Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How "crappy scripts" get made; or, Revolting Development (Part One)

Screenwriters don't get much respect. This isn't news; in fact it's a cliché. Not that most people think screenwriters deserve respect. Any Joe off the street will tell you that screenwriting isn't difficult -- it surely isn't "real" work -- and he could write something so much better if he could just find the time. During the writers' strike, blogs all over America were filled with rants like: "Those hacks are lucky to get paid at all for writing their crappy movies! I could write better stuff than that in my sleep!"

Sigh. This is by far one of the most frustrating things that screenwriters hear, because unfortunately, most filmgoers (alas, even many Hollywood workers!) are completely ignorant of the process by which a script evolves during pre-production. Most are under the impression that a writer spends a month or so cranking out a hackneyed script, foists it into the right hands via "connections," sells the script for a million dollars, and kicks back to sip martinis while the crew, actors and director make the best darn movie they can from the inept writer's overpriced drivel. Hey, how could anyone believe otherwise, judging from the finished product (yet another mediocre film), or from the awful shooting script circulating on the internet? Right?

Well, the crew DOES make the best movie it can from a sometimes awful shooting script, but it's important to understand just how that shooting script got so awful.

Let's begin at the beginning. (Okay, not the very beginning, where the writer comes up with a promising idea, scribbles it down, puts it in a shoebox with all his other promising ideas, and then continues to mull it over for ages until the idea refuses to be ignored. We'll skip all the time the writer spends working the story and characters out in his head before a single word is even committed to paper; to explain this abstract creative process would be like trying to explain the mechanics of falling in love.)

Once the basic story is conceptualized, a writer spends months (frequently years), crafting a script. Researching. Writing and discarding dozens of outlines and treatments. Obsessing over the story, living with it 24/7. Weighing every sentence. Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until every line of dialogue crackles, every plot point is unexpected yet believable, every character lives and breathes. The writer knows the script inside and out; he has woven theme and subtext and nuance into every scene and given each character compelling motivation and a transformative arc. At that point, when the writer decides the script is as good as it's going to get, he gives it to his agent.

The agent typically gives the script to an assistant (a bright, young, underpaid and overworked aspiring writer or aspiring agent). The assistant will have to read the script hurriedly while dealing with his other somewhat overwhelming responsibilities around the office. The assistant will write "coverage" on the script, summarizing the plot, characters, theme, and story strengths and weaknesses on approximately two sheets of paper. This coverage will also include a list of possible ways to improve the script. (The assistant understands that he must come up with some suggestions to improve the script no matter how much he likes it; it's simply an expectation when one is writing professional coverage. Sometimes these suggestions are insightful and helpful; sometimes they're petty and nonsensical.)

Now the assistant passes the coverage to the agent, who generally doesn't have time to read the actual script. Based on the coverage, the agent will give the writer notes on how to "improve" the script before it can go out.

If the writer is lucky, these notes are actually useful. Otherwise, the writer must try to humor the agent by incorporating whichever notes will do the least amount of damage to the writer's original vision.

The writer resubmits the script. The process is repeated, sometimes with a different assistant or intern reading the script. (For simplification purposes we will assume this writer does not have a manager to add an extra layer of opinions and notes.)

Eventually, after much haranguing from the writer, the agent will finally agree to send the script out to producers. Yay! (Or he won't, and the writer has to fire him and repeat the process with a new agent.)

Next, producers -- or rather, the producers' readers/assistants/interns -- read and "cover" the script.

If the coverage is positive, the script may be recommended (rare) or "considered" for purchase. More likely, the writer is brought in and considered for hire. This means the writer's spec script is declared a "writing sample," (in other words, he doesn't get any money for it) and the writer is asked if he can think up a workable (read: commercial) plot for a toy line, magazine article, old TV show, or other property to which the producer owns the rights. The producer will continually inject his own "cool ideas" which the writer must somehow incorporate into the plot.

If the writer's take impresses the producer, and if he's also very lucky (because there are other variables the producer must consider which I won't get into here), he'll get a contract at this point. Yay! The "sale" is splashed in the trades: "Writer X has been hired to write Big Script for mid-six figures" or some-such. That sounds very impressive, doesn't it? Mid-six figures is, to any reasonable person, a whole lot of money.

But wait. The writer will only see a fraction (if any) of that figure to begin with, because he's paid in "steps." A fraction of the total is an initiation fee (which the writer often fails to receive despite contractual promises), another part is for the completion of the first draft, other parts are for successive drafts, and there's another payment if the script actually gets made (most don't). But let's say the first step is $120,000. Hey, that's still a lot, right? Of course, ten percent goes to the writer's agent, another ten percent to his manager (if he has one), another five percent to the writer's attorney, and a few thousand for WGA fees. Oh, and there's that half that goes to taxes.... Still, there's probably a solid year's salary left over. Forty-five thousand dollars or so is a plenty respectable salary in America. Okay, so the writer didn't get paid anything for the year he spent writing the spec that got him the job, nor did he get paid for the weeks or months he spent going to pitch meetings and development meetings. And okay, forty-five thousand doesn’t go as far in Los Angeles as in Dubuque. But writers live off pizza and ramen noodles anyway, because writers live to write. So, he's happy enough. Now what...?

Now... he writes his "first draft." Again, weighing, obsessing, agonizing.

At last, feeling triumphant, he hands it in.

And then -- god help us all -- the script goes through.... "development."

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