April 2005 Archives
Yesterday, Apple finally released the latest version of its OS. Nerds like me know it as 10.4, but most everyone else calls it Tiger.
Before I start raving about how incredibly beautiful and powerful this OS is, let me first establish my biases. I’ve been an Apple enthusiast since the days of the Apple ][E, and I’ve worked almost exclusively with Macs since their launch in ‘84. However, I also have an IBM ThinkPad running XP Pro mostly because I’m a geek who needs full geek coverage (it’s nice to know I’m taken care of if compatibility problems rear their ugly little heads).
Now, as much of a macophile as I am, there have been areas in which Windows admittedly outpaced the Jobs boxes. The most notable of those was Windows’ protected memory scheme, which while not perfect, was a damn sight better than Mac’s shared memory platform. The old Macs would crash a lot, because if one program lost its mind, they all fell apart.
All that changed with OS X.
10.0 was kind of an early adopter gee whiz thing. Didn’t work too well.
10.1 was functional, but clunky.
10.2 was solid. For the first time, the Mac operating system wasn’t just prettier and cooler than Windows, but also just as reliable (meaning…fairly reliable).
10.3 was clearly superior, IMO, to XP. Solid as a rock. I run my PowerBook 24/7. Never shut it down ever. No system crashes. Not one. Not ever. Not in over two years of heavy use. Incredible. Needless to say, no viruses either. No worms. No trojan horses, no browser hijacks. Meanwhile, my ThinkPad has had at least three “blue screen of death” episodes, and I barely use the damn thing. One XP crash was so bad, I actually lost data.
That’s something that should never happen anymore.
And now…10.4 is here. Folks, it’s a revelation. At this point, no screenwriter should be without it. :)
Okay, okay, I’m getting a little nuts, but this thing is fantastic. I’m happy to say that 21% of our site visitors use Mac. That’s a pretty good number, but I want it to be higher. I hope that Tiger convinces some people to switch.
Dashboard is pretty amazing (particularly the gorgeous dictionary/thesaurus and the yellow pages widget). The ability to do a four-way video conference with iChat is remarkable (and those frame rates!).
But to me, the real selling point…the thing that is practically worth the $129 in and of itself…is a little feature called Spotlight.
Spotlight is simply a text field for searching your files. That’s it.
Big deal, right?
Well, dig this. On XP, if I want to search for something, I type it into that annoying dog’s window, and my ThinkPad thinks about it. For a while. A long while. And the results are, oh…crappy.
To be honest, it was pretty much the same thing for OS X.3.
With Spotlight, you start getting results as you type. It’s that fast. Not just for file names, but file contents. If you search for “watermelon”, it will spit back a complete list of .doc files in which you wrote the word “watermelon”, and it will do it by the time you’ve typed “waterm”.
It will find your search term in every document, every mp3, every image, every e-mail (and I have 38,000 stored), even every pdf! It finds them with astonishing accuracy…and typically within 2 seconds.
Two freakin’ seconds.
Don’t believe me? Watch it in action. The movie might take a bit to load…Apple’s servers have been besieged over the last few days. However, don’t think they’re playing games with the speed of the search result in that movie. It’s accurate.
And no, no one’s paying me to say this stuff. :)
A final note. I don’t have anything against those of you using Windows, BUT…41% of you are using Internet Explorer. People, please. If you’re on a Mac, you should be using Safari. And if you’re on a PC, for God’s sake…use this instead.
Geek rant off.
It’s been pretty damned wonky around here for a month or so, but I’m always reluctant to do articles on screenwriting itself because, well, I’m not sure I have much credibility. :)
Nonetheless, something comes to mind every now and then that I feel so strongly about, I figure I should proselytize.
The most recent something just so happened to come to mind while I was in the bathroom (sorry) reading one of the best bathroom books ever published: Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman.
It’s a great bathroom book because it’s tiny in page count and size, and each self-contained chapter is only four or five pages long. In each chapter, Lightman describes a city in which time is experienced differently than we experience it. For instance, there’s a town where you get additional time the faster you move, so buildings are literally mounted on wheels and driven at high speeds so businesses can get more done in a day. In another chapter, time moves very fast at the edge of the city, but slows as you move inward until you get to the very center of town, where time barely moves at all.
In short, these ideas fall under the basic category of “high concepts”. Where Lightman is brilliant, however, is what he does with them.
In the town where time slows as you move towards the center, he describes how people unhappy with their circumstances venture towards the edges to fly past this part of their lives in the hope that the future brings something better. But people who are dying might move towards the center to slow their march towards the inevitable. In the very center, a couple that is truly in love is caught frozen in an endless kiss…they went to the center of town specifically to make the moment last forever.
Lightman’s high concepts are brilliant because they illuminate the human condition.
This is what good high concepts do, and this is precisely what bad high concepts fail to do.
I should know. My former writing partner and I wrote a movie a few years ago that had a clever high concept, but it didn’t particularly illuminate any part of the human condition. As such, the movie was funny and clever and had a beginning, middle and end…but no one really cared.
On the other hand, there’s an example I like to use of the world’s simplest high concept that works: Liar Liar. “A liar is magically forced to tell the truth no matter what” is extremely simple, but it reflects directly on an essential and puzzling part of the human condition—our ability and desire to deceive.
One way I like to think about high concepts (particularly in comedies) is that they are magical externalizations of internal processes. Maybe no film demonstrates that better than How To Get Ahead In Advertising, in which an ad man’s internal greed-demon is literally externalized as a second head that grows next to his own. In Bruce Almighty, our internal and theoretically God-given capacity to do good and evil is externalized to actual divinity. In Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, our tendency to want to forget that which is painful is externalized into an actual scientific process to do so…and our tendency to regret forgetting is externalized as well.
It’s not by accident that I mention so many Jim Carrey movies. Yes, he’s funny. Yes, he’s extremely talented. But one of the major reasons he’s connected with audiences in a way far beyond any other comedic actor of his generation is simply this: he plays characters who are investigating and illuminating the human condition.
The high concepts that “afflict” him always teach him about some essential part of his nature, and his nature is a whole lot like ours. That’s why we recognize the truth contained in the high concept: it’s nothing more than an externalization of something that’s all-too-familiar to us.
Our own humanity.
Our union has its share of evergreen problems…you know, the ones that never seem to go away. The pernicious practice of “free rewrites” is certainly one of them.
Here’s the way it works. The WGA requires that its members be paid for the work they do (duh). However, there’s a longstanding practice in the industry called “the producer’s draft”. You are commenced to write a draft, you turn in the draft, and the producer says, “Great. I have some notes. Do another draft, and then we’ll turn that in as the first draft to the studio.”
This is wrong. First off, it’s against WGA working rules. Secondly, every time a writer agrees to work for free, they are essentially undercutting every other writer in the union. Our minimums are in place as much to protect us from each other as they are from the Companies.
So why do writers acquiesce? Typically, it’s because they’re scared they will get fired or be labelled “difficult”. Unfortunately, the more you acquiesce, the more you are exploited. That’s the nature of the beast. There are cases where writers have literally done seven “free” drafts before getting paid…and when they do get paid, it’s for one draft.
By the way, I put “free” in quotes because nothing’s free. “Free” drafts actually cost us all money. They deprive the union of dues, they deprive the Health & Pension Fund of contributions, and they hurt every other writer who is now expected to conform to this practice.
The problem is…what the hell do we do about this?
The Guild arbitrated against the Companies, and they failed. Why? Well, it turns out that the Companies have very cleverly put distance between themselves and the producers they contract with. Technically speaking, there is one “delivery agent” for every script, and it’s often someone completely unrealistic (e.g. the chairperson of the studio). As such, the producers aren’t officially the employers of the writer, and so their requests can’t be seen as official or binding in any way. The Companies’ answer to the Guild’s demand that they do something about their producers was rather telling.
Basically, they said, “How about you tell your writers to simply refuse to do the free work, per your own freaking rules.”
Okay, fair point.
So, one might simply say, “Hey, let’s enforce our rules! If we catch you doing free work, we’ll fine you!”
Well, for starters, we don’t have any way of sussing out who’s doing the free work. Writers are notoriously fearful of complaining to the Guild because they think it will negatively impact their career. And then there’s other big humongo problem.
We have writers in our union who get paid millions for a screenplay. Those writers aren’t particularly interested in holding the Companies’ feet to the fire on every small revision or tweak. There’s a gentlemen’s agreement (pardon the sexism) that when you get paid millions of dollars, you may choose to work in a flexible manner.
Those writers are fiercely opposed to the Guild interfering in their lucrative work, particularly when it is lucrative for the union as well.
While some disagree, I’ve always thought of this problem as one primarily caused by and impacting the same subset of writers: screenwriters making low six-figures per script. They’re the ones who feel they have the most to lose if they refuse to do the free work (because they can’t walk into another studio the next day and get a million-dollar assignment), and they’re the ones who are being exploited by the free rewrite practice (because, well, they’re not making crazy money…although I know lots of people would argue that anything in six figures is crazy money).
Jacob Weinstein, our intrepid Man In London, once compared the problem to an interesting bit of Game Theory known as “the tragedy of the commons”. If you don’t feel like slogging through it, I’ll offer Jacob’s elegant summary:
People are more likely to do the wrong thing if they think everybody else is doing the wrong thing.
Once a writer becomes convinced that everyone else is doing free rewrites, he begins to feel like a self-crucifying schmuck for not doing them. Likewise, if a writer became convinced that very few writers were doing free rewrites, he’d begin to feel like a doormat (and schmuck) for agreeing to them.
Jacob’s idea is to publicize a long and impressive list of writers who simply do not do free work. However, it’s hard to say where “gentlemen’s tweaks” end and “free work” begins.
Does anyone out there have any suggestions?
The ZAZ glossary of terms is a bit like the body of law we use in the writing room. Of course, you can't have laws without a constitution. Here are the fifteen rules of comedy. Sadly, it's the fifteenth rule that gets invoked the most frequently, but I can tell you that Rule #1, #9 and #10 have proven invaluable during arguments. If someone says "joke on a joke", just stop. Stop and hang your head. You've lost.
And now, without any further preamble, it's...
1. JOKE ON A JOKE
Two jokes at the same time cancel each other out. When an actor delivers a punchline, it should be done seriously. It dilutes the comedy to try to be funny on top of it. Likewise, if there is something silly going on in the background, the foreground action must be free of jokes and vice-versa.
Actors in the foreground must ignore jokes happening behind them. At the end of "Naked Gun," Priscilla Presley tells Leslie Nielsen "Everybody needs a friend like you." They never acknowledge O.J. Simpson's wheelchair careening down the steps and launching him into the air.
3. UNRELATED BACKGROUND
A joke happening in the background must be related in some way to the action in the foreground. The reason why the O.J. Simpson joke works is because he's flying through the air as a result of being slapped on the back by Drebin.
4. BREAKING THE FRAME
Don't remind the audience that they're watching a movie. This is the rule most often legally bypassed, but a movie has to be a strong one to withstand more than one or two of these.
A joke using references so arcane that few people will ever get it.
6. JERRY LEWIS
Don't use a comedian in a straight man role. Scenes in a parody ought to mimic the real thing. That means, basically, follow Rule #1. You've got funny lines in the script. If you add comedians (and "funny" sets, "funny" character names, "funny" wardrobe, etc.), it's a joke on a joke.
(Ed. Note: The "no funny names" rule is fastidiously followed. As far as I know, there's only one major exception in the ZAZ canon, and that's the villainous Mr. Papshmear from Naked Gun.)
7. AXE GRINDING
When the joke is overshadowed by some message, it gets unfunny fast.
8. SELF CONSCIOUS
Any jokes about the movie itself, the movie business or comedy itself. A strict no-no because it prevents the audience from being invested in plot and character.
9. STRAW DUMMY
Where the intended target is setup by the writer instead of real life. Even if the joke hits the target, who cares?
10. CAN YOU LIVE WITH IT?
Once a joke is made, it can't be allowed to hang around after the initial laughs. In "Naked Gun," Frank and Ed are seated in a car, their lips turned ridiculously pink from the pistachio nuts they're munching. But one scene later, when Frank goes snooping in the bad guy's apartment, he's got to be clean. It's kind of like buying a personalized license plate. How long can "I H8 MEN" be funny?
11. THAT DIDN'T HAPPEN
Something that totally defies all logic but is on and off the screen so fast that we get away with it. Example: Robert Stack in "Airplane!" yells to Lloyd Bridges, "He can't land, they're on instruments!" And of course we cut to the cockpit and four of the actors are playing musical instruments. Seconds later, in the next scene, the saxophone and clarinets have disappeared. If it's done right, no one in the audience will ask where the instruments went.
(Ed. Note: As tastes change, so too must comedy. Visual puns were hysterical in Airplane! in part because no one had really done them before. If we tried that joke now, it would be a "ya ta ta ta ta ta ".)
12. LATE HIT
You know a particular target has had enough when it's been raked over the coals by Leno, Letterman, the MTV Awards, etc.
13. TECHNICAL PIZZAZZ
Special effects don't necessarily mean funny.
14. HANGING ON
Don't play a joke too long. When it reaches its peak, get the scissors.
15. THERE ARE NO RULES
That inspired me to share a similar "glossary of terms" developed by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker. I do a lot of work with David these days, and I can vouch for the usefulness of the list. Finding a shorthand (especially in comedy) is a very important part of the self-critical process. Sometimes it seems like we spend all day trying to explain to each other why we're wrong. A list of established terms helps codify those reasons and legitimize the critique.
The following list (copyright David Zucker, reprinted here with permission) is intended for feature comedy writing. Any of you drama guys have something like this?
1. Shoe Leather: The physical traveling or action of a character in a scene. If not in direct service of a joke, it's superfluous.
2. Drive-By: A joke that appears briefly and then out, as opposed to filling up an entire page or two.
3. Bric-A-Brac: Jokes not intrinsic to a plot or scene that only serve to detract from the point the scene is trying to make.
4. Gilding the Lily: Taking a joke so far that it's no longer funny.
5. Hair Under the Wings: A joke that compromises the integrity of the plot. A joke proposed for AIRPLANE! involved a shot of Ted Striker's plane taking off with hair under its wings. Funny, but not good for the audience's investment in the reality of the story.
6. Ya-ta-ta-ta-ta-da: A joke so hokey it needs washboard and kazoo music.
7. Knocking Down the Posts: It's not enough to set up a parody, you have to do the jokes. In AIRPLANE!, mere recognition that the girl chasing the plane was a spoof of a particular movie was not in itself funny. The laughs came only when she began Knocking Down the Posts.
8. Floocher Dialogue: Filler lines recited by foreground characters to enable the audience to focus on a background joke.
9. But, I Wanna Tell Ya: An extra beat of Floocher Dialogue added to a punchline to make it less of a swing, or to help the audience hear the next line.
10. Ba Dum Bump: Obvious sitcom-style punchline.
11. Transplant and Whack: The joke is the organ we save. Transplant it to a scene that can live and whack the rest.
12. Blow: A joke funny enough to end a scene.
13. EAT: A setup so obvious that it might as well have one of those restaurant neon signs with the blinking arrow pointing right at it.
14. Cumulative Effect: Too much of one thing is never a good thing. One sex joke may be funny, but too many and it's diminishing returns.
15. Manic Dumb Show: Slapstick for the sake of slapstick, but without character/plot motivation or wit.
16. People Talking in Rooms: The concept that witty dialogue in confined spaces can often times be as effective as huge comedy action scenes.
17. Turn the Play Inside: Use existing characters in all possible instances instead of creating new parts and endless residuals.
18. Off Message: A line or scene that steers the movie off its main plotline.
19. W.P.A.: Scenes so extraneous to plot that they merely serve to fill up pages. Like those old FDR New Deal programs, they're strictly "make-work".
20. Eating Your Young: On second draft and beyond, cutting one's own jokes or scenes that only seem unfunny because of repetition.
21. Dynamite Plunger (hand signal): At the end of the movie, you can get away with things that you couldn't in the body of the movie. With only moments until credits roll, it's often okay to blow the bridge, getting broader and sillier with characters previously grounded in a lot more reality.
22. Schmuck Bait: A twist ending that makes the audience feel cheated, such as the old "It-Was-All-A-Dream".
23. Bridge Too Far: Taking a joke to its illogical conclusion.
24. Cheese Factor: W.C. Fields once said, "If you're going to smash a car, make sure it's a beat up car. If you're going to stomp on a man's hat, make sure it's a tattered one." Thus, in "Scary Movie 3," the best aliens were the cheap ones (Ed. note: semi-robotic aliens were used for initial scenes, but time and budget constraints forced us to use crappy Dr. Who-quality aliens for reshoots. The resulting aliens were absurd, flimsy, obviously fake...and much much funnier.).
25. Black Hole: Some actors just aren't well disposed to be funny. Often producers think they've scored with two A-list actors but are surprised when the result is "Ishtar."
26. Broken Field Running: Saving a scene by improvising fixes on the set.
27. Outlet Pass (to avoid a #33): An alternate shot, usually in a master, with no attempt at a joke.
28. The Extra's Socks: A small detail obsessed over by the director, diverting his attention from a real problem.
29. Apollo 13: Saving a scene without reshooting through the ingenious use of loop lines, outtakes, footage before "Action" or after "Cut," reversing film, inserts, etc. Anything to avoid a reshoot.
30. Dailies Laugh: Hilarious in dailies, crickets at a preview.
31. Cutting Out the Cancer: Eliminating dud jokes or superfluous story. The most pressing task after a first preview with Angry Villagers.
32. Flywheel Theory: Keeping the audience laughing is a lot easier than starting them back up from scratch.
33. Swing & A Miss: An obvious attempt at a joke that doesn't work. It is essential to get enough coverage so that every joke attempt connects. Also avoided by shooting an outlet pass.
34. Angry Villagers: The reaction at a first preview when a succession of jokes doesn't work. The lost momentum inevitably results in the audience turning against the movie, conjuring up the "Frankenstein" image of a mob carrying torches and pitchforks.
35. The Director's Rail: At the old Sherman Oaks Galleria - the third floor balcony rail outside the multiplex. After a first preview, most directors want to vault over it.
36. Sonny on the Causeway: Thinking a joke is a sure-fire winner, then getting ambushed by the silent audience reaction.
37. Filling up Compartments: Each bad joke, like a torpedo hit, fills a compartment. Too many in a row sinks the ship.
38. Hail Mary: Usually after the last preview (no time left on the clock), an ADR or an edit thrown in as a last ditch effort to make a joke work. The risk being, of course, a Swing & A Miss.
39. The Lion: Telegraphing a joke. In NAKED GUN 2 1/2, a lion attacking Robert Goulet didn't get a laugh until a third preview Hail Mary, in which the set-up was eliminated.
40. Going Through the Guard Rail: Any outrageous comment, joke, or statement in the writing room that results in absolute silence and appalled looks.
41. Calling in an Air Strike (On Your Own Position): Saying or doing something self-defeating.
42. Dancing Around The Calf: Rejoicing over some idea or concept that seems great at the time. Dancing typically continues until a wiser voice arrives to point out how stupid the idea or concept actually is.
Want to anger screenwriters? Show them the summer movie preview in the recent issue of Premiere Magazine. They tell you that Tim Burton directed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but they don’t mention that John August wrote it.
Here’s the usual explanation for this all-too-typical omission.
“No one respects screenwriters.”
Baloney. If you were to ask the editors of Premiere or Newsweek or the L.A. Times or Film Threat, I’m pretty certain they’d all express an honest respect for screenwriters…particularly those of John’s caliber.
No, if you want the real answer, take a look at the entry for the upcoming skateboard movie Lords of Dogtown. The WGA credit for that film is “Written by Stacy Peralta”, but Premiere candidly points out that director Catherine Hardwicke did a rewrite.
How much of a rewrite? A little? A lot? Who knows? Not the media. Not the readers.
The real reason that publications typically avoid giving screenwriters their due is because they do not trust our credits.
I was speaking the other day with one of our union’s most prominent writers (and he’s a famous director to boot). He’s a true-blue union man, and he believes in the WGA and the promotion of writers. A few years ago, he took on an initiative to try and get writers better publicity in the media. What he heard time and time again was, “Gee, we’d love to, but we’re not in the business of printing lies that come back to bite us in the ass.”
You might scoff at the notion that entertainment reporters have any concerns with credibility or journalistic standards, and if you’re talking about The Star, you’re right. What about Premiere, though, which hires and features “real” journalists like Peter Biskind? Or Time and Newsweek? Or The New Yorker? Or even the much-maligned New York Times?
These magazines and papers don’t like the idea of printing someone else’s version of the truth. If the government says that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the media’s job is to question that rather than accept it (you may argue that they failed in that task, but that’s another debate).
The reason periodicals promote the director is because they know that person is the director.
They do not know who really wrote the movie. They read the same stories we do. The Mike Rich “Miracle” debacle. Julia Roberts thanking Richard LaGravenese at the Oscars.
Some writers insist that the solution is “one writer per movie”. My belief is that this is an impossible pipe dream, and I’ll write about why another day. Let’s stipulate for now that this isn’t likely any time soon.
So what then?
Maybe the answer is end credits. Maybe the answer is a more inclusive series of credits guidelines.
One thing’s for sure. Our credit system isn’t passing the sniff test with the rest of the world, and the victims aren’t just the writers who really have written the movie.
We’re all suffering. Stop complaining about the anonymity, folks. It’s our own fault.
When a screenwriter has an original story for a movie, he faces a pivotal choice.
“Do I pitch it or do I spec it?”
Conventional wisdom states that some stories are fine to pitch, but others really need to be specked (apologies for the spelling). I’m here to challenge that conventional wisdom.
I think pitching is almost always the way to go.
Admittedly, I’m a bit biased here. I like pitching. I think I’m good at it, and I’ve had success doing it. Every original screenplay I’ve ever written was first sold as a pitch. In fact, in ten years of professional screenwriting, I have written a sum total of zero spec screenplays.
However, you don’t have to be naturally good at pitching in order to be successful at it and derive the benefits of it. Ted often talks about how he and Terry bring an actual corkboard and index cards to a pitch in order to divert attention to their structure, theme, scenes, characters and ideas…and away from their admittedly so-so public speaking and performance abilities. Me? I’m a salesman. I pitch my movies like 8 minute trailers. Other people are Garrison Keillor types, seeking to engross the buyer in an elegant tale well told.
All of us, however, get the same major benefit from pitching. We take the focus away from the page, and we put it on us.
Studios purchase specs routinely, often for staggering sums, but as is always the case, the vast majority are purchased as opportunities. Whether we like or respect it, the life of a spec screenplay is almost never “purchase, then shoot”. A good spec typically excites a studio because it has the potential to be a good filmed story, but more work is almost always required.
Unfortunately, they haven’t invested themselves in a human. They’ve invested themselves in a document. When you write a spec screenplay and submit it to the studios, your personality, work ethic, ability to work with others and infectious enthusiasm are fairly irrelevant. The screenplay is everything.
I pitch my original stories because I’m selling more than words…I’m selling a total service. I want to be the man they can trust to shepherd the story of the movie from the first draft to the locking of the last reel. I want to be the writer they recognize as a partner, with all of the rights and obligations that go along with that word. I want to be someone who offers them a chance in a “what if?” and all of the excitement and possibility that goes along with that, rather than someone who gives them a “what it is”, and who then must struggle to change my identity from “author of 120 pages I bought” to “story teller of a movie I’m making”.
Because the words-on-paper is such a dominant part of our job, it has often subsumed all other aspects. Selling spec screenplays makes it that much harder to say, “I’ve invested in a human and his vision,” when they can just as easily say, “I’ve invested in a property that someone might be able to make a movie out of.”
There are some conditions under which spec sales make great sense. If you’ve already established yourself as a partner-writer with a company, selling a spec can be a great way to maximize your reward. Studios tend to pay a premium for them (although it’s my strongly-held belief that a terrific pitch in treatment form is no more speculative a purchase then a screenplay of that story).
Also, writers trying to break in typically find it hard to get into a room to pitch, and when they do, there’s suspicion about their ability to execute their stories.
For the workaday screenwriter in Hollywood, however, I still believe pitching is one of the best ways to elevate our identity from authors-of-text to authors-of-motion-pictures.
If you disagree, let me know. But I bet if I just had eight minutes in a room with you…I’d change your mind.
Click here for a great list addressing some of the worst and most common villain cliches in science fiction, fantasy and adventure stories. It’s “The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord” (copyright Peter Anspach, so no stealing).
My personal favorite is #61.
If my advisors ask “Why are you risking everything on such a mad scheme?”, I will not proceed until I have a response that satisfies them.
Edited to add: I’ve been told that the film rights to this list have been purchased and a screenplay is being developed based on the list. At first that sounded bizarre…but then it started to sound very funny.
We have a number of credits guidelines that I consider “bad”, but one stands out as truly awful. Why? Because I don’t think it’s good for anyone.
There’s basically two philosophical credits camps among WGA writers. One camp believes that the first writer (particularly in the case of original or spec material) must be more protected than they are. The other camp believes that these kinds of preferences are irrelevant, and the rules ought to be the same no matter what the hiring chronology is.
Our current rules state that if you write an original screenplay, anyone who comes along and rewrites you must ultimately show that they contributed at least half of the final shooting script in order to even receive shared credit. Any amount less than half and you get zippo. The rule states:
In the case of an original screenplay, any subsequent writer or writing team must contribute 50% to the final screenplay [in order to receive screenplay credit].
For everyone else…meaning the first writer of an original or any writer involved in an adaptation…the threshold for screenplay credit is 33%.
This means you could contribute the same amount of material for two different movies, but only receive screenplay credit for one of them. Personally, I think that’s nuts, but that’s not the worst rule we have.
Here’s another rule. If you’re a “production executive”, which basically means director or any kind of producer, and you do some rewriting, you always have to show a 50% contribution (even in the case of adaptations). Why? Well, producers and directors have influence over the hiring and firing of writers, and so some argue they ought to be held to a higher standard. I think that’s also ridiculous (given that a contribution is a contribution no matter who makes it or for what reason), but hey, it’s still not the worst rule we have.
Remember how if you write an original screenplay, subsequent writers must show a contribution of at least 50% to share credit? Well…what if you write an original and you’re a producer on it? Here’s the rule:
In cases where the Arbitration Committee finds that the production executive has made a sufficient contribution to the final script to warrant screenplay credit, any other writer or writers employed may, at the discretion of the Committee, share screenplay credit for any substantial contribution without necessarily meeting the usually required percentage.
What that means is that if you sell a spec and are a producer on your spec, you get penalized. The subsequent writers no longer have to meet a 50% threshold. They don’t even have to meet a 33% threshold. They can pretty much get credit for “any substantial contribution”.
This is the worst credit rule we have.
Why? Well, if we believe in protecting the first writer, why are we punishing them for being entrepreneurial? The entire point of protecting the first writer is to discourage rewriting, reward the origination of the material and hopefully…in the end…enhance the prestige of the screenwriter.
Personally, I don’t think social engineering our credits guidelines will ever do that, but hey, if you believe in that sort of thing, then why the hell would you punish the first writer for getting more control over his or her project by serving as a producer???
Now, if you don’t believe in protecting the first writer at the expense of other writers but you also don’t think writers should ever be penalized for being producers, this is one limited way you can at least achieve some small progress. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of the 50% protection for first writers, so hey…here’s a chance to at least preserve the ability to safely produce movies for some writers.
If you have to show a 50% contribution to get screenplay credit as a subsequent writer on an original screenplay, then that’s that. It shouldn’t matter if the first writer is a producer or not.
What do you think?