz clubs in the Village. Whitney’s mom, Cissy Houston, used to perform at Seventh Avenue South, my home away from work. It was owned by the Brecker Brothers, well known jazz artists in their own right, and frequented by members of Dave Letterman’s house band, along with guys from the Saturday Night Live orchestra. I remember seeing a black and white flyer posted on the SOS door announcing the appearance of Cissy’s daughter, Whitney. She looked so young and cute. Although I didn’t go to that gig, I heard she was great — high praise coming from a tough crowd that was accustomed to seeing the best jazz talent in the world perform on that small stage upstairs.

After I moved to Hawaii in 1985, it didn’t surprise me her career blew up big time. But it never occurred to me that I’d meet someone who was related to Whitney here on Oahu. As it happened, I wound up doing a little freelance copywriting for James Arceneaux. In prior blog posts, I’ve recounted how he went into the music biz, then became Eddie Murphy’s personal assistant. Over the years, we’ve collaborated on a few ideas for TV series and movies. Anyway, James never made a big deal about it, but had told me Dionne Warwick was his aunt. Dionne’s cousin is Cissy Houston, so he’s also distantly related to Whitney. He had a much more direct connection to her though. James moved to L.A., where he lived with Anita Pointer (of the Pointer Sisters) in her Beverly Hills mansion. At the time, he was one of Bobby Brown’s managers.

Since I was working on TV pitches for him and Anita, I sent them my REHAB series idea. He said Anita was especially interested in that one because her younger sister, June, had a drug problem. James asked if I would be willing to talk to June about my rehab experience. I said, yes, of course. But she never called. Around the same time, James told me that Whitney’s drug problems were creating problems in regards to Bobby Brown’s career. I thought I was hearing things, because Bobby was the one with the bad rep — not Whitney. In time, news reports would confirm everything James told me off the record years before it became public knowledge.

Eventually, I wrote a bible for REHAB that was shopped around briefly to a few studios. The small prodco that was taking it into meetings said the studios were only interested if I could turn it into a reality TV series, the hot new trend back then. I told them that would be difficult because of anonymity issues with treatment centers, which is why I presented it as a scripted drama/comedy series that would be “ripped from the headlines”… those headlines would include Whitney’s arrest in Hawaii for possession of marijuana, along with other famous entertainers who were in and out of rehab.

In the subsequent years that pitch was sitting in my desk drawer, I saw reality TV series such as A&E’s Intervention and VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew become solid hits for those channels. I’ve seen scripted medical dramas come and go. I saw Breaking Bad score big with dark comedy about drugs and addiction… and I kept thinking, sooner or later, someone will either make my REHAB series or greenlight something just like what I had in mind.

So when Whitney’s death and history of drug problems hit the airwaves this past week, I took a chance and emailed an updated version of my REHAB pitch to one of the big agencies. Less than an hour later I received a reply from an agent in their television division saying he was “definitely interested” and would be reading my bible this week. Will anything come of it? I don’t know. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get. If you believe in the core concept of your project, don’t give up on it. Markets and attitudes towards the topic material can change with the zeitgeist. You may think I was being opportunistic or you can accuse me of trying to cash in on a personal tragedy. The way I see it is my TV series could help troubled souls by showing them there is life after sobriety. In Whitney’s case, I think her real addiction was to fame.

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