In this essay, Robopocalypse author Daniel Wilson talks about what it's really like to work as a writer in Hollywood, with the big highs and even bigger lows.
I remember it clearly. I'm twenty-six years old, pacing around on the phone outside an Ethiopian restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I'm trying to figure out who the guy is on the other end of the line in a polite way, and also to determine exactly how he is trying to scam me. He says that he is my film agent and that Paramount has offered to buy the rights to my book How to Survive a Robot Uprising. A mid five-figure check is coming my way as soon as I say yes. That's more money than I've ever laid hands on in my life. Also, I didn't know I had a film agent.
It was one hell of a phone call.
That was how I was introduced to the world of film rights. It's the "manna from heaven" model. And yes, I'm aware that nobody deserves that kind of luck, especially not some young punk who hasn't paid any dues. Yet.
For the first year or two, I was completely convinced that Paramount was going to make my movie (they didn't). When Mike Myers was cast as the star, I was pretty sure that we were going to meet, and if not become best friends, then at least be featured extras on each others' Christmas card list (we didn't and we aren't). Instead, the entire process revealed itself as the slow soul-crushing exercise that it really is.
So here it is, my breakdown of the two simple stages of a Hollywood soul-crushing. I should note that this is completely subjective, and based solely on my own idiosyncratic experiences.
Stage One: The honeymoon period.
For "How to Survive a Robot Uprising," this was the three years while Paramount chose to extend the option another 18 months, paid Tom Lennon and Ben Garant an obscene amount of money for a truly hilarious script, and flew me to Hollywood for a meeting with the studio head. Movie web sites started to write articles about casting decisions. Sometimes journalists called me up. People congratulated me as if the movie were already shot. And I started to like reading the articles. I began Googling my own book title. Eventually, I found my movie's stock ticker on HSX and I'd watch it wiggle, fascinated.
It's the daydreaming during Stage One that ruined me later.
I tried not to do it. But sometimes I'd think about my characters or jokes or themes brought to life on the big screen. Think of details about the script, and wonder if I'd be allowed to be eviscerated by a robot in the background of my own movie. I'd imagine buying plane tickets to visit the set. What would it be like to watch the orchestra that scores my movie? Will the actors be nice? What about the director? Will there really be a little canvas Director chair? How many books will it help sell? Will there be toys? A video game? And how big will the movie budget be? Because the bonus that arrives at the start of principal photography is tied directly to those numbers.
I didn't let myself think about this stuff at first, but it builds. After a couple of years, I had a whole interior fantasy world going. I knew it wasn't healthy, but what could I do? I write for a living, and not fantasizing is like not flexing my biggest (and, well, only) muscle.
But every honeymoon ends.
Stage Two: What happens after the other phone call.
So maybe now is a good time to talk about how it feels when you get the other call. The one where the studio has decided to relinquish those rights back. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but for me it starts with my scalp kind of going cold. My agent or whoever is on the phone, trying to put a positive spin on it. Or else I'm just reading about it from Deadline Hollywood or The Hollywood Reporter. But either way, my lips and face are going kind of numb as a hundred intricately woven fantasies suddenly unravel. My brain just chokes on the information. I don't know how else to describe the disappointment. I replay this new information and then my mind rejects it.
Then my stomach gets all hurty and I usually go lay in bed for awhile to process the fact that I'm not going to ride wave runners with Mike Myers.
Not that I'm asking for sympathy. That's another cruel twist of the knife. Because having film rights to your book optioned is such an awesome thing in and of itself that there is no sympathy. And you'd have to be really short-sighted to try and demand any in the first place. No, this is an intensely personal disappointment. The fantasies that are dying are the ones you haven't shared out loud with anybody else. When these dreams die, their corpses litter your mind and your brain has to shove them out of the way every time you want to do anything for the next few weeks.
Eventually, though, you sort of get used to it.
I have now lost film options on How to Survive a Robot Uprising, How to Build a Robot Army, Bro-Jitsu: The Martial Art of Sibling Smackdown, and on my latest novel Amped (now available in paperback!). Every single time, it's a kick in the balls. After a while, I started to assume that a movie would never happen. Take the money, smile at the studio head, and read a breathless entertainment article once in a while. Enjoy the honeymoon, expect nothing.
And then Spielberg calls.
The honeymoon period for Robopocalypse has been intense and it has lasted for over three years now. Despite every effort not to, I have developed an incredible inner world that pictures my life with this movie in it: books, toys, video games and all things Robopocalypse proliferating into the pop culture of the world. Every new piece of A-level casting news, every scrap of insanely awesome pre-viz, and every meeting with the creative geniuses at Amblin has contributed to this interior build-up. But there has always been a quiet voice in the back of my head, pleading for me to not get too attached.
When Robopocalypse was delayed last month, I got the news just before my wife and I were supposed to go out to dinner with friends. I went anyway, but needless to say, I got very drunk. Trying to explain it to everyone, I immediately ran into the sympathy wall. That led to more drinking. The night didn't end well. There were several "is he okay?" emails the next day. Ah, thank god for friends.
As of right now, the Robopocalypse movie is delayed six to eight months. It may shoot later this year and it may not. The probability doesn't matter. The fantasy world can survive and thrive in the narrowest sliver of likelihood. I try to mentally stamp out these fantasies, but it's hard to do. Maybe impossible.
Ultimately, it's a champagne problem. I know I don't deserve my own movie. Who does? But cross your fingers for me anyway, alright? And buy a book or two, (Amped, preferably) so that we tortured writers can keep fueling our fantasies – with or without Hollywood.
Daniel H. Wilson is the bestselling author of Robopocalypse. His latest novel, Amped, is available in paperback on February 12th. You can find him on Twitter at @danielwilsonPDX or on the web at www.danielhwilson.com.