Friday, December 20, 2013

What You Should Know About Screenwriting Credits

You will undoubtedly have noticed that when I refer to a movie in this blog I include the credited screenwriters in parentheses. That’s only logical, given that this is a blog on screenwriting! I also hope that some of you may notice particular screenwriters you weren’t aware of appearing again and again next to movies you like and check out their other work. I had that experience early on when I first realized Lawrence Kasdan had written not only Body Heat but Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back.

Given the nature of development in Hollywood, screenwriting credit is a complicated subject. Often many writers work on a film. Not all of them get credit. Certainly in many cases not all of them deserve credit. When Steven Sommers wrote The Mummy reboot in 1999, there had been over a dozen previous screenplays written attempting to reboot that particular franchise. Some were decades old and had nothing to do with Sommers’s version. Yet they had to be considered in determining who got credit on the 1999 movie.

If you write under a WGA contract then the WGA determines who gets credit. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons the WGA was formed. Prior to that, producers often determined credits, and could give screenplay credit to themselves or even their girlfriend or a buddy without having to prove any contribution to the script.

In some cases the credit determination goes smoothly. Only those who have written under a WGA contract are eligible for screenwriting credit. It doesn’t matter how many good lines the actor came up with on set, if they weren’t hired as a writer, they can’t be considered. If all of the writers who worked on a film under WGA contract agree on specific credits that conform to WGA rules, then those are the credits – with one exception. (Thus if only one writer worked on a movie, that writer gets credit without much bureaucracy.)

The exception to the above is if one of the writers is also a “production executive” – the director or a producer. Then an automatic arbitration is triggered. This is because it is believed that the director or producer can wield undue influence on the writers to agree to a specific credit. Production executives are also held to a higher contribution standard. This is controversial because it can end up punishing a writer who has the clout to get a producer credit on a film. (EDITED TO ADD: The WGA has changed this last part of the rules.)

An arbitration is also triggered when writers disagree on what the credits should be. In a Guild arbitration, three members who meet certain qualifications (including having screenwriting credits of their own) read all the drafts without the writers’ names attached and determine who gets credit. (It’s actually a little more complicated than that, but in essence that’s what happens.) There’s a saying that you know an arbitration is fair when none of the participating writers are happy with the outcome.

Credit arbitrations can be vicious because there is often a lot of money at stake. Only credited writers are eligible to share in the residual pool, and many writers have contractual bonuses contingent on getting screen credit. Whether or not a writer gets credit can be a million dollar decision.

There are various credits that can be awarded on a feature film and they have specific meanings. The main ones are:

Story By: This credit is for an original story (i.e. not based on underlying material). If you sell an original screenplay, you are guaranteed at least a share of story credit. According to the WGA credits manual, story consists of “basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action.” Sometimes people think this means a treatment, but in fact usually you must write a full screenplay to get story credit. This is a particularly important credit because it gives the writer some additional rights, such as credit and payment for any sequels or novelizations or Broadway musical adaptations that use the characters from the movie. Someone with only “screenplay credit” does not get those rights, at least not automatically.

Screen Story By: This credit is similar to “Story By” but is for when a screenplay is based on source material, but the writer has come up with a whole new story not in the source material.

Screenplay By: This credit is given when a screenplay is based on source material. It can also be given when a writer has contributed to a screenplay based on another writer’s original screenplay. In the case of an adaptation, the writer must have contributed 33% to the final screenplay, whereas if it is based on an original screenplay, the writer must have contributed 50%. The tricky part, of course, is determining what percentage a contribution is. It’s not like writers are only given 33% of the pages to rewrite. This is a subjective judgment the poor arbitrators must make.

Written By: This credit is used when a single writer is responsible both for the story and the screenplay.

A couple points here: First, writing teams are considered a single unit for purposes of screen credit. Writers who collaborated as a team are identified by an “&” between their names. So “Joe Smith & Mary Jones” are a team. If the credit read “Joe Smith and Mary Jones,” that means they each wrote separately. Except in unusual cases, teams are limited to two writers.

Second, you’ll see by the percentages that there is a maximum of three writers (or teams) that can qualify for screenplay credit. This is somewhat controversial as often many more than three writers contribute to a screenplay. But it is the Guild’s position that only those who did at least a third of the work that ended up on screen deserve credit. This means someone responsible for 25% of the shooting script will not see their name on screen or get residuals.

The Guild also enforces rules regarding the publicizing of credits and their size and position on screen. So for a variety of reasons you really want to work under a WGA contract. (Often independent film contracts will specify that credit will be awarded according to the WGA rules – though they seldom spell out how disagreements over credit will be resolved without the WGA’s arbitration process. Worse are contracts that say screenplay credit will be awarded at "the producer's discretion.")

Of course there are different rules for television, and international films are not under WGA jurisdiction and may have other rules. Sadly, screenwriting credit is a lot more complicated than simply asking, “Who wrote that?”


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Friday, December 13, 2013

Writing True Stories When We Know the Ending

(SPOILERS: Titanic, Valkyrie, Captain Phillips, 42)

Basing a movie on true events immediately heightens our interest in the story. That’s probably why so many awards season movies are based on true events (this year 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, 42, Lone Survivor and The Butler are just a few examples). If the story is obscure enough – such as with 12 Years a Slave (screenplay by John Ridley) – we might not know what happened and watch to find out how it comes out. But what if you’re writing about well-known events?

Stories where we know the ending can still be good and popular. But you can’t make the dramatic question of the movie be about the well-known outcome. For example, Titanic (written by James Cameron) was widely mocked when it was announced. “Why would anybody watch that? We already know the boat sinks!” Of course, when it was released it became the most popular movie of all time.

Why? Because it wasn’t about whether or not the boat sank. Cameron used the backdrop of the Titanic to tell a love story. The dramatic question was, “Will Jack and Rose end up together?” We didn’t know the answer to that question.

The movie Valkyrie (written by Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander) wasn’t nearly as successful, partly because the dramatic question was about whether the attempt to assassinate Hitler would be successful. But we already knew it wouldn’t, so the suspense scenes weren’t very suspenseful. (Even if you weren’t familiar with this story, you probably know that Hitler committed suicide in his bunker with the allies closing in.)

When developing a movie based on well-known events, you have to find the story within the story. Is there something interesting that is not widely known? You should think about what drew you to the material in the first place. What is the thematic element that intrigues you? Can you build a compelling story using the true events to illuminate this thematic idea in a fresh way?

For example, everybody knows that Lincoln freed the slaves. The movie Lincoln (screenplay by Tony Kushner), however, revealed the political maneuvering required to achieve that goal. It explored the pressure on Lincoln to accept a lesser step, and on Lincoln’s own self doubts about the constitutionality of what he was doing. These nuances were unfamiliar to most of the audience.

The best place to look for this is in the character. For example, 42 (written by Brian Helgeland) tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball. But we know how that story comes out. We know about racism and we know Robinson was successful. We know baseball became integrated.

What the movie shows us is Robinson’s struggle to resist fighting back when he was attacked. He’s set up as a strong, proud, somewhat short-tempered man. But when he was recruited to the Dodgers, Branch Rickey knew that he would be taunted and that if he reacted violently, all people would remember was that a black man had been violent. The story within the story here is how hard Robinson had to work to overcome his understandable instinct to defend himself.

Similarly, if you follow the news at all, you probably thought you knew how Captain Phillips (screenplay by Billy Ray) ends. But if you see the movie, the ending is powerful and surprising – because it is more about the emotional impact of this experience on Phillips than on whether he physically survives. That’s the story within the story. Captain Phillips also reveals the motivations and life of the pirates, something most people are not as familiar with. (Even so, the movie is a little slow to get going because we're mostly just waiting for the attack we know is coming.)

After watching Valkyrie, I thought one solution to their problem would be to change the main character. Valkyrie tells the story of Claus von Stauffenberg, the organizer of the attempted coup. But von Stauffenberg decides at the very beginning that Hitler is bad for Germany and has to be stopped. And he never wavers in this belief throughout the movie. Thus the question became, “Will von Stauffenberg’s coup succeed?” – a question we knew the answer to.

However there was another character, General Fromm, whose story was much more interesting. He thought Hitler was bad for Germany, but struggled with whether he could betray the legitimate leader of his country, a country he loved. A very compelling movie could have been made about Fromm’s struggle, with the dramatic question: “Will he join the plot or not?”

Digging into the internal struggle of a character is a good way to bring a new perspective on a true story that we already think we know. It allows you to explore the meaning of the events rather than just what happened. And if you’re going to tell a familiar story, you better have a new perspective on what it all means.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Using Planting and Payoff

(Spoilers: Gravity, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark)

Planting and payoff is a powerful tool in the screenwriter’s toolbox. Simply put, planting is setting up an object, idea, or piece of information early in the story (the plant) for use later (the payoff).

One big purpose of this tool is to avoid the cheat of convenience. For example, if a woman has been chased into her attic by a serial killer and finds a loaded gun in an old suitcase, it seems too convenient. The audience will feel like the writer is cheating. But if five scenes earlier we saw the woman put the gun in the suitcase in the attic because it belonged to her deceased husband and she is afraid of it, we don’t bat an eye when she pulls it out with the killer closing in.

Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron) offers us a good example of this. Early on, Ryan says she sees the Chinese space station, then corrects herself to say it’s the International Space Station. This subtly tells the audience that both space stations are in the area. This is particularly important for the Chinese station. After Ryan discovers she can’t reenter the atmosphere with the escape vehicle in the International Space Station, she makes a new plan to get to the Chinese station. It might seem awfully convenient that a second station is nearby if it hadn’t been established earlier.

Another use of planting is to set up information for the climactic scenes so you don’t have to stop the action to explain everything. Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) provides a good example of this kind of set up. Somewhere about the middle of the movie Brody accidentally releases the rope holding the SCUBA tanks in place, causing them to roll across the boat’s deck. Hooper chastises him, warning him that the tanks contain pressurized air and can explode if punctured. This gives us the information we need for the big ending when Brody shoots a SCUBA tank in the shark’s mouth, causing it to explode and kill the beast.

What’s great about this is how the writers hide the plant in another context. The first scene with the SCUBA tanks is about Brody’s lack of experience on boats. It’s meant to show us how out of place he is. But the bit of info about the possibility of explosion is slyly slipped in there as well. We get the information we need, but aren’t tipped off that it will come into play later, which might make the ending feel predictable.

Or consider the payoff of Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan). Indy opens the Well of Souls and discovers it’s filled with snakes. He rolls over and says, “Snakes… why did it have to be snakes?” That’s only funny because way back in the beginning of the movie they planted his fear of snakes with the pet boa constrictor on the plane. Imagine if they hadn’t done that. Indy would have to say something like, “Snakes… I’m afraid of snakes.” It’s a small change, but it would weaken the joke and feel a little forced.

Planting and payoff builds trust with the audience. If you do some early plants and pay them off quickly, the audience will come to believe they are in good hands. Then if something is not explained right away they will stay with the movie, figuring it will undoubtedly be taken care of before the credits roll. Planting and payoff ties your story together and makes it feel cohesive and logical.

You will place many of your plants in the rewriting process. Often you don’t know what you need to plant until you write the scene with the payoff. As I write my first draft, I always keep a sheet for notes of things from earlier scenes I know I’ll want to go back and change in the second draft. That way I can keep moving forward rather than jumping back to older scenes. It is not uncommon for half the notes I make to be things I need to plant.

You should also look for opportunities to use the things you’ve already introduced. For example in Gravity, Ryan uses a fire extinguisher to fight the fire in the International Space Station. That’s not really a plant – it’s a key part of a scene that’s dramatic in its own right. When she has to pull the fire extinguisher into the escape pod because it blocks the hatch, that is a plant. And it’s paid off later when she uses the extinguisher to propel her to the Chinese station. There’s an elegance to the multiple uses of that prop that makes the story feel organic and unified.

And ultimately that’s the most important reason for using planting and payoff. It helps binds the story together into a single narrative, rather than just a series of scenes.


In other news, I wanted to share a really nice endorsement we got for The Hollywood Pitching Bible from director John Badham (Director of Saturday Night Fever, War Games and Stakeouts): 

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