They say, in Hollywood, that in every back pocket there’s a screenplay — the undiscovered work of another hopeful with all the makings of big-time success, if only that script could get produced. But, hey — who needs lights, cameras, action, and all that? Why worry about getting a screenplay onto the screen when you can be like Roy Nemerson?
A working manifestation of that vintage movie-business myth, Nemerson actually makes a very nice living, thank you, writing screenplays that are never produced. A member of the Writers Guild and onetime client of mega-agency CAA, the jovial New Yorker has had four scripts optioned at $40,000 to $50,000 apiece over the past 13 years. And the fate of each shines a small light on Hollywood decision making that’s rarely as clear as Spielberg? Dinosaurs? Yeah, I think we can go with that.
”For every film they make,” the 48-year-old screenwriter explains cheerfully, ”the studios develop 10 or 15. Developing screenplays is like research and development in industry: If a chemical company knew they had the answer every time, they wouldn’t need laboratories.”
A few of Nemerson’s as-yet-unseen hits:
Buffalopia: An Airplane!-esque comedy about the Indians discovering Europe in 1492. Sold to Columbia in 1981 and assigned to major producers Richard D. Zanuck and David Brown, it was canceled a few months later, perhaps coincidentally after Zanuck and Brown’s Neighbors tanked at the box office. ”But probably,” Nemerson suggests, ”it’s a case of what was funny in May they didn’t think was funny in December.”
Park!: A comedy about a bunch of regular guys taking back Central Park from a James Watt-type administrator. Sold to TriStar in 1984, it fell victim to the studio head’s departure. Typically, a new chief throws out as many of a predecessor’s projects as possible. Why? If the movies fail, the new boss takes the blame; if they succeed, the old boss gets the credit.
Big Babies: Comedy about a man born old who grows younger. Sold to Universal in 1987. But then there was a strike by the Writers Guild, and the project petered out.
Not neglecting TV, Nemerson also made $12,000 writing six scripts for an unproduced Americanization of a Britcom. And he made a few bucks working informally with director John Avildsen, with whom he wrote an unproduced script of The Shadow in 1979 (no connection to the upcoming Alec Baldwin movie by the same name). ”Universal looked at it,” Nemerson recalls, ”and said, ‘Oh, it takes place during World War II.’ [The Steven Spielberg movie] 1941, an expensive disaster, had just come out. We were dead in the water.”
Through it all, Nemerson, who is single and lives in Manhattan, continues to turn out spec scripts like the unsold Columbus Circle (Christopher’s descendant as a New York tour-bus guide), The Audit (beautiful young woman scares off potential dates when they find out she’s an IRS agent), and Lucky Streak (desperate stockbroker on his way to Las Vegas befriends a good-luck cat).
If he runs out of ideas, he could certainly turn to his own life. ”I would definitely write a happy Hollywood ending,” he says, ”but not for a long time.” Hmmm. Screenwriter who lives comfortably without getting any movies made? Looking for his big break, but not too hard? Single, with possibility of a romantic interest? Say, maybe we’ve got a movie here…Johnny New York? Somebody get William Goldman.