Here’s the most primitive ancestor of High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare–a short story I wrote before I even contemplated the novel. You can see from the title that Donnie’s nom de guerre was originally “Pilgrim,” not “Percival” (as in the novel). This short story was inspired by the brevity, mordant wit, and Hollywood setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby Stories.
Donnie Pilgrim: High Concept
You’ve probably heard the story from the spec market boom in the mid-90’s about the multi-million dollar pitch written on the back of a cocktail napkin. Those days, of course, are long gone. And yet, every so often you’ll read about some studio or prodco throwing funny money at nothing more than the airy substance of a high concept—though not usually one that’s pitched by someone as absolutely unknown as Donnie Wirt.
Donnie had been in LA for only a week when the high school acquaintance whose couch he’d been crashing on invited him to what technically was his first Hollywood party. Technically, because although the party was not going to feature any top execs, agents or celebs, it was being thrown by real Hollywood people: a group house of industry bottom-feeders passing their indentured servitude in the mailroom of one of the conglomerates.
Donnie arrived at the house in West Hollywood ready to go to work. As he followed his roommate inside he repeated to himself the cardinal rule he had gleaned from his Bible, So You’re Ready to Move to Hollywood?, namely: he was the product, not his screenplay. First and foremost he was selling himself.
Donnie quickly attached himself to a quiet, attractive blonde in a far corner of the crowded living room. She was different from the rest of the women at the party. Definitely older, maybe thirty, and with seemingly a lot more money. She wore a shirt, jeans and cowboy hat which all looked freshly off the rack, and over her shirt she wore a very expensive leather jacket. But what distinguished her most was that she wasn’t talking at the top of her voice. She was content to hang back and just take the party in.
“It’s high concept,” Donnie was telling her. “I’ve got a couple of prodcos interested.”
Donnie noticed that, strangely enough, her eyes didn’t glaze over as soon as he began to talk about his writing. He kept going.
“Manning’s people have shown an interest.”
Really?” the woman said, looking at Donnie intently. “What’s the concept?”
“It’s a big idea. Tentpole stuff.”
“You don’t want to tell me?”
Donnie grinned mysteriously.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“Donnie Pilgrim.” Donnie was very proud of his nom de guerre. “So what do you do?”
“I’m transitioning” the woman said. “I’m getting ready to put out my shingle as a one-man band.”
Donnie tried to smile knowingly.
“As an agent” the woman clarified. “Working for myself.”
An agent! Donnie felt the oxygen blow out of his head as though it were a popped balloon. He wanted to pitch her his Adam and Eve idea, but he had never really pitched to anyone before—except himself in the shower.
At any rate it didn’t matter, for the woman said abruptly, “Good luck with Manning,” and then slipped away into the crowd, like a mermaid back into the sea.
* * *
The party turned out to be a dud. After his one mishap with the almost agent in the living room, Donnie had hovered, never quite recognized, on the edge of two other conversations, then spent half an hour on the balcony trying to exude the aura of a disaffected but prepossessed loner, before walking home without making a single contact.
The next Monday morning his cell phone chirped and Donnie awakened to a sultry voice.
“Good morning, Mr. Pilgrim. This is Cinnamon from Robert McKnight’s office. Mr. McKnight was hoping to schedule a meeting with you before you made a final decision about your property. Does this afternoon work for you?”
“My property? I kind of rent.”
“Your screenplay, sir.”
Donnie’s heart began to beat wildly.
“My screenplay? O.K. Right. Excuse me, who is Robert McKnight?”
“My apologies, sir. Mr. McKnight is head of creative at Enlightenment Entertainment.”
Was this a dream? His first ever meeting, and with E Squared no less. But he didn’t have a screenplay, just the Adam and Eve idea and an awful first ten pages.
“How did you find out about my screenplay?”
“This morning’s Voyeur, sir. Shall we say 4:30?”
Donnie lied that his agent would get back to her. By the time he was out of the shower and dressed, two more prodcos had left messages requesting meetings. What was happening? Had he made a fatal error in choosing his pseudonym? Was there another writer in Hollywood named Donnie Pilgrim?
Donnie didn’t take the Voyeur, as he could always read the weekly version at the public library. But happily, he found a copy lying on top of the garbage can at Starbucks. As he sat down with the morning’s venti mocha (usually both breakfast and lunch), he feverishly scanned the paper for his name.
He didn’t have to look farther than the front page:
Spec Market Readies for New Boom?
An untitled pitch by mystery scribe Donnie Pilgrim has launched a bidding war that reportedly includes Hal Manning and Pandaemonium Pictures. Said to be very high concept, Pilgrim’s progress has generated the kind of furious attention not seen in this town for a decade…
Donnie took a long, slow sip from his venti. He tried to remember everything he could about the woman from the party—which wasn’t much. He had been so concerned about making a good impression that he hadn’t even asked her name. Did she write for the Voyeur?
Donnie didn’t have to wonder much longer, as the woman herself slipped suddenly into the chair opposite him.
“I met your roommate on Saturday night” she said. “He told me all about you, including that I would find you here. I’m Jessica Winthrop. Call me Jess.”
She eyed the Voyeur on the table.
“So, what do you think?”
“I-I think it’s great. I hope it doesn’t make Manning mad, though. I didn’t say anything about a bidding war.”
“You can stop that now,” she said.
Donnie shifted in his seat and tried to do something with his hands. All thirteen of them.
“It’s O.K.” she smiled. “I get it. I don’t take offense. I understand that a writer’s gotta do what a writer’s gotta do.”
Donnie looked at her dumbly.
“I’m co-head of creative at Pandaemonium Pictures,” she said flatly. “Under Hal Manning.”
Donnie couldn’t believe it.
“But then how did—?”
“I have a friend at the Voyeur,” she said. “I called in a favor.”
“My co-head at Pandaemonium has broken every promise she made to me about power-sharing—”
She picked up Donnie’s venti and took a generous sip, leaving a large lipstick stain on the plastic lid.
“I’m done working for other people. I tell my own lies now. I’m going to be an agent. Not just an agent. A superagent.”
“So you want to represent me?” Donnie inquired.
“Maybe. I need to see first if you’re worth representing.”
Donnie’s blood froze. He thought she was going to ask him to pitch.
“I’m trying to skip the lean, hard years” she said. “I need a Cinderella story to put me on the map.”
She took Donnie’s arm and leaned across the table.
“So what are you doing tonight, Cinderella? Wanna go to the ball?”
* * *
Late afternoon. Starbucks. Donnie read over what he wrote:
“A crazed biologist clones Thomas Jefferson so that he can run for President, but when the clone falls in love with the Hollywood starlet campaigning for his opponent, the clone turns out to have dreams of his own! Declaration of Independence.
For two days Donnie had been dumping high concepts into his laptop, terrified that his Adam and Eve idea wasn’t good enough. Meanwhile, Jess was setting up a series of meetings. First, using an assumed name (actually, the name on her birth certificate), she called all the prodcos that had already contacted Donnie and scheduled meetings for later in the week, telling them all that Donnie was busy with other meetings and couldn’t possibly see them right away. Then, in her persona as co-head of creative at Pandaemonium, she began having lunch and drinks-after-work with friends who worked for the companies she had scheduled, casually planting in their buzz-hungry minds that Hal Manning was offering seven figures to Donnie, but that Donnie was still haggling over creative control.
* * *
The first meeting was on a Thursday afternoon with Robert McKnight at the E Squared offices in Santa Monica. As she drove Jess lit a cigarette.
“Nervous?” Donnie asked.
“I just quit my six-figure salary this morning,” she replied sharply. “You’re my meal ticket now.”
After a long silence Donnie asked:
“So what do you think—Adam or Eve or The Poseidon Adventure in space?
“Adam and Eve” she replied without reflection.
The Adam and Eve idea was about two aliens from an Eden-esque planet who crash-land on Earth, where they are rescued by an astronomer-theologian who unwittingly serves as the tempter who causes their…Fall From Grace!
“Really?” Donnie gasped. “Do you think it’s high concept enough?”
“It’s fine,” she said. “Remember, it’s not the plot that’s gonna sell. It’s you that’s gonna sell. The aura around you that says, “I’m Somebody, because Hal Manning says I am.” Just be cool. Talk as little as possible about the concept. Don’t give away the ending.”
“I don’t have an ending” Donnie said.
* * *
Twenty minutes later Donnie was sitting on the edge of one of Robert McKnight’s leather couches, his joined hands suctioned together with sweat. Jess sat across from him in her cowboy hat, studying her manicure. Robert McKnight stood with his back to both of them at a window that faced the ocean.
After a long beat he asked:
“And you’ll want how much creative control?”
“Final approval of script,” Jess said boldly.
“But you’re not on the set,” McKnight said. “The guy I want to direct hates writers on the set.”
After another long beat McKnight made his offer.
“I’d be happy to commit six hundred against seven figures.”
“Eight hundred” Jess said.
“He’s an unknown,” McKnight retorted, never looking away from the window.
“He’s a very famous unknown” Jess replied cooly.
There was a long silence. Dark spots began popping in front of Donnie’s eyes. It was only a matter of moments before he hit the carpet with a thud.
Then, finally, Robert McKnight turned to Jess and said simply:
* * *
As soon as the elevator doors closed Jess began the happy dance.
“Was I O.K.?” Donnie panted.
She hugged him.
“Are you kidding? You were great! I mean, we’d sold him before we even walked into the room.”
They replayed the meeting several more times as they drove to a Thai restaurant Jess loved over in Malibu.
“Now that you’re a millionaire,” she gushed, “dinner’s on you! And don’t take it out of my fifteen percent. ”
“I thought ten was standard.”
“I ain’t standard, baby doll.”
Donnie put his head back. But then he decided he didn’t care. He wasn’t going to let this spoil things. He still had eighty-five percent of a million! After less than a month in Hollywood!
* * *
After talking to Accounting, Robert McKnight returned to his window and began to think about what actress he wanted to play Eve.
Then Cinnamon’s voice trembled through the intercom.
“Paula Parks from Pandaemonium, Robert.”
McKnight slipped on his headset and returned to the window.
Paula Parks addressed him in a Mary Poppins tone.
“The time is right for us to continue our conversation.”
“My co-head quit this morning. I want us to be partners now, co-heads of creative at Pandaemonium. It’s what Hal wants, too.”
“You’ve never been able to work with a co-head, Paula.”
“Only because I’ve never been able to land anyone with enough talent as you.”
McKnight reflected for several moments before speaking.
“I think I’m good where I am, Paula.”
“We could do so much together, Bobby.”
McKnight hesitated. But then he couldn’t resist.
“I signed Donnie Pilgrim this afternoon.”
“Donnie Pilgrim. The kid from Indiana with the Adam and Eve idea.”
“We denied that.”
“No. The idea about the alien Adam and Eve who crash-land on Earth.”
“That’s cute, but Hal’s off sci-fi.”
There was a tense silence, then Paula Parks asked:
“Who’s his agent?”
McKnight said the name and Paula Parks laughed heartily.
“That’s my former co-head! You haven’t done something silly, have you Bobby?”
But instead of answering McKnight threw his headset across the room.
* * *
Over in Malibu, Donnie and Jess were just raising their first round of drinks in a toast when, back in Santa Monica,Robert McKnight punched his intercom and told Cinnamon to call Accounting.
“I want that contract cancelled” he said grimly.