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Most WGA screenwriters are very aware that we do not retain copyright on our scripts. When we sell them to the companies, we do so on a work for hire basis. What that means is that we agree to provide our literary material to the company as an employee, and the company becomes the legal author of the script.
Many WGA screenwriters feel that this transfer of copyright is the source of any perceived or real weakness of our stature in Hollywood, and in fact, if we retained copyright, the “gun” would be pointing the other way, so to speak. We’d be in the driver’s seat, we’d be in creative control, our scripts wouldn’t be rewritten and mangled, and we wouldn’t be fired or ignored at will.
This is not true. In fact, not only is it not true, but if we retained copyright, we would actually be worse off.
The Way It Is Without Copyright
First, let’s lay out the realities that exist now under our current system. We sell a screenplay on a work for hire basis, and become copyrightless employees. As an employee, we are allowed to join a labor union that can collectively bargain on our behalf. As such, we have the right to minimum payment for our work, we have the right to collectively determine the proper attribution for our work (credits), and we receive residuals based on reuse as a reward for our de facto authorship. Happily, we are free to negotiate better terms for ourselves if we can, but just as importantly, no one can undercut us by selling scripts for basement prices or waiving their rights to residuals. If you sell a screenplay to a studio, you MUST do so within the MBA terms. Furthermore, as employees, we are entitled to health care and pension contributions from our employers.
Oh, and we get separated rights! You can read about those here.
The downsides of our current system? After our services are completed, the companies can hire other writers to rewrite us. They can hire directors to change the script as well. Our input is not mandatory for the film process. Also, we must tithe 1.5% of our gross income to the WGA.
Now, let’s look at what happens if we retain copyright.
What If They Let Us Keep Our Copyright?
First things first. If you write something like a spec, you own the copyright on it. If you sell it to a studio, that’s when it becomes a work for hire. Therefore, this choice I’m about to discuss isn’t completely hypothetical. You can actually do this!
I just wouldn’t recommend it.
One of the rights of the copyright holder is the right to create and control derivative works. A movie is a derivative work of a screenplay. Therefore, if you insist on owning the copyright on your screenplay, but you want a studio to produce a film from your script, you must license the right to do so to the studio. Currently, the MBA minimum for selling your original script is $100,000. Currently, the minimum for licensing the film rights to your script is…
…nothing. There is no minimum. You could license it for a dime if you wanted. Or just give the license away.
“Hold on,” you say. “I’m in the WGA! If I retain copyright, there must be some way that the WGA can still protect my rights!”
There is not. The WGA is a labor union, recognized, empowered and regulated by the United States Government. In the United States, labor unions are for employees only. A union cannot accept independent contractors and remain certified to collectively bargain for those employees.
Therefore, right away, here’s what you’re giving up when you insist on retaining your copyright and not working as an employee, but rather as an author who is licensing rights. You give up minimum payment for your work. You give up a guaranteed residual rate, and must bargain for your own royalty rate (and let’s point out…WGA writers can always negotiate better residual rates than are in the MBA, so no guaranteed minimum rate is a huge loss for copyright-retainers). You get no health care contributions and no pension contributions. That’s your problem.
“But,” you say, “at least I’m in control!”
If the studio wants to take your screenplay and immediately go into production, they license the film rights from you. Now they are in charge of the film. They have no incentive to grant you any control over that film, and you have no moral right to it once you’ve licensed the film rights.
Of course, it’s a rare spec script that goes right into production. And what if the studio says, “You know what? We want another writer to prepare a new derivative work…a rewrite…before we consider producing this film.”
Here’s the one upside of owning copyright. You can say “no.” Of course, if the sole reward of owning copyright is that you can stop a bad film version of your script getting made, I’m not sure it’s worth losing minimums, health care and pension just for that.
Let’s be frank, though: the only way any studio would ever agree to license your material is if you did so completely. The studios will want to license the full, total and in-perpetuity rights to create new scripts, a movie, a TV series, a play, books, merchandise…EVERYTHING.
We know they would want to do this, because it’s what they do right now. Well, it’s almost what they do right now. Because we’re employees, we have the strength of a union to chip away at some of that (resulting in separated rights and residuals).
As individual copyright holders…it’s just you and your script versus a multinational corporation with a 70 billion dollar market capitalization.
My point is that as a copyright holder, you’d be subject to the same pressures the WGA employee writers are subject to, but without any of the collectively bargained guarantees and protections the employees have in place.
“Wait, wait, wait!” you say. “As the copyright holder, I do have a guarantee! The Berne Convention says that copyright confers certain moral rights that the companies can never take away by license or anything! And that’s why this is all worth it!”
Is that right?
Depends where you are.
The Realities of U.S. Copyright Law
The Berne Convention recognizes that copyright confers the following inalienable moral rights upon the copyright holder:
1. Attribution, i.e. to be properly identified as the author of the work when it is made public, and
2. Creative Integrity, i.e. no one can mutilate or distort the work in such as way as to be prejudicial to the honor or reputation of the author
“See?,” you shout. “I can license away the right to every derivative work from my screenplay, and I can even do so for no money, but no matter what those bastard companies do, they can’t deny me credit and they can’t change my freakin’ words!“
And if you just licensed those rights to a film in any country in the world except the United States, you’d be right. However, the United States Government (and this is a big one) does not recognize moral rights. Actually, they do for visual artists–painters and sculpters and the like–but NOT filmmakers or writers or software coders, etc. etc. etc.
What this means is that as the copyright holder, you can license away every last one of your rights and have NO protections left. Not even a credit protection, or a royalty protection. The companies can and will continue to mutilate and distort your work, because that’s what they do.
Do you think I’m painting too bleak a picture? Well, let’s examine the empirical realities of systems where screenwriters do retain copyright.
The English and Canadians Retain Copyright, So Why Can’t We?
There are three major differences at work in Canada and the UK, as opposed to the situation here in the U.S. First, Canada and Great Britain recognize moral rights. Secondly, and maybe even more importantly, Canada and Great Britain allow labor unions to represent independent contractors.
Thirdly, and most importantly, there is no “work made for hire” concept in Canadian or British copyright law. It’s not an option to be an author-employee.
So, with all of those differences in place, it would seem as if Canada and the U.K. would be writers’ paradises, and yet, we all know that the vast majority of screenwriting done on the planet occurs in the U.S. What gives?
Well, for starters, because the up-front fees aren’t collectively bargained, they tend to be far far lower than those guaranteed to employee-writers. Furthermore, they are often considered applicable against royalties. What that means is that if you get $10,000 for the film rights to your Canadian screenplay, you can expect the producer to reduce the royalties due to you by $10,000.
Imagine if the AMPTP suggested that the fees we earn for our scripts be deducted from our residuals! We’d be on a picket line tomorrow.
But wait. It gets worse.
Unlike our system, in which we have an infrastructure designed to continually and endlessly audit the reuse of products and then exact residuals from the companies on our behalf, the royalty system pretty much leaves the writer at the mercy of studio accountants. Here’s what one Canadian writer has to say about their system:
Producers report these earnings to the Guild on at least an annual basis. The WGC can, theoretically, request that a producer open his account books to prove statements of income, though you will understand that in practice, this is often difficult to effect. In the Canadian system, screenwriters essentially depend upon the honesty, fairness and openness of producers over the life of a project’s distribution – a period that could extend.over many, many years.
For those of you who have met some producers, it’s unlikely that “honesty, fairness and openness” will immediately leap to mind as apt descriptors.
But wait. It gets worser.
The fees for these rights are often determined unilaterally by the producers, especially when the state is the producer. A WGA writer living in the UK reports that the BBC wanted to rebroadcast some old radio shows. They were not compelled to bargain with the Writers Guild of Great Britain. Rather, they unilaterally opted to pay the writers $20,000 for the renewal of the license.
That’s not $20,000 per writer. That’s $20,000 for ALL of them to split up. About $25 per writer. Mind you, those writers owned the copyright on the scripts…but of course, owning a copyright on a script isn’t the same as owning a copyright on a derivative work.
But wait. It gets worserer.
Remember that up-front license fee in Canada? The one that gets subtracted from future royalties? How’d you like to split that with a guy who rewrites you?!?.
In Canada, the first writer “owner” often ends up “splitting” his/her script fee with any any subsequent writers that may come on board later.
You dig that? When you retain copyright, you are an “owner”, and your up-front fee isn’t a labor cost. It’s a license, and it’s divisible, and they can absolutely offer you a contract that requires you to both license away the right to prepare derivative drafts (which don’t violate your moral right to have your draft rewritten, see how clever???) AND divide that license fee with the new guy they contract with. You think people wouldn’t sign contracts like that? They do. With no “undercutting” protection that an MBA and closed shop affords, it is absolutely a race to the bottom.
Now, for those readers who hail from Canada and Great Britain, don’t get me wrong. I’m not beating you guys up for signing bad deals. The fact is that you can’t sign deals like ours because of the nature of your copyright laws. You are forced to be the owners of your work, and while being an owner can have its upside, it certainly has its downsides as well…as you can see.
The fact is that as employees represented by a labor union in the United States, we are far better off than writer/owners who retain copyright in Canada and Great Britain.
A Brief Comparison
For convenience, here’s a brief comparison.
If You Write In The U.S. On A Work Made For Hire Basis
You are guaranteed a minimum upfront fee that is not applicable against residuals.
You are guaranteed a minimum residual rate.
You are guaranteed the right to have your peers, rather than your employers, determine credits.
You are guaranteed the right to have health care and a pension if you meet the basic requirements.
You are guaranteed the protections of a federally certified labor union.
You are guaranteed separated rights if you qualify, and those rights are unwaivable.
You are guaranteed to not be undercut by any other writer working for the signatory companies.
And lastly, you are guaranteed the right to personally negotiate any term that a copyright holder might be entitled to.
If You Write In The U.S. As An Author Who Retains Copyright
You do not have any unwaivable rights.
And lastly, you are guaranteed the right to personally negotiate which terms, if any, you accept for the licensing of your copyright.
Not much of a contest, is it?
So…if retaining copyright isn’t the answer for improving our status, then what is???
Employees With “As If” Terms
There is a perfect world. In that perfect world, the writer is part of a collective bargaining unit, receives minimums and protections, but also receives the very best that copyright ownership can grant.
That philosophy has guided our negotiations stance for decades. That philosophy led to separated rights, residuals, credits determination and our fledgling reacquisition rights. The answer is not to give away all that comes with being an employee (including the ability to best protect our newest and weakest members as well as not be undercut), but to remain employees and try and enshrine more and more rights that are associated with a strong copyright licensing agreement.
The best way we can enshrine the equivalent of a strong copyright licensing agreement is by uniting and bargaining collectively, all the while enjoying the protections of being employees.
We don’t want copyright. We want a deal as if we had copyright. That’s my guiding light for negotiations, and that’s where the pressure comes back from the studios. It’s the smartest and best frontline for our struggle, and that’s where we should aim our firepower.
When we talk about retaining copyright, we’re not talking about empowerment. We’re talking about breaking our union and fending for ourselves. Still, the more we know about the promise that copyright holds, the better a deal we can wrest from the studios.
ERRATA: While the BBC threatened to unilaterally determine a crappy royalty rate for the reuse of the radio broadcasts, they actually could not do so lawfully because the UK writers retain copyright. Instead, the WGGB collectively bargained on their behalf and got them more like $75 per writer. This is still a low number, but it’s certainly better than $25. What’s interesting about this is that UK copyright law apparently views the recording of a radio broadcast as a performance (and so, not new intellectual property), whereas US law clearly views a recording of a radio broadcast as intellectual property, and not a performance.
I was also wrong to suggest that there are no minimums for copyright holders in the UK. Because the UK allows unions to bargain on behalf of independent contractors, they can get copyright holders minimums. In the U.S., however, there is no such protection for copyright holders.
Curiously, UK copyright law, which is far more favorable to the writer than US copyright law, has not led to a stronger economic conditions for British writers.
It’s probably a sad commentary on my own curiosity that I’ve been hearing the phrase “separated rights” since 1995, but only really understood what they were about a year ago.
Separated rights sound kind of complicated, but once you look closely at them, you’ll see there’s nothing too difficult about it all. However, since one of our commenters who happens to be a Board Member (his last name rhymes with “Mawton”) displayed a shocking…I say shocking!…unawareness of one of the basic separated rights, I figured it was time for a brief primer. Mind you, this article is only about theatrical (i.e. movie) separated rights. The TV version will have to wait for another time.
First, let’s remind ourselves (because it’s been four whole days) that when we sell literary material or are hired to create literary material for the studios, we do so as a work made for hire.
As the de jure author of the screenplay, the studio would essentially hold all rights that come along with copyright ownership. However, writers have managed to carve out a few of those rights for themselves. They’ve separated those rights away from the large list of the rights the companies have not given up.
Before we get into what those reserved, or separated rights are, let’s first discuss who gets them.
In order to receive your separated rights in movies, you basically need to do one of the following:
Given those rules, you can see that the most typical way a writer receives separated rights is by being a credited writer on an original. Another important point is that separated rights are assigned for story authorship, not screenplay authorship. “Screenplay by” isn’t enough to get you separated rights. You need to either receive “story by” for an original or “screen story by” for an adaptation. Since the “written by” credit includes a credit for story authorship, that also qualifies.
Now that we know what you need to do to qualify for your separated rights, let’s look at what they actually are.
Publication Rights: You control the right to publish the screenplay and books based on the screenplay. The studios still have the right to employ a writer to create a novelization of the screenplay, but they must offer that job to you first, and even if you decline to write the novelization, they must still pay you a minimum fee.
Dramatic Stage Rights: This is the one Mr. “Mawton” forgot about. After the release of the film, the company has two years in which to produce a stage version of the screenplay. If they fail to do so, the writer now controls the right to produce a stage version.
Sequel Payments & Credit: If the company produces a sequel to the screenplay (for theatrical or television), the writers with separated rights receive WGA minimums for those sequels. In addition, the writers get a “Based on Characters Created By” credit for theatrical sequels.
Mandatory Rewrite: This one’s sort of a cool one. If you sell or option a spec, you must be offered the first rewrite. What’s interesting is that this separated right is obtained prior to the awarding of credit. Obviously, it ceases to be relevant once the first rewrite is complete.
Meeting With A Production Executive: Works on the same basis as #4. If you sell or option a spec and then do your rewrite, the company must let you meet with an executive before they fire you. This is the “right to grovel for your job,” so let’s move quickly past it to…
Reacquisition: I just wrote an article about reacquisition here, so follow the link for the full skinny on this separated right.
So, now you know. Go impress a lawyer. But more importantly, when you begin a new assignment or take a new job, ask yourself whether or not you’re going to receive separated rights. True, published screenplays aren’t exactly bestsellers, and it’s rare for films to be made into stage plays. Nontheless, it happens (see this new play for instance). What’s more, those sequel payments can come in very handy.
A: Hell no. But you can buy it back.
First, a little background on the copyright issues involved.
When we sell our screenplays to the companies, we always do so on a work-made-for-hire basis. What’s a work made for hire?
(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or
(2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as *a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work*, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.
We’re employees. Essentially, the company has hired us to create the screenplay (which is used as a contribution to a motion picture), and as such, they are the actual authors of the work. They have “caused it to be created.”
I say “ahem” not just because my kid’s got me sick again and I’m phlegmy (explains the lack of a new article for a few days now, sorry…), but also because original screenplays fall under works-made-for-hire as well. Even if you write a spec script (which you’ve certainly caused to be created), the companies purchase it as a work-made-for-hire. They are the authors of your screenplay once you agree that you prepared it for them.
However, the WGA has managed over the years to negotiate certain rights on behalf of us, the non-authors of our scripts. Those rights carved out certain privileges normally preserved for the legal authors (since we’re the de facto authors but not the de jure authors). For instance, we have the right to attribution (credit) if we meet the standards we determine.
One of the rights we’ve negotiated is the right to reacquire our work. The idea is that if you sell original literary material to the Company (and that essentially means a screenplay, by either assignment or spec, that’s not based on underlying material like a play, novel or prior film) and the Company fails to exploit the property (make a movie out of it), you get a chance to get it back.
By “get”, I mean “buy”. Here are the basic rules.
The companies get five years in which to show that they are going to exploit the screenplay. The five year clock starts ticking either on the date you sell the material or the last date of your work on the project…whichever is later.
After that five years, if the Company isn’t “actively developing” the script, you have a window in which to reacquire it, or buy it back. How is “active development” defined? Basically, a writer must be currently employed on the project or a director or actor needs to be not only attached, but pay-or-play (i.e. guaranteed payment for their services whether the film is produced or not).
So, if five years have gone by and the script has fallen out of active development, you now have exactly two years in which to buy the script back. Here’s the good news. Unlike buying a project out of turnaround, in which one studio negotiates to purchase a “dead” script from another studio, the company doesn’t have an option. If you’re in the two year period, they must sell you the script back.
Here’s the bad news. You’re not getting back all the subsequent drafts that other writers may have done. You’re only getting your draft back (okay, maybe that’s no big deal). You have to purchase the script back for the exact amount you were paid for all of your writing services (ouch), and furthermore, if you set the script up somewhere else (and why else would you be doing this?), the new company is obligated to pay all of the other costs back to the company.
Those other costs most notably include the fees for all the other writers the first company hired to rewrite you, as well as all of the pension and health contributions the first company made for all of those writers. The only thing that mitigates that little clause is that those huge bills only come due if the new company actually produces the film. In fact, they’re due on the first day of principle photography.
In short, if you’ve written an original script, you can get it back, but you have to mark your calendar five years into the future, at which point you’ll have two years to convince another studio to pony up the cash. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than mothballs. Improving our reacquisition terms is a perennial negotiations concern. I’m hoping we can advance that ball forwards a bit in 2007.
There’s a debate in Washington swirling around the possible regulation of basic cable. Right now, the FCC regulates material that is broadcast over public airwaves. The idea here is that the airwaves are a public resource, so in exchange for use, broadcasters must submit to certain standards the public places upon the signals travelling through the air.
The FCC is, at least in theory, the agent of the public.
The current proposal, however, is to extend the FCC’s regulatory reach to include basic cable. Before we go any further, I must share with you the excellent definition of basic cable that is written into the WGA Minimum Basic Agreement.
The term “basic cable,” as distinguished from pay television or free television, refers to that type of exhibition which is commonly understood in the industry today to be basic cable exhibition.
Ain’t that adorable?
Anyway, basic cable, which includes your Comedy Centrals and CNN’s and so forth, is typically transmitted via privately owned cables. The pro-regulatory folks are saying that kids have the same access to basic cable as they do to broadcast networks, and therefore the FCC ought to regulate them as such. The anti-regulatory folks are saying that the FCC can only regulate signals moving through public space. Attempting to regulate signals moving through private space is censorship.
I happen to agree with that latter argument. However, I understand why many are calling for this. I sympathize. And I think that we, the creators of so much of our culture, are making a mistake by repeatedly villainizing the people and motivations behind such initiatives.
I didn’t always think that way. True, I’m a parent now, and that certainly broadened my perspective. Even before that, though, I had a small crisis of faith. It began with a man named Jimmy Pearsall.
I was 21 years old and fresh out of college…just another knuckleheaded kid who didn’t know anything about craft or creativity, butI had a job writing TV promos at an ad agency for 20 grand a year, so I was happy.
I smoked back then. So did Jimmy. He was in his 60′s. An artist. Happily gay, but lived alone. A recovering alcoholic who didn’t seem to get the point of the word “recovering”. His job was to draw images for insignificant ads promoting insignificant shows. But many years earlier, before the drinking got really bad, Jimmy had done some truly wonderful work.
Work like the greatest movie poster of all time. The linked site lists his credit below the poster, but that tiny bit of black ink the lower right-hand corner is his initials. JP. Look for them if you ever see the one-sheet in all its full-sized glory.
Jimmy was a genius, and it seemed only I appreciated it. The two of us became great friends. He was my smoking buddy during work hours, and I can only assume he was his own drinking buddy before and after work hours. That was 1992. Jimmy died in 1994. Cancer of the liver and lungs. Smoking and drinking. I visited him in the convalescent home just a few days before he died, and it was…ah well.
So why this sob story?
I remember talking with him about smoking and drinking once, and I asked him why he got started with it. And he said in his wonderfully suave Jimmy way, “Oh, Craig. It was the movies. It just looked so good.”
Did the movies kill Jimmy? Of course not. And yet, when I thought about why I started smoking, it seemed to me it was because I wanted to look cool. Of course, me smoking wasn’t cool at all. Why did I think smoking looked cool?
I admit it. It was the movies.
Shortly after, it occurred to me that the very purpose of Our Thing is to affect an audience. We want them to cry, to laugh, to question their values and their lives. We want them to taste a small bit of death, or to reexperience the feeling they had when they first fell in love. This is powerful stuff. If it weren’t, no one would be shelling out dough for it. Hell, Capra made films to help indoctrinate our troops heading off to World War II.
Culture has an influence.
And yet, the typical knee-jerk response of writers is “we’re not responsible!”
We’re not responsible for glamorizing teen sex, we’re not responsibile for making smoking look cool, we’re not responsible for anything. We’re artists. If the audience doesn’t get the joke, then it’s their fault. It’s their parents’ fault. It was a problem before we wrote it. Please shut up, but leave the money on the table, thanks.
Of course, by “We” I mean we right now. It’s all-too-easy for us to look backwards and condemn the writers before us who penned the minstrel shows, the homophobic characters, the light-hearted jokes about domestic violence, and the love scenes that started as rapes until the female character realized that she really did want it after all.
We of the Now, however, are protected entirely by our invisible Art Cloak, which shields us from even having to think about any responsibility to the audience.
Am I in favor of censorship? Of course not. Nor am I in favor of regulation where none need exist. What concerns me is that our culture has coarsened noticeably over the last fifty years, and we have been writing it. Sadly, we writers traditionally protest, in knee-jerk fashion, any proposals designed to help the audience regulate that coarsened culture…even if that regulation is entirely in the hands of the individual. “V-chip? Against! Warning labels on albums? Against! Ratings for televised programs? Against! Keep your laws off our words! If parents would only parent! Censorship!”
I wish it were not so.
Do we not owe some consideration for our audience, or is this another one of those slippery slopes to disaster? What role does responsibility play for those of us who manufacture culture not just for the United States, but the entire world?
Something that’s bugged me for quite some time …
There is a tendency to use “commercial” and “art” as if they are the measure of the same thing — as if there is a scale that looks like this:
The problem, of course, is that “art” is not the opposite of “commercial”; it’s not even the privative of “commercial.” The opposite and privative of “commercial” is “non-commercial.” We can debate endlessly what the opposite/privative of “art” is, but for now, let’s just go with the simple “not art.”
Which means the ol’ Commercial-Art scale actually looks like this:
We can probably — no, make that “certainly” — we can certainly debate endlessly the truth (or lack thereof) of the propositions “Commercial = Not Art” and “Art = Not Commercial.” In fact, I have seen such debates take place among screenwriters, I’ve participated in those debates, I stopped participating in those debates, and I guarantee that those debates are still going on.
But accepting either of those propositions as “True” requires accepting as “True” two corollary propositions that are obviously and demonstrably false:
IF a work is “Not Art,” THEN it is “Commercial.”
IF a work is “Not Commercial,” THEN it is “Art.”
In other words, if you create something that is not art, then a lot of people will pay you for it. If you create something for which no one wants to pay you … it’s art.
And that’s just silly.
Sure, it’s nice ego-balm in the event your screenplay does not sell to be able to say “This town just doesn’t care about art,” and it makes it a lot easier to dismiss any studio notes you don’t like as knee-jerk Philistinism in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, but the fact is:
If you write a screenplay and want someone to buy it, you are hoping it will be commercial — and the more commercial, the better.
If it does sell, then it is commercial.
If doesn’t sell, then it’s non-commercial.
If a movie is made, and people pay to see it, then it’s commercial.
If it is, and they don’t, then it’s not.
And none of that has any bearing on whether or not it’s “art.”
Coming soon: When did “indy/prod” go from being an economic statement to an aesthetic? And does the scale that goes:
– have any merit whatsoever any more?
…and everything seems to be running smoothly. John August alerted me to a potential problem with the old host (apparently they weren’t too fond of Movable Type, which is resource-intensive), so I moved the site to a more blog-friendly host.
If you experience any trouble with the site, please contact me.
Writers and their self-esteem. Is there any light at the end of that tunnel?
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think every screenwriter has an esteem problem. Nonetheless, the cult of victimology is humming along just fine. We’re “invisible”. “Forgotten”. Rewriters are “whores”. Studio executives trample our work. No one knows who we are. The faces of our greatest writers are unrecognizable to the public. We’re constantly being booted from our own works of authorship.
I’ll avoid the racist epithet, but you know what Lennon said about women and the world? Some would have you believe we’re the that of Hollywood.
Not me. I am not a victim, nor a whore. I do not define myself as abused, regardless of any abuse I may have suffered. I’m invisible to the public, but I don’t care. I’ve been booted from my own work of authorship, and I’m okay with that.
Am I a sociopath? No. I just don’t think “worst off” is a title worth pursuing. Besides, we have some stiff competition in our frantic race to the bottom. Actors. Directors. Agents. Producers.
You think we have it bad? Sit in a casting session for a few hours. Or spend years of your life clawing to get one of your unknown clients his first gig, only to have him turn around and ditch you for CAA. Direct a film, and then get locked out of the editing room…you know, the room where they’re chopping the crap out of the movie you shot.
Or how about this one? Be the president of a studio. Inherit a slate full of bombs. Do your damnedest to find and develop better material. Get fired because that slate of bombs was exactly as bad as you suspected, and then watch as your replacement takes credit for the movies you put into production.
Happens every day, folks. And yet, it’s the writers who seem to be complaining the loudest. Before the commenters run for the torches and pitchforks, I’ll readily agree that there’s plenty about the status of the writer in Hollywood that sucks. Even worse, it’s largely reparable.
Still, I’d like to think that one way out of this bind is to stop fighting with everyone else over the crumbs of esteem our industry occasionally disgorges. Any esteem worth a damn is self-generated rather than extracted through demands or shame.
Consider this: if you surveyed Americans and asked how many people knew who Ruben Studdard was, you’d get a number in the millions. If you asked how many knew who Scott Frank was, you’d get an answer in the thousands. And yet, Scott Frank has personally entertained far more people than Ruben Studdard ever will (and he’s done it far better, natch). I’d like to think that Scott Frank doesn’t give a crap if people know his name or his face. I’d like to think that Scott Frank’s self-image doesn’t come from his relative status to directors or producers or actors, but instead from his opinion of his own work. I’d like to think that Scott Frank doesn’t want Scott Frank to be famous; he wants his movies to be famous.
Does anyone honestly believe that writers like Scott suffer because they aren’t crying out for more respect, more attention, more validation? Is it this magical “esteem” that makes our work important and good…or have we, like so many Americans, flipped the causality here?
“Respect writers!” is a bugaboo. I didn’t become a screenwriter because I needed to fill an esteem void. I write because I want to entertain people. My sense of self-esteem comes from the knowledge that I do my best. It comes from supporting my family. It comes from my desire to learn and improve.
The last place it will ever come from is a studio, or an agent, or an actor or director. Doing things specifically to enhance our esteem is the weakest possible move. No one respects the beggar.
If we want to improve our standing in Hollywood, there’s really only one way to do it. Tomorrow, every writer wakes up and says and believes the following:
“I don’t care what anyone else thinks about me. I just care what they think about my writing.”
Just like that…esteem crisis solved. The agents will still fret over their clients, the directors will still worry that the producers will undermine them, the actors will still complain that they’re treated like pieces of meat, and the studio execs will forever be looking over their shoulder at the new kid who’s nipping at their heels.
But we’ll be calmly doing our job.
Of course, caring about your writing isn’t the same as writing well. Nor is caring about your writing ever going to change the fact that some readers have no taste. But hey, isn’t it always true that some of our best writing won’t get made? Didn’t we know this going in? Weren’t we aware that we couldn’t eliminate the existence of poor judgment and poorer treatment? The film industry is as predictable as weather, traffic, tumors and roulette–and I’m being charitable.
Still, we have an advantage. We are capable of creating without any antecedent work, without anyone else’s contributions. Ex scriptor. No one else in our business can make the same claim, but somehow we’re supposed to be the weak ones?
Let’s all sit shiva for a fair world that will respect us as writers simply because we write. We don’t need that crutch. We’re the strong ones.
It’s a common assumption that Our Thing doesn’t require our presence on the set of the films we write. Similarly, it’s a common assumption that most directors don’t want us there anyway.
I’m going to challenge those assumptions.
While it’s true that plenty of movies are produced without the writer present, I’d argue that it’s in our interest as the primary story technicians to be there–even if it’s only for the beginning of the day. That’s when the scenes are blocked. That’s when the actors are carefully examining their sides. That’s when the entirety of the multi-million dollar corporation known as The Production is suddenly focused like a laser on somewhere between one and three pages of the scripts we write.
And no one knows those one to three pages better than we.
However, we do not currently have a right to be on the set. One of the problems facing directors is that they can feel challenged or interfered with by someone else asserting authorship on the set, and the director’s near-complete authority is necessary for them to best do their job.
I’ll argue that authority on the set is not necessary for us to do our job. Nor is servility.
What’s necessary is a formal code of behavior–an etiquette–to help define our job on the set as well as assure directors that our presence will be neither disruptive nor redundant. Furthermore, any good code of setiquette should avoid stepping on certain landmines–the director’s right to ban anyone they’d like from the set, for instance. Nonetheless, I think directors would want us on the set if they felt their primary concerns were addressed formally and beforehand. I think it would be a rare director who wouldn’t want the option of a writer there to help take care of the myriad of issues that typically arise, unforeseen, on the day of shooting.
As always, I call upon you, intrepid writers, to comment on this list. Add to it, rip it apart, have at it. Furthermore, feel free to challenge my initial presumption. Should writers be on the set? Should it be an option…or part of our job description? Should a production all-services deal become the norm, rather than a maybe?
Remember, setiquette goes both ways…we ought to have obligations to the production, but the production ought to have obligations to us. Finally, I think this setiquette can only realistically apply if the writer is there to work. Visiting the set makes you a visitor; if you’re a visitor, you can expect to be treated like one.
Enough prologue. My first shot at Setiquette.
The currently employed screenwriter shall be prominently listed on and promptly receive all call sheets.
There shall be a Screenwriter’s Office in the production office and a Screenwriter’s Trailer when trailers are used for location shooting.
There shall be a seat for the screenwriter on set, preferably near the director’s seat, unless the director opts otherwise.
The screenwriter shall have full access to the set, unless the director opts otherwise.
The screenwriter shall not discuss any script, story, character or production issues with the cast unless the director grants specific permission.
The screenwriter shall not discuss any script, story, character or production issues with the crew unless the director grants specific permission.
The screenwriter shall make his expertise available to the director, and shall provide it at the director’s pleasure to the best of his ability.
The screenwriter shall not give “notes” to the director, unless the director opts otherwise.
The screenwriter shall be invited to screen all dailies with the director, unless the director opts otherwise, in which case a separate viewing of dailies will be made available to the screenwriter in a timely fashion.
The screenwriter will receive all crew gifts (jackets, etc.) and will be invited to all wrap parties.
Okay, fire away!