Do screenwriters get a chunk of foreign TV money?

questionmarkDo writers ever get a percentage of the substantial profits from the studios’ licensing their films to international TV networks?

— Marilyn Mallory
via imdb

Writers do get a portion of the revenue, in the form of residuals. These payments are roughly analogous to the royalties songwriters and novelists receive, but with some important distinctions. (For clarity, I’m only going to talk about residuals for movies, because residuals for TV shows work a little differently.)

For starters, you don’t get residuals on theatrical release. Whether your movie makes one dollar or one billion at the box office, you don’t get residuals on that. It’s only when the movie shows up in subsequent markets, like home video or television, that you start getting more money.

The formulas for how much money the writer is supposed to get are complicated and contentious, and are often a big issue in negotiations between the WGA (which collects residuals) and the studios (who pay residuals). Even a fraction of a percentage can translate into thousands of dollars for a screenwriter. For example, I’ve made far more money from the residuals on Go than I did for writing and producing it.

Residuals are paid quarterly, and arrive in big green envelopes. It’s always a guessing game how big the checks are going to be: sometimes just a few dollars, sometimes well into six-figures. But it’s always exciting to get money you weren’t quite expecting.

It’s important to explain what residuals aren’t. They’re not “a piece of the back end” in the way that a big movie star gets gross points. Residuals have nothing to how profitable the movie is: you get paid the same per DVD or run on HBO whether the movie is a giant success or a dismal failure. (Of course, a hit movie should sell more DVDs and play more often on television, so in the long run, you’ll come up ahead.)


Two thoughts on the future of video

This morning’s paper had two interesting articles about home video.

Warners will be releasing Superman Returns on DVD in China today, two months ahead of the rest of the world, priced almost as low as the ubiquitous counterfeit versions.

How do you make money selling a DVD for 14 yuan ($1.75)? Well, the counterfeiters do. From Warner’s perspective, they’ve already sunk hundreds of millions into the film. As long as they can sell a DVD for a penny more than it cost to manufacture, it’s probably worth it. I’ve long thought that the only way to beat bootlegging in markets like China and Russia is to take away the price difference. I’ll be curious to see if the experiment pays off.

The second article looks at a possible deal between Wal-Mart and Apple. Not to sell iPods or Macintoshes, but movies. Which is weird, because neither Apple nor Wal-Mart makes movies.

Apparently, several studios were on board to sell downloadable movies through iTunes, but backed off because of pressure from Wal-Mart, which is by far the biggest distributor of DVDs in North America. Disney held its ground and went with iTunes, but there was the possibility that Wal-Mart would cut its orders of Disney’s movies as punishment.

Now Apple is in talks with Wal-Mart to give the giant retailer a cut of the action on downloads, in exchange for letting the other studios sell movies through iTunes.

Fuck Wal-Mart, seriously.

Their near-monopolist control of physical products is bad enough. I don’t think we should be giving them control over bits and bytes.

I think I’m going to download High School Musical just to spite them.


How to Revisit Fried Worms

worms script Ten years ago, I got my first paid screenwriting job, adapting Thomas Rockwell’s How to Eat Fried Worms into a script for Ron Howard and Universal. I went through four paid drafts over more than a year, and loved it.

Thomas Schlamme signed on to direct it. At the time, he was a mid-level TV director. Now, he’s a super-powered TV director. We went through a few drafts, but never really clicked.

Ultimately, Bob Dolman was brought in to rewrite my script. I was devastated, but fortunately had found other projects to keep my rent paid. I kept my eye on Worms over the years, as…

  • Schlamme fell off
  • Universal put it into turnaround
  • Nickelodeon picked it up
  • Nickelodeon let it go

I assumed it was finally, really gone when one day I was reading Mike Curtis’s blog, in which he noted that a movie called HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS was shooting behind his house in Austin.

It turned out that Bob Dolman was directing from the script he (re-)wrote. Walden Media was financing it, which seemed smart, because they’d had great success adapting kid’s lit into movies. When filming was finished, I had the opportunity per WGA rules to seek screenwriting credit, but I passed. A quick look at the script showed that it didn’t much resemble what I had written. Which is no veiled slam at Dolman — he just did his own thing.

The movie came out last month, and fared poorly. I didn’t see it, but what little I read about it didn’t have me rushing to the theatre.

Now that it’s out and has done its thing, I feel better adding my original script to the Downloads section. This is the fourth of the four drafts I held onto. At 120 pages, it seems long to me, but that was probably a factor of its lengthy development. I originally wrote it in Microsoft Word; this version has been converted to Final Draft and then exported as a .pdf.

So, if you’re interested, you can find it here.


Agency wants me to pay their “editor”

questionmarkI sent a query letter online to an agency. They emailed me back within the week and said they’d be interested in representing me.

But they suggested I send my script to an editor (one they recommended for me, at a cost of $100 paid to the editor) to help polish it up before they submit it to potential buyers. They emailed me a contract to sign, saying they’d wait until the critique is done before they assign me an agent.

They said that they’re “sellers” by trade, and not “editors” and it would be in both our best interests to have a critique of my work done to ensure that my screenplay looks its best for potential buyers. Even though I wouldn’t be paying the agency directly, it seems shady to me that they are suggesting I pay money in order to have my screenplay get sold. Shouldn’t they know a good script when they see one? Is this a common practice among other agencies or should I run?

— Matt
via imdb

This feels super-shady. Run away.

Agents make a living by taking 10 percent of your screenwriting earnings. They get paid when you get paid. Any situation where they’re asking you for money up front is cause for concern.

If any readers out there have had good experiences with agencies like the one Matt describes, please write in. I don’t think the mailbox will be overflowing.


Using your friend’s name in a script

questionmarkI was listening to the writer’s commentary for the “Cigarette Burns” Masters of Horror episode, and the writers said that when the legal team (or whoever) found out that they’d named a character after a friend of their’s, they had to give the first name to one character and the last name to another character.

Is this common procedure? I am dead-set on naming a lead character after a good friend of mine (first name and last name). Does this mean I have to lie to someone and say that none of the names are taken from people I know?

–Alex

Lying is certainly an option, but even better one would be to get your friend to sign a release permitting his name to be used.

The legal folks have a good reason for asking you whether any character is named after a real person: they don’t want to get sued for libel or defamation. But if your friend knows his name is in the script and is cool with it, all it takes is some paperwork to make that legally binding. At whatever point it comes up (probably close to production), explain the situation to the producers.

In all likelihood, it will just take your friend’s John Hancock to let the character be named John Hancock.


Am I a writer or a director?

questionmarkI have been unsuccessfully trying to write and be a writer for the last ten years. I am definitely not one of those people who write everyday or who enjoy the writing process. I enjoy birthing ideas and trying to figure out ways to play them out. I am constantly coming up with ideas and I love that and thinking of ways to explore different ideas. But I find the actual writing process horrendously lonely and isolating. I am an outgoing person and feel claustrophobic about the writing process. It is always a struggle to get myself to do it and yet I think I am talented.

I went to University and studied screenwriting and have read a ridiculous amount of screenwriting books — i.e., I’m well educated in the art. I easily hold my own in discussions on plot, structure, characterization and the like. I was complimented as being one of the top talents in my class.

Halfway through my education I took a directing class, loved it, and again received a lot of attention for my work. My teacher said I was one of two people in the program who he thought had a good chance in the industry.

So my question is, am I just lazy? Is writing just hard and lonely and that’s it — deal with it? I’m starting to think that maybe I should drop the idea of trying to be a writer turns director and just go for the directing, it being more social and working with people and all.

Is there any kind of barometer for this kind of decision? I’m afraid that as a director I will feel that I’m just directing someone else’s (the screenwriter’s) idea.

–Scott
via imdb

Let me rephrase your question in a way that will make the answer obvious:

Dear John,
I hate screenwriting. Should I be a screenwriter? — Scott

You wouldn’t tell someone who hates the ocean to be a sailor, nor an acrophobe to be a tightrope walker. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.

Truth be told, there are times I hate screenwriting, and would rather do almost anything else. It’s a struggle to quit checking my favorite websites and actually get the next scene written. But I really like the life of a screenwriter, and the challenge of putting of a movie on paper. It’s not for everyone, and from what you say, it’s not for you. Which is great. The industry doesn’t need another unhappy screenwriter.

In terms of directing, the vast majority of successful directors aren’t writers. So stop beating yourself up. Get a crew and a camera and shoot something written by a screenwriter who’s happy to be doing it.