Monday, December 31, 2007

Why We Strike

(I've been asked to repost my series on screenwriting and it follows, below, but first I wanted to make one thing perfectly clear. THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO TRY TO BREAK INTO SCREENWRITING. The WGA is on strike, and if you sell material to Hollywood you will be blacklisted from a screenwriting career until the end of days. So before you go on to read about how to go about your career in screenwriting, make sure you understand about the strike. This was my initial explanatory post on the subject, and this week I'll do an update.)


(originally posted on

By now all of the country and half of the world knows that the U.S. screen and television writers are on strike. Because of my work with the WGA, I’ve been living with strike plans and strike talk for three years, now, and my outrage is perhaps more quiet than my outrage usually runs. This has been a long fight, and it will be longer – as long as it takes for us to win. What we’re fighting for is the future.

Every three years the Hollywood creative guilds – actors, directors, and writers, renegotiate their contracts – that would be the MBA, the minimum basic employment agreement - with the studios who employ us. The contract includes among many, many other things: minimum payments, residual rates (this is the screen version of royalties), and pension and health contributions, as well as creative concerns. If we don’t reach a fair and acceptable agreement, then really our only tool to sway the studios is to strike – to refuse to work until they negotiate fairly.

I say studios, but the fact is, the old style Hollywood studios no longer exist. Vertical integration has been a fact of Hollywood for going on twenty years now and the creative guilds are actually being forced to negotiate for fair payment with enormous, multibillion dollar, multinational corporations. There is a good argument being made that by now this is in violation of anti-trust laws.

There has not been a writers’ strike since 1988 – before I was in the guild. There has not been a strike in large part because for various reasons, in the years when we needed to negotiate hard, the WGA has not been strong enough to even threaten a strike.

But this year, this contract, we needed all the strength we could get. There are dozens of important issues, but we are really only striking about one: internet downloads.

Anyone with half a brain knows that internet is the future of everything in entertainment. The corporations don’t want to pay writers, directors or actors for reuse of their work through the internet, and they think that if they squeeze us out of that now, that they’ll never have to pay us for that again.

That’s the bottom line.

Not only did the companies come to the bargaining table with a proposal that completely eliminated payment on internet reuse, but their initial proposal had 76 rollbacks of our previous contract, including separation of rights. Separation of rights is what screenwriters have instead of copyright: for example, it allows me to retain the right to publish a novel based on my original screenplay. It is one of the most cherished creative rights we have as screenwriters.

That’s just one of the proposals the corporations lay down which made it quite clear that they were not intending to bargain seriously or fairly.

That’s how weak they thought we were. We haven’t struck in twenty years and they probably assumed that we couldn’t pull it off this time. They thought this would be an easy win and they would be able to cut us out of internet profits once and for all time.

They were wrong.

As a former member of the WGAw Board of Directors, I have had the great pleasure of working with all of the current WGA west officers: President Patric Verrone, VP David Weiss, Secretary-Treasurer Elias Davis, WGAw Executive Director David Young, and most of the current WGA Board of Directors, and a great number of the WGA Negotiating Committee, East and West members, and they have been smartly and inexorably working toward this moment for three years, now.

Here’s when I knew we were going to win.

The strike of 1988 was a huge setback for the WGA in terms of residuals. Back then the issue was videotape residuals – videotapes were an emerging market and the WGA was striking primarily to get a fair share of the profits from videotapes. The WGA had previously (1985) agreed to a temporarily lower residual to help the companies build this "emerging market". The "emerging market" had taken off for feature film releases and accordingly the WGA asked for the higher residual rate in the 1988 contract. The companies refused - making that issue a strike issue.

But the WGA has traditionally been deeply divided between screen and television writers. There are many, many more TV writers than screenwriters, and our issues are different. In 1988 there were no TV shows being sold on videotape yet, and the television writers perceived the videotape issue as a feature writers’ issue. A group within the television writers persuaded the other TV writers to cave on the issue and the WGA didn’t get the residual rates it wanted on cassette tapes. Two months later the original STAR TREK series was released on videotape and the TV writers realized just how badly they had miscalculated.

This year we have the same situation with the internet.

But we no longer have the divide between TV and feature writers. This is EVERYONE’S issue.

Three years ago I saw the current WGA leadership begin a massive courtship of the most powerful TV writers we have, the showrunners – the producer/writers who create and control the shows. The studios can keep pumping out feature films indefinitely – they have a huge backlog of scripts that they can pull out of their vaults while the writers are on strike. But television is much more in the moment. A TV show needs product every single week to stay on.

The showrunners are overwhelmingly united this time around. And they’re not working, period.

More than thirty TV shows currently have no more than one episode left to air before they will have to shut down production. We’ll be going into reruns and reality momentarily.

The corporations have billions and billions of dollars to wait us out. But they have no stories without us. And without our stories, they’re going to be losing money faster and faster.

How long can this go on? As long as it has to.

What we’re asking for, as the creators of television and film content, is a tiny fraction of profit from internet use of our work.

That will be our living, in the future, and we’re not giving that up.

And now I’ll post some links to far more eloquent summations of the issues



Payment for reuse of our writing has been a key part of our earnings for half a century. Now the studios are using the growth of the internet as a tool to take that away from us.


True, some writers are paid very well -- but in any given year, almost half of the Guild’s active writers go without any employment at all. They count on residuals to pay their mortgages and feed their families between jobs. These new pay cuts will be particularly devastating to our most vulnerable members. And right now, most of the writing for new media isn’t even covered by the Guild at all -- which means no minimums or pension or health insurance. That’s not fair, and it needs to change.


Until we get a fair deal. Because the future -- the internet -- is at stake, this is the negotiation of a generation.


This concerns us deeply. But remember, we didn't want this strike; it was forced upon us by management. In fact, we even went so far as to take off the table one of our most important issues -- DVDs -- in hope of averting it.


We're fighting not to lose. Management is trying to take so much away from us that if we don’t dig in and defend what we have, next time around they’ll be coming after our pension and health benefits. So we need to draw a line and stand up to them. In that sense, we’re fighting not only for writers, but for many others in our industry as well. We’re all in the same boat, and if we succeed, the pattern we set will benefit every other guild and union in Hollywood.

Strike Captains’ blog: United Hollywood

YouTube videos explaining the strike:

Why We Fight

The Heartbreaking Voices of Uncertainty

Fade to Black

So You Want To Know About Screenwriting


(originally posted on

JT Ellison has been after me to do this column for ages and I just happen to have gotten a lot of e mail and MySpace questions on screenwriting lately and, always one to go with the flow, I thought I’d at least start this discussion, and maybe make it a two-parter, so that people can come back next week with all their questions.

First, a brief background (and of course you can read more in depth at my website.). Before I sold THE HARROWING, I worked steadily as a screenwriter for ten years. I had a pretty typical screenwriting career, actually – I worked for every major studio (except Universal, for some reason) and some independent production companies, I sold original scripts and got hired on assignment to do novel adaptations, I made a good living, and in all that time I had one movie made - that I got credited for. What I didn't get credited for - well, we'll get to that.

Depending on who you talk to, it's estimated that 400 to 600 scripts are bought or commissioned for every one that gets made. Not good odds. Which is the second reason I started writing novels. The first reason is that I’m passionate about my work and not only was I sick to death of having things I wrote not made – I was sick to death of having things I wrote butchered – and THEN not made. I was sick to death of seeing other people’s great scripts butchered, too, but that’s another column. I’ll try to keep this one in focus.

For the purposes of this column, I’m going to be talking primarily about feature screenwriting, although I will mention television writing as well. (And I’m talking specifically about Hollywood feature screenwriting, not independent feature screenwriting, which is a completely different animal.) Feature writing and television writing are structured very differently, but what I want to point out right up front is that in television, writers have the power (not at first, but once you get into the higher ranks). In features, directors have the power and writers most assuredly do not.

We’ll get back to that, though.

I’ll start with the first thing you need to know about screenwriting, and the biggest misconceptions I find people have about it.


Authors – and aspiring screenwriters – rarely seem to know this about screen work. It’s a job in a way that writing novels just isn't. Employers (studios, producers) are looking for writers who are committed to doing the screen thing as a living, full time (double full time, is often the real case). They don't want to just buy your fabulous spec (meaning original script), pay you big money and never hear from you again. The chances are infinitesimal that they'll ever make your movie at all. Your script is just a sample to show that you can write the movie THEY want to make, which they will dictate to you, and which probably won't make a whole lot of dramatic sense, but they’re paying you to do it.

So, speaking now to authors who are thinking of toying with screenwriting - unless you're willing to move to LA (and it has to be LA, unless you want to do independent film, which pays even less than novels!) - and really go for it, it's probably not what you want to be doing. A lot of your time as a working screenwriter is taken up trying to GET jobs, and that in the end was the most frustrating thing to me - how much wasted time and writing was going on with nothing to show for it. Except, of course, I was making a living.

For the vast majority of novelists, it’s a much more viable idea to work on optioning your novels and getting some money from Hollywood without having to pursue a screenwriting career. Many more novels are optioned and bought outright than original scripts are.

On the other hand, if you’re fairly young (young is an operative word, here) and film or television is your passion, and you want to make a living exclusively at writing, it's a really viable job. You can get paid for writing, you can support a family, you can work in a glamorous business with wildly talented people (and a lot of jerks, too, but truly, a lot of brilliantly talented people) and once in a while you can get something done.

Another thing novelists never seem to know about screenwriting is that screenwriters are union workers. Working screenwriters belong to the Writers Guild of America – WGA – East or West, depending on which side of the Mississippi you live on. The WGA is a federal labor union and handles collective bargaining for screen, TV, game and news writers. The WGA has negotiated, through long activism, a very good MBA, minimum basic agreement, which ensures that WGA members get paid certain minimums for their work, including pension and health benefits. That’s why screen and television writers are paid so much more than novelists, on average.

But what, you ask, is the catch?

Yes, there is a huge catch. We got the contract, and salary minimums and benefits - but in order to do that, we gave up copyright. When studios buy your script, they buy your copyright. It’s their project. And from then on, you are an employee, and you can be fired off your own script at any time, for any reason or no reason, but the reason is almost always the same – the studio/producers will want a bigger writer on the project. In fact, they will want a whole series of bigger writers on the project, the more the better, somehow – it’s not unusual for two or three dozen writers to work on a single project (although only three writers or teams of writers are ever allowed to be credited on any one movie) and that, in a nutshell, is why movies are so bad these days. And that’s another column, too.

But I’m sure you’re not here to read about collective bargaining (even though it's kind of crucial). I’d like to say, though, that I’ve not just been a working screenwriter – I’ve also been tremendously active in the WGA, including a 2 year term on the Board of Directors, and administering a private message board for WGA members only. So when I speak in sweeping terms about what makes a screenwriting career, I’m not just speaking about how I did it, personally – I actually have had a ringside seat from which I see very specifically who does break in to the business and how they break in and how they sustain their careers.

Now, on to what you really want to know, what everyone wants to know:


The way you break in is: write a great script (and having a male lead doesn’t hurt), get a great film agent and have that agent market your script as a weekend read and hopefully get into a bidding war. I'll get into more details later, but that's the process in a nutshell. Chances are you won’t sell that script, especially because the spec market has been depressed for years (although a good time to sell a script may be on the horizon – more on that later, too).

But whether or not you sell the script, if it's good, even if all the studios and financing companies pass (and there are only about 10 real sources of money in Hollywood at any given time), you will be flavor of the month and they will want to meet you and you will then go through a couple dozen meet-and-greet meetings in which execs and producers will tell you the projects they're trying to get going and you can potentially get an assignment out of that - or you can work harder and go in with a pitch of your own that you might sell and be hired to write.

That is how the vast majority of screenwriters get started. That is precisely how I got started – great script (I thought!) got me great agent who sold it to Fox in a bidding war. Script never got made, but I was “in”. I got an assignment off that, and kept getting hired from there.

So, next question.


This is how I got my film agent. This is how most screenwriters I know (and I know a lot) got their film agents.

First, they lived in Los Angeles.

Second, they worked as story analysts, or readers, for a studio or agency or production company. A story analyst reads scripts and books that are submitted to companies for consideration for film or TV development, and writes “coverage” - a 2-10 page synopsis of the book or script (depending on the company’s requirements) and a one-page evaluation of the material’s potential as a film, complete with a grid that scores the script in terms of character development, story, dialogue, action, and other narrative elements.

People get those jobs by living in Los Angeles, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who works in the business.

I didn’t get my first job as a reader by throwing rocks at my neighbors, but I did get the job through a neighbor who was working as a reader herself and had too much work to handle. I ghosted some of her scripts, and when a reading job came up at her company she recommended me, and I got the job – it was that easy.

Working as a reader is tremendous training for screenwriting because you learn the format, you learn what works and what doesn’t, you learn how the business really operates from a writing point of view, and you learn who the agents are, out there.

When I was a reader I kept file cards on every single script that came in to my company and every single agent who submitted. So when I had my great script finished, I knew exactly which agents I wanted to approach. I made a list and cold-called those agents, and explained that I was a reader at this company and I’d read these scripts of the agent’s by these clients and I had a script that I thought that agent would respond to.

Every single one of the agents but one said to send the script. I got multiple offers of representation and picked the best one of the bunch, and he sold that script to Fox.


Well, as I said above, if you’re not willing to move to Los Angeles, you’re probably not going to have a career as a screenwriter. It happens, but rarely. At least in the beginning, you have to actually be there.

But – there is a tried and true way to get an agent and break into the business if you don’t live in Los Angeles. You will still have to move to Los Angeles to sustain your career, but you can take this road to break in without actually moving yet.


There are some established screenwriting contests and fellowships that have launched many a writing career. There are a million writing contests out there and most of them will not help you to a screenwriting career at all. But the following contests have consistently gotten the winners and placers good agents, writing assignments, or TV staff jobs:

- The Nicholl Fellowship - the most prestigious and best breakthough screenwriting contest out there. Many pros say it's about the only contest that can lead to a professional career.

- The Disney Fellowship and Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship – winners get an actual job and hands-on training. The Nick Fellowship grooms writers to work on one of their shows.

- The Warner Bros Drama Writers Workshop and Comedy Writers Workshop – a fast-track way into TV staffing. You write your hour spec and submit. They get about 600 scripts a year; they pick 25 to interview, and choose 13 for the program. You write a second spec under their supervision, and they get you interviews with current CW network and studio projects. About half of any given class gets hired on staff out of the program. Being in the program can get you a good agent if you don’t have one.

- For University of California students and alumni, the Goldwyn Award is also major. There is huge industry competition for the first-place winner, and the Goldwyns heavily promote the winners. Just about every winner becomes a WGA member and is working in the industry within a year of winning.

- and WriteSafe contests: I know winners of these contests who have gone on to industry jobs. is also just an excellent resource and community for aspiring TV writers. The film equivalent is Wordplay - - about which more next week.


… because even though I've not even scratched the surface of this subject, I think I’d better let some of this stuff absorb and pick it up again next week. But since I’m on the subject of breaking in, I might as well say this.

Right now you can forget about breaking in to screenwriting because the WGA is on strike. (Go here for details). If you sell a script now, you will be blacklisted from a film career for the rest of your life. Don't do it.

However, traditionally the few months right after the conclusion of a strike has always been the very best spec market, with the very best prices paid. So IF the pattern holds, if you can write yourself a spec script and plan to take it out right after the strike you are in a really good position to sell/break in. (See, I told you collective bargaining was important!).

I hope some of this has been helpful. Please feel free to deluge me with questions. The ones I don’t answer today I’ll address next Saturday, and the Saturday after that if it’s warranted, and I hope our other screenwriters out there will jump in with their experiences as well.

Next week I’ll also talk about the craft of screenwriting.

- Alex

Added 9/14:  Here are some interesting statistics on spec script sales over the years. Women should particularly take note of the gross imbalance between scripts sold by male writers and scripts sold by female writers - compared to the even balance of male/female bestsellers on the NY Times list.  It's something to keep in mind when you're deciding between the two media.


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Screenwriting, Part 2: Craft


I hear a lot of people say that screenwriting is a harder form than novels. This perplexes me. It’s definitely a more restrictive form than novels, and you really have to KNOW your story – you can’t throw dazzling and evocative prose at the reader to cover up the fact that your story doesn’t actually end - but I think it’s much harder to write a good novel.

What I think is, people are intimidated by the form because they’re just not used to reading it. Think about it. We’ve been reading books since we were four or five years old. We (well, the people reading this blog, anyway!) have read not just thousands of books, but probably into the ten thousands. Okay, I’m wretched with math, but I don’t think that’s an unreasonable figure for this crowd. We’re voracious.

And how many screenplays have you all read?

Exactly my point.

That’s why starting as a story analyst is such good training for a screenwriter. You read dozens of scripts a week. You absorb the form through osmosis.

So if you want to be a screenwriter, start reading scripts. Tons of them. And start doing the same kind of analysis that you do as a novelist. Barry Eisler does a great motivational seminar on writing – well, I’m sure he does any number of them, but in the one I saw he really, really emphasized the point that writers are primarily self-taught: they have to be constantly reading and analyzing what other writers do to make a story work.


(remember, the writers don’t get any money from these sites, so if you enjoy a script, why not write to the writer and let her or him know it?) ( Enter Keywords: movie scripts online.)


Unfortunately there are very few books I can really recommend on film writing, but -

I cannot say enough good things about John Truby's new book THE ANATOMY OF STORY. Truby's one of the main screenwriting gurus in LA, and for good reason. His class was the best I ever took on screenwriting, and he's finally gotten it all into a book.

It's useful to read Syd Field's SCREENPLAY. It's groaningly simplistic, but it will teach you very general basic movie structure and teach you how to work by putting your scenes on index cards, which is a great method of developing a story, especially a movie.

Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is also worth reading. I’m sure other screenwriters here have useful suggestions, but I’ve read a lot of the how-to books and have really never have found anything like a definitive text on the craft.

I've heard good things about SAVE THE CAT! but haven't gotten around to reading it myself. Also people recommend Robert McKee's STORY - I haven't read the book, but got a lot out of his class when I took it, (many years ago now...)

And another plug for John Truby, if you like the book:

The best screenwriting course I've ever come across is John Truby's Story Structure class, which you can get in its entirety on DVD or CD online: (The master class is the one called “Great Screenwriting”).

It's not cheap but I don't think there's a film school in the entire country that is as good.

I do recommend taking classes, but I don’t recommend paying too much for them. Some of the people teaching out there don’t have any experience whatsoever in the business, so go to the first class, see if you think you can actually learn something from either the teacher or the other students, and if not, opt out.


After you have at least read SCREENPLAY I would recommend that you take 10 movies you love in the genre that you want to work in and watch each one - first all the way through, then again, this time starting and stopping so you can write down every scene and what happens in it. Then look at your scene outline and identify the three acts and the turning points, or climaxes, of each. Then see if you can identify the 8 sequences that make up the movie (almost every movie at least roughly follows an 8 sequence structure – each sequence being 10-15 minutes long. The first act has two sequences, the second act, four, and the last act two shorter ones, or one continuous sequence and a capper. Do that with 10 movies in a row and, again, you will have gone through better writing training than most film schools will put you through.


Here’s a crash course in script format: pick a movie you particularly like and would like to have written, get yourself a copy of the script, and type the whole script from beginning to end, in the same screenplay format the script is in. That exercise will teach you what you need to know about script formatting and pacing.


High concept is a whole other column! But if you can tell your story in one line (this is called a LOGLINE) and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie is, that’s high concept. (Name this movie: A shark terrorizes a beach town during high tourist season).

One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating - I made my first "screenwriting" money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.

I highly recommend you try the same exercise - make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept. You'll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas - extremely useful for novelists, as well.

And now go here and read this essay on Mental Real Estate on

It's vitally important if you want to work in Hollywood that you understand what a premise and what a high concept premise is, and that article does a great job of explaining it. Then take some time (got a few years?) and explore the rest of the site. It’s a free mini-film school by two of the best in the business – Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott.

And for television:

So I guess I will be continuing this series next week! Yes, yes, I’ll post a list of the questions I’ve gotten so far with answers, and I’m very pleased to announce that Paul Guyot will be back to guest blog about the TV side of the business, to further everyone’s educations in his inimitable – uh – style. Tune in next Saturday.

So again - ask away.

(Part One of this series is here.)


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE

Screenwriting, Part 3: The Dirty Little Secret

So I was going to write today summing up the differences between writing novels and doing film work as a career. Instead I ended up writing mostly about the one difference that ultimately drove me to novels. I didn’t even want to write about it because I find the whole idea so repellant, and just wrong, but it’s something a lot of people aren’t aware of about the process and reality of film writing and it’s something that novelists contemplating screen work need to know.

Well, what is the difference? Really?

In terms of the creative process – not all that much, really. A story is a story. There are many different ways to tell it. The format is different. Some emphases are different (screenwriting is very visual, novel writing is generally much more internal..). But dramatic structure, characters, dialogue, theme, subplots, action, pacing, business, sensory detail, the world of the story… the major building blocks are all there in both. Even, to some degree, voice. Much more noticeable in a novel but undeniably there in any good script as well, and, I would argue, just as crucial. Every script I’ve ever written could be a novel. With my scripts, I’ve had to leave out more of the story than I actually knew about it, going in. With my novels, I’m having to discover and work in more of the story than I actually knew about it, going in. But the story, in every case, is still the story.

But which should you do, novels or screenplays?

Well, the question is, what do you WANT?

No one can decide that for you.

If you find yourself going around saying “I just want to get PAID to write” (and I hear that constantly from aspiring writers) – then you probably want to think about screen or TV writing. Or technical writing, or journalism, or speechwriting, or nonfiction, or advertising (because, notice, that sentence doesn’t specify what KIND of writing you want to get paid for. When you make these kinds of life-altering wishes, you must be SPECIFIC.)

But odds are, if you’ve got the talent, and the drive (and that’s an enormous if), you can probably make more money in film or TV than in novels. I have no statistics to back me up about that, it’s completely and totally anecdotal. But I suspect the cold hard steel of truth in this quotation (if someone can provide the author, I’d be grateful): “You can’t make a living writing books – but you can make a killing.” This isn’t true of Hollywood. You can make a living, and you can make a killing.

What you do have to realize up front, though, is that there’s a lot of discrimination in film and television – racism, sexism and ageism. If you’re a woman, a person of any color except white, or over 40, your chances of working in the business are greatly reduced. And there is statistical proof of that - I was on the board of the WGA and I’ve seen the figures, and they’re not pretty, and they’re not getting better.

(Television writing in particular is a young person’s game. As I’ve said here before, producers and executives want writers in their 20’s and early 30’s who are willing to kill themselves doing the round the clock, non-stop work that TV writing is).

And if you do decide to go for the money in Hollywood, what you give up is creative power. What you give up is unique voice. What you give up is copyright. What you far too often give up is your soul.

Oh, right, I’m exaggerating.

No, really, I’m not.

I love film. I do. I love the form, I love the power of it. A great movie makes me want to drop to my knees in gratitude. When a movie actually hits that groove, it’s transcendent. But there are so many stupid, unnecessary complications ingrained in the business. I have seen so many great scripts mutilated, stripped of all power and individuality, ground into meaningless pablum… and I’m not even talking about my own, I really thank whatever gods are out there that the some of the scripts I’ve written HAVEN’T been made – I’m talking about the scripts of other writers I know, and writers I don’t know. When I think of all the brilliant movies that could have been made simply by shooting an even fair approximation of the original scripts, I just want to kill myself.

There are exceptions, of course – good movies do get made, and the exceptions are what keep passionate writers working. Sometimes miracles happen.

But less and less. I think - for two basic reasons.

One - the increasing vertical integration and corporatization of Hollywood. Novelists worry about, for example, Walmart’s increasing influence over what books get ordered, bought and sold, right? Well, that kind of thing has been happening in Hollywood for years, and it’s not pretty.

Two - is rewriting.

And I don’t mean rewriting as in “Writing is rewriting.” I don’t mean, rewriting your own work. I mean, rewriting other writers.

Rewriting is a concept that is alien to most novelists. After all – when JT Ellison turns ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS in to Mira, Mira doesn’t turn around and say, “Great story, has potential, we like it… but we don’t love it. Let’s get Lee Child in to do a pass to beef up the male characters, maybe bring in some international intrigue to help with foreign markets. Actually, female protagonists don’t do well in the foreign markets so let’s also have him switch the genders of the characters.” And JT is fired off her own book (her agent will deliver this news to her, because her editor (producers) and publishers (studio/executives) certainly won’t take the trouble to do it themselves. Then after Mr. Child has done his rewrite, the conversation might go like this: “International serial killer books are just not doing well right now, but medical thrillers are off the charts. Let’s make the detective a doctor and get Tess Gerritsen to do a pass. Oh, and also, 80% of books this year were bought by women so let’s make this doctor female.” So Mr. Child is fired, and Ms. Gerritsen is hired. And after Ms. Gerritsen has transformed this police thriller cum international serial spy actioner into a sexy medical thriller, the conversation might go something like this: “Stephenie Meyers' fourth book has been #1 on the NYT bestseller list for a year and a half now, and Stephenie has a window. Let’s get her in to revision this puppy as a teenage vampire story, and get this – the vampire is in med school! You know, a protégé. Um, prodigy.”

So Ms. Gerritsen is fired, and....

Repeat two dozen times until the final version, whatever the hell that is, is slapped up on screen, or in this hypothetical, print - or (as in the vast majority of cases) until everyone is so sick of trying to make the story "work" that they just shelve it. And no, I’m not kidding.

I wish I were.

Now, I love all the authors I’ve mentioned above. But I love them for their unique voices. I don’t want to read their half-assed attempts at trying to “fix” someone else’s writing, which in all likelihood wasn’t even broken to begin with.

Can you imagine? Barry Eisler being hired to layer some martial arts into the Irish tragedies of Ken Bruen…. Dennis Lehane being hired to pump up the urban reality in Neil Gaiman’s mythic fantasies… Heather Graham to weave a paranormal subplot into PD James’ psychological mysteries…

You have to understand this, though. That’s the main money that's out there to be made in screenwriting – rewriting other writers’ work, to studio specifications.

And then there’s another factor. I said before that only three writers (or writing teams) are allowed to be credited on a movie. But if three dozen writers have done a draft, or two or three, on this movie, who decides who gets credit? And how?

Well, that’s a huge subject, but basically, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has the sole power to determine credits. Studios may submit who THEY would like to see credited on the movie (guess who they’d prefer – the brand new writer who wrote the original script or the multimillion dollar writer they hired to replace her?) but the WGA has that call, through a process called credit arbitration, in which writers submit their own drafts of the script and their arguments about why they should receive credit, and a panel of writer/arbiters reads all the drafts and makes the determination whose names go on the movie.

There's a movie coming out this month that I wrote on that my name will not be on, because I wasn't awarded final credit in the arbitration. It happens to all of us screenwriters, all the time. But that's not the part that bothers me. I was paid well to do the job, and it wasn't my original script, and it was not a case of rewriting an original writer.

But here’s the really troubling thing. Back end compensation for writers, a huge part of the money you potentially receive for writing a movie, is completely tied to final credit. No final credit, no back end money. So a lot of the rewriting that gets done has NOTHING to do with what would be good for the story, but has to do with deliberate shifts in character and plot that will change the script enough for the rewriter to get credit. Writers go through and change all the names of characters, change characters’ professions, change locations, combine characters – and that’s just for starters.

(I won't even go see a movie if I see more than two writers listed on the poster, because I know all too well the kind of mess that signifies.)

So screenwriters are not just in constant competition with each other for jobs – they’re often engaged in battles over credit.

I myself couldn’t do it. I think it degrades writers - both the rewriter and the writer being rewritten. I think it dilutes or outright destroys the original and unique power of the story. I think it’s the prime factor in the reality that feature writers have no power in Hollywood.

And I think it’s a major reason that movies are so bad, these days.

It’s something to think about.

So what am I saying? I guess my advice is, if you just want to make money, be an investment banker. Yeah, right.

Actually I have no idea how to make money. I’ve done okay, but real money? I don’t have a clue. Real estate? The stock market? Well, surely you’ve noticed. Truly, I’m not the one to ask. That’s not the point.

The point is, if you just want to make money writing – go to hell. Really. I absolutely believe authors should make a good living. But books and films and television and games are too precious a resource to be left in the hands of people who are only doing it for the money. These are dreams we’re dealing with, here. As writers, we dream for other people. And if you’re not passionate about your writing, your OWN writing, the dreams you dream, I have nothing to say to you.

In terms of working for Hollywood, though, in the present climate, this is what I will say, and this is just completely my own opinion.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a new movie that enthralled me as much as some recent television: DEADWOOD, THE WIRE, ROME, and my current obsession, MAD MEN. (I was not a SOPRANOS junkie but yes, I understand, it was brilliant, too.) I believe that great television is happening right now, and if you want to work in moving pictures, that’s probably the place to go. The writer has power in television – the screenwriter does not have power in features. And HBO, in particular, has vision. I think it shows. And I believe television writing is a more honest and effective writing process because - at least - it’s collaborative up front. (But Guyot will certainly have his opinions on that, and I'll leave it to him.)

Otherwise, if you care about what you do, and what you are putting out into the world, I hope you’ll keep writing novels.

No matter what – be very specific about what you are aspiring to. If your dream is to make a great movie, make sure you understand what that takes and consider how you might be able to do it in the present corporate climate. Can you do it as an independent, instead? Can you do it as a TV series? Can you do it as a novel? If this for some reason was your one shot, how could you bring your story to fruition and die satisfied with the result?

Know what you’re getting into – and go for it.

Good luck.

Part One of this series (The Job) is here.

Part Two of this series (The Craft) is here.


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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