The Contract between Writers and Readers

Scriptnotes: Ep. 132

John and Craig look at the implicit contract made between screenwriters and readers — and ultimately, movies and their audience. That’s a natural introduction to our Three Page Challenge and the three new entries we look at this week.

Also: Late Payments suck. You shouldn’t tolerate it, and neither should your agents.

There are still a limited number of tickets available for the great Scriptnotes/Nerdist Writers Panel crossover live show on April 13th. You can find a link in the show notes.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 2-27-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

When you think someone stole your idea

Randall Girdner is a screenwriter living in Shanghai who wrote in with a question that became a conversation. I asked him to share his experience as a First Person post.

first personThis morning, I was listening to both John and Craig’s comments in regard to the billion dollar lawsuit against Tom Cruise and the general legal entanglements in regard to theft of ideas. As a whole, I agree with all of their points. I am forever astounded at the frivolous lawsuits that get bandied about and the inflated self-importance of the people that pursue them.

But something happened to me last year that was a very weird coincidence.

I have been writing for many, many years, but I’ve never sold a script, nor had an agent (and have only really tried in a half-hearted manner). I’m sure I’ve sent a couple of my scripts around at some point, but considering I’ve lived overseas for a good deal of my adult life, it’s never been a high priority.

Last summer, I learned of a thriller that was about to come out that had an idea that was similar to a script I had written in the past. Very similar.

It wasn’t “two-guys-and-a-girl-move-into-an-apartment-together” similar, or “an-asteroid-is-going-to-crash-into-the-planet” similar. The idea for this new film was unique and was almost exactly the same as mine.

I had registered my original script with the Writers Guild in 1995 and had forgotten about it until this movie came out. Suddenly, news of this movie was everywhere. I felt somewhat ill at the notion that my idea might have been stolen.

Worse but related: the premise of the movie is so unique that this particular movie has rendered my original script dead in the water.

I contacted an entertainment lawyer through friends, who advised me to watch the movie and compare plot points. I never did, partially because I lived in mortal fear that the movie actually would be similar to mine and would make my brain explode.

I wrote to John, and told him basically what I wrote above.

While I was waiting (hoping) for a reply, I ended up watching the movie.

Similar yet entirely different

Aside from the initial premise and some general, large-scale ideas, it turns out that my script is pretty much unlike the this movie at all. The execution is very different.

While I was pondering how this could be, John wrote back:1

I know it’s hard to wrap your head around that there are probably four other guys who saw this movie and said, “Hey wait a second! That’s almost exactly like the script I wrote!” But I guarantee there were. I bet some hardcore googling would find them bitching in message boards, and that might give you some solace.

Can you remember when you got the idea? My hunch is that there was a moment of inspiration/inception…And it’s a goodish idea. But that bare idea doesn’t have characters and story and detail. It has nothing protectable.

This was true and I needed to hear something like that to help calm my brain.

But those feelings are still there. Partly because there’s a sequel coming.

As a writer, my uncontrollable imagination can envision nine thousand elaborate scenarios in which someone (a studio, a producer, a writer/director) could have conspired to screw me over, but the truth of the matter is that I cannot conceive of any possible way in which my script could have been stolen.

Even if it was, the planning and execution of that theft would have to be so incredibly elaborate and dastardly that someone should have just bought it from me in the first place. Nothing is worth that much thought and energy.

Hmm…there’s an idea for a movie.

When I encounter this with projects I’ve written — or have on the drawing board — I try to remind myself, “This means I have commercial taste! People make movies like mine!” It’s small comfort, but it’s something.

You can reach Randall through his website or on Twitter @randallpgirdner.

  1. I save most questions for the podcast. In this case, I had a hunch there was a First Person post possibility, which is why I wrote Randall directly.

Scanning scripts on your iPhone with Weekend Read + Prizmo

This falls more into the category of “because you can” than “you definitely should.” It’s more tech demo than recommended workflow.

The Prizmo app for iOS has built-in OCR, which means you can scan documents and access the underlying text. Learning this, I immediately tried using it to go from a printed screenplay to Weekend Read.

It actually works.

It’s far from perfect. Prizmo has no inherent sense of what a screenplay is, so it sometimes divides text into blocks it shouldn’t. (Double-spaces after periods are often a contributing factor.) Weekend Read does the best it can with the somewhat slapdash PDF Prizmo gives it.

If you have an entire screenplay to convert, you’re likely to have a much better outcome with an actual scanner and Highland to make a real, editable document.

Still, Weekend Read + Prizmo kind of works. In certain cases, it might even be useful. Actors with audition sides, for example.

And the fact that you can do it all on the phone in your pocket is amazing.

How do you define television?

House of Cards creator Beau Willimon wonders if “television” is a good word for describing what we’re seeing in long-form storytelling:

If you start thinking, well a TV show is a half-hour to an hour long and it’s in chunks, and a [movie] is an hour to two hours and it has a beginning, middle, and end and then it’s done—those are pretty weak definitions, right? It really just comes down to formal, structural things. It’s like if I said to you there’s no fundamental difference between a sonnet and a haiku. Like, they have different meter structures. But they’re both poems. They’re both trying to express something. The words within them don’t know that they’re a haiku or a sonnet. If a television show has an episode that is 90 minutes long, could that episode in itself constitute a film? And what if you have a movie that’s 45 minutes long? We typically call that a short. But how different is that than a standalone episode of TV?

I’d argue that the Marvel franchise is essentially a mega-budget series. Both narratively and financially, these movies are designed to fit together in a way that’s unusual for something not based on a book like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. The actors who signed on to Marvel committed to far more films (episodes) than typical.

Willimon says the biggest freedom he felt with House of Cards wasn’t the length of the episodes, but the length of the run:

There are still certain fundamental parameters. Our show still generally has to be around an hour because we still sell internationally to networks that will traditionally air it week-to-week with commercials sometimes. But I didn’t think about commercials or act breaks or anything like that.

I guess the biggest thing that affected the writing of our show was not releasing all 13 [episodes] at once—we didn’t know we were going to do that until about halfway through production of Season One. It was always a possibility, but a traditional week-to-week release was a possibility as well. So were other permutations between those two extremes. The biggest thing was knowing we had two seasons guaranteed. Because it meant I could think about something layered in early in Season One that might not boomerang back till the end of Season Two. It meant a much broader canvas, and not having to force arbitrary cliffhangers or frontload Season One for the sake of jacking ratings for the fight for one’s survival. It makes you think about story in a totally different way.

Procrastination and Pageorexia

Scriptnotes: Ep. 131

Craig and John get in your head to talk procrastination, pageorexia and generalized anxiety. They also move beyond the psychopathology to discuss all the changes in the industry, from cable mergers to lawsuits to disruptive technologies. You’re not as paranoid as you think you are.

John’s new app Weekend Read is in the App Store now, and free. So check it out.

The long-fabled crossover episode with Nerdist Writers Panel is happening April 13th at 5pm. Tickets are $15, and will sell out, so get on that. Link below.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 2-21-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

The trap of being good at something

Megan McArdle wonders if procrastination stems largely from a fear of failure:

Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.

Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class. [...] At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.

I’ve seen this in myself and my daughter: when something is comparatively easy, it’s bewildering when it gets difficult.

With age, we begin to realize that everything we write isn’t perfect. Most of it isn’t even good. Procrastination becomes self-defense. The scene you haven’t written yet can’t be terrible.