I’m joining the WGA board

On Monday, I was elected to the board of directors for the Writers Guild of America, West. I’ll be serving a two-year term.

Huge thanks to everyone who voted, and the folks who encouraged me to run.

At one of the campaign mixers, I had the chance to speak with some writers who had only been in the guild for a few weeks. It got me thinking back to the first time I voted, about 20 years ago. I remember going through the campaign booklet, reading every statement, and marking each one on a scale of one to ten. Then I’d go back through and pick the six or eight candidates I was going to vote for.

I took it really seriously, and I still do.

What’s funny to realize is that most of those candidate statements from 20 years ago could have been written today. They were talking about many of the same issues: late payments, improving diversity, free rewrites, protecting our health plan. And it’s easy to see why: these are some of the fundamental objectives of the guild. The WGA exists to make sure our members get paid and protected.

We’re always going to be fighting these fights, whether it’s through negotiation or enforcement. It’s always been the same.

That’s not to say nothing has changed in 20 years. Things are changing quickly. And that’s why I decided to run this year.

Through this site and Scriptnotes, I get the chance to talk to a lot of writers, both in features and TV. Established writers, aspiring writers, everyone in between.

And the consistent thing I’m hearing is, huh. Nothing is working the way it used to, or “supposed to.” There’s a ton of TV being made, but the seasons are short. Features are being figured out in writers rooms, and no one’s quite sure when the “writing” begins, or how we should figure out credit.

We’re in the middle of a disruption. The industry is shifting to some new form, and none of us know what it’s going to become. No one in the guild, no one on the studio lots in Burbank. We’re all flying blind.

Maybe it will be great for writers — like the start of home video, or cable, with new opportunities and new revenue streams. We’ll all be getting fat paychecks to write VR experiences unlike anything we’ve seen before.

But maybe we won’t.

What keeps me up at night is that second possibility, that we’re facing a future where it becomes almost impossible to make a living as a professional writer in Hollywood. I worry that those new WGA members I talked to at the mixer won’t be working 20 years from now because the industry will become unrecognizable.

For me, these next two years are not about a negotiation, but an investigation of where we’re at and what our priorities should be. We elect the board to be trustees of the guild. And part of that is making sure there is still such a thing as a professional writer.

But while we keep an eye out for future dangers, we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can for writers today.

From late pay to unpaid rewrites to exclusivity clauses, there are many areas where members are looking to the WGA to take action.

Some issues can only be addressed through negotiation. But I believe better enforcement is key to improving the day-to-day life of writers — and screenwriters in particular. I talk with feature writers trapped in an endless fog of development, hostage to a paycheck that never comes.

We need to make sure the WGA represents writers not just collectively at the negotiating table, but also individually when employers abuse their power.

I want to believe I’m approaching the work ahead with an appropriate blend of idealism and realism. As I said in my campaign statement, many of the issues we face are structural, historical and/or intractable. But the progress we’ve made in recent negotiations points to our ability to address new problems with new solutions. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing along with the new board and officers.


Writing Other Things

Scriptnotes: Ep. 318
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John and Craig welcome back Aline Brosh McKenna to talk about writing projects outside the familiar constraints of screenwriting.

We discuss the surprises and adjustments involved in the creative processes of different media: Aline’s graphic novel Jane, Craig’s HBO miniseries Chernobyl, and John’s original song, “Rise.” We also dig into why screenwriters sometimes need to be amateurs again.

Then we answer listener questions about making fair deals as someone in a different country, and how best to read one’s script before rewriting.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.


First Day on the Job

Scriptnotes: Ep. 317
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Craig and John debut a new segment: This Kind of Scene, looking at how different movies handle similar situations. The Hudsucker Proxy, The Devil Wears Prada, Hidden Figures and Training Day all need to introduce their heroes to their new workplaces. We examine how those scenes work, both on the page and on screen.

We then discuss what it means to write for an international market, and determine what a “therapy piece” is and how to avoid writing one.

We also follow up on our discussion from episode 310 on the WGA deal and explore why animation writers aren’t included in the WGA.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 9-18-17: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


Distracted Boyfriend Is All of Us

Scriptnotes: Ep. 316
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John and Craig dive into another round of How Would This Be a Movie, looking at stories (and memes!) from around the world to figure out which ones might lend themselves to big-screen treatment.

Will it be the forgotten French spy from World War II? The repentant racist in Arkansas? The fake male founder exposing startup sexism? Or should it be the monthlong meth trip in the Alabama woods? Help us decide.

Plus, we follow up on how MoviePass actually works, and why their business model shares so many similarities with early Netflix.

Reminders! It’s WGA election season so be sure to cast your ballots. Plus, Big Fish is coming to London in November. You can find links to both below.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 9-11-17: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


How Arlo Finch got his name

A reader asks:

What other names did you consider and how did you land on Arlo Finch?

I have a very hard time writing a character if I don’t love the name. So I obsess over picking the right one. I’ll spend hours staring in the middle distance, trying out various combinations until something clicks.

The right name would be especially important in this case. From the start, I was pretty sure the book was going to be titled some variation of Boy’s Name in the Place of the Noun, so I needed something appropriate for both a 12-year-old boy and a three-volume fantasy series.

For Arlo Finch, the last name came first.

I’ve always liked Finch, either as a first or last name. It’s been on my what-about list for years. It has the combination of feeling classic but unusual — I’ve never met anyone named Finch, but I wouldn’t be surprised to. Culturally, I’d believe that the family was American, possibly of English descent.

Of course, “finch” is also a kind of bird. I’m not much of an ornithologist, but I knew they were small and flitty. So I googled them.

Here’s a house finch:

brown bird

From the photographer’s description:

that look is the quintessence of cool plainness. “I am extraordinarily ordinary.”

Male finches can actually be quite colorful, but I really like the simplicity of this brown and tan female.

Finch happens to be the last name of the family in To Kill A Mockingbird. That’s a great pedigree. But it’s also related to my own family’s name.

My original last name is Meise, which is the German term for the bird we call a titmouse.

Here’s the tufted variety:

small bird

So the Finch and die Meise are both small flitty birds. They’re not the same, but they’re the same general idea. Since I knew the main character of the book was going to be a stand-in for my 12-year-old self, it felt right to give him a name similar to mine.

Once I had settled on Finch, “Arlo” came relatively quickly.

Working off a list of common boys’ names, I started by ruling out single-syllable names, like John or Jim or Rob. The staccato one-two of these names can certainly work (e.g. Huck Finn, John Wick, Tom Ford), but it didn’t feel right for this.1

Moving up to two syllables, you quickly realize that almost all boys’ names have the stress on the front half: DUH-duh rather than duh-DUH. But even within that pattern, there’s lot of variation on where your mouth ends up when finishing the weak syllable.

Try saying the following names out loud:

Liam Finch
Jacob Finch
Logan Finch
Joseph Finch

In the first two examples, the final ‘m’ and ‘b’ require you to put your lips together, which makes for a weird transition to the start of “Finch.”

The ’n’ of Logan is easier, but still requires a fair amount of tongue-repositioning for the ‘f.’

And Joseph Finch sounds like one word: jossefinch.

Ideally, you’d want to end the first name with a vowel sound so it would be easy to hit the ‘f.’2 But there aren’t many boys’ names that end in a vowel, and they tend to sound Old Testament-y:

Noah
Levi
Eli
Leo
Ezra
Jonah
Henry

Henry was a contender. It worked well with Finch, and was my father’s name. But it didn’t quite feel like the character. I ended up making Arlo’s best friend “Henry Wu.”

I found Arlo quite low on the list.3 I loved it immediately. Like Finch, it was a name that I’d never seen in the wild but certainly believed could exist.

“Arlo Finch” is easy to pronounce. The ‘o’ flows naturally into the ‘f.’ (Almost too naturally — some people hear it as “our loaf inch.”)

Typographically, its four letters look good together — an important consideration for a word that will show up multiple times on every page. And it balances really nicely with Finch when you see both words together.

I chose the name on October 29th, 2015. The next day, I set to work writing chapter one. Arlo’s sister became Jaycee Finch — another two-syllable first name ending in a vowel. His mom became Celeste Bellman Finch.

Months later, I discovered there’s at least one real person named Arlo Finch. But that’s not particularly surprising. There are quite a few Harry Potters and Tom Riddles out there as well.

Ultimately, what makes a name work isn’t that it’s unique, but that it uniquely suits the character. For this book, for this kid, I was really happy to find Arlo Finch.


book cover

Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire comes out February 6, 2018 in the U.S., with international editions available later in the year.

You can read more about the book at arlofin.ch.

 

  1. “Ray Finch” sounds like a private eye. “Bill Finch” sells insurance.
  2. A ‘r’ would also work. Yes, it’s a consonant, but at the end of a word it stays open like a vowel. “Roger Finch” is easy to say.
  3. The first name Arlo is #502 on this list, but has apparently risen to #299 for 2017. I have a hunch its popularity is going to continue growing, regardless of what happens with the book. It feels like a new Noah or Wyatt.

Big Screens, Big Money

Scriptnotes: Ep. 315
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John and Craig offer a 101 on how movies make money at theaters, and why a 1948 Supreme Court case changed everything.

Then we look at two recent disruptions to the standard model: Movie Pass and Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky.

We also answer listener questions on waiting periods and creative rights.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 9-6-17: The transcript of this episode can be found here.