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 334 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Our last few episodes have been about craft, but today we’re going to be talking about the profession of screenwriting, specifically what if it goes away and there are no more screenwriters.
John: We’ll look at worst case scenarios and put odds on them happening. We’ll also answer listener questions about optioning books and working with actors.
Craig: Hmm, great. This is a good topic. I always like contemplating my own doom.
John: I find it very therapeutic and really kind of calming to think about the worst things because then everything else seems OK.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. We just float. We all float down here.
John: Let’s do some follow up first. Luisa in Cliffside, New Jersey, but she was originally from Rio, Brazil, writes, “I really enjoyed your talk about suspense but I wanted to ask a question. Usually when I’m teaching or thinking about my own writing I think of suspense in terms of curiosity about something that will happen in the future. But when it’s curiosity about a past event that’s unclear or unknown, I consider it a mystery. So, a whodunit for example would cause a mystery. The expectation of discovering who did it might be suspenseful, but the whodunit itself, that would be a mystery.”
Craig: Well, Luisa, I think you’re correct. I don’t detect a question in there.
John: I guess that’s true.
Craig: But as a statement–
John: As an observation.
Craig: Yeah, as an observation you’re right on. I mean, it’s hard for anything in the past to be suspenseful because it’s happened. When you’re at a sporting event and you’re waiting to see how the last minute goes and who is going to win, that’s suspenseful.
Craig: If you’re watching television and the game has already happened, it’s probably a little less suspenseful.
John: Yeah. I’ll go back to the French. So, suspendre, it’s hanging above you. It’s literally hanging above. That’s what the word means. But if it’s already on the floor, then you can ask why did it fall on the floor. That is the mystery.
Craig: Yep. Agreed.
John: Do you want to take Aldo’s question?
Craig: I do. Aldo, “In Episode 324 during your How Would This Be a Movie segment you have a discussion centered in a NBC News Video about female firefighters from the California Department of Corrections. Craig states…”
This better be my actual words.
John: Check the transcripts.
Craig: “’I believe that by the time this episode airs this will have already been optioned to be developed into a movie.’ Can you please elaborate a bit about optioning? I guess if a writer would like to develop a screenplay based on the NBC News Video, using that as the source material, then the writer would option the story from NBC News or Matt Toder, the video producer for NBC News. But if a writer would like to develop a screenplay about female firefighters from the California Department of Corrections, is there really anything to be optioned?”
John, what do you think?
John: This is a fair question. So, let’s say you watch that video and say like, “Yes, yes, this is what I want to do,” and there is unique stuff about the women who are interviewed in this video, sort of how it’s all set up, that I feel like this is the piece of material that I want to option, you would then go to see who controls the rights to it. It could be NBC News. It could be Matt Toder if it was done as a freelance kind of thing and he retained some rights. But you would go and you would investigate to see who has the rights to this in order to exploit it in a different medium.
But, your instinct is correct. If you just want to make a movie about inmate female firefighters, you could just do your own research and do it by yourself without purchasing any underlying rights.
The reason why some producers might go and get that video, even if they didn’t need it, is it sort of puts a flag in that saying like I’m making this thing. Clear away from other people trying to make inmate female firefighter movies because I own the rights to this thing.
Craig: Yeah. Keep in mind, Aldo, that public facts are not ownable, so when people report on things that becomes part of the public record. Anything that any of the women said in that news story is public record. And you can use it. The fact that they are firefighters and that they’re in prison. Literally any information that this news report puts out on the air now belongs to the world.
However, in a case like this, if you wanted to be specific about it, let’s say you want to write a movie about the female firefighters but you actually also really want to use two of the actual women featured in that news story, I would actually argue you don’t want to go to NBC News because they don’t own anything that you don’t already have in a sense. Because they’ve put it out there in the world. It’s news.
What you want to do is get the life rights of those two women. Because the beauty of life rights is it gives you access to all of the information about their lives, all of the stories that aren’t in that news report, and that would be pretty useful I would think if you wanted to make a movie about those specific women.
John: I agree. An example of the kind of thing that would happen is like last month I was approached with the rights to this radio story. So it was a segment of a popular radio show and producers had optioned the rights to this episode. And it seems weird to option the rights to this episode, but when I listened to it it’s like, OK, I get why they’re trying to do that because it was a very unique story and how they were telling the story was really informing how you would do the movie version of it.
So, even though the reporting on people who existed in the real world and all the reporting I guess could be considered public record, it’s out there in the world, the way it was put together would be key to how you would do this as a movie, which is why they had gotten the rights to that story.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s certain narrative things that do hold copyright. So, facts, available. Narrative structure, copyrightable. I mean, to an extent. To an extent.
John: But, you know, classically like Rolling Stone articles always used to get optioned to be made into movies. And sometimes they were made into movies. So like, Perfect, the aerobics movie, that was a Rolling Stone article I believe.
Craig: That’s right. Well, you know, one of the things about those articles is – for instance, Rolling Stone articles, and you’ll see this too with Vanity Fair articles, long form articles actually contain an enormous amount of research, quotes, many stories. So when you option that article it’s almost like you’re sweeping up a whole bunch of let’s call them sub-life rights. You know have the rights to all of the life that has been reported inside of it.
John: Yeah. And that can be very, very useful. Even if you’re going to fictionalize those characters or do other stuff, you are controlling a big block of stuff that could be useful material for your movie. And I will go back to the point that a lot of times producers are doing it just so they can try to claim an area of the world and say like, “No, no, I’m making this movie so everyone else back away.”
Craig: Yeah. That’s right.
John: All right, let’s get to our feature topic which was thought up about ten minutes ago, but I think it could be an interesting discussion. So, as we talk about people who are aspiring to be screenwriters or our lives as screenwriters, we talk about sort of my running for the WGA, we have a vested interest in the profession of screenwriting. It’s been very good to me and to Craig. I want to think about what if it all went away. And sort of what are the scenarios in which it could all go away.
This comes kind of from a business exercise which I did with my own company here making software where you pretend that like let’s say two years from now this project we’re working on or this whole company goes out of business, like basically it fails. If it were to fail, what are the things that would have happened that brought us to failure? And by thinking through those scenarios that brought you to failure, you might think about what things you should be doing now to make changes that won’t lead you there.
Craig: That’s smart.
John: So, let’s think about that in terms of screenwriting. If screenwriting is not a viable job, a professional job, five years, ten years, 20 years from now, what will have changed?
Craig: OK. All right. Well, I have some thoughts on that.
John: All right. And I guess we should think of some parameters first, because it’s very broad what I’m saying. I don’t know if we want to limit it to US screenwriting. I don’t know if we want to limit it to screenwriting that is able to pay you as a full-time job, so that your only job is to be a professional screenwriter. Are we talking about screenwriting only for big screens as we currently think about them? I don’t know that we need to nail these down, but as we talk through these scenarios we might want to actually discuss what kind of parameters we’re putting on them.
Craig: Well, what if we say we’re talking about screenwriting as we know it dying. So that means a general accepted range of income and a certain kind of method of employment. And it all goes away and is replaced by something else.
John: Yes. So, I mean, the biggest scenarios are scenarios in which the world is vastly changed because of something catastrophic. So the meteor hits us, there’s a zombie outbreak, there’s no film industry because making movies is such a low priority on the hierarchy of needs of things to do. So, you know, if it’s Walking Dead, you’re probably not making movies. Even Michael Bay is not making a movie during Walking Dead times.
Craig: Yeah, I’m pretty sure that at that point everyone can take a break and put their spec away, because, yeah, they have to run.
John: Yeah, I guess so. Even like LA people in coffee shops right now, they’re just not going to finish. They’re going to get stuck like last week’s guy who was at the end of the first act and really having a hard time getting to the second act. He’s going to be stuck there for a long time.
Craig: Feel like actually a lot of writers would be thrilled to see the meteor streaking towards us, just “OK, either I’m a working writer and I had a deadline and now it’s not a problem,” or “I’m an aspiring writer and I’m really tired of banging my head against the wall and I have to write yet another spec. Oh, thank god, here comes the meteor.”
John: You know, I will say in my own professional life there have been times where a movie has fallen apart and I’ve just been hooray. I’m just like so glad to be liberated from the process. Yes, you want to see movies get made, but also sometimes they’re just horrible and you’re just like, wow, to be done with it is great.
Craig: Oh. Yeah. For sure. You know that whole psychological thing of people being, what is it, fear of failure leads to fear of success and that’s for a good reason. Actually doing something and making a movie is just nothing but enormous risk. Emotional risk and personal risk. And it can all go wrong. And, man, think about how much easier it is to say I wrote a brilliant screenplay and Hollywood just couldn’t get it together. And so it’s just one of those screenplays that will never see the light of day, but it’s just one of those that people talk about.
So you’re forever a genius. You are a genius stuck in amber like a little bug. But once that movie is made, yeah, OK genius, here we go. [laughs]
John: When I see writers who are fixated on like the one project that never got made, or they’re still trying to get that one thing to have happen, I think they are kind of stuck in that loop where this is the thing, or I would have been a successful writer if it hadn’t been for this one producer screwing me over. They can happily sort of get trapped in those things. And I think sometimes they welcome the meteor because it provides a convenient excuse for why things never worked their way.
Craig: No question. You know, and I get it. I get it. It’s a really, really hard thing to do and sometimes we just need that little bit of dignity, because we feel ashamed if we quit. And so we’re looking for that dignity. And, yes, there are times, by the way, when this business is terribly unfair to people. We’ve been reading about a lot of them lately. And a wrong is done. A true wrong. Like people say I was screwed over and pushed out of the business. This does happen. We know that.
Now, no one is ever permanently pushed out of anything. You can fight your way back in one presumes. But it’s hard. And it’s harder than it needs to be. It’s unfair. It’s unjust. And I think in certain circumstances people, they get exhausted and they don’t want to and, all right, well, you know–
John: That’s OK, too.
Craig: Yeah, it is.
John: So, I think there’s a second scenario which is not a nuclear strike, or a meteor, or a plague, but like an economic collapse. And so I guess we should talk about like how big of an economic collapse would have to happen before the film industry goes under.
If you think back, granted the film industry was in its infancy during the Great Depression, but there were still movies. And even in those darkest times we were still able to make films. Craig, what’s your thought about how bad would finances have to be before we stopped making films?
Craig: Um, very bad. And kind of hard to imagine, because people’s desires for content seems inversely related to their general happiness. When things are bad, that’s the brilliance of the entertainment business. They seek entertainment and diversion more, and more, and more. And regardless of our complaints about the cable bill, or the Netflix subscription cost, or going to the movie theater, it’s still a fairly efficient and economical way for a family to entertain itself. And it is essentially what our culture is.
You know, particularly American culture is a culture of televised and filmed entertainment.
John: Yeah. So I guess I would wonder whether people would be willing to sort of substitute cheaper forms of entertainment, like television, like the stuff they can get for free, and like going out to the movies, even at a lower price point, because in an economic collapse I would assume that some prices would collapse down again, but you know, I do wonder at what point it gets so bad that people don’t go out to the movies.
Again, I get back to like going out to the movies is one of the cheapest sort of social activities we still have left in America. So, some version of that I got to feel is going to stick around.
Craig: I agree. There seems to be something in humans. They want to congregate. And even in desperate economic times they want to congregate together. And, yeah, in a total flat-out depression, movie ticket prices would go down and popcorn prices would go down. Of course. Everything adjusts.
Certainly I hope it doesn’t happen. And there’s no question that it would impact the movie business, but I don’t think it would destroy movies or television because we kind of have evidence that it doesn’t.
John: Yep. We do. All right, so let’s imagine that there are still movies, but maybe we’re not writing them. So let’s think about who is writing these movies. Obviously an easy choice would be writers who just not living in the US. We want to make our parameters for like you and me are no longer screenwriters. And the North Americans writing movies are no longer writing these.
You know, there’s people around the world who are writers and who are writing movies. Do they farm out? Do they ship those jobs overseas, Craig?
Craig: No. No more than they currently do. I mean, the truth is that any movie studio, any television entity can hire any writer they want anywhere in the world. They are free to do so. And they currently choose to generally speaking hire Americans and Brits.
John: Now, it’s worth noting that people in other countries, they have writers guilds, but they’re not the same as our Writers Guild. You will know better than me sort of what the requirements are on a US WGA signatory when they hire an international writer. Do they have to obey any of the same Writers Guild minimums/contractual things?
Craig: If they are employing that writer here. So, it actually is a question of geography. If they hire a French writer, but they bring the French writer here to the United States to be on set working and writing, then they have to be covered by a WGA agreement. But if they hire a French writer to write something in France, no. Not only do they not have to have them be WGA, I don’t think they can. I don’t think they’re allowed to be. I think that our contract only covers US employees because of federal labor law and all the rest of it.
So, it’s sort of defined by where you are, where you’re doing the job.
Similarly, if you go overseas and write and movie in France, you may not be employed by a WGA signatory because you’re writing it physically there. Obviously if you start a project here, and then you go over there, it’s covered. Once you start it, it’s covered. But, you know, I think that the – and I remember when we went on strike there was like rumors that studios were going to put writers on planes, stick them in hotels in London, and have them start writing movies, which didn’t happen. But I don’t think that globalization is necessarily the thing that’s going to undo us.
John: It’s true that China will become a bigger film market, an even bigger film market in the years ahead. And so I don’t know whether we’ve reached the tipping point where their box office is bigger than our box office. Right now, the movies that are made in China for China are not traveling to the US and to Europe the same way they are traveling throughout China and maybe Asia. But, some of those movies are going to break out. So there are going to be some movies that are entirely made in China, with Chinese money, with Chinese screenwriters that will become incredibly successful.
I don’t know that that’s going to replace our work in any meaningful way soon.
Craig: No. I don’t think so. China has become a large film producer. Yes, you’re right, most of the movies that they make locally are for China the way that most movies that India makes are for India. But, China has had some notable successes. I mean, you look at guys like Stephen Chow with Kung-Fu Hustle, and Ang Lee coming up with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There are examples where these movies crossover and become global phenomena.
John: So, let me propose a new scenario. There are still movies, there are still things being shown on a big screen, yet the way they are shot – they’re essentially animation. So, animation takes over. What we used to think of as live action becomes predominantly animated. So essentially we see movies but they’re all basically Pixar movies and they’re photorealistic Pixar movies. That is work that is written but is not written by our kind of writers. I mean, they are in many cases – most cases animation writers are not covered by the same kinds of contracts.
Craig, is that a scenario you can imagine where there is a fight over what kinds of movies are coming on screen and whether those have to be written by us under our live action contracts or that they are really essentially animated films?
Craig: Yeah. That fight is coming no matter what. Now, I don’t think that we will ever be in a situation where moves are exclusively made in that manner because at some point we need new human beings to become fascinated with. Even if we leave the age of the movie star behind, we want to find people that get us excited again. Movies are endlessly renewing in this way.
If we switched over today to an all photorealistic/CGI model, well, I hope you like Tom Hanks because that’s all you’re getting from now until the end of time, right? So we need new. That said, yes, there are absolutely going to be situations where animation essentially has become akin to a totally controllable live action.
When that happens there’s going to be a fight. And the fight will have one of two outcomes I think. Either the WGA will somehow manage to establish that it actually has jurisdiction over photorealistic animation, which is an interesting argument and it’s possible. The other possibility is that the animation guild says, “No, it turns out that we do.” At which point if there’s a lot of that kind of work then suddenly you have a whole lot of WGA screenwriters becoming members of the animation guild. And at that point they become voting members of the animation guild and then you have a big fight on your hands.
It will get messy. If the companies are smart when they get to that crossroads, they will avoid a senseless battle. But they might also see an opportunity to crush us.
John: Yeah. It will be interesting to see what happens. I think we should explain that right now most of the photorealistic movies that you’ve seen have been written under a WGA contract. And some of that is just because of the filmmakers involved. Like Justin Marks’ Jungle Book. That was a WGA movie. It had a live action character in it. It had like a real human in it, which I think is part of the reason why it’s very safe to define, but I believe that the Lion King movie which is being done photorealistic is also a WGA movie.
I don’t know that to be true. But, we’re not the only union with a dog in this fight. There are actors who are doing these movies, at least right now, whose performance is being captured. And so those actors are working under a SAG contract.
John: And we are working under a WGA contract. The cameras are different. The filming mechanism is different. But it’s still very much like making a live action movie in that part of it.
Craig: Yeah. And I think that this is an area where all three guilds, the DGA, SAG, AFTRA, and the Writers Guild will join together. What choice do we have? We have to join together, when that comes, and say this is ours. We own this.
And, you know, I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy, but I don’t think that that form of filmmaking will ever completely replace standard filmmaking.
John: Standard filmmaking is comparatively really cheap. And so if you want to make a movie like Lady Bird, which is fantastic, you’re going to probably use real actors there. You don’t get a huge benefit out of using animation to do that.
Craig: No. It’s painstakingly slow. Just having someone blink takes either a blink or days.
John: Yes. So, last sort of big scenario I want to lay out there is what if screenplays are still written to some degree but they are not written by human beings? That some AI algorithm is generating screenplays and whether that is exactly what’s being filmed, or created through a computer process, or those scripts are being written and handed off to someone to polish and make them sound better. That a lot of the writing of screenplays gets handed off to AI.
So, I have a blog post that I still have not really ever published about it. I think you read an early version of it. I do wonder at what point AI will replace screenwriters. And so let’s chat about that.
Craig: Well, I don’t think it ever will. Again, for the same reason that even as we recycle a million things over and over with our, whatever they say, seven fundamental narratives, that we crave certain kinds of new. And we crave a certain kind of surprise and shock that is specifically crafted for surprise and shock. And I think that AI – I’m just guessing here – will never get better than mediocre. Mediocre would be amazing, by the way. I mean, the fact that a computer could be a mediocre writer would be kind of amazing.
I think that I could definitely see a future where AI or a couple of AIs are in a writer’s room. I could see them offering suggestions for storylines that might surprise you because they’re odd and they’re AI and they can do it really quickly. I can also see a situation where people would be like, “All right, we have to solve this problem. We need them to be here, but they’re over here, so we need to solve that logic problem. Hey, you know, Jim-bot, any ideas?” Well, and then, you know, by scanning through a billion possibilities Jim-bot offers you three or four and you’re like, “Oh, one of those is pretty good, but let’s now humanize it.” I could see that. Yeah.
John: I could see that as well. I think I am a little bit more, I don’t know if it’s optimistic or pessimistic, that AI algorithms and other sort of developments will be able to through iteration and just technologies we don’t really fully understand yet, sort of the black boxes that are able to do these amazing things, is going to come up with some things that are really fascinating. And so there will be some work that is created by an AI. It will be a movie that will come out and then right as it is coming out, or right after it premieres at Sundance it will be revealed like, “Oh, actually a computer wrote this.” And that will be part of the story behind it. And that will be an interesting tipping point the degree to which AI-assisted or AI-influenced movies are a thing that is existing in our world and displaces some of us fleshy writers doing our jobs.
I think the other stronger possibility is that these AIs will create something that is just wholly new. That isn’t like what you or I would do, but is fascinating because it’s just so different.
John: And I think that is actually a bigger danger in a way to the future of screenwriting and the future of movies is they’ll come up with something that is just really incredible, that is immersive and just mind-blowing so that you don’t want to go to the movies because what you can experience is so much cooler than movies that why would you go to the movies.
Craig: It’s possible. I also think that if AI comes up with something really cool like that, people will immediately be trying to make money off of it by doing their own versions of it. I also wonder sometimes, just as a purely theoretical question, if it’s impossible ultimately for humans to create a true human mimicking AI because we don’t have access to our own brains. We only have access to the function of our brains, if that makes sense.
Craig: So there is always that weird separation between what we teach it to do and what’s actually working to create the experience of our consciousness and all the rest of it. So I wonder if there’s just a fly in the ointment there that can never be overcome and that’s the thing that keeps AI from becoming us. It’s like asking a microscope to look at itself. It just doesn’t work.
We’ll see. Either way – listen – either way, you and I die.
John: Yes. One of the guarantees here. Well, actually I’m not going to take that as a guarantee. I think if I were ten years, maybe 20 years younger there’s a stronger possibility that I would not die. That essentially who I consider to be myself might continue on in some virtual form. I’m not so optimistic that’s going to happen in my lifetime, but for daughter, I think there’s a good chance that a lot of who she is would not die when her body dies.
Craig: [sighs] Whoa.
John: Whoa. How are you feeling about that, Craig? Would you – given the choice, would you want your consciousness to live on after your body has ceased to function?
Craig: No question. I have a lot of puzzling to do.
John: Yeah. There’s so many crossword puzzles. And honestly with better hardware you could just do more, you could do more at once. It would be amazing.
Craig: Fun. Yeah. It’s just fun.
John: So, last scenario I want to raise is, you know, in some ways one of the most realistic of the scenarios, but I’m curious what you think about it, the WGA ceases to exist for some reason and we can talk about some of the reasons why. It could be this animation sort of surpasses us. Some sort of huge change in how labor law works in the US.
Craig: Collusion with Russia? Something like that.
John: Yes. Just basically the nature that the WGA is a monopoly that is negotiating with oligopolies. And basically oligopolies become so powerful that the WGA monopoly is no longer enough to sort of stop it. What does screenwriting look like if the WGA goes away?
Craig: Terrible. One thing we can count on with our friends at the companies is a certain inescapable short-sidedness, like greedy children let loose in a candy store. They will gorge themselves until they puke and they will do the same with writing. If they can, they will exploit writers and content creators to the extent that nobody wants to do it anymore. They will. It’s just inevitable.
When you look at – I think this is all business in general. When it is unrestrained you get these busts and booms. It’s that cycle. They can’t help it. So, from a long-term point of view you’d say we have to treat these people well or else they’ll leave and not be here and then we’ll be out of product. And that’s true. But right now I personally can get a promotion if I deliver product at half the price. And so it begins.
John: It’s the creative version of the tragedy of the commons, where it benefits each individual person to be greedy and not think about the future, but by not thinking about the future they create this problem.
Craig: It’s also true for us. As writers, we’re humans. If you remove our commons, right, which is the sort of enforced commons of our union, and you just send us out into the workplace where there’s 20 jobs this year for four million people, it’s a race to the bottom. It’s just a very, very fast race to the bottom. And people will screw each other over to get whatever work they can just thinking, “Well look, I understand this is going to damage my profession and it’s going to make it harder for other people, including me, to get a decent living, but right now I need to pay my rent, so yes, I’ll work for minimum wage.” Well, there you go. It’s over.
John: Yesterday I heard a term I had never heard before, then it was described to me and I was horrified. Have you heard the term “virtual roundtable?”
Craig: God no.
John: So, the writer was describing it to me. And basically they said like, “We’re going to put together a virtual roundtable on this project.” What it means is you’re not going to be physically in the same room with the other writers. Basically we’re sending out the script to a bunch of writers and we’re asking each of them to do a punch-up on it. And then we’ll sort of assemble what people did. Which is troubling on some levels, but the amount of money they were paying for that virtual roundtable for basically a free comedy polish on the whole thing was like about $2,000.
Craig: That is not acceptable for our contract. That is a violation of the MBA. And I hope that you referred this to our legal department. It is a violation.
John: It is a giant violation. And by making up that term and sort of combining it with a thing which is a real thing, which is a roundtable, it makes it seem like it’s legit, but it’s not legit.
Craig: I have already made an argument, as you probably are aware, to our general counsel at the Writers Guild that the way studios currently do non-virtual roundtables but actual in person roundtables is a violation of the MBA and that we have all been systematically underpaid for those for like decades. And now they’re figuring out a way to make it even worse.
John: Yeah. So it’s on the agenda, Craig. You will hear more about this in the months ahead. I can’t tell you to relax. It’s not possible for Craig to relax. But know that that is a thing that will be – it’s on that agenda.
Craig: I mean, my god.
John: My god. Let’s go back through our worst case scenarios and try to apply a percentage to each of them. So let’s go back to a world ending or sort of civilization destroying instant that makes it so we’re no longer screenwriters.
Craig: Well, a couple years ago I would have said 0.001%, but now I’m going to put it at 2%. [laughs]
John: Yeah, I’m between 2% and 5% of some sort of giant catastrophe. An economic collapse that makes it impossible to make movies?
Craig: That makes it impossible to make movies? I mean, we’re due for a nice, big sock in the jaw, but I would say that’s pretty low. I’m going to go with 5%.
John: Yeah. I’m going to go even a little bit lower because I feel like the economic collapse would have to be so massive.
Craig: You’re right.
John: I think a plague is more likely than the kind of economic collapse that stops all movies.
Craig: I think you’re right. I’ll knock that down to a percent. A point.
John: Movies are written, but they’re written by international screenwriters?
Craig: No. Zero percent.
John: I’m going to give it still more like the 5%. I think there might be some way in which that happens. AI writes our movies?
Craig: 1%. Very low. Very low numbers.
John: That’s low. I would say that AI takes a certain chunk out of the screenwriter’s life, or basically the number of screenwriters becomes lessened because of it.
Craig: OK, well that’s different. Then I would go up to – and of course, what’s our timeframe for that?
John: Let’s say in 20 years.
Craig: Oh, 20 years? Yeah, 1%.
John: Something else replaces movies. Basically we stop making movies because something else is cooler.
Craig: Question mark percent. I mean, because I don’t know what – that could be anything really.
John: Yeah. I’m basically describing magic.
John: The WGA falls apart. The WGA ceases to exist?
Craig: Sadly, that is one of the more likely scenarios. It is not a likely scenario, but I would put that at 4%.
John: I think that’s about right. In 20 years, I think I would be nervous that it would happen. I might even go a little bit higher because I can imagine if organized labor really goes under just even greater attack, I could see that falling apart.
John: All these percentages are still pretty low. I think if you’re an aspiring writer listening to this podcast, we’re not telling you to give up. I think you should still try to do it.
Craig: Yeah. Generally speaking, your problem isn’t any of the things we’ve said. Your problem is the fact that there are fewer of these jobs than there are in the NFL.
John: Indeed. A person with a problem is Dean in Sydney, Australia.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: He sent in his question as an audio clip, so let’s take a listen.
Dean: My question is actors. Do you ever find that actors come up to you and go, “Hey, so what’s that about? Help me out with that.” If so, awesome. If not, why not? And how do you approach actors as a writer?
John: So, Craig, how do you approach an actor as a writer? And I take it, yes, actors do sometimes come up. Sometimes you have things you would like to say to an actor. What is the dance there?
Craig: Well, in television it’s no dance, right? So, you’re running your show, you’re in charge, you sit and you talk to the actors all the time. And that’s fine. You know, you want to respect a certain relationship between the director and the actor so that while they are actually shooting there is a – we’ll call it a simplification of voices. Because acting is hard enough. When you have two different people telling you two different things on top of each other, it can be confusing. Actors are trained to respond to one person giving them a point of view about their performance.
And, you know, then at times there may be a pause and a discussion and that’s different.
Now, in features, it should work the way I just said it works in television. It doesn’t. In part because directors have created a – I would just argue an artificial culture of dominance over performance and talking to actors.
There are times when I think the actors are desperate to talk to the writers, and vice versa, but there is this strange religious thing that you’re not allowed to, and it’s offensive, and the director will lose their minds, and ban you from the set because how dare you. Which really speaks to how remarkably insecure some directors are. Again, there is a great reason to filter all immediate input about a performance through the director to keep things clear and understandable for actors. But aside from the performance, when we’re talking about in between days and we’re talking about before shooting and rehearsals and all that, the writer wrote it. It makes sense for the writer and the actor to have a discussion about what it means.
But in features, directors feel this need to be the sole god of interpretation, which is why I think a lot of movies are just stinky.
John: Yeah. I agree with you that it should be different in features than it is. I think you have to be mindful of just the way it is and find the best ways to influence the process.
So, this last year as we were doing Big Fish in London, we started rehearsals and one of the things that was the best part of the process for me is we pulled the actors aside in little small rooms and I sit with me, and the actors, and the director, and we’d read through the scenes and we’d talk about them and then we’d read through them again. And that was really my chance to influence what they were doing. Because it was in front of the director, but it was really about the text. And we could really focus on what the intentions were, what some of the options and choices were. We could really look at that. And after that process, if actors came back with a question we could refer back to that previous meeting where we all sat down and it was clear that these are the cool things we can all talk about and it was good.
Then when we’re actually in the room rehearsing, if I had something I needed to change about an actor’s performance, I would go through the director so it was clear that like this is something I want to see, but I’m not trying to do his job, and I’m not trying to insert myself.
Occasionally on movies I’ve had that same experience. On Go, we would sit in little small rooms and just talk through stuff and figure out how we were doing things. And on that movie I ended up becoming incredibly involved in sort of performance because Doug is literally holding the camera on his shoulder and so we’d shoot something and if I needed to change something, or if I saw something happening in front of the camera, I would have to tell Doug who was standing there right with the actors with the camera on his shoulder. So I would tell Doug and Doug would say, “Oh yeah, yeah, what he said.” And then we’d keep going.
That’s ideal and it’s really rare. Most cases when I see something and I need to give a note, it’s this weird dance of suggesting to the director and then hoping that he or she passes that note along to the actor.
Craig: Exactly. And, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time on sets and by and large I’ve had great relationships with directors. And that’s how I do it. I’m there at the monitor and I choose my points. There’s a certain talent to it, Dean, and, well, wrong word. It’s not a talent. There is a craft to it that you can learn. So, you learn, and here, I’ll make it easy for everybody listening. You can skip a lot of mistakes just like this.
The first take or two, let the director just direct. Eight times out of ten the thing that you see, they see too. When you’re directing an actor you are building a performance a lot of the time. So, you get something and then you have a bunch of things in your head. OK, I need that to go faster. They’re saying this word wrong. They don’t understand what that line means. And I need a pause here and here. And then I need them to look and respond without saying a word. That’s a lot.
You cannot tell – some actors you actually tell all that too and they’re like machines. Most you can’t. Most you’re going to go, “Great, awesome. Let’s do it again. Let’s just go a little faster. We’re feeling it. We’re getting into it, right.”
The director has the plan. A lot of times writers who are new to sets sit there and go, “Oh, no, no that’s not all right. That was terrible.” And it was. But calm down. Because “that was terrible” is not great direction. So give the director a chance. Then, when you notice that the director seems to have locked in on a thing and you are still concerned about something, it’s OK at that point to kind of saddle up and go, “Here’s one thing to think about. What if…or do you think that…?” And they’ll go, “Oh, OK.”
Now, sometimes they’ll say, “No, no, no.” Sometimes they’ll be annoyed that you’re talking to them. Sometimes they’ll be, “Oh yeah, good idea.” You never know what you’re going to get. Directing is hard. And then one thing I’ve learned over time is to not take the director’s mood particularly personally. Because they have to swallow all of their misery, anger, frustration, and impatience so as to not show it to the actors. Because actors will presume it’s about them and then it’s messing up their performance.
So everybody else gets the worst of them. Right? And that’s, you know, and I get that. But you figure out a way to kind of deal with them, just as they’re figuring out a way to deal with the actors. And now everyone is taking care of themselves, but you’ve given the director a chance. And then you should be OK. Especially, by the way, if your comments are actually helpful.
You make four or five annoying, stupid suggestions in a row, no one is going to listen to you.
John: Absolutely. Acting is hard. Directing is hard. And you as the writer have this ideal performance in your head, because you wrote the scene. So you saw it a certain way in your head and a lot of the process as you’re watching it is like, OK, this is different than what I saw, but does this accomplish the same things? If it doesn’t, then yes, you speak up. And you speak up after they’ve had a little chance to get into it.
If you do notice that words are being messed up or a thing I sometimes notice is they’ve changed the tense on a verb and I know that it’s not going to cut right with the other thing. They’ve locked into a bad pattern. This is your chance to talk to the script supervisor. So the scripty is there to remind actors what the actual lines are and to sort of get them back on track with that. And she can be your incredible ally in getting the words that should actually be there there.
Again, don’t mess with it if it’s just slightly different words and doesn’t really matter. But if it does matter, or if it’s really changing the meaning, or changing an important plot point, yes, you need to step up there.
I remember on my first movie, on Go, there was a point where I went off to the restrooms, but I still on my comm text — on my headphones. And I heard the scene being performed. And I realized like, oh shit, they’ve changed the tenses here. When they try to turn it around to shoot the other side of that it is not going to match at all. So I scrambled back in there and got them to take one more take with the actual right proper verbs there, because otherwise I just knew we were going to be in the editing room and we were going to be cutting around this thing that they shouldn’t have had to cut around.
Craig: Yeah. Or looping in a line, which nobody ever wants to do. I mean, we have – this is why directors frustrate me. They make it hard for us to do our job on the set. And they should make it easy for us to do our job. I understand their fear and concern about writers essentially wrestling away everyone’s job and the difficult task of making something to hold it to some imaginary movie in their heads. But most of us are smart enough to know that’s not really what we do. And just let us help because we’re actually very good at understanding how our scripts work.
John: All right. Do you want to take Matthew’s question?
Craig: Sure. We’ve got Matthew here. He says, “I’m an author of four novels, first with Doubleday, and now Macmillan, and I have a couple more on the way in 2018. All four of my published works are currently optioned for film by a variety of entities – production companies, producers, and a writer. My first novel has been optioned at least four times by four different entities, but to date nothing has happened. Scripts have been written. Well-known actors and directors have been attached at various times. I get paid a small but not insignificant amount of money every one to two years as the options are renewed or expired and then get picked up by someone else. But I’m wondering: will this ever happen? Can you give me some insight from your side of the table? How often does an optioned novel end up on the big screen? Why is this process so fraught and uncertain?”
That’s a great question, Matthew.
“My agent says to just keep writing my books, which I have. And actually written a couple screenplays now for my film agent. But I’ve gotten to the point that I just tell my friends I’ve stopped thinking about the possibility of a movie a long time ago.”
Oh, that’s a tale of woe, John. What do you think?
John: It’s not really a tale of woe. It’s a tale of reality. And I think Matthew has hit on it. Most books that get optioned don’t get made into movies. Most scripts that get written don’t get made into movies. And when I see authors being so excited about the film rights sold, or it’s going to be a movie, I’m happy for them, but I also want to pull them aside and let them know that like if it gets made into a movie, that’s winning the lottery. That so rarely happens.
Because I’m usually the person who gets sent these kinds of books. And I’ll read the book and say like, “Yes, this is a great book. I just don’t see this actually happening as a movie in our environment.” And I’ll be honest with the producers about that.
But other times, like Big Fish, it happens. And so you just don’t know. And you have so little control over it, Matthew. That’s the remarkable thing. As the author you control everything. And every word and every comma. Movies seem like they’re made by magic. Like other people just go off and run and 200 people are off making your movie. Except most times they don’t get made. They get optioned, they pay someone to write a script. That script sits on a shelf and it doesn’t happen.
Craig: Yeah I actually think you’ve come up with the best possible method here, Matthew, which is to stop thinking about the possibility of a movie, because this is our world, too. I mean, we’re the ones who get hired to write these things. And I understand from a logical point of view you say, listen, you’ve paid me money to adapt this into a movie. Adapt it into a movie! Why would you pay me money to not adapt it into a movie?
Well, there is an appetite for material. And that appetite is greatest when the costs are the lowest. And then it narrows as the potential costs become higher. So, the option amount, there’s a low barrier of entry there. That’s a dollar and a dream. It’s a lottery ticket, right?
OK, I’m not suggesting that you optioned your books for a dollar, of course, but I’m saying – let’s say you’ve optioned your book for $500,000. Well, for a studio it’s actually not that much. So now the sky is the limit. Let’s see who we can get with this great book. Let’s see if we can get the big star, the big director, the big writer. And then, you know, maybe you do get one of those things. And then you start to try.
And you get a script. And you get a director. And you get a producer. But at some point when you’re really close, someone is going to come up with a budget. Well, now the decision is not $500,000, or a million or two for a writer. The decision is $50 million, $80 million. Really it’s more like $150 million because of marketing and all the rest. This is the problem. And so you should stop thinking about it. You should take the money, spend that money, save that money, do with it what you will. Don’t think about it. This is the proverbial watched pot. Turn away and it will either boil or not.
John: The other thing you have to keep in mind is that even if the movie gets made, that may not be a good thing. In the process of doing Arlo Finch, I got to talk to a lot of authors whose books were optioned and in some cases were made. And it wasn’t always a great experience. In some cases the movies were really bad. And so it’s a frustrating experience as an author to have made something that you truly love but there’s another version out there that you don’t love. And that is a strange thing that can happen to you as well.
So, I don’t have any advice for Matthew other than to I guess be happy that in the movies not getting made at least not a bad version is out there of something that he worked on. It would be so incredibly dispiriting to see these characters you love and this world you’ve built made into something that does not resemble at all your hopes and your ambitions. That’s not good for anybody.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. Always look on the bright side there, Matthew.
John: All right. Last question is Scott from Scotland.
Craig: Oh, of course.
John: Of course. He asks, “Is it OK to use Twitter and so on as part of a plot? Or are there circumstances where it’s necessary to create a fictional brand that mimics an actual existing site?”
Craig: Well, like always, Scott, it depends on what you’re doing. You can certainly mention Twitter casually and a character can say I tweeted about it, and I saw it on Twitter, and so forth. If you want to show a screen with Twitter on it, you’re going to have to deal with Twitter. Because now you’re using their design and their logo and their technology as part of your movie. By and large what happens in production is either the platform is so essential to the concept of the movie that the studio makes a deal and works it out so that they can actually use that. Or they come up with their own fake version of it.
John: The fake version is always terrible. I hate the fake version.
John: And I will say that I used to work in clearance at Universal so when you saw things that were trademarks on screen, I was the person who had to call and get the legal clearance to show that thing on screen. I had to get the clearances for Reality Bites a zillion years ago.
A lot of places now I think are just saying kind of screw it. It’s the real world. We’re not going to worry so much about clearing all that stuff. I don’t know what has informed them that they feel like that’s a choice they can make. But I like that they make it. Movies don’t feel real to me. I’m aware that I’m watching a movie when I see a fake version of Twitter or Facebook or anything else in there.
I understand why it still happens, but it always annoys me when I see it.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there are ways to create things that are close enough that you don’t even notice that they’re not the real thing. You know, you want to show a Facebook page. You can design a page that looks a whole lot like Facebook, but it’s slightly different, and just don’t show the top of it where the logo would be. Now it looks like Facebook and everybody gets it. So, there are all sorts of cheap knockoff things like that.
By and large though, it’s a risky thing to write a movie like that. I mean, you can say, “Look, we’re writing a script. It’s called Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Well, you’re going to need White Castle. [laughs] You’re going to need them to play ball. There is now way around it, right? Otherwise it’s going to be Harold and Kumar Go to Burger Prince, and that’s not going to be any good.
But, Scott from Scotland, good news, it doesn’t really matter right now. I’m guessing that you are just trying to get some attention and some love for the work you’re doing, so write the movie you want to write. You’re free here. You are unfettered. John and I have to deal with this crap all day long. You don’t. So, why? Why burden yourself with it? Just presume that if somebody falls in love with this script, they will let you know how to work around it. And if truly the whole thing is like, oh my god, if only we could do this but we can’t, well, they’ll have other work for you. That’s just the way it goes.
John: So this is all a matter of public record. You can Google this. But I originally set up the rights to RJ Palacio’s book Wonder. And I loved her book and as we were pitching at places and describing it, one of the things which was always in the back of my mind is, “Wow, when I actually get around to adapting this we’re going to have to talk about some of the things that are in the book and are fine in the book but are going to be real challenges when we put them on screen, such as Star Wars.” Chewbacca is in it. There’s a lot of Star Wars throughout the whole thing.
John: There’s Minecraft in it. They perform scenes from the play Our Town. There was just a lot of stuff in there that like, man, that is going to be a complicated clearance situation and we should be thinking about alts.
I did not end up writing that movie for other reasons. But I finally saw the movie and they cleared all of it. They used Star Wars. They used Our Town. There’s specific music things that are in there that I would have thought would have been challenging to clear, but they did it because they felt it was important enough to make it be in the movie. I have no idea what the deals were behind that, but they were able to make it happen.
Craig: Then you also have things like the – there’s a song You’re Making Things Up Again, Arnold in Book of Mormon. And in that you’ll see he’s referencing Yoda, Darth Vader, characters from Lord of the Rings. And they just do generic versions of it. So it’s sort of Yoda, but it’s not Yoda. And this way they don’t have to pay anybody. But we all get it. We all get the joke, you know.
John: And because they’re living in a world of parody and sort of heightened things it’s much easier for that to play there.
John: But like fake Chewbacca for Wonder would have been really, really weird.
Craig: That would have not – fake Chewbacca in general, it’s like who can even tell it’s Chewbacca at that point?
John: I know. Then it’s just a rug.
Craig: It’s just a rug. It’s a bear.
John: It’s a bear with a haircut.
Craig: Yeah. Bear with a haircut.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is the USS Callister episode of Black Mirror from the new season of Black Mirror. It’s written by Charlie Brooker and William Bridges. I thought it was terrific. And I think Black Mirror is a great series anyway, but what I really liked about this episode and why I think it’s so useful for writers to take a look at it is it does very interesting things with our assumptions about who is the protagonist and who is the villain. You know, characters who you think like, oh, is that a love interest or a principal character? There are characters quite early on that you’re like that’s going to be the bad guy of this one-hour of entertainment, and you are surprised by sort of how stuff plays out.
So, I just thought it was a really terrific episode, but also a really great exercise in understanding audience’s expectations, manipulating them, and also sort of trusting that they’ll go with you. And that you can have characters do some really surprising things if you’ve set the groundwork of your world really well.
Craig: Yeah. That’s the – I think that’s part of the freedom of the format of television. There’s an understanding like you can pause, you can get up, you can walk around, you can come back. So we’ve all lowered the stakes of “Oh my god this must be awesome every second and I must be comfortable every second.” Movies are more and more designed to have like, you know the way like big potato chip companies obsess over mouth feel and stuff like that.
Movies are not designed to just like, ah, no objections ever. Television kind of doesn’t care if you’re there or not, which I love.
John: Which can be great. Gone Girl is another example of a movie that is so confidently made that they’re able to do things about the hero/villain relationship that is surprising and different. So, I always want to sort of single out and celebrate the ones that take those big swings and connect.
Craig: I hear that. Hear that, yo.
All right, so my One Cool Thing this week is a human being by the name of Megan Ganz. She is writer who worked on Community, Modern Family, It’s Always Sunny, Last Man on Earth. That’s a whole lot of funny in one resume.
But why she is my One Cool Thing this week is because she spoke out publicly about a difficult time she had working on Community with Dan Harmon, the creator/showrunner of that show. And essentially implied that he had created a sexually hostile environment. That she had experienced harassment by him and it was very upsetting and difficult for her.
And what ensued interestingly enough was this very long, very heartfelt apology from Dan Harmon. But that’s I think where a lot of people stop. I think people go, wow, Dan Harmon, good job for apologizing.
But, you know, my whole thing is a good apology just gets you back to zero. Right? I mean, you’ve gone negative by doing a bad thing. The perfect apology, the best apology ever possible just gets you back to zero. Apologies in and of themselves are not good works.
But here is what is a good work. Megan Ganz, after listening to his apology, forgave him. And I thought that was just remarkable. You know, he did a bad thing. He did a series of bad things. And in fact by her talking about it, I also learned more about how pernicious this kind of thing is. Because we tend to think of it as the simplest example. Someone grabs your butt. They grab a boob. They say a weird thing to you. They show you their whatever. And it’s, blech. But actually there’s this other kind of just relentless, creepy kind of thing that’s like a slow drip. And it turns sour. And it crosses the line into professional stuff. And you become mistreated and you doubt yourself. And the whole thing is just – it was fascinating to hear how it all went down and it was very upsetting. And all the more reason that I thought her forgiveness of him, which she earned, and she made a decision about, was impressive. And I think forgiving somebody on your own terms is a sign of character.
Doesn’t mean that you have to every time. But I was really impressed. I thought that she handled herself bravely to start with and bravely to finish with. And so I want to concentrate on her and say well done Megan Ganz. You have led by example. I think you’re great.
John: Yeah. I’ve followed Megan on Twitter for a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever met her in real life. And I didn’t know any of this backstory. But knowing this backstory makes me appreciate her very, very funny tweets in a whole new light. So, I agree with you. I think we need to commend what she was able to do here.
Craig: Yeah. Really, really very uplifting. It moved me. It really did.
John: Great. Our show is produced by our own Megan, Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Andrew Roninson. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you send questions like the ones we answered today.
On Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
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You will find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcript. It goes up within the week usually of an episode coming out.
Craig, thank you for a fun episode.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: I hope we didn’t destroy screenwriting in talking about it.
Craig: Oh, that would be kind of cool.
Craig: Sort of like opening the Schrödinger’s cat box. Oh, you killed it.
John: I killed it.
Craig: I knew you would.
- Wonder, adapted from RJ Palacio’s book, references many brands. So does “Making Things Up Again” from The Book of Mormon.
- The USS Callister episode of Black Mirror written by Charlie Brooker & William Bridges
- Megan Ganz
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
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