I’m the voice
of this guy…A couple of years ago, I spoke to a room full of recent Princeton graduates–all aspiring screenwriters. I asked them a fairly simple question. “When is the job of the screenwriter over?” Some said when the script is done, some said when the movie got greenlit, a few said when the movie started shooting.
All fine answers, but in my opinion, all wrong answers.
The screenwriter’s job is over when the film is print-mastered and prepared for duplication. For those of you less production-savvy, I’ll adjust that slightly.
The screenwriter’s job is over when the movie premieres.
When I say “screenwriter,” what I mean is “the screenwriter currently employed.” There should always be a screenwriter currently employed on the project (see my essay on The Stand By Writer), and that writer’s skills may be required until the very last moment the story can be affected.
For instance, on Monday, we did our final mix on the final reel of Scary Movie 4. As it so happens, I’ve enjoyed the great pleasure of being the “Mel Blanc” of the movie (so says our post-production supervisor). If you see the movie, odds are that every single grunt, groan, single word, off-camera shout or generally non-descript utterance is yours truly. It’s quite possible that I may imitate an actor or two for a line here and there (not that I’d ever admit that or tell you which actor, I ain’t talkin!). Even better, I actually have a real role in the film as the voice of the Saw Puppet.
A Saw Puppet with a secret!
Okay, enough bragging about stuff that’s not that impressive.
The point is that there were opportunities even up to the final minutes to adjust off-camera lines and dialogue for the puppet, and before I or anyone else could perform them…someone had to write the words.
And if I weren’t there, who was going to write those words? (“You, Lieutenant Weinberg?”)
Let me now make a larger point.
It’s not just good for writers to be around to work on this stuff. It’s good for everyone else, including the mixers and music editors and dialogue cutters and producers and post-production supervisors to be comfortable having writers around working on this stuff. We cannot live on the one hand under the delusion that our jobs end when we finish typing the script document, and complain on the other hand that we’re not viewed as part of the team.
If we’re not a purposeful part of the team, then we are not part of the team. Mind you, I’m not in this for a crew jacket. I want to be part of the team in order to influence the movie. See, the calculation that many miss is this: work leads to power.
Let’s all say it together.
Work leads to power.
Credits are nice, and starting the process is great, and getting the green light is wonderful. But continuing to WORK on the movie is what earns us the ongoing influence and actual power-over-the-film that we really want.
I started writing on July 1st. I stopped writing on March 27th. Somewhere in there, I wrote treatments, I wrote drafts, I wrote scenes, I wrote lines, I wrote ideas, I wrote moments, I wrote versions and I wrote explanations. All writing. All on equal footing in my mind. All necessary.
If you believe yourself when you type “The End,” then you’re in for some surprises when you see what happens to the movie at the real End. And yes, this might mean taking fewer jobs and sticking with one gig longer. It might mean short-term financial losses in exchange for what will probably be long-term financial gains. It’s worth it. You will be a linchpin. You will be a filmmaking partner.
Work leads to power. Raise your carpal-tunnelly fist in the air…and keep it up there until the dupers start spinning.
A: What Do You Mean If?
Monkey…I remember the phone call like it was yesterday. See, my partner and I had just gotten an actor attached to our first screenplay, the movie was greenlit, and there was an article in Variety. So when a guy called me about it at home, rookie me figured it was just some screenwriter-adoring reporter calling to lavish more attention upon moi.
In fact, it was another screenwriter. A pissed off screenwriter, in fact, who found it rather “odd” that I had written a screenplay that was EXACTLY LIKE HIS!
See, mine was about an idiot who went to Mars on board a space shuttle, and his was about an idiot who went to Mars on board a space shuttle.
The similarities, you see, were astounding.
Now, honestly, I felt for the guy, but as Hyman Roth once said, this (cough) is the business (cough) we have chosen.
There are thousands of screenplays developed every year. Only a hundred or so will get made. Given that another thousand will get developed next year, and so forth and so on, it seems quite likely that the original screenplay you’re working on is not as original as you think. It’s mostly original, but somewhere, someone’s got something that’s at least a wee bit like it, and possibly a large bit like it.
Yes, that means the day after you finish the final rewrite on your spec script about three Dutch riflemen who track the Yeti across the Sahara, you’ll be in competition with another Dutch riflemen Yeti Sahara project.
It’s almost inevitable.
Call it The Hundredth Monkey phenomenon.
The story goes like this. Supposedly, a researcher was observing macaque monkeys washing sweet potatoes in the ocean. One monkey taught another how to do this. Then another taught another. The 99th monkey taught the 100th monkey how to do this, and then lo and behold, suddenly all the monkeys on the island instantly knew how to do this.
Critical mass had occurred. The idea had “caught on.” It was “out there.”
Of course, the hundredth monkey phenomenon is baloney.
Still, you will find that the sheer volume of screenwriting competition will be enough to duplicate your efforts. Don’t freak out. In fact, be happy. This is actually great news.
You want this.
If you are a good writer, nothing will elucidate your skill more than an excellent rendition of an idea twelve other people have tanked, kapish?
And if you hear that another studio is developing a similar project, and you intended to write something commercial, well…obviously you’re writing something commercial, right?
So take a deep breath. Good writing will win the day, and similar stories can easily co-exist. If Antz couldn’t kill A Bug’s Life, nothing’s going to kill your script.
Like this, but less evilIt is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Brothers and sisters, we writers are living in the darkness, and all I hear around me is cursing. The companies that employ us change the rules, they slip through loopholes, they invent new definitions and theories and business plans, and we’re constantly running after them, wondering why we’re always behind.
We have two real weapons. The first weapon is unity.
We’re not so good at that. I’ll talk about unity some other time, maybe after I pop a Xanax or something.
The second weapon is knowledge.
We’re awful at that. Every deal we make, every contract we sign, every bit of business we do as WGA members is governed by a master contract. The Minimum Basic Agreement. We can always do better than the MBA, but we can never do worse. It holds the keys to our minimum salaries, our residuals, our credits. It is the DMZ between us and the companies. It’s the battlefield where we wedge our way towards victory or get clobbered in defeat.
It is, in its enormous totality, the evidence of our struggles and our collective history.
And none of you have ever read it.
When I ran for the Board of the WGAw a year or so back, one of my campaign promises was to do what I could to help educate our membership, and one of the ways in which I promised to do that was to publish the MBA online. Traditionally, the MBA was available only by calling the Guild and having them mail you the book.
Yes, it’s a book.
The problem wasn’t one of mere reluctance. Typical of a monopolistic bureaucracy, the word processor files for the MBA were archaic and weird and not even pdf-able without a lot of work.
However, the DGA had managed to get their contract online, as had SAG. And so, with much pushing and forcefulness and nudging, I finally made good on my promise.
The 2004 WGA MBA is online, available to anyone. Because of its size, it’s been split into a few pdf files. The good news is that each file is searchable.
This seems as good a time as any to recommend the excellent PDF Plugin for Mac OS X. It allows easy viewing of pdf files right in your browser.
The MBA is enormous, and it’s a legal document, so it can be confusing and bewildering and, well, boring. There are some spots, however, well worth peeking at.
Article 1 contains the definitions that govern the document that, in turn, governs us. Learn who meets the definition of “writer,” for instance.
Articles 6 and 7 describe how the WGA and the AMPTP companies create the exclusive relationship between us, and under what conditions we can strike and under what conditions they can lock us out.
Article 9 explains how you can’t do worse than the MBA terms, but you’re always free to do better.
Article 13 lays out what “scale” is for every kind of job writers can do. If you’re wondering what you’re supposed to get paid, this is the mother lode.
Article 16 is the complete and definitive version of my skinny on separated rights.
Article 48 contains the slowly-advancing “creative rights” that we have made over the years, and should give you a sense of what we’ve been able to achieve…and what we haven’t.
If you don’t read anything else, read Article 51. Entitled “Supplemental Markets,” Article 51 is ground zero of our residuals battles. It defines residuals, it delineates the various formulae that govern them, and it contains the odious clause that, in 1985, slashed our residuals down to a fifth of their size. That little clause caused not one, but two strikes.
It may yet cause another. Read the Article. Educate yourselves.
If you only want to read two things, then after you’re done with Article 51, read Theatrical Schedule A. Boy, that sounds sexy, huh? Theatrical Schedule A is the basis of all of our credits guidelines for feature films. Within Theatrical Schedule A, you will find definitions of screenplay, story, literary material, and practically everything else you’d ever want to know about how and why our credits work (or fail to work) they way they do.
Okay, one last one. It’s an easy one.
As the MBA gets renegotiated, it’s often easier to create “side letters” that amend the main contract, rather than go into the main contract and start rewriting.
There is one extremely important side letter in the 2004 MBA, and I believe it will be this single three page document that will rest at the heart of not only our negotiations with the AMPTP, but SAG’s and the DGA’s as well.
You can find it on page 563. It’s very short. What it says of particular relevance is:
Where the subscriber pays for the program either on a subscription or per-picture basis, and where the payment is in exchange for the right to view the motion picture for a fixed and limited period of time or a fixed number of exhibitions, the Company shall pay to the credited writer an aggregate sum equal to one and two-tenths percent (1.2%) of the license fee paid by the licensee for the right to exhibit such picture on the Internet.
This sideletter gives us 1.2% of 100% of the companies’ gross on internet rentals, versus our formula of 1.5/1.8% of 20% of the companies’ gross on DVD sales and rentals.
The battle will center around internet sales. We believe we are legally entitled to sales by our definition. They do not. And so it goes.
There’s a larger point here, of course.
I know this stuff isn’t fun. I know it’s homework.
Do it anyway. Don’t rely on your elected leaders to do it for you. They’re just writers like you, and in my experience as a member of the Board, most of them aren’t particularly well-versed in the MBA either. Educate yourselves. Be smart. You’re going to be asked to make decisions soon that will affect your livelihoods in serious ways.
The only bad choice will be an uninformed one.
The Big ManYou sell your script, you fight your way through development hell, you lock horns with the studio, you stay on the project, you parry and thrust with the director and get your star and the green light flashes go.
But before you get to Roger Ebert and the red carpet and the box office stats, the odds are good that you’ll be hearing from Ain’t It Cool News. Love him or hate him, Harry Knowles is a factor in our lives. He may not affect things the way the mainstream media believes he does, but he’s out there, his correspondents are out there, those pesky TalkBackers are out there, and they won’t shut up.
Nor should they. I know a lot of filmmakers get annoyed by Harry and AICN. I take a more moderate point of view.
AICN’s meat and potatoes are early script reviews and test screening reviews.
I’m not a big fan of early script reviews. I understand why people are interested in them, and there are worse things in the world than generating curiosity in one’s work. On the other hand, works in progress really are works in progress. Don’t get me wrong–I’m all for audience input into the process. I love test screenings. Still, writers need some time to be able to flail around a bit before getting a project on its legs. Sometimes you have to go too far or break some rules to help you eventually find your way. God forbid someone gets their hands on an experimental draft and craps on it.
But that’s not the AICN function I want to talk about today.
A week ago, we test-screened Scary Movie 4 for an audience in Burbank. By all of our estimations, the screening went very well. Our numbers were very good, but for a spoof comedy, it’s less about numbers and more about laughs. The audience laughed. A lot. They laughed all the way through.
It was a good screening.
Somewhat predictably, two reviews ended up on AICN. Now, I happen to be a long-time and fairly frequent reader of AICN, so I know how to translate reviews of a movie like Scary Movie 4. Given that it’s a third sequel, given that its target audience is younger than the average AICN reader, and given that its level of comedic sophistication is fairly low, the possible reviews would probably work out as follows:
“Like getting smashed in the face by Satan’s balls over and over” = bad “A few laughs, but mostly boring and stupid” = average “People around me were laughing a lot, but honestly, did the world need this movie?” = good
One of the reviews seemed average, and one seemed good.
I’m not precious about this stuff. I understand that a movie like Scary Movie 4 isn’t going to light a fire of excitement under anyone with a little bit of cynicism in their bloodstream. People see a movie with the number “4″ on it, and even the optimists must conclude that a gross exercise in commerce is afoot.
Which is true. It’s not like the studio is looking to change the world. They want money.
For me, however, it’s not a gross exercise in commerce. For me, I’m honestly trying to start and keep an audience laughing solidly for 80 carefree minutes, so when the reviewer says the audience was laughing their asses off, that’s enough of a takeaway for me.
But what about the Talkback section?
Ohhhhh, those talkbacks. Should they be listened to? Harbinger of the audiences to come? Ignored? Weird obese virgins nattering at each other about minutia?
Ain’t it or ain’t it not cool?
I like reading the talkbacks because I really do get a sense of where the project is or isn’t connecting. It’s one thing to theorize about what that “4″ means in a public relations sense. It’s another to hear people talk about it in a blunt fashion. I like knowing who people really do think is cool, and I like knowing who people really do think is lame. That’s important. It’s not productive to sit in my room and scowl about how the talkbackers are a bunch of vulgar jerkwads obsessed with oneupsmanship (although some of them are). There are bits of collective truth to be mined from those threads.
Thing is, talkbacks are insular. They’re their own subculture that has turned back and around on itself. It’s not like you’re getting a hundred honest opinions. You’re getting a hundred statements that are partially honest opinion, partially competitive writing, partially intentional deception, partially delusion and partially deconstructive critical anarchism.
That’s why you somehow have to learn to take the talkbacks seriously without taking them seriously, if you dig.
Kevin Smith, who never fails to fascinate, has opted on at least two occasions to literally respond, item by item, to talkbacks. This would seem to define “insanity.” The best he can do is use a bully pulpit to beat up some guy whose name is something like TheRealVinzClortho, but it’s not like Clortho will feel anything but delight at the recognition. The worst he can do is actually appear to lose the exchange with a talkbacker making a valid point. Either way, fighting the talkback is like firing a gun into a black hole. As was the case with Kevin Smith, the talkback simply assimilated his responses and then begain talking back about them.
If the talkbackers find this article, someone will no doubt talk back about it too. I will probably get bludgeoned for it. That’s the tricky part about even mentioning talkbacks. They get pretty recursive.
In that regard, one of the smartest things Harry Knowles did was put that question mark after the title of his site. AICN is an endless question. Ain’t it cool? Sometimes yeah, sometimes no. There’s plenty to learn from all that chaos. Don’t fear it, don’t take it personally, don’t believe every word of it, don’t deny every word of it…and above all, don’t fight it.
It is what it is, and it ain’t what it ain’t.
End of Act II?A: Not very.
This is one of those questions, the sort that get asked all the time and garner a different answer from practically anyone you ask.
On the other hand, I’ve been asked, and I’m right, so we can finally put this entire debate to rest, right?
I’ll settle for “maybe”.
The truth is that act breaks are highly overrated by most of the so-called screenwriting “instructors” out there precisely because they are easily teachable. Pedagogy requires some sort of orthodoxy. It’s not very useful for a student to hear that “act breaks” are conceptual points or moments or possibly sequences in a narrative that may or may not clearly occur twice, thrice or up to twelve times.
Seriously, how do you grade that?
So instead, screenwriting “instructors” teach that there are three acts. Or seven. Or five. They like to pick new numbers of acts to help brand themselves. Then they tell you on what page the act break must occur.
Hooey. Baloney. Argle-bargle. Go ahead…fill in your own Montgomery Burnsian exclamation of disgust. It’s all foofera.
Act breaks are the equivalent of scene blocking for directors or f-stops for cinematographers. They’re an internal tool to help you however you need them, but they’re never supposed to be noticed by the audience. There is no hard and fast rule. They simply help you organize your own story.
Writing a movie, after all, is a nifty bit of reverse engineering, if you think about it. You imagine a story, hopefully with some kind of gestalt (fancy word day here at the AW), and then set about recreating it as a series of elements. Those elements can be sequences or scenes or moments or pages or ideas. Up to you.
When you’re wrestling with this task, you may find that intermediate steps are helpful. You can conceive of your story in three large chunks…or perhaps two…or perhaps ten.
That’s your business. No one else (particularly the audience) gives a damn. They just want a good story without any seams showing.
This is actually one of the best parts of filmmaking. It’s not like writing a classical-era symphony with its strict number of four movements, a sonata followed by a slow movement followed by a minuet & trio and concluding with a rondo. We can follow traditional structures or blow them all to hell.
The truth is that just as paper covers rock, talent covers act breaks. Talent covers formatting. Talent covers the number of brads you have.
Don’t let anyone’s orthodox view of page counts and act breaks jam you up. It turns out that a lot of great screenplays can be seen, upon analysis, to have a certain act rhythm.
That doesn’t mean the great screenwriters who wrote them were concentrating on that.