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 217 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re going to talk about the results of the WGA election and what that means for screenwriters, and we promise, promise, promise to answer several questions that keep falling off the end of the episodes. We keep running out of time. And today we will not run out of time.
John: But, Craig, last time I spoke with you on this podcast, you were starting to feel sick and I want to know how you are feeling right now.
Craig: So much better. And somehow this time I managed to duck this thing that always happens where I’ll get a virus, you know, standard cold, and then it will go into my chest and then turn into bronchitis. It just didn’t happen this time.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, well, look, I don’t like taking antibiotics. Nobody does. So, yeah, I’m feeling much better. On top of the world, almost. Exuberant to the point of mania.
John: Uh-oh. So this is a rebound kind of thing that’s happening and we should all be really worried.
Craig: You should be particularly worried because tonight I’m going to be DMing our latest session of Dungeons & Dragons.
John: Yes. So we are going to be exploring the horde of the dragon queen. And when Craig is feeling too good, it is bad for us because that means he may go for the total party kill.
Craig: Total. Party. Kill. TPK. TPK.
John: So it’s interesting that you’re feeling better, and this small sidebar on the antibiotic discussion, because I have the cold also. You had a worst cold than I did, but it did go into my chest. And so I have the thing where I am coughing up every once and awhile. So I went to see my general physician and he said, okay, I will give you a prescription for the Z-Pack, but I do not want you to take it unless it persists for quite a long time. Because he does not want me, even though it may actually help the situation, he feels like it is bad overall societally for people to be taking antibiotics for such things.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I try and hold off every time. And so this time, for instance, I didn’t call. I just waited and it worked out. When it happens to me and it goes into my chest, it just gets worse and worse and worse. I get that achy feeling. And then I start coughing up nasty gray stuff. And it’s just over at that point. I’ve lost.
And I have to say, luckily for me, the Z-Pack works every time brilliantly. But, yes, we are all rolling the dice, aren’t we?
Craig: Playing the fool’s game.
John: Yes, you could be the patient zero that starts the next epidemic of antibacterial resistant strains.
Craig: Yeah. I didn’t want to be somewhat uncomfortable, so you’re all dead.
John: All right, let’s get to some follow-up. Question from Skye in Manitoba who writes, “I have a question regarding your recent discussion on the PG-13 rating system and the use of language in certain films. Your discussion focused mainly on two specifically frequently used swear words, the S-word, and the F-word.” And so I’ve cleaned this up for broadcast here.
Craig: All right.
John: “Suppose that I was writing a script and I did not use the above words, but I might want to use another word that references male or female genitalia in a non-sexual context, calling someone a dick or a C-word. Is the limit you mentioned on the podcast, that is one non-sexual F-word in a PG-13 script, applicable in this context? Also does the same rule apply to swear words from other countries? Like if a North American film featured the British word Bugger or the French word Zut?”
Craig: Zut alors.
John: And I don’t know how bad those words are, so maybe we’re getting an explicit rating in other countries.
Craig: Possibly. I don’t think Zut is particularly bad. Bugger, in England is still kind of mild, although it’s specifically connected to anal sex. It’s buggery. Sodomy is very similar. But people say Bugger It all the time there.
I think that probably calling someone a Dick in a PG-13 movie is absolutely fine. The C-word, See You Next Tuesday, pretty loaded here in the United States. So, I’m guessing that would not work. In England, it’s right up there with bugger I guess. It’s just things that people toss out. So, yeah, it is a little bit contextual. For the MPAA here in the United States, all they’re doing is rating movies for release in the United States. So, it doesn’t matter what other countries think of particular words because other countries have their own ratings boards and their own way of rating films.
But, here in the United States, I would imagine See You Next Tuesday is going to get you booted to R.
John: Yeah. I included Skye’s question because I think overall it’s important to remember that it’s not just a simple like you get one use of these certain words. There is an overall context of how much you’re using explicit language. And so you might get away with one S-word and a Dick, but if you had — in aggregate there could be too much that pushes you over the limit. So, you do have to be aware that they’re watching the whole film, and so it’s not just a checklist of how many times you said a specific word. There’s overall situations where you might get dinged because of general coarseness of language. And so we aired that episode, a couple of screenwriter friends wrote in to say that they’ve had situations where they didn’t even use those words, but overall things were considered aggressive enough that they had to change some language.
Craig: They keep an eye on what they call a cumulative effect of things. You know, in terms of casual language, I think the good old S-word — you can pretty much go to town with that one and stay within PG-13. They’re pretty okay with that. And, frankly, how many times can you actually say that word anyway?
Yes, but you’re right. They aren’t really doing math. Nor are they really adhering to super hard and fast rules. In fact, any rule they have, they also have a rule that they can break their rule. So, you know, it’s a roll of the dice either way.
John: All right. Let’s get to some new stuff. Election results. So this last week, right after we recorded the podcast, election results were announced. And, Craig, how did you feel about the results of the election?
Craig: Very happy, bordering on elated.
John: See, that’s I think why you’re feeling better. It’s not because the virus passed. It’s because you got a happy email in your inbox from the WGA.
Craig: I think I’m feeling better not because of the good things that happened to people, but because of the bad things that happened to people, because I’m an awful person.
John: There’s reason for pure joy and a little schadenfreude in the results —
Craig: A little schadenfreude, yes.
John: In the results of the election. So, the headlines are Howard Rodman was elected WGA president. You and I both think that Howard will do a superb job leading the organization. And then we were very curious about how the board of directors would be composed. And the two people that we were both stumping pretty hard for, Zak Penn, and Andrea Berloff, both were elected.
Craig: They were. They were elected and they were also elected convincingly. So, one thing that happens is they publish the vote totals. And while the vote totals in and of themselves aren’t determinative of anything, everybody has the same authority on the board, when you are elected to the board everyone has a sense of who kind of made it by the skin of their teeth and who was swept in with some force. And if you’re swept in with some force, people kind of — they take you a little more seriously.
So, our winners, the top vote getter not surprisingly Billy Ray. And he was an essential for all of us. Then Meredith Stiehm, Andrea Berloff, Mara Brock Akil, Luvh Rakhe —
John: I thought it was Rakhe [pronounces it Rock], but I’m not even sure.
Craig: Luvh Rakhe. Sorry Luvh. Zak Penn. Carleton Eastlake. Ari Rubin, and Patric Verrone. So, here’s what’s fascinating, to me.
First of all, if you look at Writers Guild politics as basically moderates over here and wackadoodles over here, not to editorialize.
John: [laughs] Not a bit.
Craig: This was a huge victory for the moderates. And the moderates, by the way, that changes from time to time. I mean, look, Howard Rodman, who is somebody that you and I both backed, was once one of the wackadoodles. And then, I think, got a pretty good eyeful of the way things actually worked and not surprisingly as a rational person started to adjust.
So, voting for Howard was essentially a vote for continuity from what Chris Keyser had been doing for the last four years and what Billy Ray has been doing for the last four years. And so that was great to see.
In terms of the vice-president, David Goodman was elected. I think David and Carl Gottlieb were kind of similar, so I don’t think that was indicative of much. Aaron Mendelsohn is our secretary-treasurer because he ran unopposed, which I hate, but fine. We dealt with that topic last time.
Now, on the board issue stuff, what’s fascinating to me is this — not only — so Carleton Eastlake is associated with Patric Verrone. And Carleton got the seventh lowest vote total. He was also an incumbent. Now, as tradition goes, incumbents always get reelected and always get reelected convincingly, except this time. Carleton slides all the way down to seventh place.
Patric Verrone, the former president, two-term president of the Writers Guild, and leader of the glorious strike, didn’t even get in the top eight. He becomes a board member because Aaron Mendelsohn is now secretary-treasurer and vacates his seat. So Patric only serves for one year, the remaining part of Aaron’s term. That’s shocking.
John: And so I’ve heard several different theories about sort of what’s really going on. One of the theories I heard is that the overall percentage of members voting was up from previous elections. We had 27% of members voting, which sounds really low, but apparently for union elections is actually pretty high.
John: And there’s a theory that the sort of Patric Verrone camp, the people who were sort of all riding on — it wasn’t officially a ticket, but it sort of felt like a ticket, that there might be kind of a ceiling to sort of how many votes those people got because Patric got sort of the same number of votes he usually gets. But more people voted and more people voted for these other folks.
Craig: Yeah. I think that Patric has indicated his maximum support, which at this point is very soft. And to continue the theme of softness, Dan Wilcox and Alfredo Barrios, who were both incumbents running for reelection and aligned very strongly with Patric, didn’t even make it into the top nine.
And when I say they didn’t make it into the top nine, what’s shocking to me is they didn’t just lose to a bunch of people, they lost to some people that had run before and lost themselves. For instance, Luvh Rakhe, he had run, I think twice before and lost.
Craig: So, this is pretty remarkable to me. And I think it signifies fairly strongly the end of an era. Joan Meyerson, who was Patric’s strong endorsement for president, lost by a ton. I think it was a two-to-one vote.
So, I’m incredibly encouraged by this. I thought that Dan Wilcox was a terrible board member. I’m glad to see him go. This is a much better board. And, by the way, it’s a more diverse board. We have more women. We have more people of color. We have — and the best news of all, John — three, I believe, three feature writers? Maybe four?
John: Which is remarkable. And that’s part of the reason why we were so vocal in urging people to vote for Andrea and Zak Penn to make sure that we have feature screenwriters represented on the board.
Craig: It’s huge. It’s a great result for us. And I think that — I’m happy to say that in terms of 2017, because we have a new contract coming up, we aren’t in a position where we’re definitely striking. We would have been with Joan Meyerson and a stronger Patric, and Dan, and Alfredo. Oh, no question.
Now, we actually have a chance of negotiating a deal as we have in the last two years. So, very encouraging.
John: So, the election is done, but the issues remain. And Jonathan Stokes, a listener and a friend, wrote an email saying, “Hey, could you and Craig talk though some of the issues I see brought up in all of these campaign statements and talk through what they actually really mean?”
So, when Craig and I were on Franklin’s podcast, we sort of talked through some of these things. But I wanted to just give some bullet points of like these are the things that you’re going to hear a lot over the next two years, and some quick impressions on sort of why they’re important, and what the choices are that we have ahead of us.
John: So Jonathan brings up agency packaging fees being abusive to writers. So, packaging fees are ways in which the agencies actually collect money from a package being set up either at a TV network or in some cases a feature film, where rather than commissioning from the client, from the person who they represent, they commission from the studio. And there’s reasons why that can be really bad for the writer, but it’s also really complicated.
Craig: I’ve never heard of it for features. I’ve only heard of it for television.
John: You know, I say that it can’t happen for features in that I’ve seen it, but it’s really a historical thing. I remember there being packages set up with a big spec script that went out with certain people attached and there were ways to do it. But, yes, it is really a television concept.
Craig: As a feature writer, this is the one I’m fuzzy on.
John: Yeah. Paper-teaming of writers, and this is a thing that’s come up a lot. Paper-teaming, for people who don’t know, is where a show is putting together its writing staff and they decide, you know what, I really like Pam and I really like Chuck. They’re both really good writers. And they’re both really good new writers. I would love to hire both of them, but I can’t. I only have one spot. So, hey Pam and Chuck, why don’t we say that you’re a team and we will put you together as a team and you will get one salary to share, because hey, you’re a team.
And that is a thing that happens far too often in Hollywood today as we’re making TV shows. So that’s called paper-teaming. And something needs to be done because it is a really abusive practice that happens to some of the most vulnerable writers out there.
Craig: Yes. We have to kill that. And I’m very concerned that it’s not something we can kill through negotiation. My great worry is that the way to kill it is through showrunners standing up and saying we’re not going to do this.
John: Craig, I have a theory, and I’m pretty sure my theory is impossible and unworkable. So I’m going to speak it aloud and then you’re going to tell me why it couldn’t work and then I’ll just move on.
John: So my theory for how to end paper-teaming of writers in television is you are only allowed to hire a team if they are a bona fide team. And how we’re going to track bona fide teams is that they have previously been paid together as a team. Or, they have registered with the guild as a team. And if you attempt to hire a team of writers that is not a bona fide writer under those two conditions, sorry, you cannot do it. And by you cannot do it means you cannot actually hire those writers.
Craig: When you say register with the guild as a team, is that something that any two writers can do? Or, does the guild need to see the same history of teaming?
John: I believe that it should be something that any two writers are able to do.
Craig: Okay, great. So I have Pam and Chuck. I want to hire them both. I can’t. I want them to be a paper team. So I call them up and say I’ll hire you, but only as a team. Go call the guild and register as a team.
John: Great. And so there would have to be a criteria, a limit on that basically saying you have to have been registered as a team for three months, six months. You’d have to create a system where you couldn’t just force people to do it. You couldn’t shotgun people into doing it at the last minute.
Craig: Okay, new problem.
Craig: Pam and Chuck are both writers. They’ve been trying separately to get TV gigs and they’ve had some success, but not much. Then they meet a guy — and they sit down together and they’re like, you know what, we should write together. It would be fun. And so they call up a friend of theirs and say, you know what, we’re thinking about working together as a team. Are you looking for a writer on your show? Yes, I am.
Oh, I can’t give you the job. Why? Because you didn’t register with the guild six months ago.
John: I think in that situation Pam and Chuck are SOL. And that is their own fault.
Craig: It’s their own fault for meeting — they met too late?
John: It’s too late. Essentially, like, you guys haven’t worked together. You have no track record of working together.
Craig: But you’re taking their choice away. I mean, in other words, you’re saying to writers you’re not allowed to choose to work together and get the benefits from it unless you chose six months before the benefit could occur.
John: So, I would say that union representation is always about taking away choices. So, union representation means that we do not allow you to choose to work for certain employers. It means we do not allow you to accept less than certain amounts of money.
So, yes, it is limiting your choice, but it would be limiting your choice in a way that would protect you from abuses.
Craig: Right. Okay, so I guess the only objection left then, because look, generally it seems like a decent idea. The only objection left is that the companies will say no.
John: Well, actually can the companies say no? My theory is that when the company says we’re going to hire this writer and pay them half of their salary, the union can say, no, you’re not allowed to hire that writer for half their salary.
Craig: Of course they could. I’m looking at the MBA. Now I’m talking like a company nerd. I’m looking at the MBA and it says that I can hire a team of writers for this amount of money. They say that they’re a team and so I’m hiring them. And you don’t define what a team is. The MBA doesn’t say you define what a team is at all. In fact —
John: Oh, that’s so fascinating.
Craig: We have a definition of what the team is in the MBA. And it doesn’t involve you, or your certification, or anything. [laughs]
John: There’s the roadblock that Craig, going back to the MBA, and finding the way. And I should have anticipated that because during the last round of contract negotiations, one of the things that the studios floated was the idea that a team could be three people. And we said, uh-uh-uh —
Craig: Oh, yeah, they’re going to try now to paper-team three people together.
John: Good times.
Craig: Yeah. Why don’t you paper-team them all together, you jerks?
John: All right. I still think there may be some way to do what I am suggesting. And this is really modeled on how the DGA prevents there being two directors on a movie. And everyone hates it, but it’s a way to sort of make it so that it’s one director.
Craig: Well, that’s in their agreement, though.
John: Yeah, it’s in their agreement.
Craig: Yeah. Part of the problem is that there is a tradition, a very healthy, longstanding tradition of teams in writing. And so the companies very craftily have found this week spot. I tend to believe that the Writers Guild is horrendous at solving things through legislation. And that this needs to be solved politically with the showrunners. Because here’s what happens. The showrunners have a certain amount of money to hire writers. And they want more people in the room.
So, they’re told here’s a way you can do it. And they have to have the wherewithal and the strength to say, no, I’m just going to hire one writer per writer position, or hire a legitimate team, because we all know. We don’t need — it’s I know it when I see it. I know a real partnership when I see it.
So, it comes down to — I think it comes down to the showrunners to great extent.
John: I think you are probably right. I’m just holding out hope that some part of my idea is workable. I didn’t think I would actually be able to solve it just in spit-balling it here on a live podcast.
Next up on the bullet points, free unpaid pre-writes and producer drafts. This is a thing that happens both in features and television, but features is obviously where I have the most experience with you’re writing a bunch of stuff to get the job, which is crazy. And you’re not being paid for that stuff.
Craig: What’s so distressing is that I got involved in Guild politics back in 2003. I ran for the board in 2004. And this topic was super-hot back then. Nothing has changed. We are now — it’s 12 years later. And the reason nothing has changed is because the guild is essentially powerless here. I hate to say it.
There was an arbitration. The guild challenged the companies on — particularly this producer draft issue — and per the MBA it was adjudicated by an arbiter and the arbiter said, no, the deal is this, a writer can end it at any point, development. I write a draft. Oh, you know what, can you fix this? Can you do that? Write another draft. Write another draft. Write another draft. And then we’ll turn it in. And what the arbiter said was the writer can write a billion drafts if they want. Any time they want to get paid, they just turn the draft in to the person indicated in their contract. And that’s a fact.
When people say that this is a guild problem or a union problem, it’s not. I’ve finally come to this place. It is an agent problem. And it’s a writer problem. And, yes, it’s a studio problem in the sense that they’re behaving poorly. But let’s just assume that that’s not going to change. Agents and their clients, but particularly agents, need to figure this out.
John: I’m going to make the point that you would usually make at this juncture, as we’ve talked about this a thousand times, is that it is a studio problem to the degree to which they are sometimes getting material in pre-writing that they have not legally obtained. And that will come back to haunt them in a lawsuit. That will be a big copyright problem in the future.
Craig: It already has, I think, bitten them a number of times. It’s something that I’ve brought up specifically in our meetings with the studio heads, you know. Sometimes I’ll go, and you’ll go. And they all seem very nervous about that. But they’re not the ones making these demands. It’s the lower ranks who are doing it. And they’re not going to stop because everyone is selfish. So, you have a junior executive who is trying to get ahead. And what they want is a writer that’s going to deliver and then they could say, look, I found this person. I found her. She delivered. Promote me.
That executive doesn’t give a sweet damn about IP or rules or blah, blah, blah. They’re all knifing each other in the back to get ahead. There are so few positions and so many people that want to do this job. So, they’re just going to cheat. And writers end up suffering. And if the agencies can’t get their act together on this, then it won’t stop.
John: It is surprising to me that I think we have such large powerful agencies and yet they don’t seem to have very much control over making things better for their clients. The general sort of observation that is not — will have no effect, but just an observation.
Related issue, one-step deals. So, one-step deals is where you’re being paid a certain fixed amount for writing this draft and there is no guarantee that you will have subsequent drafts. Why this becomes an issue with free rewrites is that there is a natural inclination to keep writing, and keep writing, and keep writing because you will not get to those optional steps unless they are happy with you. And one-step deals really goes hand-in-hand with free rewrites.
Craig: It does. There’s another dark side to one-step deals and that is that it deprives newer writers of the experience and education that you get going through a proper development process where — and this is something I remember I said to a studio head. I said how are writers supposed to learn how to work for you when you don’t let them. You give them a contract that gives them one step, and all they do is work with the producer. That’s it. And the producer grinds them into a jelly and then you get a script. And then they’re done. And they never worked with you.
They didn’t get your notes. They didn’t go through your process. When I started, I was only working with the studio and I got two drafts, so I was able to try things. I wasn’t also living in such a crazed state because I only had one guaranteed step that I was constantly looking for the next job, so my eye was never really on what I was doing, but always on what I could be doing. There’s so many things that are wrong with one-step deals. Perhaps the worst is that when you have writers that are earning closer to the lower end, they effectively — we are effectively destroying our scale, our minimum payments, because they’re writing five drafts for the price of one minimum, right?
So, one thing that I’ve been talking about for a while, and maybe we can float this one to the companies, is a negotiated term that says if you’re going to pay a writer less than two times scale for a draft, then you have to make a two-step deal with them. If you pay them two times, a minimum of two times scale, then you can do a one-step deal. At the very least, then, we’re protecting the lower end scale writers. Those are the sort of terms where I feel like I could say to the company, look, I’m not asking you to shove more money into Richie Rich’s pockets. This doesn’t impact me. I’m trying to protect the farm team for us all.
John: I think there is some good reason to have hope for traction in that idea, because I’m thinking about you and I are sort of at the upper tier of what people are paid for things. And I get frustrated when I am approached with a one-step deal, but at the same time my one-step is a big chunk of money, and those second steps and third steps are big chunks of money, too. So, I can understand the apprehension. Like, we’re not even sure if we want to make this movie and we’re not sure we want to be on the hook for so much money. I kind of get that.
John: It is so abusive to those younger writers and the people who are just starting out. My very first deal was for How to Eat Fried Worms over at Imagine. And it was a standard one-step plus two optional rewrites, plus two polishes. And I burned through all five steps on that project. And I learned so much, because I had to do five really big drafts.
And along the way, honestly, there were some like let me show the producer, let me show the development executive. There were some interim things that were there, but it was never a big deal to move on to my next step because those steps were there and there was an expectation that we’re going to go through those steps.
And that was great.
Craig: You were also extended the opportunity to begin a career. Why would anyone who is really smart want to do this if the idea is, so, we’re going to work you for a year and you’re going to get paid $110,000? Well, if you’re a Princeton graduate and you have a lot of earning potential and you’re really smart and what you want to do is be a screenwriter and write feature films, that’s not going to do it, because it’s not $110,000. It’s $100,000. Now it’s $90,000 when you get rid of your agents, your managers, and all the rest. Now it’s really $60,000. And that’s it. For your year, that’s $60,000.
Well, this guy could probably start out at law firm and make 80 or 90. And then you might not even get past that one gig ever.
Craig: It’s really frustrating to me.
John: So let’s assume you do get a movie made, new media residuals will be a factor that you will keep discussing through the end of time. We used to call these new media residuals, but now they just should be thought of as residuals.
John: Yeah. They’re the bulk of probably what you’re going to be getting in the future. So, residuals, again, for people who are just joining us for the first time, residuals function kind of like royalties if you’re used to royalties in a book publishing world. They are payments given to screenwriters, to actors, to directors, for the sale on home video, or rental on home video, of things that are originally shown theatrically, or that were shown on television. It’s for those reuse. And so it’s a payment that the studios are required to give you for reuse.
Those rates are set and negotiated in the contract. They are a huge part of every contract negotiation. And at all times, writers believe that those rates should be higher. At all times, studios believe those rates should be lower. And we will squabble over ever period and comma in the definition of what those residuals are.
Craig: Well, we can squabble all we want. They’re not going to change, at least they’re not going to be changed by us. The directors will negotiate first. If any changes occur to those residuals formula it will be through that negotiation. You know, we can try, but history has taught us that once the formula is set, it’s set. There are a couple little squidgy areas where maybe things are evolving a bit, you know, like ad-supported streaming and things like that with the imputed values and so forth.
But, in terms of features, yeah, the deal is it’s home video rate for stuff before 2008 and it’s the 1.8% of, what is it, 25%, or 50%? I can’t remember. Anyway.
John: Yeah. Portions of portions.
Craig: 20%. It’s 1.8% of 20%. And then for sales it’s a full 1.2 of 100%. And that’s it. That’s not changing.
John: As we’ve said on the podcast before, if you want to give a screenwriter the most amount of money for watching a movie, it is to rent it on iTunes. Because that is actually the formula that gives us the biggest residual payment.
John: Yep. Next bullet point in Jonathan Stokes’ email is bakeoffs. Bakeoffs are really a form of often pre-writing. It’s when you are bringing in a bunch of screenwriters to say, hey, we have the idea to do a movie about haunted paperclips. What do you think — come in and pitch us your haunted paperclip movie. And they bring in a bunch of screenwriters, all to tackle one idea. And then they hopefully pick one of those ideas in order to try to develop that into a movie.
Bakeoffs could involve writing. They could not involve writing. But they involve a tremendous amount of a feature writer’s time and they’re generally a bad thing. They’re generally a very frustrating waste of time for almost everybody involved.
Craig: Yeah. And there’s nothing we can do about it.
John: Yeah, there really is very little we can do about it, other than just saying no. And so that is, again, a situation where I feel like agencies have to take a stronger hand. If you see that 10 of your clients are going in to pitch on this movie, there’s something wrong, and you need to intervene and stop that.
Next bullet point, the possible erosion of studio pension contributions. I don’t know anything about this.
Craig: I don’t either. Just so people understand how this works, when we get paid under a guild deal, the studios kick in a certain percentage on top of what we get paid. So, let’s say I get paid $100. They have to add another, I think at this point now it’s like another $8 on top of that into the health fund, and another $8 into the pension. And that’s tracked. And those contributions are tracked on my behalf. And then eventually I qualify for healthcare on a year-to-year basis. And then when I hit retirement age, I get my pension.
Craig: And over time, despite the hysterical nature of the way political campaigns are run in our union, when we get to these negotiations, what it basically comes down to is we’re going to give you a certain amount of money. And the way we look at it is that money is in terms of healthcare and pension and residuals.
And healthcare and pension have been seriously impacted by the market crisis and by healthcare costs. And so a lot of times we’ve come in with a fairly weak hand and basically said, look, just keep our pension and health healthy. And we have.
There’s something else looming, however. And it’s a direct result of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and that is this impending tax on so-called Cadillac plans. We have a very good healthcare plan. And it may get severely impacted by the law. And this is one of those interesting areas where the unions sort of turned on their democratic bedfellows because this wasn’t going to work out well for them, or at least some of the unions.
So I don’t know where that is right now. But we will always, I think, no matter what people — because it’s funny. Most writers, they think like, yeah, we’re going to go into negotiations and we’re going to fight for better jobs and more dignity. And I wish that that were true, but mostly what we’re fighting for is to make sure that you can still go to the doctor and get paid for and that there’s something waiting for you when you’re old and you retire.
John: Yep. These are crucial things. Getting older and retiring, just this last week I was having a conversation with a writer and I had to confess that I fundamentally did not understand how retirement worked for WGA screenwriters. Well, I kind of assumed I would never retire, because I can’t ever imagine stopping. And she informed me that like there really is a reason why starting at 55 you might consider taking retirement. And you would essentially retire for a month and then unretire and start working again. Because that would allow you to start collecting your pension.
And that was enlightening but also horrifying, because I can’t imagine retiring even for that month. It just feels crazy to me.
Craig: I have been looking at my pension statements. And on the one hand, I’ve fantasized about this day when I could just lounge around and collect checks. But, yeah, you know, the closer you get to it, the weirder it feels. I mean, you know, look, we’re all still children inside our heads. And retired people are the elderly who either mutter in a booth at McDonalds, or are sweeping up at McDonalds just to keep busy.
And I don’t think of myself that way. But, you know, you and I, we’re basically the same age. We’re mid-forties.
John: Yeah, we are.
Craig: And it’s bearing down on us like a freight train, buddy.
John: Yeah, it’s crazy to me that it would be even a possibility. So, the other thing I should stress is that the WGA pension is probably an important part of retirement for most WGA members, but that nothing precludes you from setting up your own retirement accounts. And you should.
Craig: Oh, yeah.
John: You should fundamentally do that. So, anyone whose entire retirement savings is based on the WGA pension would have to live a more frugal life, I guess, in order to make it through the end of their ages.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, look, most people have nothing except for Social Security. Then, for those of us who are vested in the Writers Guild pension plan, we have that on top of Social Security. And then, hopefully, you’ve also made your own independent investments in IRAs and 401(k)s and all that other stuff. You know, that’s why I keep thinking like, ah, maybe it will be awesome, you know? Because there’s a whole bunch of money I have that I can’t even touch.
John: Right. I do feel like at some point we need to have, I don’t know if it makes sense on the podcast, or just some sort of WGA session where once people start making like significant money where we just sit you down and say like, okay, here’s the reality of what you need to start doing. Like at about the point where people need to incorporate, there just needs to be a little sit down and say like, okay, here’s how not to be an idiot about your money. Because I do find there’s this wall that people hit where it’s like suddenly, oh my god.
Craig: It’s amazing. And writers — and this is where writers also turn everything over to business managers, which makes me nuts, because now you’re paying somebody 5% of your income to do something that we could probably explain to you in four minutes. Let’s put all those people out of business. I love this idea.
We’ll do a podcast that’s basically just for rich people. It’s exciting.
John: Yeah. We’ll do the high class problems podcast.
Craig: High class problems.
John: The last three bullet points here. Late payments becoming epidemic. Late payments is, again, sort of — to me it’s like the Student Council election where like we’ve got to do something about apathy. It’s like it’s one of those things that’s an evergreen topic. Checks have always come late. And it seems like they come later every year, but I think it also just seems like they come later every year. I’ve advocated for a long time publicly shaming studios that are the worst about late payments, but that’s an enforcement thing. It’s not a contract thing. That is a spending the resources at the guild to go after those late payments.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you could shame them. What does that mean? When you get offered a job to write something there you’re not going to take it? [laughs] You’re going to take it.
John: Yeah, I say publicly shaming in terms of having the guild actually collect statistics and — the guild knows exactly who is late.
Craig: Oh yeah. They know.
John: And actually just taking out the ad in Variety saying this is who’s late.
Craig: They’ve been threatening that for a while. I think late payment is annoying, but it’s better than non-payment. I mean, in other words, people are getting paid. I don’t know why it happens. This is the thing. Like when I talk to, again, when we talk to studio heads, they’re mystified. They don’t understand it. And then what happens is somebody from a department in a different building will say, well, it’s all this paperwork. And we need somebody to fill the form out. And then you need to call the right person. And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And you realize that there’s this massive machinery to issue checks there, which makes sense, because it can’t just be a simple as somebody picking up a phone and going, “Hey, can you pay this person $700,000?” “Uh, okay.” No, that doesn’t work.
So, it’s just this massive machinery of red tape.
John: I always assumed that the like, “Oh, the check is in processing right now,” was just — was that a thing they said. But then years ago I was dating a guy who worked at Universal and I was writing for Universal. And he’s like, “Oh, your paycheck just crossed my boss’s desk.” And it was just crazy. Like literally his boss had to like either sign herself or approve this check.
And so he saw this check that was about to come to me, which was crazy.
Craig: “It’s in process.” And then it has to be put into another thing. And then it has to be sent out, and mailed. Blah, blah, blah. And it gets mailed to your agency. And then they take out their — you know, it’s — I don’t like it. But on the list of problems that we have, we’ve got bigger ones.
John: Diversity. There’s a problem we could solve.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: Let’s spend maybe 30 seconds on diversity here. Matt Damon had a really good answer apparently on to the diversity question on Project Greenlight. I haven’t seen it yet, but he was able to solve it there.
Craig: D’oh. Diversity. I know, let’s do more surveys and gather more statistics to show that it’s also bad, again, exactly as it was the year before.
John: This feels like one of those situations where, again, you know, in television it’s showrunners taking the lead and making sure that they are finding and hiring the best, most diverse staffs they can. When it comes time for features where it’s studios hiring people, the studios need to hire diverse writers. It’s frustrating, but I don’t think it’s going to be thing that’s going to be solved through contract negotiation.
Craig: No. Not at all. And there’s this other thing that I worry about sometimes. Rachel Prior who works for Edgar Wright’s production company, Big Talk, she’s a development executive in the UK. And she’s very prolific on Twitter. A very smart person. She’s an outspoken feminist and she talks a lot about gender topics in our business and the employment of women in our business. And she did say something very interesting recently.
She said, “Look, I want to make sure that when we talk about the tragedies that are occurring statistically,” and we’re just focusing on women for the moment here in terms of hiring of women as writers, directors, producers, studio employees, “that by concentrating on the deficits, which are severe and real, that we aren’t actually discouraging women from wanting to come to this business.”
John: That’s a great point.
Craig: Sort of like I don’t want a black kid to sit at home and go, “Well, apparently the statistics are that no black people are writing movies, so why would I try?” And I think that we have to do both at the same time. We have to call out the deficits and the failures. We also have to promote the successes.
We must promote the successes, because that’s — nobody is going to come to our business to say, “Well, I know what I’ll do, I’ll fix the negative statistics.” No, people just want to succeed for themselves. So let’s get those positive role models out there. And also some positive stories. It’s not all bad.
John: Yep. It’s not all bad.
Craig: Yeah, it’s not all bad.
John: All right. One of those diverse writers who might be coming to work in Hollywood is Pam in Seattle. And so this is question that we’ve kicked it back for three weeks now. So, we’re finally going to answer Pam in Seattle’s question.
John: So, Craig, tell us what Pam in Seattle wrote.
Craig: Pam says, “I’ve written a script which is being well received by the many people I have reading it. I’m revising said script again and again to make it as good as I possibly can. I’m working on the second script, so I have an answer when someone asks me, ‘What else are you working on?’ And eventually I’ll be heading to LA to, well, do something. So far my list is, one, go to LA. Two, sell script.”
I love that.
“If I were to come to LA for a visit, how might I best use my time? I do have a few connections. An actor friend. A showrunner acquaintance. A producer acquaintance. But that’s about it. I don’t want to waste my time or anyone else’s. But I sort of very much don’t know what I’m doing or what I should be trying to do.”
John, some advice for Pam?
John: Well, I think Pam is super smart and already kind of funny even in her question. She seems to understand what she doesn’t know, which is great, is that she doesn’t kind of know where to begin. She’s going to want to talk to her actor friend, her showrunner acquaintance, and her producer acquaintance. She’s going to want to sit down with them and get any bit of advice or feedback she can from those folks. But then she’s also going to just kind of soak in to LA and to the situation and figure out where she can meet people who are doing the kinds of things she wants to do.
So if she’s coming to LA for a weekend, there’s not a lot she’s going to be able to do. If she’s coming here for a week, she should have coffee with all those people. She should ask those people, hey, is there anyone else you think I should meet. And if she’s here for a month, then she should try to — an internship may not be possible, but she should try to shadow somebody. She should try to use any alumni connections. Anything she can do to sort of get exposure to people who are actually making film and television.
Craig: All excellent advice. I agree, by the way, Pam does seem smart and does seem funny and very realistic. Now, Pam, you have to be a little careful because I’m realistic like you, very pragmatic person. Sometimes those of us who are realistic and pragmatic are so afraid of being delusional that we end up being a little timid.
So, what I would say to you is this — you shouldn’t want to waste your time. Don’t worry about wasting other people’s time. Go ahead, waste their time. You’ve got to push yourself in there. This is not an easy business to polite yourself into. You’ve got to get your elbows and get in there, muscle in. Now, you say you have a showrunner acquaintance. I’d start there. I mean, that’s a big deal. A showrunner is not only somebody that’s very highly placed in the business, they’re also somebody who employs writers. So, whoever this person is, that’s a great starting point.
And really, again, elbow yourself in. Make sure that you get that meeting in with them. It’s more important that than your actor friend. Producer, also, a good idea.
Don’t worry so much about wasting other people’s time. You have to kind of show up with this attitude. I actually deserve to be in this business. I know I haven’t earned my way in yet, but when I do, I will be good.
John: So, let’s say that she has her script and she’s gotten feedback from her friends who have brought it back there. If she puts it in competitions and she does well in competitions, if it’s on the Black List site and people like it on the Black List site, she may start to make some contacts of people who said like, “Oh, if you’re ever in Los Angeles…” Those are the people you should actually sit down and meet with when you come to Los Angeles. And you should arrange your trip so that you can get as many of those squeezed in there as you possibly can.
When we had Ryan Knighton on the show, several episodes ago, he talked about like he lives in Vancouver but he comes down here and he books himself solid with meetings for those times that he’s down there. And you’re not Ryan Knighton yet, but you might be. And so you should start booking up all those meetings and those coffees until you have way too much caffeine in you, but that’s great and fine. Take advantage of all of those things.
And some of those people will be jerkoffs and will not be useful to you at all, but you’ll start to learn to anticipate who the jerkoffs are. And that’s education. That’s learning, too.
Craig: Yep. Excellent. And don’t be afraid to let people know that you’re ready to move down here permanently. Because they’ll be a little suspicious about the out-of-towner. So many people out of town are like, “Well, I’m just going to play it safe. And once I get a job, then I’ll move.” And that’s never going to work. So, let them know, this is the advanced scout for an inevitable move.
John: Great. Adam wrote in to ask, “Let’s say you are a new writer in LA with no agent, no manager, et cetera, and a producer finds your script on the Black List or someplace and options it. What are the next steps you should take? Example, should you ask the producer for a recommendation for an agent? How about getting an entertainment lawyer? Should you contact the WGA? Is there anything you need to make sure you do before signing anything? Maybe you guys could walk us through the step by step from option to production?”
So, that may be too long, but what should he be doing for let’s say a producer is interested in his script?
Craig: It seems like all the questions he asked the answer is yes. So, I mean, look, first of all, congrats. Okay, but now you have to be really smart. Somebody is saying that they’re going to pay you some money or make a professional agreement with you on a piece of paper that is legally binding, so smarten up.
Number one, yes, you should ask the producer for a recommendation for an agent. And you should trust that that agent will be independent, even though they come to you through that producer. And you should say, “Look, I can’t really get into an agreement without representation, so help me.”
You absolutely need an entertainment lawyer to evaluate the contract, make changes and adjustments. The lawyer will work on commission, for 5%, and so you don’t have to worry about paying them out-of-pocket. They get paid when you get paid.
Should you contact the WGA? Probably not necessary unless the deal isn’t a WGA deal, at which point you may want to contact the WGA to find out how you can — maybe there’s a way to get it. But again, that’s something your lawyer should be able to do. When you actually sell something that qualifies you for membership in the WGA, they’ll call you. They’re going to find you.
John: So how you get into the WGA essentially is once you’re hired to write for a company that is a WGA signatory that has a deal with the WGA, any writer they hire has to be WGA, and therefore if you’re not WGA you have to join the WGA. And that’s good. That’s happy. And that’s a good outcome.
But I completely agree with Craig. And the way I got my first agent was through a producer who was interested in my script. So, it was Michael Shipley who then became a journalist and is now a producer again. He read a script I wrote. And he got the script because Al Gough, who was a classmate of mine, who went on to create Smallville. Al had read the script. He gave it to his intern boss, Michael Shipley. And Michael Shipley liked my script.
And I asked Michael Shipley politely but really sort of hopefully, “Hey, could you help me find an agent.” And Michael Shipley said, yes, I think I know two agents who would be good for you. And one of them I liked, and I met with him, and I signed with him. So that is a very common way to get your agent because an agent fields a bunch of calls, but if a producer says, “Hey, I read something really good. You may want to read this writer,” that is going to go higher up in the pile of stuff for that agent.
Craig: All correct. I do want to just adjust one thing you said for people listening so that they don’t get misled.
Craig: Meer employment isn’t enough to qualify you for — and compel you for — membership in the WGA. I believe it is in the East, curiously enough, but we don’t talk about them. In the WGA West, there’s actually a system where you earn a certain number of — I think they’re called credits, but they’re not like on screen credits. Credits towards compulsory membership.
So, some jobs don’t get you all the way. For instance, if the very first thing you’re hired to do under a WGA contract is rewrite a screenplay, that’s half the way to compulsory membership. However, if you sell an original pitch or an original screenplay, that’s the full boat, and you’re automatically in.
John: Yeah. I should have clarified that, too. My first job did get me all the way in on the one first thing, but you’ll find that most companies have two ways they can hire you. They have the company that is the signatory, and a company that is not the signatory. And they will always try to find a way to hire you through the non-signatory when you’re a new writer. And then you have to remind them, no, no, I am WGA. And therefore you have to do it.
John: Yes. In terms of finding a reputable attorney, I don’t have any great recommendations other than if you look — this sounds really cheesy and obvious — but if you look through the headlines of like people who sold scripts and they say they were represented by this agent and by this attorney so and so forth, that might be the kind of attorney you want. Some person who has been representing writers who have sold stuff recently. And you may just find a contact through there.
If you’re calling into that lawyer’s office and you say like, “This producer is trying to option my script and I need an attorney,” they might take you. And you might get the junior person there, but that’s fine.
Craig: Yeah. And similarly, if you’ve gotten a new agent through your producer, the agent will also certainly be able to recommend a lawyer that they share clients with.
John: Yeah. It’s not uncommon for baby writers who sign at an agency to use the agency’s in-house lawyer to do some of their initial contracts.
John: I don’t think that’s a great idea. I think you’re generally better off having somebody outside.
Craig: I agree.
John: You’re making so little money, that that 5% might seem really painful, but I think you’re better off having someone else out there. Because for nothing else, they have other contacts, they have more exposure and experience, and they may see things that other people won’t see.
Craig: Well, also, remember, when you have outside counsel, the negotiation for your fee is now being looked at by an agent and the lawyer. So, when I’m making a deal, my agent and my lawyer are both on the phone with business affairs and they’re kind of, you know, it’s not like one can get away with soft pedaling it or being easy or being outrageous, because the other one is there to kind of keep a check on them.
John: All right. Our final question comes from Lucas Stroughton who asked on Twitter, “Could you please explain on the podcast the difference between backend and residuals? Thanks in advance.”
Craig: Sure. So, residuals are fees that we get for the reuse of material on which we have credits. And the residuals are set in our collective bargaining agreement through our union. And basically they take the place of royalties which is what people get when they own copyright. So, remember, we don’t own the copyright in the material we create for the studios. They do. They employ us as work-for-hire.
So we get residuals as a kind of replacement form of royalties. So let’s just talk about movies. Every time our movie is rented on video, or shown on free TV, or shown on pay TV, a certain amount of money is sent to the studio because it’s been reused. And then the studio sends us a small portion. That’s what residuals are.
John: Let me clarify a little bit more residuals. Residuals are a thing that’s negotiated by the Writers Guild of America on behalf of all writers. So, I am not individually negotiating a contract with Sony saying like I want to be paid this amount of residuals on this project. No, no, that’s just a WGA thing that is a blanket for all WGA members, just one set rate for what you’re going to get paid on a movie, which is very different from backend, which Craig is about to explain.
Craig: Right. I should mention technically you could negotiate better residual terms for yourself.
John: But has anyone done that?
Craig: I heard once, just a rumor, I heard that —
John: It’s going to be Ted Elliott, right?
Craig: No. [laughs] I heard that Tom Cruise tried once, and failed, because the precedent is so strong.
Now, backend is really profit participation in the primary release of the product, along with the secondary release. So, residuals is all about the secondary market, reuse, so we don’t get residuals from the ticket sales of a movie. That’s considered the primary exhibition of the movie. Backend is about sharing in the total amount of money that comes in to the studio, whether it’s from the primary exhibition or secondary exhibition. Doesn’t matter.
And there all sorts of different kinds of back-ends. Very typical one is called cash break where the studio says, okay, once we recoup all of our costs and go into profit, like real profit, not the fake baloney profit, then we start paying you a percentage of money. Usually they also have to recoup what they paid you, by the way, as an expense before they start paying you your little piece of the backend.
Then there is the notorious first dollar gross, where you’re actually getting a piece of every — of the gross, not the profit, but the gross money coming in, again, after they recoup what they paid you. Screenwriters generally do not get backend. Screenwriters generally get paid a lot up front, hopefully, or something up front, and then, of course, we get our residuals as determined by our screen credit. And of the amount of residuals they dole out to writers, 75% is reserved for the writers who have screenplay credit and 25% is reserved for the writers who have story or screen story credit. And if there’s no screen story or story credit, then it all goes to the screenplay credit.
John: And so when we say backend for writers, there are cases where like a showrunner, a show creator in television will have a backend, will have a meaningful backend, which is really a slice of the pie. And that is incredibly lucrative. There are cases where big actors will have a piece of the backend on either a TV show or a feature.
But for most screenwriters, you’re really looking at residuals as being the ongoing revenue stream you get for having written a movie. And in some ways that makes sense, because as a screenwriter we don’t know which projects are actually going to get made. And you don’t necessarily want to take a deferment on your initial salary in order to hopefully see something down the road. That’s not a great choice.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. Interestingly I’ll say that the writers in television that do get backend, or writers in features that get backend are usually getting it as a producer. But not as a writer specifically.
John: Yeah. I would agree. All right, I think it’s time for our One Cool Things. Craig, you have the coolest thing of all, so you should start with yours.
Craig: I do have the coolest One Cool Thing this week. So my One Cool Thing this week is Melissa Mazin, my wife, my wife of almost 20 years by the way.
Craig: I know. Next June will be our 20th wedding anniversary. How about that?
John: Good stuff.
Craig: It is good stuff. And I’m mentioning her because she is going to be accompanying me to the Austin Screenwriting Conference this year. So, it’s kind of like I’m smashing two cool things together. Really it’s just a way of saying to people, hey, come to the Austin Screenwriting Conference if you haven’t bought your tickets yet. I’m going to be there. John’s going to be there. We’re going to be doing a live Scriptnotes. We’re going to be doing a live Three Page Challenge. I’m going to be doing a panel on thematic structure.
My wife is going to be there. What else do you need?
John: I’m curious whether Melissa’s presence will make you wilder or less wild during the weekend?
Craig: I’m going to go with less wild. [laughs] I think that’s probably for the best. Don’t you?
John: I think it may be for the best.
Craig: I mean, every time I go there, I end up exhausted and hoarse and it will be good. Because really what I want to do is just go to my room and sleep.
John: Sleeping is nice.
John: Later this evening I will be playing Dungeons & Dragons with Craig Mazin and I will be bringing with me my small little figurine which I painted. And so my One Cool Thing is actually miniature figurines. Because I remember growing up playing D&D and I would have lead figures. They called them lead figures. I don’t think they really were lead, but they were heavy metal figures.
Craig: Yeah, like pewter or something.
John: Pewter. And I would attempt to paint them and do a terrible job and they would always look mangled. And so for this round of D&D I decided, you know what, I’m going to get a better little miniature figure. And so for Gilly, my little gnome monk who I’m playing with, little Gilly, I was able to find like a great little figurine and it’s because of the Internet and it’s because of better technology.
So, this company I’m using is called Reaper and they make these great little plastic figures that are obviously lighter than the lead, but have tremendous detail. And also because of the Internet, there’s a tremendous number of tutorials about how to paint. And so I learned that I had been doing everything wrong in terms of painting a figurine.
And so I spent. God, probably two hours painting this tiny figurine, but I’m really proud of it. And so if you are at all curious about painting stuff, or you’re looking for some new hobby in which to spend some time and learn something new, I really enjoyed painting this figurine. So I will put some links in the show notes for both Reaper, but also some tutorials that I found really useful for painting a figurine, because it was actually a good therapeutic process.
I listened to some podcasts as I was doing my dry brushing and my flooding with paint. It was cool.
Craig: Did you say slutting?
John: No. I was doing some dry brushing and some flooding. It’s where you actually get the details out by making your paint far, far, far too wet. And then it sort of floods into all the crevices. And that gives the detail.
Craig: You know, Sexy Craig likes that.
John: I could tell Sexy Craig would probably like that, yeah.
Craig: Just get all wet and flood into the crevices.
John: That’s good stuff. Our show as always is produced by Stuart Friedel. Stuart is downstairs right at this very moment folding t-shirts, because the t-shirts just came back from the printer, so they should be going out probably the end of this week, so hooray.
John: Thank you, again, to everyone who ordered a t-shirt. Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Thank you, Matthew. Our outro this week is actually another piece of found art. So Luke Yoquinto found the Scriptnotes thing embedded, or actually in the very intro, to the Steve Winwood song, “While You See a Chance.”
So, as you start to listen to this you’ll hear like, oh, wait, there’s the Scriptnotes theme. So, it’s just a thing that’s out there.
I should also as a final bit of celebration I want to congratulate the world for getting the rights to Happy Birthday back.
John: It’s a song that was under copyright and there was a huge copyright fight and it finally appears that we can now sing Happy Birthday without paying anybody any money.
Craig: We don’t have to sing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow in movies anymore.
John: And what will all those restaurant chains that had to sing their own little custom themes do?
Craig: Happy, happy, happy, birthday, birthday, birthday, birthday. Yeah.
Craig: Geez. You know who else likes painting figurines?
John: Tell me.
Craig: Patric Verrone.
John: Yeah, he does like painting figurines. I think he’d be really good at that.
Craig: He paints Supreme Court justices. It’s not like painting figurines wasn’t already dorky. He figured out how to make it extra dorky. And for that, I got to salute him.
John: I have nothing but praise for that.
Craig: That is actually — I give that one the high five.
John: All right. Craig, I will see you tonight. Everyone else, we will see you next week.
Craig: See you later.
John: Thanks for joining us.
- WGAw 2015 election results
- John and Craig on The Black List Table Reads podcast with Franklin Leonard
- Melissa Mazin will be at the Austin Film Festival 2015 Screenwriting Conference
- Reaper Miniatures, and Miniature Painting 101 on YouTube
- All the ‘Happy Birthday’ song copyright claims are invalid, federal judge rules from the LA Times
- Outro sent in by Luke Yoquinto (send us yours!)