Reader Question: Shouldn’t a writer figure out the craft on their own?

May 21st, 2016 by

A question from @AndrewMcDermot1:

Is there really no point where screenwriters should be encouraged to work some of this stuff out for themselves?

Andrew’s tweet is in response to this post which raised the haunting specter of screenplay paradigms.

And if you troll online screenwriting sites for no more than 5 nanoseconds, you will find a slew of them, some claiming a sort of Deep Insight or Magic Formula or Secret To Success.

Cue my usual caveat: There is no right way to write. Every story is different. Every writer is different.

Interestingly that sentiment cuts both ways.

On the one hand, it decries a strict adherence to a structural formula because chances are that will result in a formulaic script. Indeed there are some who claim it is the popularity of these type of paradigms / systems / whatevers — intentional or not — that have led to an increasing glut of Hollywood movies that feel awfully similar in terms of their narrative structure to the point where, as the article I linked to suggests, “you’ve seen this move before.”

On the other hand, depending upon the writer, the story and the ‘formula,’ it can work. No matter how much any working screenwriter laments the glut of screenwriting ‘gurus’ hawking their wares, the simple fact is that some writers have found success using the approaches of this or that one. And, indeed, as noted in the original post, some of these patterns are pretty well universal in nature, such as three-act structure.

My bottom line with my students is this: Stories are organic. Their characters live and breathe. The single best thing you can do is engage your characters directly and actively as part of your brainstorming and prep process. That way the narrative structure you find will arise in large part from them and hopefully that will translate into a more vibrant, unique, surprising, and compelling story.

Which is pretty much my response to you, Andrew. I agree with you, it is absolutely imperative for each writer to work through their own education about the craft of screenwriting. No matter what books you read, seminars you attend, classes you take — and they can be helpful — never stray far from another one of my mantras:

Watch Movies. Read Scripts. Write Pages.

There is nothing like a writer engaging Story and Character as primary sources. That is one key, perhaps the key to working out “some of this stuff” on your own.

I would go one step further: That is precisely the same attitude we should adopt with every story we write. Use what we learn about the craft, all the theory, techniques and tips, as tools to dig into the story material, but always with a mind toward engaging the Story, Characters, Themes, indeed the entire Story Universe directly, immersing ourselves in that so it all springs to life in our creative imagination.

In particular, focus on your Characters. They are key. After all, it’s their story. Moreover I choose to believe they want you to tell their story. And the fact they are unique individuals with specific personal histories, personalities, wants, needs, goals, secrets, and on and on, what better way to avoid formulaic writing than by going where the characters want to go, following the distinctive paths they carve for us to follow?

So it’s not just about figuring out the craft on our own, it’s about figuring out each story on its own terms and merits. If a given story fits into some paradigm you like, great. Go with God! But if not, then you absolutely owe it to yourself, your Story, and those Characters to go with Them.

How about you, fellow writers? What are your thoughts? How best to learn the craft? Ought we figure it out on our own? And how to combat formulaic writing?

[Originally posted July 25, 2013]

Reader Question: What’s your opinion about signing release forms for material submissions?

May 20th, 2016 by

A reader question via email from Mark:

Hi Scott,

Fantastic website!

I can write pretty good loglines. As a result, a number of producers request material. At lease half or more require signing release and agreement forms. While I’ve signed them in the past, I now try to avoid doing so, which has eliminated many opportunities to get my material read. In such a competitive business, that makes it much tougher.

What’s your advice regarding signing these forms, and did you routinely sign them before having a rep?

First off, good for you, Mark, that you have a knack for writing loglines. That’s note every writer’s forte.

Re release forms, let me state for the record: I am not a lawyer (but later I’ll provide a link to someone who is and his thoughts on the subject).

Here’s my understanding: Most producers and managers, after receiving a solicitation from a writer, almost always via email, will require the writer to sign some sort of form in which the writer waives all rights to sue them in case the writer contends the producer or manager ripped off the writer’s script.

The language can vary from form to form, but that is pretty much the gist of it.

Example of a release form

When I broke into the business back in the Dark Ages — although I don’t know this from personal experience because I was never in a position where I needed to solicit anyone for potential representation — it was easier to get unsolicited material to agents and producers (there was no such thing as a manager in the late 80s). So what happened?

Two words: Nuisance suits. They still happen to this day wherein a writer with barely any merit to their claim will sue a manager, agent, studio, or producer asserting somebody had access to and stole their story.

Let me say this represents the perspective of those working inside Hollywood. This view is not shared by many writers who are outside the system witness articles such as this and this.

That’s a discussion for another time. In response to the original question, if you are unwilling to sign a release form, the chances a manager or producer will request your script are basically zilch.

However let me say this: If the entity you’re dealing with is a legitimate Hollywood player, the chances of you getting ripped off are negligible, so bear that in mind when considering if you should sign a release form or not.

The reality is it’s a buyer’s market and if you don’t sign, they’re off to the next writer who will toe the line and agree to sign a release form.

For a comprehensive legal take on the matter, go here.

How about you, GITS readers? What’s your take on submission release forms? Do you sign them? And if not, how do you get your material to potential reps and buyers?

Reader Question: What does a good treatment look like?

May 17th, 2016 by

Open forum question from Lalithra Fernando:

What do you think a good treatment looks like?

I posted something about the distinction between a treatment and an outline here, so that might be worth checking that out.

If your question is about what makes an effective treatment, that’s simple: Tell a whopping good story in 5, 10, 20, 30 or however many pages it takes.

If it’s literally about how a treatment should look, as in its appearance, I’m not sure how far you want to drill down on the subject. But I’d frame the discussion by saying that there is no definitive style-guide that I know of re treatments. Here are some different takes on the subject:

* If you go here, they suggest three possible approaches: Headers, Prose-Style, Combination. The latter is intriguing as they suggest dividing up the treatment into five “sub-categories”: concept, characterization, theme, tone, and story. As the article states, “This method is a popular choice for some as it allows you to add into your treatment what is unique about your approach, what people will find interesting, as well as telling the story.”

* If you go here, you can see how ITVS (Independent Television Service) advises producers to handle treatments to present to them for possible PBS programming. The format is TV, but the guidelines, I think, are relevant to a film treatment.

* This article gets more to the heart of where I think treatments can be of value: In the prep-writing phase of writing a screenplay. As the article’s author states, “When you are preparing to write a screenplay or even preparing to do a major rewrite, it is very helpful to create a blueprint or treatment of what you are going to write prior to actually writing or rewriting it. This is what a treatment is used for. It will help you layout the direction of the entire screenplay and work out some of the kinks before jumping into the whole thing.”

Finally there’s this: TV writer and novelist Lee Goldberg’s take on writing treatments. He ends his post with these sage words:

Don’t fixate on treatment format, because there isn’t one. Tell your story in the style that works best for you. Don’t worry about whether the character names are in capitals or not (it doesn’t matter). Concentrate on telling a strong story.

Lee has a great blog which I heartily recommend.

GITS readers, what say ye? How do you approach writing treatments?

[Originally posted November 7, 2009]

Reader Question: What exactly is a "spec script"?

May 15th, 2016 by

A question from Daley Productions:

I’m quite new to this and I’m wondering, what exactly is a ‘spec’ script?

“Spec script” is term that gets thrown around a lot, certainly here on GITS, and your question got me to thinking that perhaps there are many folks who don’t quite understand what it means – so thanks for raising the subject, DP. And as long as we’re here, how about a quick history lesson to help put things in perspective?

Technically a spec script is an original or adapted screenplay written by a writer on their own time & dime, in other words a ‘speculative’ effort, hence the term “spec.” For the first seven decades or so of the film industry in the United States, there was no such thing as a spec script, instead the standard practice was for studios to hire writers either on a per project basis or as salaried employees to write whatever assignment the studio gave to them. Per Wikipedia, an exception was the 1942 original screenplay for Woman of the Year (writing credits for Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin) which MGM bought for $100,000.

What is generally thought to be the first spec script sale of the modern era was Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid by William Goldman, which was purchased in 1967 by 20th Century Fox for a reported $400,000.

While there were some sales of original screenplays during the 70s, it was during the 80s that the active and much-publicized spec script market emerged with screenwriters such as Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas selling multiple projects for several millions dollars.

[In 1987, a spec script I co-wrote K-9 sold to Universal Studios for $750,000].

Since that time, the spec script market has ebbed and flowed. Recently it’s been in something of a down cycle. You can go here for my breakdown of the spec script market in 2008 (by my count, there were 88 sales that year). I’ve yet to finish an analysis of 2009, but did post the cumulative list of spec script sales here (there were 67 sales in 2009).

Why write a spec script? Several reasons:

* You can make a lot of money if you sell a spec script.

* You can break into the business as a screenwriter if you sell a spec script.

* Even if you don’t sell it, a spec script can function as your calling card to agents and managers.

* Even if you don’t sell it, a spec script is a writing sample for producers and studio execs.

* From a purely creative standpoint, unlike assignments or rewrites, a spec script represents your opportunity to tell your story the way you want to tell it.

* If you don’t sell a spec script, it makes an excellent doorstop.

Seriously the only way you can get better as a screenwriter is to write scripts. So every spec script you write, even if they don’t sell, even if they flat-out suck, they are part of the necessary incremental process of you becoming a good writer.

Malcolm Gladwell espouses the 10,000 hour theory:

The search for success has spawned a motivational industry worth millions of pounds and libraries full of self-improvement books.

It is practice, however, that makes perfect, according to the sociologist whose books have become required reading within the Conservative party. The best way to achieve international stardom is to spend 10,000 hours honing your skills, says the new book by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling The Tipping Point.

The greatest athletes, entrepreneurs, musicians and scientists emerge only after spending at least three hours a day for a decade mastering their chosen field.

“What’s really interesting about this 10,000-hour rule is that it applies virtually everywhere,” Gladwell told a conference held by The New Yorker magazine. “You can’t become a chess grand master unless you spend 10,000 hours on practice.

“The tennis prodigy who starts playing at six is playing in Wimbledon at 16 or 17 [like] Boris Becker. The classical musician who starts playing the violin at four is debuting at Carnegie Hall at 15 or so.”

Whether you need to spend 10,000 hours writing or not, the simple fact is you have to write to get better. And unless you get hired to write, what you’re looking at is a spec script.

The odds are enormously long and against any writer hoping to sell a spec script. But every year, dozens of them do.

Besides I prefer to look at the subject of spec scripts in a more macro, even more spiritual way. How can you quantify what you learn about your life, your values, your creativity when you write an original screenplay? How can you put a value on the experience of spending time with those characters – who are in some sense a reflection of you – and hearing what they have to say, seeing what they choose to do?

The fact is you may never sell a spec script and yet you may benefit enormously through the script-writing process. Perhaps you will meet a person or people you never would have who become an integral part of your life-journey. Maybe the research you do into a story excites you so much, you decide to change career paths. Even that simple but profound sensation you get when you type FADE OUT, print out your final draft, feel the warmth of the pages in your hands, and smell the combination of paper, ink, and your dreams — how can you measure that and what that means to you as a human being?

Joseph Campbell said that all stories are in essence one story: The Hero’s Journey. And the theme of that story is this: Follow your bliss.

For men and women who pursue screenwriting, that is their bliss. So while we do well to pay attention to market trends, to generate the best story concepts we can, to learn screenwriting theory, to watch movies and analyze them, to read scripts and break them down, to write pages and rewrite them, all of the things we do on a practical level to craft a great story, we should not forget to bring some measure of a spiritual awareness to our daily engagement with a spec script. It is not only a commodity and an end product, it is also a constituent part of our creative life’s journey.

Wow. I started off with a history lesson re spec scripts, then ended up with a ‘sermon’!

Well, so be it. I trust my gut on these things. Perhaps there’s one GITS reader who really needed to hear this today. Whoever you are, that thing you’re writing… that spec script… as you struggle with it, don’t forget that it’s a blessing as well.

[Originally posted July 15, 2010]

Reader Question: What is life really like for a beginning screenwriter who has just broken into the business?

May 5th, 2016 by

Reader question from Eric Harris:

What is life really like for the beginning screenwriter who breaks in with a manager/agent, maybe sells a spec? Do they start taking meetings, competing for open writing assignments? Are they chewing their nails because it’s an unstable profession? No one ever gives a detailed explanation of what it’s really like and what to expect. Are they writing for free with producers in hopes that it will get set up?

Eric, let me take this opportunity to frame the conversation by offering this reminder I post regularly just so everyone understands this fundamental reality about breaking into the business as a screenwriter or TV writer: It is really, really hard to do. The odds are long, so the chances of anybody being in the position your question suggests are slim.

There may be others out there in the online screenwriting universe who claim otherwise. Learn the keys to selling a million dollar spec script! My advice: Run away from those people as they are not dealing with you honestly and almost assuredly out to take your money, and little else.

Okay, now that we’ve established that, there is another fact: Every year hundreds of writers do manage to sell a script, obtain representation, land a gig on a TV series and the like. It is not impossible, a sentiment worth the double negative.

What happens when a writer breaks in? Well, that depends on the writer… what they wrote… and what you mean by “breaks in”.

If you hit a grand slam and sell a movie spec script — not an option, but an actual sale in the six figure range — here are a few things you may expect to happen:

* If you sold the script via your manager, you will meet with agents for additional representation. Screenwriters from the Old School often only have an agent or in some rare cases, just an entertainment lawyer to handle them. I don’t know what the percentage is with Young Turks, but my guess is perhaps half of them have dual reps: manager and agent. Yes, it’s 20% commission as opposed to 10%, but having an agent as well as a manager can offer certain benefits. For more background on the roles of managers and agents, go here.

Note: You’ll also meet with lawyers as you will need one to handle your contracts. That’s another 5%, but trust me, do everything you can to get a damn good lawyer.

* That spec script of yours that sold is not just of value to the company that bought it to develop into a movie. It is also valuable to you as a writing sample. Depending upon the splash your deal made, you could find your reps sending it out to a lot of studios, financiers, and producers. This will result in the vaunted “bottled water tour” wherein you do a ton of ‘meet and greets’. This is a crucial part in establishing the foundation of your career as a writer. How you do in those meetings — how comfortable you are, how knowledgeable you are about the craft, how well you mesh with people in the industry — is a big deal. This is Networking with a capital “N”.

Rule of thumb I’ve discovered about Hollywood: People like to work with the people they like to work with. So apart from your talent, voice and ability to translate a story onto the page, if you come across as someone who will be enjoyable to work with, a problem-solver, not a problem-creator, that can go a long way in helping you secure gigs.

* You will be invited to premieres, industry screenings and other social events related to the business. This is also time for Networking with a capital “N”. And let me say, at some point, if you do not know names and faces of the players in the business, you will want to start doing that ASAP. This is not only important in understanding the ebb and flow of who is where and who is doing what relative to project acquisition and movie development, the fact is Hollywood is a small community. You will almost invariably be out shopping, jogging or wherever, and bump into these people. Yet again Networking opportunities.

* Assuming you are a flavor-of-the-week, you may also expect to meet industry types at lunch meetings. For some thoughts on how to handle yourself and what to expect, read my post Let’s do lunch.

* The sale of your spec script would almost certainly qualify you for membership in the Writers’ Guild of America, so at some point you’ll have to pony up a $2,500 initiation fee plus 1.5% of applicable gross earnings. Once you are official, you will be invited to a WGA new members meeting. I’m actually still in touch with a couple of writers I met when I had my welcome to the Guild meeting back in 1987. Oh, be sure to sign up for the WGA movie series, a great deal to see movies at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills.

* You will meet with your reps to strategize. You may go after Open Writing Assignments which will require you to be able to read a piece of material, analyze it and come up with a take you can pitch. You may go out with an original pitch. In either case, you will need to work on your ability not only to pitch, but work a room. You and your reps may determine it’s best for you to write a new spec script. There’s no etched-in-stone plan, everything is malleable and dependent on you and current business opportunities. But bottom line, you will be expected to be creative and productive.

So no matter what happens in terms of the whirling dervish of Hollywood life of someone who sells a spec script, you need to keep your eye on the ball: Writing. That’s one great reason for you to develop solid writing practices now so they are in place once you do break into the business. Even after you break in, you will want to continue to write at least one spec script per year to maximize your chances of widening your connections and setting up projects, while continuing to get better at the craft.

That’s just a few things you can expect if you sell a spec script. It is much more common to break in by getting representation alone, no spec deal, in which case you will likely find yourself writing multiple drafts of one spec script (or more) your reps can take out to market. But that’s a whole other subject.

GITS readers who have been there, what can you add to the subject for Eric? Please head to comments for your thoughts.

[Originally posted August 4, 2014]

Reader Question: Do screenwriters get a percentage of profit participation?

April 27th, 2016 by

An reader question via email from tcsp:

Hi Scott, love the site. If I managed to sell my spec script, would I possibly get a percentage on the back end, or are those days over? What can we expect, realistically? Cheers.

It’s standard practice for a screenwriter to get some sort of profit participation arrangement in their contract, either on the sale of original material, such as a spec script, or on a writing assignment. However “realistically,” that translates into zero dollars. Nada. Bupkis.

Why? Because the type of profit participation most screenwriters get is net points. And as everyone in Hwood says, “A percentage of the net is a percentage of nothing.”

Why? Because the studios have elaborate accounting methods, honed and used for decades, that ensure virtually no movie they produce actually makes a profit.

How? By including overhead costs for production, distribution, and marketing. Here’s an example: When a studio agrees to produce a movie, they will set up a legal business entity for that project. They then ‘loan’ money for the production to that entity to pay for the movie. But since it’s a ‘loan,’ they charge interest on it which goes as a cost of overhead for the movie’s production. Do you see how slippery that is? The studio is in effect making interest on a loan it makes to itself, then charging that interest to the production, increasing its cost and reducing the ability of the movie to make a profit.

Perhaps the most famous example is the case of “Buchwald vs. Paramount” in which Paramount claimed that the movie Coming to America, based on a Buchwald story, failed to reach profitability:

Art Buchwald received a settlement after his lawsuit Buchwald v. Paramount over Paramount’s use of Hollywood accounting. The court found Paramount’s actions “unconscionable,” noting that it was impossible to believe that a movie (1988‘s Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America) which grossed US$350 million failed to make a profit, especially since the actual production costs were less than a tenth of that. Paramount settled for an undisclosed sum, rather than have its accounting methods closely scrutinized.

Note the key point: “Paramount settled for an undisclosed sum, rather than have its accounting methods closely scrutinized.

So a screenwriter will typically get 5% net profit points (that’s what I’ve gotten in all my deals). But unless the movie costs $5M and grosses $240M as My Big Fat Greek Wedding did, there is virtually no way for a movie to make a profit per the studios. [Note: In fact, Gold Circle Films, the original producers of the movie claimed it had lost $20M.]

Now there are established writers with enough clout a la Ron Bass who get gross points. And while there are many different definitions of “gross,” if you can negotiate that in your contract, you do have a chance of seeing additional dollars from a film project.

But don’t take my word for it: Here is something from an actual entertainment lawyer Robert L. Siegel:

A writer also can receive a profit participation anywhere from two to five percent of the producer’s share of the net profits. Sometimes the profit participation is called “net proceeds,” “adjusted gross proceeds,” or “modified gross proceeds.” The label of the profit participation is not as important as how such profit participation is defined, calculated and paid to a writer as a profit participant. The best that most profit participants such as writers can achieve is to tie how the writer’s profit participation is defined, calculated and paid to that of any other person’s or entity’s profit participant’s definition and manner of payment including that of the producer. This provision helps to keep the playing field level concerning profit participation.

A writer’s agreement should state that there shall be accounting statements which shall be received by the writer which are issued on the same basis as any other profit participant in terms of form and frequency (e.g., quarterly for the first two years after the initial commercial exploitation of the film, twice a year for another two years and annually thereafter). A writer’s agreement should include a right to examine or formally audit the producer’s books, records and other documents pertaining to how a motion picture feature’s revenues are calculated and received by a producer. This examination or audit right is usually exercisable by a potential profit participant once per year. In some cases, if the right is not exercised within a certain period of time (usually twenty four months or more from when the potential profit participant receives a statement), the potential profit participant is barred from examining the producer’s books and records pertaining to that statement. Please bear in mind that such examinations and audits can cost from five thousand to ten thousand to more. The potential profit participant has to assume the cost of the examination or audit; however, a provision could be included in an agreement which states that if one is underpaid by a certain percentage (e.g., 5%-10%), then the producer is required to pay the underpayment immediately and to assume the cost of the examination or inspection.

Finally, many distributors and producers do not need to falsify or “cook” the books since the profit definitions are so inclusive that every expense (including interest) is taken before there would be any profits. In addition, there are certain parties such as “star” directors, producers and performers who may receive their contingent compensation earlier in the economic “food chain” than the net profit participants, thereby eliminating or lessening the possibility of net profit participants receiving any monies. That is why such films as “Fatal Attraction” and “Coming To America” can generate large revenues but minimal to no profits and even losses.

There are actually quite a few questions answered by Siegel here, so a good resource to bookmark.

UPDATE: Okay, just to make things completely clear. If you write a spec script and it gets produced into a movie, you get the following forms of income:

* Money for purchase of script
* Money for any rewrites
* Production bonus upon commencement of principal photography
* Residuals for a combination of DVD sales, TV airings, foreign, etc

If the movie gets made into a sequel, depending upon your writing credit (shared or sole), you get money for that.

Plus the studios pay a percentage, based upon your writing fees, into a WGA pension program which if you achieve, I believe, 7 qualifying years, upon retirement you get a monthly payment based upon your total lifetime earnings.

So while net points are essentially meaningless on almost every project, a screenwriter can see some meaningful income from other sources noted above.

UPDATE #2: In comments, itstartedwithawindmill asked:

If you could give a quick answer, what are residuals paid for? and why are they quarterly?

For background, go here for info from WGA.org. But the key definition is this:

What Are Residuals?

Residuals are compensation paid for the reuse of a credited writer’s work. When you receive credit on produced Guild covered material, you are entitled to compensation if the material is reused. It is important to understand that the compensation is for reuse, and not the original use. For example, if you are hired to write an episode of a network prime time television series, the compensation you are paid for writing services includes the episode’s initial broadcast. However, when that episode reruns on a network, in syndication, or in any other market, the Company must pay you for that reuse.

Similarly, for theatrical motion pictures, the compensation you are paid for your script, either as a purchase or employment, covers the exhibition of the film theatrically, including all foreign theatrical releases. However, when your movie is released to other markets, such as videocassette or pay television, you are due residuals.

Residuals are no small matter. I’ve got three movie credits as a writer (K-9, Alaska, Trojan War), and while K-9 was the #1 movie at the box office in the U.S. for one weekend, none of the movies was a huge hit. Yet I’ve received hundreds of thousands of dollars in residual payments. Imagine what Jonathan Nolan, co-writer of The Dark Knight, gets with his little green envelope every quarter!

The importance of residuals was at the center of the most recent work stoppage in 2007-2008. Per the Wikipedia page covering the strike, note this:

Background

In 1985 the Writers Guild went on strike over the home video market, which was then small and primarily consisted of distribution via video tape. At that time, the entertainment companies argued home video was an “unproven” market, with an expensive delivery channel (manufacturing VHS and Betamax tapes, and to a much smaller extent, Laserdisc). Movies were selling in the range of between $40–$100 per tape, and the Guild accepted a formula in which a writer would receive a small percentage (0.3%) of the first million of reportable gross (and 0.36% after) of each tape sold as a residual. As manufacturing costs for video tapes dropped dramatically and the home video market exploded, writers came to feel they had been shortchanged by this deal.[18] DVDs debuted in 1996 and rapidly replaced the more-expensive VHS format, becoming the dominant format around 2001. The previous VHS residual formula continued to apply to DVDs.

At present, the home video market is the major source of revenue for the movie studios. In April 2004, the New York Times reported the companies made $4.8 billion in home video sales versus $1.78 billion at the box office between January and March.[19]

Proposals

WGA members argued that a writer’s residuals are a necessary part of a writer’s income that is typically relied upon during periods of unemployment common in the writing industry. The WGA requested a doubling of the residual rate for DVD sales, which would result in a residual of 0.6% (up from 0.3%) per DVD sold.

The AMPTP maintained that studios’ DVD income was necessary to offset rising production and marketing costs. They further insisted that the current DVD formula (0.3%) be applied to residuals in other digital media — an area which was also contested by the Writers Guild.

The WGA provisionally removed the increased DVD residual request from the table, in an effort to avert a strike and on the understanding of certain concessions by the AMPTP, the night before the strike began. However, after the strike began, WGAW President Patric M. Verrone wrote that the membership exhibited “significant disappointment and even anger” when they learned of the proposed removal of the request; and Verrone also wrote that, since the removal of the increased DVD residual request was contingent on concessions by the AMPTP which did not happen, the writers would and should continue to “fight to get our fair share of the residuals of the future.”

New media

One of the critical issues for the negotiations was residuals for “new media“, or compensation for delivery channels such as Internet downloads, IPTV, streaming, smart phone programming, straight-to-Internet content, and other “on-demand” online distribution methods, along with video on demand on cable and satellite television.

So probably more information than you ever wanted to know about residuals.

As to why we get paid quarterly, probably something to do with corporate quarterly financial. Whatever it is, I’m always damn happy to see those green envelopes in the mail!

[Originally posted February 15, 2010]

Reader Question: Do I HAVE to use INT/EXT – LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT in scene headings?

April 19th, 2016 by

To answer this question, let’s distinguish between a selling script and a shooting script. The latter, also known as a production draft, needs INT. and EXT. and LOCATION and DAY and NIGHT. Why? Because the team of people involved in producing the movie require that information to do their jobs.

They need it for location scouting.
They need it for budgeting.
They need it for scheduling.
They need it for the production designer.
They need it for the art department.

They just need it, okay?

But a shooting script is a different creature than a selling script. When you write a spec script or a script on assignment, your most fundamental goal is this: Entertain the reader.

That reader can be a studio executive, producer, director, actor, or even a lowly intern or assistant. Whoever it is, you want to grab their attention and keep it from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

While your plot, characters, dialogue, scenes, themes, and so on are all important, there’s another aspect you need to pay attention to and that is this: READABILITY.

You want your spec / selling script to be a good read.

What has evolved with screenplays over the last half-century, as the spec script market has grown into its own and scripts have become more than just blueprints to make a movie, is a transformation of style and form away from directing lingo and ‘scripty’ language to a more literary approach to telling a story.

Again we are talking about selling scripts.

So with that as my preamble, the answer to your question is this: No, you do not need to use the nomenclature of primary slug lines / scene headings.

Consider the script “Great Falls” written by Andy Friedhof, the subject of my interview with him which led to your question, Caliann. Here is what Andy said about his stylistic approach:

What I really want to do with my scripts is take people through the experience of watching the movie. You might have noticed that I often start scenes with close ups on objects or specific details in the scene. That’s how films are shot, basically. When a film is edited together they generally don’t start scenes with wide shots of the interior of a room. So it doesn’t really make much sense to start every scene with some variation on INT. ROOM – DAY. For me, it’s really important to capture the energy, movement and spirit of film.

There are quite a few screenwriters who do that already. Those are the screenwriters I admire and those are the screenwriters I’m always excited to read. I want people to look forward to reading the scripts I write.

And here is P. 1 of “Great Falls”:

BIRD’S EYE VIEW

A black vein of road.

Weaving through the autumnal flesh of the Montana countryside.

Moving along this vein is a solitary WHITE BLOOD CELL.

We PUSH IN SLOWLY and eventually see it’s a SHERIFF’S CAR.

A ROADSIDE SIGN
NOW LEAVING GREAT FALLS
As the CAR ROARS by. GREASY SPOON DINER The Sheriff’s car is parked in the unsealed parking lot out front. A sign tells us the name of the place: SNAKE BITE DINER. STAN (V.O.) Way I see it: a dog bites you, you put him down. A COFFEE MAKER Dribbling into a pot. A woman’s hand reaches into frame and picks it up. Coffee sloshes over the edge. We follow the pot as it moves through an unusual mix of patrons-- GRIZZLED RANCHERS. OFF-DUTY AIR FORCE PERSONNEL. HUNGOVER TEENS. STAN (V.O.) Far as I know, there ain’t never been a killer that got killed that killed again. The coffee is poured into a cup. A large hairy hand enters the frame and picks it up. STAN (V.O.) Thanks, Emma.

Nary a primary slug line / scene heading on this page. Nor any other page of Andy’s script. I can hear the Script Literalists out there gnashing their teeth. But here’s the thing…

Andy’s script won him a 2015 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Award.

What’s more, Andy’s pages are imminently clear as to their intent. Indeed I would argue they create more of a visual tapestry in the mind of the reader than the more formulaic and staid INT. DINER – DAY.

So who are we going to listen to: Some supposed format and style ‘guru’ insisting we stick to some supposed ‘rule’ which derives from a time when screenplays were the bastard child of shot lists, stage plays, and production drafts or a talented award winning writer who is embracing the trend to evolve screenplays into a more literary READABLE form?

Look, you can write however and whatever you want. You are free to do that. Whatever you do, do it in service of your story. As long as what you write presents what you see in your head as efficiently and effectively as possible — and let’s throw in another E word: Entertaining — then tell your story the way you SEE it.

When you sell it and start working with a director, then you can worry about slug lines.

But when you write a spec script, do what best conveys your story.

Readers, what do you think? Hit Reply and head to comments where we can talk about this more.

Reader Question: What are three good ‘how to’ scripts to read?

April 12th, 2016 by

Lee, I assume by “how to” scripts, you mean screenplays which are not only great stories, but also examples of strong screenwriting practices.

I am tempted to name the very first three I ever read because in addition to Syd Field’s book “Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting”, they were the full extent of my ‘formal’ education in the craft when I wrote and sold the spec script K-9. Well, that and watching thousands of movies throughout my life. Those three scripts are:

  • Back to the Future
  • Breaking Away
  • Witness

At the time (1986), those scripts were relatively contemporaneous. While all three are excellent reads, since screenplay format and style has changed significantly during the last three decades, I think it would be wiser to recommend scripts from the last 5-10 years to reflect current screenwriting sensibilities. Although Back to the Future is a master class in the use of subplots, so if you want to zero in on that subject, read and break down BTTF.

If I knew your specific interests in terms of genre, that would help, but short of that, my instinct would be to focus on scripts which are strong in three areas: Character, Plot, Theme. So many other areas to learn such as dialogue, scene construction, transitions, pace, visual writing, psychological writing, subtext, subplots, cross-cutting, all of which punches a gaping hole in the very idea that there are three scripts which can teach a writer “how to” write a screenplay. Really you have to read hundreds of scripts as part of immersing yourself in cinema, along with watching, breaking down, and analyzing movies, writing pages, taking in interview with professional writers, and so on.

That said, I’ll give it a shot. Three movie script recommendations from the last 10 years:

Michael Clayton. Little Miss Sunshine. Up. Each is a masterful script, a great read, and they get 10s across the board in terms of Character, Plot, and Theme. You cannot do wrong by reading each of these screenplays.

But Lee, I believe you have opened up a Pandora’s Box with this question, as I suspect people will have lots of opinions on the subject. To wit:

What three scripts
would you recommend
as essential reading
for someone
learning the craft of screenwriting.

I’d love to see what GITS readers have to say on the subject. Click Reply and head to comments to share your three script recommendations.

UPDATE: Here are some recommendations via Twitter:

Reader Question: How would you define “inner motivation” and “outer motivation”

April 11th, 2016 by

From my email:

Subject: inner motivation / outer motivation

Message: brief definition please.

A short email requiring a long answer.

Inner motivation. Outer motivation. This sounds like the jargon of a screenwriting ‘guru’. Let me try to put a human face on these concepts.

You are a person. You have a conscious aspect to your being, that is you are aware of things and do a good bit of mental activity actively involved with your thoughts, impressions, memories, and so forth.

In that conscious realm, you make determinations from time to time, large and small, to aim to accomplish things. Goals, if you will. You know what those goals are and you are intentional in attempting to reach them.

Let’s call this your outer motivation. Or what some call your Want.

But that’s not the entirety of who you are. You also have an unconscious part of your psyche more tethered to your feelings, emotions, passions, etc.

In this unconscious realm, there are dynamics at work which you may struggle to control, impulses and instincts, desires and fears.

Underneath this cacophony of energetic push-and-pulls, there lies something uniquely authentic to who you are, whether you know it or not. Your True Self. Authentic Nature. Core Essence. Whatever you call it, it’s there. To date, unrealized. Maybe you suppress it. Perhaps you ignore it. It’s altogether possible you’re not even aware of it.

But it’s there. What Ovid calls the “seeds of change”. Joseph Campbell named it your “bliss”.

Your instinct to tap into your Core Essence and “become who you are” as per Carl Jung is what we can refer to as your inner motivation. Or what some call your Need.

Not to be too simplistic about it, but in terms of screenwriting, we have something like this:

The story’s Plotline is primarily the domain of the Protagonist’s Want, their outer motivation, their conscious goal.

The story’s Themeline is primarily the domain of the Protagonist’s Need, their inner motivation, their unconscious goal.

This Outer Motivation / Want exhibits itself in the story universe’s External World, what in a movie we can see and hear — Action and Dialogue.

This Inner Motivation / Need exhibits itself in the story universe’s Internal World, what in a movie we can intuit and interpret — Intention and Subtext.

So in movie terms:

  • In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s outer motivation is to get away from her unsatisfying home life by going ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ and her inner motivation is to realize her home in Kansas really is her home.
  • In Casablanca, Rick’s outer motivation is to run away with Ilsa with whom he has reconnected and his inner motivation is to reject his cynicism and embrace his idealism, thereby sacrificing his love for Ilsa for the greater good.
  • In The Apartment, Baxter’s outer motivation is to land a promotion and succeed in business, while his inner motivation is get in touch with his mensch nature and quit his job.
  • In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s outer motivation is to save kidnap victim Catherine Martin and her inner motivation is to kill Buffalo Bill and thereby silence the crying of the lambs in her nightmares.
  • In Juno, Juno’s outer motivation is to have her baby and give it up for adoption while her inner motivation is to stop avoiding her youth and embrace innocence before bolting to adulthood.

We have wants. We have needs. Every single one of us. As writers, we can use this fact to explore the outer and inner lives of our characters, particularly our Protagonists as they inform story structure and provide access points for a script reader to connect with the character’s journey.

Thoughts anyone? What do you think about outer motivation and inner motivation? Head to comments and let’s see what you’ve got.

Reader Question: How to handle the passage of time in a script?

April 5th, 2016 by

A question from Dan:

I’ve got a screenwriting question if you wouldn’t mind having a look. I’m an 18 year old kid writing my first script, a biopic, and trying to learn the trade while also piecing together my script I run into problems quite a bit…

One thing at the moment which I’d love to hear your knowledge on, is how to believably convey time passing without the use of title cards, and without a montage, but in a relatively small frame of time. The entertainer my script is about moves to LA at the age of 18, and has some success doing gigs there, he even lands a part on a pilot which doesn’t get picked up, but he decides within two years to return home to readjust his outlook. I’m still drawing an exact outline of where I want events to fit into place, but I’m pretty sure that his entire experience in LA (which really is only the tip of the iceberg for his career) will be almost introductory and within the first 5-10 pages.
I have some brief character stuff going on and I don’t want to cut this out because I feel it is an important part of his early career, although it may end up being so brief that it is almost useless. I’ll have to work on it.

So sorry, if you want to skip that, my question is how would I show the time passing for this character? Or in general, what are some non-hack ways of presenting a move forward in time so that it doesn’t feel like he’s performing in one instance and then we fade to black and suddenly he has a beard and is talking about leaving?

That’s a good question. As any GITS reader knows who’s had to deal with time shifts in a script, it’s a tricky business because you are requiring the reader to jump from this time period to that time period. That may not seem like a big deal, but if you’ve worked super hard to lure a reader into your story universe, any time jump can cause them to blink – Wait a sec, what’s happening – and if they blink long enough, they can fall out of the story.

The actual pragmatics of it are easy enough. Let’s say you start your script with this establishing scene:

EXT. FARM FIELD - DAY (IOWA, 1975)

Then you set up your character where they begin the story. After that sequence, you shift the action to L.A. some years later. All you would have to do is this:

EXT. SUNSET BOULEVARD - NIGHT (LOS ANGELES, 1978)

And there you go – you’ve made your time-jump.

But it’s not enough to simply make the time-jump, you need to handle it for what it really is: a transition. And as I say, it’s tricky to do that in a “non hack way.”

One approach is to use a narrator. For example, that’s how writer-director Frank Darabont handled the many time-jumps he had to make in The Shawshank Redemption. Here is the first big one in the script:

46	INT -- BACK ROOMS/STOCK AREA -- DAY (1947) 46

	-- a dark, tangled maze of rooms and corridors, boilers and
	furnaces, sump pumps, old washing machines, pallets of 
	cleaning supplies and detergents, you name it. Andy hefts a 
	cardboard drum of Hexlite off the stack, turns around -- 

	-- and finds Bogs Diamond in the aisle. blocking his way.
	Rooster looms from the shadows to his right, Pete Verness
	on the left. A frozen beat. Andy slams the Hexlite to the
	floor, rips off the top, and scoops out a double handful.

				ANDY 
		You get this in your eyes, it 
		blinds you. 

				BOGS 
		Honey, hush. 

	Andy backs up, holding them at bay, trying to maneuver through 
	the maze. The Sisters keep coming, tense and guarded, eyes 
	riveted and gauging his every move, trying to outflank him. 
	Andy trips on some old gaint sugglies. That's all it takes. 
	They're on him in an instant, kicking and stomping. 

	Andy gets yanked to his feet. Bogs applies a chokehold from 
	behind. They propel him across the room and slam him against 
	an old four-pocket machine, bending him over it. Rooster jams 
	a rag into Andy's mouth and secures it with a steel pipe, like 
	a horse bit. Andy kicks and struggles, but Rooster and Pete 
	have his arms firmly pinned. Bogs whispers in Andy's ear: 

				BOGS 
		That's it, fight. Better that way. 

	Andy starts screaming, muffled by the rag. CAMERA PULLS BACK, 
	SLOWLY WIDENING. The big Washex blocks our view. All we see 
	is Andy's screaming face and the men holding him down... 

	...and CAMERA DRIFTS FROM THE ROOM, leaving the dark place 
	and the dingy act behind...MOVING up empty corridors, past 
	concrete walls and steel pipes... 

				RED (V.O.) 
		I wish I could tell you that Andy 
		fought the good fight, and the 
		Sisters let him be. I wish I could 
		tell you that, but prison is no 
		fairy-tale world. 

	WE EMERGE into the prison laundry past a guard, WIDENING for 
	a final view of the line. The giant steel "mangler" is 
	slapping down in brutal rhythm. The sound is deafening. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		He never said who did it...but we 
		all knew. 

	PRISON MONTAGE: (1947 through 1949) 

47 	ANDY PLODS THROUGH HIS DAYS. WORKING. EATING. CHIPPING AND 47
	shaping his rocks after lights-out... 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Things went on like that for a 
		while. Prison life consists of 
		routine, and then more routine. 

48 	ANDY WALKS THE YARD, FACE SWOLLEN AND BRUISED. 48 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Every so often, Andy would show up 
		with fresh bruises. 

49 	ANDY EATS BREAKFAST. A FEW TABLES OVER, BOGS BLOWS HIM A KISS. 49

				RED (V.O.) 
		The Sisters kept at him. Sometimes 
		he was able to fight them off... 
		sometimes not. 

50 	ANDY BACKS INTO A CORNER IN SOME DINGY PART OF THE PRISON, 
	wildly swinging a rake at his tormentors. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		He always fought, that's what I 
		remember. He fought because he knew 
		if he didn't fight, it would make 
		it that much easier not to fight 
		the next time. 

	The rake connects, snapping off over somebody's skull. They 
	beat the hell out of him. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Half the time it landed him in the 
		infirmary... 

51	INT -- SOLITARY CONFINEMENT ("THE HOLE") -- NIGHT (1949) 51 

	A stone closet. No bed, sink, or lights. Just a toilet with no 
	seat. Andy sits on bare concrete, bruised face lit by a faint 
	ray of light falling through the tiny slit in the steel door. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		...the other half, it landed him in 
		solitary. Warden Norton's "grain & 
		drain" vacation. Bread, water, and 
		all the privacy you could want. 

Two things. First, voice-over narration is frowned upon in Hollywood. I think it’s because there is a belief that using a narrator is somehow an example of sloppy writing. Certainly that can be the case, but as movies like Shawshank, Forrest Gump, and Sunset Blvd. prove, narrator V.O. can also be used to excellent effect.

Second, you’ll notice that Darabont uses a montage. That’s another time-jumping device that can be used poorly – probably the reason you included it in your question as an example of something you would prefer not using. But as this excerpt from Shawshank demonstrates, a montage can also be used quite effectively as an approach to transitions. If we look at this excerpt closely, I’d say there are at least three keys to a good montage:

* The entire montage has its own Beginning, Middle, and End (that is, it tells its own ‘little’ story).

* Each of the beats not only suggests a passage of time, but also communicates something of interest, both substantively re the plot and visually as a form of entertainment.

* The Beginning pulls the reader into the montage and the Ending pushes the reader into the following scene. In the excerpt above, the Beginning takes off from Andy getting raped, certainly a gripping event which will naturally elicit a reader’s curiosity to see what happens next. As for the Ending of the montage, here it is:

52	INT -- PRISON LAUNDRY -- DAY (1949) 52

	Andy is working the line. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		And that's how it went for Andy. That 
		was his routine. I do believe those 
		first two years were the worst for 
		him. And I also believe if things 
		had gone on that way, this place 
		would have got the best of him. 
		But then, in the spring of 1949, 
		the powers-that-be decided that... 

53	EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 53

	Warden Norton addresses the assembled cons via bullhorn: 

				NORTON 
		...the roof of the license-plate 
		factory needs resurfacing. I need a 
		dozen volunteers for a week's work. 
		We're gonna be taking names in this 
		steel bucket here... 

	Red glances around at his friends. Andy also catches his eye.

				RED (V.O.) 
		It was outdoor detail, and May is 
		one damn fine month to be workin' 
		outdoors. 

54	EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 54

	Cons shuffle past, dropping slips of paper into a bucket. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		More than a hundred men volunteered 
		for the job. 

	Red saunters to a guard named TIM YOUNGBLOOD, mutters 
	discreetly in his ear. 

55	EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 55

	Youngblood is pulling names and reading them off. Red 
	exchanges grins with Andy and the others. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Wouldn't you know it? Me and some 
		fellas I know were among the names 
		called. 

56	INT -- PRISON CORRIDOR -- NIGHT (1949) 56

	Red slips Youngblood six packs of cigarettes. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Only cost us a pack of smokes per 
		man. I made my usual twenty 
		percent, of course. 

57	EXT -- LICENSE PLATE FACTORY -- DAY (1949) 57

	A tar-cooker bubbles and smokes. TWO CONS dip up a bucket of
	tar and tie a rope to the handle. The rope goes taught. CAMERA
	FOLLOWS the bucket of tar up the side of the building to -- 

58 	THE ROOF 58

	-- where it is relayed to the work detail. the men are dipping
	big Padd brushes and spreading the tar. ANGLZ OVER to Byron 
	Hadley bitching sourly to his fellow guards: 

				HADLEY 
		...so this shithead lawyer calls 
		long distance from Texas, and he 
		says, Byron Hadley? I say, yeah. He 
		says, sorry to inform you, but your 
		brother just died.

The montage offers a seamless transition into the next scene — the famous “Suds on the Roof” business where Andy helps out Hadley with his financial dilemma, which turns out to be a huge turning point in Andy – and Red’s – life in Shawshank.

Another way to handle time-jumps is to position the story in such a way that a key character is looking back on their life. Forrest Gump does this as well as movies like Little Big Man. This allows you the possibility of telling a story in a linear fashion (like Gump and Big Man), or you can jump around and tell the story in a non-linear fashion. But by approaching the story like this, you’ll be using flashbacks and that is another narrative device that is looked upon with disfavor per Hwood’s conventional wisdom.

But if you’re just looking for ways to smooth over transitions, here are a couple of tricks.

* Visual-to-visual transition: Use a visual image to link the preceding and following sequence. For example, consider this transition from the Elliot & Rossio script for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, from the opening sequence where Elizabeth, as a young girl, first meets a young Will Turner:

Elizabeth looks from it to the medallion -- the skull on the
flag is the same as the one on the medallion.

Fog surrounds and closes in on the black ship -- except for 
the black flag. As Elizabeth watches, the skull appears to 
TURN and GRIN at her --

Elizabeth shuts her eyes tight --

EIGHT YEARS LATER

INT. GOVERNOR'S MANSION - ELIZABETH'S BEDROOM

-- and then snap open again, startled wide with fear.

But this is no longer twelve-year-old Elizabeth standing on
the stern of the Dauntless; this is twenty-year-old Elizabeth,
lying in bed in the dark.

The visual link is Elizabeth’s eyes.

* Audio-to-audio transition: In the same way, you can use a sound to provide a link between a preceding and following sequence. The classic example, which I’m sure you’ve seen 10,000 times in TV shows and movies is an airplane:

EXT. FARM FIELD - DAY (IOWA, 1970)

Teenager WILL kicks at the chafed soil. Then he hears a sound - 
an airplane FLYING overhead. He squints up at the jet --

WILL
Someday I'm gonna fly away from here...

The sound of the airplane grows LOUDER --

INT. JET - DAY (1978)

-- and LOUDER as WILL, now a handsome young man (21), presses 
against the airplane window as it lands with a jolt --

FLIGHT ATTENDANT (V.O.)
Welcome to Los Angeles.

While those can help smooth transitions, they really are filigree. The keys are as noted above. And I would say the single most important thing is to pull the reader into the ending of the preceding sequence, making them curious about what’s going to happen next, then push them into the beginning of the following sequence, depositing them smack in the middle of the action so that they don’t have time to dawdle or think — just keep them moving.

I’m sure GITS readers will have lots of ideas for you – so please everyone, chime in with your suggestions for Dan.

[Originally posted February 2, 2010]