MYSTERY PEOPLE

Mystery Man GifKevin of Cincinnati saw a listing like this on Craigslist:

Screenwriters Opportunity

Can you do it better than
the films you see?
Do you have the next SIXTH SENSE
or WEDDING CRASHERS?
Now’s your chance to prove it.

Award winning Hollywood producer/manager
Looking for motion picture scripts.
All genres. Send synopsis
plus contact info. Cinn.

Kevin asks:

What would you make of a posting like this; is it to be trusted? Is there any difference between a synopsis and an idea? Can a synopsis be legally more protected than an idea?

There are some legitimate managers who solicit via the Internet. However, a legitimate manager will share his or her identity and credentials, usually on a website, and these credentials will be easily verifiable. Also, usually, a legitimate manager will make the writer sign a release before submitting material.

I am not saying the person above is not legitimate. I am saying you probably want to learn more about the manager before sending in your material. Email him (or her, who knows?) and ask for the manager’s background.

Aside from the lack of disclosure about the identity and credentials, the fact that the manager is in Cincinnati is also a red flag, or at least a yellow flag. Managers must be in regular discourse with producers and other dealmakers. Most of these contacts are in Los Angeles (at least, for the American market) and, naturally, so are most successful working managers. (There are also a good number in New York.) While it may not be impossible to function as a legitimate manager from Cincinnati, knowing the manager’s credentials is even more important.

As for the last part of your question, I assume it means, “Do I have to worry about my idea being ripped off?” Any time you share an idea with an anonymous source, you have to worry about being ripped off. Irrespective of the legalities of intellectual property law, you normally would not send ideas or synopsis to an anonymous email address. You should always keep a submission log and know exactly where and when you submitted material, always submit material with a cover letter or email (of which you keep a copy), and always follow up in writing if you hear no response.

The bottom line on listings like the above: before sending in your material, inquire of the person’s identity and credentials in order to make an informed decision.

WRITING WITH A PARTNER

I hear a million horror stories about writing with partners. I’ve written both alone and with partners. Sometimes the partnerships worked. Sometimes they did not. I like writing alone, but there is something about writing with the right partner that is very satisfying. For the last several years, I’ve written exclusively with one partner. I like writing with him; we are able to do things with the writing neither of us does when we write alone. This is our approach to partnership and why I think it is effective:

1. We leave the idea of individual authorship at the door. We recognize that every idea generated out of our mutual work is a mutual idea. It would not exist without the joint work we do, period. It does not matter who said it first, who thinks they thought of it first, who thinks they had the idea ten years ago but only mentioned it now. If the idea comes up in the context of joint work, you cannot separate it from the whole of the work nor should you try. The WGA calls writing partners a “team” and treats them essentially as a single writer. You should, too. If you do not, you are not a partnership. You are two people competing with each other and keeping score while trying to jointly create a screenplay. This is a hard way to write anything, let alone develop a lasting creative relationship. Continue reading “WRITING WITH A PARTNER”

LONELY WRITERS. . . .

Squirreled away in your apartment, typing all night, sleeping all day. Go out once in a while to stock up on groceries, then back to the grind. You are creating genius work. You are the stoic writer, alone in your world of insight and creativity. Who needs friends? When you are done, your work will shine above all others.

In your dreams….

In the real world, successful writers are part of a community. They meet other writers, develop support networks to help them through the struggle that is each screenplay, maintain healthy relationships to provide balance and perspective on their work. As their careers begin to develop, they befriend development execs and other professionals. In short, they are part of the world of writers.

Why?

Because you can’t create a writing career in a vacuum.

Even in the writing process, professional writers rely on substantial support networks they have developed over the years – trusted friends with whom they can discuss ideas, trusted readers to critique work as it is being developed, other trusted colleagues. This is a huge advantage over you, writing alone in your apartment.

Once the script is completed, these same writers have still more people to rely on – fans they have made around town, executives they have befriended, producers, managers, agents, and on and on. Another huge advantage they have over you.

They also live in the real world – friends to hang out with, interests outside writing, some writers even have spouses and children – yes, just like real people. Yet another advantage over you.

Developing a community that supports you as a writer is not just a lifestyle choice. It is necessary to the work. It makes you a stronger writer, substantially increases the chance of any script you write actually meeting the needs of the motion picture industry, and helps you through the many low points every writer faces.

To develop your own network, you must reach out, hold yourself out openly as a writer, celebrate your chosen path, and draw to you people who support that part of who you are. You must align your universe to your goal of advancing your writing career. Nothing less will get you there.

It can take a long time to develop your network. But it doesn’t happen alone, in your apartment, with a bag of groceries rotting on the counter, while you create genius inside your head. Tomorrow, why not write in the coffee shop? And take a break to introduce yourself to the person writing on the laptop next to you.

NO FREE LUNCH II

Karen from Atlanta recently commented on this previous post about the pitfalls of giving away free or almost free options with the following:

I wish I had run across this site before trying to renegotiate my expired option with a producer. The 18 month option ($1000 1st day of filming plus 3% net) expired but my script was still prominently featured on the company website and on other sites associated with it. I was pretty brave about what I wanted by email but then he wanted to talk on the phone. He barely got a few words out as to why he didn’t want to pay more to continue developing the script when I totally caved, allowing him to keep it for 90 more days for just a $100. I can barely look at myself in the mirror. I’m almost hoping he can’t get financing in time so I can just take my script and go elsewhere. (almost) I realize now that because I wasn’t willing to walk away (and he obviously could tell) I was really in no position to negotiate anything. Boy, do I need to grow a thicker hide and find an agent. He mentioned that he wanted to pay me out at the end of the extension – the now $700 left – and keep the script. No way would I consider doing that. So, I’m taking the next few months to get myself mentally prepared to let go and start all over. I don’t want to, but I’d feel like an idiot just letting him keep my script forever.

She followed up with the following question:

I thought my comment in the “no free lunch” section would get some type of response, even if it was only, “There, there Karen. You’re not the first writer to choke in this kind of situation . . .” An actual question would be this: after extension expires, would it be (un)ethical of me to let the producers keep working on developing my script so I could keep “script in pre-production with such & such production company” on my very sparse resume. And market the script under a different title until I got another buyer interested? Then, because the option will have expired just tell current producers to take my stuff off their websites so I can sell to new buyer? Experience tells me that the current producers aren’t going to call me when the option expires; they’ll just keep working until I call them.

[Standard disclaimer – this is not legal advice, but just thoughts on a blog.]

Before you hang yourself, consider the plus side of your circumstance. You have the interest of producers who paid at least something to work on turning your script into a movie. They are interested enough to try to keep control of it and keep trying to get it made into a movie. All of this suggests you have some writing ability and that is critical to building a career. The usual experience of writers is that the producers talk a good game when they get the free or virtually free option from the writer, but do next to nothing to move the project forward. At least your producers seem to be making an effort.

Your comment and question raise several important issues:

1. Can a producer keep your script if they option it? The answer is, if they meet the conditions for exercising the option (e.g. pay you the money), then – yes – ordinarily they can. However, sometimes making the movie is a condition of exercising the option. In your case, you indicate they agreed to pay you $1000 “on the first day of filming” plus 3% net. Depending upon the language of the rest of your option, it is possible they cannot simply pay you $1000 and keep your script forever without producing the movie. This result is not typical, but the producers may not fully understand how to write an option and may have left themselves open to this. Also, in some cases, the option agreement provides for reversionary or “turnaround” rights even if the option is exercised, in which case you get your script back after a certain amount of time if they do not produce a movie. The exact conditions of turnaround differ and can involve you repaying money they spent on development. As to both issues, you will need to review your option contract plus any subsequent agreements or addendums to see what the language says. Before you agree to anything else at all, you may wish to consult an entertainment attorney.

2. How do you avoid “caving” when a producer asks for an extension? That is what agents or lawyers are for. It is very difficult for the writer, who is attempting to build a creative relationship with the producer, to also negotiate his or her own deal and, in some cases, take a very hard line. Remember, the producer’s job is to cut deals. That’s what he or she does all day long. You were outgunned from before you got on the telephone. In general, unless you happen to also be a used car salesman on the side, I strongly recommend you use a professional to negotiate your deals. Writers’ attorneys often work for a percentage (5-10%) so you do not need to come out of pocket up front.

3. Can you ethically rename your script and shop it even while these producers are working on it? Your ethics are a matter of personal judgment and tolerance. However, as a practical matter, you don’t really need to do that. Unless your option contract forbids it, you can present the script elsewhere anyway and tell others that the option is about to expire, which is true. If other interest develops, the new producers will need to wait and see if the old option gets exercised. You can also present the script as a writing sample for the purpose of getting hired on assignment (as in paid) to write a script for someone else. As for your resume, resumes are not particularly important in writing. The script is what counts. In any event, you can truthfully say on your resume that you have an optioned project.

The writing business is filled with complications. You are not alone in your frustration. Over the course of your career, you will have many more difficult, problem deals than pictures produced. It is the nature of the beast. Just keep writing quality scripts, surround yourself with knowledgeable people, and keep the faith.

TRUBYVILLE

I wish formulas worked. God, I wish they worked. I wish I had a bucket of moral dilemmas, a box of self-revelations and lists of reversals. I wish I could just grab some of them, line them up in the right order and have an amazing story.

Because of this desire (and my secret fear that maybe some formulas do work but I just don’t know the right one), I did something most writers who’ve been around the block a few times would not do. I bought John Truby’s “Great Screenwriting” series of tapes. (To be fair, I bought it only after reading this ringing endorsement.) Not only did I buy it, I listened to the whole damn thing – 14 hours worth. After that, I wrote… a lot. To see if the tapes made a difference.

I thought I’d report on it.

Let me say, up front, that I really enjoy Mr. Truby’s mesmerizing voice. Over the several weeks it took me to get through the tapes, I came to look forward to turning on my little old-school cassette player and being drawn into his Zen vortex, making me feel at ease, making me believe that screenwriting is an orderly process, one that can be planned and executed and everything will work out just fine.

And let me say, some of his ideas, while not new, are central concepts and are explained very nicely. For a beginning screenwriter with no training, they are important ideas to be exposed to. On the other hand, some of his ideas were just…wonky…. But that’s okay. As I’ve said here before, take what works. Lose what doesn’t.

The real trouble comes with applying the ideas. (Isn’t that always the case?) Mr. Truby applied his structural ideas to many films and always showed us why the scripts were flawed. The only problem is, for most of his examples, the “flaws” were the most interesting aspect of the scripts, at least to me. For example, he talked about why “Unforgiven” does not work. To me, it works fine. Maybe not the best script ever written, but nice solid work. Another example, “The Verdict.” What’s wrong with “The Verdict’? Great writing. I don’t care if the moral self-revelation comes too early.

After the first ten or so examples, I came to realize that Mr. Truby and I simply have different tastes. But what does that say about his method? To me, it says, “Generalities are just generalities. Writing is a subtle mixture of skills, judgment, tastes and imagination. Any analysis is imperfect and no analysis fits all stories.”

Nonetheless, again to be fair, the core of his ideas are very traditional and, for those without any real training, important to be exposed to. Not to embrace wholeheartedly, but to know and consider. If you have a writing degree, forget it. You’ve been there. If you’ve been writing for ten years, had scripts covered forever, been given notes by producers, you’ve been there. If not, maybe it’s worth a listen.

So did the tapes make a difference in my writing? Well, yeah, in a sense. They reminded me to keep my eye on the basics. Like, make sure the audience can follow your lead’s desire line. The more rewrites I do, the more I forget the basics. Even Tiger Woods studies the basics.

So, to sum up…

No magic secret answers;
Some important ideas, especially for beginners;
Some really wonky ideas;

And that Zen voice….

WHY WE FIGHT

I had a long discussion with a fellow recently, a refugee from screenwriting. According to him, he graduated from college, worked hard for a number of years writing scripts, and networked his way deeply into the heart of Hollywood. Nevertheless, despite years of hard work, he couldn’t get arrested. Never sold anything; never got taken seriously as a writer. At the age of 37, he abandoned the effort, went to law school and became a lawyer, which is what he still does twenty years later. Now embittered, he expressed the opinion that Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Dante have already written better work than any screenwriter will ever do, so there’s no point in writing anything. He also said there are only five working screenwriters today who actually make a living. He couldn’t name any of them. It was a dark conversation with a man who is, in my opinion, a victim of his own mind. I left our meeting with a screaming headache. Unfortunately, the conversation stuck, not based on its merits, but in the same way that the image of Anthony Hopkins sticks – the one where he is eating Ray Liotta’s brain. It is unnecessarily disturbing without providing any possibility for constructive insight.

Ever since that unfortunate conversation, I’ve been feeling the need to reiterate why we write. I’m no Frank Capra, but I still have something to say.

In the thirties and forties under the studio system, writers fell into camps – socialists on one side and conservatives on the other. Despite studio wishes to the contrary, each camp worked hard to imbue their scripts with their core values. Because the resulting pictures set the archetypes, we often don’t realize what they stood for when they first came out. In its day, “Stagecoach” was highly subversive. “Sahara” was a very sneaky antiwar picture. “Casablanca” was an incredibly effective propaganda piece. Writing was an important extension of the social and political process.

Today, writers still fall into camps. Many of us just don’t realize it. Underneath each of our works lie arguments for core values. Competing values from competing writers. We don’t all agree – but we all agree that storytelling is our best means of argument. We want to make a difference.

And that, in a nutshell, is why we write.

Contrary views welcomed….