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, a podcast about screenwriting, and things that are interesting to screenwriters. How are you, Craig?
Craig: I’m fine. How are you?
John: I’m good. I’m back. I’m back from four weeks in New York.
Craig: I love it. I can tell just from the tone of your voice.
John: Yes. I’m actually very tired, but I’m heavily caffeinated at the moment, so I will probably talk faster than usual.
John: But I’m happy to back. I’m happy to be back in my bed. And this is a thing about being 40 years old, is I used to be able to kind of sleep anywhere. Like the first three years I lived in Los Angeles I didn’t have a mattress, I just had like two of those egg crate foam things on the floor of my apartment.
Craig: As did I.
John: Because I was broke. And, like, why spend money on a bed? But now that I am 40 years old, I have a really good bed. I have one of those Tempur-Pedic mattresses that is amazing and sort of absorbs all energy.
John: So for the four weeks I was in New York I just had the crappy bed that was in the apartment that I rented. You could feel the springs and all that. And I’m like, I could suffer through it. But then when you stop suffering through it and you get back to your real bed, it’s so good.
Craig: Yeah. I just got back from a week away with my family, and returning to your own bed is such a good feeling. What is not such a good feeling is you repeatedly pointing out that you are 40 years old knowing fully well that yesterday I turned 41. I know what you are up to.
John: But I’m actually 41.
Craig: Oh, ha-ha!
John: So I would be in my forties. I’m older than you. You are the younger person on this podcast.
Craig: When is your birthday?
John: August 4.
Craig: Oh, I got you by three months. Four months. Oh…the youth flowing through my body.
John: You actually have me by like nine months though if you just turned 41. I turned 41 before.
Craig: Oh, so you are going to turn 42. You are right. Better.
John: You are making feel better with each word you say.
Craig: I have you by eight months. Oh…
John: Yeah, you are the youngin’.
Craig: What’s it like being as old as you are?
John: Let me tell you, the aches and the pains…
Craig: Oh, yeah.
John: …you know, honestly, for the very first… — For like the last week or something I started to notice that I will at some point probably need reading glasses because I felt myself literally holding something a little bit further away.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: What it was, my daughter had like a little — it’s not a hang-nail, but it is that little piece of skin right around the edge of your finger nail that you just have to pull off with your finger nail, that little tag or whatever. And so she held it up to me and it was too close; I had to hold it back away. And, like, ooh, what is that?
Craig: My wife has to do that. She wears reading glasses now or holds things away from her face. I, as of yet, have not had that problem. But it is coming.
John: It’s coming.
Craig: You know what that is caused by, correct?
John: It is actually muscular changes.
Craig: That’s right.
John: Yeah, so it is not really the lenses in your eye. You can’t do a Lasik for that specifically.
Craig: It’s called Presbyopia. And Presby, the root, the same root of Presbyterian. And there are muscles in your eye that focus your eye on close things; and those muscles eventually get weak and tired as they have in your incredibly old eyeball. And as they get slack [laughs] and begin their inexorable slide towards non-function and death, old people like you have to wear reading glasses for close up reading. I’m so sorry.
John: No, it’s fine. I’ve actually come to accept the fact that this will have to happen. And I remember going on a meeting with Pete Berg. Pete Berg and I flew to New York City to meet with Will Smith — Will Smith of all people — about this movie that he ended up doing. And it was fine. But Pete Berg had like three sets of reading glasses hanging from his tee-shirt because he kept losing them and then picking them back up again.
It’s like, well, I don’t want to be that crazy person with a bunch of reading glasses. So, I’ve also noticed this really geeky trend of glasses that actually clip together, that snap together. They are magnetic and they snap together in front of your nose. So they sort of just dangle from a cord and you can snap them in front of your face.
Craig: I fully expect you to engage in that level of geekiness. No question.
John: [laughs] No question. No question at all.
Craig: No question.
John: I thought we would start with a couple of questions.
John: A writer writes in, “I’m writing my first spec. Think of Swingers meets Entourage,” oh, stop being Swingers meets Entourage, but okay, “located in LA. Would it be wise to include actual restaurants in the slug line, i.e. Rainbow Bar and Grill, or just something like Interior Restaurant — Day and then describe the restaurant’s features with a sentence? Keep in mind this is my first spec,” blah, blah, blah.
I flagged this question because it is about specificity. And if you are doing something that is very specific to a locale and to a group of people, if you were writing the next Swingers I think you should absolutely pick what the real locations are going to be in your script.
That may not be that you are actually going to end up shooting there, but if that specific location is important to you, use that specific location in your script.
Craig: Yeah, of course. I mean, this is the time when there are no clearances; there are no location fees or concerns. You can write anything you want. And there is absolutely nothing irresponsible about calling out specific locations if for no other reason than it conveys your intention to the reader.
John: Yes. And so the reader may not be familiar with that specific detail, so it is good to give a line of color to show what that location is like. Give us a sense of what that place is. It should be short — don’t over-describe your locations. But give us a sense of what that place is. Use the real name. Use the real everything you can so that it is meaningful to you and it is meaningful to your characters.
Craig: Even if people will never know what it is because it is sort of arcane to everyone, sometimes including those things helps convey a sense that you know what you are talking about. It makes the reader comfortable.
I remember when we were writing The Hangover sequel; obviously a lot of it took place in Bangkok. And we called out specific places all the time as if the reader would know just because it helped get you in the mindset of you were in a real place. So you should absolutely do that.
John: Now I have made it sort of my daily vow to talk about Lena Dunham’s Girls every day until the premiere of Girls. Girls is a new TV show on HBO that Lena Dunham wrote, and directed, and created. And it’s great.
And so I saw the first three episodes. HBO did a premiere in New York while I was there. And specificity is one of the main reasons why it is so good. It is so very specifically these characters at this point in their lives living in exactly this neighborhood. And its universality comes from the fact that everyone in this world is living a very specific, finely painted, detailed life.
And you believe the characters really are talking about the things that are interesting to them. So, specificity is…
Craig: I’m glad you pointed out that was a TV show because I had no idea what you were talking about. [laughs]
John: Wait, you really do not know? I feel like there has been a huge media saturation on this show.
John: So there is outdoor… — Also, Craig Mazin, by the way, doesn’t watch TV or see movies. Apparently he actually closes his eyes so he can’t see outdoor ads. He can’t see…
Craig: I like reading books.
John: Oh yeah. But I feel like HBO has found a way to probably interject it into books, because they are doing a full on hard push on this show.
Craig: I did not even realize that this was…
John: Do you even know who Lena Dunham is?
Craig: No. [laughs] Who is that?
John: Wow, it’s so fascinating. So, Lena Dunham is a writer-director. Her second feature was this movie called Tiny Furniture which won awards at South by Southwest. I met with her, I loved her. Judd Apatow met with her, he loved her. He took the initiative to say, “Let’s make a show.” And so they pitched a show to HBO. They shot a great show, ten episodes. It airs, I think, next week some time. It starts April 15th I think.
Craig: And is it funny?
John: It’s really funny.
Craig: I like funny.
John: It’s like Louis C.K. or Larry David, but it is a 25-year-old young woman who has written, directed, and stars in the show. And so you meet her and you talk with her, and you are like, “Wow, you are the nicest person. I can’t believe you have survived being so incredibly busy and doing all of these things.”
Craig: Well, I will watch it, and I will look forward to us giggling over the fact that I had no idea who this person was.
John: Yeah. You have the HBO Go, so you can watch it even though you don’t watch normal TV because you do have an iPad. So you will be able to watch it.
Craig: I do watch Game of Thrones.
John: Yeah, look, who could not watch Game of Thrones?
Craig: And I watch Major League Baseball.
John: Yeah. That’s fine.
Craig: And that’s about it. [laughs] Yeah.
John: Our second question, “I recently listened to the Nerdist Writer’s Panel,” which is another podcast, which is actually quite good, so we will put a link to it because it is really good.
Craig: I’m sorry, what was it called?
John: The Nerdist Writer’s Panel.
Craig: Shouldn’t it be Nerdiest?
John: Nope. Nope. Just Nerdist.
Craig: But that’s wrong.
John: Well, it’s not. It’s like racist but Nerdist.
Craig: Oh, I see. So they have an ism, like nerdism, and they are nerdists.
John: Yeah, exactly.
Craig: I thought it was Nerdest, but it is Nerdist.
John: Actually rather than going for racist, I should have gone for nudist. But Nerdist. The Nerdist Writer’s Panel.
Craig: Got it.
John: And so it is a good podcast. And they bring in different writers, TV writers, screenwriters, and they talk about the writing that they are doing. It is sort of like how we always talk about how we are going to have guests on, but we never actually have guests on. They do.
John: So, “On this podcast, Matt Nix was a guest.” So, first off, you basically need to discount anything Matt Nix says, because you and I both know that you can’t trust Matt Nix at all.
Craig: You can’t trust him as far as you can throw him.
John: What a horrible human being.
Craig: Bad man.
John: Oh, it’s actually, no — we should specify he is actually a very good guy. And he is the writer of Burn Notice, the creator of Burn Notice. And lovely, and he is involved in the WGA, and we love him to death.
Craig: And he lives up here by me in Pasadena, and that automatically gets you a pass as far as I’m concerned.
John: Well pretty much all working screenwriters and TV writers have to live either in Hancock Park where I live, or over in the La Cañada Flintridge area by you. That’s a rule.
Craig: I insist on it.
John: “Matt Nix talked about his career in features before he started working in television and shared his frustrations about not getting anything made despite working steadily for eight years. I was wondering whether you were ever tempted to go into the TV world. Obviously you can also work in television development and never get on the air, but at least sometimes you get to shoot a pilot and actually see your work materialize into something. And there is the possibility of working on staff on already existing shows. Is there any particular reason why you never worked in television? Is it something that you can see yourself trying at any point in your career?”
Craig: Well you did work in television.
John: That’s right. This is Luke from Poland. So, Luke from Poland, it is a well-written question about the American TV industry from somebody in Poland, which I love.
But I did work in TV. I have done three different TV shows. The first thing I did was called D.C., which was the same year that Go came out. And it was about five young people living and working in Washington, D.C. It was basically Felicity-after-college. And it was a disaster. It was a pretty good pilot I wrote, and okay pilot that we shot, and just a really bad series that I got fired from.
I did a TV pilot for ABC called Alaska, which you can also read on my blog. I have a library section; you can read the pilot for that, which turned out pretty well, which was a crime show set in Alaska back when no one was making things in Alaska. And I developed a show with Jordan Mechner called Ops which was about a private military corporation for Fox. And it was going to be way too expensive to shoot. And I just thank god every day that we didn’t try to shoot it.
So I think TV is great. And, so Craig, you have never developed anything for TV have you?
John: So here is the thing about feature writers writing for TV is that it is so tempting and appealing because you actually shoot something. Like not every pilot gets shot, but a lot of pilots get shot. And if you are a decent feature writer who gets recruited to write a show for somebody, there is a decent chance you are going to shoot something. It’s going to be quick; like everything in feature land just takes forever.
At least in TV you kind of fail quickly. [laughs] You will write a script and you will turn it in, and they will call you like two hours later saying, “Nope, it’s not for us.” It’s like, “Oh, oh, oh, okay. There. Done.” And then you are done.
John: So I know feature writers who sort of consider it like a trip to the ATM, because you don’t get paid a lot of money for it, but you get paid quickly, and it is something, and it is meaningful.
The challenge, and I think the frustration, and the surprise that a lot of feature writers find is that if — God help you if they say yes and they like it, because then your life is just overwhelmingly consumed by making this TV show.
So, David Benioff, who was really a feature writer before this, now doing Game of Thrones, and good luck with doing anything other than Game of Thrones for awhile, David Benioff.
Craig: As was Dan Weiss, his partner on that show. Yeah. I have avoided television for two reasons. One, that reason, and two, what I have heard about TV is that there is this lie that they tell us all that the writer is king in television and the writer is in charge. That is sort of true. Certainly writers are creatively more dominant in television than directors.
However, what they don’t tell you, and what many of my feature friends who have dabbled in TV bemoan is that the amount of intrusion and mishegas you get from the studio network is mindboggling.
Craig: Every single thing. They are over your shoulder, criticizing, second guessing, nay-saying, everything. You can’t cast a guy saying, “Here’s your coffee, sir,” without them demanding 14 auditions and then saying, “We like this one.” Who cares?! What?
And just the thought of that grind. And I guess on top of all of it, to be honest, it is such a different kind of storytelling, and the kind of storytelling I like to do is self-contained. I like tell stories where somebody goes from one place to another and finishes. And I don’t like telling serialized stories per se, even in sequels.
You know, I like them to have a beginning, a middle, and an absolute end. And that’s that. So, it is not for me for lots of reasons. I think I would just get too bored, frankly.
John: Oh, to me it’s not boring. It’s the overwhelming churn of it. When you are writing a feature you are writing something, and you hand it in, and you get a little bit of time while they are reading it. In TV land, you turn in a script, and literally an hour later they are calling you with notes. You never get that downtime that you have come to kind of crave a little bit in feature land.
Like in feature land, like three weeks pass and you haven’t heard anything, and you are going crazy. But there must be some happy medium in between there. The other big challenge of TV, of course, is let’s say you are a writer and a director in feature land. You are either writing your script, or you are shooting your script, or you are editing your movie, or figuring out the marketing stuff you are doing, one of these jobs at a time.
In TV land you are doing all of it simultaneously. So, you are in a room breaking the entire season, figuring out what the episodes are for the entire season. You are trying to write a script. You are reading another script that is about to shoot. You are shooting a script. You are dealing with the wardrobe for that thing that is coming up. You are editing an episode you have already shot, and you are dealing with the network on the marketing stuff.
And so any one of those jobs could be a full-time thing. I remember talking to Damon Lindelof at the height of Lost, and literally like after dinner would be the time that he actually would be able to go up and start writing. Because the whole day was spent running a TV show.
John: The running and the management; it’s a huge deal. But, there are some amazing things about that. And you are able to create these worlds that are unlike anything you have ever seen. And I really like TV. I would be doing a TV show right now; honestly I would be pitching a TV show if the musical hadn’t sort of sucked up every bit of time.
Craig: I think at this point I am starting now, even though I am so much younger than you are…
Craig: …I’m still old enough where I am starting to realize that I’m pretty deep into this journey and I suspect that I will continue writing features until a day comes when I am just kind of done, and want to stop in general and find something else to do with my life, and it won’t be TV.
John: So, Craig, are you going to direct more movies? Or are you going to mostly be writing?
Craig: That is something I am thinking about. I think that between now and when my kids –my youngest kid is seven, my older son is ten. So, my daughter is going to be gone in ten years, presumably college.
John: She won’t be taken away by aliens. She will be somewhere; she just won’t be under your roof.
Craig: Well, I don’t know. She might be. [laughs] We don’t know.
Craig: But I think it safe to say in ten years, in one way or another, she will be gone. And then I will have quite a bit of a different kind of day, and a different sort of obligation to my family. And at that point, and quite a bit more experience under my belt, and at that point I might consider directing. I don’t know. I’m not sure.
But right now I have to say I am very happy screenwriting. I’m happier screenwriting now than I have ever been since I started. And, so might as well ride that. But, yes, I think about it. I think that it something I will return to. Cue the gnashing and wailing of critics.
John: [laughs] Honestly, part of the reason why I have been careful and selective about directing projects, in addition to the musical sort of wrecking in my life, is the overwhelming time commitment it takes to actually be in production, and the fact that you are not going to see your kid for a couple of months while you are shooting a movie. And that’s a big deal.
And this last week while I was in New York, I was able to bring my daughter to visit the rehearsal for just an hour or two while we were doing stuff. And she wasn’t going to be able to see the whole show, because is it too overwhelming of a show for her to see emotionally, but I wanted her to see that it is really hard work. I didn’t want her to sort of get the experience of, “Oh, suddenly everything is lovely. It’s like Glee. And suddenly everything is happening and no one had to do a lot of work.”
She saw us like running a scene 15 times trying to figure out how to make a joke be funny. And she saw us dancing. And she saw how we are trying to correct this one little tiny moment in the choreography. And that was more meaningful to me, not for her to see the finished product, but this is what your father is doing that is taking him away for three weeks, trying to get that joke to be funny.
Craig: Yeah. Daddy’s got a real job. Yeah. That’s a great experience. Even though I will — I often will travel with the movies that I write, the distance apart is a different kind of distance when you are directing because I can… — For instance, for the next Hangover movie, I go with the movie. I go with Todd. I’m there every day.
So, I might be away for weeks at a time from my kids. But when the day is done and I go back to the hotel room, I get on Skype and I talk with them, and I’m relaxed. It’s different.
When you are the director you are never relaxed. And you don’t have free time. And every waking moment you are being devoured by the enormity of your responsibility. And, so it is a different kind of away. It’s a bad thing.
John: Yeah. This last month I was in New York. I cannot imagine, I could not have survived it if it weren’t for Skype, if I couldn’t video chat home, I wouldn’t have been able to make it through there. I would have just been a mess.
John: Let’s go to our next question. A reader writes, I think actually Kevin writes, “I recently decided to start a new screenplay, and when describing the plot to a friend of mine he responded, ‘Oh, it sounds a lot like [movie title redacted].’ I immediately looked up the plot synopsis of that other title and saw there were some obvious similarities. I rented the movie, and thankfully that film and my yet to be written screenplay were actually very different. But let’s say both plot were actually similar. Intellectually I know that everything is down to execution, but I probably wouldn’t have the confidence to continue. Have either of you given up on a spec idea because it was too similar to another screenplay or movie?”
Craig: Well, you know, in a case like that where the movie actually exists, in a weird way you are in a better spot. Because you watch it, and if you decide, “No, my screenplay, even if it is the same basic idea is such a wildly different execution,” you will not be… — No one is going to sit there and go, “Oh my god, you just rewrote blankety blank.”
No, they are going to read your script and go, “Oh, it’s a lot like that movie so-and-so, but here is how it is different, or here is how the tone is different.” I mean, the example I always famously turn to — well, it’s not famous that I turn to it. It is a famous example that I turn to is Rain Man and Midnight Run.
John: Oh sure.
Craig: Almost the same movie about sort of a straight-laced guy who has to road trip across the country with a weird sort of self-obsessive nerd who refuses to fly because he is frightened. And two completely different movies; it’s just not an issue.
Now, if somebody says, “Oh, that sounds like something I have in development over at so-and-so,” now you have got a problem.
Craig: And then the problem is movie studios really — it’s already a gamble to pay a $1 for a screenplay, much less $1 million. And so if they feel like they are going to get beaten to the punch by a similarly themed…they are more concerned about marketplace confusion and marketing than they are about anything else.
That said, every now and then you get two movies about a guy and a girl who are best friends who also sleep with each other.
John: Yeah. And it works out okay.
Craig: Yeah. It works out okay. There is Dante’s Peak and Volcano. There is A Bug’s Life and Antz.
John: And most famously there is Armageddon and Deep Impact. And so Kevin’s question was have I ever stopped doing something because there is something similar. Yes, I had this whole plan out for an asteroid hitting the earth movie. And basically you know the asteroid is coming and you have to make decisions about what is going to happen. And they announced Armageddon and Deep Impact. I was like, “Oh, okay.” Well, that’s a case where it is probably not a good idea for me to write that movie. And that’s okay.
Craig: Yeah. You might be able to beat one movie in development, but not two. [laughs]
John: And I always look at that as “now I don’t have to write that movie,” because someone else wrote that movie. That’s great. Freedom to do something else. It’s like a snow day. It’s like a creative snow day. “Yup, I don’t have to do that anymore. I can do something else instead.”
Craig: Plus, a little pat on the back that your instincts were correct.
John: Agreed. “And I have commercial instincts. Hoorah!”
Craig: Yeah. Great. Let me come up with another one.
John: Speaking of commercial instincts, let’s talk about the actual news of this last week, which is Amazon Studios changed basically everything. It was like, “Oh, we are making some changes.” No. “Basically we are completely changing our entire business model.”
Craig: Yeah. They were very clever about it. They were sort of like, “Oh, we are going to make a few changes.” And they did it that way because really what they did was they went from being an awful, awful place to a very good place. And to announce it that way would have been to admit that they used to be an awful, awful place. But now they are a good place.
And here’s what happened…
John: So we really should give some back story, because we can’t assume that everyone knows what Amazon Studios was.
Craig: Back story us.
John: Okay, so the back story is Amazon Studios is from Amazon… — What do you even call Amazon right now? They are an internet retailer, I guess?
Craig: That’s right.
John: Fine. They also make Kindle’s and other things.
Craig: Yeah. They are an e-tailer.
John: Perhaps you have heard of Amazon. [laughs]
Craig: [laughs] Yeah. I don’t think we need that much back story, John.
John: But we do need back story on the studio’s part of it. So, Amazon launched this initiative called Amazon Studios which was an attempt to do an end run around the sort of classical studio development, and let anybody in America or the world submit their screenplays to the site, and other users, other readers could read the screenplays, give notes on the screenplays, could rewrite the screenplays if they chose to, and Amazon would sift through this and take the most highly rated, and reviewed, and best liked screenplays and developed them further. Give awards to those people.
They would shoot little test movies from those things. And when they announced this, this was November 2010, I had had some conversations with some of the folks about it ahead of time, but I really based my reaction on what they announced. And I thought it was a really horrible idea for a couple of reasons.
The simplest reason is why would you want to, creatively as a person, why would you want to submit yourself to this process where anyone on the internet, any person who reads your script anywhere could rewrite your script and do whatever they wanted to do with it? And that didn’t make any sense.
And then you blogged at the same time — remember back when Craig used to blog?
Craig: Remember that?
John: Craig blogged, and we will find a link to that old blog post…
Craig: Amazon remembers. [laughs]
John: …about just the really bad financial and legal concerns.
Craig: Yeah. You had sort of thrown this great right hook that basically said this whole thing is kind of creatively corrupt. The whole point of screenwriting is that there is an authorial voice that is relating some kind of vision on a page, and this thing is sort of blowing that all to shreds.
And then I came in with a left hook and said, oh, and also, this is a sweatshop, basically that was not only end running the union and everything that the union brings us like minimums, and pension, and healthcare, and credits, and residuals, but was even more punitive than that. I mean, they were essentially kind of getting everything and being able to use it and resell it. They literally could… — You could write something, submit it; 15 people could rewrite it and then they could put it in a book and sell it, and you wouldn’t even get a dime. I mean, the whole thing was insane.
John: And if I remember the right terms, I think it was like 18 months they owned stuff. Like basically once you submitted it, they had over 18 months.
Craig: Yeah. They had it for 18 months. And I think they had an option to get it again. And there were no… — It was really bad.
If you link to the post I wrote people will be able to sort of sift though how bad it was. And what you and I did not know at the time, but what I have now learned to be true is that the enormous, many multi-billion corporation known as Amazon read your post, and read my post, and freaked out. [laughs] They were super angry. And apparently called around and called the Writers Guild complaining.
And the Writers Guild, to its credit, and to Executive Director David Young’s credit, entered into a dialogue with them that was predicated essentially on, “No, we think that you should adhere to these basic union rules. That is what this is all about.”
And I am very excited to say, even though it is not breaking news. This was reported a few days ago, but Amazon quietly and calmly has become a WGA signatory. So, if you submit your scripts to them, first of all you now have a lovely option of saying, “Actually, I’m submitting my script to you and I don’t want anyone to be able to touch it.” In fact, you have an option that says, “I don’t even want anybody to be able to read it. I just want you to read it, Amazon.”
Amazon is now saying if we purchase this literary material, that is to say exercise the option, or if we hire you to do any writing, we do so under the full MBA. So you get credit protections, and you get residuals, and pension, and health. And all of that great stuff.
It’s a huge, huge thing. And I have to say, here is why I think it is… — Well, let me back up for a second. First of all, I have to congratulate the Writers Guild and David Young. Spectacular job. And I think it is important for us to say that there is a path to success with organizing that doesn’t involve striking. One of the things that I heard all the time during the strike from very prominent screenwriter was, “The Writers Guild has never gotten a single thing without a strike.” And that is just not true. And there is a way to do this, especially now, and it does involve influential voices, such as yours John…
John: And yours, Craig.
Craig: Well thank you. Pointing out some very embarrassing things. And I remember when I joined the board, it was actually a year into my term when Patric Verrone came into office with a bunch of his guys. They were big on this whole idea of corporate campaigning. And the notion of corporate campaigning is to embarrass companies for things that are sort of away from the field of play that you are on.
So, if you want to get them to give you reality television, you embarrass them for, I don’t know, investing in toxic chemical companies or something like that. That doesn’t really work. It’s all a bunch of bunko. What does work is your thing is bad. The thing that involves me is bad and here is why, because that is what you know and you can make an excellent case. And that is exactly what happened here. And I have to congratulate Amazon frankly for putting big boy pants on and acting gentlemanly, and recognizing that writers, professional writers, deserve to be treated with this basic minimum amount of respect.
So, that was terrific. And I think that Amazon has gone from something that I sort of viewed as this toxic repository that was abusing writers, to an excellent new option for professional screenwriters. I don’t know if Amazon and their model will ever be successful. What I do know is this: the companies for whom we work primarily, the big studios, can no longer point to Amazon and say, “Well look, we have to compete with those guys, so we have to somehow roll this contract back.” That is now off the table.
In that regard, this is a big step. It also means that if Google or Facebook or anybody else like that should try and get into this space, there is now precedent for the Writers Guild to say, “Great. Do this deal. Just like Amazon.”
John: So let’s talk about whether this is a good idea for the individual aspiring screenwriter. Because the original Amazon deal I thought was a bad deal for pretty much everybody, except for Amazon. If you were maybe that screenwriter who had the script that was sitting in the trunk that had never gotten any traction, maybe you submitted it to Amazon and just saw if it stuck.
Now, I don’t think it would be anyone’s first choice to go to, but if you have a script that maybe has won some contests, or got some notice in contests but hasn’t gotten you an agent, but is probably a pretty good script, it might make sense to try this process. The new terms — I think it is like a 45-day exclusivity of an option period. Amazon, if they like something, can extend it for additional time. They can pay you like $10,000 to extend it for additional time. It is not a bad deal…
A lot of times with the original deal, writers would leave comments on my original post and say, “Well, it’s a choice between this or nothing, so I am going to take this.” Well, it was worse than nothing there. Now this really is sort of an alternative to getting nothing out of your script. It is a chance to get someone to actually read it and pay attention to it, and maybe want to try to buy it.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, first of all, let me address this “it was better than nothing” argument, because I got that on my blog, too, at the time. And it incenses me.
Here is why that is stupid: you are either going to be a professional screenwriter or you are not. If you are not, then it doesn’t matter because you are not going to be a professional screenwriter. It doesn’t matter if it is better than nothing; you are not going to win nothing either. You stink.
If, however, you are going to be a professional screenwriter, all you have done is weakened your own hand and weakened the hand of everybody else around you. You have begun the process of termiting through the lumber that supports the floor upon which we all sit. And down the line you will suffer. No question. Either you act like a professional who belongs in the professional game, or don’t. That is, to me, such bedrock principle. That is why I am grateful for all the people who came before me who didn’t just think about themselves at the time, but thought about writers to come. And that is why writers in their 20s should not be reluctant to make sacrifices for writers in their 30s, because they will be writers in their 30s, and so on and so forth.
It’s just a terrible argument. In the question of how writers should now view Amazon, I think they should view it as a very legitimate employer. Look, the choice of is it your first choice, I mean, I think that everybody sort of recognizes that studios that make and distribute films directly are probably still the premiere choice, because they make and distribute films. And that is a very powerful thing. If I sell a screenplay to Universal I know that they don’t have to go find a distributor; they are a distributor.
However, there are a ton of companies out there that are in the same boat as Amazon as far as I’m concerned. And if you have material that is not attracting the eyes of the gatekeepers, but you think has a chance of attracting the popular eye, well I have to say Amazon is a great choice now because one thing that I know about the gatekeepers is that they are particularly bad at determining their own value set for what good is. All they really do, in the majority, is chase what they think people want.
If people tell them what they want, chase over. And your material will get purchased. And it will eventually find its way to a studio. And at that point you are off and running.
So, I think Amazon has gone from a red flag to a perfectly legitimate, perfectly respectable avenue now for screenwriters to seek their first professional opportunity.
John: Yup. I have some ongoing concerns with how they are presenting this new version of themselves, which is their open writing assignments. So, an open writing assignment classically is a project that is at a studio where they are looking for a writer to come in. So, it could be a piece of property that they purchased, like they bought a book and now it is an open writing assignment. It could be a remake they are making. Or it could be a script that they have worked on and now they feel like they need to bring another writer in to do some new work.
One of the things they are pitching with this new version of Amazon Studios is, “And we have two open writing assignments. We have,” I think, “it’s Twelve Princesses and I Think My Facebook Friend is Dead and we are going to be looking for writers for those two things.” That feels a little weird to me. And it feels like every script should have new writers come in and do some work on it.
And it is entirely possible that they have worked with those original writers, and they feel like they have come to a point where they can’t go forward on the project now. But that’s, I don’t know; saying that publicly feels really weird.
Craig: Well, but is it…it’s the public part that is bothering, because that is all that studios do.
John: It is. But, I mean it’s an internal thing. It’s never announced in the world that another screenwriter is coming in to rewrite this thing.
Craig: You think it’s embarrassing to the writer? Is that what you’re saying?
John: It’s a little bit embarrassing to the writer, and even though it is the way reality often works, publicizing it like that, you should be trying to get one of these two slots to rewrite these big projects feels really weird. They are saying, like, “These are the best two things we have. And we are bringing in new writers to rewrite them.” That feels a little bit weird.
Craig: Well, it is weird, but it is the exact same weirdness that goes on at studios. I mean, they sort of say, “Look, this is a script that we believed in so much we spent $1 million to buy it, and then we spent $2 million more for really big shot writers to rewrite it. And now we are saying we love it so much we want a new writer to work on it.”
John: And you just hit on exactly why I was chaffing about it, because when you have that big show — “These are our best two things and we are bringing in someone new to work on it” — you bring in your heavy hitters. I’m the kind of person you bring in to do that work that you feel like you need to do to take it to its final level.
John: You are not saying, like, “Some writer in America could be the right person to do it, some writer who has never sold a screenplay before.” You are not going to the brand new person to rewrite that thing to put it into production. That is just not how stuff works.
Craig: That’s right. But here is what is interesting: Amazon is going to learn just the way everybody else that first starts in this business learns. There is a learning curve for them as well. And I think that they have a certain hope that there is more talent out there than has yet to be discovered by the traditional method.
But they are going to sort of American Idol, like find Kelly Clarkson, and it is going to be great. And it might. But, I suspect it won’t.
Craig: And I know that people don’t like it when I say these things, because they think I’m a snob, and they think that I am a talentless jerk anyway, so how dare I. But as talentless as I am [laughs], I think that Amazon at some point may come to say, “Look, we have a property here that Warner Brothers is actually interested in making. We have gotten as far as we can with the methods we have been employing. Maybe we should think about actually coming up with a different method, or, maybe not.” That’s their choice. But as far as I’m concerned from the business end of it, they are at least doing it honorably. They are now fulfilling the basic minimum requirements that an employer must fulfill.
John: And here is why I wish them every success, and this is honest, is they have a tremendous amount of money. And there are a lot of other technology companies that have a tremendous amount of money. And if Amazon has success making some movies, and making money off of some movies, I hope that will loosen the purse strings of some of these other giant companies — the Facebook’s, who just spent $1 billion to buy Instagram today, to make some movies.
John: Because more money in the system really helps the whole film industry. And it especially helps screenwriters who are essentially the research and development of the film industry.
Right now, a lot of the tensions we are facing are really economic tensions. There is just not enough money in the system right now to pay for as much development as we would like there to be. And I think that would greatly benefit our film industry. And two years from now there could be some real payoff. Even if Amazon hasn’t made much out of this, the fact that they are trying to do this will get other people inspired to do it.
Craig: No question. No question whatsoever. It surprises me that it has taken tech companies this long to sort of fallow the lead of Pixar. Pixar was this tiny little company that was making hardware, and decided to make movies to advertise their hardware, and have become a true giant, and a true studio, as big and as powerful as any. And while we say that Disney “owns” them, you can make the argument that Pixar in a weird way owns Disney. They are merged. They are one in the same, but they are enormous.
And there is no reason that these other guys couldn’t arrive at that place. What Amazon, the philosophical decision Amazon has made is to not find a genius like Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, and Peter Docter, and Joe Ranft, and so on, but rather to open it up to the vox populi and see if there are some diamonds in the rough.
I am an elitist. I tend to feel like you have to find really, really brilliant to guide these things, but again, they may arrive there. You are absolutely right: it is a great thing. And certainly for us, to have another legitimate big deep-pocketed MBA signatory — we haven’t had one of those… — You have to understand. You know this. And I’m betting most of our listeners do, too. Fox, Columbia, Universal, Disney, Paramount, Warner Brothers. Those are the big ones, right? I’m not missing any?
John: You got them all.
Craig: Okay. Those have been the primary deep moneyed employers of screenwriters since the beginning of movies.
John: I actually ran a post on this that Horace Deidu had done this great chart that showed basically the top six studios have always been the top six studios.
John: And there have been some mergers along the way, but basically you can go back to the ’20s, and it is essentially the same companies.
Craig: That’s right. But today there is a seventh company that is signatory to the Writers Guild that has an enormous amount of money, frankly, more than some of the studios. And that is huge news for us if it turns the way I hope it does.
I hope that Amazon eventually realizes that there is more profit developing screenplays with, I guess I would say there is more profit targeting great screenwriters than there is sort of panning for gold in a kind of fun marketing type of way.
John: My very first instinct with Amazon when they talked about doing a new kind of deal, and making a studio, is that you have tremendous amount of money and you also have tremendous amount of reach with everyone who comes to Amazon every day. So, you know so much about the people who are buying your products. You can target things to them.
And Facebook could do it better than anybody else could. Can you imagine Facebook running a studio? It would be nuts.
Craig: Well, it would be. Part of the interesting thing about it is I think each of these places has their own DNA. And they want to impose their DNA on the development process. So, some of that means Amazon’s way of saying, “Everyone can be a screenwriter, and it’s open to all, and we are throwing the doors open,” and maybe Facebook wants to make it all about social connections and people reading and liking and so forth.
But the truth is none of that crap has anything to do with developing a good screenplay. Developing a good screenplay happens when a good writer with a good idea works with a good producer, the way a novelist works with an editor, all in concert to fill the vision of a studio that is focused on making good movies of a sort. That doesn’t change.
So, what I hope happens is that Facebook and Google and Amazon jump into this, at some point realize that the way that they run their normal businesses really doesn’t have anything to do with this, but what does have to do with this is all of their money. And that they can make a ton of money doing this.
And then once they have some kind of brand that means something in the movie space the way that Pixar means something, that becomes extraordinarily powerful for them. And, the more competition that we have, you know, so if six major employers become nine major employers, this is a very good thing for us.
John: Agreed. Yeah. Even the small consolidations that have happened over the last few years, like we lost New Line as a separate company. It hurt. And it is one less buyer for a spec script, but it is also one less set of development projects that are out there. If New Line was developing 30 projects, well, those are 30 writers who can be employed. And when that goes away, a lot goes away.
John: The other reason to be hopeful, if Amazon is spending some money here, even if it is a company that doesn’t have the intention of really getting deeply into development, or trying to be their own brand, it may just take some of that digital money and push it back towards our system. And so the same way that Disney used to make movies by, they would have these investment packages where basically you could buy into a share of — I forget what it was called. I will have to look it up.
But for awhile they would basically build a slate of movies and you would invest into a slate of movies. That kind of stuff can happen and getting more money into the system helps.
Craig: Yeah, like a big Kickstarter for a $200 million movie.
John: $200 million Kickstarter is what we need.
Craig: Yeah. Or a Kiva Loan. [laughs]
John: Yeah. Absolutely. [laughs] Micro-lending. Macro-lending. Something.
Craig: So it was good news. Good news.
John: It’s all good news. And it is great to be back in Los Angeles and at my proper podcasting setup. I have been on my little 13-inch MacBook Air for the last four weeks. And honest to god it is a terrific computer, I love it to death, but I don’t feel at home until I am in front of my big monitor with my weird keyboard and my actual microphone. So it is nice to be back.
Craig: I know how that is. I, too, am a creature of habit.
John: Well, creature, thank you again for a lovely podcast.
Craig: Thank you.
John: Have a great week. And we will talk soon.
Craig: See you later.