Below are some insights and common questions that have come up over and over in my professional life as an agent.
As the world changes so the nature of the questions will change, and I will update the list below periodically. If your question isn’t covered, please ask it at the bottom of the page and, time allowing, I will endeavour to answer. Your identity and any personal details will be kept confidential even if your question is added to the FAQs below.
TIPS AND INSIGHTS
Writing is about the audience, not about your characters.
You have to remember that the story is much more about the audience than it is about the characters or the plot. And it is much more about the audience than it is about the storyteller.
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Writers should be encouraged to keep money in the front of their minds even if they would prefer to think about high art. Never forget that someone is going to invest a great deal of money to make your script. Be resistant to shopping agreements or free options because I believe writers should be paid for writing and producers should pay to acquire rights that ARE worth money, and anyway, and paying money focuses peoples’ minds. But there are times when it is better than a reputable producer has a short period (6 months) to try to raise the money to pay you. Go for a shopping agreement because during it you still own the IP; when IP is optioned the buyer usually only has to pay the purchase price to own it, so in effect you no longer really own it should they wish to pay you. Insist on holding onto the © until the purchase price is paid; try to get backend bonuses for having let them run with it for free and insist that they must share with you everyone they submit to and every response.
Why not? Always try to have a spread of genres and formats in your portfolio. If a writing gig for a comedy comes up and you don’t have a comedy sample, tell them you are working on one and they will have it at the end of the week once you have polished it. And get cracking on at least 10 very funny pages.
Whenever you are not writing or researching paid work.
You own the original idea if it is yours and is original; if they provided the idea and they don’t like what you have done they can drop you and you cant use the sample script as you don’t own the underlying rights to the idea especially if they handed you a document describing the story and or the characters. Be wary of writing an entire script unless they agree that they cannot use any of it without engaging you in some way, and that if they have not paid you then if they have not set the film up within say 3-5 years you have the right to try to set it up and if you succeed you will pay them 10% of what you get as consideration for their providing the idea.
Can you have two different versions of a script, one with a happy ending which might be easier to sell?
Yes. You can also have a ‘selling draft’, which is toned down to appeal to certain potential investors or broadcasters, even though you and the director want it more – or less – violent or raunchier. You may not get your way since the finance usually calls the shots.
What do you do when you pitch your best and lovingly crafted idea to a producer and they tell you they’ve got something similar in development?
Immediately – but in a non-paranoid way – ask who has written it, and where it is in the development and finance process. If they refuse to tell you anything that is a little worrying. Bone fide companies will usually share some information. Big companies do not generally steal IP: it is far safer and cheaper for them to pay for it.
What do you do when the script notes come in say from an actor or director after you have delivered all the drafts you were paid to do and the producer seemed satisfied: can there be a conflict between what you’re contractually obliged to do and what you have to do for goodwill?
It is common for there to be late polishes because of comments from actors or the director. The key thing is that you want to do all the writing: you don’t want lines written by anyone else because then those lines are their copyright. So you usually have to oblige: if it is a lot of work, ask for some of the principal photography payment to be brought forward to cover these unplanned rewrites.
If there’s no money being paid and you are effectively investing your script, what can you sensibly ask for by way of participation in the project?
A bonus in addition to whatever your script fee will be, more points (profit share), a co-producer or executive producer credit and an entitlement to be consulted about casting, director and the financial deals that are being entered into. You are unlikely to get all of that but try for as much as possible.
A strong script which gets producers and development executives excited. It must demonstrate that you understand the audience for that story/genre. If a feature it should be 90-100 pages max. And it should be a script you have had lots of people read and give you notes on and that have polished until it shines.
In the UK copyright exists because you have written it down (so it is in what a lawyer would call ‘material form’). If you mention an idea verbally, especially in a public place like a pub, that does not confer copyright.
You can register copyright with the US Copyright Office. It is usually enough to put © followed by your name and the year on the title page. Don’t put it on every page and don’t watermark the pages with the word ‘Copyright’: that just looks paranoid and amateur.
If you have an agent you can put their name and email at the bottom of the title page after your © line. Paying an organisation that promises to establish your copyright is, imho, a waste of money. If you are a member of the Writers’ Guild (which you should be) put that under your © line (just ‘Member of the WGGB’ or whatever). That will be a deterrent. The fact is that agents do not think there is much theft.
It is sometimes recommended that you put a printed copy in an envelope and post it to yourself but when it arrives do not open it: the postmark date establishes at that date you had a copy. It doesn’t not actually prove that you wrote it, since you might have printed someone else’s script out.
Deterrence is the usual and professional way. So when you submit always keep a copy of your submission letter or email as that proves when and to whom you sent a script. But it still doesn’t actually prove that you wrote the script.