Thursday, December 3, 2009

Collaboration Agreements: Pre-Nup for Writers

(Entertainment attorney, screenwriter, and friend Jesse Rosenblatt returns with a guest blog on the legal aspects of co-writing. Many writers team up to write screenplays and have successful partnerships. There are, however, issues to consider before doing so as Jesse explains in this informative post.)

First Things First: Why You Should Always Enter Into A Collaboration Agreement

By Jesse Rosenblatt, Esq.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone in a legal mess because they didn’t enter into a collaboration agreement before starting their project. This information isn’t new, but it’s so often overlooked that I feel it’s worth covering again. Hopefully the information below will resonate with you so that moving forward you can avoid often costly mistakes. The most important thing to be taken away from this article is the following:

When collaborating with someone on a project (e.g., a script, book, song, etc.), always have an experienced entertainment lawyer craft a written collaboration agreement which all parties sign before any work on the collaboration begins!
Just taking this simple suggestion can save you a ton of potential headaches throughout your career. Don’t delay.

What Is A Collaboration Agreement?

Briefly, a collaboration agreement is a contract entered into that spells out the specific terms and conditions of the parties’ working relationship, including, the disposition of the completed work, allocation of responsibilities and division of revenues derived from the exploitation of the work. Simply stated, the collaboration agreement clarifies the nature and scope of the relationship, including the ownership, business and creative controls over the work that’s jointly created. Think of it as a prenuptial agreement for creative collaborators, because just like marriages, unfortunately many collaborations end in separation, if not outright divorce.

The provisions of a collaboration agreement typically cover things like:

• Ownership Percentages In The Work (e.g., Is It 50%/50% Or Some Other Allocation?)
• Specific Responsibilities Of Each Collaborator
• How Are Monies Received In Connection With The Work Disseminated? (e.g., In What Percentages?, How Are The Collaborators’ Expenses Dealt With?, etc.)
• What Happens If One Collaborator Withdraws For Any Reason? (e.g., Can The Other One Continue Working To Finish The Project?, May The Remaining Writer Bring On Another Collaborator?, How Are The Ownership Percentages Revised As A Result?, etc.)
• How Will The Collaborators Be Credited In Connection With The Work?
• Are The Collaborators Members Of Any Applicable Guild/Union? • What Happens If The Parties Have A Disagreement? (e.g., How Are Disputes Resolved?, Will There Be A Third Party Who Resolves Them?, If So, Who Is He/She Or How Will He/She Be Selected?, etc.)
• How May Rights In The Project Be Disposed Of? (e.g., Does This Require A Unanimous Decision?, May Either Party Dispose Of Their Own Rights Or Even All Rights?, If A Collaborator Wants To Dispose Of His/Her Interest, Does The Other Collaborator Have The Right To Block The Sale (Or A Right Of First / Last Refusal)?, Is Any Third Party Authorized To Dispose Of Rights On The Collaborators’ Behalf?, etc.)

Without a signed collaboration agreement in place, questions may be raised about the ownership and control of the work, as well as the ability to dispose of any rights in the work. It is also vital in determining what happens in the event that the collaborators separate for any reason.

Forms of Collaboration
Collaborations can take many forms, even ones that you may not intend. The two most common forms of collaboration I see are:

• Two People Intentionally Collaborate From The Beginning Of A Project

This is exactly what it sounds like. You and another writer come together to create a single collaborative work and the presumption (in the absence of a collaboration agreement to the contrary) is generally that 50% of the work is owned by each of you and that both of you will share equally in any revenues from the project.

This is all well and good, assuming both parties share the same expectations about each facet of the project. However, once there’s a disagreement, a standstill or one collaborator wants to walk away for any reason, problems begin, often leading to a stalemate which freezes the project indefinitely. At that stage, unless both parties can find a way to reach an agreement with respect to each other’s rights and obligations going forward, there is often no way to proceed effectively to finish or exploit the work.

• A Solo Writer Inadvertently Lets Someone Become A Collaborator In Their Project

This can happen in a variety of ways. Letting a friend casually contribute notes/suggestions/additions/alterations, etc. to your work can create a collaboration. Incorporating a producer’s (or other third party’s) notes when conducting a rewrite can create a collaboration.

As just one common example of how this may play out, let’s say a producer is interested in your screenplay. The producer may say that they want to see a rewrite from you before deciding how they want to proceed, and, to shape the project more to their liking, the producer contributes notes/suggestions/additions/alterations to your script. Once you incorporate those notes, you have inadvertently given that producer a rights interest in your project.

Now, even if that producer elects not to option or purchase your script (or if they option it but don’t ever exercise their option), technically that producer still has rights in your material, since you incorporated and expressed their ideas in your work. There’s now the potential that if you want to option/sell your script elsewhere, this producer may fly in (often out of nowhere once they get wind of your impending deal) and demand to be compensated for their work and/or involved in the project somehow.

Whatever the case, once someone’s intellectual property finds its way into your work, that collaborator has an argument that they have an ownership interest in your project. This dilutes your absolute interest in your own work and can potentially inhibit your project from ever seeing the light of day. If a third party is excited by your work and anxious to make a deal with you, it can be problematic (and potentially expensive) to have to seek out a signed document from your collaborator granting you all of their rights. It’s also unlikely that the excited third party will wait around while you sort things out and negotiate with your collaborator. Without the ability to grant 100% of the rights in your project to a third party, you may have great difficulty finding anyone willing to offer you a deal.

What Can Go Wrong If You Don’t Have A Collaboration Agreement In Place?
Without a signed collaboration agreement in place, all of your efforts may be lost down the road if you’re unable to come to a resolution with your collaborator and your project is stuck in limbo. Your collaborator may have the ability to veto any of your decisions, since by default, sharing equal control means decisions about the work must be unanimous. There’s even the potential that the project may end up involved in a litigation if you or your collaborator wish to salvage it. In any case, the time and money spent up front to sign a collaboration agreement which addresses and provides ways to avoid these issues is almost always a preferable alternative.

To avoid the majority of issues that may arise among you and your collaborator, it’s a great idea to sit down at the beginning and negotiate all of the terms of your collaboration agreement. This will force you to discuss each element of your working relationship and to make sure that if there are any differences in your expectations, you are aware of them before the collaboration starts. If for any reason you are unable to reach a resolution on any facet of your relationship, you can step back and rethink working together before any work is done. This saves you wasting a lot of time and energy working on a project with someone only to learn much later that there are differences of opinions as to how things should proceed. Once tempers flare over disagreements, it becomes exponentially harder to reach a resolution on any matter.

For the record, there are places online or in books where you can find forms or sample collaboration agreements. I strongly recommend you avoid using them. Each project has its own set of circumstances which can lead to different terms and arrangements. An experienced entertainment lawyer should be able to assess the issues between you and your collaborator(s) and, in a relatively short period of time, craft an agreement that spells out each party’s expectations and obligations. The cost for the guidance of such an attorney is a small price when compared with the potential costs (financially and emotionally) that might arise from your project being blocked from proceeding, whether as a result of an informal disagreement or costly litigation.

Once a well-crafted collaboration agreement is in place, you can freely proceed on your collaboration with a clear conscience, knowing that if for some reason things go awry, there is a mechanism in place to sort things out and permit you to part ways in a reasonable manner. This should save you any time second guessing what your collaborator is thinking or expecting.
If you would like further information on collaboration agreements or would like someone to prepare one for you, please feel free to contact me at any time. I wish you all the very best of luck for your ever-increasing success!

Jesse Rosenblatt is the founder of the Law Office of Jesse Rosenblatt, an entertainment law/consulting firm servicing corporate and individual clients across all segments of the entertainment business. He has over 10 years experience working and negotiating with many of the most powerful players in the entertainment industry.

For more information, please visit or contact Jesse at

© 2009 Law Office of Jesse Rosenblatt, PLLC. All rights reserved. This article contains information of a general nature that is not intended to be legal advice and should not be considered or relied on as legal advice. Any reader of this article who has legal matters involving information addressed in this article should consult with an experienced entertainment attorney. This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader of this article. Law Office of Jesse Rosenblatt, PLLC does not represent or warrant that this article contains information that is true or accurate in all respects or that is the most current or complete information on the subject matter covered.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

TwoAdverbs -- Vote Early; Vote Often!

Those that enjoyed Adam's article are invited to read two more excellent posts by the same author at Chris Lockhart's blog:

The posts are from November 19 and 21, 2009 if you have to scroll back to find them. Many other excellent articles on Chris' thread. He's activating the blog again and I suggest you subscribe.

You'll also notice my script, HORROR COMIC, is in the running in the logline contest. I'd appreciate any support as the contest is close! (You have to have been a member of twoadverbs as of 10/31/09 to vote. But the site is worth joining regardless -- and it's free.)


If you are a member click on the link below, go to FORUM / Contests, Representation & Networking / Sticky at the top is SEMIFINALISTS: THE NIGHT BEFORE XMAS LOGLINE CONTEST. Then you can vote for HORROR COMIC in the poll which is on the first page of the thread.

Thanks again!

Thursday, November 12, 2009


by Adam Levenberg

During the past year I've spoken at length with several hundred writers trying to break into the industry. After a decade of working inside the world of development and production, it was eye opening to hear the same false assumptions repeated over and over. While I completely understand why an unrepresented writer might embrace these myths, they are simply not accurate.

As you proceed, remember that my advice is directed towards writers who have yet to secure a major literary agent or manager in Los Angeles. For those writers already employed by the studio system--why are you wasting time reading this, you're on deadline!


Bullshit. It's easy to break into Hollywood with a mediocre script. It's hard to write a mediocre script!

Writers love to blame the system for not recognizing their talent or making it so difficult to have a "decision maker" read your screenplay. Please believe Hollywood is desperate to find new talent, its just that few unrepresented writers come to the table with the skills to compete with professionals already in the game. Perhaps the only exception to this is with comedy writers--if you're stuff is legitimately funny on every page, someone will take notice and help you develop a spec.

If you've entered a few contests and had your scripts turned down by several legitimate, currently active production companies without receiving a long phone call where they ask you about your other ideas, chances are guaranteed that the material did not stack up. It's your job to figure out why and improve! Otherwise your next script is unlikely to overcome these shortcomings.

Hollywood studios have an incredibly democratic process for buying material--they buy the best scripts. Period. Often great material gets shelved because it's not commercial enough, or too many writers, directors, and actors requested so many changes, the material lost its original value--but these are complications that occur after the sale.

Every deserving screenplay eventually finds a buyer to option or purchase the material. There are no exceptions.


As the film development executive for the only production company in Hollywood that actually produced films and had an active video game development division at the time (others make the claim, this one was the real deal), I spent three years listening to big writers claiming their pitch would be a great movie AND a great videogame! Turns out it was never the case. Not even once. Usually the concept falls short on both counts, otherwise they'd just pitch the movie. Or the game.

Today, a client mentioned that he might continue with a problematic spec script because it would make a great tie in promotion with a mobile phone provider. Movies don't get made like this--the production costs are too high and if the movie sucks, it could damage an otherwise worthy brand. If it did work like this, wouldn't we have already seen a Ronald McDonald movie?

Promoting your concept of a franchise as a selling point in query letters is a huge mistake. Nobody cares whether you believe it could be a great movie, video game, television show, and line of toys. These spin-offs are irrelevant if the script is not great. And if it is great, it will sell for big money, so who cares if it would also make a fun theme park attraction? You can't entice someone to move your script forward by adding value to anything other than what's inside pages 1-110.

You're not a mogul, just a screenwriter. And if you can't write a great screenplay, your Count Chocula Vs. Boo Berry pitch is irrelevant.

Act like a screenwriter, write a decent screenplay that stands on its own.


Screenplays have a shelf life somewhere between yogurt and milk. The world and cinema changes and its your job to stay current, not to push some script you wrote in the late 1990's that wasn't good enough to sell back then.

So if you find yourself hitting the pitchfest with the same concept for the eighth time because some no-name producer had a free option on it back when studios wanted to make a feature with the dude who played Mr. Belvedere, its time to give it up. If you can't write a great new script this year, I guarantee your old material is not going to sell. Focus on figuring out why the new script won't sell and what you still need to learn to compete in 2009.

On the same note, a rewrite will not breathe new life into a dead screenplay--it just wastes more of your time better spent developing new scripts. One of the biggest differences between professional and amateur writers is that the pros spend three to twelve months on a spec, put it on the market, and move the fuck on. Even if it sells, the writer is no longer in the drivers seat--their job is to implement the notes of the studio, producer, or director (often, whether the directives make sense to them or not).

Unrepresented writers often think they can rewrite something over and over to "get it right". If you can't "get it right" in six months to a year, throwing another two or three seasons is not going to help. Move on, write a few other scripts and come back later when you've mastered the art of rewriting. Otherwise, your script risks getting "lost in the funhouse" which is when you've done so many drafts, you've got a library of information in your head and the pages become incomprehensible to readers.


Contest wins have NO correlation to the spec market. None, Zero, Zip, Zilch. All a contest win says to industry professionals is that your screenplay was better than the works of other unrepresented writers, including the mentally infirm and those who know just enough English to write out a check for the entry fee. I'm joking around here with the comparison. Sort of.

I have never read a contest winner that approaches the quality of the worst specs sent out by ICM, CAA, or William Morris Endeavor. I'm sure there are a few examples of contest winners that sell, but these are rare exceptions. This brings us to the ubiquitous "semi finalists" which many contests seem to give to everyone who entered, kind of like trophies in Little League.

Writers often think being a "semi-finalist" is worth mentioning in query letters. When industry professionals see this, they assume it probably sucks. And guess what: It probably does. If your script can't win a contest where the winner is not good enough to get minor league representation, I guarantee there is a lot you still need to learn about screenwriting. There's nothing wrong with that! Contests never tell people this, which would undermine their ability to sell entry fees, often to the same people submitting the same scripts year after year. I don't think there's anything wrong with contests, I just think its wrong for organizers to mislead writers into thinking they're done the learning process and their material is ready to be seen by professional companies.

This year, I read a script that was a top 5 finalist in a contest where the winner earned $20,000. Ready for the spec market? No. The writer has a lot of raw talent though. Funny thing is, I read another top 5 finalist in the same contest last year. Was it ready for the spec market? Not even close.


This is the amateur's final defense of an unsellable spec. "It might not be great, but Hollywood movies suck!"

Even when a movie is dumped by a studio and butchered to ninety minutes, you're still guaranteed a hero, the hero's character arc, a villain, a romance, and life and death stakes on an adventure as the hero pursues a clear cut goal. That's a movie. Studios have at least a 99% success rate at churning out movies. Unrepresented specs rise to this level less than 1% of the time. Even in 500 unrepresented specs, you're only guaranteed to find one or two scripts that rise to the level of competent but mediocre. And that does not equate to a sale, unless the writer gets lucky.

If you could write a script with half the pizazz of complete failures like CATWOMAN, THE STEPFORD WIVES, or NEXT, you would have agencies fighting over you. Seriously. These might be critically indefensible titles, but they're unquestionably movies.

Just last week, I was channel flipping and came across Uwe Boll's DUNGEON SIEGE. For those of you unfamiliar with Boll's work, consider yourself lucky as he's the Ed Wood of video game adaptations funded through German tax loopholes. But as much as it pains me to say it, for all his incompetence, Boll outpaces the quality of 99% of unrepresented material. That said, the shooting scripts for his movies would not land you an agent if written on spec.

If you think I'm beating up on unrepresented writers and their spec scripts here, or that I'm suggesting that most unrepresented writers lack the abysmal talent of Uwe Boll, you're completely missing the point. I think most four year olds have more creative talent than Uwe Boll. But does Boll understand movies better than your average unrepresented screenwriter? Yes. And so do hundreds of other mediocre talents who have no problem getting represented by big agencies and selling their specs to studios.

Screenwriting is not just about talent. It's about effectively channeling that talent into creating fresh takes on generic situations we've seen a thousand times before. Luckily, if you have talent, you can LEARN how to write a movie and if you work smart, you can improve with each spec.

How do you memorably introduce your hero? What makes your villain so incredibly dangerous, powerful, and scary? What is exciting and new about the action sequences you've written? What are the best five lines of dialogue in your movie? If you've written a comedy, what jokes and situations do you think an agent will laugh so hard at that he'll pick up the phone and read to his friends? If you've written a drama, would the reader to be so devastated that he or she will be unable to sleep that night? And is your screenplay FUN? If it's not, why would anyone want to buy a ticket? These are all elements of VALUE that writers must bring to their screenplays, otherwise you're just trying to sell the generic framework we've already seen.

Unrepresented writers are still in the process of learning HOW to write a movie. More often than not, they exercise creativity by thinking "outside the box" when they create their plots and characters, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of what screenwriting is. Screenwriting is not about designing the framework of a house--there's ninety years of feature length cinema that has the blueprint down cold. Screenwriting is how you decorate, paint, furnish, and landscape that makes your house different than every other one on the block.

Site of the day:

Please visit Chris Lockhart's blog:

One of the foremost experts on loglines/pitches, Chris operates the best board for screenwriters on the net -- And it's free to join.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Confessions of a Film Fest Screener

Screening for film festivals is a job that is filled with hours of devoting your mind and imagination to the would be filmmakers of the world hoping to discover the next hot talent. When that happens, it’s the greatest job on earth. The reality is that for the most part, you kiss a lot of frogs.

When I sit down with a screener, I get a visual of some guy who’s blown his last dime on the Sharpie he used to carefully write the title and his contact info in nearly legible handwriting on the face of the personally burned DVD while he murmurs a little prayer to the universe for this submission to be his lucky break. With that lump in my throat, I feed this representation he so carefully constructed into my all region player and wait for magic to happen. It’s not often that my expectation plays out.

The quality of the product entered into festivals has increased tremendously, both in film quality (thanks to digital) and material. However the number one problem we continue to see is poor writing (poorly conceived characters, lousy dialog, weak plot, and structural breakdown.) This list is in order of commonness of occurrence.

Number two is poor editing. There are some amazingly well-framed shots that will never be seen because the filmmaker didn't get material to put with the eye or didn't know when to change to another well shot frame. Stare at anything for sixty seconds. Now think about looking at that thing for that period of time with no sound in the room.

Budget isn’t the problem. Some of the worst films I’ve watched had a remarkable budget. Shorts with significant special effects, perfect color correction, spot on sound. No viewer will hold it against you if you don’t have the best camera, expert lighting or dazzling CGI. What will lose them in that sixty second introduction is the appearance of nothing. No visual, no character, no sound, and no dialog to pull them into the world they are eager to join.

How to spend your money when making a film:

Hire the best film editor you can afford (hopeful one that is also an amazing sound editor). It's life and death. It would be better if that person isn’t the director or the writer. A craftsman that knows when it’s time to shift off the beautiful sunset you accidently captured and on to the actor.

If you are not a writer, get one. Hopefully you can find a really good starving writer willing to contribute a script for cred and a potential Oscar nod.

Get talent. No, Uncle Nabob cannot play the lead role. I don't care if he was lead Pilgrim in the 5th grade harvest play. Only thing worse than amateurs is bad actors doing bad dialog.
Get a director that can find his ass with both hands. He doesn't have to be perfect; he just has to understand the script.

If you aren’t a cinematographer, hire a camera guy. Students are a great resource. They have learned to work the equipment at school; they can probably turn in part of it to meet some school requirement and will generally work for food. If you must man the camera yourself, at least try to make sure that you don’t film scenes that you can’t frame. It’s harder than you think to keep up with two actors in a staged fight. Buy, rent or steal a tripod and a dolly. A variation on your mother’s advice: Don’t run with cameras!

So what should you concentrate your tiny budget and endless imagination on? Something that will make me care I watched it. A character that will move me, a plot that has a beginning, middle and an end and visuals that convey the story well enough that if they forgot to run the subtitle edit, I still get the story. Certain genres are harder to succeed in than others.

Overdone, by species:

Lots and lots of horror, generally poorly written, crap special effects (tomato soup is NOT a good cheap alternative to makeup blood) bad acting and worse direction. That two minute hold on Angie's navel, in spite of that arts and craft belly button ring while Monster A breathes sinisterly in the background, just lost everyone. The good ones have a promising Act I then start to slide down the slope, dying quietly just before Act 3.. Asian horror is the current indy darling, with the adjectives sick and twisted always included. So the bench marks are original idea, sick, twisted and nothing too extreme: no stir fried babies. Strong second act, decent finish. Let the hero win, or the monster, just give me a reason to care which one.

Agony: I created this category to house the thousands of films where the entire crew thinks that staring at someone with a pained expression for five minutes will garner Oscar nods. This would include the love sick, the suicidal, the damaged by life, generally anyone prone to long periods of staring sadly into a camera in any location. I'm sorry grandma had to go to the nursing home. Seen that 109 times this week, truly I'm sorry but why is THIS grandmother different from the other 108? If you can tell me that, we have something to talk about.

What we'd like to see more of:

Comedy: Good comedy, any variety. A film that keeps you laughing (and not because of the terrible dialog) preferably something that doesn't have to air after 11 p.m. but there's an audience for that too. So if it’s raunchy, go for broke.

Art House: I'm not talking about somebody's rip off of another person's style, I'm talking about a true vision for a narrative approach that isn't what you'd find in a typical Hollywood film. Borrow from the masters, but don't copy them. Visually interesting in every frame, but with at least one character that is well drawn and a story line that at least has a beginning, middle, end and isn't so off the charts that you can't figure out at least what the filmmaker's impression of the story is. I think art house horror would be hot property.

Drama: Real drama. Characters we get into Situations that bring out the character's flaws and strengths. One I saw early on that has always stayed with me was Deep Shaft, a Chinese film that was so well done I quit reading the subtitles because the visuals carried the story. The premise was a couple of miners that would befriend a fellow miner with no family, then push him into a shaft and go collect his death benefit as family members. They didn't do this because they were bad, awful people. They did this to survive. Then they encounter this 16 year old boy working in the mine that fits their profile and there are no other good candidates. When it comes down to the end, there is a division between the two men about killing the boy. The boy is in the mine trying to earn enough money to go to high school because he has the grades. One of the most compelling scenes has a young girl holding up a sign begging for money to go to high school. After a brief exchange about grades, the boy takes his just cashed paycheck, drops some money into her bucket, then eats just bread instead of rice and bread like the other two men. That is universal. No need to translate.

Films that feature a mainstream gay or lesbian character: There is a separate category for G&L films at many festivals and in fact festivals that feature on films in this genre. By and large this category suffers from the same problems as all the others. With one exception; some filmmakers seem to think that this is a call for porn. Sex and nudity is okay, unless, well, that's all there is. Write a good character that happens to be gay orlesbian, back that up with a decent story and you'll be way ahead of the game.

The indy audience is smarter, hipper, looking for edgier material, a fresh voice, a new style. We get so excited when we uncover that gem in the pile of stones that we can't wait to get the other person to look at it to see if they like it too. It makes the hundreds of hours of horrible film worth watching. Which is why we keep coming back year after year to do the job again.

What is most interesting to me is that in the screening process we have a carefully selected demographic, gay, lesbian, male, female, old, young, film lovers, film buffs, film pros, conservatives, liberals, but when a film is good, it almost always gets the same rating be all of us. That speaks volumes. It’s true that personal taste accounts for something, but a well made film accounts for itself.

If you take these words into account and produce a nice little film, find a great festival and then sit back and wait to hear that you film has been accepted.

(Cat Stewart is a freelance writer currently living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent focus has been on writing screenplays and teleplays and putting together plans for a non-profit status production company aimed at helping filmmakers that have followed alternate career paths but have a passion for film. She also works with the film festival, screening entries for the festival’s programming needs.

Cat has published a variety of nonfiction articles and short stories through the years. Her work is currently featured in Greg and Roy Magazine and Higher Image.

In addition to freelance journalism, Cat has written ad copy for national corporations, advertising agencies and local businesses. She has written corporate manuals and technical manuals for a number of healthcare companies including Diversicare, GranCare, Inc. and SunHealth.

Cat completed the certificate program in Feature Film and Television writing at UCLA extension and plans to apply to the upcoming Master program.

Screenwriting awards:

Her spec teleplay, JAG -“Tainted Memories” placed tenth in the Writer’s Digest 74th competition, the only teleplay that was a finalist in a combined competition between original screenplays and teleplays.

Her spec short, Ashes to Anthrax, was an official selection of the 2009 GIAA film festival and is currently a semi finalist in the Expo screenplay contest and first round notification for American Gem Literary Short Contest.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Makes for a Great Idea?

(Erik Bork, Emmy-winning writer for his work on BAND OF BROTHERS, contributes today's blog. Erik is speaking at the upcoming Screenwriting Expo.)

To my mind, there are four things a concept has to have for it to really work.

The first is, it has to be COMPELLING. By that I mean that we have to CARE about the character(s) and situation — to be emotionally involved, and to stay involved. We want to see what’s going to happen, and how it’s all going to play out. I think this is my first job as a writer — to (fairly quickly) present something that makes the reader/audience care — and to keep them caring. I don’t just mean make them interested or intrigued. I mean hook them, with something they can relate to on a human, emotional level.

Having your main character “save the cat” at the beginning can certainly be part of this: doing something that makes us think positively of them. But I’m not just talking about “rootability.” I’m talking about a problem that sets the story in motion that seems important and makes us care. It’s important to the character, and because we’re seeing things through their eyes, it’s becoming important to us. It matters. There is great conflict and we want to see how that’s going to resolve — and we are identifying with a specific person (or people) we feel a real emotional connection with.

How often do you read or watch something and put it down because you just “don’t care about these people and their situation”? It’s not big enough, important enough, relatable enough, and you don’t buy into them — it doesn’t MATTER to you whether they resolve whatever it is. Part of it could be you don’t like them (and they need to “save the cat”), but it’s often also about the nature of their situation. It doesn’t grab you. You’re not compelled to see what will happen.

Secondly, a really good story has to ENTERTAIN. That should be obvious, right? But plenty of situations that might meet these other criteria for compelling us emotionally don’t “entertain” us. What I mean by that is that they don’t make us FEEL MORE ALIVE in some way that makes them enjoyable to watch or read. Take THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS. I totally care about that character, but I’m not entertained by his situation. It’s a well-done movie, with good escalating conflict, and I’m somewhat moved at the couple of moments of victory that come, but they feel like too little, too late. It’s not the kind of story that becomes a smash hit (or gets a writer’s career started), in my opinion, because it doesn’t make the audience feel more alive — more amused, scared, excited, and/or truly fascinated. Compare this movie to I AM LEGEND or MEN IN BLACK, for example. They may not be as emotionally compelling, but boy, do they entertain.

Then there’s BELIEVABILITY. No matter how fantastic the premise might be, once we understand the “rules” (which should happen clearly and quickly), we must then feel that we’re watching recognizable human behavior. Every character at all times should behave in ways that seem real, given the situation. When they don’t, it seems like a contrivance the writer came up with to try to compel or entertain us — and it doesn’t work. We can’t care about or be entertained by something we don’t believe would really happen. This happens a lot in comedy — when characters do over-the-top things that may seem funny or silly, but in the context of a story, we don’t buy it, and so aren’t entertained by it. I think the best comedy (and every other genre) comes from identifiable and relatable human behavior, from characters who really care about something — like in EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND or FRASIER. No matter how exaggerated a character may be, once we accept their basic personality, everything they do has to be something we believe they’d do. I can’t tell you how often something I’m reading stops working for me (or never starts) because I don’t understand why a character is doing or saying something, and don’t really believe they would.

Finally, a great concept is UNIQUE. It’s fresh in some way. It probably has its roots in something familiar that has worked in the past, but it has its own new twist or point-of-view that makes it seem like something we’ve never quite seen before. Granted, there are plenty of things that get produced and published that don’t seem all that unique. If they are compelling, entertaining, and believable, that can be enough. But for something to really be great, to be hugely successful, to the point where it could get an unknown writer the beginnings of a career, for example, this freshness can be the final key ingredient.
Almost every aspect I’d ever critique about any story comes down to one (or more) of these four aspects. I think it’s true for what people would critique about my work as well.

And it’s not just about story concepts: ideally, EVERY SCENE should also be compelling, entertaining, believable, and unique — in some way. When the scenes, the story, and the basic concept all pass this high standard, then you really have something.

Please feel free to contact me with feedback or questions!

Wishing you all the best,

Erik Bork

Sunday, October 4, 2009


This past Friday the legendary television series, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, celebrated its 50th anniversary. An extraordinary conversation with series creator Rod Serling and a group of students is available on youtube. Here's the final part of that lecture series to inspire us all.

Tales from the Script (Trailer)


Billy Wilder and I.A.L. "Iz" Diamond had an amazing streak of brilliant screenplays during their many years of collaboration. Below is rare footage of them at work:

Tales from the Script

(This interview comes from Michael at Script-A-Wish. Michael is an industry-respected script consultant who gives great notes and you can read more about his services at

1. Tales from the Script is the title for both a film you've directed and a book you've written with Paul Robert Herman. What was the genesis of Tales from the Script, and what came first, the book or the film?

I've been writing articles and essays about screenwriting for many years -- in fact, my first book was a study of the legendary blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo -- so writing about this subject has always been an important part of my professional life. In addition to being a student of the history of screenwriting, I'm also a screenwriter. The impetus for this particular project was crossing paths with Paul, because he had the idea for a book about the rejection screenwriters face. That specific take on the subject got things started, and from the beginning the plan was to do the book and the movie simultaneously. Over the course of the next three years, the project evolved into a broader discussion of the lives of screenwriters, because my feeling was that if I only got into a room with people like Bill Goldman and Paul Schrader once, I wanted to explore a variety of topics. The conversations conducted for this project touch on rejection, but also explore a great many other subjects. The interviews reveal nearly every experience that a writer can have while working in Hollywood, so I like to think of the book and the film as records of the greatest screenwriting panel discussion imaginable.

2. The book is scheduled to come out next January. What kind of release will the film get?

The plan is for a DVD release at the same time as the book's publication. In the meantime, more festival screenings are planned for the fall, and a major screening in LA will take place on August 5 at the Egyptian Theatre, with a number of cast members in attendance.

3. What kind of response is the film getting from writers?

One of the most gratifying experiences I've had on the festival circuit occurred at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. After a screening, two young men approached me and explained that they were struggling screenwriters. They said that the movie told them exactly what they needed to hear about the obstacles they would face and the rewards awaiting them if they found success. More recently, I showed the film at the Writers Guild in Los Angeles, and a writer said the movie lifted his spirits after a particularly disappointing rejection -- because he realized that everyone takes the same hits, even the superstars. I've heard reactions like this again and again from beginners and professionals, and I'm very proud of that. Writers feel the movie gives a true and complete picture of what it means to be a Hollywood screenwriter. As a storyteller, of course I'm also thrilled that people find the movie so entertaining -- nothing makes me feel better than listening to an audience laugh while they watch the film. I think audiences, including writers and non-writers alike, are pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoy meeting the colorful personalities featured in the documentary.

4. What do you find to be the common element in all these successful writers?

Without question, the most important thing a Hollywood screenwriter brings to the table is tenacity. You have to believe in yourself and your talent in order to struggle through early rejection, you need confidence to pitch, and you must wholeheartedly believe that your screenplays are the best scripts on the market -- or else why bother? And then when you actually achieve success, your troubles really begin -- because the compromises that are expected of screenwriters are greater than those expected of any other writers in the world. Nobody tells a novelist to change the gender of a protagonist because such-and-such actor might be available, and nobody tells a playwright to chop the second act in half because the budget got cut. Talent, luck, and a good personality can get a writer in the door of Hollywood, but tenacity -- in terms of keeping a positive attitude while enduring abuse -- is crucial for generating any sort of career longevity. One of my goals with this project was to move past the topic most screenwriting books explore -- how to write a script that sells -- and talk about the things writers need to understand if they want their careers to last.

5. At Script A Wish, some of our notes often revolve around explaining the differences between what spec writers have to deliver in a screenplay to get their foot in the door versus what a writer with a track record can get away with, both in terms of technical aspects and conceptually. In other words, Joe Schmoe trying to make a first impression doesn't have the same leeway that a Shane Black or William Goldman might get. What are your thoughts on the major differences between the spec writer and the writer with representation and credits?

This is a bit of a trick question, because the two writers you mention have idiosyncratic styles. Their marketability is based on the uniqueness of their voices. And as we all have seen with the success of Charlie Kaufman and Diablo Cody, writers whose work doesn't sound like anyone else's work can always blaze a path. But the fact is that most writers in Hollywood are artisans rather than artists, because most of the screenplays that actually become movies have been written and rewritten by many different people, only some of whom receive screen credit. So here's where this is a trick question -- new writers have to be as unique as they can be in order to get noticed, but once they start working, their writing will inevitably become homogenized. In other words, Joe Schmoe has even more leeway than an established writer to try things that are out of the ordinary. Therefore writers should embrace their uniqueness when they're trying to get on the Hollywood map -- the scripts that get noticed are the ones that catch people by surprise, like Kaufman's "Being John Malkovich" and Cody's "Juno." In my own script-consulting work, I discourage writers from trying to follow Hollywood formulas too closely. Yes, any script presented to Hollywood needs to have three acts and contain certain familiar dramatic elements, such as a protagonist who undergoes a personal change. But if you try too hard to make your script a carbon-copy of other scripts, you will miss out on your greatest opportunity, which is to show people why your storytelling is so unique that you should be paid for your work. That's why I'm wary of offering notes that scare writers into approaching their work too conservatively. A writer named Michael January said it best in his interview: "Hollywood lives and dies on something that seems new and original, but is very much like something that made money before." A great case in point is "The Hangover," which is like a mash-up of "Wedding Crashers" and "After Hours." It's new and familiar at the same time.

6. I definitely agree that a unique voice and a fresh take on an old formula tale is valued. I guess what I'm getting at is the necessity of a relatively high concept idea since an aspiring writer without representation probably doesn't have attached talent or literary property. Would you agree that this is a significance difference between the aspiring writer and the established writer?

Everybody in Hollywood is hoping for a great high-concept idea, whether the writer in question is a beginner or a veteran, because ideas are the engines that drive the business. A great idea is the seed that survives the rewriting process, it's the concept that lures talent attachments, and it's the basis for the marketing campaign. Case in point? Larry Cohen, one of the participants in the project, has been writing for film and television since the 1950s, but the biggest splash he made in recent memory was for "Phone Booth," which was about as high-concept as it gets. So the idea that writers have to come up with great ideas at the beginning of their careers, and then get to write more esoteric stories once they become established, just isn't realistic. I think where your perception may be coming from is the fact that a lot of writers get on the map by writing an original script with a big idea, then shift into for-hire work on adaptations, etc. In essence that first spec is like a calling card that gets the writer the job of writing studio projects that are already in development. So while it's true that new writers can get noticed more quickly if they generate great commercial ideas, it's equally true that established writers are pursuing the same goal. Another factor to remember is that every screenwriter in Hollywood has written wonderful scripts that never got made. A writer's list of produced credits doesn't tell the whole story about his or her career.

7. Did the writers make any comments about mistakes that beginners make?

Absolutely. Many of the writers lamented that reading screenplays can be torture, even when the scripts are written by professionals -- because screenplays are all about forward momentum. As Goldman says in the movie and in his many brilliant books, “Screenplays are structure.” So nearly every one of the writers in this project encouraged beginners to be as ruthless as possible when editing screenplays. If you’ve written a character description that takes six lines, see if you can get it down to three. If you’ve written a monologue that takes half a page, see if you can get it down to a quarter of a page. If a block of screen direction looks dense, see if you can replace certain sentences with evocative fragments. Even though everyone in Hollywood genuinely wants to find the next great screenplay, everyone in Hollywood dreads opening a new script because it’s much more likely to be overwritten and unfocused. Professionals interviewed for this project repeatedly made the point that a screenplay is not a novel, so if you’re a writer who likes to play with long, prosaic descriptions, then you might be happier writing books. The idea of a script is to create mental images in as few words as possible so that the reader can envision the movie you’ve written -- and part of that challenge involves writing so efficiently that the script can be read quickly. If it takes more than an hour to read your feature-film script, then you’ve probably overwritten. I can’t tell you how many of the pros interviewed for this project said that their early scripts had way too much description, on-the-nose dialogue, etc.

8. How long did it take the average writer to break in?

The old rule of thumb that it takes ten years to begin a Hollywood career provides a good average, but the clock doesn't really start ticking until you're in Hollywood and trying to get meetings. It's almost impossible to break into Hollywood without living here. For instance I tried to write scripts for years living outside of LA, during which time I only picked up a couple of small jobs. But now that I've been in LA for six years, I've been hired to write a pilot, I've had an original optioned, and I co-wrote an indie feature that got made (but not released). So if you've been in Hollywood for ten years and nothing's clicking, then the universe is probably trying to tell you something. Just remember that luck is such a key factor that if you don't make it, that doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad writer. A number of the participants in this project talked about talented friends who haven't become successful, even with powerful and established screenwriters introducing them to Hollywood players. As William Goldman says in the movie and the book, "It's a crapshoot."

9. Screenwriters today are increasingly coming from a film school background as opposed to a literary background. What are your thoughts on film schools and what affect if any does this have on American film as a whole?

The impact of film schools was felt most profoundly in the late 60s and early 70s, when the so-called "movie brats" -- Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, etc. -- attacked Hollywood armed with film-school educations and an academic understanding of not only Hollywood storytelling but the possibilities presented by ideas found in foreign films. And in fact my second book, "The Cinema of Generation X," explored the next wave of filmmakers -- Rodriguez, Soderbergh, Tarantino, etc. -- who were the first generation of filmmakers to enter the business after the introduction of movies on video. Being able to dissect films at home, thereby teaching oneself lessons about structure and narrative, had an immeasurable impact on Hollywood, because Gen-X filmmakers work almost exclusively in postmodern narrative -- movies about movies, if not literally than at least on a textural basis. In terms of where we are now, the next wave will be DIY filmmakers who grew up with DV cameras and YouTube. We're only just seeking the first inklings of what that does to narrative, in films like "Cloverfield." Ron Shelton, the writer-director of "Bull Durham," made an interesting remark during his interview -- he said that story is what matters, no matter the means by which the story is delivered. So I guess the adventure right now is waiting for the next change to take hold so that we understand how cinema storytelling will evolve.

10. Are most of the writers you interviewed in Hollywood for life, or is it possible to have a writing career outside of Tinseltown?

For most writers, living in Hollywood for at least a few years during the career-development phase is unavoidable. William Goldman was already established as a novelist when he got hired for his first movie job, so circumstances never forced him to relocate from New York to Los Angeles -- but keep in mind his career began in the 1960s, when the business was a lot smaller. Now, with the business as corporate and impersonal as it is, it's incumbent on any serious wannabe to live in LA long enough to develop a network of relationships. Once a writer gets a reputation as a moneymaker, by having written several successful films, he or she can set up shot wherever. But to begin the career, you have to live in LA unless you're already established as a brand name elsewhere -- if you're a political journalist in Washington, for instance, you might get away with selling a political script long-distance.

11. Do the pros have any thoughts or advice on writer's block?

Professionals don't have the luxury of writer's block, because they have deadlines. Plus, more often than not, professionals already have something on which to build -- a novel they're adapting, an original movie to which they're writing a sequel, a comic book that's being turned into a movie, etc. Even on original projects, professionals usually have an elaborate pitch that triggered a deal with a studio. Generally speaking, the only time professional screenwriters work on purely original spec scripts is when they're on strike, because paying work isn't available. I think the reason is that screenwriting careers can be very short for a lot of people, so once writers start working, they tend to shelve original projects for the days when paying jobs appear with less frequency.

12. Based on the trailer, disappointment and rejection seems to be a theme for many of the writers. Did you come away with any insight on how to deal with this?

There's no question that Hollywood writers are by and large an embittered population, because even though many of them are paid well, their work is not treated with the same respect afforded to the creations of novelists and playwrights. Therefore the new writer needs to understand what he or she is getting into before attempting a Hollywood career. If you're an individualist who doesn't like people changing your work, then Hollywood is not for you -- you're better off making indie movies where you can be the director and/or the producer. But if you like collaborating, and you want to help directors and producers realize their visions, then you're perfect for Hollywood. In general, the most successful writers I met during this project have all tried to claim some sort of autonomy for themselves in order to compensate for the abuse they suffer as writers for hire. Many become directors, many become producers, and many write books. Nobody avoids getting rewritten. Nobody.

13. What is the most important lesson they have for aspiring writers?

In addition to the lesson of tenacity, the writers want beginners to understand that what happens in the film business isn't personal. If an agent decides not to represent you, or an actor decides not to appear in your movie, or a studio decides not to purchase your script -- it's not personal. Movies get made because they fit the current needs of the marketplace, and the marketplace changes constantly. That's where luck comes in. If you present the right script to the right person at the right time, you can succeed. The only thing writers can control is the quality of their scripts, so remember the old saying: When in doubt, rewrite. And another thing the writers mentioned was the importance of having a network of trusted readers -- those people who review your work and give honest reactions, instead of simply saying that the work is wonderful. But many of the more optimistic writers, such as Adam Rifkin, made a point of reminding beginners that every time someone finishes a new script, he or she has created a new opportunity. In other words, keep at it until you either succeed or lose your enthusiasm.

The official site for Tales from the Script is, and Peter Hanson’s site is

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bible Author Speaks!

Back from a retreat at Sundance with Dave Trottier. Dave has a free newsletter and this is an excellent article:

Get in the Game Now!

Options, Options...

(Writer Joshua James provides a guest blog today on the subject of options. If you enjoyed this article you can visit Josh's website: Joshua James.

Rapping On Writing - Options, We Got Options!
Okay, we’re back to Rapping On Writing!

Among other things, I had a couple screenplays optioned earlier this summer, and another one re-optioned (which means that the current option expired and a new one had to be renegotiated) all around the same time … and I realized I hadn’t really read much regarding options on the internets and thought I’d share what I know for the masses.

Anyone out there more experienced than I, feel free to chime in. But here’s what I’ve learned over time. Let’s begin.


Basically it’s a lease-to-own agreement on an intellectual property. Now that property can be a screenplay (and usually is) but can also be a book, a treatment, a newspaper article … a cartoon strip … a person’s life … a blog, too. Basically a person wants to exploit for profit an intellectual property and pays you rent in the form of an option for a specific amount of time to do so. During the period of the option, the person holding the option is the only person who can exploit the property (which usually means they bring in someone else, of course, but that’s the idea).

Once they get financing, they’ll purchase the property outright.


For a number of reasons, one being that perhaps it’s too costly to just purchase, therefore they pay less via an option. Or it needs work and they want to shepherd it to the point of being ready, and then buy it, but if the script can’t be whipped into shape, then they’ve saved money … or it could be that the option-er just doesn’t have the money. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons. Of course, you’d prefer to sell your script, everyone does. But an option is not a bad thing. Why?

Because when the option period runs out, the rights go back to the option-ee, the author, and if the option-er hasn’t been able to do anything, then they don’t get a return on the money they invested. So it’s smarter to invest a smaller amount. Nor is it bad for you, the author, because then it’s possible someone else can option it (I’ve had one script optioned more than once by different people) or purchase it. If they’re unable to do something with it, you get the rights back.

My understanding (and again, I could be wrong) is that most studios simply purchase properties they’re interested in, but not always. But smaller producers can’t afford to do this with every project, so it makes sense to purchase the exclusive rights for a period of time, then approach studios for financial backing.

If they go to the studios without the rights, then why should the studios (or any of the other entities who invest in such) need to deal with the producer? They can buy / option it on their own, without the person who brought it.

So many producers who have working relationships with development people will option a few properties they like, take to to them and see how well it’s liked by those who can get a movie made (which may not only be studio people, it can be a director, it can be a movie star … many people hope for a movie star) but they can’t test the water without showing it, and they can’t show it without obtaining the rights, so it’s a catch-22 for them … what if they buy it and everyone thinks it stinks?

Therefore the idea of the option, a test-drive, to see if someone falls in love with it.


It can be whatever length both parties agree to … I think the standard for the screenplays I’ve had optioned is usually 18 months, with another year added on as an optional extension (paid, of course) for the option-er. It really depends, too, on the property … a book can take quite awhile before it comes out, and therefore may need a longer period …

But length of time should also depend on how much one is paid, too. If the option-ee is not making a reasonable amount, then the time period should really be shorter. Which leads us to …


That one is more difficult. Again, it can be any number, you can ask for anything, it just depends on whether or not someone wants to pay it. I’m not going to really share my own numbers, because talking about money, I never like to do. It’s a bit untoward.

It can be anything from a dollar (more on that later) to ten to twenty grand, depending on the property. The more infamous the property, the higher the price, I guess you could say. It also depends on who wants to option it, if you have two people trying to option the same property, the competition drives the price up.

But I’d recommend that, if you have a tight indie script, that you’re looking at a grand or two, depending. This is why it’s difficult, it depends on the commercial prospects of the script.

In her book KILLER INSTINCT Jane Hamshur writes about optioned a script from a then-unknown Quentin Tarantino for ten grand. While QT wasn’t famous, at that time, he had sold a spec and had a rep around LA. So she had to pay. But bear in mind, they viewed that script (NATURAL BORN KILLERS) as an independent genre film … it only became a big studio movie when they got a big name attached (Stone, Oliver) and because Jane and her partner held the exclusive rights, they were attached to the movie as producers.

it’s likely that if people thought NATURAL BORN KILLERS was a studio movie at all, it wouldn’t have been optioned, it would have just been sent by QT’s reps to the studios (who all turned it down when Jane first sent it, it only became big after RESERVOIR DOGS hit and Oliver got interested … but for more on that, read her book) and sold.

But it was viewed as an indie, so it was optioned. So it depends on the property … if the project is a quirky dark independent drama, with limited appeal, the option price is likely to be a lot less than a high concept thriller that reads like a studio movie.

In my experience, in NYC, usually screenplays would get anywhere from a grand on up … If someone offers you 1,500 for a year for your indie comedy, that’s about average (again, it depends on the script and genre) …

I will say this. No one will really get rich off of options, they’re usually modest amounts. You’re not going to be able to quit your day job because you got an option (and you shouldn’t) … of course, all monies taken in by writers are welcome, modest or not, but it’s important to know that the real money happens when a project is sold or made.

Now that being said, that brings us to …


Which is a phrase that, if you’re writing screenplays, you’re going to hear many times.

Basically it’s an option for no money (usually a symbolic dollar, hence the name, Dollar Options) because the option-er can’t afford to pay a regular option fee to the option-ee, therefore they offer a dollar. Basically they want the same rights for nothing.

My advice is, 95 percent of the time, don’t do it. Don’t option your script for nothing. It is, 95 percent of the time, a bad idea.

It’s like you own a beach house, and someone wants to pay you a dollar to live there for a year. And while they’re living there, they’re going to have parties and invite all their friends over to stay with them.

From a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense, either. If someone pays nothing for your script, they have little incentive to make it happen. It takes a lot of energy and persistence to get a movie made, almost everyone says NO (every great script out there that was made into a great movie, was usually turned down a few times by someone else) and if an option-er knows their time is running out and they’ll get nothing on their investment (the option fee), they’ll bust a nut to make it happen.

If they risk a dollar, they can shrug and go, “Eh, maybe next script will be the one.” Because it’s just a dollar.

They’re playing Lotto with scripts rather than trying to produce them. Not good business for the option-ee. Great for the option-er, who probably has a stack of a hundred scripts they can throw out that cost them a buck apiece.

So I usually say, DON’T.

Plus, if someone wanted to option your script for a dollar, someone else who you HAVEN’T met yet may love it as well and pay you market price. On one of my first scripts, I had someone offer me a dollar option … I turned it down, and two months later, I got an offer for more from another person.

So it never hurts to say NO to a deal you don’t like, but more on that later on another post.

If the first, dollar-person shows it around to everyone (and does a bad job of it) then the opportunity is lost. So I say, 9.5 times out of 10, SAY NO to the dollar option. I’ve done it a few times, and nothing good as come from it, at least not yet.

But that doesn’t mean you should say no every single time … just 9.5 times out of 10.


Well, it depends … there can be a lot of reasons … Let’s say you want to attach yourself as director, but that’s a hard sell. You got a producer willing to run the gauntlet for you as director, and you reward them by not charging them.

Or …

Let’s say you live in Podunk, Iowa … and you know ONE person in Los Angeles, but that person is a real producer with contacts … and you have no contacts whatsoever … then it may not be a bad idea to let him or her have the option for a short period of time while you work on your next script (and there should always be a next script, okay? Always.) … You can write a query letter to others, stating that such-and-such optioned your script, etc. Make sure you have another script ready to go. That’s something.

Other reasons? You have a relationship with someone you like, and you want to give them a chance … it’s a script you’re not really selling or optioning, its challenging material, so you’re going to let a person try and get it going.

Basically, if you know someone will bust a nut to get it made, it may be something to consider … but bear in mind, everyone will SWEAR that THAT is what they will do, when in reality they’ll probably drop you like a hot rock when the next cool thing comes along.

So it’s a real judgment call. Maybe your friend who’s dying to produce your script will be like Lawrence Bender, who was giving dance lessons and had never produced before when QT gave him a shot with RESERVOIR DOGS, and he moved heaven and earth to get the right elements attached. And succeeded.

It also depends on the material … if the script is a hard sell (tough subject, not commercial) like RESERVOIR DOGS at the time it was made, perhaps it’s something to consider. If you like them, they have good credits and a passion for it that you believe, then think about it.

But the reality is, most of the time they won’t be Lawrence Bender (sometimes he isn’t, either) so keep that in mind.

To sum up, it depends on the property and the person. But my scale still holds … 9.5 times out of 10, it’s better to say no.

If you DO agree to a dollar option, make sure it’s for a short period of time (six months, nine at the most) … they’ll kick and scream, but if they can’t do it in six months, it’s doubtful they can do it. Make that your non-negotiable point.

Trust me, you don’t want to get stuck in a bad deal for two years for a dollar. I’ve done that. It’s not fun.

Which brings us to


My advice is, if someone asks you to option a script, is to get an entertainment lawyer to negotiate for you. They are expensive, and maybe you’ll end up paying more to the lawyer than you’ll even get for the option, but it’s worth it in the end.

Agents and Managers do know contracts, and can help, but this is what lawyers do for a living, after all. And actually, it’s a lot simpler to find a good lawyer than a good agent or manager … they bill by the hour, they’ll take your calls. While other writers may be loathe to introduce you to their agent, usually they have no problem recommending a good entertainment lawyer.

It’s especially important when negotiating the purchase price … some option contracts call for that, some do not. What that means is, if they get the property set up, they’ll know in advance what to pay for it. And you should, too. You should never agree to accept less than WGA scale (available at the WGA website) and if the option contract is going to that place, negotiating purchase price, I’d say you should get a lawyer. Soon.

But sometimes they are fairly simple things, just says the option-er is holding the exclusive rights to exploit the property for X months from option-ee …

If you’re not going to get a lawyer (and you should) then at least make sure you read everything in anything you sign very closely … you can make your demands to the option-er, and they’ll agree to them, then send a contract that says the opposite … this has happened to me (and, unfortunately, not so long ago …) and it’s on you to read the fine print.

I’ve had that happen … I’ve had offers, requested changes in the contract, the guy agreed, sent a contract and it was the exact opposite of what I asked for. I called him up and said, “Hey, this is exactly what I didn’t want,” real friendly-like, and he was like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, must of been a mistake, I’ll send another draft” and I NEVER heard from that guy again about it.

He was trying to slip it by me. It happens. That was from before I used a lawyer, of course. I think a lawyer is very necessary.

If I’d have signed without noticing, then found out about it later, he would have claimed that A) I never made that claim or B) the contract was what I agreed to, etc. That’s happened to me, too. From someone that I thought was a friend. I had emails proving otherwise, but it didn’t matter, I’d signed.

It’s especially important to have a clear, concise contract when in business with friends (as a mentor taught me). Don’t give someone the temptation of choosing between a million dollars or screwing you over … most will take the million and figure they’ll make new friends. Make the contract strong so they won’t have to make that choice. And you’ll stay friends.

So be careful when signing, but there’s no reason to be scared or nervous or paranoid … everyone wants to get the best deal for themselves that they can, and all you’re doing is coming to an accord … it’s why, in the end, it’s called an agreement.

You’ll either agree or you won’t, but don’t take it personal, either way.

Cell Phone Montage

A fun link for today.

"Why don't they just call the cops?"

Many a writer has faced that simple logic problem. With cell phones it's become a bigger problem.

The most common fix?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Seeking the Magic Number

("Now we're just haggling over the price." How much for your script? Guest blogger Jesse Rosenblatt gives some great info. Jesse is an entertainment attorney and a gifted screenwriter. Good guy and someone you want on your team.)

A burning question on any first time writer’s mind is – “How much will I get paid for my feature film screenplay sale?”

It’s a valid question, though a difficult one to answer. You’ve spent months, maybe even years, writing your script. You want to get paid! And you need to make sure you’re protected and don’t sell yourself short. Often times, writers are willing to forego monetary compensation in exchange for the hope they’ll receive credit on a completed film to help launch their writing career.

While I certainly understand that perspective, and in some cases it’s a valid point of view, please remember – if others are getting paid well for their contributions to the project, you should too. Every great film starts with a great script.

I want to make clear that the typical structure of a screenplay deal is not an outright purchase but rather an option/purchase agreement. Let me briefly explain what this is for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept: an option/ purchase agreement is one where the prospective buyer (a producer, production company, studio, etc.) agrees to pay you some money (generally 10% of the potential purchase price or less) in exchange for a period of time (typically called the “option period”) where your script is off the market and the producer can develop it.

At any point during this time period (which is often a year), they may decide to exercise their option to purchase your script and acquire all your rights in it. This generally means they must pay you the full purchase price set forth in the agreement less the amount of the option payment you’ve already received.

Rather than discuss these option/purchase agreements (a topic deserving an entirely separate article), I’m just going to focus on the actual purchase price amount for your existing screenplay (not one you’re now being paid to write or rewrite).
There is no universally applied standard for the purchase price of your screenplay (although you may use the WGA – Writers Guild of America – Minimum Basic Agreement as a guideline, whether you’re a member of the WGA or not).

The amount you will receive for your first feature film screenplay sale will vary from project to project. There are several factors to consider, including:

- the demand for your script;
- who the writer is (taking into account whether the writer is in the WGA, the writer’s stature in the industry including his/her track record, etc.);
- the anticipated budget level of the film;
- if the script is based on any other underlying material;
- who the party producing the film is; and
- how many writing elements/steps the purchaser will require you to deliver (e.g., a treatment, a first draft and subsequent drafts, rewrites and polishes.

1) Fixed (or Flat) Purchase Price; WGA Minimums

For a writer seeking their first script sale, practical realities and other issues may lead smaller production companies to seek to buy your screenplay for a purchase price as low as a few thousand dollars. Whether or not to accept such an offer depends on your assessment of who the party making the offer is and your
confidence in your ability to find another buyer willing to offer more.

If the party seeking to acquire your script is a mini-major or major studio/ production company, you can expect the purchase price they’ll pay you should be at least WGA scale (e.g., the WGA’s stated minimum for its guild members), even if you’re not yet a WGA writer.

If you’re a member of the WGA, the union spells out mandated minimums to be paid for the purchase price of a screenplay by guild signatory producers. These prices currently fall between about $40,700 (for low-budget productions – i.e., less than $5,000,000) and about $113,600 (for high-budget productions – i.e., above $5,000,000). The WGA minimum schedule can be reviewed at

2) Purchase Price Tied To Production Budget

On projects set up with well established production companies or studios, often deals for screenplay purchases are done as a percentage of the budget, rather than a flat or fixed amount. So, you may expect to receive a purchase price equal to around 2.5% – 5% of the “in-going production budget” (which is typically defined as the final budget number for the film, including above and below-the-line items, less a
bunch of costs, such as overhead, completion bond fees, contingency, interest, bank/financing charges and any contingent compensation).

But if you try and apply this percentage of budget approach to a low budget feature, the purchase price amount you come up with may just seem too low (for example, for a $750,000 feature, the screenplay purchase price at 2.5% of the budget would be only $18,750 – over $20,000 less than the WGA minimum).

The purchase price is often further refined with a stated “floor” amount – maybe $25,000 – and a “ceiling” amount – maybe $150,000 – so there is a fixed minimum and maximum the purchaser knows they’ll have to pay and you know you’ll receive. The idea here is that the studio or production company is protected from overpaying and you are protected from selling your script for a price that’s too low (so if the film becomes a major production with a much larger budget, your compensation will increase accordingly).

As a general rule, no more than 5% of a production’s total budget is allotted to acquiring all of the underlying literary properties (though in the case of very low-budget or very high-budget productions this percentage may not apply). This budget item must cover the payment for any books, articles, etc. on which the script is based, as well as all payments to all writers for the initial screenplay and any
subsequent drafts, rewrites, polishes, etc. As a result, the production company must be mindful that if the“ceiling” amount is too high, this may be a hindrance in getting the movie made (since this line item in the budget will be too costly). So the purchaser will generally do their best to keep the “ceiling” amount as low as possible.

3) $__________ Against $__________

I’ve also heard it said from time-to-time that the “typical” range for new writers selling their first screenplay to an established production company or studio is $100,000 “against” $250,000 (but obviously take that with a grain of salt, particularly based on the current economic climate in the industry). This means you get paid a guaranteed fixed fee of $100,000 for your screenplay drafts (including the original draft delivered, and any additional writing steps included in the option/purchase agreement), though this fee may be actually payable in stages, with a chunk upfront and the remainder upon starting/completing writing steps.

Then, only upon some condition taking place (which condition will be stated in your
option/purchase agreement), you would get the other $150,000, which is often referred to as a production bonus.

The condition triggering this production bonus payment is usually one of the following:

- the film going into active development;
- the film proceeding to production; or
- you being the sole credited writer on the final produced film (though in this case, if you receive shared credit, you would typically only receive half of this amount, or $75,000 in my example).

The reason the production companies and studios like these structures is that they purchase many more scripts than they actually ever produce and so this protects them from overpaying for material that ends up unproduced.

4) Purchase Price As It Relates To Writing Services – Which Amounts Are “Applicable Against” The Purchase Price?

In the event that you are negotiating not only a screenplay option/purchase, but also the terms for you to render additional writing services on the same project (e.g., additional drafts, rewrites, polishes, etc.), these may be negotiated at the same time (though the terms of each may appear in separate agreements).

That said, you will need to negotiate which writing services are required from you and which optional writing steps the purchaser may elect to require from you down the road. Whatever the case, it is always important to make sure you know which of your writing steps are going to be “applicable against” your overall purchase price. This means that the purchaser will deduct the payments for those writing steps
from the overall purchase price – so when you receive your purchase price, it will be less than the amount originally stated, since you’ve received additional sums along the way as you complete writing services).

As a rule of thumb, optional writing steps are almost always applicable. But once you go beyond the required steps and optional steps set forth in your agreement, if the purchaser asks you to render further writing services, you must make sure the payments for these steps are not applicable against your overall purchase price (because otherwise, you could be in a position where you cap out and working more does not yield you any more money).

Sometimes, a purchaser will request a writer enter into an “all services deal” once the film heads into production – meaning the writer is paid a flat payment which covers all required writing services from that point forward until the film is released. These should never be applicable against your purchase price
and you should make sure some limits are placed on them so you are not stuck writing for ages if the project is dragged out.

5) Contingent Compensation (or “Back End”)

In addition to the purchase price, you can also hope that your option/purchase agreement will entitle you to contingent compensation in some form, often referred to as a “back end.”

It is not uncommon for a writer selling their first screenplay to be entitled to an amount equal to 5% of the producer’s “net profits” (or however else this concept may be defined by the party purchasing your script). This may drop to 2.5% if you receive shared credit on the finished film. Be aware that your agreement will likely grant you a percentage of the limited pool of “net profits” received by the producer rather than those of the film production as a whole.

Generally, “net profits” are monies leftover after the producer (or the production company or studio producing the film) deducts all of their expenses (whether actually paid or not). The list of deductible expenses is quite lengthy and frankly, most writers believe that you will never receive a penny from your “net profits” allotment.

In an effort to give yourself the best shot at ever seeing some money from this, I suggest you try to tie the definition of “net profits” in your agreement(s) with the same definition in the agreement of the producer and/or director, since they will likely have greater negotiating leverage based on their past precedent. The
above approach is often referred to as a “favored nations” or “most favored nations” definition, whereby your definition is ‘tied’ to that of someone else (usually the producer). This way the pool of money from which you all may receive contingent compensation will be defined, calculated and paid the same way.

Since production companies/studios have several negotiated versions of the same definition for “net profits,” you want to do your best to protect yourself from getting gypped out of money (if any is actually left after permissible deductions) which other above-the-line personnel receive.

If you’re feeling confused by all of this, you’re not alone. I urge you not to try and parse through these concepts without an experienced attorney at your side. In the event that your definition is not as beneficial as it should be and your script turns out to be a blockbuster film, this could potentially cost you millions in the long run.

In addition, you may try to negotiate additional compensation in the form of box office bonuses, which only become payable if and when the film hits certain threshold levels of theatrical box office gross receipts. In some cases, you may even be able to negotiate a bonus which is contingent upon budget level(so if the budget ends up exceeding a certain amount, you’d receive additional compensation).

In conclusion, there’s no easy way to answer the question posed, since the amount paid for any screenplay is totally determined on a case-by-case basis. Armed with the information I’ve outlined above, and hopefully a great lawyer, manager and/or agent, you’ll reach an agreement and sign a contract for your first screenplay option/purchase.

Congratulations! Going forward, the amount of your compensation from this (your most recent agreement) with be referred to as your “quote.” The next question you’ll call to ask me is “How can I raise (or “bump up”) my quote?”

Generally, as your career builds and you work on more projects, your quote should grow organically with each new deal. But three common ways to help speed up the process are:

-Have one of your screenplays green lit so the film proceeds into production and you receive credit on a completed film;
-Attract heat by selling a pitch, treatment or spec script (e.g., one written on your own with no impending buyer ready and waiting for it) in a “bidding war” where there are multiple interested parties; or
-Receive screenplay credit on a project that nets awards or has an impressive performance at the box office.

You should now have some parameters by which you can gauge your expectations. But remember, you’re a writer, not a lawyer/manager/agent – so make sure you surround yourself as early as possible with experienced and capable representation who will make your career and your success a priority. You want a team with integrity who can fight for what’s in your best interest – but only after first trying to reach a mutually amicable agreement. And let them handle all the heavy lifting. You should never try to negotiate the terms for your agreements on your own. It’s your job to write and be seen as the friendly creative force – not the negotiator.

I hope you found this helpful for providing some context to your question. I wish you all ever-increasing success!

Jesse Rosenblatt is the founder of the Law Office of Jesse Rosenblatt, an entertainment law/consulting firm servicing corporate and individual clients across all segments of the entertainment business. He has over 10 years experience working and negotiating with many of the most powerful players in the entertainment industry. For more information, please visit

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Michele Wallerstein: SOCIALIZING!

(How would you like to know, before you send a script out, what a manager or agent will think of your work? With 25 years experience as an agent brokering major sales to Hollywood's top production companies, Michele Wallerstein will let you know where you are and what you need to do to get that sale. Michele has worked with me over the past year elevating the quality of my work. She's a friend, mentor, and an inspiration. Rare to find such a positive person in what can be a bleak path for the new writer. To reach Michele you can email her at

Socializing is an extension of Networking, but is not the same thing. It goes the next step in helping to ensure a longer life in professional writing. Working in Hollywood is not only about the quality of your work, but is about living in the entertainment community. You will need to become a friend and social connection with others who also live in the world of movies and television.

Networking is your first connection with the people who can give you a hand when you begin that long trek through the labyrinth that will hopefully lead you through the ubiquitous closed doors of show business. Socializing gives you the potential of establishing relationships with the Tinseltown folks who are necessary to your future. They also love the business just as you do.

You might think that writing well and even having a hit movie out is enough. Not a chance folks. One-hit wonders are a dime a dozen in every business. If you want to have staying power you’ll need friends who will open doors and give you the benefit of their knowledge and connections. Industry insiders spend an inordinate amount of time at activities that look like simple socializing interactions. The truth is that they are always working. Executives have breakfast, lunch, drinks and dinner meetings. They attend dinner parties, galas, award ceremonies, cocktail parties and screenings. Personally, I often found these events both physically and emotionally draining because while they looked glamorous and fun, they were really hard work. For example the person you are talking to may be looking over your shoulder to see who else they want to talk with. The person you want to talk with is too difficult to get close to or too busy with others. The hours are late and it’s been a long, long day. The “phonies” are all over the place and vying for your attention.

The good news is that you may run into someone who is interested in you or your project or your clients. You might meet some industry executive that you really like and will work with extensively in the future. There are endless good things that can and often do happen at these events. So, we go and go and go to as many as possible.

For writers, socializing is a combination of hanging out and going out. If you meet someone in the business that you like, you might have to make the first move and see if they want to meet for coffee or lunch. If you have the ability to throw dinner or drinks parties, then you must do so. I’ve found that mixing people who are in and out of the business is not a very good idea. People tend to want to talk to others in the same or similar fields of endeavor. Show business people talk in show business. That’s our language, that’s where we are comfortable and that’s the subject that interests us the most.

Earlier in this book I mentioned that I often orchestrated dinner parties and lunches so that my clients could meet with buyers. Not every agent does this, but it’s a good idea to ask your agent to try to put you together socially with development executives and producers. These are the people that you will need.

Whenever you are able to attend some social event you must never drink too much, talk too much or do drugs and this applies to your date or spouse who might be attending with you. This will be remembered and you will never be trusted. Certainly you will never be trusted with a writing assignment.

When you are lucky enough to attend events you will need to mention your projects. Don’t be shy about it. Everyone will want to hear about them and to put their two cents in on the creative aspects or salability of those projects. Occasionally these folks will discuss their skiing vacations or their personal lives, but not much. We all want to talk about our projects and to hear about others. Ask those questions about their work, the company and their favorite films and they will become your best friend. I don’t mean to tell you to befriend people that you don’t like. You will find there are plenty of those lurking about and you don’t need to pursue them. Find people that you enjoy and simply pursue a friendship. Remember that in business just like in childhood, it’s always good to use the buddy system.

I’ve met some of my best business friends at the aforementioned events and it has made my life easier and much more pleasant. I ask about their children and spouses, their parents and their favorite books. These are effortless ways to begin what could be very fortuitous associations.

Always keep in mind that you might be able to help someone else while you are looking for people to help you. As a writer you might have meetings where you find out information about job openings for development executives or what new projects are being developed. These are not secrets and if you share the information the recipients will “owe you one”.

All of the above presupposes that you live in Los Angeles or its environs. Obviously, if you are living somewhere that is far from the action it will be nearly impossible for you to socialize in a meaningful way. There’s always Facebook and Twitter.

It’s always possible to have a script optioned if you live anywhere. The continuation of a writing career means that you must be able to reach out and touch the right people. A writing career is not defined by selling (optioning) screenplays. A writing career means meetings, writing assignments, pitching to studio executives and to producers or development execs. It means building a foundation with your agent and others in your working world. It means getting rewrite jobs and development jobs. These are the things that will keep you in front of the pack.

For writers socializing is more difficult than writing. I understand that these pointers are hard for you to consider and even harder to do.

So……get off your duffs and call someone.

Monday, September 7, 2009


(Another great guest blog from Chris Soth. As many books and articles I've read over the year on CASABLANCA, Chris provides new insight into that classic.)


So, last Newsletter I was talking about how all your characters MIGHT be arranged on a "thematic continuum" where they all illustrate different aspects of your central theme –

-- and specifically, how you might create (at least) two characters as mirrors for your hero, and further, (and here's where I MIGHT be getting a bit original, at least I've never heard this said in quite this way) –

You MIGHT think of creating a mirror character at each end of your hero's character arc. That is, among your subsidiary characters might be one character who represents what your hero SHOULD BE, what he will be if s/he undergoes the change this story is driving them through, I think I called him the "YOU OUGTA BE THIS GUY" GUY, but maybe we could call him "THE SHINING EXAMPLE" – AND –

-- a character who serves as "THE CAUTIONARY TALE". That is, a guy or gal who shows us, and perhaps our protagonist, what they will become if they DO NOT change and serves as a stark warning against the folly of proceeding through life as such a flawed character.

And now, some examples:

Call me old-fashioned, but I love me the Casablanca. It's great for examples and I've learned a lot, A LOT from it, because, well...'s a perfect movie. It's not my favorite movie of all time, but it IS a perfect movie or as near as has ever been made, and there may not have been one since. In fact, whenever I'm stuck for a scene, or wonder what a specific Mini-Movie should be in a story, it's not long before I'm asking myself:

"What do they do in Casablanca?" And trying to apply that to the story I'm working on at the time.

But that's another newsletter...SO...

In Casablanca, we've got Rick Blaine (as portrayed by Humphrey Bogart), he's an isolationist, won't stick his neck out for nobody, and serves only his self interest, especially when it comes to the woman he loves, Ilsa…

HE OUGHTA BE: Victor Lazlo (as portrayed by Paul Henreid), a selfless freedom fighter, who sticks his neck out for everyone, everywhere – and who will gladly sacrifice anything, everything for the woman he loves, Ilsa Lund.

And in fact, it looks like this is who Rick will become as the credits roll, as his character arc has completed – "Where I go, you can't follow, etc..." he's off to become a freedom fighter, to take on the Nazis and fight for the little guy, as he used to before Ilsa broke his heart in the backstory.

But...if Rick keeps up his selfish ways, he'll never be that guy. In fact, he'll become:

THE CAUTIONARY TALE: Captain "Louie" Renault (as portrayed by Claude Rains). Here's a man who "blows with the wind" and serves only his own self-interest...and when it comes to love – Louie's happy to "whore out" any or every woman he comes across...and his doing so w/a young Bulgarian refugee serves as an object lesson for Rick at one point...

This is what Rick has to avoid – and in the end, Louie ends up changing too, and heading off into the future WITH Rick.

So, Victor Lazlo, Captain Renault...both mirrors to Rick Blaine. One is what Rick SHOULD be…the other what he COULD become...

Thanks for reading, hope this helps in your writing and thoughts about character. And if you want a brand new way of looking at story, please take a look at the eBook and DVD set at...

Thanks "A Million",

Chris Soth