5 THINGS I HATE ABOUT EVERYONE

TURKEY GIFSome time ago, MaryAn (from place unknown) suggested I provide “An Idiot’s Guide Of What Not To Do” when writing a screenplay. Here, in no particular order, is my list of some of the most common mistakes.

1. DO NOT USE VISUAL TRICKS TO REPLACE STORYTELLING. Because we hear over and over again that film is visual medium, many emerging writers believe that writing visual tricks will sell a story. It won’t. That’s what the director is for. Your script should focus on storytelling. That is what will either sell it or sink it. That does not mean the moments that actually advance the story should not be visual; they should. However, too many emerging writers overuse shot descriptions and descriptions of visual tricks in place of storytelling. For an example of how to do it right, see the script for The Matrix (not sure if this is the production draft or an earlier one).

2. DO NOT ALLOW PERSONAL EXPERIENCES TO CLOUD THE FACT THAT THERE IS NO EMOTION ON THE PAGE. Emerging writers often feel a great deal of emotion in their scripts while no else does. This happens because the writer is reflecting on a personal experience that is not shared by most readers. Instead of relying upon your own feelings, use the tools of drama, i.e. proper conflict building, theme building, character building, and structure. That does not mean you should ignore your feelings, just that you cannot use your feelings to substitute for proper dramatic writing.

3. NO MELODRAMA. Melodrama is the using of stock events to evoke emotion. The difference between melodrama and drama is that the emotion in drama grows out of central conflicts and themes developed throughout the piece, whereas in melodrama, the emotion arises out of a sudden event that is not developed out of the story. The death of a loved one is the type of stock event that can easily be misused. If it arises not out of the theme and central conflicts, it is likely melodrama. Today’s audiences are ordinarily too sophisticated for melodrama. Studio executives are, too.

4. NO MATH. Do not make the audience/reader perform complex story calculus to keep up with you. They will not do it. Everything you want the audience to understand must be clear and direct. That does not mean you cannot have subtext. In fact, you must have subtext. However, your subtext must also be clear. Learning how to remove the story calculus takes experience. Just remember, if readers get confused about or totally miss story points you thought you made clear, the fault lies in ourselves, dear Brutus, and not in our readers….

5. DO NOT SUBMIT MATERIAL UNTIL IT IS READY. The fact that you have rewritten your script ten times does not mean it is ready. A script is ready when it is clear, focused, and well-structured, when the dialogue is sharp, when you have driven all the extraneous material out of the story, when the theme is clearly and fully played out by the story, when the story feels like it must have been simple to write – a clear beginning, middle and end (although you know it was anything but simple). Only when all of this is accomplished should you submit your story. That does not mean you should not get qualified reads along the way. On the contrary, you must get qualified reads. However, those qualified reads should not be from the producers you hope will buy it. They should be from your carefully cultivating reading circle.

I hope this helps. Now go write….

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.

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR HERE?

Jerry MacGuire GifFor those of you who follow screenwriting blogs on a regular basis, you have a pretty good sense of what each blogger brings to the table. On this blog, I don’t do much gossip. I don’t give out names of producers or agents. I don’t have a magic answer for how to make it in the industry. I don’t have a strong enough career to justify the sorts of high-level insights found at Artful Writer or Josh Friedman’s blog.

On the other hand, I do have extensive experience with agents, managers, production executives, producers and working writers. And, I’ve written a lot. All of my scripts, whether they have sold or not, have been championed by strong agents and producers and, on occassion, A-level talent. I do have extensive training in the craft of writing. I do know, more or less, how the industry as a whole functions and how that affects the emerging writer. I do have the experience that comes with regularly submitting scripts and pitches to the mainstream Hollywood motion picture industry. I do have the background of having worked on the producing side of the business, both as a producer and in legal affairs for a studio.

I do love the craft of writing and enjoy its highs and lows: the awful feeling of putting everything I have into a draft and realizing it lies their, flat on the page, no movement, no character, nothing (what the hell was I struggling for?) followed by the incredible high of seeing that awful draft turn into something incredible through deep, hard work. It is the kind of high that is earned and, therefore, lasts. I love the feeling of reading an old script I haven’ looked at in a couple years and saying, “Wow, I did that?”

And, while nobody really knows what the hell they’re doing, I like to write about whatever orts of insight I’ve gleened over the years. In the future, I plan to continue my main focus here, namely posts that assist emerging writers in understanding what is expected of them in the industry and how to deliver it.

With all of that in mind, I throw it out to you. What would you like to see more of on this blog? What would you like to see different? This is your opportunity for feedback.

Don’t be cruel….

I READ IT FOR THE INTERVIEWS, REALLY

Jasen from California asks:

I’ve been trying to find a decent screenwriting magazine to subscribe to, but I have no idea where to start looking. Would you have any suggestions that I might want to take a look at?

Read what working writers read: “Written By” magazine from the WGA. (Once at the WGA site, click on “Publications” and “Written By”.) You do not need to be a WGA member to subscribe. Annual subscriptions are currently $40. The website publishes selected articles for free.

AGENTS, COPYRIGHTS AND MONEY

VIRGINIA JPEGTracy from Virginia asks:

Could you give us an idea of how to protect our budding “masterpieces”? After it’s written, and we’re mentally preparing ourself for the forthcoming fame (:) Is it best to try for an agent first (aiming for reputable with bona fide published works out there) and if your astronomically lucky to get one, how does that work? Do you pay them to represent you, or is their pay based on the level of success of the book – pushing them harder to get it out there? Do you just send it to them, or somehow get copyrights of it being yours before anyone sees it? Help!

You are mixing several different issues and I will straighten them out for you.

First, do not hire an agent that charges you a fee. WGA signatory agents are prohibited from doing so and no reputable agent does so. Some agents try to charge you for costs. I would try to avoid even that. See Agents Charging Costs. Better agents are sufficiently capitalized that they do not need to charge you anything until they sell your script or get you a writing assignment.

Second, do not just send the script to agents. They will not read it. The script will be tossed on a pile with the million other anonymous scripts that were mailed in and, eventually, it will be tossed out. You should not submit your script to an agent until you are invited to do so. The best way to get an agent is by referral. If you are not from Los Angeles or New York, there are still a number of techniques you can use to get an agent. See The Out-Of-Towners.

Third, regarding copyright, you own the copyright from the moment you create your script. It automatically springs into existence and it is yours. Of course, if you begin to share your work, you will need to prove that you created it and when you did so. There are several ways to do this. One is to register the copyright with the Copyright Office. Another is to register it with the WGA. The third way is to simply include a cover letter with your script whenever you submit it and send the script by overnight mail so you have a record of having sent it. Keep a copy of the cover letter and the mail receipt. I recommend doing this irrespective of whether you register your script. See My Idea Got Stolen.

Hope this helps.

SCARY MONSTERS

QUESTION

I’m a director who was recently asked by a screenwriter to read a short script. I’ve decided I’d like to shoot the script but with some fairly major changes. In other words, I like the ideas and some of the imagery of the story better than the actual script. In conversation with the writer, I’ve told her that I would be interested in an option for the script. I’ve told her I want to develop some of the ideas but haven’t been specific. Having only shot my own work in the past, I’m a little unsure how to proceed. I guess my questions are as follows:

a) What if any obligation do I have to the writer to let them know my intentions with the script (that I forsee making significant changes for instance). Should they have the opportunity to reject an option based on their preference to give it to another producer who will shoot it as is?

b) What happens if my changed version of the script bears little resemblance to the script submitted to me by the writer? Do they still get credit, if for no other reason but inspiration? At what point is a script no longer representative of the original writer’s vision?

c) The last questions have to do with money. What would be a fair amount to offer for this script which will be turned into a 10 minute short with a budget of less than $10K; It’s really a project with little or no prospect of making money. Is there a percentage of the budget I should shoot for? I was thinking of paying $500 if we go to production. However, I don’t want to be offensive with my offer.

I really appreciate your time and attention to this. Thanks!

Howard from Denver

Howard,

Your questions send shivers down the spine of every screenwriter alive (and maybe a few dead ones). Nevertheless, here are the answers.

It is not unusual for a director to like some of the ideas of a screenwriter but want to rewrite them significantly. It happens every day in Hollywood and it goes with the territory. The difference between that and your situation is that, in Hollywood, a producer ordinarily purchases the work before the director gets to rewrite it and the screenwriter is ordinarily paid a real wage. If the writer is a WGA member or the producer is a WGA signatory, the writer gets at least the MBA minimum. In your case, you want to pay essentially nothing for the script, hide the fact that you intend to substantially rewrite it, and not even give the writer credit.

I suggest that you would ultimately be more satisfied with your experience on the short film if you work with the writer, who is almost giving her work away for free (while $500 might be fair given the small budget, in terms of a payment for screenwriting services, it is essentially nothing), see if you can enroll her in your ideas, and see if she wants to rework the script with you. If you truly believe she cannot execute the script to your satisfaction even with your guidance, then you may need to move on to other ideas. On a film with a $10,000 budget, the only real value in this for the writer is to get a short film produced that she has written.