Monday, January 15, 2007

Peter S. Beagle - Giants Still Walk Among Us

Back when I was much younger, and more naive, and wanting more than anything else in the world to be a writer, when I thought about my heroes - writers like MacDonald, Bester, Heinlein, Ellison, Peter Beagle - I figured they all lived comfortably, had tons of dough, and had no problems past figuring out the plot of the next book.

Then I got older. As time passed, I met many of my heroes, and little pieces of the fantasy would chip off. Interviewing Steve King - probably the most successful writer I've met - around the time of the publication of 'Salem's Lot, I said something to the effect that it must be nice to get anything you write published.

"You think that, huh?" King answered and opened a file cabinet's worth of manuscripts. All rejected, most multiple times. In the interests of full disclosure, many of those manuscripts eventually got published under the Bachman pen name. But I bet there's a few still in that cabinet.

I discovered that Bester, Heinlein, and MacDonald all had serious health problems; and found that wasn't all that unusual in the writing community. Maybe it's the sedentary lifestyle. Maybe like Heinlein, Hammett, and several others, they turned to writing to earn a living because of their health problems.

I found out from Harlan Ellison that Fritz Leiber - one of the best fantasy and sf writers of his time - lived in a one-room apartment - and typed most of his stories using a 2x4 plank as his writing desk, and not because he wanted to. Ted Sturgeon - another giant of the sf field - had more personal and financial problems than you could count.

Some of the giants had feet of clay. I was once tongue-lashed for what felt like an eternity by a writer who had the reputation as a super-nice guy, but who felt that I had picked the wrong place - a bookstore - and time - he was book browsing - to ask for an autograph. Another one turned out to be a drunk who liked playing grabass with female fans. One who had a frightening reputation was Harlan, but he turned out to be a sweet guy who even took me into his home and family for awhile.

They were just people. Assholes and sweethearts, sometimes both in the same package. Same problems, same foibles as you and me. Maybe sometimes a bit exaggerated. They were - are - writers after all. A lot of them - like me - aren't good business people, and for all their literary success aren't doing well financially.

Peter S. Beagle is author of such wonderful works as The Last Unicorn, A Fine and Private Place, and the road book, I See By Your Outfit. If you're a Trekkie, you may know Beagle as the scriptwriter of the STNG episode, Sarek. In 1978, Beagle wrote the screenplay for the animated version of The Lord of the Rings. Beagle was paid a "consulting fee" of only $5,000 and offered a lot of promises for future work by the movie's producer.

The movie wasn't very good, as you probably know if you saw it, but that's neither her nor there. The producer of the original ended up collecting over $200 million in licensing fees from the later Peter Jackson Rings trilogy, of which not a penny has Beagle ever seen. There's no legal reason why Beagle should see any of that money... but maybe he still should. Here's some of the background:

Q. Just how badly was Peter shafted on this screenwriting deal anyway? What was the going rate back in 1977?

Peter was paid $5,000 as a consulting fee to make suggestions on how to fix the existing draft by Chris Conkling. Peter's advice: this can't be fixed, it needs to be replaced. Saul Zaentz then talked Peter into doing more work, by making promises that were never kept, and Peter wound up writing eight or nine drafts of a brand new screenplay.

Today's equivalent of that 1977 $5,000 would be about $17,000. Certainly not to be ignored, but still nothing compared to what the WGA currently mandates as a minimum for writing eight or nine drafts of a feature animation script. That number? $246,496!

The 1977 equivalent of today's minimum fee would have been $72,500. So Peter was underpaid by at least $67,500. And it should be noted that this figure represents the WGA minimum, the amount you are supposed to get even if you've never sold anything before. Screenwriters who aren't newbies don't get WGA minimum, they get more — and Peter was already an accomplished screenwriter with several credits when he adapted THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
You can read the full FAQ of the story at the link above, and it includes suggestions for helping Beagle out should you feel so inclined. Me, I'm ordering something from Conlan Press, since Beagle gets more money - more quickly - from that venue.

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