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: And you are listening to Scriptnotes, Episode 25. This is a podcast about screenwriting, and things that are interesting to screenwriters. How are you, Craig?
Craig: I’m fine. I’m amazed. We’ve gotten to 25 of these things.
John: 25. That is a quarter of a century, or some sort of centennial celebration. A quarter of the way there.
Craig: It is, uh, some kind of anniversary. Gold, or diamond, or something, right?
Craig: What you get me?
John: I got you nothing.
John: I got you topics. I got you questions. I’ve got things we can discuss.
Craig: Oh, well that’s good.
John: We can put them off for a little while if you wanted to blather about something. I could find some other network promo that I could talk you through.
Craig: I don’t like your characterization of blather. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Let’s just get right to some questions, because I actually have some pretty good ones this week.
Craig: Let’s do it.
John: Cody writes in to ask, “How does one obtain the rights to a novel, etc? I know I need to contact their agent/lawyer, but I guess what I am asking is how do I go about it without coming off like a complete novice or tool? Or, knowing me, most likely both?”
So, a kind of very basic question that is sort of procedural: How do you get the rights to a book. But, also, some psychology, so thinking about how you are going to approach a writer, an author, a novelist, and convince them that you are going to be the person who can adapt their book.
John: Have you optioned any books yourself?
Craig: It’s funny that this question comes up because I did it for the first time just a few months ago.
John: So tell us about it.
Craig: It was a book that I loved as a kid called The Hero from Otherwhere. And it is a sort of fantasy/fiction novel about two boys who end up in this fantasy world. I just always loved it, and for years I would sort of check… — First of all, I couldn’t remember what the name of it was.
And then with the Internet now there are forums. I think there is a forum literally called What’s that Book? And where you just say, “Okay, I remember three things, and there is something from the cover,” and then 100 people say it was this. So, I figured out what it was, and then I had…
So the first thing you do is you check and see are the rights available. And that is something where ideally you have an attorney, and they go to some sort of… — There must be some central database somewhere that keeps track.
John: I don’t think there is a central. I think they are actually just contacting people.
John: Yeah. So you just had your attorney do it?
Craig: Yeah. He figured out that the rights were not available, and so I just let it go for many years, but then it just kept popping up. And so finally, a few months ago, I asked him again, and he said, “Look at that? They are available.”
And he knew that the rights holder was the daughter of the author. He had died many years ago. And she was an older lady, and I said, “You know what? Have my agency, CAA, reach out to her, and see if she is interested in optioning the rights. And if she is, then I will call her.”
And it was actually a very interesting phone call, because I called — and I have never done this before — and a very nice lady answered the phone. And she knew that I was going to be calling. And I said, “Listen, it’s a book that meant a lot to me as a kid, and I would love to adapt it if at all possible.”
And she said, “Well, I have to tell you that two days ago my husband died.” [laughs]
John: Oh my god.
Craig: And I was like, “This is going so badly. What’s wrong with my timing?” So, my heart sank, of course, like, oh my god. And I was just like, “I am so sorry.” I mean, because now I feel like a real vulgarian talking about options and books. Her poor husband died. And she said, “No, no. I knew that you were calling, and I said to my husband when he was in the hospital that somebody was calling about this. And this book meant a lot to my father, and to me, and to my husband. And he said to me, ‘Maybe this will be the one.’ So, I feel like an angel brought you to me.”
And, as you know, of course, I am…
John: Craig Mazin is all about angels. I mean, angels guide most of your decisions.
Craig: [laughs] My existence is proof that there is no God. So this was even more of a burden upon me. And I felt…you know…
But at the same time, it was just a very nice moment. I mean, and maybe if there is a lesson in general to be applied here it is that when you talk to people who own the rights to things like novels, presuming it is not a very popular thing — maybe it is a little thing — it means a lot to them. It is not just commerce. It is emotional to them, especially if it is a relative and the author has passed away. It is part of their family, so you have to be very respectful about it, and go about it the right way.
And it worked out.
John: That’s great. So after this conversation, what was the follow up?
Craig: So then I spoke to my lawyer, and I said, “Write up what is a very standard, fair agreement to option this novel. Don’t lowball. We don’t have to highball either. Just come in with what the sort of industry standard is for a property like this.”
And he sent her an option agreement, and she signed it.
John: That’s great.
John: Wonderful. So this will be a project that you will adapt here in the near future and hopefully turn it into a great movie.
Craig: That’s my hope. I have been talking about it with a few people, and it has its challenges, but there is a great story there. So, we will see if I can get it done. I would like to think I could.
John: Great. Over the course of my career there have been three books that I have been directly involved with getting the rights for. The first was Big Fish. So, Big Fish I got set as a manuscript, so it is not really the same situation in that my agency was representing the rights; they sent over a book as a manuscript, which is basically just a box full of pages. And you just flip through the pages and I said, “I know how to make this into a movie.”
I went into Sony. I pitched it to Sony. Sony got the rights for me. And so my name was never on the option agreement for that book. But a large part of adapting that book was my relationship with Daniel Wallace, and getting to know him, and getting to know sort of all the secrets of the book and figuring out what that was.
And the reason I have been active with Big Fish throughout all of these years is I have a great relationship with Daniel Wallace. And he has seen the project grow from this very nascent idea to now several different kinds of iterations.
Books I tried to get myself, or did get myself… — I remember going after this great book that I actually just found on the shelf this morning called Summer of the Monkeys. And I will find the actual author’s name and put up a link to it. Summer of the Monkeys was this great book that I remembered again from childhood, same situation as you. But, of course, it was a much easier title to remember because it is about a bunch of monkeys.
John: Summer of the Monkeys is this great story about this circus train that crashes, all of these monkeys get lost in these woods in the south, and this boy and his dog have to basically catch all of the monkeys. And he is getting paid money for each monkey he can bring back to the circus.
And it was a really great, charming story. Same guy that wrote Where the Red Fern Grows.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: Rawls, I think, was his last name. I will find it.
So, I wanted to get the rights to this book, and at this point I don’t know if I even… — I guess I had an agent, but I was just doing this myself. And this was also pre-Internet age, so I had to flip to the front of the book, and you see who the publisher is. You call New York City information, because all of the publishing houses are in New York City.
This is actually, in the age of the Internet there is probably an online way to do this, but this was the old-fashioned way. You called New York information — (212) 555-1212. You ask for that publisher. You call that publisher. You ask for their sub-rights department. And this is what is called subsidiary rights. These are the people who represent the publishing rights on properties, or the non-publishing rights on properties. So, film rights, and everything else.
And they are the ones who will have the contact information for who owns the film rights on a book. So, I got this woman’s name, and this address, and I figured that this must be the wife of the author, the widow. So, I wrote a letter. I heard nothing for a couple weeks, wrote a follow up letter, and she finally wrote back and said that someone else had the rights, and she was really sorry.
And I eventually sort of forgot about it and got busy with other things. But they finally made a movie of that book, which I never saw.
Craig: Oh, somebody did make a movie of it?
John: Someone did. And it actually… — Dave Matthews is apparently in that movie.
John: Isn’t that so odd?
Craig: Yeah, that is. You know, the thing about rights is that they have become increasingly difficult because everybody who writes a book is seemingly already on the lookout to sell the film rights. And so a lot of them get snapped up. And sometimes it is particularly difficult when you are dealing with international titles.
Lindsay Doran, one of our favorite producers who we discussed in another podcast, brought me and Scott Frank a book that we wanted to adapt, a really cool book called Three Bags Full. And it was a German novel, and basically — it was a great idea — a shepherd in Ireland, in a little village in Ireland, is murdered. It’s a murder mystery. And his sheep take it upon themselves to solve the crime. [laughs]
And sheep, as it turns out, are particularly advantaged in certain ways, and incredibly disadvantaged in other ways, like their propensity to panic, and the fact that they can’t remember anything. And it was really great, and we really wanted to do it, but the rights were…
John: In your head was this going to be a live action movie or animated?
Craig: Yeah, it was going to be a Babe kind of deal.
John: Oh, perfect.
Craig: But, god, the rights were just so entangled with the German companies, and became very difficult. And the other day Lindsay and I were talking about it and we just thought it is never… we will never untangle that knot. It’s a shame, but you have to try at the very least.
John: A more recent example for me was Steve Hely wrote a great book called How I Became a Famous Novelist. And I read this little short book review blurb and said, “Well that sounds great.” So I tracked down… — I figured out that this one person who was doing a blog written in the author’s voice, the book is about a guy who writes a book.
And I was able to Google and find the writer of the book within the book, and that there was a blog that was sort of his self-important point of view. And I realized that Steve Hely himself is probably doing this blog. And so I just emailed at that address and said, “Hey, I’m John August. I have done these things. I really want to see your book. Can I see your book?” And they sent me an early copy.
I loved it. And because I sort of had been that first person to reach out, I was able to sit down with him and convince him that I was the person to adapt his book and to make it into a movie.
That ended up not being the case. And I ended up getting busy with a lot of other stuff that made it impossible to sort of do that movie, but reaching out directly to the author, when you can find a way to do that, is a great way to approach it.
Craig: Yeah. And I should say that you have to, like in all things, you have to gauge your value. If you are a new screenwriter, or you have no track record, then don’t think you are going to be getting the rights to a popular title. It ain’t going to happen.
John: But there may be a smaller book that no one is actually approaching the rights on, and if you are a person who can do it, and you can convince that writer that you are the person who can do it, maybe you will get it.
Craig: Exactly. And so you probably won’t get things that are still in galleys, or unpublished, or on their way out. But these little things like the books you remember that are now out of print, or have just been languishing somewhere — those little uncovered gems — those are real opportunities for you.
And it also gives you quite a bit of leverage when you do write a screenplay, if you write a spec screenplay based on a title that you have rights, it does give you a bit of leverage when it is time to sell that script.
John: Yeah. Have you read How I Became a Famous Novelist?
Craig: I haven’t. No.
John: Oh, okay, well I am sending it to you like right now because it is great. I will also put a link to it in the show notes. It is still one of the funniest books I have ever read and someone else has the rights to it now. And they are going to make a movie, and it is going to be great.
Craig: Can you say who it is?
John: Oh, I don’t remember who it is. I don’t remember who got it. But Steve Hely himself ended up getting hired onto 30 Rock, and now he is working on The Office.
Craig: Oh great.
John: He is doing just fine, so there is really no sad part to this story, other than the fact that the movie didn’t get made.
Craig: By the way, it was me. I got the rights.
John: I thought so. It was some sort of clever pseudonym.
John: So to summarize our guidance on getting the rights to a book, I would say — this is my advice — if you have a way to contact the writer directly, try to contact the writer directly. If you don’t, you go through sub-rights at the publisher to try to find who the contact person is. If you already have an agent or a lawyer, they can help you there.
Ultimately when it came time to option the rights to How I Became a Famous Novelist, that is the thing that my lawyer did. My lawyer talked to his lawyer, and it was all happy and good. And, try it. People might say yes.
Craig: And be nice. And just remember that they have something that you want, so be respectful and seductive.
John: Yeah. Good. Our next question: CeCe, this person named CeCe asks, “When can you say you wrote a script? Something like Big Fish or Go are obvious. Go was a spec, and you were the only writer. And on Big Fish, although it was adapted from source material, you were the only listed screenwriter. But for something like Charlie’s Angels, there are other writers who share that credit, same with other panelists listed. Can or do those writers also say they wrote it? I guess a more specific question is, is there some sort of unspoken rule in the industry among writers about who claims credit out in the world? Does the guy who did most of the work generally say he wrote it, but subsequent writers that did enough credit, but weren’t the first writer don’t? Does it even matter?”
That’s a really good question.
Craig: That is a really good question. I think the last question in the series of questions is probably the operative one. I mean, look, it is a little… — Most of the movies that I have my name on, I am a co-writer, not an “and” co-writer but an “&” co-writer. I wrote with, in conjunction with, other people like Todd Phillips and Scott Armstrong, or David Zucker, or whatever, Pat Proft.
It is a little unwieldy at times to say, you know, “When I co-wrote blankety blank,” or “When I was co-writing such-and-such;” it is just unwieldy. It is just simpler to say “writing,” because the truth is the credits are a matter of public record. It is not like you are pulling a fast one over on anybody.
If you, I suppose, if I… — I don’t have any credits that are just “Story by.” If I were just “Story by” on a movie, I probably wouldn’t say I wrote it.
Craig: I would say I have a “Story by” credit on it. But, I guess the big question is does it really matter? Not really. To me at least. You know, if you worked on it, and your name is on it, your name is on it.
John: Yeah. I think I am with you in terms of I wouldn’t say I wrote a movie if… — I wouldn’t say I wrote or produced a movie if I only got “Story by” credit. And so on the upcoming Dark Shadows, I ended up just getting “Story by” credit. And I certainly worked on that movie; I can absolutely claim that. But I would draw a distinction between “worked on” and “wrote.” And I worked on Dark Shadows, and I worked on a lot of movies.
And Aline Brosh McKenna actually emailed me after I posted on my “About” section, or some other blog post, about the movies that I have worked on. And she was like, “Well, isn’t that sort of claiming credit for it?” And I said, “That’s an interesting discussion, whether I am claiming credit for things by acknowledging that I worked on these movies that don’t have my name on them.”
So, like I worked on Jurassic Park III. I worked on Minority Report. And I am not sort of claiming that those were mine, but the litmus test, the threshold I sort of had for which movies I worked on, is did my pen go all the way through that script? So, did I not just like drop in for one quick little moment and then drop back out? Was that entire script, and the responsibility for that whole movie, within my word processor for a period of time? And those are the movies I felt like I could honestly say I worked on.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you could say you worked on those for sure, because that is accurate. For me, I’m a little different on it. I feel like the movies that I have done, that I have worked on but don’t have credit on, I don’t like talking about it because I feel like, hmm, how should I put it?
I just feel like it is probably a bummer for the people that do have credit. Because the truth is on a few of the them I don’t have a word in there. It was like you came in, and then suddenly the studio went, “Wait. Wait. We don’t want to do this kind of movie. We want to do this entirely different movie with different actors,” and all the rest of it. And I’m gone. My script doesn’t resemble what is up there. I don’t even ask for credit.
So, I just feel like it would be a bummer for them to go, “Oh, and then there is Craig Mazin out there saying that he worked on it.” Well, now, did he…
See, here is the thing that people have got to understand: Our writing credits’ rules state that you can, in certain circumstances like an original project, you can write nearly half of a movie and not get credit. So, if you say, “I worked on it,” that means you have done anywhere between zero and 50%. There is a certain vague…
So, my thing is I don’t talk about it. I just don’t. I don’t talk about it because I feel like, I don’t know. Because I don’t want people doing it to me. So don’t do that to me. You do it to everybody else. [laughs]
John: To me, I just feel that it is a little bit dishonest to talk about the career of screenwriting, and sort of like how I have actually made my living and not acknowledge the actual things I am working on. Because if you just look at the movies that I have made, that have my name on it, well that is great. But that is not really in some ways the bulk of what my career has been.
The bulk of my career has been a lot of things I sort of came in and carried along. I carried the football for a while on them.
John: And so that is, I don’t know. To me, if you are being honest about what the actual day-to-day job of screenwriting and what the career of screenwriting is, sometimes it is that — being the person who carried this movie from this point to this point for awhile.
And in no way, whenever I talk about movies that I have worked on, and I don’t have my name on them, I try to make sure I am really clear about the fact that this isn’t my movie in any specific way. I don’t own this as my own, but this is the work I did on it, and this is why I did the work I did on it.
Craig: Yeah, that’s fair. I mean, look, this used to be, I think, more of a controversy pre-Internet. If you get hired on something now, it is on the Internet because there are so many sites that rely on pumping out marginally interesting information about Hollywood.
So, you know, I get hired to do something and it is on some website. So it is part of the public record. But, it is a little…
Sometimes I think, you know, it is a bummer that the best work I have done probably — not the best work — some of the best work I have done will never be associated with my name. And some of the worst work I have done is associated with my name. And that, unfortunately, I don’t know; I chalk it up to part of the price of the job we do. So, we have two different answers to your question, CeCe.
John: Yeah. And in a general framework I should say we were talking about specific WGA screenwriting credit versus having worked on something. There is continually a discussion about should there be some kind of acknowledgement of participating writers in the end credits of movies, or something else. And the two sides of the debate are basically: no, there shouldn’t be, because it diminishes perceived value of the actual “Written by” credit; and then there is the other side of the argument that says, “Okay, what does this mean that you were acknowledging the catering truck driver, but you are not acknowledging the person who wrote a tremendous amount of this movie?”
Craig: Well one day we could fill an entire podcast I bet with that debate. Because that is a raging one. And I have, and I know this is going to surprise you, extraordinarily strong opinions about that. [laughs]
John: [laughs] It is going to be an Evergreen topic. That is never going to be solved, and it is never going to be solved to satisfaction.
John: Let’s do our third and final question.
John: Ben asks, “What are your thoughts on what everyone else is calling the ‘Golden Age of TV.’ As a new writer trying to find a place, I am finding myself torn between the love of film, and also the lure of TV shows and networks such AMC, Showtime, HBO, and even new ventures on NetFlix. I was halfway through watching season one of Homeland and I started to get the bug to try to write a TV spec instead of a feature. Is it more realistic to become a working writer in TV nowadays than in film? What would you advise to a new writer? Pick TV or film?”
Craig: Hmm. Do you want to take a stab at that one first?
John: Yeah. You should write TV.
Craig: I think so. I mean, the only caveat is this: If you are a feature writer, you are a feature writer. Don’t force yourself into a square peg, sorry [laughs], into a square hole if you are a round peg. I don’t think my mind is structured in such way as to write television. I don’t think I would be very good at it. I tend to enjoy writing stories that are self-contained, that arc over 100 to 120 pages. That is just the way my mind works.
And, not surprisingly, I like going to movies more than I like watching TV. But in particular, if you like drama, specifically the kind of adult dramas that are flourishing right now on television, then television. Because they are not making those for movies anymore.
John: Not at all. I mean, there are whole genres that we have just conceded to TV, because TV is doing them better. And God bless it.
And if you look at, we talk about sort of auteur theory and filmmaker culture, and the way that people, these great movies of the 70s where you have these visionary people coming in and changing the way that cinema is. That is where we are at, I think, now with our TV. Our TV showrunners have come in with such a specific clear vision and a voice for what these shows are going to be. They are wielding these incredible writing staffs that are generating just amazing hours of television. And half hours of television, too. I think that is the unheralded thing now, too.
You look at the New Girl, which is a great half hour, that is specific and weird and amazing. I think the better writing is happening in TV. I think there are more jobs in TV.
Craig: No doubt.
John: Yeah. If you are a great writer who wants to work in TV, you should work in TV. And you will write some features, too, and it will all be happy and good. But that is where the excitement is. That is where the energy is. And it could swing back.
You know, I can see some of these TV showrunners are going to go back to film. And they may bring some of that awesomeness with them. J.J. Abrams is doing movies now. Joss Whedon is doing movies now. That is going to happen more and more. But, TV is still where the best stuff is happening.
Craig: Yeah. Again, for drama, for sure. It has as much to do, I think, with just the kind of audiences that these things address and the structure of the business. Adult audiences, I think, who are looking for drama are more likely to show up in business-satisfying ways for the companies for television than they are for film.
And so it makes sense that they would go ahead and then focus their firepower in television. Television is a little bit of a lower risk for them because, you know, you are not spending… — I mean a small studio movie, a small studio drama is $35 million. Big ones, you know, like for instance State of Play was a big bet. It was an adult drama. It was a big bet. I think it cost $100 million. TV shows don’t cost $100 million, at least not to start with.
So, it is a much lower risk bencher for them. There are more jobs. And there is a season to it. So there is a way; there is actually a protocol to follow to try and get hired. Movies, there is no protocol. It is kind of a crazy, like everybody is rushing into see The Who in Cincinnati, and hopefully you don’t get trampled.
There are much fewer movies being made, whereas television, reality kind of hit its peak and has pulled back a bit. And the other thing is television is unlimited by exhibition. You can keep making channels. The only thing that is stopping you from making more channels, I suppose, is the bandwidth of the delivery mechanism. But they keep squeezing that down in such a way that you can have 500, 600, 1,000 channels.
There are only so many movie theaters. There are only so many movie studios. So you are fighting over release dates. No one fights over a release date in television. There are so many reasons why television is a safer and more vibrant job market.
However, in addition to my caveat about if you are a movie guy write movies, if you are a comedy guy, I think movies are still a great place to be. Because television comedy is not yet back to where it was in its heyday, and I don’t know if it will ever get back there.
John: I think it will.
Craig: And if it does, that’s great. I mean, because a ton of guys really just suddenly found themselves outside in the cold going, “What happened?” And they are really funny people. I mean, it is funny — I was talking with, I won’t say who it was, but an excellent showrunner. Why not, I’m praising him? Steve Levitan. Great showrunner. Genius. And Modern Family is a terrific show. And he has been around forever.
And he was telling me how when they put their writing staff together for Modern Family it was like putting together an All Star team, because everybody was available. I mean, almost everybody, because sitcoms had been so decimated. So, hopefully those shows like New Girl and Modern Family help these networks see their way back to half hour sitcoms, because, man, I love sitcoms. I’ve always loved them.
John: Yeah. But I also think there is comedy that is happening at the edges, at sort of the edges of the dial. So the Portlandias, the weird little things that are right now off in sort of the cable universe where all of the great one-hour dramas sort of started. I think those half hours are starting off there.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Those shows are happening out in the cable universe. That sensibility will find its way back to the broadcast networks, and there will be more jobs. There will be more comedies like that.
Craig: I hope so. I mean, the good news is if you are a movie type of person and you writes comedy, there is still a strong desire on the part of studios to produce medium-budget comedies. And, frankly, all comedies are basically medium-budget. No one really spends a lot on them. You don’t need to.
But, yeah, the guy who wrote in and said that he is a Homeland fan, I think that tells us what kind of writer he is. And I would say, you don’t have to give up on movies, by the way, but yeah, television.
John: Television. You have two feature writers telling you to write in television.
Craig: Yeah, I know.
John: Maybe it is selfish. Maybe it is actually we just don’t want any competition, and that is why we are telling you to write television.
Craig: They are not competing with me. You are being selfish. I write silly movies. But, you know, look, they make dramas. I will say, if you want to be in the drama feature business, be a director-writer or writer-director. Guys like John Lee Hancock and James Mangold. These are guys who work in that area and they are able to generate material and direct. That is what the studios, I think, are looking for. Because if you are not writing action, like big action movies, it is tough.
John: It’s tough.
Craig: Yeah. Oh, we got depressing again, didn’t we?
John: So we are going to spin this back around. TV is great. It’s the Golden Age of TV. This is a great time to write TV. Hooray for TV!
Craig: Hooray for TV!
John: We are not going to go into that depressing mode again.
Craig: No. No.
John: It’s a happy podcast.
Craig: You know, I feel like an angel brought me to you.
John: Ah, thank you very much, Craig. This is terrific.
John: It is. It is all a dream.
Craig: So beautiful.
John: We have one last piece of business. Because so many of our listeners are presumably WGA members, the WGA asked if we could mention on the podcast about the survey which they sent out. If you are WGA member, you should be getting a survey in your email inbox which is about working conditions. So, it is specifically about features, I think, talking about who you have worked for, what the situation was like. It is all anonymous. You should really fill it out because it is how we can get report cards to studios and producers, and it is a very good idea.
John: So if you are a WGA member, look for that in your mailbox. And if you don’t see it, you should email firstname.lastname@example.org. And that is our piece of business there.
Craig, 25 podcasts!
Craig: 25 in the can, man. I mean, that is pretty great.
John: Yeah. It feels like quite an accomplishment. I remember when we were doing our first awkward podcast. It has gotten much, much easier.
Craig: I think so. And I wonder what we will be doing when it is like our 1,000th podcast, and we are both really old and irrelevant.
Craig: And by the way, and we are like still doing a podcast when the rest of the world is like, “Podcast?!”
John: I know. It will just be beamed directly into people’s brains.
Craig: Right. “Why aren’t they doing a Braincast? It is so lame.”
Craig: Well, enjoy the phone calls from now, John.
John: Thank you.
John: All right, talk to you later.
Craig: All right, man. Bye-bye.