The Business of Screenwriting: Chilled white whine

June 23rd, 2016 by

On March 7, 1988, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. It lasted 155 days and is the longest work stoppage in Guild history. Having only joined the Guild one year previous, the experience was an eye-opener for me.

Am I referring to how studios and networks treat writers shabbily? The long and storied history of the Guild? Appropriate picket line etiquette?

Sure, all that. But what I remember most from the experience is this: Writers just bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.

Or perhaps more appropriately: Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.

Whether it was picketing studios or meetings at the Hollywood Palladium, you never heard such a whining group of people in your life. It seemed like every single writer with whom I spoke had one or more sob stories. Even at the general meetings with like 1,000 members in attendance, where the WGA board was sitting up on stage, and there were two microphones for the membership to voice their concerns about the strike, more often than not what emerged from the lips of writers and boomed across the P.A. system was not some erudite assessment of labor negotiating points, but rather some long-winded saga about how the writer had been screwed by a studio / network / director / producer / agent, take your pick.

Seriously, that is my main memory of those 155 days. Tramping along in a picket line next to all these slump-shouldered, slack-jawed, squinty-eyed writers pissing and moaning about this deal that had gotten screwed up… or that script which had been rewritten… their movie that had been butchered.

It was a weekly dose of chilled white whine.

Then after the picketing was over, these same writers would shuffle off to their BMW’s, Jaguars, or Mercedes-Benz coupes, motoring off to their homes in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, or Pacific Palisades.

[That is supposed to be ironic.]

Why do I bring up this bit of arcane history? Because when you sell a script and move to L.A. to work in the film or TV business, you will rub shoulders with lots of writers. And as sure as there will be stop-and-go traffic on the 405 every day, those writers will whine.

Then check this out: If you have a long enough career, all sorts of professional evils will befall you that will make you whine.

It comes with the territory: Writer = Whiner.

You need to understand there are times when you can safely whine… and times when you really should keep your damn mouth shut. Here are some basic guidelines.

Persons, entities, or objects with whom you can whine at any time: Spouse, pet (dog or cat, although I find dogs to be better listeners), your car, tennis pro, hair stylist, psychiatrist, masseuse, rabbi, minister, yoga instructor, next door neighbor (although that depends upon if they work in the entertainment business or not), clouds, bottle of Scotch, Hector the yard guy, and most of all other writers. Writers are the only group you have a free pass to whine at any time about any subject related to the business. We are an equal bitching opportunity community.

Persons to whom you can whine often but not always: Your agent, manager, lawyer. The commission you pay to them buys you the right to complain… occasionally. However you must be cognizant of their eyes when you get caught up in your whine-fest. If they start to glaze over, wrap it up and bounce. [Kvetching to them over the phone is a total waste of time because you can be assured they are not paying you any attention, instead tracking the CNBC stock market scroll on their TV]. If you whine too much or too frequently to an agent, manager or lawyer, you will get the reputation of being… well… a whiner… and that can lead to your phone not ringing.

Persons to whom you can rarely whine: Producers. Technically this ought not be the case as the producer on a project is supposed to be involved in much weightier matters than listening to you drone on and on about yet another senseless rewrite the studio wants you to do, but producers are used to dealing with so much shit on a daily basis, you can go whine-o on them occasionally without any fear of retribution.

Persons to whom you should never whine: Studio executives, director, actors. As far as all these people are concerned, the writer’s primary function is to solve problems. The script has issues? The writer takes care of them. If you whine to them about the injustice of your fate, that is equivalent to jamming a car into reverse without using the clutch. You are not supposed to whine. You are supposed to listen to them whine.

Here is a short glossary of phrases you can interject into your whining:

“I mean who are they kidding?”

“Rewrite this!”

“How many trees have I killed writing treatments for these bozos.”

“Uh, yeah, I’m serious.”

“And of course, that would change the entire plot!”

“They told me I had that assignment.”

“I hate this city.”

“And they like literally had not even read the coverage.”

“Those were his exact words.”

“Give him a dead wife. That’s what they want.”

“Sometimes I… I… … …”

Armed with this vital information, you should be set up for years and years of meaningless whining.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted September 22, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: Withdrawing screen credit and pseudonyms

June 16th, 2016 by

Let’s begin this post with a quote from arguably the dean of contemporary American screenwriters William Goldman:

“Nobody sets out to fuck up your movie. It’s not like the director or the star wake up in the morning and say, ‘Let me screw up this scene. How can I really cause Bill Goldman pain?’ It’s jut that they’re terrified. I wrote a line once that caught on out there in Hollywood: ‘Nobody knows anything.’ And they don’t. If we knew what we were doing, every movie would be wonderful. If actors knew what they were doing, every performance would be just swell. It’s a crapshoot. It just is. There’s no answer. I wish there were.”

Or as a producer once told me, “Making a movie is like a space shuttle launch. There’s a million things that can go wrong.”

So the odds are at some point in your screenwriting career, you will find your name attached to a real stinker movie. Depending upon the circumstances, you have about three choices:

Withdraw your name from screen credit.

Here is what the WGA Screen Credits Manual has to say on the subject:

Prior to the time a credit question has been submitted to arbitration, a writer may withdraw from screen writing credit for personal cause, such as violation of his/her principles or mutilation of material he/she has written. If the other writer-contributors do not agree, the question shall be referred to arbitration. The Arbitration Committee in such cases shall base its determination on whether there is such personal cause.

After screen credits have been determined by arbitration, a writer may not withdraw his/her name from screenplay credit. He/she may, however, by notification to the Guild, withdraw from any other form of credit.

Withdrawal from writing credit will result in loss of any and all rights accruing from receipt of writing credit. Use of a pseudonym rather than withdrawing from credit will not result in such a forfeiture.

Yes, there may very well be times when you look at what’s on the screen, compared to what you wrote, and you feel like your principles have been violated and your material mutilated.

Or perhaps much of the resulting debacle derives from your own writing. You couldn’t see it when you wrote it, but now that it plays out on screen, you realized you screwed the pooch.

Per the details noted above, you may have the right to remove your name from consideration for any screen credit.

Pseudonym.

Again from the Screen Credits Manual:

The Minimum Basic Agreement provides that any writer who is entitled to credit on the screen and who has been paid, or is guaranteed payment of, less than two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000) for writing services or literary materials relating to the particular motion picture shall have the right to be accorded credit on the screen, in advertising or otherwise, in a reasonable pseudonymous name. A writer must exercise this right within five (5) business days after final determination of writing credits. None of the writer’s rights, including but not limited to compensation of any kind, shall be affected by use of such pseudonym.

Before using a pseudonym a writer must register it with the Guild by sending a written notice to the Membership Department with the writer’s Social Security number, if any. A pseudonym may not duplicate the name or pseudonym of another writer or the name of a public figure.

A few things to note. First what’s the deal with the $200K figure? As I understand it, the studios insisted on this detail because there could be some value to having the actual writer’s name listed in the credits. For instance, there is the notable case of the movie Altered States. This from IMDB:

Author Paddy Chayefsky disowned this movie. Even though the dialogue in the screenplay was almost verbatim from his novel he reportedly objected to the general tone of the film and the shouting of his precious words by the actors, this conflicting with director Ken Russell typical style of wanting heightened performances. Paddy Chayefsky had not seen the film before he took his name off the credits, the script being credited to “Sidney Aaron”, a pseudonym for Chayefsky, the two names being Chayefsky’s real first and middle names. Director Ken Russell and Chayefsky fought constantly during production, Russell maintaining that almost nothing was changed from Chayefsky’s script and stating that he was “impossible to please.”

Chayefsky, who had won 3 Academy Awards for Marty, Network and The Hospital, was perhaps the most well-known screenwriter of his era. Warner Bros., who released Altered States, doubtless would have liked to trumpet Chayefsky’s name when marketing the movie. Instead they were stuck with Sidney Aaron.

Now that this $200K cutoff exists [as it has for at least two decades], it basically means most working screenwriters will be unable to use a pseudonym. Of course, if your guaranteed payment is less than $200K, you do have the right to use another moniker.

Another thing: Note the language “reasonable pseudonymous name.” It’s not like you can’t get away with Joe Mama or Richard Lickem. So it’s probably a good idea for you to think of a pseudonym that would be acceptable and appropriate.

Officially I have three screenwriting credits: K-9, Alaska and Trojan War. In actuality, there is a 4th movie in which I received shared credit that was so bad, I did use a pseudonym. And no, I’m not going to tell you that name or the name of the movie.

Keep the credit.

This is a third option: Even if the movie is bad, the fact is a writing credit is a writing credit. And like the old adage goes, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” that can pertain to writing credits.

Consider this: What if this is your first writing credit? Would prefer to have a writing credit for a bad movie… or no credit at all? Unless the movie is a complete and utter dog, my guess is your reps would recommend you take the credit. In Hollywood, there’s a difference between being a credited writer and one who has not had a movie produced.

Besides you have an out: Everyone in the business knows bad movies happen [see Goldman’s quote]. And frankly if anyone in the process can shirk responsibility for a bomb, it’s the writer. Chances are your script was rewritten. The actors took liberties with line after line of dialogue. The director didn’t share your vision. There are plenty of excuses you can use in any meeting about said sad-sack film to minimize your culpability for its suckitude.

And you’ll still have your writing credit.

If anyone in the business has some thoughts they’d like to share on this subject, please do in comments.

For more of the WGA, West Screen Credits Manual, go here.

[Originally posted December 6, 2012]

The Business of Screenwriting: Commencement of principal photography

June 10th, 2016 by

There are several significant days in a screenwriter’s life.

There’s the phone call.

Your first big paycheck.

Your first day on a movie set.

The day your movie premieres.

Yes, those are some mighty fine days. And your own fantasies about breaking in as a screenwriter may well incorporate those moments, sun-dappled and dripping with promise.

Here’s another one to add to your list: Commencement of principal photography.

Commencement of principal photography is a term referring to the day upon which actual production of a movie begins. Sure, there will have been a ton of pre-production, oftentimes second unit work, but it’s not considered principal photography until the film’s director, actors and crew assemble to shoot the bulk of the movie.

Everything in pre-production is geared toward the commencement of principal photography. Think of it as a film production’s equivalent to our FADE IN.

The designation also has a legal implication. When a screenwriter signs a contract, their deal typically is broken down into a set of potential payments. For instance, commencement of first draft, delivery of first draft, commencement of rewrite, delivery of rewrite, polish, and so forth.

Most deals include what is known as a production bonus. That is if the project goes into production, the writer receives the money stipulated in the bonus.

Let’s say our screenwriter Sammy Glick sells a spec script. The deal he gets is a pricey one: $600,000 against $1,000,000. What that means is Sammy is guaranteed that $600K, whether the movie gets produced or not. If, however, the movie goes into production, that means he receives a production bonus on top of his guaranteed fee of $400K.

What triggers the payment of that production bonus? Why, none other than the commencement of principal photography.

Now do you see why this is a special day for a screenwriter?

As with all deals, there are wrinkles. For example, the production bonus is dependent upon the writer receiving writing credit. If Sammy gets sole “written by” credit, he receives 100% of the bonus. If he shares story credit with another writer, his bonus is reduced by half.

But the main point is this: The day your movie begins principal photography is the day you can start looking for a nice, big fat check to arrive from the studio.

Commencement of principal photography. Music to a screenwriter’s ears… and bank account!

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: When you don’t get the gig

June 3rd, 2016 by

We are seated in the expansive bungalow office of a top Hollywood director and we are having a great time. I mean a really great time. We talk about the business, his movies, our movies, sports, politics. We laugh, he laughs. It is as close to a love-fest as there can be without condoms being proffered.

The meeting started at 11AM. We glance at our watches. Holy crap! It’s 12:40PM. The Director shakes his head in disbelief, then smiles at us.

“Wanna stay for lunch?”

So the meeting continues over ginormous sandwiches ordered in from Jerry’s Deli. And as we gnaw on our food, the Director proceeds to tell us about a project. On his last movie, a below-the-line crew member — after weeks of hesitating — summoned up the courage to give a screenplay he’d written to the Director… “ya’ know, to see if anything’s there.” The Director graciously accepted the script, then passed it along to one of his ‘people’ expecting absolutely zero to come of it.

Turns out the script is just okay, but the story concept is a strong one. The Director tells us the idea. We immediately respond to it, a great premise for an entertaining family movie.

For the next hour, we talk it through, one fantastic idea after another magically emerging across our lips. It’s like the script is writing itself and the excitement in the room is palpable.

Maybe we should bust out the Trojans.

Now I should note that at this meeting is the Director’s wife who also happens to be his producing partner. She slips in and out of our confab having to take care of things as our session runs long. In hindsight, if I hadn’t been so caught up in chatting, eating, guffawing at the director’s anecdotes, and now spontaneously working out a rough plot for this family movie, I might have noticed the Wife doesn’t share the same degree of enthusiasm the Director has had during our meeting. Not that she is cold or off-putting, just a bit more reserved.

Anyhow at some point, the Director looks at his Wife and says, “I think the guys are perfect for this project.”

A beat. Another beat.

Then she is nodding her head.

And he is shaking our hands.

And we are walking out the door having just landed the gig!

We call our agents. They’re ecstatic. What had been a simple meet-and-greet turns into a deal! “You guys are awesome!”

I go out that night to celebrate with my wife, reliving the details of the day, jotting down notes, my mind already racing with ideas about the project. I can see the movie in my mind! I’m already at the premiere!

The next day, we are in our office when we get a phone call.

It’s the Wife.

We put her on speakerphone.

“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but we’ve decided to go in another direction.”

Blink.

“There was another writer… someone we’d talk to previously about the project… he wasn’t available, but now it turns out he is, so…

The. World’s. Longest. Silence.

She says she called our agents, explained the situation to them [“They fought for you but…”], she apologizes to us once more, and then this:

“Don’t worry, I promise we’ll work together on something!”

Click.

I must confess that at that moment, I felt pretty damn bad.

Later when the movie came out and was a huge hit, I felt bad again.

When they did a sequel to the movie, I felt bad once more.

And another sequel… yes, I felt bad all over again.

Sure, part of it was about lost income, not only money from the first movie, but income we would have seen from both sequels.

But what really ate at me was the simple fact: We didn’t get the gig.

Here is a fact of life for any Hollywood screenwriter: Sometimes you don’t get the gig. Hell, oftentimes you don’t get the gig.

Writing assignments. Pitches. Specs. There will be occasions where the response is just not there. Clearly the wrong story at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s bad, but when the stars are so obviously out of alignment on something you work up, it pretty easy to shrug and move on.

But other times, there is a good reception, even a great response to your project.

Spec scripts that circulate around town, top producers attached at every studio, buzz building, your phone ringing with people telling you they’re hearing how much heat there is, visions of six-figure deals dancing in your head.

Pitches where you have the buyers in the palm of your hand, every plot point and story dynamic you present received like wisdom from the screenwriting gods, and surely the deal is as good as done.

And yes, meetings where the vibe is so good they invite you to stay for lunch and oh by the way how would you like to write this hit movie?

Then you don’t get the gig.

How to deal with that sense of total deflation?

How to survive that when it happens more than once in your career?

How to handle that emotionally without turning into a clocktower sniper?

I don’t know about other writers, but here is the only method I discovered that worked for me.

Three simple steps.

Step 1: When you find out about the disappointment — the spec didn’t sell, the pitch was a pass, you lost the OWA to another writer — that night give yourself permission to get lit. Now there’s sideways… and there’s sideways. Me? I just get sideways. You? Your choice. But yes, you have the right to feel bad for yourself for one day, and drown your sorrows in the cold comfort libation of your choice.

Step 2: The next morning, drag your sorry ass out of bed, stand in front of the bathroom mirror assaying your blurry face, and say these words out loud: “It just wasn’t meant to be.” This is the mantra that will save your sanity. Repeat it as often as you need. “It just wasn’t meant to be.” Being a writer, feel free to embellish. “You know if I had landed the gig, I’m sure one day when I was driving to the studio for a meeting about it, my car would have been crushed by a fifty ton boulder rolling down Laurel Canyon Blvd.” Hey, do what you need to do. But the key is the mantra: “It just wasn’t meant to be.”

Step 3: Start writing a new story. I suppose this is a bit like a guy who gets dumped by a girl, then immediately dates someone else. Whatever. You are in survival mode and the creative process can be a lifesaver. So immediately immerse yourself in writing a new script. You can’t control fate, but you can control your writing.

I sincerely hope you never lose a deal like I did. But it’s a lock cinch there will be times when you don’t get the gig. When that happens, you can try my approach. Or work out your own. But the bottom line in Hollywood about gigs…

Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.

Oh, by the way. The Wife’s promise that we would “work together on something”?

Never happened.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted March 8, 2012]

The Business of Screenwriting: Selling Scripts and Shooting Scripts

May 27th, 2016 by

There are broad stages in the life of a screenplay: There is the selling script and the shooting script.

A selling script can be a beautiful thing to behold, every word precise, the balance of black ink to white space pleasing to the eye, the flow of dialogue to action crafted just so, all a reflection of a screenwriter’s incessant drive to create an entertaining story that makes for a good read. Something like this:

               Evelyn is trembling.

                                     EVELYN
                         I'll tell you the truth...

               Gittes smiles.

                                     GITTES
                         That's good. Now what's her name?

                                     EVELYN
                         Katherine.

                                     GITTES
                         Katherine?... Katherine who?

                                     EVELYN
                         She's my daughter.

               Gittes stares at her. He's been charged with anger and when 
               Evelyn says this it explodes. He hits her full in the face. 
               Evelyn stares back at him. The blow has forced tears from 
               her eyes, but she makes no move, not even to defend herself.

                                     GITTES
                         I said the truth!

                                     EVELYN
                         She's my sister.

               Gittes slaps her again.

                                     EVELYN
                         She's my daughter.

               Gittes slaps her again.

                                     EVELYN
                         My sister.

               He hits her again.

                                     EVELYN
                         My daughter, my sister.

               He belts her finally, knocking her into a cheap Chinese vase 
               which shatters and she collapses on the sofa, sobbing.

                                     GITTES
                         I said I want the truth.

                                     EVELYN
                              (almost screaming it)
                         She's my sister and my daughter!

Then there is the shooting script which can look like this:

Scene numbers. Omitted scenes. Multiple colored pages. Shit crossed out. Which can lead to this:

Honestly that can be a thing of beauty, too, because it means your movie is getting produced. But once it reaches this stage, your beautiful words can be reduced by production necessities to one big to-do list.

So the first takeaway is this: As you read scripts, which is something you should be doing, you will inevitably run across shooting scripts (also known as production drafts). Do not look to them for style tips. At that stage, style points don’t count.

The other takeaway is this. You may think of a selling script as being a spec script. Certainly that is true, you write a spec with the hopes of selling it. Therefore you put in endless hours to ensure it is a great read, every page, every line fine tuned.

But let’s say you do, in fact, sell that script. Your selling does not end there. In fact, every draft of the script you may write up to the point it goes into production is in effect a selling script.

Even after a studio, financier or production company has bought it? Yes.

Why?

Because you still have to do the following:

* Attract a director.

* Attract actors.

* Sometimes attract financing.

* Excite everyone who reads the script.

Your script, no matter how much you revise it, should continue to be as entertaining as possible all the way along to sustain people’s passion for it.

So as you go about fixing story issues raised by the Powers That Be such as trimming scenes to fit budgetary considerations, retooling characters to match with possible casting, shifting scenes to fit with potential selected locations, always remember: You are writing a selling script.

Continue to write pages that sell your cinematic dream.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted July 4, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting: Who does what in a writer-representative relationship?

May 19th, 2016 by

Let’s assume you get a manager and/or agent to represent you. Then what? What are their responsibilities as a representative? What are yours as a writer?

Who does what in a writer-representative relationship?

Every writer is different. Every rep is different. So obviously, working relationships between writers, manager and agents can vary.

Here is my perspective.

Your responsibility is to write the hell out of your scripts.
Your rep’s responsibility is to sell the hell out of your scripts.

Your rep’s responsibility is to put you up for a writing gig.
Your responsibility is to land the gig.

Your responsibility is to generate possible stories.
Your rep’s responsibility is to provide an honest assessment of your stories.

Your rep’s responsibility is to get you in a room with a producer, studio exec, actor, or director.
Your responsibility is to work the room.

Your responsibility is to focus on your writing
Your rep’s responsibility is to focus on your career.

Your rep’s responsibility is to have inside information with what’s going on in the acquisition and development market.
Your responsibility is to know enough about what’s going on in the marketplace so you don’t waste either of your times.

Your responsibility is to create.
Your rep’s responsibility is to strategize.

Your rep’s responsibility to introduce you to Hollywood players.
Your responsibility to build and sustain relationships with those Hollywood players.

Is there overlap in what you do? Absolutely.

There is no denying you are going to spend a significant portion of your time pondering your career, just as a manager or agent may respond to their own creative instincts (e.g., story ideas of their own they run past you to see if you take a shine to them to pitch or spec).

And no matter how much your reps handle the business side of things, you must understand at least the essentials of how movies are made.

You are not simply a writer, you are a screenwriter. You don’t work in a creative vacuum, you work in Hollywood. Movies may be art, but they are always commerce. You don’t need an MBA, but to the degree you understand the broader context why your rep is advocating this move or that choice, the more easily you will be in sync with them about your career.

A rep is not your friend… although they can be friendly.
A rep is not your partner… although they can be creative.
A manager and/or agent is your advocate.
If you do your job… and they do theirs…
It should be the beginning of a wonderful relationship.

One final thing.

Your rep’s responsibility is to meet you for lunch a couple of times a year to touch base about things.
Your responsibility is to let them pick up the tab.

UPDATE: In comments, John asks a really good question:

A question about overlap on the creative side: how “hands-on” should your literary manager be when it comes to providing notes and feedback on drafts — both early drafts and final polishes?

Is it common and expected that their notes include: line edits and dialogue edits at the word-choice level and on up to “take this section out, move that over here, punch up this sequence by doing this, eliminate that character” etc.

If your rep seems to be venturing into the territory of “writing partner” what should you do and how?

To which Bah Bahrbahrossa answers:

Question: “If your rep seems to be venturing into the territory of “writing partner” what should you do and how?”

Answer: “You’re fired.”

There’s certainly nothing keeping you from firing your rep for too much interference in your writing process. But how much is too much? And who’s to say if you switch reps, they won’t have a similar attitude about creative input?

Indeed the line between between writer and representative in terms of creative input has become increasingly blurry as the role of manager has evolved over the last 15 years or so. Unlike agents, managers can act as a producer on their clients’ projects. This is not necessarily some sort of arbitrary thing as managers can be much more hands on re script development. As an example, here is an excerpt from an interview I did with screenwriters Jeremiah Friedman and Nick Palmer, who sold their spec “Family Getaway” last year to Warner Bros:

You mention doing a “number of drafts” of “Family Getaway” based on feedback from some AFI connections, then “two additional rewrites over the next several months” in conjunction with your managers at Mosaic, all the time while holding down day jobs. How did you manage your time to enable you to write all those drafts?

NP: It was tough and honestly, it was really hard for me at first. Because we both had day jobs, it meant working nights and weekends and basically giving up our social lives.

JF: Our friends can tell you we essentially disappeared for about a year and a half.

NP: Our schedule had been writing maybe three nights a week, 7 to 10-ish, and then usually one weekend day.

JF: And we should say that was at the point where there was no light at the end of the tunnel. We were a year out of grad school, we had kind of humiliating day jobs, we weren’t repped and we really had no idea how long we’d have to maintain the lifestyle.

NP: Yeah, by this point I had to stop telling people I’d just gotten out of grad school because that had become, you know, a lie and I just started telling them I was a Lego Robotics instructor.

JF: We were both getting pretty depressed but we knew our only way out was really to keep writing and push through.

NP: So we just kept working nights and weekends. Then, once Mosaic got involved, it basically became a second full-time job and we were writing till 11 every night after work and then writing 12 hour days Saturdays and Sundays.

Friedman & Palmer spent months working with Mosaic [their management group] rewriting their script. I don’t know how extensive their notes were (e.g., line edits, dialogue edits), but clearly their managers were quite hands on in the process.

You also have to consider where you are in your writing career. If you’re just starting out, you’re more likely to consider a rep’s creative input on your script. If you’re an established writer, perhaps not so much.

Those of you who have an agent and/or manager, what is your attitude about their involvement in your creative process?

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted June 2, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: Celebrate your victories

May 12th, 2016 by

Based on my experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood, there are many things I can advise you to do that are not particularly enjoyable:

I harangue you to read scripts.
I push you to come up with story concepts daily to help you generate a great one.
I advise you to learn about who the players are at the studios.
I force you to track spec script sales so you know what the studios are buying.
I tell you to study movie marketing campaigns.
I implore you to analyze movies by breaking down their narrative and character structure.
I fling screenwriter interview after interview at you to expose you to different ideas about writing.

Basically I am just one big pain in the ass in reminding you again and again: Your competition is not your friends, your writing group, or that online screenwriting forum you recently joined.

Your competition is professional screenwriters. And if you want to have any chance of competing with that select group, you must do everything you can to act and write like a professional.

With that as a frame for today’s post, I can provide a tip I am sure you will enjoy. And it’s something you can start doing right now, even if you’re not living in the Hollywood Hills and just signed an overall deal with Warner Bros.

Celebrate your victories.

In all honesty, I have not done enough of this in my career. Through the weird combo plate of my own personal DNA, growing up as a military brat, and being raised as a southern Baptist, I have a work ethic that while enormously helpful in getting things done, flat out resists me enjoying myself when I land a gig, score a coup, or hit it big.

Don’t you make the same mistake.

There are plenty of tough times in the writing trade. Frankly a majority of them. Rejections, criticisms, critiques, questions as to your sanity, your talent, your creativity.

And that’s just you dealing with yourself before anybody else reads your material!

Speaking from the experience of those handful of times where I indulged myself and celebrated a victory — okay, most of them were hoisted upon me by agents, producers, and studio execs related to specific deals — I actually enjoyed it. It is an uplifting, positive experience to sit amongst people who have read a script you wrote or heard your pitch that sold. They say nice things about you. And I confess there have been entire moments where I have allowed their words to soak into my consciousness.

I’m not going to be so bold as to suggest what you do to celebrate. Other than cracking open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, I don’t really have much to contribute on that front. However I do have a few moments in a writer’s life which you should celebrate. Here is that list:

* When you generate an absolutely great story concept.
* When you have a fantastically fruitful day brainstorming your story.
* When you have prepped your story to the point you are ready to type FADE IN.
* When you finish your first draft.
* When you finish your final draft.
* When you sign with an agent and/or manager.
* When you get your first meeting with a producer or studio executive.
* Whey you land your first OWA.
* When you sell a spec script.
* When your movie opens as the #1 film at the box office.
* When you get your very first residual check.
* When you kiss your day job goodbye.
* When your parents acknowledge, “You’re actually making a living at this?”

Now take a good look at that list. You will notice big moments. And little moments. Monetary moments. And creative moments.

Each of them is worthy of celebration. Maybe not taking off a month to go lie on the beach in Fiji. But certainly inviting a few friends over to grill some burgers (or a vegan alternative), enjoy a glass of pinot noir, and share the news with them.

Why celebrate your victories? So you don’t become your typical slump-shouldered, pasty-faced, sour-puss cynical screenwriter. I can’t swear to this because, as I’ve noted, I don’t have a good track record on this front, but if you do take the time to celebrate your victories, I imagine you’ll not only be a much more enjoyable person to be around, you will also have a better time doing what you do — writing.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted August 11, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: OWA

April 14th, 2016 by

Three little letters: OWA. But they mean big things for Hollywood screenwriters. What do these letter stand for?

Owen Wilson’s Assistant?

Afraid screenwriter Mike Le has that covered already.

Okay, maybe Overworked Wretched Assistants.

Nah, see in Hollywood, they’re just called assistants.

The real significance of OWA in relation to a screenwriter is this:

Open Writing Assignment.

There are basically three ways for a Hollywood screenwriter to make money plying their craft:

* Sell a spec script.

* Sell a pitch.

* Land an open writing assignment.

The odds of doing either of the first two are quite long, which is why writers — and their managers and agents — focus a lot of attention on OWAs.

So what precisely is an open writing assignment? They are projects owned by a studio or production company that need a writer’s services. That can range from the very beginning of the script development process, such as a new manuscript the studio has acquired that is set to be adapted, to a project that has already been written one or more times and needs a rewrite, to a project that requires a production polish, and so on.

The world of OWAs used to be a pretty mysterious one, studio development slates and the status of their projects shrouded behind a wall of secrecy. Nowadays where spy satellites can zoom in on you from outer space and transmit information to the Department of Homeland Security about how many nasal hairs you have, Hollywood’s defenses are officially pierced. There are online resources where for a mere pittance, you can see what writing assignments there are, what their status is, in short wallow in a virtual world of OWAs.

What is the process whereby a writer goes up for an open writing assignment? I can only speak from what I have learned based on my personal experience and the plethora of conversations I have had with other working writers about how they have fared on the OWA front. For all I know behind closed door, agents and studio executives engage in some sort of satanic ritual to determine who lands an OWA or not. But basically the situation plays out like this:

* Once you break in and become established as a working screenwriter, your name goes onto a list, sometimes multiple lists. For example, let’s say you have written and sold two action spec scripts. Your name will go onto an action list. What if the buzz about your scripts is that you are really good with one-liners? You may go onto a punch-up list as well. Every studio has their own list although my guess is the degree of cross-pollination of names is pretty substantial. And it may shock you how specific some of these lists can be. If a studio has a found footage project that desperately needs a rewrite, there are names of screenwriters around town who have a reputation for writing those kinds of projects… *cough* John Swetnam *cough*.

* Your reps track the OWAs all around town. When they hear of a project they believe to be up your alley, they may contact the studio or production company and pitch you to them. If that conversation goes well and the studio has read you recently and likes your writing, more than likely you get to go up for the OWA. However there are no guarantees. If you haven’t worked for a half-year and are considered cold, that’s a tougher sell for your reps. That’s when you may find your reps putting you up for gigs that are somewhat outside the domain of material for which you are known.

You: I’m an action script guy, not a kids movie writer.

Agent: “Barney the Purple Dinosaur A-Go-Go” has got action. Hence the whole “Go-Go” thing.

Hey, at the end of the day, it’s your rep’s job to get you into the room.

* Now you are officially up for an OWA. You may go in for a preliminary meeting to discuss the broad perimeters of the project. This session could be mostly about them getting a feel if they like you or not. Other times, you may simply receive a script that is to be rewritten. Once you have the material in question, your job is to read, analyze, and come up with a new take.

Let me stop right here and ask a simple question: Can you see one big fat reason why I keep pushing the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series? To help you develop your critical analytical skills. You absolutely need to be able to break down a script, determine what its problems are, then come up with a take that resolves those issues.

* Here comes the tricky part: Almost assuredly, you will not be the only writer going up for an OWA. In most cases, there will be multiple writers brought in to pitch their version of the story. In some situations, that number can be a lot. I’m not going to name any names, but there’s a certain studio which rhymes with Frisney who for years has been famous for bringing in dozens of writers on OWAs, then ending up giving the assignment to a writer with whom they have an overall or first look deal.

* Here’s another tricky part: You go in and pitch your story, don’t land the gig, then a year later see the movie, and there they are, some of your ideas in the final product. Now to cover my ass, allow me to clamp a big honking version of the word “allegedly” onto that statement, but the simple fact is, as a writer you can bust your hump, generate an incredible take, and have zero protection on those very ideas. All the studio needs to say is this: “Gee, we already came up with that idea internally.” How can you possibly disprove that?

* And there’s this: Preparing to pitch on an OWA requires a lot of man / woman-hours. Over time, this will wear on you. Your first OWA opportunity, you will move the sun and moon to come up with an incredible take. By the 20th time you go through the routine, make sure you do not have any sharp objects in your vicinity because it can be soul-stultifying stuff. Suddenly you look at your calendar and you realize that you — ostensibly a writer — haven’t actually penned a story in months. Oh, sure, you’ve worked up a bunch of OWA takes, pitches, and treatments, but other than receiving a lot of gauzy feedback from gaunt black-clad execs, you may find yourself with little to show for it and drained of energy.

* On the other hand, you may land an OWA. Perhaps two back-to-back. I’ve had three in hand at once. That feels pretty good. Here you’ve got your work schedule lined up for the next 6-9 months. Plus all those pretty, pretty checks. And because the studio or prod co already owns those properties, for which they have spent money, and you are now writing said property, for which they will spend additional money, the more pregnant they get, the more likely they are to pull the trigger and greenlight the movie… that is assuming you do your job and turn in a great script.

Bottom line to live in the world of OWAs, you need a delicate balance of boundless creativity, endless energy, mental dexterity, ignorance of the facts, leather-skin, blind faith… and the ability to do it over and over and over again.

Not to mention a large reserve of Chivas 18.

UPDATE: I meant to include this thought in the OP. Piece of advice: While you are busy going up for OWAs, always work on a spec script. Whether you’re just cracking the story, prepping an outline, writing a first draft or revising it, that way you ensure that you are always producing an actual finished product, not just pitches, treatments, etc.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted March 1, 2012]

The Business of Screenwriting: Hip pocket representation

April 7th, 2016 by

On Friday, January 9, 1987, the spec script “K-9” went out to 20th Century Fox creative execs for the weekend read.On Monday, January 12 at 11AM, after the weekly meeting of their creative staff, word got out they wanted to buy our script.

The unusual thing is this: We didn’t have an agent.

By 8PM that night, we did.

Yes, getting representation can happen that quickly.

More frequently, it takes time and an additional step.

An agent or manager may show interest in you and take you on in a provisional, unofficial way. This is commonly referred to as “hip pocket representation.”

The particulars vary from agent to agent, manager to manager, writer to writer.

It may mean that an agent or manager is actively involved repping you… or they pretty much pass you off to one of their assistants.

They may provide detailed feedback to help steer your creative process in writing a spec script… or they may send you off to turn in a draft you write on your own.

They may set up meetings for you with producers and studio execs… or they may wait to see what you can do with your networking skills.

The specific manner in which an agent or manager handles you in a hip pocket representation arrangement has something to do [more or less] with the following:

* Their perception of you as a writer.
* Their sense of you as a potential full-time client.
* Their feeling about your earning capability.
* The status of your various spec script projects.
* How busy they are with other clients.
* How hungry they are to seek out new writers.

If you write a spec script and it sells, or a spec you wrote which goes around as a writing sample leads to you landing an OWA (Open Writing Assignment), then most agents or managers will move immediately to take you on officially as a client.

That wasn’t the case when I ended up at CAA.

Cut to 1992. Now with a new writing partner, I had made a startling discovery: All the writing I had done with my first writing partner amounted to squat. That was then [and that partner]; this was now [and this partner]. In essence, I was starting over virtually from scratch.

We had written an action comedy spec script called “Stalemate.” That got a senior agent at CAA interested in us. So for over a year, we were hip pocket represented there. During that time, we scored a nice string of writing assignments. But we still weren’t officially taken on until CAA brought up our names for consideration at a meeting. Evidently this was the entire extent of the discussion:

“What business have they done?”

“One option, three OWAs in the last year generating X amount of dollars.”

Done deal. They signed us as clients.

While hip pocket representation is not the best situation in the world for a writer, it’s almost assuredly better than no representation. At least if you’re repped, you have access to more Hollywood players. With an agent or manager, you are considered to be an ‘insider.’

But here’s the key thing: As important as it is to get representation, long term it’s even more important who the rep is and what they feel about you. If the nature of the hip pocket arrangement is based on taking you off the market, a generic shot in the dark, or any other sort of ‘lip service’ type of basis, is that really what you want? It’s much more preferable to find a rep who believes in you, who is excited by your writing talent and your potential to succeed as a writer in Hollywood.

How can you tell if they actually believe in you… or they’re just saying they believe in you?

That’s a subject for another TBOS column.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted July 28, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: Trailer Moments, Set Pieces and Bits Of Business (BOBs)

March 3rd, 2016 by

You may have read countless screenwriting books. Attended seminars. Taken courses. But I doubt if you have stumbled across these three items in any tome related to the craft: Trailer Moments, Set Pieces, and Bits Of Business.

These may have come up in some other context, perhaps a newspaper or online article about the movie business, or a film producer’s memoir. But trust me, while these three may not appear in any best-selling screenwriting book, they are phrases you will hear from in the context of the script development process. Therefore it behooves you to understand what industry types are referring to so you can keep up with the shorthand. Moreover this trio is actually a helpful packet of concepts when it comes to crafting your stories because if a screenplay is, indeed, a blueprint to make a movie and these three narrative elements appear in every movie ever made, you should toss them into your creative mix with the usual suspects: acts, sequences, plot points, subtext, dialogue, and so on.

Trailer Moment: It is what it sounds like, a moment in a script which is so noteworthy, it is something worthy of inclusion in the movie trailer. This is a big deal. Perhaps no other sales device is more critical to a movie’s success than its trailer. And when the task at hand is to put together a trailer that conveys key highlights of the plot, characters, tone, mood and feel of the movie, believe me editors [at the behest of marketing execs] carefully study film footage looking for trailer moments. So when a producer or studio exec says to you about your script, “I’m looking for the trailer moments here, but just not seeing them,” you have a problem. Either you have what you think are trailer moments, but they aren’t written in a compelling enough fashion to come across as such, or you just flat-out haven’t mined your story for enough truly memorable movie moments. And while you may be focusing on story and character, they are thinking about how they are going to sell the movie. To do that, they need trailer moments. A smart screenwriter provides them.

Set Piece: As far as I know, this is an old phrase dating back many decades in the movie business and technically refers to scenes or scene sequences which involve the location or construction of a big set. Think the chariot race in Ben Hur. That is a big ass set piece. Over time it has come to mean any substantial scene or sequence of scenes that is critical to the plot. The importance of set pieces can not be underestimated. I have never been able to find the actual quote, but I have heard that Irving Thalberg, Hollywood’s first great movie producer said something to the effect when talking to his stable of screenwriters at MGM, “Just give me five great set pieces… and I’ll give you a hit movie.” I like to think of it this way: Set pieces are what make movies… movies. They are cinematic and memorable. They are the scenes you most likely talk about as you exit the theater, what you discuss with your co-workers the next day at the water cooler, and as such are the foundation of by-word-of-mouth buzz, a critical aspect of marketing a film. For a screenwriter, if you’re looking for your script’s set pieces, check out your major plot points. Chances are they’re there. If not, maybe your script would benefit by making those scenes bigger and turning them into set pieces.

Bits Of Business (BOBs): This one confused me when I first heard it at meetings. “This scene could use… you know… a bit of business.” “This bit of business doesn’t work for me. Can’t you come up with a funnier one?” Basically as I have come to understand it, a BOB (my acronym) is the answer to the observation, “It needs something.” A BOB can be a line of dialogue that is called back a number of times. An interesting visual conveying humor, irony, or meaning. A clever plot machination. Essentially anything that elevates the experience of the moment while servicing the plot. Screenwriter Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are experts at using BOBs and a great example of that is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Remember the recurring line of dialogue “Parlay”? That is a BOB. Servicing iconic images from the theme park ride such as the prisoners trying to lure the cell door keys from the dog? A BOB. When Jack and Will traverse the ocean floor while holding a row boat over their heads to provide an air pocket? BOB. Ragetti’s eyeball that keeps popping out? BOB. Elizabeth setting fire to all the rum on the island to create a smoke signal to lure a ship to rescue she and Jack? BOB. There’s hardly a scene in the original POTC that goes by where there isn’t a little or big Bit Of Business to spice up the plot. And spice is a good descriptor because BOBs do add flavor to a script.

So while you’re busy digesting this or that screenwriting guru’s story structure paradigm, don’t forget to keep in mind these three key movie concepts: Trailer Moments, Set Pieces and Bits Of Business.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.