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 this is episode 213 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So, Craig, this last week I got to give a presentation, like a proper presentation with like Keynote slides and all that stuff. Have you done one of those recently?
Craig: With Keynote slides? No, because I’m not a sales rep for the southwestern medical appliance industry.
John: Yeah. I very rarely get to do those. And so whenever I have to crack open Keynote, it’s basically, you know, half an hour of reminding myself how Keynote works. And then I have a lot of fun with it. But it’s a ways to sort of get started in the whole designing of a proper presentation.
But I had a really fun time. And one of the slides I put up was about Clueless which is, of course, my favorite or my second favorite movie of all times. And in the Q&A afterwards, someone asked a question about Clueless. And it brought up an interesting point which I hadn’t thought of, is what if Cher in Clueless didn’t have voiceover? And how would you perceive that character if you didn’t have the ability to go inside of her head?
Craig: It is an interesting question. Some movies are just begging for it, you know. You need it. And we’ve talked about how musicals require you to sing what’s happening in somebody’s head. And it’s weird. It seems like the teen genre often feels like I need to know what’s going on in their heads because so much of what they’re saying and doing, the joke is, “This is not how I actually feel,” which is a very teenage kind of thing.
Craig: So I think Mean Girls has a lot of VO, doesn’t it?
John: It does. It’s one of those things where I feel like in Clueless, she would seem like a sociopath if you didn’t actually have that inside, if you just like had all the shots of her walking around thinking, like, “Wait, what is she thinking? I don’t understand what’s going on inside of her head.” And that ability to have voiceover is like the ability to have a song. You get to know what is driving her at those moments.
And in a weird way, it allows her to keep many more simultaneous wants because you would not be able to keep track of what it was she was trying to do at the moment if you didn’t have that voiceover to sort of talk you through what was happening.
Craig: It’s an incredibly useful tool. It’s so flexible. I was actually talking the other day with a director. He’s currently in post-production on a movie he did. And I won’t say who it is or what the movie is because I don’t want any spoilers.
But the movie has a lot of VO kind of in the Goodfellas style. And he said, “I’m so tempted to never make a movie without VO again because in terms of editorial, it’s the most freeing thing ever.”
Craig: You need to cut a scene because it’s not quite working but there’s that one piece of information there, we got VO [laughs]. It’s throughout the whole movie, not a problem.
John: Well, let’s try to distinguish that kind of Goodfellas VO from the Clueless VO. So the Goodfellas VO, I want to say it’s like the ellipses kind of, like basically it allows you to skip over a bunch of things because it is telling the overall narrative. Is that correct? Is that what you were trying to describe in a Goodfellas VO?
Craig: Yeah. I mean, Goodfellas VO is more of a — one of the characters actually narrating the story as if they’ve already seen the movie —
John: That’s right.
Craig: Or they’re telling the story of their lives. In the case of Mean Girls or Clueless, a lot of times, the VO is an interrupter. It’s like a commentary. Like somebody who’s doing color commentary on their own life.
Craig: But the color commentary version allows you to also do the skip ahead stuff if you need to.
John: Yeah. I would say that the Clueless and Mean Girls VO is very much a present tense VO. It’s describing what’s going on inside as they’re experiencing the scene in front of them. And so they’re having revelations at the moment and you’re seeing the revelation on their face while you’re hearing the voiceover, versus the Goodfellas which is like it’s telling the story as if this has already happened and this is the through-flow of a narrative.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a great way of thinking about it. It’s like in sports, there’s the person who’s commenting on the game as it’s happening. And then there’s the person who does the post-game wrap-up. And, yeah, Goodfellas is more of a post-game wrap-up and Clueless is more of the color commentary as the game is being played.
John: And our experience has been, and I’m sure that I speak for both of us, you have to plan for that in advance. And if you try to put that color commentary or that narrative commentary voiceover on after the fact, it will probably not work.
Craig: It won’t work because first of all, you need space. I mean, you need to be able to shoot in such a way. Like if you know that there’s going to be VO sort of sneaking in, you need to know that as you’re shooting.
John: Yeah. I have not shot any movies where it’s been so crucial. Like Big Fish has a lot of voiceover but in a weird way, there was always time to sort of get that voiceover in. But classically, you will have somebody read that stuff on the set just to make sure you’re allowing enough space. So be it the assistant director or somebody else will read what that voiceover is just to make sure that everyone understands what it is that’s going to fit in that space.
John: In the case of Big Fish, rarely is the character responding to the kinds of things that are being said in the voiceover. But you still want to make sure you have enough handles on those shots to be able to get that voiceover in there.
Craig: Yeah, especially if the voiceover is part of a joke.
Craig: Then somebody really does need to read it because the person on screen needs to react or at least acknowledge with their eyes that this is what they’re thinking. So you do need to prepare. The post facto VO is usually a desperate rescue mission.
John: Yes. And that’s why it gets such a bad rap.
John: Yup. Today on the show, we are going to be talking about non-disclosure agreements which came up because this thing I had to give a presentation on, I had to sign an NDA, so I can’t talk about what I talked about. But we can talk about non-disclosure agreements.
We’re going to answer a bunch of listener questions, including questions about international writers, acronyms in dialogue, and what someone means when they say, “This would make a good writing sample.” Is that a good thing or a bad thing? So those are our new topics but we have so much follow-up.
First off and maybe most importantly, we finally have T-shirts.
John: Yay. So there are four Scriptnotes T-shirts and they are available right now in store.johnaugust.com. They’re all preorders. And so when we say preorder, that means you will purchase a T-shirt and we will print the T-shirt and we will send it to you. But if you purchase the T-shirt today, it will still be three weeks before it gets to you.
So the four T-shirts that are available, first is a classic Scriptnotes T-shirt that has —
John: The typewriter logo. And we had to find a new color we had never done before, so we picked vintage purple. Is that a fair description?
Craig: Okay. Is it? [laughs] I would call it purple.
John: Purple. Yeah, everything has to have some modifier to the actual color —
John: It’s the J.Crew rule where everything has to be a heather something.
Craig: I see. So this could be like a courgette purple.
John: Yeah, a courgette. I mean, an eggplant really is the other sort of good choice for it. But this is the classic typewriter. And so if you have the other collection of Scriptnotes T-shirts, there was a black one with a typewriter, there’s the tour shirt which has sort of a modified typewriter. There was the original orange and there was the blue T-shirt.
John: So this is the new hotness. Our second T-shirt is developed by one of our own listeners. Taino Soba came up with this design. It’s called Three-Act Structure and it is a blueprint of a script.
Craig: Yeah. I like it. It was very minimalist. It was clean. I like that it implied that you could assemble a screenplay like a piece of IKEA furniture.
Craig: I have to say, having assembled quite a bit of IKEA furniture in my life, writing screenplays may be slightly easier.
John: Yes. It might be a little bit more straightforward. You have choices with a screenplay that you really don’t have with IKEA furniture. There are sites, and we’ll try to put a link to it, of like IKEA furniture assembled in ways that are not the way they’re supposed to be assembled. And sometimes they’re brilliant.
It’s sort of like the way you can take a cake mix and modify it in ways and it creates something fantastic. There’s ways you can do that with IKEA furniture.
Craig: You’ve built a lot of IKEA furniture, right?
John: Oh, so much in my life.
Craig: A question for you. Have you ever, in your life, successfully built a piece of IKEA furniture without making one mistake that required you to unscrew something?
John: Never once in my life.
Craig: No, no one has.
John: I’ve always had to backtrack a little bit.
Craig: Everyone has because their instructions are horrendous.
John: Yes. Well, their instructions are designed so that they don’t have to put a lot of words and therefore translate them a lot. But sometimes the pictures cannot actually accurately explain what’s going on.
The one piece of advice that I have for anybody who has to assemble IKEA furniture — actually, when we finish this podcast, we are going to be assembling a new IKEA table that we got as a work table for downstairs.
John: Buy yourself, you know, a cordless drill or a cordless drill driver and get yourself the Allen wrench bit because that will make assembling IKEA furniture about 17 times as fast. If you don’t have to turn that little Allen wrench manually, your life will be so much better.
Craig: Let me go one step further.
John: All right.
Craig: Not only should you have the power drill and a wide variety of bits, by the way, get yourself as many Phillips head, flatheads, hexes, all of them, right?
Craig: Torx. But also, they make an extender. So it’s like a long bit with another receiver at the end so that in those tight to reach spots, you’re not defeated.
Craig: So you get that thing and now you’re golden.
John: So is that extender, is it a hard thing or is it flexible?
Craig: No, no, it’s hard. It’s a hard piece of metal. So it’s got a male on one end and a female on the other. The male goes into your drill end. And it’s magnetized at the receiver end.
John: Oh, nice.
Craig: So the bit just slips in and it goes click. And now you can reach everything.
John: But I foresee there would be a benefit to the flexible version of that. So it’s kind of like a sigmoidoscopy. It can sort of sneak into those places which would be otherwise hard to reach, that otherwise you would have to use that stupid little Allen wrench tool to get in there.
Craig: John, I want you to think through what you’ve said there.
Craig: And I want you to imagine [laughs] the flexible thing turning in the drill. And now tell me what’s wrong with this.
John: You’re saying that the whole thing would whip around and —
John: That they’re not —
John: But I bet someone solved this problem. There’s a way in which the —
Craig: What you’ve created is essentially an edge trimmer. There’s a piece of fishing line that’s —
Craig: That’s what you’ve done. Now, there are universal joint ends that can actually spin and turn in a hard right degree. You can get at a certain angle with the universal joint. But I’ve never seen one made and it would be structurally shaky at best because it wouldn’t really — universal joints are best when both ends are hard fixed to something.
I would love to see you build this —
John: I believe we —
Craig: [laughs] And attempt this because it will be hysterical.
John: We live in an age of carbon fiber and nanotechnology. There’s a way that they’re going to be able to do this.
John: Basically, so the things inside is spinning even though the outside is solid.
Craig: But once you… [sighs].
John: No, I agree with you that the anchor on the outside is going to have to not spin. But I think there’s a way to do that.
Craig: But even inside. I mean, if it’s spinning rotationally in one plane —
John: I fully comprehend the challenge.
Craig: You see what’s happening? [laughs]
John: I do fully. So whenever the cable is inside —
Craig: This is awesome. [laughs]
Craig: I want you to build it. I actually want you to do it and then I want you to turn it on and get hurt and your furniture is everywhere. [laughs] But I —
John: I don’t know if this is a Kickstarter or a suicide pact but —
Craig: It feels good, man.
John: It feels really, really good.
Craig: Feels good.
John: So that is our structure T-shirt. [laughs]
John: And our third T-shirt actually comes in two different colors. This is the Camp Scriptnotes shirt from way back when we were at camp in 1981. And this just really a chance to relive, god, those memories from so long ago and sort of where this all started.
And so I want to thank Dustin Bocks who designed this recreation of the original Camp Scriptnotes logo. God, I just look at it and the feeling of nostalgia I have. And I mean, so many of our listeners were there at the very beginning.
Craig: In so many ways, this podcast is a sad attempt to recapture the glory of a past summer.
John: Yeah. That summer of bug juice and mosquito bites and, you know, those crazy moments where Nora Ephron could talk us off the high rope scores. We’ll never quite be able to get back to those highlights. But, I don’t know, something about wearing the T-shirt from that camp will, I don’t know, at least recreate the experience. And people who weren’t around for that time, it’s a chance to sort of experience a little bit of what that was like.
Craig: Did you ever work at a summer camp, John?
John: I did work at a summer camp. So I was at the Ben Delatour Scout Ranch in Colorado. So that’s where I went to scout camp every summer. And so I was never a counselor there, but I ended up doing a lot of special weeks up there for troop leadership training. I did Order of the Arrow stuff. And so I was essentially an employee because I was back behind the scenes a lot of the times.
Craig: I worked at Ivy League Day Camp.
John: All right.
Craig: This was a terrible misnomer. There’s nothing Ivy League about this day camp. I basically worked as a short order cook in the whatever you call it, the snack shop, you know, that thing.
Craig: And I learned a lot. I learned a lot that summer, just about life and stuff.
John: You were living there and working there?
Craig: No, I wasn’t living there.
Craig: It was near my house. I was 16 years old, I went there. Here are the following things I learned that summer. I learned how to cook hamburgers on a grill. I learned how to make certain sandwiches. I learned how to have sex. I learned about drugs. [laughs]
Craig: I learned about Vietnam from —
John: Yeah, of course.
Craig: From the, this guy had the best name ever, the caretaker. And always, whenever you hear caretaker, you immediately think it’s Jack Nicholson, it’s The Shining. All caretakers are troubled people, I believe, which is why their name is so ironic.
This guy was a Vietnam vet and his name was Bill Cruel. Bill Cruel. But he wasn’t cruel.
Craig: He was cool. He had a tattoo that said “Bill”.
John: Did he smoke?
Craig: Yeah, man. [laughs]
Craig: And he would teach me all sorts of stuff about Vietnam and that was a hell of a summer.
John: That’s great. So you were a townie essentially?
Craig: Oh, yeah.
John: All right.
Craig: Oh, yeah.
John: Townies have the most fun.
Craig: No, no. I mean, listen, man, townies do have the most fun. Well first of all, everybody was a townie there. I know I said Ivy League Day Camp, so you think this must be a destination. No. It was not a destination. It was terrible. But, you know, everybody probably has that summer in their life when the world kind of explodes on them. And that was mine. It was awesome.
John: Amazing. Well, this is our last podcast for the summer. Labor Day is fast approaching.
Craig: Wow. Okay.
John: So it feels appropriate that we’re celebrating the end of summer as we talk through summer camp T-shirts and all these opportunities for new gear to wear as we head into the fall.
So all the T-shirts we have up for sale, they are preorders that have to be in by September 17th. That’s a Thursday. So we will remind you on the next two podcasts. But you should probably not wait because inevitably what will happen is on Friday the 18th, we’ll get a bunch of emails saying, “Hey, hey, hey, I really wanted a T-shirt and I forgot the deadline.” And we’re going to say sorry because once we put the order in, the order is in. So September 17th is the deadline. And I want to thank Taino Soba again for his work on the Three-Act Structure shirt.
Craig: Yes. Thank you.
John: It’s also the end of summer, so therefore, it’s the end of our Featured Fridays in Weekend Read. So Weekend Read is the app I make for iOS for reading screenplays on your phone. Every Friday this summer we’ve been putting up scripts for people to read. We had a bunch of Aline scripts up there. We’ve had different themes. We’ve had pilots. We’ve had Black List scripts. This past weekend we had Dodgeball up there and a bunch of other sports-themed movies.
Craig: Oh, Dodgeball.
John: So this next week will be our last week. If you have a suggestion for what this final theme should be, there’s still some time for us to scrounge up some scripts and put them in there. So we’re wrapping up Featured Fridays because it’s about time for awards seasons stuff and we have to get ready for the awards season scripts to be in there.
But thank you to everybody who wrote in with their suggestions for Featured Friday stuff and said they like the app. And if you would like to see something in this app for the last week of Featured Friday, please let us know.
I should also say, if you are a person who has a script that is going to be one of those awards season contenders, it might be good to email us or just tweet at me so we can get your script in there and get it in there formatted properly.
Or if you are person who works for these studios who puts out those for your consideration scripts, most of the time we can just link to the one that’s on the website and everything is swell and fantastic. But every once in a while, you guys will put up something that is just like crazy and impossible to format and like one email between us would make things so much happier and easier. If you’re a person like an Andrea Berloff who has a script that’s going to be in consideration for those Awards, email us and let us know.
Craig: I don’t think that the Huntsman is going to be out in time for awards season. I’m just — I don’t get it.
John: I don’t know.
Craig: I mean it just feels like a slam dunk, again, by the way, another slam dunk script.
John: Yeah, you’re really just being hurt by timing. I mean I think that is really the reason why you don’t see more Craig Mazin —
Craig: I know.
John: Awards is timing.
Craig: For whatever reason, my films, my oeuvre, doesn’t come out in the November-December months.
John: Well, if we decide to do a Featured Friday again in the future, Craig, can we have the Huntsman as one of those scripts?
John: That would be nice.
John: More follow up. Nick writes, “In a recent episode about last looks, John mentioned going through his script to replace two spaces with one space. I was always led to believe that two spaces is standard. Is one space the standard in screenwriting or is it more of an accepted shortcut to trim some length?”
Craig: One space, one space, one space.
John: It’s now one space. And honestly, it should be one space in everything. So I used to use two spaces. And typewriters used to love two spaces. Everything is now one space. And actually, if you look on the Internet, everything you see on the Internet now is one space because html actually compresses two spaces down to one space. Just go with one space. It will look weird for a day or two and then you’ll get over it and just be one space.
Craig: Just be one space, man. We’re all in one space, bro.
John: It really is. It’s a shared experience. And once you accept that we’re in a shared experience, life is happier.
Craig: There’s no you and me, man. There’s just one space.
John: Yeah. In that one space, there are many different countries. And a lot of our questions and comments this week are from China. First off is Cindy in Beijing who writes, “I’m a loyal listener to your podcast Scriptnotes. And I’m also a screenwriter/creative associate working for a film production company in Beijing, China. I listened to your latest podcast, The International Episode, and I would like to share some thoughts with you. Most of the Chinese market discussion you and Craig had was accurate.”
Craig: That’s all I needed to know. That’s it. We’re good. We’re good.
John: We’re good. Done. End of question.
Craig: Thanks. Thanks, Cindy.
John: “Just a few facts I’d like to clear/discuss with you. Yes, Monster Hunt made history as the highest grossing Chinese film. One reason is that its production value is much better than most other local films. However, another major factor is, ‘Domestic film protection month in China.’ It’s usually around June to July when the summer vacation starts. During this production month, only Chinese movies will be shown in the theaters making audiences choices during these couple of months very limited. It helps lots of Chinese films to perform well in the box office. Imagine Monster Hunt hits theaters with Mission Impossible 5, Terminator 5 at the same time. It will never do this well. However, it also shows how big and how much potential the Chinese market has.”
Craig: Well, we did touch on this, actually, I think, although, I didn’t realize that there was a specific domestic film protection month which turns out to be the biggest movie going month of the year, big shock.
This is part of the issue that we’re dealing with. On the one hand, China, we call China this enormous market. On the other hand, it’s not a market yet. It’s a sort of market. It’s a market when the Chinese government decides it’s a market.
Craig: Because I don’t know about you, but when I go to the market, it’s open all year long. It doesn’t close so that certain protected goods and services can be offered to certain protected audiences. This is a thing. And China has actually been quite successful and smart about this for themselves. Obviously, this doesn’t have a lot of advantage for us. So it will be interesting to see how long this goes like this.
Now, what confuses things is as Chinese finance continues to proliferate in our market, the question then becomes, well, what is a Chinese movie? In the end, I always feel like money wins out. And if very moneyed Chinese interests say, “Hey, I invested a ton — ” I mean, for instance, take Mission Impossible 5.
John: I was going to say.
Craig: It is heavily backed by Chinese money and yet the Chinese government won’t allow it to be shown during primetime. At some point, that will get figured out.
John: Yeah, I agree.
Craig: Should I read this next bit of follow up?
John: Great. This is from my friend, Mike Sue. So why don’t you —
Craig: Oh, it’s from your friend, Mike Sue. All right. Well, here’s what Mike says. He says, “I just listened to the International Episode and it reminded me of how they turned South Park into a hit show back in my homeland, Taiwan.
“The Simpsons had launched there first, but largely landed flat. For South Park, the translators actually watched the episodes on mute five or six times first and crafted their own storylines to match the show. So instead of Kyle being a Jew,” okay, “he was a… — ” this is amazing, “he was a Taiwan aborigine. They throw in Taiwan pop culture references and jokes about Taiwanese politics all while preserving the irreverent and over the top voice of South Park and it caught on like wildfire. For you guys as creators, I’d be curious whether this level of complete rewrites still follows in Craig’s ignorance is bliss camp or whether it gives you guys the willies and in this case, trading off the creative license for commercial success?” Well, what do you think about that?
John: In general, I would say, you know, if I’m not aware of it, I sort of don’t care about it. Where this would become very frustrating is like let’s say, these people in translating this show I’ve made makes some wild, crazy, controversial change that has things in an uproar and suddenly I’m the person dealing with the firestorm over this thing that I didn’t write and I didn’t sign off on is a huge change they’ve made to something.
So if they’re saying, you know, something incredibly inflammatory or racist and it’s perceived that I wrote this thing, that’s the only thing that gives me pause about this.
Craig: That racism wasn’t the racism I wrote, I wrote different racism.
Craig: I think it’s both, honestly, Mike. I think that it is ignorance is bliss and it gives me the willies. But, you know, this is one of those things where as Americans, we can only be so focused on the way the work is presented around the world because we have to ultimately serve the English-speaking audience, that’s who we are. We are ourselves English-speaking audience.
Other people will always be there to help us, make sure that things aren’t completely lost in translation. But in those cases where they are, yeah, I think this one’s probably ignorance is bliss and willies.
John: And one of the aspects of ignorance is that something I may have written in my movie or on my TV show, which plays completely one way in the American market and like in a not offensive way in the American market or like not so offensive that it’s actually sort of, you know, a cause for riot, could be completely offensive to another culture in a way that I don’t intend at all. So having somebody look at it and intervene in some cases may be the good thing because something that I did not intend at all could come about — which could mean a very literal translation of what I wrote.
Craig: Makes sense to me.
John: All right. Our first new topic is NDAs because this thing I did this week, I had to sign an NDA. And I don’t end up signing a lot of NDAs. I mean you and I both had to sign an NDA for this thing we went to see a couple of weeks ago, but I would say, I sign maybe four or five a year.
But I’ve been signing probably more of them each year related to film stuff than I ever have before. So while we can’t talk about specific things we signed NDAs for, I wanted to talk about NDAs in general and whether you’ve been encountering them, Craig.
Craig: I have, rarely. I’m always surprised when they’re not there. I mean I know that for some of the stuff I did with Todd Philips, we had NDAs. I didn’t sign any NDAs, but I was writing the damn thing. I mean other people had to sign NDAs. I’m surprised, honestly, that they aren’t more widespread.
It may be that they’re just not as enforceable as people hoped them to be. Perhaps, we just don’t have that culture. I mean I don’t know exactly how that actually works in the real world. You know, I mean it’s one thing — I mean we all sign things when we download software and none of us read it. It is the, I guess — what do they call it, a contract of adhesion?
Craig: I would — I mean if I were running a company, I’d make everybody sign an NDA every four minutes.
John: Yeah. So these terms get conflated and again, this is not a legal show, so we can’t suss out exactly what the boundaries and definitions are, but there’s non-disclosure agreements and there’s non-compete agreements. And non-compete agreements you hear a lot about because it basically says like you can’t work for any of our competitors after a certain period of time. Those things I’ve seen challenged a lot in state law and sometimes in federal law about being, you know, restraint of trade, restraint of ability to like move from one job to another job. And I’m not seeing those things yet.
But what I am seeing our NDAs, particularly if I go in on an animation project, I’m quite frequently having to sign some documents saying like, “You’re going to see some stuff, we’re going to talk about some stuff and you can’t talk about what we’re talking about.” I was thinking about why animation has that more often than live action.
And I think it’s because animation works a little bit more like software development. You have these small teams of people who are working in private on a very long time scale to do one specific project. And they need kind of the freedom to mess up and make mistakes and completely, you know, change course in what they’re doing. And without that, if information about what they were working on got out, it could be completely the wrong information very early on. It could make it seem like the movie is about this thing when actually they just end of scrapping that main character and sub out a whole different thing.
Whereas, a live action movie, by the time you are shooting your movie, that’s kind of the movie you’re making.
Craig: That’s possible. I wonder also if this is something that was driven by Pixar. I mean Silicon Valley is NDA obsessed. Pixar is in Silicon Valley basically. It started as a software company. Maybe, it just became a cultural thing once the biggest started doing it, everybody started doing it.
John: What I have heard, anecdotally, and this is again, I put up a question on Twitter and people wrote back saying, “I work in visual effects and we’re signing NDAs all the time.” And so again, you know, visual effects kind of comes from that software background and maybe that culture is just more naturally going to happen there. These visual effects companies may be doing previews on a movie and so like they’re sort of making the prototype of the movie and so therefore, that’s a very — it’s coming at a very delicate stage.
Or they’re working on the final version of a movie and they want to make sure that not only does no frames of that movie leak out, but also no information about what actually happens, no spoilers leak out about what actually happens in the movie.
John: So if you’re making Star Wars, well, of course, I bet everybody on there has a thousand NDAs — Craig: Yeah.
John: They’re like little laser dots sort of tracking through. And if you see one on your forehead, you know it’s over.
Craig: Yeah, I mean actually the apparatus to secure ties development is not in and of itself inexpensive. So on huge movies like Star Wars where there’s an enormous desire for information and also an enormous budget, they’re going to be extraordinarily secure. On a small movie where no one’s paying attention, maybe it’s not as important to spend all the money. Even if the script for it should somehow leak online, it’s not a problem because there’s not a voracious demand that’s going to ruin the mass market experience.
John: The other thing I have encountered is that certain people who are very high profile where there’s actually monetization and value in people finding out secrets about them, if you are entering their house, if you are working for them, if you are their gardener, you’ll probably be signing an NDA or some other sort of confidentially agreement.
John: And I’ve encountered this with like people who just like they’re remodeling their house and anyone who walks in the house has to sign this agreement. And whether that’s enforceable or not, I don’t know, but I think it’s meant to be just a, by the way, don’t be a jerk, this is what’s going on here.
Craig: You didn’t see any cocaine.
John: Not a bit. I’ve never seen any cocaine.
John: In certain celebrity’s house.
Craig: Yeah, she was 18, right?
John: Right. Yes. Let’s get to our questions. Justin in Beijing writes, “How does the WGA deal with their writers working overseas? Let’s say a Chinese company wants to hire Craig to write a script.” Craig, congratulations.
John: “Does the WGA get grumpy because that company is not a signatory? Is Craig on his own for salary, credit residuals and everything else?” There’s a second part, but let’s answer this first part first. So Craig, congratulations on your job, the Chinese company wants to hire you.
Craig: Yay, yay. The deal is that the WGA is a labor union. All the power and authority that the labor union has is backed up by federal labor law here in the United States. What that means is that the WGA has absolutely no jurisdiction or authority anywhere else other than in the United States.
So what the WGA can do to me is say, “If you are working on a work area we cover like writing a feature film and you are in the United States working on it, then you have to do it through us, through a WGA contract.” What they can’t do is say, “Oh, are you working in China?” No, they literally can do nothing. Are they grumpy about that? A little bit. They only get grumpy if they feel like people are gaming the system.
Like for instance right now I’m writing a movie for Working Title. Working Title is a British company. Well, if Working Title said, “Oh, and by the way, would you mind just hopping on a plane and writing this in an apartment in London and then going home because this way we can get around the WGA?” That makes them grumpy. And people have tried that, but by and by, no.
So legitimate companies like Working Title would never do that. But if you are working overseas in China, no, you’re not signatory and I am in fact on my own for salary, credit, residuals [laughs], if I get them, and everything else.
John: So I’ve heard discussion with actors and with I think they call it like SAG Global Rule One or something where screen actors were feeling like they’re being pressured to sign international contracts so that they wouldn’t enforceable by SAG. But I didn’t really dig into it enough to understand what the beef is. Is that something that we need to be thinking about as writers as well?
Craig: Not really. There’s a ton of production going on all over the world. Most writing takes place domestically. So, you know, if Todd and I write a movie and we’re going to go make it in Thailand, we’re still writing it in Los Angeles. And even then, because we’re usually one budget item and people want a certain actor in a certain way — I’m sorry, a certain writer in a certain way and it’s one writer that they’re getting, even if we were writing overseas, very often the company will say, “Oh, you know, look, yes, they are going to be writing in London.”
Let’s say Star Wars, for instance. You know, oh, you’re going to be in London doing a lot of writing but it’s fine. You’re being hired by the American company, it’s a WGA deal. With casts, really what the — was it Global Rule One?
Craig: It’s about everybody else. It’s not about the big movie stars. It’s about the, you know, 10 other people that are being hired and told, “Okay, and you got to get down to Mexico and shoot there and also, we’re not doing it SAG,” because casts can be enormous.
SAG has a ton of problems that are unique to their situation. For us, by and large, this isn’t a big deal. Frankly, we have a bigger problem with the fact that we don’t have feature animation covered in this country. Much bigger problem than this particular issue. But Justin asked the reverse question.
John: So what happens if Sony wants to hire a Chinese writer to adapt a project? Do they hire them directly or through a local company? And if they do, would the WGA become involved for things like credit?
Craig: That depends. If Sony wants to hire a Chinese writer and they’re okay with the Chinese writer working in China, they can go ahead and hire that writer through one of their non-union subsidiaries. It’s not like Disney or Universal is a WGA signatory. They have these kind of sub-companies that are WGA signatories, precisely so that they can hire writers who are and are not WGA dependent.
Now, practically speaking, if the movie is going to be a Chinese production, this is no big deal. They hire a Chinese writer. She’s in China. She works on the movie there. They shoot the movie there. If they need to rewrite her, they bring in another writer and he rewrites her and he is Chinese, and it’s all there and it’s all non-WGA.
John: And so they figure out credit however they want to figure out credit.
Craig: However they want to figure it out. But let’s say they just happen to love this Chinese writer because she’s written some amazing stuff and they want her to work on some big movie starring Angelina Jolie. So she’s in China and she’s going to do this first draft. And Sony thinks they’re smart and goes, “Oh, we’ll do it non-union.”
Well, the problem is that eventually Angelina comes along and says, “You know, I really want John August to do that Angelina polish he’s so famous for.” Well, they can’t hire you through the non-union company. So now the project is WGA again. So I suspect that the way the companies work these things is if they think they’re going to want to hire WGA writers for it, they just start it as a WGA gig.
John: Yeah. So in this situation described where I come in to rewrite the Angelina Jolie movie, and by the way, I’m happy to, that original writer’s script, you know, for credit purposes, it could get complicated because it could be — is that it would be like based on a screenplay by the Chinese writer or is it just she gets pulled into the WGA and she just becomes the first writer on the project? What would happen?
Craig: In the case where somebody starts non-union and then they turn to you and turn it into a union gig, her script becomes source material. She does in fact get a based on a screenplay by credit. That doesn’t come with residuals or separated rights and she won’t be considered a participating writer for the purposes of the WGA credit arbitration.
So it’s a raw deal. And it causes problems along the way. I mean, again, I do think that the companies spend less time trying to game this system than we think. I think they look ahead and they say, “Well, if we are going to end up doing this the normal way, let’s just start it the normal way.”
John: Yeah, save some headaches.
John: All right, next question. Chad writes, “I have a question about money. How do you get paid for a story credit? How much for an uncredited rewrite?” I like to mix in a question that is just sort of like, you know, completely basic. And so this is one of those completely basic questions that Chad wrote in.
Craig: It’s so basic.
Craig: Well, Chad, first, story credit, screenplay credit, those aren’t salaried items. So we get paid to write. True, we also often negotiate bonuses should we get credit, but the credit is ultimately determined by the WGA. So we get paid a bunch of money, hopefully it’s a lot. And then the WGA decides who gets credit and who doesn’t, which means depending on what your bonuses are like, you might get paid a big bonus for getting story credit. You might get paid nothing for getting your story credit. So just be aware of that.
When you say how much for an uncredited rewrite? Well, that’s essentially what your salary is, right? So the salary is for the writing. The basic structure is we get paid a certain amount of guaranteed money to write. Then there are optional payments that they can make if they choose to keep us for another step of writing. And then after that, there’s bonuses that we may or may not get depending on how we negotiate because they’re not guaranteed by the union. And those bonuses are for sole screenplay credit or typically, they’re for sole screenplay credit or shared screenplay credit. They are almost never for story credit.
John: Yeah. Just to underline what Craig said is we get paid to write. And so the time that we are being paid to write, we don’t know if we’re going to be credited on this movie or not. So there’s no difference in salary between a credited rewrite and uncredited rewrite because the time we’re writing the scripts, we’re just getting paid either a flat fee for doing a draft or we’re getting paid a weekly fee for the work we’re doing on the script that week.
And so that weekly fee can vary hugely, as could the fee you’re getting for a draft. That fee you’re getting for a draft is going to be no smaller than the Guild minimums, so, you know, a fair amount of money. But it’s not any different based on whether it’s supposed to be a credited rewrite or an uncredited rewrite. That’s not a thing that exists at the point that you’re being hired.
John: You want to take the next one?
Craig: Sure. Derek writes, “Following up on your one-handed movie heroes episode, I teach literature to high school students. One of my favorite things about literature of all types is its ability to reflect truth and life experience. Movies have always been my favorite form of literature and I had never considered before your conversation that film characters have motivations that are less complex than real life human beings. I find that notion disappointing, even troubling. Does that mean that film characters tend to be less complex than characters in books?”
John: So this was the topic that I brought up. And I would push back and say that I don’t know that movie characters are less complex. But I will say that it’s harder to expose that complexity in a movie than it would be in a book.
It’s that because we only have experience of a character through what we can see and what we can hear, it’s harder to do the deep forensic work inside a character to expose to the audience what is going on inside his or her head. To the degree there’s less complexity, there is less opportunity to explore that complexity because of the nature of the medium.
Craig: Yeah. I think that I would say that all characters, characters in books, characters in any kind of drama whatsoever are ultimately less complicated than real life human beings because they are purposeful. Most people, in a snapshot of their day, aren’t purposeful. Most people, sadly, when you look at their entire lives, are not purposeful. They existed, did things, moved in erratic, non-productive circles like Eddies in time and then died.
And you could remove them from existence and probably things wouldn’t be that much different. The point of dramatic characters is that you cannot remove them because they are part of a narrative that is purposeful. It’s interesting, I think that Derek is intending the world complex to be complimentary.
But in drama sometimes, actual complexity is boring. What’s more interesting is resolvable complexity or a dialectical complexity where somebody is occupying two interesting sides of a debate. We call that complex. Sometimes I see a movie and it does appear that the movie is trying to simulate the everyday numbing, pointless complexity of real life. And those movies make me sleepy.
John: Yeah. I think he is trying to create antonyms between complex and simple. And I would say that the better antonym is complex and focused. And I would say characters in literature are focused, and characters in movies are even more focused generally than characters in books.
In all literature, you are editing down the experience of a lived life to focus on the things that are important to your story. And so literature is, by its definition, going to be less chaotic and complex than real life but that’s sort of the point. You want to be able to expose certain things through editing away the stuff that is not part of the story you’re telling.
Craig: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I think that’s a very good way of putting it.
John: John in Roswell, New Mexico writes, “In dialogue, if a character pronounces an acronym as its own word rather than a string of individually spoken letters, how would you do that on the page without it being confusing in any way for the reader? To give an example of this, there’s a military institute in my town. The acronym of its full name is NMMI. In conversation, people routinely refer to it as NIMMY, turn the acronym into its own word. How would you do that in dialogue?”
Craig: Well, a couple of ways. Ideally, you’re going to introduce the NMMI establishment before someone says the word. So in action description, you say EXT.NMMI.DAY, this military institute blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. The locals pronounce it NIMMY. And you just tag that in your actions so that from then on, you can write NMMI or just NIMMY, whichever you prefer.
My guess is I probably want the dialogue to say N-I-M-M-Y, NIMMY, just so people don’t have to constantly be like, “Oh, right, that thing where I’m supposed to pronounce it this way but it’s spelled this way.”
Craig: If that does not occur, then I think probably what I would do is on the first mention, I would have somebody say, “Oh, yeah, he’s been working at NIMMY for five years. I would write that as N-M-M-I for five years. And then if they continue on, I’d put this parenthetically or then I’d add afterwards “The locals pronounce N-M-M-I NIMMY” in quotes and then everybody after would be N-I-M-M-Y.
John: Yeah. I would probably do something similar to that. I would also consider changing the name because I always think about it from the audience’s perspective. And it’s like, “Are they going to get confused about what it is we’re talking about?” And NIMMY sounds kind of silly. And so, you know, unless I could see the sign and someone says, “NIMMY,” then I would get what it is. But I might honestly just pick a different name for what that is just to sort of get past that confusion.
John: What Craig is talking about also with the spelling things out is part of the reason why we tend to always spell out numbers in dialogue because sometimes there are multiple ways someone could say that number and they probably want exactly one way. So if you have the number 212, well, do you mean 212 like a phone number or do you mean two hundred and twelve or two-twelve? Just spell out the words so you can get the actual line of dialogue that you want.
Craig: Yeah. This brings to mind another way that you can solve this problem is by having someone casually say NIMMY, N-I-M-M-Y, and then someone say, “What’s NIMMY? Oh, NMMI. It’s the military institute.” I hate that personally, but.
John: Yeah, but you see that in procedural shows a lot.
Craig: By the way, I generally don’t like this sort of thing. I find it cutesy. I find it like I’m sure the people in your town do call it NIMMY but it feels like false cruelness somehow. I don’t know, it just seems weird. Like if you’re going to have a military institute, have the military institute. You know, call it the institute. I don’t know. I don’t like NIMMY.
John: Yeah. But Craig also pronounces all the words in SCUBA because he doesn’t like that abbreviation.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. Lowell in New Hampshire writes [laughs] — come on, I get a little credit for pulling that — “I have gotten advice recently that my spec would serve as a great writing sample. But I am not sure what that means. That is to say, what do I do next? Also somewhat related, I heard once that it’s a good idea to write a spec for a TV show that’s off the air as a writing sample.” He likes i.e., “That is, you want a staff job on the new sci-fi you heard something about and so you write a spec on Star Trek: The Next Generation. If that’s true, it’s not clear to me what you might do with it.”
John: All right, let’s clear up some things really quickly here. If someone says something would make a great writing sample, that can be a backhanded compliment, kind of saying like, “No one’s ever going to make this as a movie but maybe it’s a writing sample.” But it could also mean like, “Yeah, that’s a good writing sample. It shows good writing.”
So don’t necessarily take that as an insult that someone says it’s a great writing example. It just means that if someone were to read this and might say like, “Oh, this guy could write. I’d be curious to see in writing something that I would actually want to make.”
In terms of specking a TV show, you are listening to some old advice. And so most of the TV showrunners I’ve talked to recently, they do not want to read an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation unless it was some brilliant meta-conceit of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that would get them fascinated. So, like if you wrote an episode of Bonanza where they encounter a UFO, that might actually be kind of great and fascinating, but they’re probably not looking for a show that’s off the air.
And honestly, back when people were still reading spec episodes of existing shows, they were looking for the shows that were the new hot show. And so, you’d be writing a spec episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. You wouldn’t be writing an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Most TV showrunners I have talked to would rather read original scripts, though. They want to see what you can do that’s your own thing, rather than aping someone else’s voice.
Craig: Yeah, no question, whatsoever. It’s part of the evolution of television. It’s less of a factory now. There are fewer shows and they exercise more care, I think. So they do want original voices. Also, the reduction of feature films means a lot of former feature writers are now in television. I think a lot of television showrunners started reading feature scripts and going, “Wow. This person is a really good writer.” And then getting rewarded for it when they put them on the show. So —
So yeah, this thing of writing some show that’s either — some other show that’s on the air or god forbid you write a Star Trek: The Next Generation is — that’s like going outside in I don’t know whatever the fashion of the ’20s was. No, that’s probably hip now. Whatever the fashion of 15 years ago is like, what’s the worst? Anyway, you get the point.
John: We get the point. Trudy writes, “How do you do research? Is there a process for this? And do studios allow for research time when they hire a writer? Are writers compensated for that time? I’m really just curious about the process of writing a screenplay where a lot of due diligence is required to make something that is representative and accurate.”
Craig: Good question. I am currently working on a pilot for HBO that is very research intensive because it’s based on a thing that happened. And do I have a process for this? Yes. It’s the research process. So, remember research methods and how to research things in high school and college? It’s that. It’s research. You start looking things up. I mean, it’s easier now than ever before but you, hopefully, are getting your combination of primary sources, which are people describing things that they personally experienced, secondary sources where people are talking to people who primarily experienced it. You’re getting various view points and perspectives. And you’re getting your facts straight. And you’re being as accurate as you can. It’s just research. Are we compensated for that time? Not specifically. No. We’re paid to write. That’s our job. If we need to research stuff to write, that’s on us. That’s part of our writing process and it’s folded into the cost of us writing for them.
There are times, however, where if necessary, the studio may be willing to fund a research trip.
Craig: And that’s something that you have to convince them is necessary. When they hear research trips, sometimes they get excited and sometimes they think, boondoggle. Or if you’re writing your movie about — what was that movie? Couples Retreat, where the couples all went to Bora Bora for marriage therapy. Well, if that’s your research trip, smells a little boondoggly. But if you need to research, I don’t know, the slums of East Berlin, sure. I can see that, yeah.
John: So two examples of research trips from my experience. So first was a project I was writing for Paramount a zillion years ago. And it was set in New York City and it’s set like at the Dalton private school and sort or that kind of world. And I really — I’d never been to New York. And so, I needed to go there and do some basic research. And Paramount said, no. It’s like it’s New York, just write New York. And so, Gale Anne Hurd who was my producer, she used her personal miles to fly me to New York. I ended up staying at Doug Liman’s apartment. And it was a great research trip. And so that was the case where the producer stepped up and got me on that trip.
More recently, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is set in a very specific place and I needed to go to that place and do some research there. And I just flew myself there and I put myself up. And there was never going to be a question that I was going to try bill the studio for that because partly they’re paying me enough money, but also, it was a kind of arbitrary choice I was making for why I wanted to have it here. So I needed to defend that choice.
What I do in those research trips I find is you are looking for the geography. You’re looking for specific details, but also, I was looking for people. And so —
John: I was looking to try to meet those people, hear the vocabulary they were using and getting a lot of great contacts so I could have people who I can text at like, you know, seven at night and say like what would be the word for this thing? And they can text me back with what that is. That is really the value of research. And that’s the kind of thing that if I had — I had Stuart do it, it wouldn’t —
Craig: It would be terrible.
John: It would be terrible if Stuart did it.
Craig: Once again, if you had Stuart do it, it would be a disaster.
John: Because the thing is, I don’t know what I’m looking for. I’m just listening and like, ah.
Craig: I thought it was just because Stuart is doing it.
John: No, no. I mean, I — even like a really good Stuart, it wouldn’t work the same way.
Craig: [laughs] I don’t even know what that would be like.
John: [laughs] Yes, we could imagine, though. We’re screenwriters. You can imagine anything.
Craig: It’s crazy. Patrick in San Dimas writes — I love Stuart. “I heard Craig warn a Three-Page Challenger that he was pitched a Time Bandit movie and he was unsure if he was going to do it. At this stage of your career, do you both get pitched specs scripts or ideas by different studios to write? Or are these things your agents have found for you?”
John: Great. So, we need to take the word spec script out of there because that actually doesn’t make sense there. So —
John: A spec script is something that Craig and I would write independently. But we are pitched ideas by studios, by producers. They say like, “Hey, we want to make a movie based on this thing or about this idea.” And sometimes they’ll approach me directly if I have a relationship, but more likely they will call my agent David Kramer and David Kramer will call and say like, “Hey, they want to do this thing.” And I’ll think like, “Do I want to do that thing?” And about half of the time, I’ll say, “No, that’s just not a world I’m interested in.” Or I’ll say like, “I don’t know what that is, but I’ll look it up.” And then, I will pass on it a few days later.
But sometimes, it’s a really great idea. And then I go in for the meeting and that becomes a thing. So that was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which I was like, “Yeah. You know what, I kind of know what that is, let me look into it.” And then I hop on the phone and that happens.
So I would say at this point of my career, a significant majority of the stuff I end up being paid to write is that kind of thing, where someone has pitched me, this is either a project we own, it’s a book we want to adapt or it’s this — a story world we want someone to approach.
Craig: Yeah, it’s basically the way it goes. I mean, I — seems like it’s half and half for me, in terms of whether somebody has something that they give to my agent or they just call — I don’t know. I must be the most accessible guy because people are calling me all the time. Or sending me emails all the time saying, “What about this? What about this?” And I always think like, you know, it would be better if everything did go through an agent because one of the benefits of an agent is that you don’t have to have that awkward conversation.
Craig: You know. I mean, look, sometimes, somebody pitches you something and you just know within four seconds, you just don’t want do it. Or you can’t do it. And you find yourself, you know, I don’t like saying no at all.
Craig: I mean, there’s a part of me that wants to do everything anyway. And just because, why not? Let’s see, you know. But you can’t.
Craig: But yes, at this stage of our careers, we get pitched stuff all the time to rewrite or to write. And it’s very flattering. And it is — it’s funny. It just sort of happens at some point, you know. You spend of a lot of time, many years, waiting for it to happen in the way you imagined it happening. And then it happens. And soon enough, it will un-happen and then you quit.
John: Yes, exactly, when they stop calling you about that, you know, would you want to make remake of this? And you’re like, “Well, of course not.” And then like, “Wait. Why aren’t you calling me about that anymore?”
John: I think that’s one of those fascinating things. When we get off the air, I’m going to ask you whether you got a call about a remake of a specific TV show.
John: And I will judge my worth and your worth, based on which of us got the call first.
Craig: [laughs] Okay. Sounds good. I’m excited. What do we have next?
John: Kathel in Dublin writes —
John: “I am wondering whether to set my next screenplay in the 1970s or modern day. It’s a buddy/fish out of water comedy. And while the time period won’t change the concept or story, it will impact how I write some scenes.”
Craig: Will it? Will setting it in the modern day or the 1970s impact [laughs] how you write some scenes? Will it? Huh? This is a very strange question.
John: I think it’s actually really easy question to answer.
Craig: Well, I mean, it is an easy question, which is — you better — you need to set it in the 1970s or in modern day. It belongs somewhere. It wants to be in a time. It has to be specific. You just can’t go, “No, it could be 70s.” I just feel like, well, why answer your question, I’m wondering whether to set my next screenplay in the 1970s, or ’80s, or ’90s or modern day, or ’40s, or ’50s or the middle ages. Why the 70s?
John: What I find so fascinating is like my idea is so unformed that I’m emailing you but I don’t even kind of know the basic nature of this idea. Because it can’t be. The same idea really couldn’t be in both places. Like if the email had come in saying like, “I have this whole approach, which I’m really excited about, like the 1970s of it all. And yet, I’m worried that it’s going to be so locked down in ’70s. I could also do it in this way, which obviously changes a lot of things. I’m really torn. Or if the question was how much more difficult am I making my life by setting this in the ’70s versus the modern day? That email, I kind of get, but to have it be so unformed is fascinating to me, so —
Craig: it’s bizarre. Look, the time period is one of the fundamental elements of your story. For instance, John and I recently watched Diary of a Teenage Girl, last podcast episode.
John: We did a podcast about it. Yes, yes.
Craig: We interviewed Mari Heller, the great Mari Heller. Now, that needed to be in the ’70s. I felt it. Because I didn’t think — I don’t think I would have believed a lot of what happened there had it happened now.
Craig: It felt like it needed to be a product of a time that was both sexually adventurous and also sexually naïve. It needed both. It needed to be before AIDS for instance.
Craig: And it needed to be before the kind of morality panic of the ’80s. You need to have this movie now or in the ’70s? Need to. You just don’t know which, because I don’t think you’ve thought this through well enough.
John: So if the question from Kathel in Dublin had been, “Given your druthers, should a movie be set in the 1970s or modern day?” I would say, in general, modern day. Because I think the things you are making your life more difficult about by setting it in the 1970s are substantial. And sometimes, a movie really wants to be set in ’70s. But if it doesn’t really want to be set in the ’70s, then set it in modern day.
Craig: Yeah. I think that that modern day is the default.
Craig: So you need to want it to be period for a reason. All right.
John: Pick good defaults.
Craig: Pick good defaults. Harris from Brooklyn writes — hey, Brooklyn, what’s up? “I have made two short films so far that I’ve written and directed. I’m interested in doing both of those things, writing and directing. The thing is, I don’t know if I should focus on writing my full length screenplay or write and actually make my short films.”
John: So Harris in Brooklyn, you’ve already made two short films. That’s good. We encourage people to write things and direct things, so they actually understand what the process of writing and directing things consists of. If you have not yet written a feature length screenplay, you should probably write a feature length screenplay just so you know what that is and what that whole experience and process is. Because you could make 17 short films, after film number eight, I don’t think that’s going to help you write a full feature length screenplay or get a movie made. That’s just my first instinct.
Craig: It’s sort of an unanswerable question. I don’t know if you should focus on writing your full length screenplay or continuing to write and make your short films because I don’t know what your — I don’t know what you’re good at.
John: Does this guy want to be a music video director? Then he should make more short films. Does he want to be feature screenwriter? He should probably write a screenplay.
Craig: Yeah, if you want to make feature films, you better start getting into feature films, sure. But, you know, you — I’m sure are aware, Harris, that it’s one thing to write a short film script and then go shoot it because it’s manageable. It’s another to go shoot a feature length screenplay. You have experience now, so it is possible for you to write a feature length screenplay that is shootable. I would write so that you can make it, because ultimately, there is no better currency than a film. It’s better currency than a script.
John: I agree. Our last question comes from Jay. “I’m always fascinated with going to Wikipedia and finding out what the budget for a movie was against how much it grossed. But then I heard somewhere, maybe on your podcast, that movies have to gross at least double the budget of their movie to break even. But what exactly does that mean? In terms of screenwriters, producers, et cetera, do they get piece of the backend? Or is that just the studio behind the film? I’m basically curious of the entire process of how everyone involved [laughs] in the movie makes money?”
John: So I just figured it would be a good last question to throw in here.
Craig: So first, there was an enormous explosion in space. And stars were formed. Then, it’s the — okay. So there’s a lot here. We can’t answer it all at once. I think we’ve actually answered a lot of this before. But let me just go through it quickly.
You’re fascinated with going to Wikipedia and finding out what the budget for a movie was against how much it grossed. Well, maybe, be a little less fascinated with that. It’s just so — who cares? Okay. But —
John: You don’t know that the budget that Wikipedia lists is at all accurate.
Craig: Yes, it’s not. I guarantee you, it’s not. No budget ever is accurate. I believe that. No budget that is ever published anywhere is accurate. The budget that they show us, that when we’re making the movie, I don’t believe is accurate. [laughs] So all those numbers are baloney, okay? So just know that.
Two, against how much it grossed. Theatrically or grossed theatrically, plus DVD, plus rentals, plus Internet. What does gross even mean? Okay? So there’s that.
You heard somewhere, maybe on our podcast, the movies have to gross at least double the budget of the movie to break even. There’s a rule of thumb. That if you can gross double your budget theatrically, then eventually you’ll be okay. Why double? Because the movie costs money, but then the advertising of a movie costs almost as much — sometimes more money than the movie costs. A lot of times, more money than the movies costs. Then, they have to distribute the movie which costs money as well.
And remember, advertising isn’t just in the United States, it’s everywhere all over the world. And then, all the overhead that goes into play as well, all the salaries of the many, many people that work at the studio in marketing, in distribution and development, all the rest.
And there’s things like taxes, right?
Craig: And of course, the money that was reported as the theatrical gross, that doesn’t all go to the studio. The theaters take a big cut of that as well. Now, you ask, in terms of screenwriters, producers, do they get a piece of backend or is that just the studio behind the film? Screenwriters do not get backend. If a screenwriter is working as a producer or director on the film, then optionally, they may be able to get a real backend. But screenwriters just doing the screenwriting job, no, they don’t get real backend.
Producers almost exclusively get backend, meaning they don’t get paid much for developing the project. They often have fees for making the movie. And then those fees are applied against a backend, so it’s recoupable against a backend. And then if it goes over that amount, then they get more.
So, yes, big movie stars, big producers, big directors can get a piece of the backend. Their salaries are applied against it.
John: We can stop there.
Craig: Yeah. I think that that’s good.
John: That’s good. It’s a good introduction to this. But I will say there are previous episodes, we’ll try to put links to some of those previous episodes, where we talk about sort of how money works in the business. But it’s a topic for a book, not a topic for the last question of the show.
John: Let’s do our One Cool Things. Craig, I see something called Dead Synchronicity. What’s that?
Craig: Dead Synchronicity is a game that is out for Mac, PC and iOS and possibly, possibly Android, although who cares about Android? And I liked it. I liked it a lot. I played it. I thought it was really, really good. It’s an interesting game. It comes from a company in Spain. I think three Spanish brothers actually are the principals of the company.
And it’s not revolutionary game play. It’s basically a point and click puzzle adventure. I love these point and click adventures where the game structure basically is find things and figure out where to use them. Very old school way of doing things.
What made this game interesting for me was that it was incredibly dark. It’s got a lot of sci-fi mumbo jumbo. The sci-fi story, in and of itself, is bordering on incoherent. It promises a sequel, which I’ll play. But what blew my mind about the game was one moment [laughs], one moment in particular, where I thought, “I can’t believe the balls on these guys — “
Craig: “For putting this in a game.” It is gross, and disturbing, and awesome. And there were a lot of gross, disturbing, and awesome things in it. But there was one moment where I went, “Wow, this is getting sick.” And you just don’t see that very often juxtaposed with the point and click graphic adventure. So I really enjoyed it. It is dark and disturbing, so trigger warning.
John: Okay. My One Cool Thing is Mr. Robot, which is a show on USA. It’s a summer series that I heard people talking about and then I didn’t start watching and it’s like, “You know what, I’ll start watching it.” It is fantastic. And so I would strongly recommend that really everybody listening to this podcast at least watch the pilot episode because I thought it was just terrifically written by the guy Sam Esmail who I’ve never encountered before.
The pilot is terrifically directed. This guy, creator of the show, also directed the second episode. It was just terrifically done as well. The conceit of the show is you have a guy who is a computer security technology expert who is definitely on one of Craig’s spectrums.
John: He is an incredibly dark central character to try to follow and yet he’s fascinating. And so at the top of the show, we were talking about Clueless and how Cher might seem like a sociopath if you didn’t have her voiceover. Same situation with this guy. He has voiceover and yet the conceit behind his voiceover is he’s talking to a person he knows is an imaginary person, and that is you.
And so he will address you directly through his voiceover. And it ends up becoming incredibly important and helpful to the show. It’s all entirely from his point of view and to the degree to which things within the world have bent to sort of his point of view. And so the villainess corporation has a giant E. He calls it Evil Corp and then from that point forward, every time you see it and everyone who refers to it calls it Evil Corp, which I think is just great.
It’s such a great example of how a strong central character can drive not just the plot but really the world of a show. So I strongly recommend Mr. Robot on USA.
John: Okay. You will find links to most of the things we talked about on the show today at the show page at johnaugust.com/scriptnotes or /podcast, both will get you there. Also, while on johnaugust.com, you should go visit the store, store.johnaugust.com where you can see the four Scriptnotes T-shirts and pick your favorite. Pick a couple if you want to.
Again, these are all preorders. You only have about two-and-a-half weeks to order these shirts. Then we will print them, we will package them up, we will send them to your house. They will be on your body in time for the Austin Film Festival if nothing goes horribly wrong. And I don’t think anything will go horribly wrong.
John: Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel.
John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Thank you, Matthew. Our outro this week comes from Duncan Pflaster. If you have an outro for our show, you can write in to us at email@example.com with a link to your outro. That same address is a great place to write questions like the ones we answered today. And so firstname.lastname@example.org. Little short things are great on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin, I am @johnaugust. And that is our show this week.
Craig: Thanks, John.
John: See you next week.
- Scriptnotes shirts are available for pre-order in the John August Store
- Dewalt hex bit set and a magnetic bit extensions set
- This is the last week of the summer for Featured Fridays on Weekend Read
- Scriptnotes, 130: Period space
- South Park popularity is soaring in Taiwan from The Baltimore Sun
- Non-disclosure agreements on Wikipedia
- Screenwriting.io on handling numbers in dialogue
- Screenwriting.io on spec scripts
- Scriptnotes, 11: How movie money works
- Dead Synchronicity
- Mr. Robot on USA
- Outro by Duncan Pflaster (send us yours!)