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 342 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
We’ve had a bunch of craft episodes back to back, so today I thought we’d take a look at the business side of things. We’re going to talk about getting paid, getting credit, and getting rid of a bad manager.
Craig: Yes! Oh my god, that’s like the trifecta of stuff that makes me pleased.
John: Very good. We’ve done almost no preparation for this episode, so it’s going to be making up answers as we go, which is sometimes the best thing.
Craig: You know, John, welcome to my world buddy. This is every episode for me.
John: We have some follow up though. Chaz from Disney wrote in to say, “On the last episode of Scriptnotes, Craig and John pitched a ‘standing offer’ to come and discuss the notes process with any studio that was interested in having such a discourse. I ran the idea past our president, Sean, and we agreed. As two gentlemen that we hold in very high regard, we’d like to take them up on that offer.”
So, that’s one studio down.
Craig: It’s not just one studio. It’s actually five studios. So, if I could have picked one studio to do this, it would have been Disney, not because they’re particularly good or bad at giving notes. It’s more that they cover so much. They now own Fox, in terms of movies, and Disney, and Disney Animation, and Pixar, and Marvel, and Lucas Film. That’s a lot of notes going out the door. And Sean Bailey, who is the head of Walt Disney Pictures, so that’s their live action film arm from Disney, is fantastic. We both know him and have worked with him and for him.
And I’m not surprised that he’s the guy who said yes to this, by the way. It’s very Sean-like to want –- he’s a good scientist in this regard. You know, he’s very rational and he loves the idea of kind of hearing another point of view on this.
So, I want to say to – so first of all, we’re doing it, for sure.
John: Yeah. We need to figure out when we’re doing it. Sometime post-Chernobyl or sometime.
Craig: It will be post-Chernobyl. I mean, we are all living in a post-Chernobyl era, but probably as we get into the summer. But I would also like to point out to any of you listening at Sony or Universal or Warner Bros., Disney is doing it.
John: It’ll be nice.
All right, so the question is what exactly are we going to say because it’s very easy to point out like bad things about notes, but even since we got this email in I started asking other writer friends about what are examples of good notes –- what is a helpful way to sort of give notes?
So, if you are a writer who has gotten good notes from a studio, or have received notes that were actually helpful or presented in a way that was helpful. It could be the means of getting the notes, or the structure of the notes, or who was giving the notes, let us know about that because we’d like to talk about best practices and not just complain about things that are terrible.
Craig: Completely. And, in fact, I don’t think it’s particularly useful to run down a list of here’s the dumbest note I ever got. That’s not what this is about. For me, this is entirely about process and philosophy. And very specifically what is going on in our brains, in an emotional sense, and in a productive sense. What is happening inside of our heads when we’re doing this? And what are the general philosophies that work best?
The whole point of this is entirely to get better work made. So better work out of us. Better work for them. And some of it is a little counterintuitive. There are things that I think have just become encrusted in the notes process that need to be looked at freshly and then dismissed. They are no longer useful. They’re not the right way to do it.
John: Yeah. They are barnacles on the system that need to be shaken free.
Craig: Hells yeah.
John: Hells yeah. Next up, Jen writes, “In Episode 340 both John and Craig use the term ‘central casting’ to describe a character. Can you describe what you mean by this?”
Craig: This is an old Hollywood term that’s kicked around forever and then has made its way into general lingo out there. Central casting refers to the most stereotypical example of how you would fill a role. So, if you say, OK, well this character of the prison guard is straight out of central casting, well who would you imagine is the most stereotypical prison guard? This big beefy guy with a buzz cut and kind of tough looking.
I mean, whatever it is that you imagine. It’s just the most stereotypical version of that person.
John: Yeah. So central casting, there was a casting department at a lot of studios. I think there still is a casting department at most studios. I know like networks will have the casting department. But it doesn’t sort of work that same way now. When we talk about central casting, we’re describing the look of the person. So it’s both the actor and how that character is made up. And so that’s the, again, the incredible stereotype of what that’s supposed to be like.
So it’s the nurse with horn-rimmed glasses. There is a very set idea of what that thing is like. So, you can say central casting in your script if you’re trying to sort of push against it or that it’s an example of why you want to be the biggest stereotype possible. But it’s not generally helpful. And so usually, if hear the term central casting, it is pejorative in that it is not well thought through.
Craig: Yeah. Inside of our business it’s pejorative. So you’ll say, OK, well you’ve written this butler character to be straight out of central casting. He’s a ramrod posture British man at the age of 60 who says, “Very good sir.” That’s central casting. It’s cliché. We don’t like it so much.
In the outside world, behind Hollywood, a lot of times they use it as a compliment like, well, we had to hire ourselves a new head CEO and we found this person and they were straight out of central casting, meaning they’re just the ideal person for that gig. So, two different meanings, but inside Hollywood not so great. Outside, generally pretty good.
John: I’m not sure. I think it’s changing outside of the world, too. Like your example of a CEO out of central casting, it does feel a little unimaginative. Like you’re worried that that person does not have a vision.
Craig: I think in the business world that’s considered a plus.
John: Although I would say, you know, the central casting version of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur, like that I totally get. You still see that out there.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: Yep. With the hoodie.
Craig: With the hoodie.
John: Kevin writes, “I’m listening to you guys argue about Sarah Paradise’s three pages as I type. I’ve been a stuntman in LA since 1999. Craig, you’re right.”
Craig: Oh, let’s just stop the podcast here. We’re done. Wrap it up. We had a great run. Folks–
John: 342 episodes.
Craig: At that’s our episode. Scriptnotes is produced by–
John: Now fill out your forms. Make sure you return all your uniforms. Erase all those little notes in the margins because we’re done.
Craig: We’re done.
John: Craig has finally been proven right.
John: There’s a little bit more to the email, so we’ll get through it.
Craig: Ah, OK.
John: “Stunt people don’t punch each other in the face, especially stunt people who happen to be attractive women. If we are accidentally hit during a fight on a show or a movie we pretend it didn’t happen, then whisper to the person who did it to say you clipped me on that one. Then they apologize profusely. This is because how we look is a large part of how we get employed. Hell, we don’t even get haircuts for fear of losing work because an actor has to be doubled with long hair.
“Side note: I’ve been writing for about 17 years. I’ve been listening to current episodes as they come out, but I’m also on Episode 80 on the back catalog. The back episodes are fresh and informative because I’m a different writer now than I was a few years ago. I recommend that every listener go back through the old episodes again. It’s not like watching reruns. It’s more like watching Fight Club for the second time.”
Craig: Wow. That’s a hell of a compliment.
John: That really is.
Craig: Thank you, Kevin. I mean, by the way, also just a brilliant analogy, because I remember the first time I watched Fight Club and I was like what is this garbage? Then I got to the end. And then I watched it again and I was like, oh, this is my new favorite movie of all time. And I’ve seen it a billion times since.
Yeah, by the way, Kevin, first of all thank you. You sound like a very responsible stunt actor, stunt performer, so thank you for also doing that job. We need you. And also I’m a different writer then I was back then, too. I think everybody is changing constantly. This podcast as it goes on is an interesting kind of archeological record of me and of John and of all of us. So, thanks. Really nice comment.
John: It is a nice comment. I would say that making Launch, the other podcast I did for Arlo Finch, even as I was making it I realized like, oh, this will actually be a great little time capsule of who I was and where I was at that time, because it’s really like what the experience was like of making that book. And I’m looking forward to being able to go back 10 years, 20 years from now and listening to that again.
I don’t know that I’ll go back to listen to the old Scriptnotes, but I’m sure if I did go back and listen to some, there’d be advice I gave or things I talked about which I have a different opinion on now just because things have progressed and changed. The industry has changed and I have changed a bit as a writer.
Craig: I mean, and the world around us. Everything. Everything. If we were the same, what would be the point anyway? Right? I mean, things keep changing. Even though I’m joking about how exciting it is to hear that I’m right, the truth is as writers we spend most of our day being wrong. That’s part of the process. And that’s how good things will eventually come. You recognize that you’re in motion all the time. So, we’re like little butterflies that flit around, then we land on an opinion. We can stay there for a little bit, and then we’ve got to flit away and find something better. So, all good. Thank you for that Kevin.
And I have a little bit of follow up myself. Because I talked about being wrong. OK, so I had my one brief moment of being right there. Yay. Now let’s get back to me being wrong again.
My One Cool Thing last week was Alto’s Odyssey, a game I was really enjoying and still am. But I had one complaint and that was that when I downloaded it for my iPad it did not show up on my iPhone. In fact, the iPhone was saying, hey, you got to give us more money now. And I thought, oh, they’ve made this app where you have to pay for it twice for some reason because it’s on an iPad versus an iPhone.
No, no. It’s just that I had stupidly disabled my automatic iCloud app download function thingy. So, when I flipped that back on suddenly Alto’s Odyssey was available for download for no money, because I had already paid for it. I apologize Alto’s Odyssey people. My mistake. Sorry.
John: Yeah. It was user error.
Craig: It was totally user error. And you know what? I’ll tell you, it’s not like anyone told me. The Alto’s Odyssey people didn’t call up. If they heard about it, they probably just shook their heads and said, “Idiot.” But they let it go.
John: Yeah. Because you were that one person. I mean, there might be like 10 or 12 people in the world who are using this app and you are one of them. And I’m sure they were saddened that one of their 12 players wasn’t getting the best experience out of it.
Craig: Well, first of all, they spend their days listening to us. And specifically me. I’m pretty sure what they do is they just listen to my side of it. And, you know, they hang on every word. I get it. And I’m sorry. What do you want from me? I apologize.
John: All right, let’s get to some questions and all of these questions are from our listeners and they’ve written in about things that relate to the business of screenwriting. So, I thought we’d dig into those. They’re almost all feature questions, but I think there’s going to be some relevant things here for people writing for TV, both scripted TV and variety talk shows.
John: So we’ll start with Anonymous in LA. Writes, “I’m a young screenwriter who recently quit my well-paying salary job to pursue screenwriting full-time.”
Craig: Oh boy.
John: “I can hear Craig saying oh boy as I type this.”
Craig: Oh, interesting.
John: “Last year I wrote a script that earned a substantial amount of attention. And placed near the top of the Black List. It got me an agent and several dozen meetings with studios and production companies. Because I was taking mini meetings each week and could no longer fulfill the duties of my job, I decided to quit about three months ago. While I do not regret this decision, I have never been without steady work. And this new situation is quite frankly terrifying. I find myself in a constant state of anxiety and depression surrounding my unemployment. I am working towards securing work by pitching open assignments, but so far I have landed nothing.
“My question is, how do you deal with the anxiety and depression that comes from the instability of this profession?”
Craig: Well, we have talked about this quite a bit. So, first of all, Anonymous, you’re going to want to listen to Episode 99, that’s a big one I think that we talk about a lot. That’s where we had psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo, and also former screenwriter, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Dennis Palumbo onto talk a little bit about the psychological challenges that we face as screenwriters. It is very, very hard to do what you’re doing. I feel anxiety and depression and terror surrounding potential unemployment and so when you are actually unemployed I can only imagine it is even more crushing. And I can also imagine it becomes extremely hard to be creative and inspired. My guess is the adrenaline is really good for volume, that is you will write because you’re terrified, but the quality of it is going to start to become warped by your perception of what they want and what they will give you money for.
Suddenly the money becomes really, really, really important. It’s not to say that when you start out you shouldn’t be taking jobs for the money. It’s not a bad idea. You have to pay bills. And all experience is good experience. But I am concerned about your situation because you did quit and you are scared. And you have not been paid yet. And so I think it’s fair to say that you should try and find something that brings in some money. Maybe there’s some freelance work you can do. Maybe your agent, for instance, can hook you up with somebody that needs some copywriting done. Little things. Anything. Just to get a little bit of money in so you’re not in just a total freefall about money going out and nothing coming in. That is terrifying. And more than anything it’s not so much about your bank account, it’s about your head space and feeling like when you sit down to write you’re not doing it with a gun in your mouth.
John: Yep. I will say Anonymous I think you made the right choice. And I don’t know anything about your situation beyond what you described, but in your situation that is when you just decide, OK, I’m going to have to pursue this fulltime because otherwise I can’t take these meetings. I can’t make this all happen.
So, you got to pull the ripcord at some point and you probably pulled the ripcord at the right moment. But it is scary. And I was exactly where you were at where I left my last job and I had not sold anything, but I had an agent and I had some traction. I was taking meetings. It looked like something could happen. But there were about four months there, five months there where there was just nothing and I was just falling. And one of those slow motion falls where you’re sort of swimming through the air. So I definitely remember what that felt like.
I think Craig’s suggestion of trying to find some way to get some income is good. And freelance copywriting could be something. Uber or Lyft could be something. Something so there’s a little bit of money coming in would be great.
Minimizing your expenses would be great, because if you’re a person who came from a salary job you’re used to like, oh OK, I can make this all work because I know how much money I have coming in. When you don’t know how much money you have coming in that all changes. And you’ve got to be realistic about how your life is going to change. Because even when you hopefully do get a job or sell something, that will be a chunk of money and that chunk of money will disappear.
So what I did in Anonymous’ situation was I had a little spreadsheet and I had my monthly expenses. I knew how much it cost for me to live each month with rent, with utilities, with food. I minimized those as much as I could, but I could see like this is how much money I have. This is how I can live for six months on the money I have. And you’ll get through it.
So I think you’ve done the right thing but I think you’re also right to be thinking about “How do I prepare for this thing that could go on a little bit longer than I’d hoped.”
Craig: Yeah. I think she or he has done the right thing, too. I definitely think so. I mean, based on what you’re saying, placed near the top of the Black List. You have an agent. You’ve had meetings and attention. All that says, yes, you did the right thing.
And I will tell you that the worst part of your fear, I think, at least for me, is the fear of the fear itself -– that it will never go away. That this is your life now. That you now live in a terrible freefall as John described. And it’s not going to get better. Or, if you do get a job it’s only a brief respite and then you’re right back in the fear pit again. So all I can tell you, Anonymous, is no.
Here’s the situation: you will either succeed in a reasonable way so as to make yourself a life and a career as a screenwriter. Or you won’t, and then you will go back to doing what your well-paying salary job was. The good news is you’re young so it’s OK to be afraid but don’t think this is forever. The feeling that you’re having now is not forever.
John: Yeah. It will morph into a different kind of forever feeling.
Craig: Which is also exquisitely horrible. But wait until you’re in your 40s and then you’ll know about that one.
John: Yes. So what I would say is different about my advice for Anonymous than for some other writers is that Anonymous is in a situation where –- we’ll say she –- she placed well on the Black List, she has an agent, she’s going out for these meetings. It’s not just an idle dream that she has of being a screenwriter. Like she’s a screenwriter, it’s just a question of getting paid to be a screenwriter and whether that will happen. I think it probably will happen. As we’ve always said, any person starting in the feature business right now has to also be looking at television, so hopefully your agents are sending you out on great television meetings as well.
But I think something will probably happen because you seem to be a good writer who is asking smart questions.
Craig: Yeah. One last bit of advice for you, and then we’ll move on from Anonymous, it’s good that you’re going out for the open assignments. Open assignments are lotteries really. Because what happens with open assignments is they are casting a pretty wide net. You’re going up against a lot of people who are exactly like you. And at any given moment either one of them will get the job, or someone like John will bump into the executive one day, they’ll have a chitchat over a drink. That executive will say, “Oh, we’re working on this thing.” And then John will say, “Oh my god, based on that book? I loved that book as a kid.” “Really? Would you want to read?” “Yeah, I’ll read that. You know what? I can do that.” And then it’s over. There is no more open writing assignment.
So, point being, don’t let those things –- and this is the hardest part because you have to prepare. It’s like you’re writing a movie a week preparing to pitch on these things. But don’t let that distract you from what got you in this position in the first place which was your voice and writing your work. That is the one thing that John can’t do, nor can anyone else. No one else can write your script. So, keep that going. That is going to keep you fresh and in people’s eyes.
They are so much more interested in writers that are sending them things than writers who are coming in with their hand out saying give me something.
John: Yeah. The third possibility in those open writing assignments is that the job just completely goes away because they decide like, oh, maybe there isn’t a movie to be made about this. And I would say in more than half the cases they hire nobody for those jobs. And so that is the other frustration. But what you’re describing, that process of going out for an open writing assignment, or a quasi-open writing assignment, like they’re not even sure they’re going to really be making this movie, is it’s like an actor going out on auditions. And auditioning is a crucial skill for actors and pitching on these things is a crucial skill for writers.
I’d hoped to have her on the show at some point and maybe we’ll still have her on the show, but Jenna Fischer has a really good book on being an actor and sort of an actor’s life. And she talks a lot about that audition process and how crucial it is in terms of finding your own voice going through that audition process. So I’m going to recommend that to you to read through as well, because actors and writers have a lot in common in this area.
John: Cool. Theo writes in with four questions. So we’ll take each question one at a time. His first question is, “How many scripts did you write before making your first sale?” Craig Mazin?
John: So you wrote one script. What was that script?
Craig: It was a script that I wrote with my then writing partner called The Stunt Family.
John: Oh yeah, we’ve talked about The Stunt Family.
Craig: It was not good. But it was funny. It was just not good. It was very dated, very early ‘90s sort of Simpsons-y kind of live action thing. A very broad comedy about a legendary family of stunt people. Very silly. Sort of like a Chris Farley kind of thing.
John: Did they hit each other in the face?
Craig: Oh my god, like that was constant.
John: Because according to our follow up, they shouldn’t hit each other in the face.
Craig: Well, that’s the thing. Because this movie was so ridiculous and over the – I mean, they lived on the studio lot. Their house was part of the studio tour, so every day a tram would go through and an “earthquake” would rip their house apart. It was very, very broad.
John: I wrote three scripts before I had anything sold or I got paid to write. So, Here and Now, which was a romantic tragedy set in Boulder, Colorado, my home town. Devil’s Canyon, which is a cross between Unforgiven and Aliens I want to say. And X which was the short film version of Go, so it was just the first third of Go. So those are the scripts I’d written before that.
My first sale was actually an assignment. I was hired to write the adaptation of How to Eat Fried Worms. Was your first sale a sale, Craig?
Craig: Yes. Well, it was a pitch.
John: It was Rocket Man?
Craig: It was Rocket Man. That’s exactly what it was. When we pitched it the title that we had was Space Cadet, which we eventually were not allowed to use because Lucas Film apparently was squatting on Space Cadet, which I’m still waiting for the Lucas Film Space Cadet. It’s been about 22 years.
John: Any day now.
Craig: Any day. They’re on it.
John: Theo’s next question is, “How many scripts have you written that have not been made?” For me the answer is at least 11. I was counting through in the folder. It’s probably more than that, but at least 11.
Craig: Now, does that include things like, OK, where I came in and I was rewriting something and then eventually that project just never happened?
John: Yeah, so I’m not counting those. I actually have printed original full scripts I wrote that were not based on a previous script.
Craig: Oh, I see. Geez, maybe like three. Not that many. Because most of the time I was either rewriting something that somebody else had started or it was an adaptation of something that kind of had been sputtered along. Or it was kind of like a sequel. There was a lot of that.
John: Theo’s next question, “How many scripts have you written that have never been optioned or sold?”
Craig: I’ve never optioned anything.
John: I’ve never optioned anything either. The only thing I ever sold was Go.
Craig: I’ve never sold a screenplay.
John: Well except for Rocket Man.
Craig: That was a pitch.
John: Oh, it was a pitch. The pitch. That’s right. A pitch.
Craig: Yeah. I’ve actually never sold literary material like that. I’ve either been commissioned to do it, or I have sold a pitch.
John: Yeah. I’ve sold some original pitches, but I’ve never sold a spec script, except for Go.
Craig: Except for Go, yeah.
John: “And what was the story behind your first sale? How much did you sell it for?” Well, my only sale was Go. I think it was about $75,000, sort of all in. So it was purchasing the script and the rewrite on it. That was for a little tiny company called Banner. We ended up selling the project to Sony right before we started shooting. But it was really done as an indie film.
So, that was fine money for what that was. So they said in that deal that I’d be a co-producer on the film and I’d be involved in the whole process and they were true to their word. So, it was a very good deal for me to have taken.
Craig: Yeah, so my first sale was the pitch for Space Cadet/Rocket Man. It was to Disney. It was 1995, I think, is when it happened. Roughly I believe we got something like $110,000, which then we had to split, of course, and then we had to pay our manager, and our agent, and our lawyer. So, it dwindled pretty quickly. And that was also when we learned how long it would take the contract to actually be finished therefore how long it would take us to actually get our money. So, for one day we felt like billionaires, even though we understood $100,000 was not a billion dollars. About eight months later I was like, “Can I please have my $15,000?” Because that’s all I’m getting out of this really. After taxes.
But, yeah, at the time it seemed pretty awesome.
John: Yeah. So I will say the first thing I actually got paid for, sort of two things I got paid for. I wrote the novelization of Natural Born Killers and that was the money that I was living off of for those six months before I actually got paid for other things. The money I got for How to Eat Fried Worms was WGA scale. So the minimum they could legally pay me. It was about $35,000 I want to say. But then I ended up doing multiple drafts on it, so over time I got more money than that.
But that’s why we have to have scale. If we did not have the WGA enforcing minimums, there’s no way I could have been a professional screenwriter.
Craig: No. No way anybody could be. I mean, that’s the whole point.
John: Well, some really rich people could be.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, but what a weird way to spend your life as a really rich person, just idly writing screenplays that make other people massive amounts of money but not you.
John: Hmm. Do you want to take James’s question?
Craig: I do. James says, “I recently found myself owing $1,500 to the tax man. And it started me thinking about the business side of being a screenwriter. Do you treat your screenwriting as a business? By that I mean registering as an LLC, a limited liability company, or other entity? And what sort of expenses could you claim as a writer? Especially when you have no guaranteed income if you’re working on a spec script.”
John, all good nuts and bolts questions. What do you say?
John: So, yes, I do treat it as a business. And most screenwriters do treat it as a business once they start getting paid. So for our international listeners I think we should explain a little bit about companies in the US and how it all works. An LLC, I think it’s called a limited corporation in the UK, every country has some ability to have a corporation where instead of paying you as an individual they pay a company. And that company then employs you to do the work.
So, for screenwriters it is either through S-Corp or a C-Corp rather than an LLC. I am a C-Corp. Most screenwriters I know are S-Corps. There are subtle differences about how they can work, what deductions they can take. Both are fine. I’m a California corporation. You can incorporate in another state if that is more helpful to you.
But, yes, at a certain point you’re getting paid enough money that it makes sense to be a corporation rather than an individual person. So like for Go, my first sale, that was purchased from me. And so those checks go to John August. They don’t go to my corporation. So it’s always weird because I get separate residual statements for those things. And everything else goes to the corporation.
I will also say I do also have an LLC. So like this podcast and my software business, those are all run through the LLC rather than the C-Corp. It has to do with like a C-Corp really can’t have inventory and stuff like that. Whereas we have t-shirts and USB drives and stuff like that. And for accounting purposes it was really important that that be through a different branch. And that’s all through the LLC.
Craig: That’s how you’re laundering money and keeping it away from me. I know what’s going on. Continue.
John: That’s true. Craig, are you a C-Corp or an S-Corp?
Craig: I’m an S-Corp. I do not know the difference, but it’s just what they told me to be. I, like you, am incorporated in California. You have two numbers when you’re a corporation in the United States. You have a federal ID number which begins with the number 95 and then you have your state corporate number. And the reason is you’re paying taxes to both federal and state.
It would be awesome if you could incorporate in any state. And, in fact, you kind of can. If you’re a large corporation you often incorporate in Delaware because they have incredibly, well, just loving, lovey laws for corporations. They end up paying far, far less in taxes and all the rest.
However, when it comes to what we do it’s essentially impossible to incorporate anywhere other than the place where you are actually doing the bulk of your business. Believe me, I wish that I could do the bulk of my business across the state line in Nevada, and then I wouldn’t have to pay any state tax at all, although then I would just be a bad person. But pretty much every screenwriter is incorporated either as a C or an S in California. Like you, John, my residual checks for Rocket Man come to me and maybe Senseless, not that there’s that much coming in for that one, but regardless everything after that comes in through the corporate thing.
And, James, you’re right. You can claim all sorts of expenses as a writer. Easy ones off the top: every dollar you pay to your agent. Every dollar you pay to your lawyer. Every dollar you pay to your manager. That is a fair deduction. Also, the dues you pay to the Writers Guild. A fair deduction. Then if you have an office or office rent. You can even get away with a home office, although it’s a little bit of a red flag for the IRS. Computer equipment. Paper. Toner. Your cellphone.
Now, here’s the thing. One of the reasons that they tell us to incorporate is because it allows us to deduct a lot of these things without running into this whole alternative minimum tax business. I don’t really understand it. I’ll just be frank about it. All I can tell you is everyone is told to do it. It can’t be wrong. It just can’t be. So that’s kind of how it works.
John: Absolutely. The other thing I would say is helpful about a corporation is as a WGA writer you have a WGA pension. It’s lovely that we have a pension, but there’s a limit to how much you can sock away in that pension because it’s a union plan. You can establish your own pension and put money in for your pension for your corporation and that is a helpful thing as well.
So, for long term planning that is a reason why you would be doing that.
Craig: That’s my first level like every year the first level investment is the retirement plans and so forth that we’ve set up through the corporation. Because that is the best investment you can make because they don’t take tax off of it until you finally withdraw it later on in life.
John: Yeah. It’s been interesting. I’ve had some assistants, like Stuart Friedel, who were with the company long enough that they actually vested in the pension plan, which was kind of great. So it’s funny that Stuart has a pension through my corporation.
Craig: It’s going to be paying out for a long time because Stuart just seems like the kind of guy that’s going to make it to 148.
John: Oh, easily. Stuart Friedel will never die. He’ll find a way out. Like death will show up for him, and Stuart will negotiate a much better deal.
Craig: Forever Friedel.
John: Anonymous writes, “I was recently having lunch with an actor friend. The actor told me that all actors freely claim unemployment when they are not working. Up to $300 or $400 a week. I Googled it and SAG even has instructions on how to do this. The idea is that actors are only working while they are on set basically. All other times they are ‘looking for work’ and therefore eligible for unemployment. Does the same apply to writers in the WGA?”
Craig: I believe so. The issue has to do a little bit with this whole loan out company situation, but basically then your loan out company, meaning your corporation, as they pay you they’re paying the unemployment money. So the idea is when you work your employer has to send a bunch of money to the state on your behalf out of each paycheck that they’re responsible for, which is unemployment insurance. And then when you are out of work you apply to receive that unemployment back.
So, yeah, I’ve actually never done it.
John: So, Craig, I don’t think he was talking about the writers who have their own corporations. But what you’re saying is just fascinating, because I don’t know any writers with their own corporations who have done that. I think of that as sort of the writers who are still trying to get up to the point where they will have incorporated.
Craig: I mean, I think it would work either way. Now, when you are paid as a corporation what happens is a bunch of money comes into the corporation and then the corporation gives you a salary. This is part of how the corporation is viewed as legitimate by tax entities. So out of those paychecks there is some unemployment. But, yes, generally speaking if you have a corporation, money is coming through, this is not a problem for you anyway. But, yeah, I mean, look, it’s your money. Somebody once explained it to me, because I think a lot of people think, “Oh, he applied for unemployment, it’s like, oh, he went on welfare. He’s on the dole.”
No. It’s your money. It’s money that your employer had to send into the state on your behalf specifically for this situation. So, while I’ve never done it, I don’t see why you shouldn’t. It’s not a question of applying to writers in the WGA. It’s a question of applying just to citizens who work in the United States.
John: Yeah. So I know that production office staff will also do this where production office people will be working incredibly long hours on shows and then when that show wraps they will take some time off and get their unemployment for a while. They’ll do what they need to do in order to be “looking for work,” but that is sort of a planned part of how it all works.
I don’t know where the ethical lines are on claiming unemployment, but I will say that it is a not uncommon practice. And if it allows a class of people who are writers and actors and production people to exist between jobs, I get it.
Craig: Yep. For sure. That’s what it’s there for.
John: All right, Jay, in Los Angeles writes, “I sold a screenplay two years ago to a major studio. The script went into production this past September.”
John: So, “The script went into production this past September. I found about this through a friend working on the film.”
John: “I also found out the writer-director attached to the film reworked the script, turning it into a sequel to a mildly successful comedy, all still using the title of my script to the film. The film is scheduled to come out in theaters in October of this year. No one has contacted me in regards to the film. I see write-ups on the film, but my name is not attached. I’ve looked up information on the film, but I have yet to see my name attached to it anywhere. All of the credits are listed on IMDb, except for the writer, which is odd. It’s as if they’re purposely not posting the writer’s name.
“My greatest fear is that the writer-director will take full credit for the film and I will be left out in the cold without a credit even. Even though I sold the original script. I also found out that a production company, not connected to the studio, financed the film. The studio I sold the script to will only be distributing the film.
“In short, studio buys my script. Separate production company offers to finance it through their company. It is then reworked to become a sequel. The production company shoots the film. The studio will distribute the film. I’m not a member of the Writers Guild, so what the F do I do?”
Craig: Well, all this comes down to one single question. You are not a member of the Writers Guild, and yet you have sold a screenplay to a major studio. The major studio, by definition therefore, is a signatory to the Writers Guild. All major studios are signatory to the Writers Guild. Which means it had to have been a Writers Guild deal. If it is a Writers Guild deal, that is to say your contract is covered under the terms of the MBA, well first of all if it’s a screenplay and you sold it you should have become a member of the Writers Guild. But putting that aside, if it’s covered under the Writers Guild Minimum Basic Agreement then you don’t have to worry because the credits are going to be determined by the Writers Guild.
Now, you have to be on top of this because – well, actually you don’t. You don’t have to be on top of it because the writer-director has written on it and therefore there’s going to be an automatic arbitration. And you are guaranteed minimum Story by credit if it’s an original screenplay. And you may very well earn yourself Screenplay credit as well, depending on what the actual shooting script ended up looking like.
If you somehow didn’t sell it to a signatory, I would be confused how that happened considering that you said you sold it to a major studio, then in this case your script is viewed as source material. It is not covered by the Writers Guild. The studio, I believe, will be obliged to say based on a screenplay by Jay in Los Angeles. You will not get residuals for it. They don’t have to invite you to the premiere. There’s no guarantees of anything. That’s it. That’s what you get. Which is all the more reason why no one should sell screenplays to anyone if it’s not under the Writers Guild Minimum Basic Agreement.
John: Very true. So, Jay is not his real name. I emailed him when I saw this question this morning to try to get more details. Clearly some things have been changed in this email because I can’t Google to find out what this is. So don’t go Googling sequels in October because I think he’s changed some dates deliberately to obscure what’s happening here.
But I emailed him to ask what it actually was so Craig and I could figure out a little bit more closely like what might actually be happening here. I’m a little concerned that it could be a situation like The Disaster Artist. And we haven’t gotten into that because we just don’t know all the details yet, but essentially the lawsuit that was filed in The Disaster Artist was a very different kind of suit than we’ve seen in other things where like, “Oh, I sold my script” because clearly this person was writing a script for the actor and director of the film, but then other writers ended up writing a completely different script. And it became really unclear where this person’s script fell in the chain of title, or if there was a chain of title. It was a mess.
I’m worried that Jay’s situation may be a mess for some things we just don’t know about. So, that it wasn’t really a major, or sometimes – I remember back when I worked with Miramax, Miramax would have a whole separate arm that would buy non-WGA stuff. And that it could be some sort of weird arm’s length thing that they’re doing when they bought this thing. Or they bought it basically just for the title.
So, I’m a little concerned that there’s something going on here that we don’t know.
What I will say to Jay is don’t just sit on your hands and say like, “Oh I hope this all works out OK.” If you sold this thing, then you have an agent, a manager, a lawyer. You have somebody who represented you. Call them right now and ask. And then figure out who you sold it to and call them and ask what’s going on with this. Because just delaying and delaying, all you’re going to do is increase your anxiety. And you’re not going to make it worse for yourself by asking.
John: Ask now. Figure out what’s going on. Because it sounds like a situation where there should be a WGA credit arbitration. But if there’s not going to be one, you need to know that now.
Craig: Best advice.
John: Cool. Do you want to take Peter’s question?
Craig: Yeah. We’ve got Peter writing in. He says, “My wife was a full-time writer on a network late night show and now she has a successful full-time show of her own on a major podcast network. Two shows a week. But it is not a WGA show, which leads to my question do you have any suggestions on how to keep our health benefits through the WGA?”
All right, John, so she is doing a podcast. It’s not WGA. What does she do? What do they do?
John: Well, I don’t know of any WGA podcasts, but there probably should be and probably will be in the future because I think podcasts are occupying a space that feels a lot like what television has been in the past. What those deals are going to look like, I don’t know. But I think that’s a thing that will be coming at some point.
But at some point will not get you WGA insurance right now. So, if I were in your situation, Peter, I would encourage you to encourage your wife to find some WGA employment, writing on something that is covered by the WGA contract so she will earn WGA money that will pay for the health plan. Because WGA health insurance is fantastic and keeping it is a very good idea. So, if she can find some writing for some other late night show, for some other WGA-covered program, I think it’s probably worth it for her to be doing that because as busy as she probably is doing her own podcast, you know, keeping that WGA coverage is really a good idea.
Craig: Yeah. There’s nothing that is going to happen now in terms of this podcasting, even if down the line the WGA starts making deals for podcasts, it’s quite likely that the initial deals won’t involve health. I mean, the contributions from the employers to healthcare are the single largest expense that they incur as a result of their deal with the WGA, I think even more than residuals. I could be wrong about that, but it’s a lot.
And so all I can say Peter is if she’s loving this job and loving what she’s doing, maybe whatever you’re doing on your side can get you guys some health insurance because it’s not going to happen through the WGA this way. And there’s really no suggestion of how to keep it. The only way you keep WGA health insurance is by qualifying by hitting the income minimum each year. And if you don’t, then you get a little bit of time with COBRA as an extension. And if you’ve over-earned in prior years you have the point system, so you can use those points to kind of extend it a little bit. But after that, no.
So, check with the plan. Maybe you have some points where you can extend it a little bit. But that’s about it.
John: Yeah. This is the brief political rant I’ll have here. The idea that we have to be freaking out about her health insurance and Peter’s health insurance at this moment is maddening to me because it stifles innovation and it stifles this person who has gone off and does something else that’s great because she has to be worried about keeping her health plan. So she may need to go write on a crappy home improvement show just so she can keep her health insurance. And that’s just ridiculous.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a whole – you know, that’s a good side podcast, too. Maybe we can solve one of the great intractable problems of American politics. But it does seem like things are happening in a weird way. It was the strange response to Obamacare in our country, followed by the strange response to the threat of taking away Obamacare. We are an irrational people.
John: Deeply, deeply.
Craig: But things are happening that are different than I have noticed before. And I think the trend is toward universal coverage. That’s the way it feels to me. But it’s a long road ahead.
John: Yeah. Everyone outside of the US is saying–
Craig: Like what?
John: What do you mean? How do you live with this?
John: Not well.
Craig: Yeah, well, yeah. Gina writes, “I optioned a script with a manager about nine months ago, and since then I’m not happy with the manager.” OK, Gina, you’re in my wheelhouse now. “And plan on cancelling our contract when it is up in a couple of months. My question is the script I optioned while with him is in the late stages of development and it’s really picking up steam towards financing. After I leave my current manager, is he still a part of the option? That is to say, does he get his 10% and the money going through him before it gets to me? Am I stuck with him forever on this deal? Or, am I able to dump him and get a new manager by sweetening the pot with a late developed screenplay on the table. After the current screenplay option ends I could sign a new one with the new manager, right?”
John, I like the way Gina thinks. Let me just put out there, I like the way her gears are turning. I like the way she thinks a lot.
John: Yeah. Getting rid of bad, unhelpful people is a goal we encourage. So, your situation depends on whatever this contract was you signed with him. There’s probably things beyond that, but this contract will be the thing that determines ultimately I think whether he stays attached to this project or not.
I don’t know what your contract look likes. Manager contracts can look very different. My hunch is you will not be able to shake him completely from this thing because it started underneath his little mantle. But that should not deter you from getting a better person on your team, because waiting it out for the clock to run out is not going to help you.
Craig: Yep. OK, so a couple of things, Gina. First of all, take a good careful look at that contract and discuss it with your lawyer. Most of us don’t sign contracts with representation. When they ask you to sign a contract it in general is a red flag. And what I would say to any manager or agent is if you need me to guarantee to you that I’m not going to leave for a while, that does not speak well of you. You should have the confidence to know that I’m going to stay because you’re doing your job well.
That aside, in these contracts very typically there will be an escape clause that says something like “You are bound to be the client for a two-year period, however this contract can be nullified if employment does not occur within any consecutive 90-day period,” let’s say. So you have to take a careful look at that and see if perhaps you can escape based on that clause alone. Because options are not employment. And, in fact, you’re saying, “Well, it’s in the late stages of development,” but have you been employed?
Right, so anyway, take a look at that. Second thing: after you leave your current manager, is he still part of the option – does he get his 10%? OK, so here’s the deal. Managers are not agents. Agents are attached to deals permanently. Agents are also bound by the Talent Agency Act. Managers aren’t. That gives them certain upsides, but also certain downsides. The way it has been explained to me by an attorney, and this was proven in my case through jurisprudence, managers are what they call on the wheel/off the wheel. They are not being paid for a deal. They are being paid for their ongoing services to you on a day-to-day basis. Meaning the day they stop working for you as a manager is the day you stop paying them.
So, there are a lot of ways to handle this. There are also things that you can – look, it depends on how unhappy you are with this manager. If you’re really unhappy, well talk to your lawyer and take a careful look and see if he’s violated the Talent Agency Act by attempting to procure you employment. And if you have proof of that that’s one phone call to the Labor Bureau in California and suddenly you have quite a bit of leverage there.
This is why I’m not generally a fan of the way a lot of these managers operate. You have more leverage I think than you realize. Definitely talk to your lawyer.
John: Great. I’ll go back to the first sentence here: I optioned a script with a manager about nine months ago. I don’t quite know what that means. And so I don’t know whether that manager signed on as a producer or kind of what happened there. I’d look at sort of what the actual agreement was there between you and this person who is a manager, but sometimes managers are also producers. If it’s a producer situation, whatever the deal is there is going to show up in that contract.
Craig: Yeah, you know what? There is an ambiguity there because the way I read it was that she optioned a script and the manager was along with her when they optioned it to a studio. But you’re right. It could be that he optioned the script, or she optioned the script, and then they’re acting as a producer. This is why I don’t like managers.
John: It’s also why we don’t want agents to be doing managerial jobs, which they increasingly are doing.
Craig: God no.
John: God no.
Craig: Let’s hear from Mark.
John: Mark says, “I recently completed my first historical feature script and I’m currently looking for my next topic to tackle in the genre. However, I recently found out the historical figure I wanted to write about already has a major spec script sold about him with A-list actors attached to boot. I brushed it off and pivoted to a new historical event that was less famous, only to find out that this subject is also in development with A-list talent attached. Granted, one of the scripts has been in ‘production hell’ for over a decade. And the other is a fairly different take on my subject compared to what I had in mind.
“So should I just continue writing on these topics and hope that preexisting projects stay in production purgatory? And/or bank on my take on the subject matter being different enough? Or should I move on to a seemingly original topic to tackle?”
Craig, what should Mark do, our historical fiction writer?
Craig: Mark should stand still while I approach him and slap him. Slap! What do the five fingers say to Mark? Slap.
Mark, listen to me. Listen carefully. Everybody that anyone has ever heard of has a script about them in development somehow somewhere. Everybody. There are 12 different Winston Churchills on screens at any given moment on any given day all across the world. 10. 12. 15. Possibly 20 Churchills. It never ends. OK?
You will – listen to me, Mark – you will not care about that stuff. You will write your script. Either your script will or will not get made, but if it is beautiful and it is wonderful it is going to do wonders for you. The fact that one of the scripts you’re worried about has been kicking around for over a decade, well what else do you need to know? And the other one is a different take on this. You’re being way too concerned and scared and timid. My guess is that the historical figure you wanted to write about was a pretty brave person. Perhaps take some inspiration from them. And get back in there and do what you want to do. Write what you want to write. That will be the best script you are capable of writing.
John: Yep. I’d also say to Mark that it seems like your deal is that you love historical fiction about events and people of the past. If that’s your lane, stay in that lane. Do that thing and write really good scripts in there. And it’s helpful I think at the beginning to be a little bit stereotyped because then they know to go to you with that thing. So, don’t worry about it. Write the best script you can and then write the next best script you can.
Craig: That’s exactly right.
John: Cool. It is time for our One Cool Things. Craig? Oh, I know your One Cool Thing.
Craig: Well, I’ve been obsessed with this now for weeks. I think it went viral basically. There is an old advert, as they say in the UK, put out by the British Pork Counsel, Concern, you know, like these industry organizations that promote a particular meat or drink.
John: Milk does a body good.
Craig: There you go. Exactly. Pork, it’s what’s for dinner. Or Beef, sorry, Beef, it’s what’s for dinner. That was a–
John: Pork is the other white meat.
Craig: Pork was the other white meat. That was the American version. Well, in England back in the ‘80s there was an ad for British pork and I think the slogan was, “It’s got the lot,” meaning it’s got everything. But what is fascinating about this ad is that it is – it features a family. There is a man and his wife, and they’ve got friends and perhaps their children, all sitting around a table having lunch on Sunday. And they are serving roast pork.
And the man delivers all of the dialogue. No one else is allowed to talk. And it is the creepiest thing I think I’ve ever seen. What he’s saying is creepy. The way he says it is creepy. The way he says it is creepy. The way he looks at the camera, at you at home, implies that this is not really about pork at all. That he’s a killer. And that this may be – he may have killed Nana. This might not be pork. And he’s threatening you is really what he’s doing. It’s threatening. You feel unsafe watching it. It is astonishing that it was ever approved, written or approved, and put on the air in the first place.
Well, we have it for you to watch. I don’t know what to say. Just enjoy the subtle insanity of this British pork ad.
John: Yeah. So I have it paused here on my screen. And I had not really noticed, because I have only seen it on my phone, so now I get to see it on a bigger screen. It’s so fascinating, like the table they’re sitting at is incredibly tiny.
John: Tiny in a way that doesn’t seem that it could possibly be real. And it’s also a great thing to look at because you might have a question like what are eye lines. What is that term? Eye lines are not what this ad should teach you. Because he’s looking in really strange places. And when people look up at him, they’re not looking all the way in the wrong direction. It’s not like crossing the line problem. But they’re not looking at him. And it feels like a character choice, like I don’t want to look directly at him because he scares me.
John: When the wife looks up at him in his general direction, and she quickly looks down, it’s just so fascinating. And it’s such a great example of how even if you took out his oddly menacing tone, you would know there is something deeply wrong in this family.
Craig: No, there’s something really – and I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on. All right, eye line wise, so what’s happening is he’s standing over this pork. And he’s apparently going to slice it up and hand it out, but everybody already has their food completely. So I don’t know what he’s doing standing over this pork anyway.
But the next time we see him, the way he’s standing is such that when they go in close it appears that he’s sitting. His posture is odd. So then people are looking up at him, but it appears that he’s sitting, so the eye lines are bizarre. And what he’s saying – what he starts is, “My wife, she’s got what it takes.” She’s got what it takes. Which is the weirdest. Like what do you mean she has what it takes? This is about sex? What is this about? My wife has what it takes?
And then he starts talking about pork, which is a total non-sequitur. And he starts talking about how they have plenty. You know, he’s got plenty. They’ve got plenty. We’ve all got plenty. And when he says, “We’ve all got plenty,” it’s like he’s saying “Don’t you dare tell me that we don’t have enough meat in this house. Screw you, man.“
And then he returns once again to his, “My wife.” And it goes to her. And she looks so terrified, and is so clearly not allowed to speak. It is awesome. It’s awesome. I’ve watched it 100 times.
John: Yeah. So I think some of the backstory on this is this from 1984 apparently. These are times of trouble. This is like an economic downtown. This is not the peak of success. And so to have pork for Sunday dinner was considered not necessarily extravagant, but like the sense of like we’ve got plenty is like “I’m able to provide for my family.”
Craig: Right. I get that.
John: So you as the homemaker should be cooking a Sunday ham to prove that I am a successful breadwinner.
Craig: Yeah. It definitely is Thatcher-era, what do they call it, austerity. And he’s saying essentially, yes, that we won’t be hungry today. But he’s doing it in such a way that you think if I don’t get pork, a steady of supply of pork, to feed these people – who by the way are dressed in suits for some reason. If I don’t get this pork, I’m coming for you. I’ll cut your throat. You’ll be my pork. He’s terrifying.
John: Yeah. And the fact that he’s addressing camera directly. I mean, it’s a little unclear whether his eye line is supposed to be down the lens to us, or that he’s talking to somebody else. But no one else seems to be hearing him.
And it is a strange thing in commercials where the actors will sometimes address camera directly, even though there’s other people around them. But this doesn’t work.
John: It’s like an Uncanny Valley situation here.
Craig: Oh, it’s so weird.
John: It’s not quite to us. It’s not quite to them.
Craig: And it’s so quiet in the room. And you just hear the clinking of – you understand that what happened is he said, “I’m going to talk to my imaginary friends about this pork. You’re all going to sit and eat it. You’re not going to say a damn word. None of you. Not one word. Do you understand?”
And they’re all like, mm-hmm. “And when I point at you, you smile.” OK daddy. Please. “Good.”
It’s so great. What’s your One Cool Thing, John?
John: My One Cool Thing is the pilot for Champions on NBC. So Champions is a new show, a half-hour comedy, written by Charlie Grandy and Mindy Kaling. This pilot is directed by Michael Spiller. What I really admired about it is how it makes me remember how much information you have to pack into a pilot.
And so with the pilot episode like every time you’re going to a new set you have to establish that set. You have to establish who those people are in this set. You have to actually do the jokes, and be funny, and move the character things along, move the plot along. And pilots are just this weird beast. And I thought it was just a really great example of form of this really strange weird beast we do.
It made me think back to the first episode of 30 Rock where you have to set up Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy who is taking over as the new boss. And what their whole dynamic is going to be. And their sets. And sort of what the show is trying to do. Yet it’s all for the first time. And so this was just a very good recent example, I thought, of how a pilot does all these things and sets all these wheels in motion.
And it’s so breakneck speed because there’s just so much to cram in. But just remarkably well done. Like you can actually still feel all the jokes in there. You can feel it all working. So, I just – I’ve never written a half-hour. I don’t think I ever could do it. But it was just an impressive version of like what a half-hour pilot can do.
And I wonder if I would be able to read it on the page and really see what was going to need to happen in front of the lens to make that all work. So, the writing was great, but I thought it was also really nicely directed.
Craig: Well this is why the writer of the pilot and the director of the pilot are handsomely compensated for the run of a show, because they really do set so many things in motion in that first. In a network pilot, you’re talking 23 minutes effectively?
Craig: It’s an astonishingly restrictive writing form and therefore it requires enormous craft. And, again, I will just say all awards should be given to comedies. All of them. Even best drama should be given to comedy as far as I’m concerned.
John: Absolutely true. So check that out. I have a link to the little trailer in YouTube, but you can also check out the full episodes on iTunes or probably NBC.com.
Cool. That’s our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions or follow up like the things we answered today.
For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. Leave us a review. We love those reviews.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts. We still get those up about a week after the episode. And you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net or on the USB drive which you can find at store.johnaugust.com.
John: We’ve got plenty.
Craig: We’ve all got plenty. Plenty to go around.
John: Have a good week.
Craig: Take it easy, John.
- Alto’s Odyssey
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