The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello, and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: You are listening to Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, you are sick aren’t you?
Craig: I am sick. I have got the late November virus.
John: Is it a cold? How would you describe your illness?
Craig: Yeah, it’s definitely a cold. I am one of those… [clears throat] people. I am going to do this throughout the podcast, please forgive me.
John: Yeah, I am going to have Stuart go through and cut out every cough. It would seem like —
He’s not going to cut out that one, is he? [laughs]
Sorry. I am one of those people that rolls their eyes whenever someone says “Oh, I have the flu.” You don’t have the flu. You have a regular virus. You just have an upper respiratory infection, 99 times out of a 100. I think we have covered this before.
John: Yeah. I had a bit of a cold situation two nights ago, where it was one of those things where you can feel your body starting to… like my skin, I could just feel something strange about it. I will always know if I have a cold because if I try to take a shower, the water just feels really weird on my skin.
Craig: That is weird.
John: So I had that happen. I am not crazy. You have had the same thing, right?
Craig: I have not had that, I must admit. Not even in the worst illness have I ever experienced any kind of… I don’t know what you would call that.
John: Oh, whenever I get a cold I can always tell like the cold is coming on because like my skin just feels a little bit different. It’s not the surface of my skin, it’s like a few millimeters underneath my skin feels wrong and different.
John: So anyway, I had that. The cure for that cold, just in case anyone is curious, is Maker’s Mark. Maker’s Mark bourbon whiskey is how you fix that. So I broke out the bottle and had a little Maker’s Mark and now I am fine.
Craig: That is essentially what Nyquil is. It’s just Maker’s Mark with a decongestant.
John: It’s cherry flavored Maker’s Mark.
John: So other than being sick, have you had an okay day?
Craig: Yeah, pretty good. I have got a script due out in a few weeks, so I have been cranking pretty hard. On Friday, by the time you get to Friday if you have been doing a good steady five page clip a day, you kind of start feeling a little bit like a melted chunk of ice or a puddle of disintegrated brain goo. So I am excited that it’s Friday.
John: You get that candy-bar-in-the-car quality.
Craig: Yeah, kind of soft, damaged.
John: I did no writing at all today. So here’s my day, since we were talking about people’s workflows. I started today with a meeting with Todd Strauss-Schulson, who is a director who did the Harold and Kumar movie, which I loved.
Craig: The most recent one?
John: Yeah, the most recent one.
John: It was great. So I had followed his short films that he made before this and this was a chance to sit down and have coffee with him. So when people talk about like “Oh, what is a general meeting?” That is a general meeting. We weren’t talking about any specific project down the pipe, just like “Hey, who are you” and “Let’s get to know each other a little bit.”
So I had that coffee. I had a meeting at the WGA to talk about… Every year, or every two years, they try to do a survey of working screenwriters to figure out what the big issues are. So this was a test run on the survey for what this next survey is going to be so that they can ask all of the feature screenwriters what the issues are about late payments and sweepstakes pitching.
This writer, Craig Mazin, was originally supposed to be there but he didn’t make it.
Craig: Yeah, he didn’t show up because he was writing and coughing.
John: He was a candy bar melting in the car.
John: So it’s always encouraging to be sitting down and looking at the issues ahead. Also nice to be able to think about the issues ahead without having to think about how to fix them because so many of those creative issues are really intractable. We are not going to wave a magic wand and suddenly fix sweepstakes pitching.
Craig: Yeah, unfortunately, most of the things that they ask about and get responses on are sort of evergreen problems. So we keep asking what are the problems and screenwriters keep saying “This, this and this.”
Craig: [laughs] It’s a little frustrating. At some point the survey itself almost becomes this weirdly mocking thing.
John: Yes, this is self-fulfilling prophecy.
John: What’s potentially interesting about getting the data on this is that you can maybe start to recognize what studios and what mini-majors are the worst at some of these things and possibly you can effect some change based on the report card aspect of that.
So if studio X is notorious for bringing in 20 writers on a project that they don’t ever end up even making, then maybe that could be more publicly disseminated and people will know to not go in for every one of those crazy sweepstakes pitching situations.
Craig: Well, that would be nice. Unfortunately, I think the way that the business is right now and the economy and the level of development that is going on, writers will go in on those sweepstakes pitches. I wish they wouldn’t, but I can’t tell them not to. I certainly can’t judge anybody who needs a job who is trying to get a job. They are not illegal.
Craig: They are just obnoxious. I would argue counterproductive. To me, the way to get studios off of that is to just make a compelling argument that the scripts will be worse because of them. I could make that argument, I just don’t know if they agree or care.
John: Yeah, because you are never going to be able to show that the script was worse because of it because you can’t fork the universe and show the two different development paths you took, one of which you brought in like eight writers to try to beat something out and one which you just hired the best writer who showed up.
Craig: That’s right. You can’t actually prove it. But the primary argument that I make about these things is when you force writers to jump through that many hoops in that kind of gladiator-style audition for work, you can be assured that when you do choose a writer and that person sits down to work, they are spending half their time working on your script and the other half doing the exact same thing they had to do for you for someone else to get the next job.
John: Exactly. You create a culture in which writers are only giving partial attention to the project in front of them because they have to keep looking for that next job, because the process has been drawn out for so long.
Craig: Exactly. I get why they do what they do. But the truth is between that factor of bifurcating the attention of the writer, the other factor is frankly, there is really no demonstrable connection in my mind between who does the best song and dance in the room and who is going to actually write the best script.
If you find somebody that you trust who has a good track record and you believe in them and they have a basically good take on it, that should be enough. But hey, I don’t run a studio.
John: One day, but not now.
Craig: One day. [laughs] God forbid.
John: So the rest of my day, jumping ahead, was spent working on, we suddenly have a Macintosh app that we are going to be releasing fairly soon. We were working on a different app which we will get to eventually. But along the way, there’s something I actually did for the Big Fish musical that I said “Hey Nima, we should be able to do this, right? I am not crazy. This is actually a pretty easily solvable problem.” Of course two days later he had it figured out.
Craig: That guy is a genius.
John: It’s because Nima’s a genius. Nima Yousefi, he is a listener and a friend of the show. So Nima worked on this thing and it looks like, “Hey, it’s actually really great and useful, and actually a much more useful app for many people than what we were originally working on.” Which brings me to a larger issue that came up a couple of times since last two weeks, is that this most recent project was actually really easy. It kind of feels like too easy. It feels like you are cheating because it’s just actually too simple.
In a weird way I think we undervalue things that come to us really easily because we have been through so many times where it’s been a struggle and conversely we overvalue those things. A better example might be for the Big Fish musical, we have been working on it for years and years and years. So there is maybe 20 songs. Not all of them are singing songs, but there’s 20 pieces of music. Some of them we have gone through like 14 different versions and drafts of them, like classically the “I Want” song, where the character sings about what he or she really wants. That’s the one we keep going to again and again. Or the opening number will be something we go to again and again.
There is one number that everyone loves in the show. But literally Andrew and I — it was late in an afternoon and we just banged it out three years ago. It kind of feels like cheating because we know we have worked so hard on every one else — on every other number — but that one just clicked and it was right and it was simple.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a frustrating thing, frankly, that your success as a creative person isn’t as simple as work in, quality out. It just doesn’t work that way. You are right. It kind of violates our weirdly Calvinistic work a day ethic.
I frankly am guilty of… You know there are days when you sit down, and suddenly you have this great run. Five pages pour out of you and they are really good and you feel great about it. Then you think “Well, I am not going to work the rest of the day.” You feel guilty. Whereas I feel curiously proud of myself if I beat my brain into a mush to get three pages out over the course of the day because they were really hard.
Craig: It’s kind of dumb, frankly. I should stop doing that.
John: Yeah, you should stop doing that because one of the other dangers, I think, is that those pages that were really hard to write, you are overvaluing how good they are because you know how hard they were to write. If they are only even kind of okay, you are more reluctant to change them because you know how hard they were to write. Sometimes you are willing to throw a perfectly good scene under the bus because you just dashed it off. But you are not really aware of the actual quality of the scene. You are so keyed into how much work you put into it.
Craig: Yeah, that is right. I think directors get that better than anybody because you could go out and direct a scene for three days at night in the cold and it’s dangerous work and it was brutal to even get it up on its feet and you argued to get the money for it. You could pile on an enormous amount of circumstances. Then if you watch the movie and it needs to be cut, you cut it out. That is a good lesson. You are right, just because you poured in a ton of effort doesn’t mean it’s valuable.
John: There’s a few of my movies, Corpse Bride was a pretty quick work but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was sort of famously, was really three and a half weeks to get to my first draft. It was like “Oh, that wasn’t enough work.” I felt kind of guilty turning it in, but it was done. It was ready and they needed to shoot the movie. Most of the scenes I never went back and touched again. So you compare that situation and that movie was really successful to other movies that I have killed myself on that were either never shot or they were shot and they were a difficult process the whole time through.
You don’t know. I think you should probably just celebrate the times that they have worked out great rather than killing yourself on the times where it was a slog.
Craig: I totally agree. Let’s give ourselves a break.
John: Yup. Let’s also answer some questions because I…
Craig: Yes. I have got my question list right here.
John: I was in New York for two weeks and was away from the actual question bag. So a lot of stuff stacked up here.
So let me get to the first one here. Shannon, in Tucson asks, “I am a man with the name Shannon.”
Craig: Ha-ha. [laughs]
John: “As you may imagine, this has caused me some difficulties and embarrassing moments. I have come to think that choosing a different first name, I am thinking Andrew, would solve the problem. Is this a good reason to choose a pseudonym, or am I overreacting about my name?”
Craig: [laughs] Well, Shannon, it’s a personal thing. If it’s uncomfortable for you and awkward, then yeah why not change your name. It’s your name. It’s who you are. I had a friend in high school named Kevin Zeidenberg. Kevin’s mom was Filipino and his dad was Jewish. Kevin looked pretty Filipino. So he would get that look, the “you are not what I expected when I heard the name Kevin Zeidenberg.” I think some people sort of relish that slightly Ricky Gervais-style awkward moment and some people don’t. It’s your name; it’s your career. If you want to change it, do it.
John: Yeah, I agree. Pick a new first name, use your initials, whatever you want to do. It’s absolutely fine. As people who would look me up on Wikipedia would know, August is not my original last name. You knew that, right?
Craig: I did. Your original last name was… [laughs] sorry, I was going to make a joke that would get us kicked off of iTunes.
John: Yeah, that would not be good. It was a Germanic last name and really tough to pronounce and simple to look at, like “Oh, I could say that.” Then you actually try to say it like “Oh, wait. I don’t know what my vowel sounds are in this name.” So I recognized as I came through, having this name my entire life up through college that the first 15 seconds of any new conversation with somebody would always be about correcting how they mispronounced my name.
So I was doing myself a favor and everybody I would meet in the future a favor if I would just pick a simpler last name. So I just picked my dad’s middle name and it’s been cake since then. I legally changed it.
You don’t have to legally change your first name to use a pseudonym, but it just became easier for me to do that before I moved out to Los Angeles and started a new life. It’s made running from the police much simpler.
Craig: So much simpler.
Craig: Yeah, good point.
I have a question for you.
Craig: This is coming from… do we say their names?
John: Yeah, we do.
Craig: Yeah like Shannon, we can talk about Shannons, we can say this because this is Mike Amass.
Question: “To flip the coin on the helpful Movie Money episode of our podcast, would you like to air your thoughts on the current state of self-distribution. John, I know you watch the team behind One too Many Mornings, and might still be entertaining the notion of self-distribution for future personal projects. Could you shed any light on how filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Edward Burns are enjoying total freedom, total freedom, John, to create and maybe, just maybe, might be making some decent money at it?”
John: Yeah, I have seen this question, I racked my brain to think of who is actually doing this now. So Kevin Smith, clearly with Red State, which is a movie he made, I think, basically on his own money. Then he famously took it to Sundance, and then obviously wasn’t going to really sell it, he was going to self-distribute it.
Edward Burns, we were on a panel with Edward Burns, weren’t we?
Craig: In Austin, two years ago.
John: I had to sit next to Edward Burns, and he’s a handsome man. You don’t feel uglier then when you are sitting next to Edward Burns.
Craig: He is dreamy.
John: He is dreamy. See, objectively dreamy, and a really nice guy. He made a movie called Nice Guy Johnny, which I saw, which was good and really, really small. It has the stakes of a postage stamp, but really charming, and sort of the way he made it at a really small budget, and made exactly the movie he wanted to make.
Then the Polish Brothers, who I was on a panel with many years ago, and they have done many and bigger movies, but they did a tiny movie called For Lovers Only, which was sort of a fantasy of the kind of movies they do. They just traveled around France and shot in black and white with this beautiful actress. It looked good. I saw the trailer, I haven’t seen the movie yet.
There are some directors who are doing this, and hopefully some of them are making money. You are sort of vertically integrating yourself, so rather than going to someone to give you money, you are raising the money yourself. Rather than going to a distributor and signing over most of your future income on something, you are doing all that work yourself.
It’s a tremendous amount of work, so a movie like The Nines, I guess we could have self-distributed it, but then you have to become a master of all these things you don’t really want to have to know about, like how you book theaters, and how you collect money from theaters, which is really hard.
Because how are you going to get the money back out of the theater? You are just counting on their goodwill to report honestly and give you the money that you are owed? The advantage a distributor has is they have the next movie. If you are not paying them for the previous one, they are not going to give you the next one. You have nothing else to pull that money out down the road.
I think iTunes is one of the better ways to think about doing it. With The Remnants, which was a web series pilot that I shot a few years ago, we got the rights back to it, and we had some discussion about doing it as a teeny, tiny feature. Who knows, at some point we might still do it. I discussed with the people at iTunes what that business model is, and what cut we get, and how we could make that all work out. Also, had a conversation with Hulu about it.
There is probably ways it could work, it’s a little bit easier if you have some name and reputation, like Kevin Smith, Edward Burns, the Polish Brothers, so you could have a little bit of leverage with the distributors, the online distributors, and that you can actually generate press. That is one of the challenges you always have with an independent film, is like how are you going to get mainstream media to pay enough attention that people are actually going to find your movie?
I would have enough of that now that I could probably do it, so it’s something I am really thinking about doing. It’s just it ends up being a tremendous amount of time and effort that may not have the best payoff and reward. You may not be able to put it in front of as many people’s eyeballs as you really hope.
Craig: Absolutely correct, a big, uphill battle there. I should also add, I think that when Mike suggests that Kevin Smith and Edward Burns are enjoying total freedom to create. I would argue that they have less creative freedom than Gore Verbinski had on the last Pirates movie, because the biggest restriction on creative freedom is money. When you are stuck with a micro-budget, you really are squeezed. Sometimes wonderful movies come out of that because it requires tremendous discipline. But it’s a mistake to think that there’s more creative freedom with less money. It’s just a different set of problems.
John: I will push back a little bit on that. I think creative freedom doesn’t mean that you get to do anything you possibly ever want. Creative freedom isn’t anything you can possibly imagine you can make. To me, creative freedom is no one is going to tell you no. With a smaller budget, even on The Nines, which wasn’t as small a budget as some of these things were, I did have a lot of creative freedom, because we were fewer people around to tell me no on things.
Craig: I get that.
John: When something wasn’t possible because we didn’t have the money, it was always, “Then how is the movie changing to accommodate our actual limitations?” I didn’t have to change anything to meet someone else’s taste.
Craig: You chose to make a movie that would fit within the preexisting constraints of your budget.
Craig: That’s why, Mike uses the phrase “total freedom to create.” Really, I am just quibbling with the word total, and nothing else.
John: Yeah. I see your point now. Total freedom to create versus total creative freedom, slightly different things.
Let’s move on to Daniel from Oakland. He asks, “My brother claims that studios don’t like to see a film do better overseas, because they see less of a cut overall than if a film does better locally, in the US. Is there any truth to this?”
Craig: I don’t think so, unless a studio is splitting the domestic and foreign distribution with another entity. I don’t see why they would be particularly concerned. There are quite a few movies that do better overseas than here. In fact, this year, the best example I can think of is Kung Fu Panda 2, which underperformed at the domestic box office, but was an absolute blockbuster overseas.
Another great example is in fact the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean 4, which also underperformed here, but was even bigger overseas, it was unreal overseas. I think in the case of Pirates, Disney has a domestic distribution arm, and an international distribution arm, in Buena Vista Pictures International, sees a huge cut of that money. I don’t know, maybe I am wrong.
John: I would imagine in the past, probably, that could have been more of a case, where they had a harder time pulling the money back in from overseas markets. That is possibly like, once upon a time that was actually true, but now it’s actually not as true, because given that the bulk of big movies’ money comes from overseas, I am sure they have gotten much, much better at pulling that money back in.
I will say that psychologically, I think the executive at whatever studio in Culver City, would kind of prefer that the movie making a ton of money here, just because people pay attention to that. Feeling like you have a big hit is better than having a movie that underperforms.
Craig: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. There is kind of a weird stigma about a movie that is soft here, but plays big overseas. It’s got almost an underlying xenophobia, like, “Your movie was for people that don’t even speak English.” [laughs] People that didn’t get the prior intent of the movie because it’s all color and noise, or something like that.
Look, there are other examples of movies that do extreme splits, pro-domestic and anti-overseas, and that’s also damaging. Talladega Nights comes to mind. I think it made $100 million here, and literally something like $12 million in the rest of the world.
John: Yeah, the thing was that it doesn’t translate, or it doesn’t travel. That can also be the case, and it was the knock against African-American actors for a long time, until Will Smith came along and broke all those barriers too, is that the Eddie Murphy comedies would do really well here, but overseas, people wouldn’t go see them. That seems to be something of the past now.
Craig: Seems like it, yeah. Here is a question for you from Tom. “A number of movies have made it to Broadway, and I understand Big Fish will as well. As the writer of a screenplay, what do you ask for to keep you in the mix should your script move on to the stage?”
John: Here’s the messed up thing about writing a Broadway show that is based on a movie, is the screenwriter of the movie has zero claim or stake to anything in his or her script. Just nothing, because the studio is considered the author of the screenplay, and that is one of those separated rights that we are not holding on to in the ways you might hope that we could hold on to. Separated rights, actually holds the story, that’s part of the whole mess.
The truth of Big Fish is that if Sony had wanted to make a musical of Big Fish, they could have gone to any other writer they wanted to, that writer could have taken any words from my script, and put them into the Broadway musical, and used them without paying me a cent, and without my name being anywhere on it, it is kind of messed up. With Big Fish, it was honestly me grabbing hold, and saying, “I really want to make this musical,” and having to get the rights back from Sony, and having to get Daniel Wallace’s book reattached, so that we could do it.
As the screenwriter, you have very little hold on the Broadway musical version of your movie, unless it’s an original screenplay that you have the retained story credit.
Craig: Yeah if it’s an original screenplay where you retain story credit, or if it’s an adaptation where the story of the movie was unique, to the extent that they awarded you Screen Story by.
John: In retrospect, I should have tried to get screen story credit on Big Fish, because if you actually compare the book to the movie, they are so different in so many ways that I suspect I probably could have gotten it.
Craig: Right, it sounds like you did a workaround anyway, so that’s good.
John: Yeah, next question. Adam asks, “As someone who wants to write/pitch comedies, what value do you place on being funny during meetings? I am not referring to acting out hilarious scenes/characters, but perhaps an anecdotal story or joke interspersed to help build rapport. In other words, how do you try to sell your own comedic brand with the expected level of professionalism?”
Craig: I don’t like this question very much. Look, here’s the thing. If you are funny, you are funny, and if you are not, you are not. This question, forgive me Adam, it sounds like the kind of question a not funny person asks, because you shouldn’t be trying or calculating any of that.
The idea of a pitch meeting is there’s two parts. There is the meet, where you are actually pitching the movie, and you are correct to suggesting that acting out “hilarious scenes” and characters is a tricky thing to do. The other part is just you, talking to the people who will employ you, and giving them a sense of the kind of person you are, and what it will be like to work with you, and what you think funny is, and the quality of your wit, or lack thereof.
You can’t calculate that, you shouldn’t even be thinking about calculating it. Just be yourself, and if you are a funny person, let that come through. If you are not, probably shouldn’t be working in comedy. Sorry, I hate to be a bummer.
John: [laughs] I can understand his concern, it’s that when you go in to pitch a story, and you are trying to tell a story that you think is funny, you really want to have laughter come back, but studio executives don’t laugh a lot. They are not hysterically entertained people. You will hear stories of like, “Oh my God, there was this hysterical pitch, and everyone was laughing. People were crying, they were laughing so hard.” That is more the exception than the rule. You want people at least nodding and smiling, and acknowledging, “Oh, I see why that would be funny.”
Craig: Yeah, the thing is I like being funny just in the regular I am myself, and let’s just chit chat and be funny. That’s great. When it comes to actually pitching a movie, typically what they will say is, “Look, we know that you are a funny writer, we have read your scripts. What we are interested in is what’s the story, what are the characters, what is the theme, what are the ideas behind it?” In that regard, it’s a little bit like pitching a drama.
You are not required to do vaudeville or standup for them, because like you said, they are frankly not that interested. It’s like you are talking to somebody who represents standup comedians. They have heard it, they get it. [laughs] Just act like you have been there.
John: Yeah. Good advice.
Craig: Thank you.
John: Craig, in the lead up to the show you had said that something you wanted to talk about was videogames, because you are kind of a connoisseur of videogames, especially now, it feels like everything came out at the same time.
Craig: It is that season. It’s the holiday season, and they dropped the big, the big, big, big ones. We had two huge ones come out within a week of each other.
John: You are talking about Scribblenauts for iPad, right?
Craig: [laughs] I am talking about Scribblenauts for iPad, which has moved $14 billion worth of app money. No, I am not talking about Scribblenauts. I am talking about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, and the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, both of which pulled in nearly Avatar-sized grosses within a week of their initial release. They are absolute monsters out there right now.
John: Here’s where I am aware that I don’t watch all that much real television, because I have seen enough Modern Warfare commercials and billboards and stuff that I have some sense of what it is. Now, correct me if I am wrong, but you get to play Jonah Hill. So, can I play Jonah Hill and can I pull a grenade and just like sit on it?
Craig: I, I don’t…
John: Watching the commercials, that’s what I am getting is I get to be actually Jonah Hill and I could run into a line of fire if I chose to?
Craig: You can absolutely, yes, sit on a grenade if you want. You can sacrifice yourself. I mean…
John: But, can I be Jonah Hill while we are doing it?
Craig: You mean, actually be Jonah Hill?
John: I want to see Jonah.
John: Can I have Jonah Hill die frequently in front of me? That’s really my goal.
Craig: No. [laughs]
John: That’s what I feel like I have been promised in your commercials is…
Craig: You can’t.
John: …I can be like the guy from Avatar or I can be Jonah Hill.
Craig: You cannot be Jonah Hill. There’s only one Jonah Hill.
John: Because I don’t play any of the sports games but like Madden Football, you get to play like a famous athlete, right?
Craig: That’s right. The idea there, yes, in Modern Warfare you are playing some grizzled secret Black Ops dude.
Craig: Yes. In Skyrim you are an elf.
John: And in Skyrim you are an elf. So, you said you wanted to talk about that. I heard the name but it’s just like I thought it was like the new James Bond movie. I didn’t know what is Skyrim. I thought it was bizarre so I finally found the trailer. It looks great.
Craig: It is great. It’s pretty cool, and this is something that I have been kind of on about. I am getting a little wonky guilt here for the end of the podcast. This is something I have been talking about for literally five years. Our union…let me back up for a second and talk about what it means to be a militant. There’s this understanding that militants are the people that go out there and fight the companies hard to win gains and moderate are the people that just sort of talk and, maybe, get the crumbs off the table.
John: So, the moderates are the Scribblenauts and the militants are the Modern Warfare.
Craig: Correct, exactly. I have often been viewed as a Scribblenaut. [laughs] The truth of the matter is I think that I am, in fact, a real moderate…I am sorry, a real militant. I am a militant in the sense that if I see an opening where I think fighting will work, I want to fight. I think that the people we call militants in the union, sort of the Patrick Verone wing, are not actually militants, they are really suicide bombers because they just throw themselves at stuff that we can’t win at all.
They talk about sort of the glory of incinerating themselves for the cause. But as you and I both know, suicide bombers don’t ever achieve anything other than spraying themselves over a street.
Craig: So, here is where we have been a suicide bomber. In organizing, we have gone after such impenetrable suicide bombing targets like American Idol or feature animation. Why are those impenetrable? Because American Idol, one can make an argument that there is writing going on, but one can also make an argument that there isn’t writing going on.
It’s basically Ryan Seacrest chatting with judges and then people sing. Somebody, producers are nudging it towards narrative but it’s a fuzzy case. In animation, obviously, animation is written but there’s another union that already has jurisdiction over it. That’s IATSE, I-A-T-S-E, and the Animation Guild 839.
So, these are suicide bomb targets, pointless. What is not a suicide bomb target are videogames, particularly videogames that are made here in the United States.
There are some huge videogame companies that are not U.S. companies and we can’t really get jurisdiction over people that aren’t working here in the U.S. It’s just a federal labor law. So, Enix I think and Squaresoft and Ubisoft, these are all big overseas companies. But, ZeniMax and Bethesda, the companies that make Skyrim, that is an American company.
They are in Maryland, in fact, and Skyrim and the Elder scrolls before it, Oblivion, are the most obviously written videogames ever because they are based on quests. You meet characters. They have storylines that they present to you with dialog. Let me go one step further. The videogame contains hundreds of readable books that the videogame writers wrote. It’s so obviously written, and I have been talking about this for a while. I just feel like…
Okay, here’s what kills me: Skyrim just made, it just grossed in one week, I believe, $700 million worldwide. That’s in a week.
John: Yes, a lot of money.
Craig: A ton of money. The writers of the game have no credit protection. They have no residuals or income from reuse. I don’t know if they get healthcare. I don’t know if they get pension. Most importantly, I just don’t know who they are. I feel like that is a great target for the guild to try and organize, same thing with Infinity Ward which makes the Call of Duty series, same deal.
John: Yes. I can tell that, particularly the videogames, to me that feel like they are actually movies. You look at the Sony one I never forget, the Naughty Dog, one they also just released, the one that will actually play this Christmas because I have a break, Uncharted.
Craig: Uncharted, that is a very narrative videogame, yes.
John: Yes. I mean, it deliberately feels exactly like a movie. There are movie people who are writing that. So, it feels like that is the kind of situation where you should be able to get some people protected. Yes.
Craig: Frankly, what does it cost? We go to Bethesda. By the way, I believe Les Moonves sits on the board of ZeniMax. It’s not like we don’t have these sort of pre-existing relationships. We go to them and say, “Listen, we want to organize your shop. As is our right by federal law, we want to be able to talk to the employees and let them know about the union and have them take a vote.”
Craig: I mean, in the end what’s it going to cost that company? Are they really going to get a huge chunk removed from their $700 million of gross proceeds in the first week? Hell no, hell no. But, you don’t see us trying, and you don’t see us trying because we are repeatedly distracted by nonsense and suicide bomb targets. I really wish we would stop.
John: I am here with you.
Craig: We rant. I love it.
John: We rant. So, what is the next step? So, the next step is to find…
Craig: The next step would be for the guild to open its sleepy eye and say, “Okay, we are actually going to assign an organizing effort to this.” We would have to talk to the Writers Guild East and do it jointly with them, I suspect. Then the next step would be to actually reach out to those writers, visit the company, sit down, see if we can’t come to an agreement ahead of time if the writers are so interested, and help to find that process and to find some credits for them and get a contract in place.
Rather than doing it sort of game by game, Bethesda and ZeniMax and Infinity Ward are shops. They make a lot of games. They make incredibly successful games that are clearly written. So, let’s organize those shops.
John: Do you go in with, “This is the contract we would like to see” or do you go in with like, “We will figure this out but this is…” Basically, do you already figure out what exactly you want these people to be getting?
Craig: No. First, what you have to do is get the employees to essentially agree to allow the Writers Guild to become their collective bargaining agent. Once you have gotten to that point, essentially, it becomes a union shop. Then, the next step is to negotiate a contract.
John: How do you distinguish out between people who are doing writing work and people who are doing producing work?
Craig: Well, in the case of what we do, it’s very simple. The test is we create literary material. I would argue that it should be the exact same thing for these videogames. Are you putting words down on paper?
Craig: If you are putting words down on paper that are being used to make moving images on a screen in the case of these videogames, we clearly have the capacity to cover you and define your work. Nobody else is. It should be us.
John: I am for it, I am for it. Done.
Craig: Resolved. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Mostly this podcast we are just talking about stuff. But, here, like clearly we fixed this whole system and we paid money for the guild. We paid health and pension for videogame people who wouldn’t otherwise have it.
Craig: Yes. I mean, I feel really good about myself right now.
John: You absolutely should. So, Craig, I am not going to be able to play all these videogames. So, which videogame should I play?
Craig: Because I know you, I am going to tell you, you should play Skyrim and you should be aware that I have just given you a small little piece of crack for free. If you like it, come back and get more.
John: Because you know I had a World of Warcraft problem that actually I had to like stop cold turkey.
Craig: Here is the thing: This has everything that World of Warcraft has in terms of…the stuff you liked about World of Warcraft is here. But, it’s not endless. Really what it is is probably 200 or 300 quest lines that crop up and interact, some of which are very involved, some of which are one offs.
So you get pulled through this thing because, essentially, it’s combining your love of videogames and, maybe, your love of fantasy with a writer’s need to know how the narrative ends. So, right now, I have, I don’t know, maybe, 15 active quests or more. It’s killing me because I wonder how they all end but I can only do one at a time.
John: Yes. See, I was banking my fantasy videogame jones for Diablo III which is going to be coming eventually from Blizzard.
John: It’s in beta testing now. But, I would say the advantage of Skyrim…are we playing on X-Box or PS3 or what is it?
Craig: I am playing on the X-Box but it’s available for PC or PS3 as well.
John: Okay. So, the advantage to these games is that it wouldn’t be on the main computer, so therefore, I would know that I am not writing because I would know that I am not sitting on my chair at that computer.
Craig: Oh, yes, no question. We have a little out building on my property where it’s like a little rec roomy kind of thing that’s sort of standing.
John: It’s where you keep the Gimp, right?
Craig: It’s where I keep the Gimp, occasionally, when, yes, [laughs] when a little fly wonders into my web. I take the Gimp out and we have a party. But, it’s also where I play videogames. I told my wife and my kids, after 10:00 daddy goes away. Daddy goes to Skyrim. But my son, Jack, who is 10, it’s a great bonding experience for us. He just sits next to me and just watches and exhorts me to kill everyone. [laughs] It’s great. Sometimes I have to explain, “You know, daddy can’t kill this person. I need this person alive.”
Craig: He looks at me just in disgust, the way that Patrick Verone looks at me, like a Scribblenaut. [laughs]
John: Years from now when your son turns to horrific violence, they will try to know why. It’s like, “I sat beside my father and watched him kill and kill and kill.”
Craig: Kill and kill and kill. Yes. Actually, there is one of the quest lines is there is something in Skyrim called the dark brotherhood where you join this group of assassins and your job is to go out and kill people. There’s, maybe, 20 quests just for that alone. I just did one with him where I had to go to a wedding. [laughs]
I had to kill the bride while she was addressing her guests. It had to be while she was addressing them. I don’t know why and I did it, and he was so delighted and he kept sort of playacting it over and over. Like, “She was standing there and she was like, ‘Oh, thank you for coming to my wedding …’ and then ah” [makes sound] . It was great, great father-son moment.
John: I am sure as he related the story back to your wife she was charmed and delighted.
Craig: He probably understands already that she wouldn’t care. So, I don’t think he talks about Skyrim to her. I have no doubt that the other kids in his class are getting an earful. I will likely be called into the principal’s office.
John: Yes. But, a small price to pay for the enjoyable saving or destroying of some fantasy kingdom.
Craig: Yes, I get to play videogames and my son loves me, win-win.
John: Win-win on the podcast. You did that, Craig.
Craig: Good podcast.
John: All right, and we will talk to you soon.
Craig: Thanks a lot.
John: Take care.