Monday, April 25, 2016

8 Things to Know Before Signing a Writing Contract

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:


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.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Icebox Questions

(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama, The Matrix)

When I was doing rewrites on Sweet Home Alabama, I got into an argument with the producers about a point of story logic. In the story, Melanie goes back to Alabama to secure a divorce from her estranged husband Jake. In my original spec script, Jake signs the divorce papers at the end of Act Two. The producers wanted to move that to the midpoint for valid reasons of character arc.

The only problem was, once Melanie has the divorce papers she has no reason to stay in Alabama. Her fiancé, friends, and business associates in New York are already pressuring her to get back home. Yet in the producers’ version, she would hang out in Alabama for the next couple of days for no apparent reason. The producers argued that the audience won’t notice or care. I wasn’t so sure.

The producers won the battle on the script, as they usually seem to do. And it turns out they were right about the audience: I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the movie over the years, but nobody has questioned why Melanie doesn’t hop the first plane home after getting the divorce papers. (We did try to sell the idea that she sticks around because she feels she needs to apologize to all of her friends for her bad behavior before she leaves. If you have to make a change, you ought to do it the best way you can!)

I still think this is a bit of a logic problem in the movie, but I now realize it’s what Alfred Hitchcock called an “icebox question.” An icebox question is a logic flaw that the audience doesn’t think about until they’ve gone home and are getting a snack from the icebox (refrigerator for us Americans). Hitchcock’s theory was that by then the audience has already firmly decided whether they liked the movie or not, and belated recognition of logic holes wouldn’t change their mind.

I think this is also related to the saying that “The only rule in screenwriting is don’t be boring.” (Not sure who coined that one.) Audiences want to be entertained, and as long as they’re entertained, they won’t start picking too hard at the story. Stories have an emotional logic that trumps plot logic. The audience doesn’t question Melanie sticking around Alabama for a couple more days because they want her to stick around Alabama for a couple more days.

The Matrix (written by Lilly & Lana Wachowski) also demonstrates this theory in action. Toward the end, Neo is shot inside the Matrix and therefore dying in the real world, according to the well-established rules of the story. But then Trinity tells him he can’t die because the Oracle prophesied that the person she loved would be The One and she loves Neo. She kisses him and he comes back to life.

There is no narrative logic as to why Trinity’s kiss has the power to resurrect. It’s a logic hole. But it is absolutely right in terms of emotional logic. It’s the culmination of Trinity’s emotional journey, the culmination of Neo’s internal journey, it plays off classic fairy tale mythology, and most of all, it’s what we want to happen. I think it also matters that it occurs late in the movie when the audience is deeply invested in the story. Once we have bought into the story, it takes bigger logic bumps to knock us out.

So as a writer, it’s important not to let plot logic trump emotional logic. The trouble is, how do you tell the difference between a serious logic hole that will take the audience out of the story and an icebox question? Because serious logic holes can absolutely ruin your movie.

In my experience, audiences don’t generally get too hung up on timeline issues like the one in Sweet Home Alabama. They don’t calculate how long it would really take to get from point A to point B or to write a computer program or for wet clothes to dry, as long as it's not blatantly unrealistic. They also don’t get overly concerned about things like how long a character’s been awake or whether they had a chance to go to the bathroom or if they’ve eaten recently (unless you explicitly make those things part of the story). They usually don’t track the ammunition in guns or the amount of gas in a car’s tank. In real life these kinds of limits are annoying and we're happy to look the other way if the movie ignores those annoyances for the sake of fun.

But probably the most important thing is to test your screenplay with a selection of friendly readers who will give you brutal and honest feedback. If those readers don’t notice a logic hole, then you might be safe ignoring it. If someone does point it out, though, you better figure out a way to fix it. It isn’t an icebox question if it occurs to the reader during the read.


Check out my book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

“In the crowded field of scriptwriting how-to books, Doug Eboch’s Three Stages of Screenwriting is a standout and a must-read. Why? Three solid reasons: He really, truly knows what he’s talking about. It will help everyone, from novice to pro, become a better writer. And, most impressive of all, it is entertaining as hell - as engaging and fun to read as one of Doug’s scripts.”
-Ross LaManna (Rush Hour)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Six Tips for Better Log Lines

The ability to write a good log line is crucial to success as a professional screenwriter. Log lines are used to convince people to read your script. They are used on tracking boards and services like The Blacklist and Ink Tip to describe your script. They are a crucial part of a good pitch, as producer Ken Aguado and I describe in our book The Hollywood Pitching Bible. A well-prepared log line give you a quick, pithy answer to the question, “What’s your script about?” at parties and networking events. Log lines are even required on film festival submission forms, ultimately finding their way into the festival catalogue and influencing how many people see the film.

As important as they are for selling your script, creating a good log line can also help you creatively. It forces you to zero in on the core concept of your story, allowing you to focus your plotting. Conversely, the inability to create a good log line can point out narrative problems in your story.

Here are some tips for crafting better log lines:

1. Align the character with the plot. The way you describe your character in the log line should resonate with the story elements that follow. So if your story is about a “woman who finds love,” it is better to describe her as a “lonely thirty-something” than as an "aspiring journalist." But if the story were about a woman who “uncovers government corruption,” the journalist angle would be better. You want your log line to answer the question: Why is this the best character for this plot? (And never describe your character simply as a guy, girl, man, or woman – see tip #6.)

2. Include the character’s goal and the reason that goal is hard to achieve. This may sound obvious, but many log lines fail to explicitly contain these core story elements. Consider our above concept of “An aspiring journalist who uncover government corruption.” That’s fine, but is it her goal to uncover the corruption or does she just stumble upon it? If it’s her goal, why is it hard? If she just stumbles upon it, what does she do next? Write an article? Why is that hard for her?

Try to determine what the core obstacle is to the character achieving their goal. Often this is an antagonist. Maybe a cutthroat district attorney is trying to silence our journalist, for example. If your story is about the lonely thirty-something woman finding love, does she just meet someone and fall in love? What’s interesting about that? Maybe there’s a rival suitor or maybe some situational obstacle blocking the relationship. Maybe the primary obstacle is internal – but think about how it will be dramatized.

3. Keep the main character front and center and make them active. It's almost always best to introduce your character before you describe the conflict of the story. Then, describe the action with a verb that makes the character active rather than passive. In our investigative reporter story, “investigates” would be a better verb than “uncovers” because it implies action and intention. Consider these two approaches:

A city is thrown into turmoil when an aspiring reporter uncovers government corruption and a cutthroat district attorney sets out to silence her.

An aspiring reporter investigates a corrupt city government, putting her in the crosshairs of a cutthroat district attorney.

See how the main character is much more central and active in the second version? In the first, it’s not even clear who the main character is – it sounds like it could be the district attorney!

4. Avoid transitory actions. The log line needs to suggest an entire film, so make sure the action is something that will take an hour or more of screen time. So “investigates” is better than “discovers” because discovery might only take a few seconds. Other transitory actions that pop up frequently in log lines are realizes, decides, learns, and finds out.

5. Don’t clutter your log line with secondary elements that don’t add to the concept. You have limited words in a log line so you will not be able to capture the entire scope of the story. You should focus on conveying the central concept and what is unique and compelling about it. Your goal is to get the listener or reader to want to know more. However, it is easy to include unneeded elements subconsciously because you know how they work in the story. The person reading/hearing the log line won’t have that context.

So, for every word you include, ask why does this matter in the log line? Let’s say your log line begins, “An aspiring reporter who’s estranged from her husband uncovers corruption in the land use office of a city government…” Does it really matter that the reporter is estranged from her husband? It certainly might in the script, but if that detail doesn’t pay off in some way in the log line, cut it. Similarly, it is probably not important that the corruption is in the land use office unless the log line is going to deal with land use later. Though it would be more evocative to keep “land use office” and cut “city government.” That’s because…

6. Specific is better than vague. You want the listener/reader to visualize your story. The more specific your word choice, the stronger the image will be in the listener/reader’s mind. This is why simply describing the character as a “woman” is not as good as saying she’s an “aspiring reporter.”

Your log line needs to stand on its own to intrigue a reader or listener. Give the version of your story that works best in one or two sentences. The script will naturally include a lot more – in fact, it better!


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"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."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Monday, April 4, 2016

Writing Web Video Content: Interview with Laura Holliday

It used to be that there were two types of screenwriters: film and television. But these days those divisions are blurring. And to make matters more complex, there are scripted web series, web shorts, and streaming product from places like Netflix and Amazon. The screenwriter today is best served by being a jack-of-all-formats. And writing web series can be a great way to break in.

Today I'm interviewing one of my students, Laura Holliday. Laura has written and directed commissioned digital content for Lifetime, Spinmaster, Full Screen Inc. and Funny or Die. She's also part of the sketch group and youtube channel "Practical Folks" (subscribe!) and a member of the Funny or Die Community. I asked Laura about how she got to the point of making commissioned content for Funny or Die.

Q: How did you first get a meeting with Funny or Die?

I uploaded a video I made on my own with some improv friends (Jessie Sherman, Katie Wilbert, Dylan Dugas) called "Sad Lonely Girl" to the site on my own and it ended up getting a lot more views than I expected.

Someone from the site reached out to me about joining the Funny or Die Community (a group of comedy filmmakers that Funny or Die supports, shares their work) and also suggested I enter the video in a contest they were having along with LA Film Festival called Make Em Laff Fest. I made the top three and screened at LA Film Fest but if I had won I would have gotten to produce a sketch legitimately with Funny or Die. I was super upset but then they called me in to talk about ideas anyway.

Q: What was that meeting like? What happened next?

I just had a really casual meeting there where they showed me around the office and kind of talked about what sorts of content fit best there and told me to email them when I had a viable idea I thought was up their alley!

Q: How did you create your pitch for your project?

I had recently sent log lines for a bunch of serial sketch concepts to a friend who worked at Awesomeness TV at the time. Nothing happened with that but he told me that one of them about a girl who is roommates with a 7 year old girl, really made him laugh and I should try to get it made elsewhere, so I basically sent on that logline and gave them a few quick examples of jokes and episode ideas. They asked to see scripts for three episodes.

Q: Once they bought the show, how did development go? Did you do drafts of scripts or did they let you just go make the series? How much input did they have?

With "Kid Roommate," they outsourced the job to me and it was pretty free. My friend who I wrote it with (Ellen Jacobs) and I did multiple drafts ourselves until we were happy and showed them but they gave basically just gave notes on the edit of the video. All the notes were great and very helpful.

Q: What is your plan for building off this experience?

I definitely met wonderful people from doing this first project and recently did an in-house video for them that I wrote and directed. Hopefully I can continue to work with them in that capacity. Hopefully we can also make more episodes of "Kid Roommate."

Q: Any advice for those wanting to do online shorts?

I've found that you just have to make a bunch of them on your own and keep uploading them. There is no way to predict what will stick or what the internet will like, so you just have to keep putting your ideas out there. The trick is finding ways to make the videos solid enough technically to sell you creatively without spending a bunch of money on them each time. I think that's totally possible with sketches which is part of why I love them.

Thanks Laura!

Catch all three episodes of "Kid Roommate" on Funny or Die.

And More videos here:

Twitter: @lalalaholliday