Saturday, January 28, 2012

In a slightly different universe, for motorcycle journalists...

Farmer smacked the side of his scratched crash helmet, and his cellphone earbuds cut back in. He talked as he rode, on a freeway clogged with motorcycles of all sizes and shapes. Every now and the bikes would filter around a slow-moving car, and the thought occurred to him that even though his commute to work would take longer in such a vehicle, it’d be warm and cozy, and it would turn his commute into a bit of rolling office time.
Although he had a day job at Marketer Mike’s, a hip grocery store, he thought of himself as a screenwriter. In the narrow niche of movie fans, he was actually pretty well known for it, and once, while he was working the cash register at Marketer Mike’s, a couple of customers came through his checkout line in movie club jackets and, recognizing him, had asked him for an autograph.
The whole movie business had been going away for years though, decimated by the Internet. That’s why he’d taken the grocery store job in the first place. 
Farmer wanted to keep working as a writer, and in desperation tried pitching a feature story to one of the last places you could still make really good money at the keyboard: motorcycle magazines. He had a good story angle, that leveraged his film knowledge. 
The problem, he soon learned, was that just having a great feature idea and solid writing chops was no guarantee that a motorcycle magazine editor would ever even see your story. Oh sure, if you could get a high-powered agent, that guy could maybe get one of the top handful of test-riders to look at your story. If a major motorcycle star agreed to appear in your story, then the chickenshit magazine editors all wanted a piece of you. But as Farmer had learned, in Orange County if someone said, “I’ll read it,” what they really meant was, I’ll toss it on the huge pile of stories my intern will flip through.
He’d pretty much given up actually. That explained the grocery store job. But now that there seemed to be a real chance he'd become the next writer-du-jour, editors weren't just calling back, they seemed eager to bend his ear. Mudlen, in particular, was a real talker.
He drove and listened as Mudlen described the ongoing negotiations with Cycle Pages magazine for his breakout motorcycle feature. Actually, they weren't even negotiating for the feature yet; Mudlen and two other independent editors were still negotiating their respective roles and shares of the fees the story would generate, through a bunch of high-priced Orange County lawyers.
"I'm more than just an agent," Mudlen complained. "All I want is the same Associate Editor status on the story that Henfartt will get. I mean, you and I worked together on the query, and all Henfartt did was make one phone call."
Mudlen wanted to talk about two or three other features that Farmer had shown him, but the truth was that Farmer was desperate to close his first feature-story deal before committing to subsequent stories. He wanted to shout, For fuck's sake, you guys get your shit together and agree on your own contracts before Cycle Pages loses interest! But he couldn't. After all, without Mudlen none of this would be happening.
His own lawyer had agreed to negotiate the story deal for a 5% contingency fee. The total amount of money involved would, inevitably, depend on the final word count, but his lawyer was going to try to negotiate a deal with floor price for the feature of about $150k. "To get that floor price," his lawyer had said, "We'll have to be willing to let them also put in a ceiling. I'll try to get that set at half a million."
Half a million bucks would do Farmer a world of good, and really he didn't begrudge the three layers of editors between him and publication their share of money. He didn't even mind that all of them, even if they'd only made a single phone call to pitch the feature, would make more money than he would on the deal.
"Look, I've got to get off the phone, I'm getting to work," said Farmer, as he stopped in the far corner of the parking lot, at the grocery store where he was a $12/hour clerk.
“Yeah, sure,” said Mudlen in a tone of voice that made Farmer think, really he thinks I’m just trying to get off the phone. That just came from the time Mudlen had spent working with editors and publishers, who were always looking over your shoulder to see if there was someone more powerful they should be paying attention to, or checking their Rimberries to check newsstand sales.
As he walked across the parking lot, Farmer mused for the nth time about his career's timing. He'd been a successful ad agency Creative Director, and come up through the ranks as an amateur film-maker, before pitching it in to devote himself to his real passion, writing for the screen. When he'd made that choice, he knew that he'd basically be taking a '0' off his income. But his timing had sucked; as the internet had thrown the movie business into a tailspin, it became harder and harder to make a decent living writing screenplays. The years he'd spent building up his screenwriting career were years in which screenwriter's fees had dropped; if you weren't totally established in one of the few remaining studios, a salary was out of the question. And increasingly, the big movie websites had embraced the 'Movie 2.0' model in which users provided content for free.
Farmer had managed to make a living as a freelancer but in the last couple of years, even the studios that used to pay reasonable freelance rates had cut them in half or worse. Filmist Studios had gone bankrupt and emerged from it, but Farmer had heard they'd cut writers' rates in half. And Movie World, which had been an old boys club for years had been sold and moved to lower-rent digs. After being asked to write for movie tickets and popcorn, he realized that he needed to take desperate action if he was to make a living at all.
He'd always had an interest in motorcycles, and being an expert in movies and film history, he'd written a spec story for motorcycle magazines, about the influence of movies on the sport of motorcycling. It had been turned down by every magazine he'd shown it to, but when Mudlen discovered it online, he thought it had potential as a feature story.
Mudlen had an acquaintance who'd edited one major feature story, and he arranged for the three of them to meet out in L.A. The editor, a cat named Clint Marqwardt, had initially been skeptical about Farmer's idea for a feature, but he'd agreed that if Farmer rewrote the idea, he'd pitch it. Marqwardt made it clear that all Farmer was really writing was the query for the story.
"If they want to produce it as a major feature story, they'll hire an 'A' list motorcycle journalist to write it," he said.
That was fine as far as Farmer was concerned. Just getting a deal for a story like that could open a whole new career door in motorcycle journalism. That was a field that would add two zeros to his salary as a screenwriter. Maybe, for once, his timing was right.
By the time that thought had crossed his mind, he'd crossed into the grocery store. As day jobs went, it was a pretty good one. They knew and even seemed to respect the successes he'd had as a film-maker and liked the idea that he was a successful screenwriter. They nicknamed him 'Movie Mark'.
As he was clocking in, Christina, one of the other clerks, came up and asked him if there was any news on his deal. He hadn’t told most of the employees that he was that close to negotiating a deal that would make him a real motojournalist. He was sorry that he’d let it slip at all, really. He didn’t want the store management to find out, as they’d obviously know that if the deal came through, he’d be quitting. Until then, he needed all the hours he could get.
During his lunch break, Farmer walked up to Starbucks and called his lawyer, Nate Aaron, to ask whether Mudlen, Marqwardt and Rand Creditt (the third independent editor they’d enlisted to pitch the feature) had finally worked out their own differences.
“They’ve all agreed to the contract,” Aaron told him. “But, Marqwardt wants his lawyer to look it over, and his lawyer won’t get back from Wheeldance until tomorrow.” 
Wheeldance was a huge independent motojournalism festival held out in Tooele, Utah. It had been organized decades ago by Peter Egan, one of the grand old men of motojournalism, as a forum for independent motojournalists to show their work and market it to major motorcycle magazines. Gradually, it had become a huge deal itself, and now most truly indy writers couldn’t even hope to get their work on program there.
“I hate that these guys couldn’t get their shit together so we could actually  start negotiating with the magazine,” Farmer complained. “I mean, what if Cycle Pages sees something they like more at Wheeldance? We’ll be fucked.”
Aaron was also representing Mudlen in the editors’ deal, and he told Farmer that the independent editors’ contract was basically hammered out; each one would negotiate his up front placement fee with the magazine on his own, but they’d agree to identical ‘back end’ payments; if the feature was really successful that was where the money was. They’d thrown in a bunch of clauses like, if one of them got interviewed by Orange County Reporter, the gossip magazine about the motojournalism business, the other two had to be present.
“If I lose this deal because guys were fighting over who’ll get quoted in a gossip magazine...” Farmer started to say, but  the lawyer told him that he’d heard Cycle Pages was still interested in negotiating.
“They’re calling me every day,” said Nate, “asking when we’ll be ready to come to the table.”
Farmer had to get back to work. He got off the phone and checked his email quickly. He still had a couple of regular screenwriting gigs, providing a couple of screenplays a month to the last few clients he had that paid reliably. There wasn’t much time left over for those gigs, but he had to keep them going. Those two monthly deals and the fees he made from people who streamed his own film on Netflix paid about the same amount of money every month as he made at the grocery store. All together, it was just enough to live on. 

To be continued...

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