What writers, illustrators, and other freelancers can learn from the latest “Sex and the City” tiff

October 25th, 2007

sex.jpgMy dad was visiting Seattle this past week/end. Since he lives in New York City and thinks the sun rises and sets for the Big Apple and the Big Apple only, we got to talking about some of the articles in Sunday’s New York Times, including this story about how BFFs Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City (the book), and Darren Star, the producer who brought the book to HBO, are now estranged. Evidently Star’s coming out with a new TV show (“Cashmere Mafia”) similar to Bushnell’s new show, “Lipstick Jungle,” based on her book of the same name, which Star had tried to option but was outbid on. Star dragged his feet on telling Bushnell about “Cashmere Mafia” and now that she’s found out, she’s all betrayed and he’s all dead to her.

Blah blah blah. Frenemies, schmenemies, right? But as a self-employed creative type, this article was kinda interesting to me for a number of non-Hollywood gossip reasons:

1. Initially I wondered, Is Darren Star a parasitic opportunist or just really good at his job? Perhaps he is both. Without a decade’s worth of back issues of Variety, we may never know. Supposedly ABC brought the idea for “Cashmere Mafia” to him. I do know this: “Cashmere Mafia” having a similar premise as “Lipstick Jungle,” and Star having co-opted one of Bushnell’s classic SATC coinages (“toxic bachelor”) to promote one of his pre-SATC TV shows is nothing to get your panties in a twist about, nothing to file a plagiarism suit over. In the world of creative coincidences and fair use, this is no BFD. Happens all the time.

But the fact that the writer and producer were such bosom buds makes this sitch particularly sticky. When you have a close friend or S.O. who works in the same creative genre as you, someone you’re constantly bouncing creative ideas off of, it’s helpful to lay down a few ground rules: no one fucks anyone’s boyfriend, no one pitches anyone else’s idea to an editor/producer/studio and tried to fob it off as her own, et cetera. And if an editor/producer/studio should come and ask you to develop a story/show/painting that you know your friend has been itching to make herself or is already in the process of making, you’ll do your friendship a great service by talking it over with your friend first. I’m not saying you have to get her blessing every time, but at least tell her what’s happening. Don’t be Star, who somehow forgot to mention to Bushnell that he was negotiating “Cashmere” with ABC. While she was staying at his house.

Lesson for freelancers: We’ve all had a friend screw our sweetie (if not, you obviously didn’t grow up in New Jersey). And most of us have witnessed idea poachers in the 9-to-5 world. In the freelance world, where you’re often competing with dear friends for awards and assignments, honesty and camaraderie are the best policies. Be generous with the leads you share (with any luck, you’ll be too busy to take every project anyway), and be up front with your creative BFFs about what you’re working on, especially when it encroaches on their turf. And if you’re not sure someone’s your friend or just an opportunist who’s pumping you for ideas and contacts, wire your mouth shut.

2. One anonymous source in the story said Bushnell has made a mere $500,000 from the show’s royalties and only stands to earn another $500,000 from the movie being made. (Mere! Only!) I know a cool million is a ton of money, but it’s only a fraction of what the Hollywood powerhouses involved with this TV/syndication/silver screen enterprise have raked in. (Don’t believe me? Just look up how much the actors in the series and film version have been paid.)

According to the Times article, Bushnell’s original book contract for SATC paid her a less-than-staggering $25,000 advance. But as a first-time author that’s often to be expected. I suspect, though, that she could have negotiated a much better deal than the additional $25,000 she received when Shrewd Star optioned the book’s TV rights.

Lesson for freelancers: You may be the peon now, but you still deserve the best possible contracts. If others get rich off your work, you’d damn well better do so too. Don’t get your contracts? Get legal help.

3. Then again, you could argue that Bushnell made a killing in other ways, mainly with the clout that being the author of SATC earned her: Suddenly she was the writer who birthed the TV series that put HBO and SJP back on the map. New book deals for best-sellers followed, undoubtedly accompanied by six-figure advances — the equivalent of the literary Lotto.

Today Bushnell is rich, world famous, host of her own Sirius radio show, and proud mama of her second TV pilot. Unless she starts spewing trash on the air about whatever demographic it’s fashionable to slander this month (Hollywood producers, perhaps?), the woman isn’t going anywhere.

Lesson for freelancers: Getting paid in prestige when you’re a newbie isn’t all bad, as long as your clients show you the money and bow to kiss your ring once you’ve proved you can deliver the goods and deliver big.

Entry Filed under: Creative process,This freelance life

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. naomi  |  October 25th, 2007 at 4:33 am

    but more important, it’s really funny that you and your father were talking about SATC! i’d love to hear the synopsis for that conversation!

  • 2. Michelle Goodman  |  October 25th, 2007 at 6:16 am

    HA. we talked about all of the above, which somehow led to him being shocked that people read the NYT online, that the “paper” sells online ads and publishes exclusive online content, and that it recently switched from pay-for-it-bitch to free content.

    the highlight though was that i reminded him that Carrie Bradshaw lives a block or two from him (on the show), to which he replied, “OH, that must be why there are all those movie trailers in my neighborhood.”

  • 3. Judy  |  October 30th, 2007 at 7:56 am

    I read that article and was appalled by Star’s sneakiness. You’re right–all he’d have to have done was talk to her. She didn’t have to be behind it, but to be blindsided by a good friend like that? Not nice. And I tend to believe it will come back to bite him on the ass.

  • 4. Molly  |  November 6th, 2007 at 10:42 am

    I just have to stick in a vote for being upfront with your friends who work in the same industry and are competing for the same jobs as you. I have a good friend who is also a freelance photographer, and also specializes in weddings, events, portraits, etc. There’s one particular local organization that has used her for years—a decade, in fact—and they’ve started asking me for bids. Right from the beginning I started by calling my friend to ask if she’d bid on the project already. 95% of the time, not only had she already bid, but she already had it on her calendar and had been told she was going to be doing the job! I don’t fault the organization for looking for a better price, but the time to do it is NOT after you’ve hired someone else. I refuse to bid on their projects anymore because I don’t want to snake a job out from under my friend. I may have missed an opportunity for a job, but I’d miss my friendship way more.

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Hi, my name's Michelle Goodman and I've been freelancing since 1992. I'm author of My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. Read my full bio here.

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