The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode has some explicit language. So if you’re traveling in a car with children, you may not want to listen to this episode in the car where your kids could hear it. Thanks.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, we are going to be looking at narrative audio description and how that all works. We’re going to look at the WGA financial numbers and see what that means for screenwriters and for television writers. And we are going to answer a bunch of listener questions.
But first, last week on the show, we talked about Scriptnotes t-shirts.
John: There’s nothing more revelatory about what your audience thinks of you than what designs they send at you.
Craig: I can’t.
John: Looking through the initial batch of ideas —
Craig: [laughs] I don’t want to know. How bad is it?
John: Well, there’s a lot of Sexy Craig.
Craig: Oh well, as well there should be.
John: There’s a lot of typed pages. And typed pages like seemed a good idea for a podcast about screenwriting, but I don’t know that anybody really wants to read your shirt closely. So we’ll see if that’s the winning idea.
Craig: People don’t want to read screenplays either. [laughs] So I don’t want to read shirts.
John: [laughs] And there are a few references to Stuart. So I put a link to that in the Workflowy so you can see one of the Stuart shirts because Stuart is really the unvoiced third voice of the Scriptnotes podcast.
But if you have an idea for a Scriptnotes t-shirt that you would desperately want to see, you can go visit johnaugust.com/shirt and there are full instructions about sort of what we’re looking for and what we’re not looking for and sort of best practices and guidelines. Deadline is August 11th, so you have a few more weeks to figure out your ideal Scriptnotes t-shirt design.
Craig: Great. I can’t wait to see at least one or two of the Sexy Craig drawings. I mean you’re going to send them to me, right?
John: Yes, I will send to you the ones that are especially not safe for work.
Craig: You know who is not at all interested in Sexy Craig t-shirts?
John: Who’s that?
Craig: Sexy Craig. You don’t have to —
John: Does Sexy Craig not wear t-shirts?
Craig: No, he doesn’t have time for t-shirts.
John: All right, he’s too busy smoking and hanging out.
Craig: Well, it’s not what he’s doing, John. He’s busy though. Oh, he’s busy.
John: He’s probably busy playing Capitals. So your One Cool Thing last week was this game Capitals for iOS.
Craig: [laughs] That’s Nerdy Craig.
John: That’s Nerdy Craig. Nerdy Craig has beaten me probably four times I think in Capitals.
John: Right now we’re in the middle of an endless game that will, I mean —
Craig: [laughs] It’s, here’s what basically was happening is —
John: Through the next century, we’ll be playing this game.
Craig: I am denying John. He is going to win this game. It’s inevitable.
Craig: But I’m doing that — it’s like Masada. I’m basically now at the top of the hill [laughs] and at the very last moment, I’ll kill myself. But I’m going to make him lose — yeah, it’s 300. I’m the 300 Spartans. You’re Xerxes.
John: So I would say after a week of playing this game, my observation and my biggest criticism is that it falls into like a consistent kind of game design trap of once you’re ahead, it’s very hard to not stay ahead and sort of conversely, once you fall behind, it’s very unlikely that you’re ever going to win the game. So classically Risk is that kind of game. Monopoly, if you play the endless version of Monopoly, it’s sort of this game.
And I’m frustrated by Capitals for that reason, is that basically once you get into a position like we are in in this game, it’s just going to be a long, long stalemate.
Craig: Well, okay, but here’s the thing, what if I win?
John: If you win, then you’ve proven to be the exception to the rule and therefore, you know, you’re the underdog story perhaps.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And maybe there’s a narrative arc that you could find from your sudden victory in Capitals, but I have a feeling it’s just going to be a long slog because both of us are going to be play incredibly defensively in order to make this game go on forever.
Craig: Well, yeah. What I’m hoping for is that I get a random splash of letters that lets me break through.
John: All right.
Craig: And if I can do that —
John: You’re waiting for the miracle. You’re waiting for the sudden eclipse that sort of terrifies the soldiers and they flee and therefore you’re able to charge across the board and somehow capture my little castle dude.
Craig: You ask me for a miracle, I give you the FBI.
John: Very nice. Our second bit of follow up is also about capitals. This is a letter from Michael W. who writes, “It really hit me hard when Craig said that he was in favor of capitalizing whatever you want in a screenplay when in reference to the Aliens screenplay. This is without a doubt my biggest pet peeve in screenwriting. I don’t understand why it happens so often.
“Surely, you want the capitalization to really stand out and mean something. Whenever I see capitalization used more than once per page, especially if there seems to be no real pattern to what gets a cap, it just comes across as obnoxious and irritating, almost like a person who thinks that shouting random words in their sentences is a great way to get people to listen to them.
“I’m a big fan of caps when used sparingly. But when it feels like the text is in caps, to me, it just feels like a cheap gimmick that gets really old quickly and makes me want to pay less interest. So why the love of random caps, Craig? Why?”
Craig: Well, obviously, when I’m writing for the studio that Michael W. owns, I really pull back on those caps because I’m very concerned with what makes — what feels like a cheap gimmick to Michael W. and what gets old really quickly and makes Michael W. want to pay less interest. [laughs]
Normally, however, I’m not working for the studio that Michael W. owns. I work for the other studios and they don’t seem to mind. And so this here, this right here, we have an example, John, of someone who has externalized that their internal taste to the world. They have determined that because they loathe something, surely it is wrong and the rest of the world also loathes it. No.
Here’s my biggest pet hate [laughs] in opinionating. People who have a strong opinion and think it matters. I understand you don’t like it. If I were writing this letter, I would’ve written this letter, “I’m really surprised that you like that. For some reason, I hate it. It just strikes me wrong. But I get that other people seem to like it. So my question is, have you ever run across anybody in your professional life who’s pushed back on that or not?” That would be a good question.
John: It would be a great question.
Craig: It would be a really good question because then it would be relevant to other people instead of externalizing your individual [laughs] opinion to the world, you would be trying to find a consensus in pragmatic use for our podcast time together, Michael W., but you have failed to do that. So my response to you is —
John: I would love to answer the rephrased question that Craig just asked. And that I do feel like there are times in which one writer’s personal style can be to the detriment of his or her work being taken the best possible way.
And I think there is generally a band of which, you know, a certain amount of capitalization is fine up to that point and more than that, people will just sort of tune you out. And I think, you know, there are individual writer voices. Individual writer of voices are wonderful things as we write movies for Hollywood studios.
There is a — I find a fairly wide band of sort of what you can do in those pages in order to make it come across well to an average reader.
One thing I think we talked about on the show before is, Craig, have you gone in and done a rewrite and the writer before you had a very different page style than you did and you had to either adapt to their page style or go through and change the whole script, you know, the scene description to match your style.
Craig: Yeah, it just ends up frequently that on rewrites I am starting — often at times I’m starting from scratch. But there have been times, a really weird instance on The Huntsman where someone had come in to just do a week while I was off doing another thing. And then I had to come back to finish. And the stuff that they had done in the week, now we are in production, right?
So I’m looking at some of the things and I’m like, okay, that’s fine, but I just — I don’t like the way he does his dashes and his dot-dots. And there’s like a weird extra space between two words, it’s just a mistake. But if I fix it, it’s a changed page.
John: You’re not going to do that.
Craig: I didn’t do it. But God, I wanted to. It was driving me crazy. But yeah, I think that if you are working on something, I have done something where I needed to sort of fit in. I don’t try and fit into their style. I have to do what I’m doing. People are paying me to do whatever I can do.
So to me, where I need to fit in stylistically is with the characters’ voices. That’s the area where people will notice. But people in the audience will not notice that I describe things somewhat differently. My job now behind the scenes is to get everybody on the same page in terms of what the intention is.
You know, I don’t care if my three pages in the middle of your script look a little different in terms of how things are described. I just need to know that in terms of the choices that are made and the words the people say and the tone of the material on screen that it is seamless.
John: Yeah, I think that’s a good working rule is to try to make sure that you’re consistently carrying the torch of what an audience actually experiences. And if the scene description is not a cohesive experience throughout the entire script, that’s maybe not the most crucial thing.
John: There have been times where I have come in and I’m literally just going to be there for two days, I’m just working on one specific little thing. And if the other writer has a much more bombastic style, I will adapt to their bombastic style just so that the scene won’t feel weird.
John: Especially if you’re doing a lot of action sequences. And there’s some project in which the Wibberleys and I were both working on it sort of separately, but they were really the primary force there. And they are much bigger all caps, underlines, you know, some bold face in there. And I’ll happily do that when that is the case.
It also reminds me of TV shows tend to have house styles for how their scripts read and look so that it feels the same episode after episode no matter who wrote the episode. And so classically both the Damon Lindelof shows and the J.J. Abrams shows, they use a lot of fucking in the scene description. And so a giant fucking explosion will happen.
We just posted in Weekend Read the pilot script for Once Upon a Time by Kitsis and Horowitz. And they are from that camp. And so they use fucking all the time in their things and like this script had like seven fuckings in it just for like a 60-minute pilot.
And when we posted it, Adam Horowitz was like mortified. He’s like, “Oh, I can send you the cleaned up version that we use for when we’re having people sign scripts and stuff like that.”
John: “Doesn’t have all the F-bombs in it.” It’s like, no, it’s really how they write their scripts. It’s like they need the F-words in there to sell the scale of what those moments are like.
John: Both styles are fine.
Craig: I will do that at times. I don’t do that often. But maybe once or twice in the screenplay where I know it’s not meant to be rated R, I’ll still in description, you know, I might have somebody say, you know, she stares at him, “What the fuck?” You know, what the fuck is an incredibly evocative phrase. It puts a face on a character in your mind. You immediately know so much about what they’re thinking and how they’re supposed to look. It’s just really terse. You know, it’s a good way to quickly state something without any confusion in the reader.
I mean when it comes to this capitalization stuff, I’ve read screenplays from all sorts of people and while there are always little things that are like, “Oh, I wouldn’t, you know, I don’t do my thing like this. And I don’t do mine like that,” I’ve never read a script where I thought, “What’s with so — there’s so many capitalized words. My God, half the page is capitalized. I’ve never seen anyone even come close to that.”
Michael W. doesn’t want more than one per page which seems just like the most arbitrary and frankly dumb thing I’ve ever heard, like why? Why is two a problem? What does that even mean? This is a bad question. It’s not a question.
John: That’s not a question. It’s just like a statement or opinion, phrased as a question.
Craig: No, no. Yeah, he basically just wanted to do like his own version of an umbrage rant and then end it with, so why the love of random caps to make it officially a question. But look, Michael, I got to tell you, this isn’t how you do umbrage. You need a whole class [laughs] on umbrage because I’m not believing it. I don’t believe it. You’re not feeling it, man.
John: So what is the guidelines for umbrage? I think you need to firmly state your opinion and then like categorically break down the reasons why you have this opinion, sort of restate your opinion more strongly, and express moral outrage that somebody could have an opinion that is opposite than yours. Is that a schema? Is that a sort of way of thinking about an umbrage rant?
Craig: It’s not bad. Like it’s your understanding of it, which is really [laughs] interesting. But to me, it has to start with a kernel of something that you hold very true and near and dear to you. And then you have to see that other people are just denying it. They’re denying it. And they’re doing so in a way that is causing themselves and other people problems.
The umbrage isn’t about I have an opinion and the rest of the world needs to agree with me. I see things all the time, like, “I don’t like that.” But who gives a crap if I don’t like it? “I don’t like this sandwich.” That’s not umbrage material. “You capitalize too much.” That’s not umbrage material.
Umbrage material is more like, you’ve decided that the best way to go about something is to do A, B and C, and I’m telling you you’re hurting yourself and others. That’s umbrage material. I’m getting angry now thinking about my hypothetical example that only has A, B and C in it.
Craig: It’s an emotional place. You have to understand, it’s an emotional [laughs] place I can occupy. You know, like some actors can just cry on the spot?
John: Oh yeah, I’m a good crier actually.
Craig: There you go. I can’t do that, but I can become furious in a second.
John: That’s nice. And is it that you’re imagining the hypotheticals or you’re imagining the conversations or you’re imagining the other side of the argument? Is that how you’re getting to that furious place?
Craig: I’m literally just placing myself in the emotional space of watching somebody do something that is hurting themselves or other people. And I have a thing in my brain, I don’t believe you have, John, [laughs], it’s just another area in my brain that begins to pulsate and send out signals and it’s that — you see people don’t understand. The umbrage is not about this kind of snotty, hypercritical view of the world. I’m the opposite of — I’m hypocritical of art and personal expressions. I don’t care, like I — people were sending around, “Oh my God, you got to see this. This guy goes on this amazing rant about Pixels and totally takes it down.”
Well, I’m not going to watch that because I don’t give a shit. Oh my God, a guy worked himself up into a fake frenzy over a fucking movie? A movie for fucking 13-year-olds and that’s what you’re going to do, adult man? [laughs] You’re going to go out and you’re going to go crazy about that?” Something’s gone wrong with you and I don’t care. It’s not for you. What drives me crazy is the other stuff. It’s when I watch my union say, “We’ve got a great idea.” And I go, “No, you’re going to hurt people with that.” That’s what makes me crazy.
John: I want to briefly defend the Pixels rants because I was, like you, convinced like, “Oh come on, what are you complaining about?” Like this is the Pixels movie. And then Stuart watched it, so I actually watched it and I actually found there were moments of artistry within his anger that was not really manufactured, but actually a true expression of loss and sadness. That’s why I found that one to be interesting, but I agree with you the general sense of angry nerd ranting, there’s a column in Wired called Angry Nerd which is just that manufactured umbrage.
John: Which is just completely fake. It’s as fake as —
Craig: It’s fake.
John: A listicle in BuzzFeed.
Craig: And I’m sorry. If you legitimately have honest, sad, torn up feelings over fucking Pixels, then you need meds. You need meds. Meds. Meds. [laughs] Now, I’m getting angry. Getting angry about that.
John: Our next bit follow up. In last week’s episode, we talked about audio description for films and TV shows designed for the vision impaired or the blind and we really knew almost nothing about it. And our question was whether the people who are writing this description are using a script or if they’re just watching the filmed product and writing the description based on that. And so the minute the podcast went up, we had a bunch of emails from people who actually did this for a living and they were incredibly helpful, so I did a follow-up blog post which I’ll put into the show notes about that.
The short version of it is it’s really based on what shows up on screen and they’re very carefully tailoring the things they say and to fit them in small pauses to really give you the best experience of what this would be like if you were actually being able to watch the finished product. It’s an incredibly difficult job obviously because you are trying to, you know, with very limited time and resources create the experience of watching a thing when you only have audio. As screenwriters, we’re doing everything that we can to describe a movie with what people see and what we hear. Here, we have to take away all those visions and that’s an interesting challenge.
So I wanted to actually play examples because it was really strange to talk about something without being able to hear it. So here are two examples from Daredevil. So Daredevil is a TV show on Netflix. It was actually controversial when it first launched because the audio descriptions weren’t ready and so then they added them later on and they’re really good. So first I want to play you a scene from the pilot and this is just what you would see on screen, so just the audio that would actually match with the video that you would see.
(Daredevil scene begins)
Turk Barrett: Hey, hey. Man, shut up. I’m getting $1,000 a head for y’all. So, you be quiet, I’ll let you have a bucket. You don’t — .
Man: [Speaking Foreign Language]
Turk Barrett: Scream all you want. Come on, let me hear you scream. Scream louder. Nobody gives a shit down here. [laughs]
(Daredevil scene ends)
John: Okay. So, Craig, I think that we can safely assume that you’ve not seen the pilot for Daredevil because you watch no television.
Craig: Right, it’s on television, so you had a 99.9% chance.
John: All right, so let’s — just based on what you heard there, what do you think is happening in that scene?
Craig: Okay. There’s a bad guy. He’s black, I’m guessing from his voice. He’s got hostages. One of them has asked for a bucket, [laughs] I’m not sure why. And he says he’ll give them a bucket, and then he’s tasing them. It sounds like he’s tasing them to torture them, and then he’s laughing ha-ha-ha. Then I think we switched perspective to Daredevil because I feel like I’m hearing his echo location sound effect, and I assume then he comes in, just starts beating the crap out of everybody. And yeah, that’s what I think happens.
John: And that’s actually pretty close. But now, let’s take a listen to that descriptive audio that goes with that, and it will paint a little bit more a full picture of what’s happening here.
(Daredevil scene begins)
Narrator: Two thugs drag three young women to a storage container on the docks. A man in a leather coat appears around the opening door.
Turk Barrett: Hey, hey. Man, shut up. I’m getting a $1,000 a head for y’all. So, you be quiet, I’ll let you have a bucket. You don’t —
Narrator: He holds up a cattle prod.
Narrator: Then jams it into one woman’s belly while an overweight man in a lawn chair watches at the edge of the dock.
[Girls screaming] [Tasing]
Man: [Speaking foreign language]
Narrator: The injured woman and the others are shoved into the container.
Turk Barrett: Scream all you want. Come on, let me hear you scream. Scream louder. Nobody gives a shit down here. [Laughs]
Narrator: A man with a crude mask covering his head and eyes crouches behind the thug. The thug turns as the man leaps knocking him down. The cattle prod rolls on the filthy wet dock. The man stands, it’s Matt. He listens as the thugs rush in. One thug goes down instantly. The terrorized girls watch.
Matt fights the other thug. He batters the man in a storm of punches knocking him against the container door, then flipping him over onto the dock. The other creep charges getting in some hard punches before Matt knees him in the gut and headbutts him. As they fight, the leader comes too, woozily reaching into his back waist band.
Matt, crouched, swing kicks the thug, then snaps his leg at the knee. He hears the leader cock the gun. The leader turns and shoots. The masked man flings himself into a roll and grabs the cattle prod.
John: So, what did you think?
Craig: I mean, I kind of love it. It’s interesting. It’s a huge job, first of all. That’s what that I was thinking when I was listening was somebody has to write all that because that’s not the way we would write the screenplay. For starters, we won’t know all those things when we’re writing the screenplay. We won’t know exactly how the fight was going to go down. That gets structured by the stunt guys, and then sort of shown to everybody, and then done on the day, and then edited.
So, you can’t have the screenplay be as accurate as somebody describing what they’re seeing, meaning somebody is writing the description. And that’s a big job. Deciding what to say and what to not say is a big job. You picked an interesting one here because there’s not a lot of dialogue, you know, so you could see how he’s sort of getting out of the way when there is, and giving us some basic context. I like that everything — didn’t seem like they were skipping anything. So, you know, an overweight man in a lawn chair on the other side of the dock is watching. That’s information I didn’t have without the descriptive audio, and —
John: Absolutely. I think that’s crucial because like, I mean even the person who’s writing up the description for this episode doesn’t know if that man is actually going to come back and become important later on. So, you got to put him in there.
Craig: Yeah, and you’d also don’t know, even as the screenwriter, you don’t know exactly when you’re going to cut to that guy. I mean you might have an indication when you’re going to cut, but then in the editing room things happen, so again it’s all done after the fact as far as I could tell. It reminds me a little bit of like a book on tape because you immediately start painting your own visual picture in your head. I can see the shipping container. I liked that it was the wet filthy ground instead of just the ground. You know, so I liked that they were adding things that helped the mind paint that image. It was cool.
John: It was cool. And I thought it was actually really well performed like that the narrator they use for this does a great job. So the Daredevil pilot was written by Drew Goddard who’s amazingly talented. I’m trying to find the credit of the guy who or the people who wrote up the descriptive audio for it because I thought they did a great job too.
John: And I agree with you that it’s not — you know, when it got into the fight sequence, I wondered if they might have looked at what the text was from the fight as written on the page because like some of those flurry of blows, that kind of stuff, that felt scene description-y. I can see that being part of the fight scene description, but it’s never going to be so directly matching what the fight choreography was going to be. So, you know, I thought it was really well done.
Craig: Yeah, like maybe they take what’s in the script and then remove bits that have been edited out and kind of add things in that were done on the day. You know, so they use the script as a basis and then kind of go from there.
John: So, what Daredevil makes clear is that writing this descriptive audio is not easy. And I wanted to talk to somebody who did this for a living. So, yesterday I got on Skype with Alice Sanders in London. Alice, thank you so much for being with us.
Alice Sanders: My pleasure.
John: So, can you tell us some of the movies you’ve worked on?
Alice: Oh, I’ve worked on so many films. One of my favorites to describe was Up, the Pixar film. I’ve worked on Inception, and Bridesmaids. I tend to get given a lot of comedy films or films for kids. I did Nanny McPhee because apparently I have a light-hearted comedy voice. So you tend to write the films that you also voice, but that’s not always the case.
John: So, at what point does a film come to you for descriptive audio?
Alice: Well, normally when it’s completely finished, although again, that is not always the case. We have had films that have not had all their special effects and stuff finished, which obviously makes it very difficult to describe properly because we need to see everything in order to describe it for visually impaired people.
John: So, which company do you actually work for? Is it one place that does all of it for movies or is it different companies contract out?
Alice: No. Well, I work for Deluxe, but obviously I work in London. And I know that Deluxe in L.A. also does movies, but their movie audio description will be different to the British one.
John: So, for each market — so, the U.K. English versus the American English would have different descriptive audio?
Alice: Absolutely. The actual writing will tend to be very similar, although obviously there’ll be a few words that are different like, you know, lift and elevator and all those kind of things. But also the American one will have an American voice and the British one will have a British voice.
John: So, let’s take the movie Up. So, this movie comes to you for descriptive audio, what is the first thing you do?
Alice: The first thing I do is open the clip and start watching it. I don’t watch the film before I start describing it, but I don’t describe it in real time because that would be impossibly difficult. So, what you do is you pause the film. I mean you can stop, and rewind and fast forward, you know, wherever you like.
And then what you start to do is you time in what I would call a box, which is a single description. And obviously you do it between dialogue, so the shortest description would tend to be a second, you wouldn’t go under that. But you can have anything up to, you know, well even minutes and minutes of silence in a film, although you would tend to break that up into descriptions rather than record kind of five minutes straight of audio description.
John: So, when you do this process, are you typing up a document or is this in specialized software?
Alice: It’s in specialized software, which is also used for subtitling. On the program, we can time in a box to the exact frame of the film. So, I could have a box that was like one second. I could have a box that was like 38 seconds and four frames.
John: And so, once you have this box described, you’re writing up the description for what the narrator is ultimately going to say in that space?
Alice: Exactly. So, once you’ve timed in the box, then you write the description. And so, the description will include anything that’s going on visually really. If you have a short space, then what you’re trying to get in is the relevant piece of information for a visually impaired person to understand what is happening in the film conceptually like plot-wise.
John: Now, are there any cases where you have to sort of move a piece of information from one time period to another time period because there wasn’t a space there to get that crucial detail in there? The Daredevil thing we just listened to, there was like a man sitting in a chair by the river. And it felt like it wasn’t especially important that you establish that now, as long you establish it in the scene. So do you ever slide where you describe something?
Alice: As much as possible, you try to get it in at the moment that it’s happening because you almost always describe in present tense or present tense continuous. But occasionally, of course, that happens. So there’ll be dialogue over a very important action. And then you can do something in past tense.
John: Describing in the present tense, screenplays are also written in the present tense. Do you ever look at the original screenplay for the movie as you’re doing the descriptions?
Alice: Yes. If we have the script, that’s really, really helpful because, first of all, it will give you all the characters’ names. Because what you’re doing when you’re audio describing as well is, this sounds like a silly thing to say, but we’re trying to understand what’s going on as quickly as possible, which I guess you’re doing as a viewer of a movie.
But as an audio describer, you sort of have to be one step ahead. So you get very good at quickly understanding like a plot or a character and stuff like that. But having a script means that you have all the character names so that you can correctly identify characters easily. If you have a, what’s it called, like a spotting script, you’ll have visual directions as well, which of course are really, really useful to us because it’s not always really obvious where you are all the time.
John: What was the most difficult movie you had to describe?
Alice: The most [laughs] difficult film I have ever described, without a doubt, is David Lynch’s Inland Empire.
John: And why was it difficult?
Alice: Have you seen Inland Empire?
John: I have seen it. It feels like you would have a very hard time explaining what was on the screen.
Alice: So there were so many reasons that it was hard. I’m a massive Lynch fan, but it is a deeply weird movie even for Lynch. So you have these scenes where there are sort of like human-like figures but with bunny heads kind of interspersed into the other plot. I call it a plot. I mean, it’s certainly not a linear or obvious story.
The other thing that was really, really hard was that there’s two characters that are actors who also play a role that has a different name. So, essentially, they’re playing two characters. And at a certain point in the movie, you can no longer be certain whether they’re the actor or the role. You know, they switch between the two characters sort of fluidly and you don’t really know.
And so it’s the only time ever, really, in an audio description that I’ve broken the fourth wall because I just didn’t know anymore. So I just was like, “Listen, guys, it might be this character or this character. I mean, I’ll choose a name but, you know, from here on in, you can decide for yourself because I don’t know anymore.”
John: Well, it sounds like the descriptive audio is trying to make something that is potentially ambiguous and make it less ambiguous. So someone who’s listening to just the soundtrack might not really know what’s going on. And so your job is to make it more clear what’s going on.
And in the case of Inland Empire, you just can’t do that because you, yourself as a viewer, have no clear sense of what is supposed to be happening and what the audience is supposed to be feeling.
John: Do you ever use wes or like do you use the second person plural? In screenwriting, we often will fall back to ‘we see’, ‘we hear’, ‘we do this’, or is it just simple present tense scene description?
Alice: We tend to avoid that [laughs] because I think sometimes it can take you out of the moment almost. We tend to also avoid using any kind of technical language about shots or, you know, camera angles or anything like that. We may very, very rarely use those if it’s extremely relevant. Like, for example, in a kind of 3D thing, if something leaps out at you. Or if maybe somebody turns to the camera and sort of like addresses the camera directly, we might say that because that’s quite an unusual thing to happen in a film. But, yeah, we tend to just present tense, very simple.
John: Great. Alice, how does somebody get your job?
Alice: [laughs] Well, I just did a writing test and a voice test to get my job. Obviously, you have to be quite a good writer, she says bidding herself up. You have to be very concise a lot of the time because you’ll have so little time and you really have to get across those salient points for a visually impaired person to be able to understand the film.
You also have to sound fairly decent on a microphone. And I think sometimes having a nice voice isn’t always enough. I think it took me a while, actually, to sound natural on a microphone. At first, I think I was quite nervous. But audio descriptions should sort of fit in with the film. It shouldn’t jolt you out of the film. So you should be able to kind of weave in and out quite naturally, which is actually also more difficult than it sounds I think.
John: When you’re writing this description, how often are you going to be the person who’s doing the narration versus another person?
Alice: They tend to try and give you films that you will voice because it’s much easier to — because what you do when you record is, again, the software will queue you up to every description but only sort of a second or two seconds before each run. So if you’re reading your own work, it is of course much easier because you sort of have an idea of what’s coming up. You know, you don’t know it off by heart but you know what you’ve written.
Whereas if you’re sight-reading someone else’s work, that’s quite difficult. So they do try to give you the writing if you’re going to record. But it doesn’t always work out like that.
John: Are there cases where a movie will have a lot of women characters in it and they therefore would want to have a man be the other voice so no one gets confused or people just can sort that out?
Alice: Well, no, absolutely. And the film companies will often choose the voice of the film. So they might get sent a few samples. And, yeah, they definitely sometimes choose, you know, a man because it’s mainly women and therefore to sort of, yeah, differentiate. But, again, like I said, I sort of get chosen for a lot of lighthearted things because apparently I sound lighthearted even though I’m a very serious person. And normally, you’ll probably get a man doing an action film and a woman doing a rom-com and that kind of thing.
John: That’s great. Alice, thank you so much for talking us through this. I understand this so much better than I did five minutes ago.
Alice: [laughs] That’s good, great.
John: Great. Alice, thank you.
Alice: You’re welcome.
John: And that is descriptive audio. So, thank you to everybody who wrote in with suggestions and especially for people who put me in contact with Alice to talk about what it was like to write descriptive audio, a thing I knew nothing about and a week later, I know so much more.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a big job.
John: Big job.
Craig: You know, there’s this other hidden job that I would love for you and I — you know what, I just had an idea, John. John, every now and then, I have an idea. So you write a movie, the movie gets made. And then as we all know, the movie play overseas. What we forget is that all across the world, in many, many, many countries, there are people whose job is to dub the movie. Most American movies play overseas dubbed, I believe. I mean, you can probably find some subtitled versions, too.
But the people who dub in the other languages, that’s a fascinating gig because they have to essentially do this really quickly. Sometimes, you know, with the way things are released, they maybe have two weeks to dub an entire movie. And then translation is a real art. You know, especially in comedy, you have a line, it’s a joke but it’s based on wordplay, how do you translate that? How does it make sense?
I’d love to get somebody on who does that for a living, to talk to them about how they go through the way the screenplay is showing through the movie and how they turn that into another language.
John: So, luckily, I know several people who do this for a living.
John: Yeah. These are French friends who do it. And your instinct is right in that in many markets, movies are dubbed. In many markets, movies are subtitled. But often, the people who would do subtitling are not the same people who do dubbing.
John: And it’s a completely complicated, crazy world in which they work. But, yes, I can get them on the air and they would be fantastic. One of them, Mannu, actually did a blog post for me, talking through what his process was. So I’ll put a link to Mannu’s post in the show notes.
Craig: Well, great.
John: But we’ll get either him or my friend, Fred, on to talk about that job because it is really crazy. And so my husband, Mike, who speaks French, sometimes Mannu will email Mike saying like, “What does this joke even mean?”
John: Like, essentially, he’s looking at an American movie, he’s like, “I’m trying to understand what this is actually supposed to be.”
John: And Mike will give him some sense of what it could be and so then Mannu has to find the French equivalent.
Craig: What if Mike just had no sense of humor?
John: That would be awesome.
Craig: Yeah. So he would just guess at what it meant. It’s so confusing for the world over.
John: Yeah. Well, I think what’s also interesting, the difference between people who are doing dubbing and subtitling versus descriptive audio is that the dubbers and subtitlers are almost invariably, they are native speakers of the language they are converting into. So they speak English but they’re converting it into French or Arabic or some other language.
People who are doing descriptive audio necessarily need to be sighted so they can see what’s actually happening there but they also need to be able to experience the movie as a blind person would experience it. So the people who wrote in with their experiences about how they did it, some of them would talk about like watching something with the picture turned off just to see like what was there and what you could get with no visual information.
Craig: It’s a great idea. Right, like you think to yourself, “Okay, I almost need to see it.” I mean, I assume with practice, that’s no longer necessary. But to watch it first without the picture and then see what emerged from you, well, that difference is what you’re filling in. Very cool.
Craig: Very cool.
John: All right, onto this week’s show with some questions from listeners. Rick Silcox asks, “As a follow-up to the discussion about getting ideas from the media such as FIFA, can you talk about your processes for vetting your ideas? How much will you develop an idea in your head before you decide to start writing it or drop the idea? Once you’ve started writing, what will make you give up on the idea? Do you ever truly give up on a notion or do you keep it in mind in case some new revelation comes along?”
So, Craig, what is your vetting process for an idea?
Craig: Well, I would say there is the left brain vetting and the right brain vetting. The left brain needs to feel like there is a through line that can be followed where the end is a commentary on the beginning, that the process and journey of the movie will be interesting, and there will be places for characters to evolve and change, and that the premise of the movie is fertile ground for stuff to happen.
And that’s all good. But then there’s the right brain vetting which is, “Do I love this or is this just something I could do? Am I excited? Is this getting me going? Do I want to write this?” You know, early on in your career, you have to kind of shut your right brain down a little bit because you’re starving and you need to pay your rent. And so you’re like, “Well, I don’t love this but I could do it. So I will left brain my way through this. And maybe as I do it, I will come to love it. I will grow to love it.”
But, yeah, ideally, you want to have both. So I do drop ideas. I have ideas sometimes that people are like, “Yeah, we’d buy that.” And I think, “Great, let me just get to the place where I feel like I would be able to write it for sure.” And sometimes I don’t. And then I say, “Well, I’m not going to do it,” you know, because it doesn’t seem like something that would delight me.
And there’s only so many things you can write. We’re all on a clock. I’ve wasted a lot of time writing a lot of stuff I didn’t want to write. That’s the God’s honest truth. So I try now more than ever to only write things I do want to write.
John: Yeah. I completely understand that sense of lost time writing things that seemed like a good idea to write. It’s like your left brain convinces you like, “Oh, you should totally write that.” And I knew I could write that but it really wasn’t the thing I should have written. And there were some years that have been lost to sort of writing the wrong thing.
John: And some of those movies got made, some of those movies didn’t get made. Most of those movies didn’t get made. And on some level, it was I think in part because I didn’t fundamentally love them.
Craig: Honestly, it’s worse when they do get made. God’s honest truth, that’s the worst because then you’re sitting there like, “Why did no one stop this thing?” [laughs]
John: [laughs] One of my crucial questions for myself is, would I pay to see this movie? And if I wouldn’t pay to see this movie, then I have no business writing it. And that’s just a very simple gut check for me.
There was a project that got offered in my direction. I won’t say it was fully offered to me but like they said, “Hey, would you be interested in writing this thing?” And it was very tantalizing because it was very high profile kind of thing. And yet, as I had the phone call conversations with it and sort of went through it, I couldn’t fundamentally see myself being happy writing this movie three years from now.
And you have to approach any project like that as, you know, a multiyear commitment. And I just didn’t see myself necessarily wanting to spend all those years on this project to the exclusion of other projects. I mean, everything you say yes to is something else you’re saying no to. And the opportunity cost of this one was just higher than I was willing to spend.
That’s part of the reason why I think some writers in our position end up rewriting a bunch of other little things because the opportunity cost seems so much smaller to just spend a couple of weeks on something. It’s when you’ve done a couple of weeks on a bunch of things, you realize like, “Oh, wow, I could have written a whole other script in the time that I’ve been tinkering with these other people’s movies.”
Craig: I know. Yeah. I mean, people always wonder, “Why don’t they write original things anymore?” Well, because when you get the little jobs and they say, “Here, come on board for two weeks or three weeks,” in a weird way, there’s no pressure. People are saying, “Help us.” And you can definitely help in two or three weeks, always, you know.
I mean, if you’re decent, you’re hopefully not one of those people that’s going to make it go backwards but let’s say you don’t, you know what to do, you feel comfortable with it and you can make it go forward, it’s only two or three weeks of your life. That’s no big deal. And, you know, they pay you pretty well for those things. And you don’t have a sense of loss over it.
If someone says, “Oh, we just don’t like the thing you did on this part of it,” okay, I’ll change that. I mean, I get it. I’m here to visit for two or three weeks. You don’t feel the pain.
A lot of times, those jobs are like, they’re all ups and no downs. The only down is that, you know, you’re servicing something for two or three weeks and that’s not necessarily the kind of thing that you can do all the time. I mean, ultimately, Hollywood will ask you to do that stuff all the time, until one day, they go, “This guy is just one of those guys that just keeps taking from our plate. [laughs] What is he going to give?”
So you have to do both. And it’s tricky. These days, a lot of what I think about with my ideas is who would be the right person to collaborate on with this, whether it’s a director or a producer or an actor. And if I can think of the right person, then that also gets me excited because a lot of the work that I’ve done that I’ve been happiest with has been the product of good relationships.
John: That makes a lot of sense. Part of my vetting process is, “Can I write a trailer for it?” which seems really strange but like I have to have a sense of like I know what this movie would feel like on a screen. I know what somebody would see that would make them want to come spend, you know, $15 to see this on the big screen.
And so writing the trailer early on is sort of a crucial first step for me. Something I said in the 100th episode of Scriptnotes was I write the movie that has the best ending. And so if I don’t have a sense of where this movie is going to end up, I won’t start writing it.
And the last thing which has been really helpful for me is describing it to Kelly Marcel because for whatever reason, if Kelly Marcel is enthusiastic about something I’m thinking about writing, I suddenly want to write it because I want to keep Kelly happy.
Craig: She’s an amazing cheerleader that way. I’ve pitched many things over time to her and she’s just naturally very supportive about that stuff. Although, have you gotten like the anti-Marcel, like has she ever kind of just gotten heavy-lidded and like, “No?”
John: [laughs] You know, it was so funny because when you started to describe the anti-Marcel, I saw like a sadness in her eyes and I knew exactly what you were going for. Yes, I have seen that sort of like, you know, “Oh, yeah, I just felt my heart sink a little bit.” But those can be useful, too.
Craig: And then she went, “Um, John, um, I don’t know. I don’t know.” Yeah.
Craig: But that’s useful, too.
Craig: You know, you said a couple of things that I definitely do. I definitely think of the trailer. Specifically, I think of trailer moments because like I’ll go, all right, my left brain is good enough to know to not start writing something that you couldn’t make a trailer out of. But I’m looking for those moments where the trailer exceeds expectations and basically turns things on its head a little bit for people and they go, “Wait, what?” you know.
So that’s always useful. And the ending is everything. So, like you, I’m obsessed with the ending. And in fact, this thing I’m working on right now, you know, for months I’ve been thinking there’s something wrong with this beginning because I know what the ending is supposed to be but this beginning will never earn me that ending. And I kind of just had a meltdown about it two days ago and then went, “Oh, wait, wait, wait, I know what to do with this beginning.” And it’s the smallest thing and it will make me earn my ending and I’m happy now.
But until that happens, how do you proceed, you know? I need to know. The beginning and the ending is the movie. That’s the point of a movie.
John: Yeah. All right, next question. Will in San Diego writes, “I’m just starting to write my first screenplay. I wish to include the use of a specific song in my piece. Can I put the song in the screenplay and just change it later if necessary?”
Simple answer. What’s the simple answer, Craig?
John: Yes, you may. You may cite the use of a specific song in your screenplay that is completely fine and fair use and no one will look askance. Does that mean that that song will necessarily be in the movie? No. But does it help the reader get a sense of what that section of the screenplay feels like? Sure, it could help.
Don’t make your screenplay be like a playlist because that is annoying. To me, my pet peeve is like capitalization, like that’s the thing where it’s like, “Come on, I’m reading a screenplay not a playlist.” But if the use of that song helps, go for it.
Craig: Yeah. I think that what can strike a reader as amateurish is when you’ve got multiple scenes showing, say, a car driving down the road and we hear China Grove from The Doobie Brothers. You know, like, well, yes, we could hear a typical driving rock song there or another driving rock song. Don’t give me generic choices. If you’re going to do it, it has to be very purposeful.
Now, interesting, you got to find this weird middle space. It can’t be generic. It has to be purposeful. But it can’t be something that — at least I would recommend strongly that it’s not something that indicates to a buyer we absolutely must get this song because it’s now a plot point, you know.
Like in Cowboy Ninja Viking, there was this moment where the camera was sort of floating through this abandoned mental hospital. There is an abandoned hospital on — I’m not going to say where it is because I don’t want to give away my secret location. But this very cool, like from 1910, 1920 abandoned mental hospital.
And I wanted something that wasn’t like just creepy score. I didn’t want it to feel horror movie. I wanted it to feel like kind of odd and I wanted to comment on thematically what was going on with the main character who is about to enter this place.
And I’m a big Pink Floyd fan and there’s this great Pink Floyd song called If. And it’s, you know, as far as Floyd goes, it’s fairly obscure. Not a lot of people know it but it has these really beautiful lyrics and this really beautiful feeling to it, so I included that. I even included the lyrics because I felt like I’m writing a visual montage and I’m suggesting that this is sort of the tone that we would go for so that you understand how it feels.
And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean it has to be that song, but it’s not a generic song.
John: Yeah. In my script for Dark Shadows, there’s a section in which Barnabas Collins kills all the members of this terrible cult. And it is scored to Sunshine of Your Love which was just a lovely sort of counterpoint to the horrific violence of the scene. And it was a charming sequence which I wish would have shot.
And that’s the case where they probably would have used that song. But they didn’t have to use that song. But it gave you a good feel for what that section was supposed to feel like. It gave you a sense of what the texture of that section was.
Craig: There’s a great Sunshine of Your Love section of Goodfellas, I believe.
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: [makes guitar sound]
John: [makes guitar sound] You know what, I said Sunshine of Your Love, I meant Age of Aquarius.
Craig: Totally different song.
John: This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. It’s a different song.
Craig: That is a completely different song.
John: But happy in that sort of happy in the ’70s way.
Craig: Yeah, because Sunshine of Your Love actually is kind of creepy. But, yeah, Age of Aquarius is a little more upbeat and “harmony and understanding”.
John: Yeah, so when you’re decapitating people with a sword, it’s a fun choice.
Craig: Yup, that is a fun choice.
John: Brad in Maryland writes, “I’ve been working on a buddy road trip comedy between a fictional character and a celebrity from a ’90s sitcom. The celebrity character is a completely outrageous, obviously fictional portrayal. The only thing he shares with the real person is his name and a love interest from the ’90s. I don’t intend for this to be made. It’s merely a writing sample. And if it generates buzz on The Black List, that’s a plus. Am I vulnerable to a libel lawsuit if I continue down this road? I know libel needs to be false and defamatory statements of fact. But do celebrities get special treatment because of their brand?”
Craig, what do you think?
Craig: I think celebrities do get special treatment in favor of you. They’re public figures. So, essentially, they are more open to lampooning and spoofing and parodying than people that aren’t public figures. You should be fine. I mean, the basic test is, would anybody reasonably assume that what you’re suggesting in the screenplay is true and that this person has done those things?
The fact that it’s already a fictional screenplay, I mean, you can write [laughs] a fictional screenplay on the cover if you want. But, you know, the other issue is damages. Generally speaking, if somebody, let’s see, it’s a celebrity from a ’90s sitcom. I’ll go with television’s Matthew Perry.
So, Matthew, you’ve written a buddy road trip comedy about, you know, a guy who meets Matthew Perry in a bar and they go on the road. Matthew Perry finds out about this and he goes, “Oh, my god, the script is suggesting that I’m blah, blah, blah and blah, blah, blah and I’m not. And that’s defamatory.” And he runs to his lawyer and his lawyer says, “Well, yeah, but what are the damages at this point? You’re going to sue this Brad in Maryland, you know?”
And Brad, I mean, unless you’re a DuPont — oh, no, those are Delaware, aren’t they? [laughs]
Craig: So I’m just going to assume, Brad, you’re just an average American guy who has a certain amount of assets that would not be significant to the star of a ’90s sitcom, so he’s not going to want to sue you. What he would want to do is wait and sue the movie [laughs] or the studio. And so their legal department will make their process through.
I don’t think that you would be vulnerable to a libel lawsuit. I, not an attorney, do not think that you would be vulnerable. So if you want to cover that base for sure, always best to talk to a lawyer.
John: Brad, I think you have precedent on your side, too. If you look at Being John Malkovich, John Malkovich was not involved in that project until it was going to become a movie. So his name was in the title and it was not yet involving him.
Another example is Harold & Kumar. I could be wrong but I think Neil Patrick Harris was always scripted in to be that role in Harold & Kumar. And he is obviously a fictional version of himself and he decided to do it. I think it’s not a bad idea, honestly, to take — a good execution of what you’re describing could be a great writing example that people enjoy reading. And the ability to sort of, you know, tweak a known celebrity’s persona could be fine.
So, basically don’t worry about it. Forge ahead, I say.
Craig: I’m with that, yeah.
John: Do you want to take this last one?
Craig: Sure. Anthony, Anthony writes, “The New York Times just published a feature about the lawlessness of the High Seas, basically crimes that can happen onboard cargo ships on Trans-Atlantic voyages. Note, the article isn’t about pirating, as portrayed in Captain Phillips. It’s a world I probably wouldn’t have known about if not for this one specific article. In doing some more additional research, there isn’t much documentation of it elsewhere online.
It’s not a commonly known or reported world and the events that take place in a completely fictionalized story would likely resemble events referenced in the article because the article talks broadly about the types of crimes that take place onboard these ships. Because this article is essentially the only source of that information, couldn’t The New York Times, theoretically speaking, say that I infringed their copyright or not obtained the rights to the article when they feel I should have?”
John: I thought this was a really good question because it talks about that sort of murky grey line between what are just facts that are available for everyone to use and what is specific implementation of details that are protectable by copyright. And I thought this fell in a really nice zone where he couldn’t find anything that wasn’t in this article that talks about the things he wants to talk about. And so if he wants to make a movie about this specific thing, he would be well-served, I think, having the rights to this article.
Now, let’s say he liked a lot of the ideas in it but like, “But I want to set this in space,” well, just go for it. But because, to me, this felt like he wants to use some very specific details that he could only find in this article, he should strongly consider getting this article. Craig, what did you think?
Craig: It is, I would say, de rigueur for studios to pick up articles like this. In fact, somebody probably already has. And therein lies your problem, Anthony. They’ll buy the rights to these articles. When they buy the rights to the articles, I always feel like most of the time what they’re really buying is the right to the whole body of work.
Craig: Because the article isn’t going to cover everything. So, all of their research, all of their sources, the ability to talk to their contacts, the contact information, it just becomes a lot easier.
Here’s a simple truth. Facts are in the public domain. So The New York Times does not own the facts in that story that they’ve reported. You may use any of those facts because they’re facts. People, so for instance, there’s a captain of one of the boats. Well, if elements of his life are suddenly appearing in your movie, that’s an issue most likely because he’s not a public figure. So you would have to get life rights.
A lot of times, what happens with articles is that agencies will represent both the article writer, the journalist, and the key person that the story is about or if there is a key person, the life rights, so that it’s all bundled together into one package so that you’re free and clear to make the movie you need to make.
In this case, I would think that you shouldn’t worry about The New York Times. You should worry about the people that The New York Times is quoting. That’s just my gut feeling. And that you should fictionalize your characters so that they’re not overlapping with real people’s lives. That becomes a problem. The facts that there are boats and these crimes take place, those facts are free and clear to all human beings.
John: I think you made some really crucial distinction in that in most cases, it’s not a screenwriter who goes out and gets the rights to a New York Times’ article, it’s a producer. It’s a producer or it’s a studio who says, we think there is a story idea here and we’re going to try to lock this down so that we can make a movie about this. And they want something they can protect and defend so that they can then hire on a writer to write them that movie.
And so a lot of movies you wouldn’t think are based on articles are based on things like this. So way back to like the John Travolta movie, Perfect, I think it’s based on like a Rolling Stone article about aerobics instructors. There’s —
Craig: Saturday Night Fever. Yeah.
John: Yeah. So there are weird examples of movies you wouldn’t think would have to be based on anything, which are based on non-fiction articles. So there is a precedent for it. Could you have made a movie like Saturday Night Fever without an underlying article? Of course, you could have. But somebody wanted to make a movie in that space and they bought that article and therefore the movie became based upon that article.
John: I would say in a very general sense, if you as an individual writer want to do something set in a specific world and there’s, you know, there’s limited research, but there’s one article you find. I would not set your hopes on getting the rights to that one article because you are then bound to that article and you’re bound to the underlying article rights of that article. And it just becomes complicated. The degree to which writer can control his or her complete destiny and not have any chain of title issues behind your property, you’re going be happier and better.
Craig: Yeah, I agree.
John: Cool. Last final topic for this week’s show is the WGA financial report which just came out. And Craig took a look through it. I’ve just cracked it open. But Craig, can you give us any highlights from this financial report?
Craig: Yeah, sure. It’s not good news for those of us who work in movies, I’ll tell you that much. Total earnings for writers were basically flat from the year prior, technically down 0.2%, I think that’s essentially a flat line.
And the number of writers reporting earnings, so how many of us worked, down 1% from last year overall. If you’re interested in knowing, the number of writers reporting earnings in 2014, 4,899. So just under 5,000 professional writers in the Writers Guild West. Very small amount.
John: Very small amount.
Craig: That’s it. Yeah.
John: If you want to read along with us, we’ll have a link for this in the show notes. You can see a PDF of the annual report. So the WGA is required to publish this every year to show what its members are actually earning, what’s coming in for both film and for television and in residuals.
And so the television picture is I think as we could anecdotally guess is not that bad. It was actually — there’s pretty good employment in television. If you are a writer who wanted to work in Hollywood, television would seem to be the place to go. So what’s the best numbers to look at? What’s the best chart here? Earnings and employment in screen.
Craig: Well, first we’ll say that television in terms of number of writers reporting in was sort of flat. It was up 1% and earning is up 2.3%, which is not bad. It beats the bank account these days.
Craig: But of interest is you’ve got 4,900 writers reporting earnings in Writers Guild West. Of that 4,900, a full 3,900 of them, so essentially, you know, three-quarters, right, or more are in TV. So that’s a lot. Now, there are some that write in TV and movies, so there’s some overlap. But the great bulk of people working and voting in the Writers Guild West are TV writers.
Now, if everything is flat, then hopefully it stayed at least flat or better in screen — oh, here comes the — here, it just get worse and worse. And by the way, as far as I can tell, no plan. Not plan to stop it. And I’m not sure that there is a plan that will stop it.
Earnings and employment in screen, the number of writers — so to contrast, in 2009, there were 3,166 working writers in television. 2014, 3,888. So that’s an increase of about 700 and a little bit. In screen, we’ve dropped about 300, from 1,836 in 2009 to 1,556 in 2014. But what is even worse is that that has been a steady trend down and down and down. For instance, this year, down almost 6% in terms of working screenwriters from the prior year. And I’m talking about 2014 to 2013.
And then of course, what are we making? And not surprisingly, fewer writers means less money. It’s not like they’re spending the same amount of money and just giving fewer writers more of it. The pie is shrinking. And it has been shrinking steadily year after year after year in a kind of grinding freefall. The total earnings reported in 2009 for screen were $432 million. In 2014, we’re down to $313 million. That’s about 70% of what it was in 2009. And it dropped 5.5% from 2013 to 2014. I have no reason to think it’s not going to get worse. It just, it’s bad. It’s bad.
Craig: And part of the problem for guys like you and me is that we are now kind of entering a minority phase in our union. We are both a numeric minority and we are a financial minority. And our interests will, as this — it’s a real catch 22, the less you make and the fewer of you there are, the less power you have to use, you know, to kind of exercise you and your muscle to help yourselves. So I’m not sure what to do.
John: I don’t know what to do either. If there’s any, you know, silver lining to all of this is that the gains in television have made up for some of the losses in screen, on the big screen. And so therefore, some of these writers who are not making a living on writing for features are making a writing living in television and maybe they’re happy in television, so maybe it’s not a bad thing.
But if you’re a writer, whose goal is to really work on the big screen, it’s increasingly less likely you’re going to have a great career doing that.
The last bit to look at here is total residuals, which seemed fairly flat to me. Theatrical residuals were down 0.15% from 13 to 15. Television residuals were up 4.8%. That’s not the worst thing.
Craig: Yeah. No, I mean the residuals are — because the residuals are based on the library, they will shield you from certain realities for a while. But there will be an echo. What’s happening now in feature film employment will echo forward. And we will see the commensurate drop in residuals down the line. It’s inevitable because they’re just not making as many movies.
John: Exactly. So fewer movies being made, fewer movies getting residuals. And then we don’t know what the structural changes to people not buying DVDs anymore, people streaming. We don’t know the full extent to which that’s going implement how much money is coming in on those checks.
Craig: Yeah. We did see a kind of an interesting bump in theatrical reuse, miscellaneous theatrical reuse. I don’t know what that means. I’m kind of curious about that because they breakdown theatricals residuals — the big number is in television.
So we make movies and then they replay them on TV all over the world for free essentially, but supported by ads of course. Then there’s home video, which we all know. It’s been, I mean, decimated from — it’s dropped from 2009 to 2014, that’s down 36%, horrendous.
Pay TV continues a nice climb. So that’s your HBOs and so forth. DVD script fee is nonsense, it doesn’t matter. It’s $5,000 every time you write a movie. New media reuse is up, not surprisingly, 1,421% [laughs] over the last five years. But in doing so, only now is starting to hit numbers that are significant. So for instance, pay TV generates $53 million in residuals in 2014 for screenwriters, new media reuse, $11.5 million. But still, better.
Then there’s this thing, this miscellaneous theatrical reuse. The numbers aren’t big. I’m just kind of —
John: I don’t know what it is.
Craig: I don’t know what it is either. I wonder what that is. Anyway, they’re small numbers, who cares? Point being, total theatrical residuals, down 1.5%. Total television residuals, up nearly 5%. And I got to say, anything that goes up 5% right now when a typical savings account is giving you 0.7%, is really good. And down 1.5% is really bad. And that’s going to — that number, I’m afraid, is going to get worse and worse.
John: Yeah, I’m looking through why the numbers are up for television residuals. And the big gains seem to be in obviously new media reuse, so that’s the new services that we have for doing stuff. And great, as we talked about on the show before, writers get more money in residuals if they rent a movie on iTunes than they would have if they were to stream a movie on Netflix and honestly probably more money than it would on a DVD sale, at least DVD sale at most common prices. So we’ll see. There’s some reason for optimism there.
It is time to wrap up our show. So let’s do our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is this weird sculpture website that I went to and actually bought something off it. It’s a place called Bathsheba. And Craig, click on the link because I think you’ll actually really dig these things.
Craig: All right.
John: They’re basically these things you can buy that are sort of paper weight size generally and they’re all 3D printed, but they’re 3D printed in metal. And there are these impossible shapes that look like, I don’t know, things we’d find in Star Trek. They are just kind of great.
So there are knots that seem impossible. The thing I’m holding is sort of — it’s four-sided, it sort of feels like a four-sided die, but it’s actually all one piece, but it’s sharp and spiky. It feels like you could throw it as cling on weapon. I just really dug it.
So I found this site through Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools site, which is another great site. I’ll put a link in the show notes, which has just like random stuff you can buy. So Bathsheba Sculptures is my One Cool Thing.
Craig: That one that you have, I think it’s called Rajina.
John: Yeah. It feels like a spiky kind of —
Craig: It could be Rajina.
John: Rajina, the queen.
Craig: Nothing there — a Rajina is not a spiky pipe. Okay. Here we go. One Cool Thing for me. Oh, so here’s like an interesting one. It’s like a One Cool Thing that’s trumped an old One Cool Thing. So it’s an app called MacID. So we talked about Knock before. That was one of our One Cool Things. And the idea of Knock was you’ve got your computer locked down with a simple login password. And instead of having to type in your password every time, you can just — your phone will know, the app on the phone syncs up Bluetooth-wise with your computer. It knows that it needs that. And it says, hey, knock on the back of me. And you knock on the back of your phone and it fills the password in for you and it’s great.
And that was great for a bit and then it just stopped working for me.
John: It’s not working for me too.
Craig: Okay. It’s just a mess. I don’t know what happened with it. But it ain’t working. Even worse, the whole point of it which was knocking on stuff basically became obliterated once they introduced the touch ID functionality. And even Knock was like no more knocking, just use touch. It just doesn’t work at least for me and for you [laughs] for 1,000% of us, it doesn’t work.
So MacID, same thing. I mean in terms of what it’s supposed to do and it does it. And it works.
John: It’s great.
Craig: So get it.
John: But I haven’t tried it yet. I’m excited to try it.
John: Now, Craig, my question for you is, you and I both have Apple watches. Shouldn’t our computers just that we are in front of them because we have our Apple watches on? Shouldn’t that be identify enough?
Craig: It should and it — well, it is. But the point is you may not want to unlock your computer just because you’re walking by it. So actually MacID works really well with your watch. So when I sit down — maybe the first time after a couple of hours, it takes like a second or two and then my wrist buzzes and I look down and I tap my thing and unlocked.
John: Oh nice.
Craig: But then after that, you know, it’s really quick and like, boop, boop, and it fills in your passwords. I’m very happy with it.
John: Great. That is our show this week. Reminder, that if you have an idea for a Scriptnotes t-shirt, we would love to see it. So go to johnaugust.com/shirts and there’s some instructions there for how you can tell the world about your Scriptnotes -t-shirt idea. August 11th is the deadline for that.
If you would like to know more about some of the things we talked about, there are show notes at johnaugust.com. Just search johnaugust.com/scriptnotes and you’ll see all of the back episodes including transcripts.
Thank you Stuart Friedel for getting those transcripts together. He’s our producer. Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro this week. I would like to thank Alice for coming on the show to talk to us about describers and what they do. And Craig, have a great week.
Craig: You too, John.
- Submit your Fall 2015 Scriptnotes shirt design by August 11
- Capitals for iOS
- MovieBob Reviews: Pixels (NSFW)
- Subtitling for screenwriters on johnaugust.com
- Can you reference specific, proper-noun products/songs/locations/etc. in your screenplay? on screenwriting.io
- 2015 WGAw Annual Report to Writers
- Bathsheba Sculptures
- Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)