Don Winslow: My First Experience With Hollywood Math

Don Winslow Abacus
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Editor’s Note: Don Winslow is the author of bestsellers including The Power of the Dog, The Winter of Frankie Machine, and The Force, to name a few. In a week where William Morrow published his novella collection Broken, Winslow has been writing a daily column on his Hollywood adventures. In today’s piece, he recounts a confrontation over his audacious ask to be paid what he was owed. As has been the case all week, I’ve paid what I owed, and attached at the bottom a fresh hostage picture proving I’m still wearing the colors of the reviled New England Patriots, the price for a week’s worth of columns from Winslow.. Despite my demoralization, I believed I’ve gotten the better end of the deal using Deadline math. – MF


My First Experience With Hollywood Math

By Don Winslow

I’ve never been good at math.


I wasn’t good at old math, I wasn’t good when ‘new math’ came along. My algebra teacher, who had the unfortunate name ‘Mrs. Robinson’, (who, in fact, married one of my classmates) used to stand over my shoulder, look at my work and say, “Donald, you’re so stupid.”

But old math, new math, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, whatever, never had anything on Hollywood Math.

That’s a different beast entirely.

My first experience with Hollywood Math came after Warner Bros. optioned one of my novels, which will go nameless for reasons that will soon become obvious. The book had garnered great reviews, everyone was excited about making it and I was due an additional $100,000 payment on the first day of principal shooting.

But the project languished in development hell for years, and then the studio sold it to an independent producer.

Naïve as I was, I didn’t know the studio could do that.

A script was written, (basically, I’d have to say, by Xeroxing the book and moving the characters’ names to the middle of the page), the movie was cast with some fine actors, and the first day of shooting commenced.

What didn’t commence was my payment.

This was my first Hollywood Math lesson. Day One didn’t actually mean ‘day one’ but something else.

No check on Day Two or Three.

Then Week Two or Three.

Maybe, I thought, it was the fact that they were shooting down in Mexico and the count didn’t start until they came back to the US.

I tried to be patient. The producer was a pretty good guy and I didn’t want to be pressuring him, but at that point in my life I really needed the money. I had done my own household math and…it wasn’t adding up.

The shoot moved back across the border, specifically to Orange County.

I asked for my money.

They invited me to the set, which was on location.

I went.

To get my money.

I got there – it was my first film set – and noticed that there were dozens of people – the director, actors, technicians, hairdressers, food service people – on the job and I also noticed that, among all the people there, the only one who hadn’t been paid was me.

And I had to wonder, given these circumstances, just what ‘Based on the novel by Don Winslow’ meant.

Apparently nothing, at least in Hollywood Math.

Forcing me to go from author to bill collector. I’m like Stallone in Rocky without the side career in boxing.

When I said that I wanted my money I was told that I would have to talk to the guy who was financing the film.

Fine, I said.

“Actually, you might not want to do that,” said the man who had just told me that’s what I actually needed to do.

“And why is that?” I asked.


“And why is that?” I repeated.


“He’s what?”

I have, and had, no idea if this was true but I was warned that this financier had ties to organized crime.

In any case, they were all afraid of him and very concerned that he was visiting the set that day, and they didn’t want me to upset him.

Have I mentioned that I really needed the money?

That I had a wife and child to support?

Have I mentioned that I grew up in Providence, New Orleans and New York City, three locales that are not exactly unfamiliar with the concept of organized crime? That I grew up with guys that, if you stiffed them for a hundred large – or a dollar – would go Mickey Mantle on your legs?

I didn’t care if I upset him.

So off I stride across this beachfront park in pristine south Orange County, where organized crime means a group of people who all decided to wear white after Labor Day, to find the visiting financier.

He’s with an ‘entourage’.

We get introduced and he gives me his best badass look and says in an accent that was either native or learned from very bad movies, “Zo – you’re ze guy who vants his money.”

His entourage stared at me.

I said, “Dude – (I talked that way in those days, please forgive me) – did you think I came here alone?”

I hadn’t. I had brought a small ‘entourage’ of my own, two very tough and chronically angry people standing about twenty yards away and just hoping that this would go sideways so that they could intervene and work out their frustrations.

My entourage grinned at his entourage.

The conversation ended there because the financier had to catch his private jet to Maui. This guy had a private jet, and I was going to drive back and forth from the set in my ten-year-old car. (To be fair, I really liked that car and kept it for another seven years until it became the subject of ridicule in a Men’s Journal article, but that’s another story.)

I suggested that he sell the jet and pay me.

He didn’t take that suggestion.

Instead, when he returned with a tan, he called and did Hollywood Math. “I’ll pay you thirty -thousand.”

“The contract calls for a hundred,” I said. “You bought the book, we had a contract. You owe me.”

“That’s thirty cents on the dollar.” Like he was doing me a favor, like it was a bonus or something.

“Maybe I could go as high as fifty.”

“A dollar is a hundred cents,” I said, reasonably sure I was right about that.

But this was Hollywood math, in which two-plus-two apparently equals…

…wait for it…


“How about you settle for that?” he said.

What I know now, but didn’t know then, is that these types always assume (okay, often correctly) that writers are poor and have no choice but to take what’s offered – because we need the money and can’t afford lawyers to get it.

But what this guy didn’t know is that I’m kind of an old-school guy. If I owe someone ten bucks I’m going to pay them ten bucks. If I’m owed ten bucks I expect to get…ten bucks.

What he also didn’t know but does now, when I was an investigator I did some really good work for some of the best lawyers in the country, and I called one of these gentlemen and told him I had a problem.

Jim Robie – one of the best lawyers and best people I have ever known – didn’t believe in Hollywood Math.

He believed in Old Math, in which two plus two equals four.

Every time.

So when the financier suggested to him that we settle for fifty cents on the dollar, Jim said, “How about we settle for a hundred cents on the dollar?”

The guy offered seventy-five.

Jim countered with one hundred.

Ninety, came the counter offer.

One hundred, Jim said, or we’ll sue, and in discovery we’ll subpoena all your books behind the film’s finances.

I had a check for the full amount the next day.

The moral of the story?

Be careful who you get into business with.

‘Writer’ isn’t a synonym for ‘victim’.

And two plus two equals four.

Every time.

Even in Hollywood Math.

Buy Winslow’s book here.


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