Recently in Q&A Category
I’ve been thinking about the immediate future of this site, lately. I start shooting my movie in about three weeks, and when that happens, I go bye-bye for two and half months.
Well, maybe if I’m not totally dead on the weekends, I can throw an update on, but it’s gonna be a dark stretch…and then there’s post. That’s almost worse.
I’m sort of in denial about it, so rather than try and solve that little problem right now, I think I’ll just answer some questions. Yeah. That will solve everything…
Q: I recently joined a group of writers who wanted to write a script. It started out as an “exercise”. We got along very well….wrote a pilot and are confident it is good enough to sell. We had it copyrighted and registered it with the Writers Guild. I am the “creator” of the idea. Five of us wrote the pilot. Who really owns the pilot? or the “Idea”? All of us? We are now writing a new episode and there are only three of us involved. Do all five continue to benefit if the sitcom is sold? or do we have to copyright each episode? Or do we just sell the idea (if someone wants it) and move on - all benefiting financially?
I get these questions a lot. It’s natural. Writing collaborations are a bit like spontaneous sexual connections. People sort of bang into each other in the heat of the moment, and then try and sort out the responsibilities and ramifications after the deed is done.
In the case described above, the “idea” doesn’t really confer “created by” in any real sense. Ideas aren’t ownable. A story, however, is. If the questioner had written a story, and then he and four other writers cowrote the dramatization (i.e. script) of that story, we’d have something to delineate. That’s not what happened though.
Since five people wrote the pilot script including the story contained therein, then the Five should be considered the “creators” of the “series.”
Any ensuing episodes should be judged as scripts written by those three people, but based on the characters and story created by the Five.
Generally speaking, show creators do benefit from the continued production of episodes of the show they created (via the pilot).
But you know what?
Here’s a nutty wacky thought.
HIRE A LAWYER BEFORE YOU DO STUFF LIKE THIS.
Let’s say you were planning on starting a business selling clothing to people. Four other people wanted to get into business with you.
You’d hire a lawyer.
Hire a freakin’ lawyer.
Folks, all sorts of misery and tears and yelling and ruined friendships can be avoided by being clear up front about what the reality of the arrangement is.
Or, if you really want to protect yourself, do what I do.
Q: So here it is: how are writers how are credited as producers, or supervising producers, or execs, contracted? are they doing separate agreements under WGA jurisidction or does the wga recognize those producer credits?
the reason I’m asking is that the producer association up here (in Canada) is resisting the whole idea of writer-producers; I’m not sure how it’s going to play out but I was hoping someone could give me an idea of how it works in the U.S. where it seems people know how to make television.
A: WGA writing credits are for writing only.
Writers can also produce (I produce my movies, for instance, and many television writers also serve as producers on the shows they write), but the money they are paid for producing is not subject to Guild terms, nor are producing credits determined by the WGA.
There is a producing association here that’s also miffed about the proliferation of producing credits. Amusingly, the quote on their front page (from Hawk Koch) is all about how everything starts with a good story and script…but whatever.
Point is, they don’t like the watering down of their credit, and to an extent, they have a point. Certain producing credits are handed out like bon bons or door prizes. Still, I staunchly defend my right as a writer-producer to hold that title.
Because I actually do produce.
As such, I’m in favor of standards that help define what those credits mean, but I’m against any kind of blanket ban on hyphenates.
Q:I am a full-time newspaper reporter who wrote a story that recently caught the eye of a major studio. I know this because a friend of mine who works at that studio is the one who tipped them to my piece to begin with. So my newspaper obviously owns the story (including the notes, the drafts, etc.) and I am not a character in the article, meaning I cant benefit from it being optioned (I think). However, is there any other way I can become involved in this project To put the question in the American parlance: Is there anything in it for me? Id love to write a screenplay based on the article, but seeing as how Ive never attempted that I highly doubt the studio would tender such, no matter how many decades Ive been a professional writer. Knowing this general framework, can you suggest what, if any, role there is for me in this? Is there, for example, a job where I help the professional screenwriter craft the script? (If theres a term for this I apologize.) When screenwriters work together does one perhaps just deal with the narrative structure, details and storyline? (This I could do.)
A: If you want to be a screenwriter, I suggest writing a good screenplay.
Seems like obvious advice, but just like overweight people (and I’m one of ‘em) who just refuse to accept the whole “eat less an exercise” thing, there are loads of people who are positive that there’s a way to game themselves into becoming a screenwriter.
There is not.
First off, your initial premise may be incorrect. If you write a newspaper article overseas (and you imply you’re not American), I suspect that you do retain copyright in some fashion. You may also retain film rights. I don’t know.
If you do, then you can benefit by receiving a fee for the film rights.
If you don’t, then here’s what you can do.
You can ask the studio if you could pretty pretty please write a screenplay adaptation of your article. For the least amount required. And you’ll get it to them really, really fast.
Then write a very good screenplay.
If you do, chances are that you can be a screenwriter.
If you don’t, chances are that you can’t.
No, there aren’t arrangements where one person deals with the stuff in the article, and the other person does all the “easy” stuff like dramatization, characterization, dialogue and scenario.
Dude, that’s the hard stuff. Anyone who has read your article now has everything you’ve offered…so why do they need to carry your weight?
Q: Why do screenwriters (or whoever is holding the gun to their heads) have to overplot movies? This is a common complaint for me, but watching Red Planet is what prompted me to write. It’s not enough to have 4 astronauts stranded on Mars (how will they get home?) or a good mystery ( why is there suddenly oxygen on Mars?). Either one of those could make for a great movie (the first one already did). But on top of all this, they have to add a rogue killer robot. One plot point to many, and it topples over into silliness. A potentially great movie, good cast, etc., and 7 years later it’s late night viewing on cable and a punchline (if anyone thinks of it at all).
A: It happens because it’s easy.
First of all, can I just point out that the state of email writing is pretty bad?
There is a pressure from studios to “raise the stakes.” It’s a phrase every screenwriter has heard a million times. “Raising the stakes” is the dramatic equivalent of monosodium glutamate. It’s a cheap way to goose the audience. Still, lots of people enjoy it. Personally, I’m with you. Endlessly raised stakes can feel empty and silly, particularly when they don’t seem to flow naturally from the central character’s thematic needs and growth.
On top of that, you have the demands of the sequel. One must outdo the movie that came before it, lest the audience feel “cheated.” This is an odd way of looking at sequels, if you ask me. The audience will never feel cheated if they are enjoying an engrossing, well-told story with a fresh narrative and interesting characters tackling engaging themes.
That’s not as easy for a studio to understand, however, as MORE.
This is why superhero movies so frequently fall victim to the “two villains…no, THREE villains…no, FIVE villains!” theory of sequeling.
I was so happy when Spiderman 2 managed to stick with a one villain format. Spiderman 3 definitely suffered from three villains. Overkill to be sure, but it’s all about insecurity.
At some point, these movies become so expensive and so critical to the corporations producing them, security begins to override creative restraint.
Curiously, this often backfires.
Funny world we live in.
Okay, that’s all for now. When I come back up for air, I’ll answer a few more of the backlogged questions.
Yeah, fine, it’s my dirty little secret. Sometimes I don’t have anything worth saying to you people. And yet, I know you’re out there. Running a blog is a little like being on the roof of the mall in Dawn of the Dead. I can forget about the crowd outside for a little bit, but when I look down…
…you’re all still there.
Hungry for brains.
Well, if that analogy hasn’t turned you off forever, allow me to stopgap things for a bit with some Q&A. Oh, and no, that guy in the picture isn’t me. He’s better-looking than I am, even passed out and rubbery as he is.
Q: Why don’t you use “funny names” in your spoof movies?”
A: Because they’re not really funny.
Well, there’s funny names and funny names.
Fielding Mellish is a funny sounding name, but it’s not a funny name.
“White Bitch” or “Captain Jack Swallows” from Epic Movie are “funny” names, i.e. they pull a Mad Magazine on the name of the character you’re spoofing.
There are two reasons we don’t do this when we make spoofs. The first is that it’s so easy, anyone can do it, so why would anyone actually laugh?
This brings to mind a great joke from The Simpsons. We see the writing room of Mad Magazine. All the writers are quiet. Then one says, “How about…Everybody HATES Raymond?” The other writers laugh, and the editor says, “Well, it took all night, but it was worth it!”
The second reason we don’t use funny names is that they’re not funny after the first mention. Nothing is. Repeated jokes try the audience’s patience, unless it’s a running gag that builds.
This brings to mind a not so great joke from The Simpsons. This week’s episode was about Little League. Nelson is the pitcher, but instead of throwing the ball, he tosses it up in the air and punches it toward the batter. Cute joke…the first time.
The third time? Yikes.
It’s the same with funny names. Even if you get someone to laugh at “White Bitch” once, they’re not going to laugh at it the twelfth time.
We call this rule “Can you live with it?”
There is one and only one “funny name” in the ZAZ pantheon (and I include SM3 and SM4 in that). First person to name it gets a nod of recognition.
Q: How does one go about writing a remake? Can anyone pick up an old movie and retool it for a modern audience? Or do you have to be connected with the studio who owns the rights?
A: Carefully, no, no.
First, the easy part. Copyright includes control of so-called “derivative works”, which include screenplay adaptations. As such, if you’re serious about writing a script that will get produced, you do need to either purchase or option or receive a license for the adaptation rights from the copyright holder. For those of us who write professionally, this almost always means being hired by a studio that controls the underlying rights, although there are many inspirational examples of screenwriters taking the bull by the horns and going straight to the author on their own.
Some books have fallen into the public domain, so you’re free to adapt them as you wish.
The actual creative process of adaptation is its own unique form of screenwriting, and I’m simply not equipped to describe it fully. Having done two adaptations, I can tell you that it is essential to somehow carry with you a deep love and respect and total understanding of the material…as well as a simultaneous fearlessness to adapt and change it.
To me, the best adaptations aren’t the slavish ones, but the ones that alchemically transfer the heart and soul of the original material into a brand new work of art.
Read the novel “Out of Sight” and then watch the movie of Scott Frank’s screenplay. It’s a master class in how to adapt with soul.
Walsh/Boyens/Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings is another wonderful example of how to choose, omit and change and yet enhance the heart of the work, rather than diminish it.
Remember….love and fearlessness.
Q: I recently signed up for a screenwriting class. On our first day of class, myself and the other students eagerly asked our new teacher how many screenplays he had gotten optioned. His answer was long-winded and round-about, but basically amounted to: zero. So we asked him who his agent was, and he said he wasn’t represented, but didn’t need to be, because he was on a “first-name basis” with so-and-so big-name celebrities, who had agreed to “read anything I send them”. At that point, I started becoming concerned that perhaps I was not getting a quality education for my money.
Is this a legit thing? Is being able to say “I know four big wigs in Hollywood on a first-name basis” as good as being able to say, “I have optioned four screenplays” in the screenwriting world? Are all screenwriting teachers probably going to be people who have not actually sold screenplays (because presumably the people who are selling all the screenplays don’t need to teach to support themselves)? If you were me, would you drop the class and get your money back?
A: No, yes, don’t know.
I have a very dim view of the entire screenwriting “cottage industry” out there.
I think I’ll coin a word.
These people are all paraliterary. They exist on the fringe, selling “secrets” and teaching lessons and dealing in confidence, but of course they’d be gone in a moment if they could sell a script or work as a screenwriter.
I do believe that some people are really good at teaching and guiding. We see this in sports all the time. Casey Stengel was a pretty mediocre baseball player, but a great manager. Teaching is its own art, so if you’re learning things that make you a better writer, than the class is worth it.
I am extremely suspicious, however, of anyone who starts featherbedding their resume by talking about how “connected” they are. This is a bad sign.
My only advice here is this: if you think the class is helping your writing, stick with it. If you think it’s a waste of time, dump it.
Just remember, folks, professional screenwriting really is a lot like professional sports. Most of you will never be able to hit a 95 MPH two-seamer no matter how much training you get…and the sad statistics are than most of you will not be able to maintain a career as a screenwriter either. It’s hard. Take help where you can find it, but keep a watchful eye out for the paraliterary.
They want your money.
Q: I’m writing from Canada (go hockey!), and I have queried four agencies up here that rep TV writers. They all said “We are simply not expanding our roster. Do not send us anything.” So… now what? Is that a January thing? Is that a test to see how determined I am? What would be a reasonable length of time to re-contact them? Any advice on approaching production companies (in Canada) this spring without an agent? Am I kidding myself?
A: No, no, don’t bother, some, no.
I’m enjoying this multipart question trend.
Many agencies will not take on clients who don’t already have agents. They’re either full, or they don’t want to break in new writers, or they’re over-committed already, and can barely keep up with the clients they have…and are perhaps considering dropping a few, much less taking on additional ones.
You have to try and find a way in beyond the cold-call of a query letter. You need a friend, a lawyer, a manager, a someone. Once you get that, you need material that will impress.
Remember, if writing is your Plan A and what you’re doing while you’re waiting is your Plan B, make your Plan B your Plan A and your Plan A your Plan B. Find a job somewhere in the business and do it really well. This is the best way to get yourself into a position where you can be read by people who can help matchmake you with an agent.
Q: Is R. Kosberg’s Moviepitch a ripoff or is it worth while to send him ideas?
A: If you’re using this, you’re not a writer.
I’ve spoken with Robert a few times. He’s a very nice guy, he really is known by everyone in town, and he really does sell things every now and again. He’s a legitimate producer, and he certainly has made a living pitching ideas.
What he’s not is a writer. He’s a producer. That’s what some producers (not the full kind, but some) do: they come up with ideas for movies or they find ideas for movies, and they set them up. Writers like me then come along and write the script.
Guess who gets paid more on that project?
The reason Robert is a success is that he deals in volume, and more power to him! If he sets up twelve projects a year and just two get made, he’s probably into the seven figures.
So…should you be using him as a broker? Yes…if you can’t write the script of your idea. In that case, you’re a producer looking for another producer to help you. If you’re a writer, then write the damned script! A great script will be found. A great script will make you a lot of money. A great script will launch your career.
Setting up ideas is silly if you’re a writer…unless you’re doing it yourself in order to write the script (i.e. a pitch). In this case, it sounds like Robert’s getting you option money for your idea, but you’re not going to write the script, because who the hell wants to bother with you?
If you were a writer…you would have already written it, right?
Hmmm…I have a few more questions stored up, but I’m not gonna answer them right away. Gotta have something saved up for another lazy day.
Next up, I’m going to take on “clams.” If you read Jane Espenson’s blog, you know what I’m talking about….
A: No. You need to show that you can make the agent money.
A reader was talking with another writer who told him that A-list agents need to see three spec screenplays before they’ll agree to rep you. Why three? They need proof that you have range.
This is baloney.
Well, to be more precise, it’s a white lie. Agents ask for “range” because what they’ve seen isn’t impressive enough, and by “impressive” I mean “potentially lucrative.”
The only range one needs to be concerned with is the range of one’s talent. If you write a screenplay that an agent or producer reads and loves, then they will immediately attempt to exploit both you and the screenplay to their advantage.
There’s no formula, no magic number, no magical “range” required. Frankly, the notion is absurd on its face, because the first thing that happens to you after you sell a screenplay is an industry-wide pigeon-holing of you, your writing and your career.
There are writers who have different speeds, although it’s exceedingly rare to find a writer who is good at comedy and any other genre at the same time (they’re out there, but like I said…rare). Similarly, agents have a hard time selling writers who aren’t marketable, and marketability almost requires a reductive viewpoint.
My own range is rather narrow. I’ve written broad comedy, spoof, romantic comedy, whimsical dramedy…
Everything’s got an “medy” in it, though. I was hired once to write on a horror film. I didn’t want to do it. I was asked pleadingly and was paid well, so I did it with full disclaimers.
I really shouldn’t write horror movies, as it turns out.
I don’t think I’m bad at it per se, but it’s not what I love. I bring nothing special to it. Mere competence, or even just a high percentile of ability compared to the general population, is hardly a recommendation to a genre.
People tend to cling to formulaic rules or guidelines when attempting to navigate difficult challenges. I don’t blame them. Getting an agent can be difficult. Unfortunately, there’s no secret. You can write a script in every genre, but you’ll still be lagging behind the guy with one great screenplay.
This doesn’t mean you have to cling to one genre either. Most every writer I know has at least two facets to his writing. Sometimes more. And maybe you’re one of those rare renaissance writers who has what someone else might objectively deem “range.”
It’s all incidental to talent, passion and hard work.
A: Failure Is An Orphan.
The emailer asks a question that deserves a serious answer, although theoretically it should be obvious.
Screenwriters are supposed to be in charge of the story of the movie. Screenwriters, therefore, should be responsible for the quality of the story, and screenwriters should receive the praise or the blame for the story.
Doesn’t work like that. First of all, which screenwriter? The credited screenwriter? The uncredited screenwriter? Moving beyond that, screenwriters are employees of production companies. Those companies often ask the screenwriter to make changes, deletions or additions that the screenwriter warns them against. They may occur regardless.
Then there’s the editors. A screenwriter can write a screenplay, a director can cast and direct the film of the screenplay, and an editor can take the footage and create a different story than anyone intended. I’m presuming, of course, that the director is just one person, but that’s not always the case. Anyone interested in film should take the time to watch Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Both films originated from a story by William Wisher and Caleb Carr. The movie was first shot by Paul Schraeder. The studio, unhappy with Schraeder’s film, then hired Alexi Hawley to do extensive rewrites and hired Renny Harlin to direct large amounts of new footage.
The two movies are similar but dissimilar. They have overlapping footage, common story points, but they also have widely divergent footage and divergent story points.
It’s absolutely fascinating to watch both films. It’s the only instance I can think of where we, the audience, get to see the rewrite process in film form. Why is this so rare? Because it’s absurdly expensive to reshoot half of a movie with a new director. Nonetheless, by watching these two movies and seeing how similar footage serves the story in different ways, you quickly get a sense of how editing, pacing and style can affect how one experiences a story.
In the final analysis, however, directors are typically made responsible for the film’s quality. This responsibility and the authority that goes with it may not be justified, but at the very least, they’re commensurate. There’s a truism in Hollywood: when a movie flops, the director suffers but the writer doesn’t.
For better or worse, the industry views the writer’s goal as writing a script that justifies the green light. The director’s job is to make a successful film. And so, the director typically gets blamed for the story of the movie, but the writer skates away happily.
A lot of writers like this. I don’t.
Because I want writers to be filmmaking partners with directors, and because I want the job of the screenwriter to be understood as “write a movie”, I want writers to shoulder some of the burden. I want writers to share equally in the praise and blame. We deserve it, frankly. Mind you, I’m not talking about film critic reviews, which routinely blame screenwriters when things are bad and ignore them when things are good. No one cares about critics. Seriously. No one. I’m talking about the business, where success has a thousand mothers and failure is an orphan. If we’re partners and the film fails, we have to own that with the director.
But if it succeeds…
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.
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.
Adaptation?A: That’s a bit complicated for a quick answer.
But you’d think it would be easy, no?
I’ll start with what I think are the Academy rules, based on what the name of “Best Adapted Screenplay” used to be up until a few years ago. For a long time it was “Best Screenplay Based On Material Previously Produced Or Published”, and that pretty much says it all, right?
The Academy has an executive writers committee that meets to determine whether or not they feel a particular screenplay is an adapation. The WGA has far more rigid rules. It isn’t only concerned with prior publication or production. It is also concerned with unpublished and unproduced material of other natures that fall under the larger rubric of “source material”.
The WGA definition of an original screenplay is:
Original screenplays [are] those screenplays which are not based on source material and on which the first writer writes a screenplay without there being any other intervening literary material by another writer pertaining to the project. If a writer is furnished or uses research material, the screenplay is still considered an original screenplay.
Translation: no source material (discounting research material) and no other writer in between the start and completion of your draft. If that happens, it’s an original project.
Obviously, adaptations are therefore screenplays that are based, in any part, on source material. And what is source material?
…source material is material assigned to the writer which was previously published or exploited and upon which the writer’s work is to be based (e.g., a novel, a produced play or series of published articles), or any other material written outside of the Guild’s jurisdiction (e.g., literary material purchased from a non-professional writer). Illustrative examples of source material credits are: “From a Play by”, “From a Novel by”, “Based upon a Story by”, “From a series of articles by”, “Based upon a Screenplay by” or other appropriate wording indicating the form in which such source material is acquired. Research material is not considered source material.
Let’s go through that. First, there’s the obvious: published or exploited books, plays, essays, comics, etc. Interestingly, you can also include exploited story treatments by writers other than the first screenwriter. For instance, if John sells a treatment to a studio, and then George is hired to write the screenplay based on that treatment, the project is an adaptation because George has been given exploited literary material upon which to base his script.
Then, there’s the not-so-obvious. Let’s say John writes an original screenplay for a non-signatory company, i.e. a company whose dealings with writers isn’t covered by the WGA’s collective bargaining agreements, and then that company sells John’s script to a signatory studio like Disney. Disney then hires Sally to rewrite the script. If John had written that exact same script for a signatory, the project would be deemed an original. Since he wrote it for a non-sig, however, his script is considered source material, and John is not eligible for “story by” or “screenplay by” credit. The project is now considered an adaptation, with John’s screenplay functioning the way a book or play might.
That’s the one area where I imagine that the WGA and AMPAS might see things differently. From the WGA’s point of view, they must consider the non-sig script to be source material, because its ability to assign screenplay credit is entirely a function of its collective bargaining agreement, and the non-sig script doesn’t fall under that.
AMPAS, however, seems to be only concerned with what is, in actuality, an original or adaptation. In the example above, I think that the WGA would call John’s project an adapation, and AMPAS would call it an original.
This probably doesn’t come up too often.
The questioner specifically asked about Syriana, which AMPAS has apparently determined is an original rather than an adaptation. The WGA considers Syriana to be an adapation, because the screenplay was based (in some part) on a book. I believe the source material credit was “suggested by”, and that’s enough to make the script an adaptation. However, it appears the AMPAS writers committee felt that the script simply didn’t get enough of significance from the book, and thus they have deemed it an original screenplay.
A: It depends where you are when you write.
The Artful Writer is visited most frequently by Americans, but we do get a fairly good-sized international readership as well. There are lots of you from Canada, The Netherlands, Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, Finland, Hong Kong…
…well, you’re pretty much from everywhere. Even Latvia.
Many of you have a similar question: if you sell a screenplay to a WGA signatory company, must you join the Guild? Embarrassingly, I’ve gotten the answer to this one wrong in a number of ways, and I’ve spread a bit of bad info in the past, so this post will hopefully set the record straight.
The determining factor when it comes to non-U.S. citizens is location.
The WGA is mostly concerned with jurisdiction, rather than prior membership or national citizenship. Regardless of what your passport says, if you perform the majority of writing services for a signatory while you are in the United States, then you must join the WGA if you’re not already a member, and the work is covered under our Minimum Basic Agreement.
However, if you live in the UK, you may work for a signatory to the WGA without the work being covered under our agreement. The WGA cannot compel you to join or compel the company to abide by the WGA’s collective bargaining agreement. However, you can negotiate to be treated as if you were under WGA jurisdiction! In other words, you can live in England, write a movie for Paramount Pictures from your home in London, and still get residuals and credit protection…but only if you get Paramount to agree to that deal.
If you hop on a jet and fly to New York, hole yourself up in a hotel and write the movie from midtown, then Paramount has to abide by the terms of the MBA.
The one final point to consider is that WGA membership isn’t really something you ever have to worry about choosing. If you meet the terms of membership through the appropriate amount of actual covered work, the WGA compels your membership. If you don’t, then you can’t join anyway.
For those of you writing outside of the United States, if you do sell or option literary material to any company that is a signatory to the WGA, try and negotiate yourself as if terms. The work won’t be officially covered by our MBA, but it’s well worth trying to get some of the goodies that those of us doing covered work get automatically. The company can certainly say “no”, but since they give those terms to thousands of other writers in the U.S. as a matter of course, you may find that they might be willing to bend a little…and give them to you too.
A: If you’re hoping for some kind of Algonquin round table, don’t hold your breath.
The emailer asks a question I’ve heard before, and it’s a good one. Most writers are hermits and slugs who sit in small rooms and lose themselves in their own imaginations, which is precisely why they can see the benefit of living and working in a very different way.
What we want is the comraderie of fellow screenwriters with whom we can commiserate, laugh, share ideas, exchange comments and critiques, and bond over our unifying love of writing for television and movies.
Sorry. That’s what we think we want. The second we find ourselves in some kind of actual social circle like that, we usually start planning an escape route, or, barring a convenient exit, a method to quickly and untraceably kill everyone around us.
Perhaps I’m being a bit too curmudgeonly, but unless we’re actually working with other writers on some writing, the pressures of being both friends and competitors can overwhelm the best of intentions. Our desire for exchange of comments and critiques becomes a quest for approval, and any disappointment in that regard is noted on some internal ledger and paid back in kind. The need to commiserate evolves into either whining or false humility.
That’s the dim view, of course.
Here’s the positive view.
I find that most of my writer friends (and I have a bunch) work in a different genre and field than I. Specifically, my writer friends tend to work in reality TV. It’s a great arrangement. We’re similar enough to be relatable, but are dissimilar enough to avoid the traps.
As for screenwriter friends, I have a few, but they all share something in common.
They’re all better than I, and they’re all more successful than I.
This isn’t calculated. It just happens. I think it’s probably motivated by the fact that I find them more interesting than screenwriters who are living what I’m living or have yet to go through what I already have. A happy side effect is that there’s nothing for me to get hung up on.
As it so happens, none of them seem to have the problem of being friends with me, and I thank them for that.
Still, the friendships aren’t of the sit-around-the-table-and-laugh variety. They’re telephonic, mostly. Some of my screenwriter relationships aren’t even telephonic. They’re textual.
You know what? Textual relationships can be very satisfying too. That’s what I started the forum. Ted and I probably see each other in person once every few months, but phone and email pretty much covers it. John August and I probably wouldn’t count each other as “friends” in the normal sense of the word, but I have no problem emailing him as a friend when I have a question or thought, and the same goes for him.
Frankly, that’s worth more to me than the thought of hanging out with a bunch of writers in person. I know that there’s a romantic buzz about the whole thing…the Algonquin round table in New York, or the screenwriters’ hangout at the old Garden of Allah in West Hollywood…but for me, I’d rather expend my social energy in a different vector. I spend a lot of my time writing and thinking about writing. The remaining time is mostly for my family. It’s possible that I’m unique in this way…
…but I don’t think so.
AnswerPalooza!A1: It’s All About Context
A reader wrote in asking about what makes a good twist good. He had an interesting head-start on the answer. It’s not enough to have a surprising ending; the surprising ending must also be logical.
I’d probably explain it more in terms of context. A good twist isn’t just a surprise; it’s a surprise that instantly recontextualizes the entire story.
The fact that Bruce Willis has been dead for the majority of The Sixth Sense recontextualizes every scene the audience has experienced, and it does so after the fact of the experience, which makes twist endings so fascinating. The audience is forced to re-evaluate the very story they thought they understood.
This is why good twist endings typically spawn excellent post-film discussion as well as repeat viewings. Some twist endings are so radical, they can literally warp one’s appreciation of the film itself. I hated Fight Club the first time I saw it because I simply couldn’t recontextualize the film fully after learning the twist. When I saw it the second time and was able to watch the film in forward fashion with the proper context, I absolutely loved it.
While comedies rarely have twists of this nature, I sometimes write jokes that require recontextualization. For instance, in Scary Movie 3, Cindy finds George passed out on a table. He comes to, rubbing his head, and when she asks him what happened, he says, “I don’t know. Cody and I were playing a game, and…” Then he looks down, sees five dice all on the number six, yells “Yahtzee!”, stands up in excitement, and smashes his head into a shelf. He’s knocked himself out.
Once that happens, you get to recontextualize the entire prior 20 seconds of film. I’ve watched that joke play in front of about ten audiences. There’s always a slight delay in the laugh. There’s a small laugh when he hits his head (surprise), then a second big laugh when they realize what this means (recontextualization).
A2: Leave Behinds Are Not A Good Idea
When some writers go off to pitch movies, they “leave behind” a document that outlines the story they’ve just pitched (or some version thereof).
I’m not a fan of this idea. My feeling is that professional writers must get paid for their ideas in fixed form, and that means no leave behinds. Furthermore, when you leave something behind, you’ve given the executive a piece of evidence that can be dissected and rejected concretely by their higher-ups. If the exec really likes the pitch, they have to then relay it to the boss. If the boss says, “I dunno…”, the exec will always say, “I’m not pitching it as well as they did. It’s great.”
A leave behind is proof of you, and if you wanted to make the sale based on written proof, well…you’d be writing a spec instead of pitching, right?
Don’t leave nuthin’ behind.
A3: I Start Wondering What’s Wrong With My Script
First of all, let me get this whole “screenwriting is a marathon” notion out of the way.
No, it’s not.
And if it feels like one, one of the following is true. Either there’s a major problem with your script, or you’re not cut out for writing screenplays.
When I get fidgety or antsy or bored or tired when writing my screenplay, it’s usually a sign that I’ve hit some dry, dysfunctional or cliched section of my story. If it’s not fun and exciting to write, then it won’t be fun and exciting to watch. I return to my treatment or outline, and I think about what’s gone wrong.
If you repeatedly find yourself dreading the work, if you keep praying to find yourself at the end of the process, if you view the second act as some sort of Bataan Death March, then it’s time to hang it up. Screenwriting is hard enough to do when you want to do it. If you’re dealing with a lack of will at the same time, what’s the point of torturing yourself?
A: Yes, and I went about it politely but firmly.
Firing representation isn’t a pleasant thing. For starters, writers generally aren’t good at managing employees because, generally, we don’t have any.
Our representives are, in fact, our employees, but they do an excellent job of making us feel like we’re the ones who ought to be grateful to be working with them.
When it’s time to fire an agent, here’s my recommendation. They’ll never be happy if you terminate them in this way, but they won’t exactly be able to trash you either.
First, think long and hard about the specifics of your dissatisfaction.
Second, request a lunch meeting with your rep, and explain why you feel dissatisfied. Lay out the problems as you perceive them, and ask for solutions. This is not the “you’re fired” meeting. This meeting is exactly what it seems—a warning shot across the bow.
It’s extremely important to do this. Sometimes agents need a reality check in order to change their course of service to their client. Given that writers can be sort of passive-aggressive about this stuff, it’s not fair to just let all of your gripes explode out in a sudden firing.
This meeting should be businesslike, and it should end optimistically.
Now you wait.
If three to six months pass and you are still dissatisifed, it’s time to drop the axe.
I recommend doing it on the phone. I don’t say this because it’s the cowardly move. It’s not. I say this because agents are extremely well-trained in the art of not letting clients fire them. Don’t kid yourselves…the stories of meetings that began with clients saying “you’re fired” and ended with “okay, you’re still my agent” are legend at the big firms, and they have many ways of breaking you.
Early on in my career, my manager (who is still my manager) left the firm he was with to go to another management company. I chose to follow him. Before I could leave, one of the owners of the firm asked to talk to me about it in person.
I agreed. Seemed fair.
He started off by saying, “Look, your guy brought you into my firm, and so I understand why you want to leave with him. I would love for you to stay. I’m not going to pressure you or badmouth your guy or badmouth the company he’s going to, and I would certainly never threaten you in any way. I just want to talk.”
He then proceeded to do every single thing he said he wouldn’t.
You owe the rep that you’re firing some courtesy, but you don’t have to paint a target on yourself either. Call the rep up and say simply and cleanly, “I’m leaving the agency.”
The headline is out of the way. By leading with this, you do one of two things:
- Establish the firing as a fait accomplis.
- Depersonalize the firing.
There will be some shocked silence that you ought to fill dispassionately. Refer back to your prior meeting, explain that your grievances weren’t particularly well-addressed, and state that you’ve decided to make a change. Explain that your decision is final (they will find this insulting and will attempt to make you feel like you owe them a chance to win you back, but that’s just a Jedi mind trick), thank them for the excellent work they’ve done for you in the past, and then get off the phone as fast as you can.
In the days to come, various guilt-trips and insinuations will probably filter back to you. Ignore them. It’s all smoke and mirrors. An executive might even call you to say, “Are you nuts?”, and you’ll ignore that too. An executive who knows you well enough to call doesn’t really care who your agent is. They’ve already judged your writing for themselves.
I want to end by saying that I know I sometimes come off as a bit of a hard-ass against reps, when, in fact, I don’t think I am. Many of them are very smart and very effective at their job.
What concerns me is that there is often an imbalance of psychological power between writers and their agents, and that’s because agents are professional manipulators and writers aren’t.
We have more power than we’ve been led to believe. Don’t be afraid to use it.
It’s your career.
Pie? Read on…A: It depends if the information is needed…or wanted.
Providing characters with a backstory is one of the most common requests we get from executives and producers. The rationale is easy to understand. In order for a character to behave credibly, the audience must feel that the behavior is properly motivated. One way of establishing motivation is to give the character a history that provides an insight into why they are the way they are.
The problem is that this can lead to some horrendous and annoying cliches.
When I’m thinking about my characters, I ask myself if the audience really needs to understand how they became the way they became, or if the audience might merely want to know.
Wanting ain’t good enough. Just because the audience wants something doesn’t mean you should give it to them. It’s a bit like rationing out candy for your kids. Unsatisifed wanting is part of the fun of going to the movies. Anyone who saw Bill Murray whisper into Scarlett Johansson’s ear at the end of Lost In Translation probably wants to know what he said, but it’s best that we’re left filling in the blanks ourselves.
This isn’t a new literary technique. Nietzsche, for instance, prefigured that moment by more than a hundred years when he wrote this passage in Thus Spake Zarathustra.
—Thou thinkest thereon, O Zarathustra, I know it—of soon leaving me!”—
“Yea,” answered I, hesitatingly, “but thou knowest it also”—And I said something into her ear, in amongst her confused, yellow, foolish tresses.
“Thou KNOWEST that, O Zarathustra? That knoweth no one—”
What did he say into her ear, amongst her confused, yellow, foolish tresses? You’ll have to think about that after reading the book, now, won’t you? Ted Elliott told me about a great term that Gore Verbinksi has called “pie talk”. The idea is that after the movie is over, you want at least a few threads dangling, a few questions remaining…for the moviegoers to discuss and debate over pie.
One of the greatest pie talk characters ever is Thelma Dickerson from Callie Khouri’s screenplay Thelma & Louise. Louise refuses to travel through Texas, even when that refusal puts her and Louise at great risk.
Why? Oh, sure, there are some obvious answers we can imagine, but the movie refrains from backstorying us to death with some awful speech about what happened That Terrible Day Way Back When.
This doesn’t mean you should never do backstory. Sometimes, it really helps. For instance, when I was adapting Mary Chase’s play Harvey, I noticed that practically no one had a backstory.
Did Elwood Dowd, the odd drunk who claims to see an invisible rabbit, need a backstory? Did we need some insight into his past to explain how it was that he went from a pillar of the business world to an odd, Zen degenerate?
I decided that we did not. The audience would identify with the Christ-like qualities of Elwood without knowing what happened to him. In fact, I went one step further. I created a sequence that wasn’t in the play, in which the doctor treating Elwood thought (as would the audience) that there was a terrible thing that happened to him. The doctor takes Elwood to a theme park, a place where Elwood indicates something awful occurred when he was a child.
What the doctor learns in that scene is that, in fact, nothing that bad happened at all. There is no neat explanation for why Elwood is the way he is. There is only a pie talk explanation. He has become Christ-like…as can we all.
I did say, though, that I engaged in a little backstorying. In my adaptation, there’s a nurse that the doctor is falling in love with. She’s extremely reluctant, and I felt like the audience needed to know why. Otherwise, it felt as if her behavior would be simply there out of screenwriting convenience, i.e. a pointless obstacle to love.
I decided that she had been left at the altar. I had a secondary character reveal that information to avoid the awful “I was left at the altar!!!” speech.
Boy, that was a looooong answer, huh? Sorry. I guess it boils down to this: give ‘em what they need, but be careful about indulging them with what they want. Some things must be spelled out.
The rest should be whispered into confused, yellow, foolish tresses.
Is my career in here?A: Remind yourself of Mazin’s Law of Representation.
“Hip-pocketing” is one of the more wretched maneuvers that talent agencies employ in lieu of having the actual balls to represent someone. By hip-pocketing you, you’re not really a client, they’re not really an agent, but if they happen to remember to send your script to someone and you get a job, then suddenly you are their client and they are your agent.
What a great deal. For them.
Often times hip-pocketed writers must rely on agents’ assistants to send their work out. This arrangement frequently results in your scripts ending up prioritized somewhere between “get lunch” and “screw that chick in the mailroom”.
If you’re hip-pocketed and you think you’re getting okay service, it’s fine. The agency may need some assurance that you’re worth their time. I’m not a fan of it, but I understand.
If you’re hip-pocketed and you’re getting bad service, you should have a frank chat with the agent (not the assistant…the agent). If that gets you nowhere, then you absolutely must move on and find yourself someone…anyone…who is willing to believe in you and represent you properly.
First things first. Are you sure that the genre you think is your best is actually your best? The only way to find out is to actually try, and not everyone has the time to run a trial-and-error routine on their own writing talent, particularly when screenwriting is both time and energy consuming.
Still, you don’t know what you can do until you do it, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get. Hey, you might surprise yourself.
So…given all that, why do I simply answer “yes”, and not say something like, “You should write in the genre that excites you the most” or “you should write in the genre that really inspires you” “or you should let your passion tell you in which genre to write”?
Because there are too many bad scripts in this world. Way too many. If you can write a genre well, for the love of God, stick with it. There’s nothing wrong with moonlighting and giving things a shot, but if you’re the Michael Jordan of sci-fi, please don’t try your hand at either baseball or broad comedy.
Talented screenwriters are hard to come by. Talented screenwriters with the dedication required to be successful talented screenwriters are even harder to come by. If you’re one of the few, suck it up for the rest of us poor movie-going schmucks, huh? Deliver the goods you deliver the best, and save the cross-training for your novel. I mean…really…who wants to see a romantic comedy from John Milius?
Actually…that one might be kinda cool. Ka-Blam!
horror? Aisle 4…”A: Yes.
By “writing to market”, the questioner is asking whether or not spec writers should take advantage of the hot buying trends in the screenplay market. Those trends certainly exist. The alternative is to put your own instincts and passion first, and if that means you’re selling straight-leg jeans when everyone wants bell-bottoms, well…that’s life.
The truth is that doing both ain’t such a bad idea, particularly if you’re still trying to solidify your place in town as a professional.
When I started out writing comedy screenplays, the success of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective had set a clear trend. Everyone wanted what they called “character driven comedies”.
I had a choice. Ignore the trend and write the kinds of comedies I tend to prefer, or embrace the trend, get hired, and then deal with the first-class problem of pigeonholing later.
I surfed the trend.
Still, nothing was stopping me from continuing to learn my craft and explore the kind of writing I wanted to do. Happily, I was able to get employment writing movies that were more my style (although, ominously, those haven’t quite gotten made yet).
Writing is still one of the lowest overhead businesses on the planet. Pretty much every time you’re faced with a decision of writing one kind or screenplay or another, the best answer is to write them both. If you can’t afford to write both, then pick the one that will make you happiest.
After all, life is short. Besides, the trends just changed while you were reading this.
Coming up next, a discussion of “orphan works” and a review of fellow blogger Alex Epstein’s book Crafty Screenwriting.
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?
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.
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.
A: It depends on who hired you.
When you’re figuring out whether or not your work is covered by the WGA, the crucial question is “Who is my contractual employer?”
Typically, the SciFi Channel does hire writers through a MBA signatory company. If they do, the writer should be protected no matter to whom the company might transfer rights (there’s a large part of the MBA that deals with these kind of “assumption agreements”, in which the signatories agree to contractually oblige their transferees to “assume” the responsibilities the MBA dictates).
Imagine, then, that getting hired by a signatory is like an “original blessing”. From there on out, things should be okay.
Should be. The fact is that through either malice or ignorance, companies occasionally screw up, and the writer suffers. There’s a working rule that practically no one follows, but it’s probably for the best that everyone did. We’re all supposed to file copies of our employment contracts with the Guild. If you’re a WGAw member and you ever have any questions about how protected you might be in your dealings with a particular employer, do not hesitate to call the WGAw.
And tell ‘em I sent you.
A: Hell no. But you can buy it back.
First, a little background on the copyright issues involved.
When we sell our screenplays to the companies, we always do so on a work-made-for-hire basis. What’s a work made for hire?
(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or
(2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as *a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work*, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.
We’re employees. Essentially, the company has hired us to create the screenplay (which is used as a contribution to a motion picture), and as such, they are the actual authors of the work. They have “caused it to be created.”
I say “ahem” not just because my kid’s got me sick again and I’m phlegmy (explains the lack of a new article for a few days now, sorry…), but also because original screenplays fall under works-made-for-hire as well. Even if you write a spec script (which you’ve certainly caused to be created), the companies purchase it as a work-made-for-hire. They are the authors of your screenplay once you agree that you prepared it for them.
However, the WGA has managed over the years to negotiate certain rights on behalf of us, the non-authors of our scripts. Those rights carved out certain privileges normally preserved for the legal authors (since we’re the de facto authors but not the de jure authors). For instance, we have the right to attribution (credit) if we meet the standards we determine.
One of the rights we’ve negotiated is the right to reacquire our work. The idea is that if you sell original literary material to the Company (and that essentially means a screenplay, by either assignment or spec, that’s not based on underlying material like a play, novel or prior film) and the Company fails to exploit the property (make a movie out of it), you get a chance to get it back.
By “get”, I mean “buy”. Here are the basic rules.
The companies get five years in which to show that they are going to exploit the screenplay. The five year clock starts ticking either on the date you sell the material or the last date of your work on the project…whichever is later.
After that five years, if the Company isn’t “actively developing” the script, you have a window in which to reacquire it, or buy it back. How is “active development” defined? Basically, a writer must be currently employed on the project or a director or actor needs to be not only attached, but pay-or-play (i.e. guaranteed payment for their services whether the film is produced or not).
So, if five years have gone by and the script has fallen out of active development, you now have exactly two years in which to buy the script back. Here’s the good news. Unlike buying a project out of turnaround, in which one studio negotiates to purchase a “dead” script from another studio, the company doesn’t have an option. If you’re in the two year period, they must sell you the script back.
Here’s the bad news. You’re not getting back all the subsequent drafts that other writers may have done. You’re only getting your draft back (okay, maybe that’s no big deal). You have to purchase the script back for the exact amount you were paid for all of your writing services (ouch), and furthermore, if you set the script up somewhere else (and why else would you be doing this?), the new company is obligated to pay all of the other costs back to the company.
Those other costs most notably include the fees for all the other writers the first company hired to rewrite you, as well as all of the pension and health contributions the first company made for all of those writers. The only thing that mitigates that little clause is that those huge bills only come due if the new company actually produces the film. In fact, they’re due on the first day of principle photography.
In short, if you’ve written an original script, you can get it back, but you have to mark your calendar five years into the future, at which point you’ll have two years to convince another studio to pony up the cash. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than mothballs. Improving our reacquisition terms is a perennial negotiations concern. I’m hoping we can advance that ball forwards a bit in 2007.
Q: After a brief spell in LA I moved to New York, where the WGA(W) has been sending me my Guild mail for years. I pay them all my dues and I also vote in their elections. I much prefer to be a member of WGA West than East, but was told recently that I am “automatically deemed” to have applied for a transfer by moving to Gotham. Must I join WGA(E)—even if I’d choose not to—and am I kicked out of West? Have they been sending me my mail by mistake?
A: Oy. Such is the mess created by East and west.
The WGAw and the WGAE have an identical section in their respective constitutions called “Affiliation” that governs these sort of membership issues.
The first rule of “who belongs where?” is easy. If you live west of the Mississippi, you’re WGAw. If you live east, you’re WGAE.
If that were the only rule, life would be simple. It ain’t.
The second important rule is as follows:
Any member of either Guild who shall take up and maintain residence in the geographic area over which the other Guild exercises jurisdiction for a period of three (3) months shall automatically be deemed to have requested transfer of membership to such other Guild at the end of such three-month period.
Easy enough. You move, you get switched. There are two corollaries. First, if you’re a screenwriter and you have to move east specifically for a screenwriting assignment, you don’t get switched.
Secondly, the Guilds haven’t really been doing this. It’s one of the things we’re going to have to get into with this new Board.
Technically, however, your situation leads to an automatic transfer of membership to the East.
Ah, but we’re not done. Here’s the next relevant rule (assuming you are a screenwriter rather than a TV writer), and it’s a doozy.
Notwithstanding the above subsection if a member of Writers Guild, East, shall be employed or sell literary material for a theatrical motion picture, he shall thereupon also become a member of Writers Guild, west. So long as said individual shall remain a member of Writers Guild, East, his dues shall be allocated in accordance with the provisions of Section 4 of this Article.
This is a big one. If you’re a screenwriter who lives in the East (and thus is a member of East), you must also be a member of West. This means that you must now send half your dues to West and half to East.
Alas, East and West have been arguing over this one for a long time. Essentially, East doesn’t like forking over half of the dues they collect from screenwriters living in the east. West has sort of let that slide for a while, but the current leadership of the WGA has been unanimous in their desire to enforce this piece of the constitution.
So here’s where you are. You’ve moved east, so after three months, you get automatically shunted into East, but you’re a screenwriter, so you’re also WGAw. Half your dues should go to East and half to WGAw.
BUT…we’re not done. :)
One last rule that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.
A Current member of either Guild who wishes to transfer his/her membership to the other Guild shall apply to the Executive Director of the Guild of which he/ she is then a member for a transfer card.
Upon receipt of such request, the Executive Director shall prepare a card certifying the member’s status as a member of the Guild.
Upon presentation of such card to the Executive Director of the Guild to which such member seeks a transfer, he/she shall be assigned the same status in such Guild as he/she then holds in the Guild from which he/she has obtained the transfer card.
In short, if you want to just be in West, you apply. Your application must be accepted.
Final analysis: if you want to just be in West, simply call up WGAE and say, “I’m applying for a membership transfer to West.” Call up WGAw at the same time and let them know that you want to transfer. They may even help you with the transfer.
Hope that helped. If you want to read these constitutional passages for yourself, there’s a link in the left column under “Interesting” (an optimistic header, I know). Drop me an email if you need the name and number of a membership staffperson at WGAw to help you with your transfer.
Q: Am I expecting too much of my agent? If a spec is submitted, and nobody buys it, but it gathers compliments, is it wrong to expect him to update me on what exactly happened? I only know that reaction was somewhat positive from his assistant, even though nobody bought it.
As I might like to pitch to the ‘liked the writing but didn’t buy it’ types, am I being hopelessly needy to expect at least some update from my agent? I have heard nothing from him at all since the spec went out, months ago.
A: I’ll keep saying the following until I run short of breath (or get run out of town).
Agents are our employees.
That doesn’t mean we can’t work with them in partnership. I certainly do so with my current agents. Nonetheless, we employ agents to service our careers.
Returning calls is important. I generally allow that my representatives have 24 hours to get back to me. Taking longer than one business day means I’m simply not important enough to them. If I’m not important enough to them, they do not deserve to be my employees.
And I have fired agents before.
It’s common for some agents to avoid calling their clients with bad news. If this is the case with you, I suggest calling your reps and letting them know that you want to hear all news when it occurs. Assure them that, unlike some of their more troublesome clients, you are mature enough to have a discussion about your career without becoming emotional or engaging in recriminations.
Best course of action: call your agent and tell them exactly how you feel. Be dispassionate but firm. It’s in their interest to make you think their feelings are more important than yours.
Not true. You’re the boss. Manage your employees well, and they will serve you better.
A: The U.S. Copyright Office says that, among other things, the following are not copyrightable:
Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents.
So, can you go ahead and title your latest spec Star Wars? Not a chance.
Titles are protectable in two ways. First, if a title becomes associated with a commercially-exploited product (like a film), it can be trademarked. Trademark protection doesn’t mean you can’t use the phrase “Star Wars,” but it does mean you can’t use it to market your own product.
Beyond that, however, the most common form of title protection is through the MPAA’s title registration service. My understanding is that the MPAA is most concerned with avoiding marketplace confusion. This is why a movie can be released that has the same title as a somewhat obscure film, but never with the same title of a well-known film. Of course, MPAA title registration only services films released by MPAA member companies, but that’s essentially every commercial movie made.
MPAA title registration can be used to reserve titles for planned films as well. My first movie was originally entitled “Space Cadet”, but the MPAA informed Disney that no one less than George Lucas had registered that title with them. My partner and I had to change our title to “Rocket Man”, even though our film was in production, and his was not.
I’m still waiting for George Lucas’ “Space Cadet” to come out. Something tells me I shouldn’t hold my breath…
Anyway, I do not believe individuals can apply for MPAA title registration; the service is only available to its member companies. The only practical advice I can offer is to title your script however you’d like, as long as your title isn’t already associated with something well-known. If it turns out you have to change it during production, all I can say is that any production problem a nice problem to have.
Q: I’m in the WGA, and a company that isn’t signatory to the MBA wants to hire me. They’ve agreed to become signatories, and they’ve handed me the commencement checks. I’ve done everything right, but the union is saying that because they are a “new production entity,” they need extra assurances. That’s nice, but in the meantime, all I know is my own union is keeping me from cashing a check. What gives?
A: First off, full disclosure. I’ve composed this question myself from some similar ones I’ve received.
When a company applies to become signatory to the MBA, they have to show that they will be able to meet their obligations under the MBA—current and future.
The only way to do that with new production entities (the kind that aren’t owned by the likes of Paramount or NBC) is to require them to show collateral. If they have enough assets to cover their future obligations to pay residuals, for instance, their application to become signatory will be viewed far more favorably than if they do not.
Let’s say they don’t…or as is more often the case, let’s say they simply don’t want to open their books up to the Guild.
If the Guild allows them to become signatory so that a given writer can finally cash that check they desperately need, then the union hasn’t just relaxed the rules for that writer. It has essentially opened the entire membership up to this company, and if this company is predatory or unethical, the Guild will have failed in one of its primary responsibilities.
The Guild may seem like the heavy here, but the truth is that there are hundreds of signatory companies, and many of them are small. Obviously it’s not impossible to become a signatory. If the applicant company is refusing to show proof of their worth, maybe there’s a reason they ought not be trusted. I am extremely sympathetic to writers who want (and need) to cash those checks. Alas, if the company won’t meet the basic standards of our industry, then the writer cannot accept the money.
Q: Can a WGA member sell something to a non-Guild Comedy Central show and/or get staffed on one?
A: Technically, no. Working Rule #8 states that “No member shall accept employment with, nor option or sell literary material to, any person, firm or corporation who is not signatory to the applicable MBAs.”
The key phrase is “applicable MBAs”. If you’re in the WGA and you’re attempting to work for a non-Guild show in an area where we do have an MBA (and in this case, there is an MBA for Basic Cable) then you are in violation of Working Rule #8.
However, the Board of Directors has generally declined to penalize or restrain members who work for such shows if they notify the Guild and provide them with information about the show. In this way, the Guild can work to organize the show.
As such, if you are a WGA member and have been approached about writing for a non-union show on basic cable, please contact David Young in the Organizing Department at the Guild. Just going ahead and taking the job is a violation of our Working Rules and could expose you to penalties.