June 2005 Archives
Professor Marvel never
guesses. He knows!We live in a market economy. Where there’s a demand, a supply will soon arrive to satisfy it. For as long as screenwriters have been “hitting it big” in Hollywood, there’s been a demand for teachers who could show the raw, untalented writers of America just what they need to succeed.
The supply of “experts” is proliferating with the tenacity of that nasty red weed in War of the Worlds.
The question isn’t simply “who the hell ARE these people?”, because there’s too damn many of them to evaluate. The better question is “how ought screenwriting be taught, and what type of person ought to teach it?”
If you run a website touting your expertise, you’re probably not going to like my answer.
I simply do not understand what most of these people do. Here’s why: I believe that screenwriting is a vocational craft, and therefore ought to be taught like a vocational craft.
I believe the majority of books that exist are academic in their very nature (they are texts), and screenwriting is not a liberal art.
I think that one day I would like to teach the craft of screenwriting…once my resume indicates that I’ve earned the legitimacy to do so. My class would be partly an exercise in academic theory (Campbell and so forth), but it would also be an apprenticeship. My students would learn how to practically write a screenplay under practical circumstances. I would take them to movie sets. I would teach them how a production day unfolds. I would instruct them in the art of writing under pressure. Deadlines. Variations. Notes-dodging. Personality wrangling.
The vocation of screenwriting.
How can someone who hasn’t done the job teach the job? Remember, I define the “job” as “writing a movie”, NOT “writing a screenplay”.
In my opinion, the best way to learn how to be a screenwriter is to read screenplays and work at an entry-level job for a screenwriter, a producer, an executive, an agent or a director.
Simple as that. Don’t read books about writing. Read actual writing.
If you want to take a class, make sure it has a vocational component. Make sure it’s being taught by someone who has actually done the job of writing a television show or movie (one from the last 20 years would be nice).
Do not take screenwriting advice from uncredited self-anointed experts who simply haven’t earned the right to teach you. There isn’t a screenwriting teacher on the planet who makes more money being a great screenwriting teacher than he would being a great screenwriter.
Hell, mediocre screenwriters probably do better.
I have a friend who worked as a reader for a number of years. He was asked to cover a script written by one of the most prominent “screenwriting experts” there is (maybe THE most prominent). My friend said it definitely looked like a screenplay, and it was arranged like a screenplay, and it hit all the beats that one would expect from a screenplay. The only problem was…it stank.
It was, for lack of a better word, a facsimile of a screenplay. A clever forgery. An academic approximation of what a professional screenwriter does.
It was a fake, and so are so many of these guys. Caveat Scriptor. If you want to learn, learn from the people who practice what they preach. Yes, Hollywood is based on hype and trickery and superficiality and illusion.
But if you’re not real, you’ll never make it.
Bloody pirates…Hollywood beat Grokster 9-0 in a Supreme Court ruling today. This is a HUGE blow against P2P piracy, and I, for one, am absolutely thrilled with the decision.
I’d give you links, but just Google “Grokster” and follow the news headlines.
The crux of the case was simply this: P2P networks that enable (and some would argue exist to enable) copyright violations are, in fact, liable for such copyright violations. Justice Souter, writing for the Court, said:
We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties.
This is a major blow against P2P piracy. In a move that’s becoming almost comically frequent, the Supreme Court overturned a prior ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “take God out of the pledge” court), and the Supremes made a clear distinction between P2P technology, which exists to faciliate copyright violations, and the Betamax decision, which ruled (by a 5-4 vote) that blank videocassettes were not, in and of themselves, immediate lines to piracy (mostly because individuals can make extra copies of licensed copyrighted material for personal use).
In this way, Betamax still stands, so CD-R’s and such remain absolutely legal, as they should. P2P networks, however, are heading for dangerous rapids…also as they should.
What this ruling means is that the companies can now sue P2P networks in court.
How fast will they do this? The Simpsons episode in which the town enacted and then repealed Prohibition comes to mind. When asked how long it will take to flood Springfield once again with alcohol, mobster Fat Tony says, “Four minutes.”
That sounds about right.
Yay, taxes!A: The pros are that you save money. The cons are that you lose money.
And so life goes.
A large majority of working pros do choose to incorporate. They typically do so as a California State Subchapter S corporation, aka an “S-Corp” or “loanout”.
The idea of the loanout is that technically, you cease working for employers. From incorporation forward, you work for your corporation, which then loans out your services to employers. The companies pay your corporation, and your corporation then “pays” you (even though it’s all your money).
Forming an S-Corp costs money. There are some quicky services out there, but I recommend using a lawyer or certified financial planner with experience in this area. There are initial startup costs in which you fill out forms, create articles of incorporation, blah blah blah. On an ongoing basis, there are maintenance costs as well, like annual reports to the state (a paralegal can do this) and payroll service fees (because you actually need to pay yourself like an employee).
The benefits, however, are quite significant. In addition to tax savings that are something of a mystery to me (Alternative Minimum Tax savings and stuff like that), corporations can make contributions to qualified (read: retirement) plans that generate tremendous tax savings.
I’ve always heard the rule of thumb is that if you make more than $250,000 a year in writing income, incorporating will probably make financial sense for you. If you make much more than that, it’s an imperative.
However, I’m just a simple screenwriter. I don’t understand the tax code. The only person qualified to help you make this decision is your accountant or a good tax lawyer.
Oh…and for what it’s worth…my company’s name is The Craig Mazin Company, Inc.
Boring, right? And yet, it worked for some knucklehead named Walt Disney, so why the hell not?
The forum is open…Well, the polls were pretty convincing. A whole lot of you professed an interest in posting in a full-fledged discussion board. There were a dozen or so folks interested in chats as well.
We’ve got the board up. It’s in beta, so pardon us if it goes out on you every so often.
Anyone can join, and of course, it’s free. There’s a verification email that the software sends you, and after clicking the URL, you’re up and running. I encourage use of real names, but it’s not a requirement.
I’m using Simple Machines Forum to power the board, and for freeware, I have to say I’m seriously impressed. It’s not as insanely configurable as vBulletin, but it contains all of the useful functionality of vBulletin.
There’s an integrated chat link, so take that for a spin as well. There’s a place in the forum to give feedback on it all, and we’d love to hear your opinion.
Outline Or Die!Along with all the other debates in which screenwriters so often engage, one of the most contentious is the outline vs. non-outline argument.
Before I plunge in and explain why the anti-outline contingent is just completely dead wrong, let’s first define the terms. I don’t really like the word “outline”, because I’m not sure what it means. I prefer the word “treatment” because it imparts a stronger sense of purpose. The treatment is a preparation of the story of the movie.
The story of the movie is the creation from which you will execute a screenplay. The director will film the screenplay of the story of the movie. The producer, director and editor will cut, mix and finish the film of the screenplay of the story of the movie.
And yet, somewhere along the line the screenplay became “king”. The screenplay was awarded primary status as the crucial work product of the screenwriter.
This is so wrong, it’s almost tragic. The story of the movie is the primary work product of the screenwriter.
I know this, because the story necessarily comes first.
I always create a treatment before writing a screenplay. The treatment may only be for my use. It may be in prose form, or index card form, or notes form…or all of these at once. Nonetheless, before I start writing, I know the following things:
- The theme.
- The plot.
- The characters and their arcs.
- The key sequences and their purpose within the plot and theme.
- The temporal structure of the story (what happens when and how far along).
I believe one must know these five things in order to have any sense of what to execute. There are those that argue that their treatmentless method is superior because they’re not “locked in” to some predetermined story that refuses to let them be creative and discover their characters along the way.
I am never locked in to my story. I am never locked in to my characters. I’m as free as any writer on earth to change and adapt and discover. And when I do…I go back to my treatment and revise it.
And that, in turn, frees me to reconsider everything once again.
The story must exist apart from the screenplay. It’s the source of the screenplay, just as the screenplay is the source of the filmed scenes, just as the dailies of those scenes are the source of the first cut, just as the first cut is the source of the final cut. I used to have a hard time figuring out what was “story” and what was “screenplay” (Ted and I had a few epic debates), but I’ve since settled on the easiest answer I have—story is the stuff that you can write in treatment form. Everything else is screenplay.
The screenplay is important, but it literally cannot be written prior to formulation of the story elements from which it derives. All the writers who claim that they write “organically” and “without a treatment”?—they’re kidding themselves.
What do you think is going on in your head when you suddenly decide to veer off in a new direction? Unless you’re literally typing nonsense, what you’ve done in changed the story in your head, omitting the step of writing it down. You are outlining. You are writing a treatment. You just don’t know it. You’re doing all of the things I do: planning, considering, weighing, reformulating, integrating, revising, etc.
Story must precede screenplay. Must.
You may then ask why it’s necessary to write it all down. Well, I find writing stories down helps practically everyone organize them and get a better perspective on them. The act of writing is a cognitive cue that demands the brain to think in a responsible-to-your-story fashion without dimming or restricting your creativity in any way. When I don’t write stories down, I tend to cheat sequences in my head, and invariably, when it comes time to write them, I feel adrift. In short…I have to go back to story.
Furthermore, codifying your story in treatment form is of immense assistance when it comes time for a credit arbitration. Arbiters may have difficulty figuring out which story elements are original to you if there’s no story to read. Parsing what amounts to an integrated treatment out of a screenplay is awfully difficult.
Look, it’s possible that I’m entirely wrong. It’s possible that even though I do not know a single successful screenwriter who doesn’t outline or write a treatment, perhaps the crazy secret is that free-wheeling it is the way to go.
In the end, however, I tend to apply Occam’s Razor and see how the arguments fall. The real reason screenwriters don’t outline or write treatments isn’t because they love the freedom of the unknown. Those of us who do outline know that the freedom of endless choices and reconsiderations is still ours to enjoy or dread.
No, the real reason writers don’t write treatments is simply this: they don’t want to do the work.
Truth hurts. Now go outline!
Have It Your Way…A: You write it, and they sell it.
This question comes up a lot. Agents exist to sell the work that their writing clients create. It’s only natural, then, that they’ll want input into the kind of product you’re designing.
I was actually thinking about this the other day. My father-in-law was in town, and we were chatting about his days spent in the Burger King business. He owned a few BK’s, which made him a “franchisee”. The franchisees are responsible for selling the products that the corporate folks invent. This occasionally led to tension. The franchisees loved big sellers like the chicken parmigiana sandwich, but they hated failed experiments like one year’s formula change in their french fries.
And still, when push came to shove, it was the content provider that won the argument. Bill grumbled and complained (as did they all), but in the end, he put it up on the menu and did his best.
In the world of screenwriters and agents, we’re the content providers. We should listen to what our agents say. They have their ear to the ground, and they have (hopefully) a good sense of what the market is responding to. On the other hand, their sensibilities are entirely reactive, and their skill sets as sellers does not particularly qualify them to evaluate material the way a buyer would.
Listen to your agents. Hear them out. Keep as open a mind as you possibly can. And then make your own call. If they refuse to sell the work then get new agents, because the ones who have are clearly not interested in representing you. They’re interested in representing the writer they want you to be.
In an article on his blog, Steven Peterson makes an argument that credits arbitrations are best examined in the context of game theory.
It’s the right argument. While the architects of the WGA credits guidelines may have been motivated by prosocial concerns or dramaturgical theory, it’s always safest to assume that the participants in arbitrations will be motivated by self-interest.
Steven suggests that this creates a serious flaw in the system, inasmuch as “gaming the rules” will affect the manner in which writers approach rewriting.
…if I get a chance to do a rewrite of a script, I have a strong (self-interested) incentive to substantially change at least 33% or 50% of the material, even if the material doesn’t need that much changing. In fact, it’s an interesting little game by itself: I’m best off if I change enough to get as much credit as possible, while making the story something good, and retaining key elements from the earlier drafts that the producers, director, and actors aren’t willing to sacrifice (otherwise I get removed from the project or the project dies). This is markedly different from when I do a rewrite of my own script — then I keep the good bits and eliminate the bad bits, and, hopefully, after a few iterations of this I have a screenplay composed mostly of good bits.
I’ve seen this argument made a number of times.
I do not find it compelling.
There are two major reasons why “rewriting to the rules” is impractical and ultimately not in the game player’s best interest.
The first is that the goal is not objective, and accurately targeting a subjective goal is impossible. You may think that you’ve “done enough” to pass the 33% or 50% threshhold, but your impression is irrelevant. The judges are three other writers you’ve never met. Their standards of judgment are almost necessarily different than yours, not only because they’re different people, but because readers always approach material from a different perspective than authors of that material.
The second is that credits are awarded for quantitative contributions, but the game player’s continuing success is contingent on his qualitative contributions.
There is only one successful objective to motivate the task of rewriting a screenplay, and that is to write a screenplay that will please the studio and become a movie that pleases the audience. If you write with any ulterior goal in mind, you will fail. I believe this with every ounce of my professional conviction. Readers aren’t stupid. If you take a good scene and make it worse, they will blame you, regardless of your intentions. Given that, it’s best to only try and improve what you can, and preserve what you cannot.
If the game strategy is to “do the best job you can, with no consideration for quantity of change”, then you improve your chances for continued employment on the project. Continued employment on the project improves your chances for increased quantity of contributions. Emphasis on quantity of contributions will necessarily hurt the quality of contribution. This will result in you being rewritten.
In other words, rewriting with a goal of credit will get you hoisted by your own petard.
As always, game theory is instructive, if counterintuitive. I believe the optimum strategy for achieving credit recognition as a screenwriter is this: don’t try and get credit…just do the best job you can do.
Or as Alanis Morissette put it:
The moment I let go of it
Was the moment I got more than I could handle…
A: Typically, it’s 12 weeks, and it’s sort of mostly not written in stone.
The MBA doesn’t contain a specific provision for a minimum amount of time a screenwriter has to complete a first draft. All the MBA says is that if you take the amount of money you’re getting paid for that draft and you divide by the amount of weeks that the employer has requested you work, the quotient must be equal to or greater than the minimum compensation for a week’s work.
Generally speaking, though, it’s up to you to negotiate how much time you have to write your first draft. Every contract I’ve ever signed afforded me 12 weeks to write a first draft, and that seems to be the contractual norm.
It’s not the actual norm, though. In actuality, companies always seem to want scripts now now now. As such, from the very beginning of my career, I’ve always tried to deliver first drafts within 8 weeks. This seems to strike a good balance between my need to spend proper time writing something worthwhile…and their need to get the script now now now.
As such, if you’re working on your own, try and see if you can’t get a first draft done in 8 to 12 weeks, because it’s a rare professional circumstance that will grant you more time than that.
Thanks, fur’ners!Lately, some of you who have worked on television shows or movies may have noticed a new kind of check coming from the WGA. It’s a foreign levies check.
What are foreign levies, why are we getting them now, how do we get them, and what’s the all-around deal here with this dough?
This is going to be a little long, but bear with me. It has a very happy ending.
Let’s start with (oh God, not again…) copyright law. As I discussed in past articles like this one, U.S. copyright law is somewhat unique. We feature the work-for-hire laws that say that employers who commission work can be the legal authors of that work, and we do not adhere to “droit moral”, or the moral rights of authors.
The rest of world doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the U.S. on copyright law, and this created an opportunity for us when foreign countries (particularly in Europe and South America) began placing levies (read: taxes) on the sales of blank videocassettes, blank DVDs and in some cases, even computer hard drives.
The foreign countries basically viewed blank media as a way for consumers to record their favorite televised shows and televised movies (including broadcasts AND cablecasts of theatrical movies). As such, they felt that the authors of those shows and movies ought to receive some kind of royalty for each such blank media sold. In order to get that royalty, they placed a levy on the sale of blank cassettes and DVDs and so forth.
That tax is intended to be distributed to the authors.
First problem: distributed how??? The foreign countries basically use their own formulas that are based on how frequently programs are run, and then assign the authors of those programs a share of the foreign levies based on that very factor. Therefore, the authors of “The Simpsons” will receive a much larger share of the videocassette tax than the authors of a show that airs once on Spanish TV.
Okay, so far so good.
Second problem: who is the author?
The AMPTP argued that under U.S. copyright law, the companies it represents are the legal authors of all American television shows and movies broadcast on foreign television.
And they’re right.
The foreign countries, however, said “non” or “nein”…or whatever they say in Greece. After all, they’ve never particularly respected the legal basis the
AMPTP MPAA (Ed. note: Turns out it’s not the AMPTP, but the Motion Picture Association that handles this on behalf of the studios) was using to claim authorship, namely work-for-hire.
The WGAw and DGA each felt that writers and directors were the authors.
The MPAA and the writers and directors had leverage against each other. The unions felt the law would view their authorship claim favorably, but the MPAA certainly could take an obstructionist stance that would end up costing the unions more than they’d collect in foreign levies.
Hence, a compromise.
Initially, the MPAA collected the lion’s share of foreign levies (80%+), with the WGA and DGA splitting the rest.
In 2001, largely with the assistance of a WGAw and DGA consultant named Bob Hadl, the unions were able to grab a larger share…up to 25%, with the rest going to the MPAA.
So hey, we were getting lots of money, we had successfully stood up as co-authors with the directors (think about that…it really is a big deal), and we were increasing our share as well.
Things were good.
The money starting flowing in to the WGAw. All of it went into a special escrow account. Here’s where the problems started. We’d get a big check on a regular basis, but with it came a huge printout with literaly 40,000 line items about how the foreign country intended the money to be apportioned.
Yeah. 40,000. (Ed. Note: This used to say 14,000, but apparently it’s waaaay worse than I knew!)
Even worse, the information was often incomplete or not useful. For instance, you might see that $124.29 was assigned to a television show name, but not for a particular episode. So which writer gets the money for “The Waltons”? Or it was assigned to an episode name…but they wouldn’t mention the show. So who gets the money for “Another Bad Day Pt. 2”? Then there was the case with soap operas. The episodes typically don’t even get names, and the foreign countries wouldn’t know the episode numbers. Even if they did, by the time they got them, they were often repackaged and cut together into frankenepisodes for which authorship was difficult to determine.
Ah, but the problems continued. Foreign levies are meant to be distributed to all writers of all shows and movies airing on foreign television.
That includes programs and movies not covered by the WGAw like animation. And non-fiction work. And porn.
The WGAw wanted to distribute all of the money it was receiving, but it didn’t have records for many of the writers credited with those non-Guild shows (and porn). Remember, this was in the dark days before IMDB really caught on, and even then, IMDB isn’t exactly a legally reliable database.
Oh, and all the above? That was when it was working well. Often, the WGAw would receive a check with NO information.
Cut to 2001, when the WGAw staff and leadership decided to do something about all of this. The money that had been coming in was quickly mounting in the escrow account. In fact, it was crossing the eight-figure line. This was bad for two reasons: people weren’t getting their money, and California State law says that money kept in escrow for longer than seven years can escheat to the state.
No one wants escheating, right?
The answer was to build an entire staff around receiving, tracking, processing and distributing foreign levies checks to all authors, WGAw or not, who were due them. In the meantime, the monies that were about to enter into the escheat zone would be moved out of escrow and into the WGAw’s general fund in order to be protected, but would still be owed to the receipients. Essentially, we created a system of many IOU’s for many John Doe’s, with the idea that as soon as we figured out who they were and where they were and who was their rightful heir if they were dead, then we’d distribute the money.
The only remaining problem was one of cost. Putting such a system in place with the necessary computers, full-time staff, check printing machines and envelope stuffing machines and mailing machines was going to cost a lot of money. The answer was that the WGAw would charge a 5% administrative fee (this fee was announced in the 2003 financial report to the WGAw membership, so there was transparency). In other words, of all the money we distribute on behalf of writers, we take 5% to cover the considerable costs of doing this job right.
Note the key word “distribute”. The WGAw does not collect a fee on foreign levies it collects…only foreign levies it actually distributes. The fee is only applied in “success”. There is no incentive to sit on the money. In fact, there is a very strong disincentive to sit on the money (especially considering that the money is held in an extremely conservative account that earns very little in interest).
Happily, the system now seems to be working. The pile of undistributed foreign levies had risen to a massive $20,000,000+ level, but the WGAw finally started making a real dent. Last year, the WGAw distributed $8,000,000 in foreign levies (a huge leap forward), and for the first time, we’re now distributing more than we’re taking in.
If you’ve read this far, then you deserve the lovely ending to this all. The aforementioned Bob Hadl returned to Europe recently, and he’s helped negotiate a deal to increase the WGA/DGA share of foreign levies to 50%, double our existing rate. When that deal goes into effect, we will even more strongly assert our status as the authors of both record and fact for the purposes of foreign levies.
And so, to our readers in France and Germany and Argentina and throughout the world…thank you for buying blank DVDs and blank videotapes and hard drives. You and your governments are supporting the real authors of creative works, and the WGAw is doing its best to make sure those authors get their proper share.
Jacob Sager Weinstein, who attended my alma mater and is our Intrepid Man In London, has launched a new blog that’s sort of a collective blog for various screenwriters who come and go as they please.
It’s a bit like eavesdropping in a bar where writers hang out. Cool premise. It’s called The Blank Page, and the link has been stashed under Writing.
We’re doing well…It’s been a wild couple of months for me. I’ve done three weeklies in a row—for the uninitiated, that’s where you’re employed on a weekly basis for work on a movie that’s been greenlit and is hurtling towards production.
All movies hurtle towards production. It’s like a rule or something.
Anyway, I’ve worked on three different movies over the course of the last four weeks, and I’ve got two more in the weeks ahead. This had made blogging difficult to say the least, so I apologize if the updates haven’t been coming frequently enough. The good news is that things won’t be quite so frantic…or at least, they’ll just be frantic on one project, so I should be able to crank it up a little more for you guys.
Since I finally got a chance to take a breather, I wanted to do a little housekeeping.
First up…some new links. I’ve added Sam & Jim Go To Hollywood under the “Writing” links. These guys are offering something completely unique (as far as I know) to the screenwriting blog scene. It’s a site of podcasts that they do about their experiences in the writing business so far. Give it a listen. The other new link is Terry Rossio’s new blog about his experiences on the set of the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels. I get my Pirates production updates from Ted, and California-born Terry inexplicably spells the word “tons” as “tonnes”, but it’s still an excellent read. I’ve put it under “Interesting”, because that’s what it is.
Next, I’ve borrowed the cool “progress bar” code from David Anaxagoras. The bar shows my progress towards a somewhat interesting non-writing project of mine…but while the progress is public, the actual goal is a secret.
Well, okay, it’s only a secret until I hit 100%. Watch the bar move…slowwwwwly. I chose to keep the goal a secret just for fun. Possibly to torment you. Or perhaps I’m just coy.
Finally, I have some good news to report about this blog. I launched it back in the beginning of February. I emailed a few friends and associates to let them know it was up, and hoped that word of mouth would help it build.
I wasn’t quite sure that would be enough.
When I first started out, the site was averaging about 250 visitors a day. That number has climbed steadily. Now, just four months later, we’re averaging about 1,350 visitors a day. The truth is that this might indicate total failure in web terms, but my ignorance is bliss. To me, a 400%+ increase in visitors is a big coup.
As we grow, I’m going to consider offering some additional features.
One possibility is an online forum. The other is a chat room, with regularly scheduled chats for all the artful writers out there.
I’ll probably gauge the interest in those features by using another feature, which is polling. I’ll be checking out some of the freebie pollware out there later, so be on the lookout for that.
In the meantime, thanks to everyone for visiting, bookmarking, linking, commenting in such a consistently thoughtful and civil manner, and above all…thank you for reading.
I’m working with a writer-director right now on a screenplay, and whenever you get two writers in a room who haven’t worked together before, there’s always a little format war.
Well, it’s not really a war. It’s just that we all have our little quirks. Most folks use the standard Warner Brothers screenplay format, a version of which can be found here.
And then we tweak.
For instance, the Warner Brothers format requires an extra blank line at the end of each scene, so that there’s a double space between the last line of a scene’s dialogue and the slug line for the next scene.
I kind of hate that, so I don’t do it.
The standard format also recommends using character “continued”s if the same character speaks twice in a row. Todd hates that, so he doesn’t use it.
He’s not a big fan of that end-of-scene double space thing either, but he does like to bold his slug lines, which is a new one on me. I actually might start doing that.
Both of us are big believers in adding parentheticals that might annoy an actor down the line…if only to make the script more readable for everyone else. Generally, though, he’s a “less extraneous stuff on the page” guy, so no “more”s and “continued”s for scenes. I like those things, but I honestly can’t say why. Maybe they were purposeful once, but now they feel completely vestigial.
Then there’s the annoyance of shortcuts. When I’m composing, I set MMS (and formerly FD) so that hitting “return” after dialogue takes me to a character entry, because I don’t like anything interrupting the typing flow of conversations. I’d rather hit special keys (like double returns or tabs) to get a new action line. Todd likes it the other way…as he put it, there’s something pleasing about the typewriter style of hitting return-tab after dialogue to get to a character entry.
In the end, I’m always accomodating about this stuff because it’s basically unimportant. On the other hand, I spend an enormous portion of my life typing in script format.
Any quirks or tricks you have? I’m always on the lookout…
Back in my screed about why it’s better that we don’t retain copyright, I made the point that labor unions in the U.S. can only represent employees. That’s why novelists, for instance, can’t be unionized. They retain copyright. As such, they’re independent contractors.
Recently, a fellow writer challenged this with a very interesting question. “If the WGA can only cover employees, then how can it cover options?”
Why is that a good question? Well, when a producer options a script, he does not purchase it. The writer still retains copyright. The producer is merely paying the writer to not sell it to anyone else for a specific amount of time. The producer has the option of then purchasing the material at a later date.
Yet, the WGA does cover options, meaning that it has a basic set of minimum terms in place and it collects dues on the options and represents writers in grievances if the option terms are violated. But if the optioner hasn’t yet been employed, then how can the WGA cover her?
Let’s wind back to get to the bottom of this.
When the WGA was founded, screenwriters worked in the studio system. They were employees in the truest sense of the word. As the studio system crumbled, the existence of the spec market was born.
Spec writers can either sell their scripts to a company, or they can option their scripts to a company.
This new development posed something of a problem to both the WGA and the companies.
The companies have always wanted the copyright in the screenplays they develop for reasons I’ve stated before: they exist to exploit intellectual property, and the most efficient way to exploit intellectual property is to own the copyright.
The union has always wanted screenwriters to have the benefits of collective bargaining (like residuals, P&H, credit protection, and minimums), because if one segment of screenwriters don’t receive those benefits, all screenwriters suffer.
Over the course of the years following the collapse of the studio system, the WGA successfully negotiated to cover options and spec sales. Given that spec writers and optioners weren’t working as traditional employees (having been assigned material, for instance), how did the WGA achieve this?
Let’s take the case of the spec script first. When you sell a spec script, the companies routinely (meaning, 100% of the time) require the sellers to engage in a legal maneuver. That maneuver states that even though you wrote the script on spec without any promise of employment, the purchasing company actually “commissioned” you to write it, and it’s really a work-for-hire.
In other words, when you sell a spec, you lose your copyright. In return for losing your copyright (and becoming an employee as it’s legally understood), you gain the benefits of WGA coverage, including the MBA and its collectively bargained terms.
So far, so good. Sell a spec…you’re still an employee, and the WGA covers you by default.
But what about options? The whole point of an option is that you haven’t sold the script.
Here’s what the WGA and the companies did. They agreed that, per the MBA, a writer who options material to a signatory is an employee.
Let me repeat that again, because it’s the essence of the solution. If you option material to a signatory, you’re an employee because you’ve met the MBA definition of employee, even if you don’t meet the traditional definition of employee.
Just like that.
Okay, fair enough, but doesn’t that open the door, then, to the WGA doing precisely what I’ve said along that it can’t do? Can’t we just define novelists as employees, even though they retain copyright just like the script optioners?
The companies have only agreed to let us define an option as employment if and only if the optioned screenplay has not been exploited. Remember, if you own the copyright on something and you exploit it, you can never engage in the legal “maneuver” that says it was really a work-for-hire. The toothpaste is out of the tube. Warner Brothers can’t pay Stephen King any amount of money to claim that Salem’s Lot is now, in fact, a work-for-hire. Hell, we couldn’t even get novelists into our union if the companies did agree, because our new novelist-friendly MBA definition of employee would be in total and stark conflict with labor and copyright law.
Therefore, the WGA and the companies allow an option of an unexploited screenplay to be covered because the intended fate for the optioned material is that it be sold to a signatory…and when it gets sold, it will be sold as a commissioned work-for-hire…which is possible only because it hasn’t been exploited.
Hence, the title of this piece. When you option a screenplay to an employer, you are not an employee (you retain copyright) and you are an employee (a collective bargaining agreement has defined your transaction as that of an employee).
Let me conclude all this wonkiness with a point that you might actually find relevant. We will never improve the terms and conditions of our employment if we do not understand them. I’ve been working for a decade in this business, and I didn’t understand the distinctions I’ve written about today until, oh, yesterday. I don’t know how many writers I can evangelize as fellow wonks, but I hope the numbers increase. If we don’t learn the rules of the game, we will always be at the mercy of others who do.
That’s why I’m learning.