Writing For Screens – Introduction

In about a month, I’m going to presenting an academic paper and twenty-minute “talk” to a symposium at the University of Portsmouth in the UK called “Writing for Screens.” My topic, unsurprisingly, concerns screenwriting, but it is more specifically about how approaches to screenwriting can adapt and evolve in the 21st Century.

Why would approaches to screenwriting need to evolve at all? How is writing a movie in 2019 any different than writing a movie in 1969? Aren’t the basic tools of storytelling pretty much the same as they were when Aristotle wrote Poetics? Regardless of the internet, interactivity, transmedia, gaming, and virtual/augmented/alternate realities, isn’t writing a movie pretty much the same as it has always been?

Well, my premise is in the paper is “no.” Things are not the same, and approaches to screenwriting and storytelling need to evolve. As I write the paper, record a video presentation, and interact with others who are attending “Writing For Screens,” I plan to share my work here on Undergrids as it develops (and by posting daily on Ask a Screenwriter.)

So stay tuned. Please feel free to comment (and challenge my conclusions.)

More to come…

What are the odds of selling a good screenplay?

Ask A Screenwriter #4

Short answer: Very, Very Low.

Estimating odds is never easy because a number of assumptions must be made, and many of these assumptions may not apply to a particular script. “Good” is an extremely subjective term. A brilliant and original screenplay may actually be no easier to sell than an average script if what makes the story “good” is seen as risky, or if the “originality” is misunderstood. Conversely, if the writer just had a hit movie, the odds of selling the next script skyrocket. Maybe, it’s a mediocre screenplay based on a wildly popular book. Sometimes scripts are bought just because producers or executives like the underlying premise and they plan to hire a more seasoned writer to rewrite it. However, a script that is well-written is always more likely to sell that than a script telling the same general story that is mediocre.

So, here are some general statistics to make the argument that, all other things being equal, the odds of selling a good screenplay are LOW. And for you, probably about 1/1000.

Roughly 50,000 screenplays are registered at the WGA each year.[1] However, not all screenplays get registered, so it is safe to assume that about double that number of feature scripts get written every year. (For example, I finished two screenplays last year, but I didn’t register either at the WGA. There are many other ways to establish a legal claim of authorship, including registering the script with the Library of Congress.)

Some estimate that as many as one million scripts are written per year worldwide in hopes of “selling” that script to Hollywood.[2] So my pool of 100,000 scripts is really just the 10% of scripts worldwide that are “professionally” written – meaning any script reader would recognize it as having the minimum level of narrative form, format, coherence, and quality to submit to a buyer.

So, out of 100,000 “professional” screenplays how many of them are “good.” Let’s just say the top 5% of screenplays are good.

So out of 5,000 good screenplays how many actually sell?

In 2018 there were only 40 spec screenplay sales reported in the Hollywood Reporter or Variety, a statistic gathered by the folks who run The Blacklist.[3] This doesn’t count writers who are hired to write scripts based on existing material ( a book, a sequel, an existing script that needs a rewrite, a producer’s idea, etc,) which makes up the bulk of the paid screenwriting done in Hollywood. It also doesn’t count the many screenplays that are optioned, with writers hired to rewrite their own material. However, when people say “sell a screenplay” they are usually imagining selling an original script to a major studio or production company. The average number of these sales in recent years is about 50 screenplays per year.

So to summarize, assuming your script is one of the 5000 “good” scripts out of the one million that get written worldwide. Your chances of selling it are…

1% or one-in-one-hundred.

Are you discouraged yet? It gets worse.

How many of those 50 sales are screenplays by unknown, unestablished writers? Maybe 4. Sometimes fewer. Yet how many of the 5000 scripts were written by unknown, unestablished, non-WGA writers? Only about 5000 WGA writers out of 20,000 WGA members, earn any money in a given year, and most of them are TV writers. But let’s be wildly optimistic and say that of the 5000 good scripts written, 1000 of them were written by WGA members.

This means that out of the 4000 good scripts written by as-yet-unknown writers, only 4 will actually sell. So, for you, the chances are one-in-a-thousand.

What does this mean for you and your dreams of being a screenwriter? If you have “what it takes” to write movies, you are probably delusional, obsessed, and sadly unfit to do anything else. So stop reading Quora and get back to writing.

As Han Solo said in The Empire Strikes Back…

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

Why are Hollywood writers firing their agents?

Ask a Screenwriter #3

The Writers’ Guild of America demanded that the Talent Agencies sign a Code of Conduct. The Agencies refused. So, all WGA writers fired their agents and agencies. Writers will remain “unrepresented” by agents until an agreement is reached.

To explain:

The Code of Conduct is a document intended to eliminate Packaging Fees and curb the practice of Agents receiving money as de facto producers.

Agencies, in particular, the “Big Five” (CAA, WME, UTA, and ICM) who thrive on packaging fees and who feel they can’t survive without them, refused to give them up.

To explain in detail:

Talent Agent negotiates fees with Producers and studios on behalf of Writers.

A Talent Agent makes money by taking 10% of the fee negotiated.

For there not to be a conflict of interest, the Talent Agent negotiating with a Producer should not also be a Producer on the project.

Since the 60s it has been illegal for an Agent to also be a Producer.

However, the most powerful agencies (like CAA and WME) often behave like producers. Whenever a writer sets up a TV pilot, the agency charges the studio a “packaging fee.” This fee amounts to 6% of licensing and 10% of the gross, which is precisely something that a producer or a writer-producer might get.

“Packaging Fees” are ostensibly paid so that a powerful agency will bring other talented writers, actors, and directors it represents to the project. However, attaching additional talent is a producer’s job. And it’s not clear that the people who are “packaged” are having their best interests served. Most problematically, the agency could end up making far, far more than 10% of the deal:

Said Meredith Stiehm, the creator of Cold Case, “When the show was sold, CAA negotiated a packaging fee for itself, without my knowledge…It wasn’t until six years and 134 episodes later that I learned about it. It turned out that on the show I created, I worked on exclusively for years, CAA ended up making 94 cents for every dollar I earned. That is indefensible. An agency should make 10% of what a client makes — not 20, not 50, not like in my case, 94%. 10% is enough.”[1]

Furthermore, companies like the newly formed, WME affiliated Endeavor Content are both producers and agent-like representatives. Although the heads of Endeavor Content call themselves “matchmakers,” writers feel that they are behaving precisely like agent-producers.

Bottom line:

Writers say there is a conflict of interest. Agencies say that if the money is good, what’s the harm?

Bigger Issues:

Writers, who often get their own work based on their own relationships, are asking themselves, “If I have a lawyer and a manager, what do I need an agency for?”

Agencies, who are struggling to find ways to make money in a rapidly changing industry, say “everybody benefits from agency packaging and participation. The writers are creating chaos, and the result will be that everybody loses.”

See these articles:

Why Are Agents Producing Shows? Writers Guild Would Like to Know

Endeavor Content Takes Big Swings to Expand Options for Producers

WGA Sues Big Four Agencies Over Packaging Fees

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

Is there a book similar to “Save the Cat” for TV series?

Ask A Screenwriter #2

Save the Cat is a popular screenwriting book for beginners; it offers a simple, humorous and accessible introduction to story structure. It gives just about any reader the feeling that he/she/they too could turn their idea into a movie script.(How To Write a Screenplay in 21 days! was the first in this genre.)

With a few basic concepts like “The seven immutable laws of screenplay physics!” along with a basic structural template and a few charming anecdotes, inspired readers of Save the Cat can often finish their first draft and get a sense of having done it. “I wrote a movie script!”

Of course, writing a movie is much harder than the witty and beloved Blake Snyder makes it seem. 90% of the writing process is REwriting, and most of the problems professional writer’s struggle with aren’t covered in “the last screenwriting book you’ll ever need.”

Writing a TV series is a vastly, VASTLY larger and more complex undertaking than writing a movie, which is why a series is written by a ROOM full of writers, instead of just one. The process just doesn’t lend itself to glib simplification and fill-in-the-blank templates. That doesn’t mean writing a great film is easier than writing great TV. It just means that creating a TV series is usually the wrong project for a starry-eyed beginner to attempt. It would be like tackling an epic, thousand-page novel before having even written a short story.

All of that said, two books I’ve read are good for beginners:

Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV written by Pam Douglas, who teaches TV writing at USC. (Full disclosure: she is also a colleague, so I like to plug her book.)

Writing the Pilot, by William Rabkin

However, you’ll notice that some Amazon reviewers complain about these books. “I was looking for a Save the Cat type book with a beat sheet, offering some type of structure or format. Although a lot of people like this book, sadly my expectations weren’t met.” So, you aren’t alone.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure an easy-to-read, anyone-can-do-it, Save-The-Cat-style book on TV writing is really possible, and if you are serious about learning the craft and ultimately creating a series, it’s better to leave behind the beginner’s fantasy that one exists.

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

On average, How Much of the Screenwriter’s Vision Are We Actually Getting?

Ask a Screenwriter #1

In 2012 I was an avid writer and contributor on Quora, writing several answers that went alarmingly viral, including What’s it Like When Your Movie Bombs at The Box Office.

But now, as I expand my teaching portfolio, I’m going back to Quora for three months in order to contribute to the Ask A Screenwriter section. Tonight I found this question On average, How Much of the Screenwriter’s Vision Are We Actually Getting which I answered thusly…

Short answer: not much.

The key phrase in your question is “on average.” Every film is different, and there are situations (for example Ladybird and writer/director Greta Gerwig) in which the writer’s vision is exactly what “we are really getting.”

However, most movies are based on valuable underlying material: a novel, a comic book, a franchise, and so on. So, the primary elements of character, world, story, and conflict are already in place. The writer is not free to change these elements according to their “vision” because the underlying story is a valuable brand, handled as such by the corporation owning it.

Most movies have three or more participating writers who work on the screenplay independently at different times, often at the direction of different people. Most movies go into credit arbitration, in which the WGA determines who among the participating writers contributed enough material to the final shooting script to receive screen credit. As a result, most movies have multiple writers (and thus multiple “visions”) as well as a set of uncredited writers whose contributions (and uncredited “visions”) are never recognized.

Most movies are driven by the “vision” set by the studio, the producers, the director, and the name actors, all of whom outrank the writer. Screenplays are usually re-written dozens and dozens of times before and during production. Each time a “pass” is done on the script, the screenwriter (or screenwriting team) is given a set of “notes” (often bundling changes required by the studio, director, producers, and actors.) These notes are directives, not suggestions.

I have been both a WGA arbiter determining credit on Hollywood movies and a participating writer on Hollywood Movies that have gone into arbitration. A typical arbitration might include these elements:

  • A best-selling, novel on which the movie was based.
  • Seven writers who all worked at different times over five years during which the script was “developed.” In general, only two writers (or writing teams) can ultimately get screen credit.
  • Twenty different “drafts” of the screenplay, including the first draft and the last “shooting script.”
  • Statements from all seven writers, each arguing that their contribution to the final shooting script (aka “vision”) exceeded 33% (which just puts a number to a very subjective assessment.)

In this typical movie, the arbiters may determine that Writer A contributed 35% and Writer B contributed 30% and the other five writers made combined contributions of around 35%. The arbiters may talk it through and ultimately determine credit for Writer A (in the first position) and Writer B. Writers C, D, E, F, and G would get absolutely nothing. The dude who gets the producers’ dry cleaning would get credit, but they wouldn’t.

So, if you ask “how much of Writer B’s vision are we actually getting?” In this hypothetical case, Writer B did three “passes” on the script based on highly specific notes by multiple executives, producers, directors, and actors, while not changing anything that might harm the underlying intellectual property. While Writer B’s work added up to a third of the actual shooting script, many of these story points, dialogue additions, and action beats were changed during shooting and editing. Finally, after audience testing, Writer B’s ending was completely reshot.

So again, not much.

Ultimately, the way movie production usually works, the screenplay is often a kind of Wikipedia entry – emerging from countless small changes made by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of “authors.” The screenwriter can have an important role in this process, figuring out how to skillfully and artfully execute these changes, but “on average,” the writer’s “vision” is not what you are seeing on screen.

Exceptions include hyphenates, like writer-directors and writer-producers, or celebrity writers, like Charlie Kaufman, Diablo Cody, Aaron Sorkin, and the late Nora Ephron. Also, there are producers (like the ones I’m currently working with) who see the value in maintaining the same writer from beginning to end, and in keeping this writer actively engaged in the filmmaking process.

I answered this question on Quora in the space Ask A Screenwriter. Here are my recent articles On Screenwriting.

the absent minded #3

So… Other puzzling and nonsensical things you may encounter on this blog are my cartoons.

I use the style of the daily cartoon strips I loved in my youth – Peanuts, Doonesbury, and Bloom County – to draw about the mundane struggles of screenwriting.

So far the strip has a one-panel format, in which I struggle with a punchline in the form of a hashtag.

But I also will be adding additional “characters,” who are simply the people I hang out with at coffee shops and the readers of this blog.

I may go to four-panelel format from time to time.

The Absent Minded is still in the development phase, as are most things you might find on Undergrids.

Undergrid Four (of Fifty)

Undergrid Four – Pastel on paper, digitally manipulated

The abstract images I’m making for undergrids are probably a bit bland and puzzling for you, so here are a few things that might put them in context.

  • Each picture titled “Undergrid” is a visual representation of the ideas behind Undergrids (see definition.) It is a representation of the complex, fractal, grid of relationships each of us has with other people and foreign objects, a grid that determines identity and meaning. So, each “Undergrid painting is a picture of my undergrid and in that sense, a self-portrait.
  • Each picture with its overcrowded multiplicity of shapes and connections represents how I experience the world. I often feel overwhelmed and overstimulated by too many things, people, and complex systems. (In future articles, I’m planning to write about Concentration Deficit Disorder.) The world seems to generate an overwhelming surplus of objects, and I have trouble screening out the noise to get to the signal. So, the images look jam-packed with “noisy objects” and it is hard to know which one to look at.
  • Each picture is a kind of Mandala. So making them is very calming and meditative. The way some people color in mandalas with colored pencils in coloring books, I draw “Undergrids.”
Image From Mandala Coloring Book

Notice that Undergrids do not have the formal balance and geometric structure of Mandalas. Despite studying mathematics and formal geometry, my raw phenomenological experience tends to be more disorganized and chaotic.

A Hollywood Screenwriter

One of the very best things I ever received in the mail was issue 23 of n+1 Magazine.

When I opened the magazine and read the table of contents, I saw under Kristin Dombek’s Advice From The Help Desk an article titled: A Hollywood Screenwriter. Intrigued that one of my favorite contributors had written something about the entertainment industry, I turned to page 91 and began reading a letter to Kristin asking for advice. I didn’t immediately recognize the letter as my own, just an uncanny sense the words wer familiar…

“When I started reading the first installment of the Help Desk, I assumed its title and contents were ironic. Halfway through, I realized that much of what you wrote was breathtakingly sincere. By the end, I found that almost every sentence could be read as either ironic or sincere, in the same way an optical illusion can be seen as a young woman or an old hag, but not as both at once. Either way, you wrote so deeply and extensively about each question, I found myself wanting to ask for your help, perhaps just to have you think so attentively about me, too.”

“However, as I thought about a question to ask you, I felt anxious. I began to worry that my problem would seem neither cleverly ironic nor lyrically sincere. What if you brushed off my question with a dismissive remark? What if, because you have so many questions sent to you, I got no response at all? It was this fear of your indifference and my inconsequence that helped me finally settle on the right question.”

“I have shared writing credit on several relatively high-budget movies, all of which were critical and box-office failures. I’ve realized, in midlife, that despite earnest dedication to my craft, I am ashamed of the work I’ve been involved in. None of it represents what I value artistically or politically. None of it expresses anything I think or feel. Worse than that, I fear that I’ve spent most of my fifteen-year career empowering shallow and immoral people to create cruel and witless films.”

“I pine for the same wry but authentic connection you make with the people who ask for your help, and I envy your satisfaction (as I imagine it) in moving your readers the way I was moved while reading the Help Desk.”

“How, as an artist, do I shed my failures and begin again?

Sincerely, A Hollywood Screenwriter”

I had written that letter during a spell of panicked insomnia months earlier, sent it to the magazine, and promptly forgot about it.

Kristin Dombek answered my question in the form of a fifteen-page essay, one that I have read and reread at least a dozen times over the last three years. Recently, it has taken on special meaning.

She writes about a lot of things, about the novella Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanial West, about the difficulty of giving advice to depressed friends, about cruel optimism and “the place where friendship and love become acts of invention, even of art.” For me, the essay embodies an idea that inspired Undergrids, that in an age of overwhelming content, a single reader paying careful attention is more meaningful than a million views.

Kristin’s article helped me navigate that particular pit of depression, and it continues to inspire me.

You can read it here: