June 2006 Archives
Welcome…Somewhere during the recent battles here on Artful Writer, it occurred to me that while we spend a whole lot of time criticizing our industry for the way it treats writers, I’ve never seen anyone lay out a reasonable description of how the ideal industry would operate.
Naturally, some people think they’ve done that, but I don’t have any time for ideas like “we get rid of work-for-hire laws, forbid studios from hiring rewriters and force directors at gunpoint to shoot what’s on the script and nothing more or less.” If you want to masturbate, there are millions of other sites on the web to visit.
If you want to talk about something that could actually exist, come sit near me for a while as I tell you about a wonderful studio called Writopia.
Just like other studios, Writopia buys film rights to books and plays, purchases specs and commissions scripts from original pitches. Once you enter development with Writopia, though, you notice some immediate differences.
There is one producer and one studio executive assigned to your project. The three of you are a team. All for one, and one for all. You have some job security, as Writopia eschews one-step deals. Writopia’s philosophy is that every professional writer deserves at least two bites at the apple before any decision is made to go with someone else.
It’s nearly impossible that your first draft will unpleasantly surprise them, because Writopia Studios require the writer to first deliver a story treatment. By doing this, the team gets an opportunity to solidify just what this movie really is before the first script is even begun.
When the writer is done with the draft, he delivers it and is paid.
On time. No questions asked.
In order to improve the odds of the team’s success, the producer and executive create one set of notes that they both believe in. This set of notes is next read by the Chairman, who has greenlight authority. If the Chairman doesn’t approve, the producer and executive redo their notes until he does. Then, the writer gets them.
Next, there’s a meeting just to discuss the notes. The notes are frank. If the studio thinks the material is very bad, they say so. If they think something’s very good, they say so. There is no glossing or sugar-coating or unnecessary diplomacy. Writopia’s motto is “respectful honesty.”
From that meeting, the writer heads off to write the second draft. When he’s done, he turns it in.
If the studio determines that a new writer should be brought in, the executive calls the writer directly to tell him what’s happening and why. They offer to keep the writer in the development loop by alerting him to hires and sending him the subsequent drafts. It’s the writer’s choice whether or not to stay in the loop.
Eventually, the day comes when a director is hired and the script is greenlit. Writopia Studios stands by its development process. If a director decides to upend the apple cart, the studio doesn’t simply give in because “they have a director, and we don’t want to lose him.” They fire the director and get a new one that shares the collective vision of the movie. The director is not the king of the movie. The director is a very important part of what was once a three-man and is now a four-man team.
Furthermore, Writopia Studios has a policy of not granting “film by” credit to anyone, nor do they put boxes around any names in a credit block.
Writopia ensures certain creative rights for the writer during preproduction, principle photography and postproduction. There must be a writer’s office, there must be a writer’s trailer on location and there must be a writer’s seat with his name on it at video village. The writer must attend all table readings. The writer must attend the big production meeting that occurs shortly before commencement of principle photography.
The writer’s name is on the clapper slate.
Through mutual consent with the director, the writer will have full access to the set. Writopia always tries to make “all-services” deals with its writers as it nears production. The studio wants a writer on the set every single day. The studio encourages its directors to take advantage of the writer’s narrative, character and dialogue expertise during all phases of production.
The writer is required to give notes on the first cut, and the writer is required to attend all test screenings until such time as the studio determines that there will be no further production.
The writer is given the same number of premiere tickets as the director.
The writer and director are encouraged to do their DVD commentary together, as a team.
If Writopia Studios existed, I think it would eliminate every reasonable gripe writers have. Could it exist?
The key to it all is spreading the Craig n’ Ted religion. Take the emphasis away from the document of the script. Put the emphasis on the projected movie. Expand the definition of the job of screenwriter. We can make repeated moral arguments for our rights (the current, failing strategy) or we can do our jobs in such a way that the companies realize ensuring our rights would be better for the movie.
Think Ted and I are wrong? Keep fighting your fight. Let us know if you win.
But if you think we’re on to something…
…we’ll call in a drive-on for you.
I’ll be back (probably on Monday) with yet another provocative post about writing. Start collecting blood pressure meds for Olson. In the meantime, I thought I’d keep you all posted on some changes I’ve been implementing here behind the scenes. Let me know if you experience any strange behavior when visiting the site.
Like anyone who runs a blog, I get inundated with comment spam. Loads of it. The weird part about comment spam is that while some of it makes sense (pitches for online gambling, viagra, incest with dogs, the usual), some of it doesn’t even seem to contain advertising at all. That’s the stuff that worries me, of course. No URL, no text pitch…just some weird profusion of comments saying something like “Hi to all is good for same!” published to twelve posts at a time. Wonder what those guys are up to…
Anyway, this site is powered by Movable Type, which has been doing a fairly decent job in the war against spam. Unfortunately, plenty gets through. Lots of sites (like John’s) have tried to deal with the problem using captchas (those annoying codes you have to manually enter in order to post a comment) or challenges (like John’s erstwhile “oxlip and nodding violet” test). I find those things intrusive and disruptive to my browsing experience (and lo and behold, John’s chucked the oxlips too), so I made a choice very early on to prioritize ease of commenting over ease of webmastering.
But over the last month, as more and more spam fought its way past Movable Type’s built-in filter plugins, it started to get very irksome.
Enter MT-Keystrokes, a brilliant little plugin for Movable Type. The author’s theory is that the vast majority of spam comments aren’t actually typed into the text field; that would be a terribly inefficient way of going about the task of bombing thousands of blogs a day. Instead, bots crawl the web, find blogs and then autopost comments to them. The answer? A plugin and some quick template hacking that requires my commenters to actually type something into the text field…or even just click the “submit” button. That’s it. If you do that, you make it to the next level (where you get filtered behind the scenes again by another plugin). If you don’t…I never even hear about it. You’re toast.
So far, the impact has been startling. The plugin author is aware that sooner or later the spammers will get around this, but for now it’s working like a charm. Still, if you attempt to post a comment and it doesn’t show up, let me know. It may be that something’s gone wrong.
On the hosting side, we haven’t yet moved to our new server, but it’s a-comin’. Also, I’ve implemented some coding changes recommended at Elise Bauer’s absolutely brilliant site, Learning Movable Type. These changes should reduce the load that this site puts on our server, and maybe even cut down on the slowages and outages. As an aside, one of the cool things about the internet is that there’s a person named Elise Bauer whom I’ve never met and probably never will, but she still means a lot to me (and God knows how many others). Like her counterparts in the scribosphere like John August, Elise decided one day that she would spend her own time and money to help people learn some of the things she’s learned. There’s no charge, there’s no advertising…just really useful information. Thank you, Elise!
Over at The Forum, I’ve updated the software (it’s a separate application called SMF). Every time I do that, something gets broken. This time, it was the link to our Chat Room, but our Forum Valkyrie (aka Denise) fixed that just today.
Finally, a quick note about the links to other sites. I never wanted a massive blogroll, because it’s my belief that a list of 500 hundred blogs means no one’s gonna click on any of them. My intention has always been to feature links to blogs that meet at least a majority of the following criteria:
- About screenwriting.
- Frequently updated…as in at LEAST once a week.
Personally, I hate hate HATE generic Blogger sites, and I really don’t know why anyone has a blog that they don’t update more than once a month (and don’t give me “I’m busy” because trust me, you’re not). On the other hand, Josh Friedman definitely scores big on criteria 1 and 2, so he’s not getting bumped. Similarly, you may have a beautiful, well-written site that you update daily, but if it’s not screenwritingish enough, I’ll eventually bump you.
The truth is that some sites are just plain excellent, and I don’t want them lost in a big list. Everyone knows about Josh Friedman and John August and I’m sure most of you have enjoyed Complications Ensue and Word Player and The Thinking Writer and John Rogers…
…but save some love for Warren Hsu Leonard’s The Screenwriting Life. It’s a really attractive blog. He deserves extra attention.
That’s the update for now. Thanks for continuing to read and make use of the site. We continue to grow, clocking about 18,000 unique visits a month now. I don’t know how long we can continue to grow at this pace, but I suppose we’ll find out.
Up next, my dream of the perfect studio. I call it…Scriptopia…
Those of you visiting the main site or the forum last night were probably greeted with a message saying we didn’t exist.
Yeah, that freaked me out a bit too. Had Josh Olson finally finished his “Hacking For Dummies” book? No, the Artful Writer is apparently a victim of its own success. We’re getting more popular. Our unique visitors per day count continues to rise, and more significantly, the amount of activity on the site has increased.
Our hosting company serves this site and others from one of a large number of servers they own. Lately, the server we’re on has been getting sluggish. Sometimes the load increases to the point where it sort of gives up, and the site is inaccessible for a bit. Naturally, I contacted our Hosting Queen (the mysterious and possibly deadly woman known as Sekimori) and said, “Hey, mysterious and possibly deadly woman, why am I on such a sucky server?”
And she said, “Hey, idiot, YOU’RE the reason it’s sucky. Your traffic is crashing it. I need to move you to another server.”
Actually, she called me “whelp.” We have a very strange relationship.
Anyway, congratulations, everyone. It’s not a party until someone breaks something.
Seki tried to move us last night, but there was some trouble, so we’re still on the Sucky Server. You may continue to experience sluggishness, outages and weight gain, although that last one isn’t my fault. When she makes another attempt to move us to the new server (a brand new dual Xeon server ), the site will probably go down for a bit again.
Bear with us. We should have a zippier Artful Writer when this is all over.
With all of the bloodletting and debate and…I’m sure the Germans have a better word for what we’ve been doing here lately (olsonschauung?)…I had managed to fall tragically behind on a bunch of questions our readers have emailed. And so, let’s play Q&A…
When you approach writing a screenplay do you flush out a detailed backstory with character descriptions and several plot and sub-plotlines, or do you just plunge right into writing the script?
I think I answer safely for both Ted and myself when I say that neither of us are plungers. I am a huge believer in conceiving a story separate from the screenplay, and then writing the screenplay of the story. So yes, I have always thought first about the elements of story: character, narrative, theme.
Forgive me for coming late to the discussion, but I followed the talk about rewrites from the May 14 link. I have a question.
Why not hire writers for a period of time?
Say a studio hires a writer to do rewrites for six weeks instead of two drafts of rewrites. If the studio wants more work done, then they have to extend that contract. Writers would get paid for all their re-writing, because it would all fall under the contract. It may be a lot of work during that time frame, but it would be finite and have a discrete dollar figure attached to the work. And there would be no real way to do a free re-write once the contract starts (although before the contract is a different story) It seems like this is a sensible way to work, so why isn’t it done?
It is a sensible way for some writers to work in some situations, and it is done. The WGA MBA allows for writers to be employed on a term basis, as long as the compensation per week is no less than the weekly minimum set by MBA.
Professional writers tend to be employed on a term basis in one of two situations. The first is the weekly. I only take weekly assignments on projects that are either in production or getting close to production. This is the sort of work people often describe as “script doctoring.” A full draft isn’t required. A polish isn’t required. Typically, one or two weeks is all it takes to get the job done.
The second situation is the all-services deal. I almost always seek to make an all-services deal if I’m going to be following a movie through preproduction, production and post-production. Neither I nor the studio wants to engage in endless negotiations. We all agree that I should be working on the project until the final reels ship. As such, I negotiate one lump sum to cover all of my writing services on the project until it’s done.
Okay, here’s a multiparter from a reader in Canada…
1. If an actor is a SAG member and he works in Montreal, which union has jurisdiction - ACTRA or SAG?
2. If an actor is an ACTRA, SAG or Equity member and he is invited to work on a non-union film in - let’s say, India - can he do so? Is a waiver the only way? And in your experience, would shooting in an *emerging* nation be grounds for a waiver to work with non-union producers?
3. Would you kindly share some insight with me on the relationship between producers who do not wish to sign with a union and union actors? Are there ways around the system for a producer?
4. And lastly, in today’s co-production, cross-country world, where does the non-union producer find him/herself when faced with dual or trebled-union actors?
Although I don’t have anything to do with SAG or ACTRA (in this case, ACTRA refers to the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, not the crappy Gillette razor), most unions in North America follow uniform rules derived from U.S. and Canadian labor law.
Answer #1…it depends on where the actor lives. If the actor lives in the U.S., then SAG will cover the Montreal employment. If the actor lives in Canada, then ACTRA covers the job…even if the actor is a member of SAG. This appears to be the result of an agreement between the two unions.
Answer #2…no. A few years ago, SAG expanded one of its working rules to forbid any members from working for any non-signatory…even in places outside of SAG’s legal jurisdiction (like India). It’s called Global Rule One, and it goes a little something like this: No member shall work as a performer or make an agreement to work as a performer for any producer who has not executed a basic minimum agreement with the Guild which is in full force and effect.
Now, honestly, I don’t think that’s really enforceable. I mean, if I’m a SAG actor in L.A., and someone wants me to star in a non-SAG movie in Mumbai, SAG can threaten me with fines or something, but for what…taking employment in a work area they don’t cover? I don’t think so. Just my opinion. On the other hand, working union is always preferable to not. Always.
Answer #3…there shouldn’t be any relationship between union writers and non-union producers. Assuming the work is in a covered area (so not Mumbai, but yes Burbank), WGA writers are forbidden from working for non-sigs (and this is enforceable). Producers can try and get around these restrictions, but it’s difficult for them, and generally speaking, they act in good faith. Generally. The vast majority of live-action major motion picture releases are the result of WGA writers working for signatory employers.
Answer #4…in trouble. Probably best to stop being a non-union producer, and do what’s necessary to become signatory to the major creative guilds. Not only do you get access to the world’s most talented and desirable pool of writers, directors, actors, editors and cinematographers, but you also make a choice to adhere to a fair code of employment. It’s worth it for selfish and selfless reasons alike.
Okay, last question. It’s a fun one.
At what point does a character deserve a name? If he speaks? If she is mentioned by other characters? Obviously some characters need to be kept anonymous, like the Cigarette Smoking Man in The X-Files.
That’s a really good question. I almost never give a character a name if he doesn’t speak AND if no one else needs to refer to him by name. Sometimes, even if a character speaks, I still won’t give them a name, because their movie value is contained entirely in that one line (e.g. “I’ll have what she’s having”). So, yeah, I guess you sort of answered your own question. I mean, that kind of cuts to the heart of screenwriting, doesn’t it? We write for the screen, and anything that can’t be conveyed through film, even if silently, is detritus. If there’s no utility for a name, I won’t grant one. That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t describe the character if his appearance is important. That’s how you end up with names like “Wrinkly Man” and “Angry Midget”.
David Zucker takes this principle one step further and identifies these nameless characters in the end credits by their lines of dialogue. For instance, instead of listing “Concerned Passerby” and the actor who played him, David will literally call the character “Hey! What Are You Doing?”
Makes sense, if you think about it.
I usually post before a week goes by, but I’ve been really busy getting a treatment done for my next movie. Besides, don’t we all deserve a break after the megathread? Five hundred and nineteen comments on one post!
Hell, more if you include the deletions.
I want to thank all of you, even Josh, for making this website such a busy place. I’ll be back in a few days with some Q&A’s and maybe even a gestalt experiment. Something I call “Writopia.”