His first script, his first million: This is the story of Miles Millar, a Cambridge graduate who went to LA, wrote a film script and sold it for dollars 1m. Phil Reeves reports from Hollywood, a town in shock

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The Independent Culture
Miles Millar is taking a little while to adjust. With his woolly jumpers and bookish earnestness, he still looks like the film buff and young Cambridge graduate he was until the Wednesday before last.

That was when Millar achieved something almost unheard of in the movie industry. He sold a film script for dollars 1m.

'It's simply incredible,' remarks Millar over his glasses, chomping through an dollars 8 burger at Jerry's Famous Deli in LA's Studio City. 'Madness. I still don't believe it happened.'

There have, of course, been million- dollar scripts before. These days about half a dozen are sold every year. Those who aspire to make a mark in Hollywood talk in awed and sometimes spiteful tones about Joe Eszterhas, whose Basic Instinct sold for dollars 3m, or Shane Black, who nailed down dollars 1.75m for The Last Boy Scout.

But they are established big hitters. Miller is 26 years old and, more to the point in Hollywood's eyes, this is his first script. In a town where thousands slave for years over words they can't get anyone to read, he has achieved something very unusual. Most writers of his inexperience have trouble getting someone who matters to pick up the phone.

'I have heard of first-time writers who have eventually sold their first script for a lot of money after writing six or seven more,' said David Warden, the Beverly Hills agent who handled Batman and Sleepless in Seattle. 'But a case like this, as far as I know, has never happened before.' It was he who negotiated on Millar's behalf.

Millar, whose parents live in Chiswick, west London, moved to Los Angeles 18 months ago to do a producers' course at the University of Southern California, after studying English at Christ's College, Cambridge. By then, he had discarded his ambition to be a Tory MP - he was chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association and had stood for Cambridge City Council in a no-hope ward - after concluding that there was too much 'pettiness' in politics.

He began penning the script in May, brainstorming with a student friend over the story-line before retreating for long, nocturnal writing sessions in his cheap downtown apartment. The finished product is what he describes as 'an action comedy', based around the 'cop-buddy genre'. The screenplay, called Mango, is about the relationship between a clapped-out New York policeman and an orangutan, spiced up by a romance (a love triangle between the cop, the animal and a female environmentalist) and an adventure (a kidnapping). Shades, perhaps, of Clint Eastwood and the ape in Every Which Way But Loose? Millar says no. 'The animal is the gentleman and the cop is the animal.'

Although he ran to nine rewrites, Millar felt he stood little chance of finding a buyer. The odds were too small. After all, Los Angeles is awash with words: each year some 30,000 screenplays, television dramas, concepts or story treatments are registered with the Writers' Guild of America. Nine out of 10 of these offerings, which very often represent years of unpaid work and worry, simply gather dust without earning a penny.

A small number get bought - 'optioned' - by studios, often as a means of stopping any rivals making them while they make a decision of their own. Fewer still form the basis for one of the 400 or so movies disgorged by Hollywood each year. In other words, most of the town's ragtag army of struggling writers, which includes many Britons, would be better off staying at home playing the pools.

But Millar had an advantage over many of them. Since the age of 11, he has been a 'complete fanatic' about films. He spent his holidays from public school in Esher, Surrey watching at least four movies a week, keeping his assessments of them in a scrapbook. At university, he spent afternoon after afternoon watching obscure movies in Cambridge's Arts Cinema.

In LA, he sometimes goes to the vast 18-screen complex at Universal Studios at 11am, leaving bleary-eyed at 2am, five movies later. He is a walking Halliwell's, able to talk knowledgeably about anything from the intricacies of Citizen Kane to Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (a favourite).

'I have worked really, really hard,' he said. 'I mean, I go to films religiously. I have seen pieces of shit. I think it's really important to see rubbish to see how people react to it. I wouldn't say I have a formula at all - as soon as you start thinking you know what the audience want, you are going to fail. But you have to see films to see how people react.'

The manner in which his script made a million is almost worthy of a movie in its own right. Timing, luck and good connections were crucial. Millar's first breakthrough was getting introduced by a friend to a manager, an enthusiastic young man called Warren Zide. They put the script out to nine agents, all of whom rejected it.

'They all thought the premise was so dumb that no one read the script,' said Millar. This problem is familiar to anyone who has ever sought to break into the Hollywood movie clique: scripts get sent back unopened because agents or studios don't want to risk a possible plagiarism lawsuit, should they make a movie on a similar theme. One young writer, after months of having his letters returned unopened, recently became so desperate that he resorted to posing as a journalist in the hope of securing interviews at which he might persuade key Hollywood players to look at his work.

Zide knew David Warden, an agent with excellent connections, and prevailed on him to have a look at Mango. Warden was very reluctant when he listened to the pitch. 'When I heard what it was about - a cop and an orangutan - it sounded too banal and foolish,' he recalled. 'But I read it because I trusted Warren Zide's taste.'

He loved it. It was one of the most polished scripts he had seen in a while - funny, well-conceived and, above all, commercial. He signed up Millar at once. The following day - a Tuesday - several big guns began expressing an interest in the project, including John Davis, the producer of Grumpy Old Men and The Firm. By the next morning, the Hollywood grapevine was on fire with interest. Warden's office took dozens of calls and sent out 42 copies of the script.

'John Davis took it to three spots: Warner Bros, Paramount, and New Line Cinema,' said Warden. 'We had a producer lined up by 11 o'clock that morning for every other studio. As we were able to get more names that meant something to the town, the town became more excited and anticipatory.'

By 1pm, a full-scale Hollywood bidding war was shaping up. Every studio had a copy, and was putting in for 'rush coverage' - pulling story analysts out of story departments to read it immediately. A reader at New Line, the small studio recently acquired by Ted Turner, went one step further. He went straight to a company boss and told him to read it right away.

The executive did so, and determined to make a pre-emptive offer to get it off the market. By 8pm, after some haggling, both sides had agreed on a little more than dollars 1m. The deal was done. An exhausted Miles Millar, who had been unable to sleep for three days, went out to celebrate his new- won fortune. He decided to go to Jerry's Famous Deli to eat cheesecake.

Looking back, Millar is still a little bewildered by it all. Two weeks ago he was a mere postgraduate student struggling to survive on dollars 1,000 a month and dependent on his parents for financial help. Now he will bank the lion's share of the dollars 1m, and perhaps more depending on the success of the movie which New Line plan to release early next year. His only extravagance to date (apart from the cheesecake) was to hire a red convertible and drive across the desert with a friend to Las Vegas for a night at Caesar's Palace. Even then, he says, he didn't gamble.

'It's great, you know,' he says. 'At least I can write now. I was going to have to get a job, a really bad job in Hollywood. Like an assistant to someone. Awful. Terrible.

'This has given me the chance to make films, which is what I want to do. I've been given the break, the opportunity, the open door. I mean, I can meet anyone I want now in Hollywood.'

And that, in a town where who you know is all important, is almost worth as much as the money.

(Photograph omitted)

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