Friday, June 3, 2011

The Studio System - "ON BEING RE-WRITTEN"

Be prepared.  That’s the best advice I can give to new writers. I know it will be a shock to your system, but at some point, other people will be hired to rewrite your work.   Be prepared to be rewritten, overruled, ignored and even forgotten.  It’s a tough business that you are knocking yourself out to get into.  It’s also rewarding, exciting, fun and eventually financially amazing.  If you are ready to accept all of the above, then, by all means, get those fingers flying on your computer and aim your sites on Hollywood. 
  If you know what to expect from the business of movies, you’ll make better choices and have less concerns.  Here’s the skinny on what will happen when you finally write the right screenplay that garners you an offer from a major or even a minor production company:
1.     The company will ask for a free option.  “Oh, no”, you will say to your agent, “I thought they would offer me money”.  Your agent will have to explain that producers don’t pay option fees unless the writer is BIG, EXPERIENCED and someone that the studios are dying to get.  Producers are not the people who pay for options.  Studios pay for options.  If you have a good agent they will have submitted your screenplay to producers prior to studios.  This way the studio people will know that a particular production company will be attached to see to it that a good film is made.  Studios often have agreements with production companies.  This means that they want to make movies with those producers.  So, what this means is there is now a good script and a good production company.  The option period that your agent will give the producer will allow them the time to:  (a) Take the project to a star and/or director and (b) Present the project to their studio.

2.    There will be a contract, negotiated by your agent, wherein it will state that X amount of dollars will be paid to you in the event a studio (or an independent third party financier) wants to move forward with the project.  The deal will divide up the payments to you as installments (steps) for rewrites, polishes, production bonuses, and a purchase price.  These steps are not promised to you.  They only occur if and when they are required by the studio.  The contract will be transferred to the studio in its entirety.  This means that whatever the producer promised you in their contract must be accepted by the studio.  The studio will now be responsible for paying you the option price as well as whatever other fees have been spelled out in the initial agreement.  Just like in any other business, the folks with the money have all the power.

3.    When you have agreed to the contract you will probably get the chance to do the first rewrite on your screenplay.  Please note that I said “probably”.  First you will have meetings with the producer(s), their assistants, their development executives and possibly a studio executive or two.  If you are good in the meetings (see Chapter 21, in my book, “MIND YOUR BUSINESS:  A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide To Your Writing Career”) you will begin the rewrite. 

4.    Once you turn in that first rewrite things begin to get tricky.  Inevitably there will be a need for more rewrites.  This will always happen. You may think that the script is perfect the way it is, but this is an industry that lives by committees.  There are so many people involved with each project and each one of those folks has a different idea of how to make it better.  It is actually the job of Development Executives to find errors (real or imagined) in the scripts on which they are working.  If they simply read a draft and move it up the ladder, their boss will think that they aren’t doing a good job.  So they write up lots of notes with suggestions, questions and ideas to improve your draft. 

The question as to who will do these next rewrites is up to the studio and the producers.  You and your agent will have no say in this decision.  If you read your contract carefully you will note that further rewrites by you are “optional”.  This means that the studio has the right to either hire you or someone else to do those rewrites.  All new writers have this in their contracts.  There is no getting around it.
5.     If you have a good agent he/she will try to get you a “notes” meeting after your draft is read.  If you are lucky enough to get this meeting you will listen to all the suggestions for rewriting as well as all of the areas where they have decided that you went wrong.  It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it you must.  Usually the writers’ first impulse is to scream and run out of the room.  You will be sitting there all alone while facing one or more executives and assistants who are propped up behind very large desks and who have offered you designer water and café lattes.  You will want to zone out while they drone on about the problems in the script.  These are the times that you must gather all of your inner strength and bear up to the task at hand.  Your job is now to win these people over by your positive attitude, willingness to do as they suggest and to come up with other ideas to improve your project.  What you want to accomplish here is to get another chance to rewrite your own script. 

6.    Try as you might, you will never be able to second guess what these studio executives will decide nor why they will make those particular decisions.  You will probably never know why another writer is hired to rewrite you.  They won’t tell your agent and they certainly won’t tell you.  There are innumerable scenarios that may occur.  The studio may owe another writer for a different project that didn’t go forward, or the producer has a friend that they want to give some work to, or, over lunch, the studio executive mentioned your project to another writer who came up with ideas that the executive loved, or there was some other situation that has arisen.  It’s a moot point, so move ahead and go to work on your next project.

7.    Remember that your purchase price and production bonus are often tied to your on-screen credit.  Also, remember that the more you are able to do these rewrite, the more likely you will be to have your vision put up there on that wonderful big screen.  In the event you share that screen credit with other writers, your fees will be diminished.  If there are more than three writers who ask for writing credit, or if you decide to arbitrate a credit decision, the screen credit will be determined by an impartial panel at the Writers Guild of America.  Keep your fingers crossed and pray.
You must simply do the best job you can and keep moving forward.  If you are responsible, agreeable, creative and clever, you will eventually have more power and decision making choices.  Remember that this is the beginning of your writing career and that, like other industries, you will find that your status will improve with each new project.

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