This is the column your agent doesn't want you to read. You're in the middle of a heated bidding war on your latest spec, the numbers have escalated from expensive foreign sports car to moderately priced home in Brentwood, you're positively giddy with feelings of vindication about your talent and choice of career, your agent is calling with hourly updates using that slightly smug 'I'm not really excited by all this' tone that agents try to adopt at such times, visions of front-page "Variety" headlines (below the fold) are dancing before your eyes -- Now. What do you ask for? What's important to you, what's not important? What deal points do you cave in on, where do you draw the line? Quick, you've got 20 minutes to decide, because Columbia drops their offer at noon. What sort of deal do you want? What sort of deal should you want? The reason your agent doesn't want you to read this column is... money. Large sums of money, that the studio will throw at you to gain control of your project. Agents, you see, are only really doing their job when they can get a paycheck sent your way. That's their function, that's their priority, that's their profession, and that's fine. But money isn't all that selling a script is about. I know, I know, you should have such troubles. The beginning writer can't help but cry out, "Hell -- get me an agent!" or even, "Hell, get me someone to just read my script!" And here I am, talking about the first big spec sale. Most column writers would take you step-by-step through various submission strategies, on up to initial interest, and then talk about what to ask for. That's no fun. Here we'll do it backwards. We'll start with that dream deal, all the ridiculous, impossible stuff you'd like to get from a big spec sale. Then we'll reverse-engineer our way into a few career-path decisions. Considering what sort of deal you want challenges presumptions and reveals priorities, which can lead to adopting new ways of thinking -- which could even bring about that long sought-after deal after all. That's the theory, anyway. So -- what are you going to ask for? Like any good agent, we'll start with the sun, moon and stars... Direct the Film Yourself This is a frivolous, outrageous, completely unrealistic demand for most writers, so it goes up front: tell them you want to direct the thing yourself. Sound crazy? It is. Because, in fact, most writers are not directors. The skill set is vastly different. Making a film is a total lifestyle commitment (check out the Indy Pros columns by Fred Dekker and Frank Darabont for some real-world perspectives on this). Without a decent demo reel or some other training or experience, asking to direct is an instant deal-breaker, the first thing to be taken off the table. But you know what? When Ted and I put our next spec script on the market, that's going to be one of our demands. Two reasons. First, there are plenty of directors out there who can't direct. If someone is going to screw up our screenplay, it might as well be one of us. Nobody knows how to direct the first time; you make it up as you go, and learn what you need to know to do the job your own way. And the second reason -- hey, they can always pay us to not direct the thing. Again, sounds crazy... but consider our first spec sale, LITTLE MONSTERS. Our producers, bless them, picked out a director who had done some television work in Canada, and 'attached' him to our script. Their attempt to put together a package. MGM eventually bought the screenplay, but disagreed with the director choice, and subsequently paid the guy $100,000... to not direct the movie. Hollywood, you gotta love it. When I found out about this, I was amazed. If anybody was going to get a hundred grand to not direct the movie, it just as well could have been me. Or heck, my mother could use the money. She could not direct the movie as well as anyone. Now with a really fabulous spec and the true desire to direct, it could make sense to hold out against this payoff. When Frank Darabont was shopping the screenplay for THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, he attached himself as director. And was offered a million dollars to remove himself from the film, and see it produced -- but turned it down. Castle Rock finally stepped up, the film got made, and went on to be nominated for Best Picture. M. Night Shyamalan faced a similar scenario with THE SIXTH SENSE, but his screenplay sale deal included payment for directing services. It's almost certain neither film would have been as good if directed by someone else. In the end, the huge advantage with directing (if you can pull it off) is that you can truly protect your screenplay.
Attach Yourself as Producer "Wait a second," you're thinking. "I'm a producer even less than I am a director! Producers are people with shiny suits, houses on stilts, and stars on their speed dials!" True enough. But it's also true that the first thing a producer does is acquire the rights to some property. Like a screenplay. But hey, look -- you've already got one of those -- you just wrote it! So that makes you a producer, if you want to be. Say it with me: "Here's my script, and I've attached myself to produce." Sounds good, doesn't it? Now, I'm not a big fan of the proliferation of producer credits on films. I always thought that the producer should be the guy who actually gets the film made. But it turns out some producers get credit for finding and acquiring material, some get credit for attaching a star, some get credit for owning underlying rights, some get credit for raising the money (traditionally, this is the executive producer credit) and some get credit for, yes, actually making the film. Sometimes, when a bigger producer steps in, the little producer will get bumped to co-producer, associate producer or executive producer -- which is still worthwhile; this town runs on credits. Writers don't grasp right off that the ability to attach a person to a script is a thing of value. The beauty of a just-finished spec is that the major positions on the film (producer and director) have yet to be decided. Yes, in the final analysis, you might not want to 'encumber' your script by attaching yourself as producer; it could be more valuable to leave it attractively 'naked.' But if you have done any producing chores -- optioning material, for example -- then by all means, negotiate the credit. Because there's another incentive: if you get fired from the film as screenwriter, with producer status you have a better chance (just a chance, mind you!) to still attend meetings on your own movie. Wouldn't it be nice to actually be there when they discuss what directors to hire, which stars to go out to for certain parts? In a word: yep.
Proceed to Production You need a 'Proceed to Production' clause in your deal. More than anything else in the world. Really you do. I'm gonna explain why, and it's going to take a while, but it's important, so bear with me. We'll start with a crucial truth, which you should write down and tape above your monitor: most often, the day your screenplay sells is the day your project dies. Oh, man, now it seems like I'm taking all the fun out of everything! How can this possibly be? To actually sell a script is the Holy Grail of screenwriting. It's vindication of talent, it's money, it's joining the pro ranks, it's medical coverage from the Writer's Guild of America, West (WGA/w), it's rolling the dice and having it come up seven. Surely that's a day to celebrate? Perhaps. But it's also the day, in the majority of cases, you give up your deepest, most cherished hope as a writer: to see your vision up on screen. Because here's the evil truth: the people who buy your script don't intend to make it. Quite often, they'll actively work to not get it made. I know it's counterintuitive. But trust me, this next section is worth all the time you may have spent wandering this site in order to get to this exact spot. Because the illusion is so well maintained, the truth so well hidden, that it took me, literally, a decade to figure out. In the beginning, when the studio is buying, it's all excitement and money and everyone loves the project and they love you. Deals get signed. Meetings are held. The writer is fooled into thinking everyone wants to make the film, and behaves accordingly. Then the notes come. The stated purpose of notes is to improve the script, usually under the guise of 'making it perfect' so that a director can just come in and shoot it. Sounds reasonable, sounds like we're on the path to production, and in fact it's somewhat true: all screenplays can be improved. But the truth of the matter -- which gains you no friends for pointing out -- is that NOTHING IS DECIDED until there is a director in the room. Weeks, months, years can pass, with screenwriters spending years fiddling over a script under the guidance of development executives; people who can't write and certainly have no idea how films are made. And it's all to zero purpose, because everything goes back up into the air the day a director is hired. So what are the real purposes of getting notes, and doing revisions, if not to truly finalize the screenplay? There are several things going on: #1. POLITICS Consider that at a major studio, there are approximately 150 projects in active development at all times. And the studio only intends to make fifteen or so in any single year. Of those, many are remakes, or based on other material, or have stars or directors attached, and so land in line ahead of your spec. The people who bought your script don't want you to know this, but they don't actually have the ability to green light a project -- that's a decision their boss makes, or the boss above their boss. They can only hope to put an attractive package together, and in an intensely fought, highly political competition with their fellow executives, try to marshal a consensus that your project should be made. If your script was purchased by a production company, the odds get longer, as there are more hoops to jump through. In the worst case scenario, your script may have been put into development as a favor to an actor or director; the 'star' has enough clout to get the thing bought, but not enough to get it made. (Repeat: the day your screenplay sells is the day your project dies.) And time is a factor. Death comes with the changing of the guard. If you lose your advocate in the inevitable executive shuffle, your project can get swept out the door... or, if it's at Warner Bros. (notorious for refusing to put projects in turnaround) left to gather dust on a shelf.
#2. TRANSFER OF THE CREATIVE VISION Another thing that happens during the 'notes' process is a transfer of the creative vision of the story away from the writer to someone else. This someone else could be a low-level executive (since they don't know how to actually make the film, they can justify their position by doing what they can, messing with the story). Or it could be a more powerful, higher-level executive who has fought his way to the top and wants to see the thing done with his creative sensibilities. But the result is the same: you've been assigned a writing partner, one with many opinions, but little time to do the actual work. (Repeat: the day your screenplay sells is the day your project dies... at least in the form you originally wanted to see it.)
#3. THE ILLUSION OF MOVEMENT While the politics is playing out and the script is trying to gain creative support, it's important to keep the impression that all is proceeding smoothly. So the other purpose of notes and rewrites is to keep a project from seeming to be dead. It's not dead, see, there's a draft coming in, the writer is making fixes! This is a case where it is important to write quickly. The level of excitement and interest in a project is a real, tangible thing. A substantially late revision can kill the momentum of a project -- simply by letting attention wander onto other projects.
#4. SHOW BUSINESS This took me a long time to figure out; stupid me. Very often, you're in a meeting working on a project at a company that is, in fact, not in the business of making movies. You might as well be hanging out shooting pool. How can that be? Doesn't it say Warner Bros., or DreamWorks, or MGM out there on the sign? Sure it does. But there's an ebb and flow to the entertainment business. Films are incredibly expensive -- on average, fifty million to make and another fifty million to market. So films are not churned out by assembly line. Each one that happens, happens in a unique way. Maybe the studio has filled their production quota for the year. Maybe they've had a couple of bombs. Maybe they have a commitment from a star on another film, and that one gets the nod. Maybe they do make movies, just not your type of movie. Maybe they're scaling back. Maybe nobody there actually has the time, or the know-how, to make the film happen. For whatever the reason, you could find yourself with your project set up at a place that, for some period of time, isn't in the business of making films. I can't tell you how many times, looking back, Ted and I took meetings thinking we were working on making a film, knocking ourselves out, finalizing a screenplay for production. In truth, we were just baby-sitting the script until some elusive combination of elements came together; money, willingness to proceed, interest from a filmmaker, or star, etc. Tim Burton was asked recently what happened to the Superman movie he was attached to direct, with Nicholas Cage to star. He laughed, and said, "I don't think Warner Bros. is interested in making movies right now." I've seen projects get a green light that were in terrible shape, and perfect screenplays passed over for no logical reason. If your project gets stalled somewhere, consider there may be nothing wrong with the script... other than it lacks the commitment to get it made. So -- what's the solution? I got it right here: the lovely and wonderful 'Proceed to Production' clause. See, writers and agents started to catch on to the losing game that is selling a script destined to sit on a shelf, or get lost in development hell. Writers were working, and getting paid, but nothing was getting made. It became not enough, on the studio's part, to be willing to buy a screenplay for big fun bucks. To truly show their interest, a studio would emphasize that they were putting the project on 'the fast track.' Which meant that they were going to quickly take steps to actually produce the picture. Soon, this was not enough, and a project had to go on the 'super fast track' (presumably lapping all those sluggish fast track projects) and leaping to the top of the production slate. It was only a matter of time before this got formalized into contract language. Now, I must admit, I only know of this from reading in the trades. But the way it seems to work: the studio buys the screenplay, and agrees to 'proceed to production' within a set time -- perhaps within a year, or eighteen months. At that point the studio must 'elect to proceed or abandon' the project. All deals are different, I'm sure, but I imagine that there is some penalty if the studio does not elect to proceed, to produce the film. Reversion of all rights to the writer, for example. Or a prohibitively high penalty payment. (In the television world, the equivalent would be a 'put pilot' agreement. The network promises to pay for a pilot to be produced; the kill fee is the same as the budget of the pilot, so it makes no financial sense to pull out.) This 'Proceed to Production' clause is heaven-sent, and should be requested in any negotiation. Because if they refuse, what does that say about their true interest in the screenplay? Perhaps they're buying it only for the concept. Perhaps they love it, but don't have the budget, and really can't afford to make it. Maybe the low level people love it, but the top dog can't stand it. Maybe they just don't know what they're doing. Case in point: working in the capacity of producers on a screenplay, Ted and I had a script go into turnaround. It was a great script with many fans around town. There was serious interest from Studio A and Studio B. We had a meeting with Studio A, sat in a room, discussed the picture, and were ready to shake hands. My interest was getting the film made. With the insurance of Studio B's interest, I held off on the handshake, asking them to check where the project landed on their production slate. The next day, they discussed the project with the studio head -- and discovered that he truly disliked that type of film, and would never, in fact, agree to make it. Even the development folk were surprised; they had no idea. The good news: I avoided sending the project into the oblivion of a production cul-de-sac. The bad news: Studio B subsequently called, changed their position, and the script went from having two homes to none. (Eventually it was picked up by a third studio, that, it turns out, also doesn't want to make it; but hope springs eternal, a fourth studio is interested.) You'd think that these issues would come up in the course of a bidding war; that the writer would get to meet the folk he's working with, hear what changes they want, see what their production intent is. But it doesn't happen that way. It should.
Reversion of Rights I should point out that there are some existing provisions for rescuing your work out of development hell. Studios can be persuaded to put the project into 'turnaround' -- which means it can be shopped around to new buyers. The catch is, the new buyer has to reimburse the old for all of the development costs: rights payments, fees to writers, producers, and overhead expenses. There's also a little-used WGA provision: if a studio has let a project languish, with no active development for five years, and writer can re-acquire the project by paying back his fees. This 'reversion of rights' clause is a poor cousin to the 'proceed to production,' but still potentially valuable. And the point is, perhaps the standard deal can be negotiated and improved upon. Maybe set the reversion of rights to occur ten years in the future, at no cost to the writer? The date will arrive sooner than you think. And now, moving on with our outrageous demands, I'm gonna utter those two little words –
Creative Control John Patrick Shanley, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of MOONSTRUCK, has a great attitude about his screenplays. "I don't contract to do any revisions or rewrites on my scripts," he says, "because that implies the work isn't finished." I love that. In truth, the standard 'step deal' is an open invitation to producers and development executives to make potentially unreasoned demands. I would love it if a 'no rewrite' clause was at least an early demand in all spec screenplays, even if it did get taken quickly off the table (in exchange for more cash, of course). Another creative rights strategy here would be for you to agree to do rewrites, but only if they're done by yourself -- no other writers can be brought in. It sounds reasonable, but in truth, it would be hard to get -- because the studio needs to be free to find a top director, and if the director has a favourite writer, pfft! You're gone. So here's a good one... you could happily agree to do any number of rewrites -- but only when they're done under the supervision of a director. (Too bad you can't see my evil grin as I sit here typing that one!) Why is this choice so insidiously clever? First off, it's fairly agreeable. You're willing to do rewrites -- if the director wants them. Ah, but they don't have a director yet. As you recall from the 'Proceed to Production' section, the phrase you are guaranteed to hear is, "We want it to be as good as it can be before it goes out to directors." And you can come back with, "Gee, I think I'd rather go someplace that's willing to put it on the fast track." Or, "Who is it that is going to give notes, and what do they think is wrong with it?" Either the notes will be so huge that it's a good thing you heard them up front. Or they will be so small that you can respond, "Oh, let's let the director decide those things." And, if you really want to shake things up, try this one: negotiate for approval of director. In truth, you might not be able to get any of this. But the underlying point here is that, creatively, the place you most want to be in the world is in the room working with the director, designing your film. The place you don't want to be is home, getting this phone call from the development executive: "The revision just came in, I think you'll be happy with it, they kept a lot of your work." Consider that, sometimes, no film is better than a bad film executed by others that still has your name on it. When the bidding war happens, it's hard to keep this in mind, hard to take the long view, and focus on a career, rather than a sale. Which leads us to something else to ask for
Negotiate a Second Deal Robert Rodriguez nailed this in his outstanding book, "Rebel Without a Crew." He recognized that a director's second film is, in some ways, more important than the first. So Rodriguez decided to confuse the issue. By doing an HBO movie, a segment of FOUR ROOMS, DESPERADO and FROM DUSK 'TILL DAWN nearly simultaneously, critics would be confused as to what his second film even was, and so he'd avoid the usual scrutiny, the presumption that the first success was 'just a fluke.' Meanwhile, he'd be learning his craft, and insuring that he'd actually have a career. For a screenwriter, one sale is just a sale. But the second sale is a career. So consider making a second writing assignment part of your spec script deal. The best would be what's called a 'blind script deal,' where the studio agrees to buy whatever you mutually decide you will write. But even any assignment -- even at a low cost to the studio -- is good for you. That makes you a working professional. The potential to learn the ropes, make contacts, and establish a reputation is enormous. You use the heat of your initial spec sale to create your career. And along those lines...
Don't Sell the Screenplay At All An option your agent would never advise: as you negotiate the spec script deal, put the price prohibitively high, and don't come down, don't close the deal -- not until you've landed that next assignment. And then, perhaps, you don't even have to sell your spec (unless they meet your price, of course, or you could be accused of not bargaining in good faith). That's the ultimate way to protect your work, and not let it get screwed up -- don't sell it at all. Better to keep your work, then, until you have better industry standing, and can control the result; maybe even direct it yourself. As crazy as this sounds -- and I know it is Machiavellian and bizarre -- there are many pros out there who would agree that, in hindsight, this would have been a better way to go. Protect that early screenplay that got all the attention, keep it in your arsenal, rather than let it get messed up on the way to the screen.
Money, Money, Money Finally, we're down to the cash. In truth, your agent will probably do fine on this count. Agents love the 'mid six figures against high six figures on the back end' stuff. I think it has to do with those staff meetings they hold every Monday morning. All the agents sit around the big conference table and give status reports. Being able to say, "I closed the ADDAM'S FAMILY IV rewrite deal at $500,000" sure sounds more impressive than, "My writer got $75,000, but he's really in creative sync with his producers." Agents instinctively go for the big bucks -- if they didn't, they wouldn't be agents. There's another column planned that will focus in detail on money (hey, everyone's favourite topic), but here are a few of the basics:
#1. 'UP FRONT' AGAINST THE 'BACK END' It should perhaps make you feel a little less envious to know that those huge deals you read about in the trades commonly don't materialize fully for the writers involved. When the trades scream a $600,000 sale, the lion's share is often the production bonus (money paid when the film starts production, an iffy proposition) and all of the steps of a step deal, some of which are optional. The writer gets paid as he begins and completes each step -- a revision or a polish -- so there's no big check; the money gets doled out over time. In addition, the production bonus is tied to credit; a shared credit (or no credit) decision from the WGA will reduce the bonus.
Like everyone says, the 'net points' you get offered on your film are indeed worthless. Supposedly they're a percentage of net profit on a film. The trick the studio uses is to charge a distribution fee tied to box office performance. The more the film makes, the more money is owed, and break-even is never reached.
It should be noted that Sony Pictures made headlines recently, breaking rank, for the first time offering 'gross points' to certain screenwriters. It's not really gross points, it's true adjusted gross (actually, what net points ought to be). After the film truly returns its cost, leaving out the distribution fee, the writer gets to participate in subsequent returns.
Perhaps this opens the door to more writers getting gross points. I think all writers should start out negotiating for 1% of first dollar gross on original spec screenplays, even if it gets turned down every time.
How could the writer, who originates the project, not deserve at least that?
Finally some good news. Most writers don't know that you get residuals on a produced picture, if you have credit -- even simply story credit -- on the film, even if it has not turned a profit. You get money for videocassette sales, cable and television sales, even when the picture shows on an airplane. On a hit film, over time, with some money coming in each year, this could add up to more than the amount you were paid for the script. And you don't have to negotiate it; it's part of the WGA's 'Minimum Basic Agreement' (MBA)... although you might have to go on strike to keep it.
#4. BACKSTAGE PASS
Money -- big heaping piles of money -- is usually a great thing for a writer. Not for its own sake, but for how it can impact your career. Perhaps the money allows you to quit that day job, and focus on writing full time. Maybe it lets you get a new computer, a better reference library, more books and scripts to read. A DVD player. Time to do research, see movies, watch plays. Perhaps even move to Los Angeles. Dollars can change your life, pave the way for your career -- and that's a benefit.
Sometimes you have to weigh the value of the WGA card beyond other concerns. Ted and I faced this problem on our spec script, LITTLE MONSTERS. Call it the sacrifice-of-the-firstborn dilemma. We had one of those ideas that (we felt) was a potentially classic family film. But we let it get away, trading the control of the idea for cash and industry standing, and the hope that whoever acquired it would do a good job getting it made. Of course (as is quite common) that didn't turn out to be the case, and the idea was ruined.
Now we have to ask ourselves: was it worth the trade-off?
If it was worth it, it's only because the money led to other things. Quitting our jobs. Joining the Writer's Guild. Studying the craft of writing. A reliable car to get to LA to pitch assignments. And ultimately, the chance to make films that are actually good.
Why You Need a Lawyer
I would be remiss, in a column about negotiating the sale of your work, to not mention the importance of all those ancillary rights. Most people know the story of how George Lucas held back the merchandizing rights to his STAR WARS films, at a time when merchandizing was considered worthless, and the billions the move made him.
It's important stuff, and this is where your entertainment lawyer really shines. Don't think you can do without, and don't accept the basic boilerplate agreement tacked on to your contract (all of which are different from the different studios, and all of which start off containing intentional errors, not in the writer's favor, there for the lawyers to catch and fix). This world is complex; far more complex than I can cover here, and it's not my area of expertise. But you should be aware that there is a vast array of rights associated with your film, and all of them are negotiable.
Should you sell the rights to novelize your film? For how much? Or do you want to write it? Do you get the first opportunity to write a sequel? Even if there are subsequent credited writers? What happens if your film spawns a television show? Or a Broadway play? Do you get the first opportunity to write the play? What if it turns into a comic book? Or a Saturday morning cartoon show?
How about a 'box office performance bonus?' (Not so common in theatrical features, but they do happen in animation, which lacks the usual residuals payments.) What if the film wins an award -- Academy or Golden Globe -- how about a bonus for that?
What about merchandizing? Say you're Mike Meyers, and created 'Austin Powers.' Shouldn't you participate in that merchandizing revenue derived from the character?
What about 'new media' such as DVDs, new delivery systems, such as the Internet? How do those fields figure in the formula the studio will use to figure net profits?
That's just a quick sampling. We live in a big, fast-changing world, where films are more and more often a loss leader, and the real revenue comes from other sources. In the long run, these 'back end' areas could be the most important part of your deal. Proceed with caution.
So -- we've covered the outrageous, sometimes wild demands you should ask for if a studio, or several of them, shows interest in your work.
Now we do the back-engineering part.
In truth it might be a long while before you have to worry about any of these big money, big power choices -- if ever. Most are blue-sky, not gonna happen possibilities, even in the most optimistic scenarios.
But (and say this with kind of William Shatner solemnity) how does all this affect the choices you make with your writing, now? How should these considerations influence, or change, your tactics, today?
When you really look at all you want, one thing becomes clear: to get any of these types of demands, a screenwriter has to negotiate from a position of incredible strength.
They have to really, really want what you've got to give. (Even just the money alone, when you think about it -- it still amazes me that a pile of pages that you can hold in your hand, with some ink on them -- can be worth more than a house. Sometimes two houses. Amazing.)
So, how do you go about gaining that kind of strength?
It's not easy.
First, there's the writing part, which can't be overlooked. You absolutely must have that great concept. You must have that memorable, intriguing title. You have to make yourself into the expert, and demonstrate that expertise on the page. Your writing has to be stylistically professional. You should turn yourself into a brand name.
But -- I'm forced to say -- even doing all that will turn out to be a losing game for most writers. Consider the numbers. Of the 3000 feature screenwriters in the WGA, I bet each one has ten ideas they'd like to see turned into a film. That's 30,000 projects... and the studios will only make, at best, 200 per year.
And those are just the pros. If it's not a winning game for them, what's the new writer to do?
Roger Avary, Academy-Award winning screenwriter of PULP FICTION, mentioned once about his career: "I'm convinced it was all about getting out of one pile and into the other pile."
By this he meant he had to submit his scripts in such a way that they would be looked at more closely, more seriously, by the best people in town.
One way to accomplish this is to attach 'elements.' In essence, you become an agent. Oh, you don't have to print up business cards, rent an office and take two-hour lunches at California Pizza Kitchen. But you can shop the script amongst producers. And directors. Special effects pros. Animators. A project that arrives with elements attached automatically goes into that 'other' pile.
Another technique: prove yourself in another writing field. Getting a novel or short story published, or a play produced is tough, but it's one possible way to enter the film business with some cache.
Another technique that I recommend -- and it's under-utilized -- is to align yourself with a known property. Not even 'well-known,' just 'known' will do.
The guy who owns the rights to say, oh, the old "Battleship" board game is at least going to get his script read. Or, say (really scraping the bottom of the barrel here) biographical film rights to the one-hit-wonder rock band "Bay City Rollers." Or, say you make yourself into an expert on Sabitini novels. Now you're not just another writer, you're suddenly "The guy who's getting a lot of attention for his Sabitini adaptations." Are the rights to TERRY AND THE PIRATES in the public domain yet? Check it out. How about a nostalgic film about the big, fun national Jamborees of the Boy Scouts in the 1950s -- and you own the film rights to the Boy Scout name?
(Let's not overlook that Frank Darabont started by getting the rights and filming Stephen King's short story "The Woman in the Room." He allied himself with a brand name early on.)
Yet another tactic is to get the rights to celebrities, and write a film biography (such as MAN ON THE MOON or ED WOOD). One advantage here is that there's a kind of built-in limit to how much people can mess with your work.
And, now... even using these techniques, I'm forced to admit, the lot of most writers is still an unhappy one. So in the end, there is always --
Make Your Own Rules
Even the big guns face the same issues. When Michael Crichton set up his deal for the upcoming motion picture TIMELINE, he deferred his $10 million salary in favor of a percentage of the gross, along with the director and producers.
"What is interesting," commented Crichton on the deal, "is our conscious attempt to try to really keep the picture moving forward briskly at the studio." In this case, taking no money, going for a deal of deferred payments, helped insure the production green light.
Given the reality of the business, I find it more and more difficult to encourage writers to play the game by the standard rules -- losing rules for most writers, even Michael Crichton, when it comes to getting something made. It seems like the last thing you want to be is 'just' a writer with a script in hand, and the hope that other people will somehow adopt your vision and want to make it your way.
I don't want to be completely pessimistic. There are cases of screenwriters selling scripts, studios green light them, directors make them as written, and they turn out fine. But as a percentage of films made, sadly, too few.
So take the plunge.
Direct a low budget film. Or even an award-winning short film. A submitted screenplay, accompanied by a videotape, is automatically going to go into the 'good' pile.
Or: learn animation, and made your product yourself. Become an expert in that field, and create demand for your approach, your style (I'm thinking of the wonderful Nick Park short films). Even better, learn special effects, or computer graphics. Or align yourself with someone who can execute computer graphics, and approach the industry as a team.
Learn streaming video, and work on the Internet.
Shoot and edit digitally.
See, most folk in Hollywood have a secret fear. They make their living in the movie business, but they haven't a clue about how movies get made. If you can present yourself as someone who actually makes product, you're way ahead of the game.
Hollywood always respects the person who invents himself or herself.
Does all this sound crazy? It probably does. The goal, though, is to create a scenario where you can negotiate from that position of strength -- so you can get as much creative control and industry standing (and yes, money) as possible.
How much is too much? I'll end with one of my favorite Hollywood quotes, by the actor James Woods: "If they haven't said no, you haven't asked for enough."