On January 15, 2003 I was sitting in the Sunset Boulevard office of my manager, Joel Gotler, pitching him ideas that I could write as a screenplay and he could send out for me. After I hit him with several of my best high-concept story ideas, Joel said to me, “The problem is, Neil, that these days nobody’s really interested in buying scripts. It would just be a lot easier to sell a reality TV show.”
Fine, I thought. I can do that.
Within twenty-four hours I’d written up a proposal for a reality TV show, registered it with the Writers Guild, and emailed a copy to Joel.
Here’s the Writers Guild Registration receipt:
Here’s the email:
Date: Thu, 16 Jan 2003 15:49:46 -0800
From: “J. Neil Schulman”
To: Joel Gotler
Subject: Celebrity Rehab
Per our conversation, attached is the Microsoft Word file for “Celebrity Rehab.”
You wanted a hot Reality TV show proposal? You got it!
I attached the file. Here it is:
by J. Neil Schulman
Either as a Reality TV show or a movie about a fictional Reality TV show: a celebrity agrees to allow a camera crew to follow him/herself 24/7 while “in recovery” including detox, therapy sessions, court appearances, interactions with family and friends, business interactions.
Idea in brief:
Reality TV is hot, right? Celebrities are always hot, right? Why not put them together for even more heat?
The primary idea would be to get some celebrity whose life is falling apart and who is on the verge of never working again, because of drug and/or alcohol abuse–and possibly pending related criminal charges–to agree to allow a camera crew into their life as part of their rehab. Approval might be needed from authorities or treatment facilities to allow this, but assurances that the resulting tapes will conceal the identity of any unwilling third parties might allow this project to go forward, since, in effect, the camera crew could be part of prescribed or court-ordered monitoring to make sure the celebrity stays in recovery.
What would convince a celebrity to go along with this? Favorable publicity, for one thing. Opening up one’s life failures to public scrutiny would be an act of admirable courage. Demonstrating the consequences of self-destructive behavior and the steps needed to reverse course could be an important part of the self-examination needed for recovery.
Whichever celebrity agreed to allow their recovery to be recorded and broadcast would be a pioneer, using Reality TV for a purpose far nobler than seeing people eat bugs or figure out ways to screw each other off an island.
Back up position: if one can’t find a celebrity willing to participate, or obstructions are placed in the way by facilities and authorities, turn this idea into a movie a la EdTV or The Truman Show. Same concept as a Reality TV show, only it’s a meta-story about the fictional Reality TV show that comes up with the idea of turning a celebrity’s life into an open book while going through recovery. As fiction, this idea can script out all the ups and downs one would except in a movie-movie, including the drama of relapses, high-speed police chases, overdoses, broken relationships and concerned loved ones, wild parties, sneaking around, suicide attempts, etc.
The idea was crass. It was exploitative. It showed celebrities at their worst, knocking them off their pedestals, exposing their feet of clay, feeding them to the unwashed mob who could feel good about themselves because no matter how much their own lives sucked the lives of people richer and more famous were even more miserable. It was pure schadenfreude, feeding on envy and spite.
It was perfect for Reality TV.
And if nobody wanted the high-toned and brilliant drama and comedy I’d written and could write more of, what was I supposed to do — go back to delivering pizzas? That wasn’t going to work. I had an 11-year-old daughter to support.
Joel said he’d start thinking of places to submit.
Before he did, I had drinks with publicist Michael Levine — whose radio show I’d guested on while promoting my book Stopping Power. Michael needed a writer; I needed a publicist and couldn’t afford one. We reached a barter arrangement — I’d do writing for Michael in exchange for him doing publicity for me.
I told Michael the idea for Celebrity Rehab and he said he knew a development executive at the E! Entertainment Network — Michael described him as a “straight shooter” — and for whom he thought it would be perfect.
The E! Entertainment Network executive was Barry Nugent, and I met with him Thursday, February 27, 2003, pitching him the Celebrity Rehab premise and leaving the proposal with him. I sent him my usual follow-up email to thank him for meeting with me, and he emailed me back that he’d get back to me after the weekend.
By Wednesday, March 5, 2003, I had my answer. E! Entertainment loved the idea and wanted to move forward. Their only pre-condition was that I, as a producer, had to bring in the first celebrity … and this turned out to be a Catch-22. I wanted a letter of intent from E! Entertainment that I could show to a celebrity’s management to get them interested; E! didn’t want to put anything on paper until I’d supplied the first celebrity. In fact, they didn’t want me even to mention the interest from E! Entertainment until I had a celebrity to bring to them.
As I suspected, without the proof of interest from E! Entertainment I wasn’t able to parlay the celebrity interest I needed. When making cold calls to agents, managers, and rehab-facility operators, I sounded just like a typical Hollywood phony, blowing smoke and selling bullshit. So it never happened.
On April 15, 2003, HBO announced a documentary titled Rock Bottom which was to follow actor Jason Mewes (“Jay” from the “Jay and Silent Bob” Kevin Smith movies) through heroin rehab. I got in touch with HBO to inquire whether the production company had any prior contact with E! Entertainment and possibly seen my registered proposal, and my proposal circulated to the entire documentary production and legal departments of HBO, who informed me that the project was only in early development, and they hadn’t made a production commitment to Rock Bottom yet. My inquiries to Rock Bottom‘s executive producer, Craig Veytia, asking if he had anything for Rock Bottom registered with the WGA or filed for a copyright earlier than January 16, 2003, went unanswered.
The documentary Rock Bottom: From Hell to Redemption was completed July 22, 2003, is listed on IMDb Pro as “released” October 15, 2003, and played at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2007. No DVD is listed on Amazon.com.
That was that, so I thought, moving on to trying to develop other projects — specifically my screenplay adaptation of Escape from Heaven.
That was that until November 28, 2007, when Bill O’Reilly did a segment on his Fox News show about an upcoming VH1 reality show titled Celebrity Rehab, starring author, radio talk host & psychiatrist Dr. Drew Pinsky, which was to premiere in January 2008. The description was identical to my January 2003 proposal. I forwarded details to the attorney who had handled the production of Lady Magdalene’s, but her law office did not have a litigator to handle this.
Another attorney friend of mine who was a litigator did eventually send a letter to the VH1 Celebrity Rehab producers, asking for a development credit and a corresponding payment, but we got no response and since we had no way or proving that they had access to my original proposal we decided not to pursue it further.
It’s just no fun at all seeing something you wrote before there’s any evidence anybody else thought of it — in at least one case even with the same title — ending up produced with someone else’s name on it.
Especially when this is how you make your living and — just like people with a steady job — have bills to pay.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize for Libertarian Ideals from the 2011 Anthem Film Festival! My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available free on the web linked from the official movie website. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!