What to do with a mediocre short film

questionmarkI have a fifteen-minute short film I wrote and directed about a year ago as a student project. It has a strong concept, but one that requires viewing all the way to the end to get. Unfortunately, the execution is not so hot. Having gained a year’s distance on the project, I can now see several problems with the acting, pacing, and writing. This view is backed up by the fact that the film’s been rejected by the majority of the festivals it was submitted to. In screenings, there is often inappropriate laughter in the beginning and middle, but the film consistently “gets” people in the end — there’s a bit of a twist ending, and people seem to find the resolution and overall concept satisfying.

Given the film’s problems, at this point I’m embarrassed to even show it around anymore. My question is, should I follow my instincts and just bury it away, focusing instead on spec scripts and potentially other shorts? Or is there still some value in a short with a good concept but poor execution? It represents a fair amount of money and a lot of dedication by a good crew, so I figured it was worth asking.

– Jeff

Bury it. As much as you hope people will see through the poor execution, they won’t. They can’t. That’s one of the most frustrating things about screenwriting: the final film may or may not reflect the quality of the writing underneath. (Yet we give awards for “Best Screenplay” based on the movie, not the script. Discuss.)

If there’s an idea that really is phenomenal at the heart of the short, you’re better off writing it as a script again.

Strike, day nine

[Note: I was originally calling this “day seven,” but it’s really the ninth day of the strike. It’s the seventh day of picketing.]

A better day than six. Warmer, for one, and with more of Paramount’s picketers assigned to the Van Ness gate, the mood was improved. I don’t know what the ideal picketer-per-linear-foot ratio is, but it’s like throwing a party. Below a certain number of people, it’s just a lot of milling about.

I’ve heard reports of police (notably, not LAPD) being unfriendly at other locations, issuing jaywalking tickets for the most minor of infractions. Around Paramount, I’m happy to report, they’ve been great. One cruiser stopped to make sure we were creating gaps (we were) and gave a thumbs-up. I’m hoping they’ll station an officer nearby during peak hours to discourage drivers who cut lanes, impatient for those making a left turn. Because that’s probably the first car accident waiting to happen.

I got to talk with more Teamsters today. They’re a very strong union, with a unique clause in their contracts which allows individual drivers to choose not to cross another union’s picket lines. One Teamster driver’s proposed solution (“You gotta have 24-hour picket lines, big ones, at every studio and shut the whole town down.”) stirred in me a fantasy montage in which trucks idled for hours, unable to actually land anywhere. More than anything, it was interesting talking with a guy who was genuinely conflicted.

I got an email today from someone in a similar situation:

I am an aspiring screenwriter, [but currently] I am a computer tech at [Big Movie Studio]…I live in Dana Point and commute 2-3 hours each way, everyday just to keep my foot in the door, just to be able to maintain a financially viable career while at the same time being able to smoke on that pipe from time to time. I’ve been fortunate thus far. I have made some great contacts in the development department at [my studio] and have made other connections that at least have me pointed in a decent direction. So with all that being said, here’s my dilemma:

I feel an intense guilt having to walk through the picket lines each morning. Philosophically, I am on the WGA’s side. But most mornings since the strike began, I am insulted, albeit lightly, as I walk through the picket line. I read your last post about how the pickets are really not there to stop people like myself but more to stop the Teamsters. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been my experience.

I don’t work in production. I am just a computer helpdesk guy. I have no union nor do I have any protection that the unions offer. If I walkout in support, I have no job and when the strike ends I won’t be welcomed back like the writers eventually will.

So I guess what I am asking is this: I have been thinking about taking a day off and walking the picket lines at [my studio]. I want to show my support without putting my job in jeopardy. I also want to try and introduce myself to the pickets and tell them that while I must cross their lines, I support them nonetheless. I thought that if I picketed with them and got to know some of them that perhaps they might feel better about me when I cross the lines to go to work.

I sympathize completely. In fact, that’s probably my biggest frustration with the whole idea of picketing — you end up pissing off a lot of people who are not only Not The Bad Guy, but are otherwise very sympathetic to the situation. I got into a disagreement with a guy on my picket line this morning who I felt was being overzealous in his efforts to delay and annoy motorists. I pulled out my observation that, “making an assistant 20 seconds later to her desk doesn’t help anyone.” He was at most half-convinced, but I’m happy he moved on to another gate.1

My advice for the reader who wrote in is to absolutely take a walk on the picket lines.

Again today I had three readers joining me (two for their second round), and I was impressed that it wasn’t remotely about schmoozing or networking. As aspiring writers, they recognized that the outcome of this strike will determine a lot about the future of screenwriters in the industry. They wanted to take some ownership of the outcome, which I applaud.

shaved head WGAPictured is not my head, in case you’re wondering.

  1. By the same token, being delayed 20 seconds is no reason to start driving like a maniac, which happened several times today. I’m pretty convinced there’s going to be an accident — either car hitting car, or car hitting picketer — caused by one of these sudden bursts of idle-rage.

Strike, day eight

[Note: I was originally calling this “day six,” but it’s really the eighth day of the strike. It’s the sixth day of picketing.]

I’ve had early call times for production, so showing up at Paramount at 6 a.m. was no particular hardship. It was dark and cold, but with two layers of fleece and my non-Thermos-brand coffee mug, I was ready.

The bigger challenge today was the location. My team was assigned to the Van Ness gate, which is very busy. Not only is it one of the main hubs for trucks, but it’s the entrance to a major parking garage. Unlike the main gate on Melrose, there’s no light, no cross-walk, and very little to prevent a car from smacking you head-on. Which nearly happened three times today.

So if there are any Paramount employees reading this, let me have a little honest moment with you.

  1. We really will let you in. We’re not trying to be dicks. We have to keep walking — that’s the law. We create gaps so your car can go through. Believe me, we’re not trying to hobble Paramount by making you 20 seconds later to your desk.
  2. By 8:47 a.m., when you’re arriving at work, we’ve been walking for almost three hours. So forgive us if we’re walking a little slow.
  3. We kind of only care about the trucks. Teamsters have been very supportive of the strike, so we often talk with them, and hand them flyers with updates. If we don’t give you a flyer, it’s because you’re not driving a big truck. But we love you, too.
  4. Those friendly, sympathetic waves? Keep ‘em coming. As far as we know, there’s no Big Brother camera where the studio overlords are watching for signs of employee collusion.

Because it’s a school holiday, it ended up becoming “bring your kid to the picket line” day. We sent parents with kids to other gates, however, because it was just too dangerous at ours.

Now that I’ve painted such a glorious picture of the fun of striking, let me invite you to join me tomorrow: same place, same time. I had three blog-readers walking with us today, none of whom were WGA. So my thanks to them, and the drivers who didn’t run over them.

Why writers get residuals

My Pencils Down article got a lot of links, which led many first-time readers to the site. Most had little experience with screenwriting or the entertainment industry, so it’s no surprise that the concept of residuals was, frankly, odd.

My friend Jeff often jokes (half-jokes, I think) that he wishes he got residuals on spreadsheets he made in 2003. He’s articulating a familiar frustration: Why should screenwriters get paid extra money years after they finish their work? After all, plumbers don’t get residuals. Neither do teachers, secretaries or auto workers.

So I want to explain why writers in film and television get residuals, and why they’re at the heart of the ongoing WGA strike.

The standard analogies

Let’s say you’re a Nashville songwriter. You write a song that Carrie Underwood records and takes to number one. You get paid royalties for writing that song: albums sold, radio plays, the generic Christmas Muzak version. A hit song is worth a lot of money. A moderately successful song is worth a moderate amount of money.

Or let’s assume you’re a novelist. You’re John Grisham, and you write a legal thriller that half the folks on a given flight are reading. You get paid a royalty for every book sold. Like a hit song, a best-seller is worth a lot of money. A book that doesn’t sell as well earns the author less.

In both examples, the way an artist makes money is not necessarily upfront (writing the book or song) but over the course of years. These creative works are annuities that keep generating money, for both the writer and the publisher. Every year, copies are sold. Every year, writer and publisher make money.1

I’ll stop here to say that if you don’t think songwriters or novelists deserve royalties, I’ve lost you. Everything else I’m about to say is predicated on the belief that a creator (i.e. songwriter, novelist) is entitled to profit from the success of his or her work. If you disagree — if you think that once the publisher writes a check, all bets are off — thanks for reading this far. We’re done.

If you’re still with me, let’s play hypotheticals. What would happen if songwriters and novelists didn’t receive royalties?

It would be a lot harder to make a career in either field.

Most songs don’t become hits. Most novels don’t become best-sellers. Songwriters and novelists may only create new, money-generating work every few years. Royalties are what pay the bills in the meantime. Without royalties, very few people could afford to write songs or books for a living. These pursuits would become hobbies for the rich, or patrons of the rich. (And in fact, Western literature was largely written by the people who could afford to write.)

→ Royalties allow for a middle class.

Publishers aren’t interested in financing the American dream, however. They simply want books and songs to sell to the world. They have a straightforward and related interest in keeping royalties flowing:

→ Royalties allow for a larger pool of talent.

Without royalties, there would be fewer people who could maintain a career as a songwriter or novelist. There would be fewer songs and books to publish. It’s in the industries’ best interest to keep writers writing, generating new work to make the publishers money.

Residuals are royalties with special sauce

Writing a screenplay is a lot like writing a song or a novel. The writer goes off and struggles to compose something that is a perfect combination of fresh and familiar, which will hopefully appeal to a large enough proportion of the intended audience. Just like songs and books, most screenplays never make a cent for their creators. Books sit unpublished; songs go unrecorded; screenplays remain unproduced — locked forever in 12 pt. Courier.

But a few make it. A few become movies.

And in the process of converting written words to filmed entertainment, a bit of legal sleight-of-hand takes place. I’m going to oversimplify it to make it comprehensible, but the longer, more accurate version matches the shape of what I’m about to explain.

Whether you write a song, a book or a screenplay, you’re protected by copyright. More than that, you’re acknowledged as the Author of the work, which has important (but eye-glazingly complicated) implications under international law, including certain inalienable creative rights. When movie studios read your screenplay and decide they’d like to make it into a film, they hit a few snags. Two examples:

  1. As the Author and copyright-holder, you the writer control the ability to make derivative works, such as a movie. Or a sequel. Or a videogame.
  2. Some of your inalienable2 creative rights as Author (e.g. “no one can mutilate or distort the work in such as way as to be prejudicial to the honor or reputation of the author”) are potential nightmares for a company about to spend $100 million on a movie distributed worldwide.

So a compromise was made.

Screenwriters would sell the “authorship” of their screenplays to the studios,3 and allow themselves to be classified as employees. Original works would thus become works-made-for-hire.

In exchange, screenwriters would get a host of benefits and protections covered by the Writers Guild of America (the WGA), which as a labor union can only represent employees.

The WGA would also collect royalties on behalf of screenwriters. Royalties were renamed “residuals,” since only “authors” collect royalties. 4

If this strikes you as a kludge, you’re not alone. It’s graceless and awkward and weird. It’s completely unlike what happens in playwriting, even though playwriting and screenwriting are close cousins.5

I’ve described the process in terms of a screenwriter working on an original script by herself, but the same basic machinery applies to adaptations or television shows. Staff writers sign contracts which perform similar legal judo, making their words the company’s words.

In exchange for higher guaranteed payments (“minimums”), residuals don’t start accruing in a work’s initial window (theatrical release for a movie, first broadcast for a TV show), but rather down the line, especially when it comes out on home video.

That’s what the current WGA strike is a largely about: the residual rate for home video, and especially work distributed through the internet.6

You’ll note that the studios aren’t talking about eliminating residuals altogether. Even in one of their earlier proposals for “profit-based residuals,” they were acknowledging that writers are entitled to them. Without some form of residuals, the charade of authorship-transference ceases to be mutually beneficial.

What’s more, I suspect that the wiser members of the entertainment industry recognize what publishers have long understood: you want to keep a lot of writers on hand. You never know which one is going to create the next Desperate Housewives.

Residuals are like the research and development fund for the industry.

Why you don’t get residuals for old spreadsheets

Coming back to my friend Jeff, let’s look at why that spreadsheet he made in 2003 doesn’t earn him residuals.

When he created it for his boss, he was an employee of the company. Copyright-wise, everything he did for them was a work-for-hire. They owned it outright.

When a screenwriter writes a script, she’s transferring this bundle of authorship rights to a corporation. In exchange for these legal and creative rights, she gets paid an upfront fee and royalties (called residuals).

Readers from the technology and medical fields might recognize an analogous situation with patents and intellectual property. It’s not uncommon for an inventor to get paid per unit for the right to use some proprietary innovation. So it may help to think of screenplays as “literary inventions,” subject to a strange but industry-standardized procedure to protect both creators and corporations. It’s not pretty, but it gets the job done.

Why gaffers don’t get residuals

While the process of making a movie begins with the screenwriter, it ultimately involves dozens — sometimes hundreds — of professionals, from grips to gaffers to art directors to truck drivers. Most of the people working on a movie receive no residuals.7 Is that fair? After all, these people work long hours, sometimes in very difficult conditions, and make a huge contribution to the finished film. Why don’t they get residuals?

Because residuals are royalties paid to an author. They’re not a bonus. They’re a guaranteed payment to the writer in exchange for giving up copyright and authorship claims.

In the heated rhetoric surrounding the strike, both sides have made misleading claims about the economic status of writers in Hollywood. The studios like to portray writers as greedy millionaires, while the WGA holds them up as middle-class victims of corporate fat-catting. Neither is accurate. Most writers aren’t millionaires — yet the Hollywood middle-class would be the envy of most of America.

The reductionism to “the rich fighting the super-rich” misses the real issue: the internet will replace television, and the industry needs to come to terms with what that entails. The WGA strike will end with compromises over the residual rates. The eventual IATSE strike will be about the definition of what a “program made for the internet” means, how much their members must be paid, and when overtime kicks in.

How to explain this to your buddy Brooks

The take-home lesson, in case you need to explain to a friend who blames “greedy writers” for why The Daily Show is in repeats:

  • Writers get royalties: for books, for songs, for literary works.
  • For legal reasons, studios want to be considered the “author” of a movie. So screenwriters transfer “authorship” to the studios, in exchange for a bunch of rights, and residuals.
  • The studios and the WGA disagree about what rate is fair for work distributed over the internet.
  • Since internet distribution will eventually replace DVDs, a bad rate would result in a pay cut for writers.
  • That’s why there’s a strike.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to pass it along, or Digg it.

  1. Note that this is quite different from a Jasper Johns painting, or any other artwork which increases its value because of its singularity.
  2. As in, “you can’t give them up, even for money.”
  3. If you’ve ever stayed through to the end of movie credits, that’s the reason behind that block of text reading, “For the purposes of international law, Big Movie Studio is the author of this film (motion picture).”
  4. There’s another history behind the term “residuals,” referring to the practice of keeping performers on hand as backup for electronic recordings. That’s a partial answer to the question, “But wait, why do actors get residuals?”
  5. Playwrights retain copyright. If screenwriters were to hold on to copyright and “license” the movie rights to the studios, the whole thing would become incredibly problematic for reasons Craig Mazin has [explained artfully](http://artfulwriter.com/archives/2005/12/reprint_we_dont.html).
  6. The current DVD residual rate is 0.3%. The studios’ proposed residual rate for the internet is…zero. Because work on the internet is defined as “promotional.” That’s ballsy, frankly.
  7. Although depending on which guild or union they belong to, residual-like payments might form part of their pension and health fund.