Before I get to this week’s topic, I want to point out a wonderful review of my screenwriting book from LA Screenwriter. Here’s an excerpt:
Douglas J. Eboch, scribe of Sweet Home Alabama, has written a book called The Three Stages of Screenwriting, and it deserves a spot on your shelf right between Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay.
I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting.
What Doug does so beautifully is break down the entire process of developing an idea, outlining it, writing it, and rewriting it into digestible chunks.
The book is structured the same way your writing process should be, and it covers every topic you could possibly want covered under the umbrella of the writing process.
You can read the whole review here: http://la-screenwriter.com/2016/04/22/6-questions-to-define-your-concept-from-douglas-j-eboch/
When you are starting out as a screenwriter, it is likely at some point that a producer will offer you a contract to acquire your spec scripts or to work on their ideas. Sometimes these producers have thin resumes and usually they will be offering very little or no money up front. These types of jobs can present opportunities for the new writer, but they can also be dangerous. Here are some things you should consider before agreeing to anything.
(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is an informational post and not legal advice. Every situation is different. Please see point #8.)
1. The WGA offers some protection – but only if you work under a WGA contract. The Writers Guild of America is the union that represents professional screenwriters when they work for signatory companies (companies that have agreed to abide by the union’s Minimum Basic Agreement). But many producers are not signatory, and many companies have non-union subsidiaries so they can hire non-union writers outside of the WGA’s rules. The WGA cannot protect you in those situations. And even if you are covered under a WGA contract, there are probably many additional aspects you will want to negotiate.
2. The WGA determines credit on WGA films. This is one of the main reasons the WGA was formed. If you are working under a WGA contract, the producers cannot guarantee you credit. If you are not working under a WGA contract, you will have to negotiate how credit will be determined. Be aware that if you sign a deal with a non-union production company who then sells the script to a signatory, you may not even be eligible for credit unless your contract is worded properly.
3. Understand how an option agreement works. Technically an option-purchase agreement, this is the typical contract used to acquire screenplays in Hollywood. Essentially, the producer is buying the exclusive right to purchase the screenplay for a period of time. There are three key components to any option agreement: the upfront payment for the option, the length of the option period, and the purchase price should the producer choose to acquire the screenplay (known as “picking up the option”). There can be any number of other terms in the contract, but all must have those three things. Note that if the option period expires without the producer picking up the option, rights to the original script revert to the writer – but not necessarily the rights to any revisions made while the script was under option.
4. How many drafts will you do? If you are hired to write or rewrite a screenplay – whether yours or the producers – make sure you are clear on how many drafts they can ask for. You do not want to be doing rewrites five years from now. Also consider what will happen if you disagree with their notes.
5. How long do you have to write a draft? How long do they have to read it? Make sure you understand how long you have to deliver your drafts. And there should be limits on how long they can take to read your drafts and give you notes before you start your next draft. You don't want someone appearing out of the woodwork ten years from now demanding that draft you promised them way back when.
6. Understand who owns or will own the copyright. Copyright law can be complex in collaborative mediums like film. If you write a spec screenplay based on your own idea, you will own the copyright. If someone wishes to acquire that screenplay, you would typically transfer the copyright to them (when they purchase your screenplay, not when they option it). It gets fuzzier when you sell a pitch, or when you write a script based on someone else’s story, or when you rewrite someone else’s existing script, or when you are hired to rewrite your own script as a “work for hire.” Know that the person who owns the copyright decides what happens to the script. Make sure you understand who will own the copyright of any and all drafts at the end of the contract - different drafts may end up being owned by different people, which can get problematic. (And hopefully you know that you cannot write scripts based on other people’s material if you don’t get permission from them.)
7. Oral contracts are worth the paper they’re printed on. Technically oral agreements are legally binding with a few exceptions (including work for hire situations) but you should not rely on oral agreements. It is easy for people to have different understandings as to what was actually agreed upon in an oral agreement, and if it goes to court, it will be your word against theirs. Always make your agreements in writing. This can take the form of a deal memo or even an email spelling out your understanding of what was agreed to, but before any copyright is transferred and before you do any work you should have a written contract.
8. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you can’t afford the deal. As you can hopefully see from the previous seven points, literary contracts for movies are legally complex. You should have a lawyer look over any contract that you are going to sign. And you want an experienced entertainment lawyer because of the complexity of film contracts – a real estate lawyer is not going to know the nuances of streaming royalties or sequel rights. It is not uncommon, though, for a lawyer to cost more than the amount you are being offered when you are starting out. There are a couple of things you can do:
First, many entertainment lawyers will help out new writers if they think the writer has a shot at a long career. If you know producers or have representation who can recommend you to an entertainment attorney, that attorney may agree to look over the deal for you for free. Second, there’s an organization called California Lawyers for the Arts that can help you find a lawyer willing to help struggling artists for little or no money.
Bonus tip: It is always better if you are not negotiating for yourself. Very likely you will not have a very good idea of what is reasonable to ask for in a given situation. Avoid agreeing to any deal terms until you can line up representation, whether that’s a manager, agent, or attorney. If you already have representation, always refer any buyer to them.
Learn how to sell your ideas! I’m conducting a pitching workshop at the Writers Store on May 7th.