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 347 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.

Today on the podcast we’ll be discussing conflict of interest, both as a legal theory and as a reality in the world of film and television. Then we’ll be answering listener questions on TV comedy, establishing time periods, and not writing.

But Craig I’m so excited because you are all the way on the other side of the world. It’s the first time where we’re doing one of these long distance podcasts where you are in Europe and I am in Los Angeles.

Craig: Yeah. Not just in Europe but Eastern Europe, so I’m a bit far flungerer than you were last time when you were in Paris. I am in Vilnius, the capital city of the great country of Lithuania. I am 10 hours ahead of you. This is very exciting. We just finished our second week of shooting on Chernobyl and all is going well.

John: I’m so excited for you, Craig. I was actually with Craig Mazin as the first shot of his show went off. We were playing D&D and he got the text message with the first still image from the first scene being shot. And this has been a very long journey so I’m so, so happy that you are making your show.

Craig: Well, thank you very much. And all, I think, all television and film production should begin with the writer-producer playing Dungeons & Dragons while the first shot goes off. I think that’s fair.

John: That is only fair. It’s the way things should be. In a perfect world it would all be Dungeons & Dragons and television programs.

Craig: I’ve got here in my hotel room, it’s Rise of Tiamat, the module that I’ll be preparing so that when I return I will be DMing that for you and the boys. So D&D never too far away from me. But we’re making it work, you and I, as we do no matter what time zone we’re in.

John: All right. Let’s start our episode. First off I have some news. So, along with John Gatins, a friend of the show, I’m going to be hosting a special Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Q&A with Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom on Wednesday May 9, 2018, 7pm, at UTA. So, this is actually at an industry thing, so it’s not like a thing that I can sell tickets for. I can’t send you to a website to come to this screening. But what I can do is Aline says we can put two people on the list to come to this. And I feel like we have a big bunch of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fans among our audience. But I’m trying to think of the best way to give out these two tickets. And, Craig, this is the first you’re hearing of this. What I think we might want to do is the first listener who can send in an email to ask@johnaugust.com with the lyrics to a song, like just write the lyrics to a song, that expresses why they want to be at this event. That might be the thing.

But, Craig, if you could offer some sort of theme for the song, or maybe even a title for the song that would convey what it should be.

Craig: Yeah. The theme is I want to be on the inside at an exclusive event because I’m on the outside normally and I want to be on the inside where not anyone can just go, because you said it’s a special industry fancy people event. And so I think let’s call the title of the song “The Other Side of the Velvet Rope.”

John: Ooh, I like that very, very much. So, if you are a person who wants to come to this, we are going to give away two tickets – well, they’re not tickets. We’ll put two names on the list and we’ll put those two names based on the person who writes the lyrics to that song. So, write those lyrics about The Other Side of the Velvet Rope. Send them through to ask@johnaugust.com and we will put those two names on the list.

To be clear here, I think whoever writes that and their plus one will be our guests for this special little thing.

Craig: Great. I think that’s a great idea. And it’s not a lyric contest. It’s really just like who can put the effort in, you know?

John: Exactly. We want you to jump over a bar. And that bar is write some lyrics.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But we have an actual real Scriptnotes show to hype as well. So on May 22 we are going to be doing a show at the ArcLight. Tickets are not yet available but I want you to clear your calendars on May 22. There will be a live show in Los Angeles. We are going to have very cool guests. It’s going to be a good, fun time. So, if you have anything scheduled for May 22, now is the time to cancel it because there’s going to be a Scriptnotes live show there. And this is the equivalent live show as when we had Rian Johnson on and Dana Fox and Rob McElhenney. It’s the equivalent of that show. And we’re excited to announce our guests pretty soon. You can’t come if you’ve – don’t schedule surgery for that day.

Craig: No, no. Well, listen, don’t schedule surgery if you don’t have to, obviously. We’re not big fans of the elective stuff. But also, folks, this is the event that we do to support Hollywood Heart, which is a wonderful charity that our friend John Gatins supports. And the past two times we’ve done this have been, well, we like to save some of the heavy firepower for those shows. So, the first time we did it we had Dan Weiss and Dave Benioff from Game of Thrones and we had Jason Bateman from Jason Bateman. And then, yeah, last year we had Rian Johnson on the eve of The Last Jedi coming out. We had Larry Kasdan, I believe. Oh no, Larry wasn’t on – he had his own show. He had his own live show.

But we had Rian Johnson and we had Dana Fox. I mean, we’ve had great guests for these. I don’t want to say yet who we’re getting, but we’re going to be getting some great people. So, no elective surgery on that night.

John: No. No. All right, so enough hype of future events. Let’s go to the past. Let’s do some follow up. So, a regular feature on the show is How Would This Be a Movie. One of those recent stories was the Worst Roommate Ever, the story by William Brennan. And that story was acquired by our friend Chris Morgan and Blumhouse. They are going to be trying to develop this for both TV and for features.

Craig: Yeah. So where did we land on that one? I can’t quite remember.

John: I think we landed that it was a very interesting premise and character. I think we may have differed on whether we needed to actually acquire the rights to this specific story or that as a general story space, like the idea of the roommate from hell genre might be a thing worth pursuing. But they decided, you know what, the actual rights to this story were worth it and they locked down those rights.

Craig: Well, I think if you are an individual writer and you get inspired by something like this it’s perfectly fine to write your own story as long as you feel you’re basically drawing on public facts as listed in this article. But when you’re a big company, and Chris Morgan has a big company, then you almost always just go and get the rights because you have a certain amount of money to spend and it generally plants a little bit of a flag in the space. You’re saying to other people, “Hey, we’re doing this, so maybe you don’t want to waste money doing it.” It’s a bit of business gamesmanship I should say.

John: I would say so. So I’ll be curious to see what project or projects come out of this idea. Almost all of us have had roommates at times. Most of them have not been deranged. But almost everyone has had a bad roommate experience.

Craig: I’ve had–

John: Actually, some of us have had deranged roommates. I guess you trump most of these other stories.

Craig: Yeah. I kind of have a problem with anything called Worst Roommate Ever, because I’m pretty sure I had the worst roommate ever.

John: Oh, always good. More recent news. We got an email from Nate. Craig, would you read what Nate wrote to us?

Craig: Sure. Nate writes, “I was listening to Episode 345 today and hearing about how Isaac and Elizabeth moved to LA right after college and that hit me harder than it should have. After I graduated I had plans to move to LA from Philadelphia with one of my best friends from college, but I was fortunate enough to be pitching a couple of shows here that picked up some momentum and decided to ride them until they were shelved.

“Once they plateaued I made plans again to move out. Just before putting down a deposit on an apartment I was hospitalized with Lyme disease.” Oh, that’s not good. “At that point my focus was health and put everything on hold again. And that urge was suppressed until today. I currently have a great job at 27 as a post-production supervisor at a large e-commerce company, a comfortable position that a lot of people would kill for in the area. A girlfriend of more than two years who has always supported me and my crazy ambitions but doesn’t want to move to LA and it has come to the point where it physically hurts to not be in LA.

“I guess I have more of an ask of you and Craig than a question. I would appreciate it if you and Craig could just tell me to quit being a coward and tell my girlfriend what I just told you.” Huh.

John: All right, well Nate, I can’t speak directly to your girlfriend but I can only tell you what I would tell her which is that if you are 27 and you want to be working in the film and television industry that is centered in Los Angeles, you don’t want to be in Philadelphia anymore, this is the time to do it. And you’re going to want to move here. And hopefully there’s a way you can move here and that she comes along with you. But I will say it’s not unprecedented for a person to leave a two-year relationship at 27 and move to the city they want to be living in. So, I think it’s time. Craig, do you have any more advice for Nate?

Craig: Well, look, it’s the girlfriend part that’s kind of stopping me. Because, yeah, all of the details seem about right. I mean, you’re 27. You’re still fairly young. You’re a post-production supervisor. That’s a gig that actually could get you a fairly decent day job working in a similar capacity in LA. So, theoretically there’d be a fairly nice glide path in for you.

I’m a little concerned when you say it’s come to the point where it physically hurts to not be in LA. Obviously it’s a slight amount of hyperbole there, but you seem to have put a lot of hopes and dreams on the location of Los Angeles. You haven’t exactly said why. I mean, you said you were pitching a couple of shows, but you know nothing was stopping you from writing shows while you were in Philadelphia and you weren’t. So, a couple of concerns. A couple of things to think about, Nate.

First, why is it super-duper important that you be in LA, and, if you have an answer to that, can you answer why you haven’t been at least working towards those goals while you’ve been in Philadelphia? And secondly, and more importantly, this girlfriend of yours of 2.5 years, you say she’s always supported you and your crazy ambitions. Well, that’s real. That’s a thing. And if you love her and she loves you, I don’t know, like it just seems – sometimes there’s things that are more important than living in Los Angeles, which is just a place, Nate. It’s a place.

So, I just want you to think really carefully here. I just want to make sure that you aren’t imagining that it is location that’s going to make and break you and location is going to solve your problems and make all of your dreams come true. Because generally speaking while it’s easier in LA, it’s not the be-all, end-all. And I don’t know, breaking up with your girlfriend, I hate to advise anyone to do that, especially because it sounds like you and she have a good thing going.

John: Yeah. This last week I spoke at USC. I was part of their Talent Week in which they bring in alums to talk to other alums and current students. And the thing I ended up talking about was the nature of sort of how characters express their wants and how to think of yourself as a character in the story of your life. And so I would urge Nate to think of himself as the protagonist in the story of his life. And if he sees himself that way he’d recognize that heroes of stories have triumphs and setbacks. They go on journeys. They come back from places. He perceives himself as the person who meant to leave Philadelphia but like weird stuff got in the way and he was never able to leave. And the nature of his true quest, where he really should be, is to be in Los Angeles.

He’s never going to be sort of the same person he was at 21. But I also don’t want him to think that like, “Oh well, now his movie is over.” That the thing he wanted is unrealistic or impossible at this point. I think the reason why I’m pushing him to maybe go to Los Angeles or really have the hard conversation with his girlfriend and figure out whether this is a thing that can work or not work is because he maybe really unhappy five years, ten years, 15 years from now if he hasn’t done this thing he always meant to do.

I don’t want him to be with the same woman, married with kids, and still be frustrated that he never tried in Los Angeles. So, that’s where I’m pushing Nate this direction.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, those are the two competing movies, right? So you have the movie of the person who never quite follows their dream and suffers in silence and then finally gets a chance and goes for it and wins. Then there’s this other movie, it’s more of the romance. A person who doesn’t realize what they have, leaves to go get something better, and eventually comes back home realizing, “Oh, you know, it was right here in front of me the whole time.”

There’s these two movies. I don’t know which one is Nate’s movie. I do know that when he says, “I would appreciate it if you and Craig could just tell me to quit being a coward and tell my girlfriend what I just told you,” um, you know, I would say to you that’s, generally speaking, good advice always. You should be able to tell your girlfriend everything you’re thinking and feeling in that regard.

I don’t think you’re being a coward, Nate. I think you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too here. And you need to decide what you want and what matters more and make your choice. Real simple. We can’t do it for you, buddy.

John: Yeah. Nate, a year from now please write us back and let us know what you have done or decided to do and how it all went, OK?

Craig: Good idea.

John: Last bit of news is way back follow up. In Episode 32 of this podcast we discussed Amazon Studios, in particular discussed their plans for inviting anyone in the world to send in their movie ideas, their pitches, their treatments and things, and there was a whole service. There was a whole website you could go to to put in your stuff and we both thought it was a terrible idea. And there was news on that front this week.

Craig: Yeah. So apparently Amazon finally admitted that it was, in fact, a terrible idea. I think they knew it was a terrible idea almost immediately. And they just sort of kept it lingering there because it didn’t really cost them anything per se. Just sort of hard drive space on servers which is kind of their bread and butter. They’ve got more of that than anyone. They’ve shut it down. They finally said no mas. This thing is over.

And, John, I’m pretty sure that they should have just listened to us.

John: Yeah. It would have probably saved some time and some effort. I don’t know to what degree they were actively doing any of this script outreach stuff. I don’t know whether this was a factor for years, honestly. And I didn’t hear anybody talking about it. But I will say if you look at what Amazon Studios is doing right now, they are investing heavily in high-priced IP and expensive talent to try to make big things like a Game of Thrones. That’s why they’re spending a gazillion dollars on the Tolkien rights. They’re making big, big swings because that’s how you make big hits in general.

So, it’s 180 degrees from this sort of crowd-sourcing thing that they started with.

Craig: Yeah. And look, I remember when we talked about this, some people got their feathers a little ruffled. You and I occasionally will get hit with the whole, “You guys are elitist, and you’re just trying to keep the little guy out. And that there are all these men and women out there who, if only they could get past the gatekeepers, would be successful. And that crowd-sourcing is the future. And you’re old. And you’re done.” And I believe our thesis at the time was, no, this is not something you crowd source. This is about personal creative vision and intelligence. And, no, we’re not trying to keep anyone out. We’re just being realistic. People generally are fussy about what they watch and it’s really expensive to produce things. So, this isn’t going to go well.

And we were 100% right on this one. And there was no doubt. Sometimes you and I make guesses about things. I don’t think either one of us were guessing back then. We knew. It’s not enough that Amazon does this whole thing – by the way, I also remember that they pushed a very bad contract out initially and then they fixed it. But it’s not enough that they put this out there and then just face plant, but they are now, as you said, all the way in the opposite direction. They’re now chasing all the A-list “elitist” writers because as it turns out writing is hard. Writing for screen and television is hard. It is not a common talent. It takes time to cultivate and to perfect, or at least to progress in. And so, yeah, there’s actually something called a professional screenwriter. Sorry. I don’t know what to say.

The entire exercise I thought was kind of a weirdly cynical bit of false egalitarianism that was never going to work.

John: Yeah. It’s interesting. There’s the choices of going wide versus going deep. And so wide is the sort of crowd-sourced model where you get a bunch of different brains working on things, and it’s really good for some stuff. It’s really good when there’s things that could be kind of figured out algorithmically.

But screenwriting, at least screenwriting so far, is not a good candidate for that sort of algorithmic wisdom-of-the-crowd kind of thing. It’s such a specific thing that requires one person’s intense focus for long periods of time. And that’s why both writing a movie or showrunning a TV show requires just this person’s brain to be so intensely focused and have a vision for what things are. And crowds are really good for like vision in a lot of different directions, but when you need an intense, focused vision that ends up being one person or a very small group of people.

And I think this is another example of that.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, Silicon Valley at times gets a little too up its own butt about these notions of things like, for instance, crowd sourcing and the wisdom of the crowd. But even in the case of groups of people writing in Hollywood, for instance television shows, there’s a hierarchy. And there is a person in charge. And things are decided on that level. The notion that there’d be some kind of group pushing something towards brilliance is so bizarre because, you know, what’s everybody’s complaint? I mean, the most watered down Hollywood stuff is movies by committee. And here Amazon attempted to expand the committee to the world. It was dead in the water from the start. It was never, ever, ever, ever going to work. And honestly I do think people should listen to us.

When you and I 100% agree on something it’s not possible that we’re wrong. If we both agree to 100%, everyone just needs to just trust us.

John: Absolutely. So, having said that, please don’t go back through the archives and figure out all the cases where we were completely wrong, because I’m sure there are some of those.

Craig: Well, yeah, but not when we’re 100%–

John: 100%, yeah. That will be the thing. No, no, we were only 99% sure.

Craig: Right.

John: I will say even like recent things like MoviePass, we’re like well that can never work. And right now it seems to be quite successful. But we’ll see sort of how it all goes.

Craig: Yeah. And we were a little wishy. I wasn’t at 100.

John: We were a little wishy. We were like confused.

Craig: Yeah. Whereas I remember with this–

John: We were never confused about Amazon Studios.

Craig: No. I lost my freaking mind over this one. This was early umbrage. This may have been the first umbrage. I don’t know.

John: All right. Let’s get to our feature topic of today. This is conflict of interest. And so I put this on the outline because this came up a couple times the last few weeks and I want to talk about it as a concept. So first thing that sort of came up was the discussions about the agency deal and the deal with writers and the WGA, particularly in terms of packaging and producing. I heard the terms conflict of interest used a lot around that.

And also more recently we have Sean Hannity who is talking about Michael Cohen, but he’s in fact a client of Michael Cohen. And as a journalist or whatever you want to call him, that is troubling. And so the word conflict of interest was also coming up there.

So, I want to dig into conflict of interest.

Craig: Well, it’s a tricky little area. I mean, I have often discussed this fact with lawyers. This is one of those areas where sometimes the things that we think of as conflict of interest aren’t necessarily conflict of interest. It seems rather situational. And certain professions are more susceptible to it than others.

So, yeah, let’s talk about how this applies to our lives as writers.

John: Absolutely. So we’ll try to define terms a little bit as we start. I think the crucial thing to understand is that conflict of interest is not a crime in itself. It’s not even necessarily a big wrongdoing in and of itself. It’s just a situation. It’s a set of circumstances. It’s wherever you have a person/organization that has multiple competing interests. They can be financial. They can be other kinds of interest. But in trying to service one of those they may end up acting in the detriment to one of the other interests. So each of these interests thinks that they are the primary interest and they can’t be. And so it’s those conflicting things that become a conflict of interest.

So, any situation where your loyalties are divided, that’s the way of thinking about a conflict of interest. And so it can go beyond the strict legal definition to just these murky places we find ourselves where even if there isn’t an actual wrongdoing, there’s a perception that something could be unfair towards the parties involved because you have these multiple competing interests.

Classic examples, if you are buying a house and the real estate agent is representing both the buyer and the seller, that is a conflict of interest. That happens sometimes, but it has to be publicly acknowledged that there is a conflict of interest here because the seller is trying to get the highest price. The buyer is trying to get the lowest price. The agent is also kind of trying to get a higher price because they get a percentage. So, that’s a thing that has to be discussed.

If you are given a bonus based on how many life insurance policies you sell to the clients of this organization, that can be a real conflict of interest because those people you are selling these to, they may not need life insurance policies. But if your salary is based on how many of those you sell, that can be a conflict of interest.

So, it happens in lots of situations. But, particularly for our podcast I want to talk about the situations where it happens for writers.

Craig: Yeah, I mean, to me conflict of interest typically revolves around questions of trust. There is a sense of a violation of trust. If you believe that somebody is working on your collective behalf. That is to say on behalf of them and you. Or, if that person is working for you. You’ve paid them and they are advancing your interests. And very specifically what they’re doing is providing you a service in which you can trust. For instance, a doctor. I trust my doctor. My doctor says, “You know what? I’ve done a blood exam and I really think you need this medicine Flamydol.” OK, great.

Now, if he doesn’t tell me that he’s a shareholder in the company that makes Flamydol, that is a conflict of interest and he’s violated my trust. This is something that’s very clear in certain areas like, for instance, doctors, lawyers. Journalists are constantly having to disclose things. They seemingly are the most fastidious about it. So, very typically you’ll read a news article and somebody will be talking about a product or a movie. And then they will say, “By the way, that movie or product is manufactured by such-and-such, the parent company of this paper.” So at the very least by disclosing it you don’t have to worry that we’re trying to put a fast one by you. You can judge that for yourself, but we have not violated your trust.

John: Or an organization like a newspaper might have firewalls between the advertising department and the editorial department so that the people who are selling the ads to those companies are not influencing the editorial decisions of stories written about that company. And that’s a reasonable way of trying to avoid conflicts of interest because even if there wasn’t impropriety, the perception of impropriety is sometimes just as damaging.

Craig: Yeah. And in our business I think that’s – well, look, there are some areas where there is clearly a question of financial conflict of interest. But maybe more than half of the time what we’re talking about is the appearance of a conflict. The appearance or sense that trust has been violated because what happens is one party or the other discovers something that someone didn’t disclose to them and that’s where we can get ourselves into trouble or people can get into trouble with us.

John: Absolutely. So let’s talk through some examples that writers are going to face. First off is just with their agencies, with their agents, because agents represent you but they don’t only represent you. They represent multiple clients. And so if you are going in for a job pitching on the Slinky movie, well your agency – your agent – might have other writers who are pitching on that same job. And that is going to happen in your life. And sometimes you’ll know about that. Sometimes you won’t know about that. You should know about that. And so we’re going to talk through strategies for like how you have those difficult conversations.

But it’s not just writers. They also represent directors. So, you know, that director who signed on to that movie who wants to fire you, that is a weird conflict of interest that happens all the time where they are trying to keep their director client happy, but also their writer client happy. Same thing happens with actors. They may really want to have their actor from their agency in your TV show. Are they doing what’s best for the show, what’s best for you as the writer? Or are they doing what’s best for them as the agency because they have this big high profile actor client that they want to get into a movie.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, there is a certain aspect of this where it’s a bit caveat-scriptor. The agency is absolutely going to represent other people. You know they represent other people. You know that a bunch of them either do the same thing you do, going up for the same jobs you go up for. Or are people that could theoretically fire your, or employ you. Or people who make more money than you do, therefore it would enrich the agency more. They also represent producers.

So, you kind of have to just assume, I think, as a writer no matter where you are represented that unless you, the client, are literally the highest paid client at that agency that at some point or another your agents will be in a position where they have to choose between your interests and the interests of a client that earns more money for themselves and therefore earns more money for the agency. It’s just priced into the situation. It’s kind of hard to, I don’t know, pretend that you didn’t know. It’s sort of out there, isn’t it?

John: It is. And so a thing that’s come up recently in discussions about sort of the agency deal is we all know sort of the challenge of the multiple clients situation, but when the agency has their own financial interest in a project that changes the equation. So if an agency has a packaging fee on a TV show, they no longer have the interest in trying to make sure that you’re getting paid – your being paid more salary isn’t helping them because they are not commissioning that salary. They are not taking their 10% on that salary. So they no longer have an interest in trying to make sure your price goes up.

In fact, they may have an interest in making sure the show is sustainable. They want that show just to keep running because they’re getting a fee for every episode produced. If the show is incredibly successful and syndicates they are getting a percentage of the overall profits of the show. So, their interest is in the success of the show and not necessarily interest of the client. And that is, very classically, a conflict of interest.

Similar kinds of things are happening on the feature side where some agencies and other companies are really truly acting as producers. They’re financing projects. And therefore they have an interest in the final product that is not the same as their interest in the client who put the project together. That’s a challenging situation and the kind of thing we’re trying to figure out a way to address.

Craig: Yeah. So, look, technically speaking there is a law that governs talent agents, at least in the state of California which is where all the talent agents we’re describing live and work, and it basically says you get to procure employment on behalf of artists and in exchange for that exclusive right no one else can do it without a license you are not allowed to charge more than 10% commission. And you are not allowed to have a financial stake in the employers or the companies that are employing your clients. That’s simple straight up non, you know, conflict of interest avoidance let’s call it.

And what the agencies have done is put a little end run on that. They have created essentially side companies. So there’s the illusion I think of a separate company because they do these things.

So, OK, the talent agency is actually a Talent Agency Incorporated. But the production company is Productions Limited. Well, the finances are comingled and the shareholders are the same. But they’re two different companies therefore this one is not violating the talent agency act and this one is – it’s bull sugar.

And, also, this packaging thing I hate. I hate it. And here’s the – so packaging basically as far as I can tell, the scam is that the agencies have basically performed a shakedown maneuver on studios. They say, look, a number of our clients are in this show. You have to pay us money per episode or we’re going to, I guess, tell all of our clients to not be in the show. Or we’re going to not have our clients show up for your next show. It’s a little bit of a, “Oh, it’s a shame if anything should happen to your network.” And they get this money. There’s no value added, at all, whatsoever. This money is theoretically money that could be spent instead on the show itself. Or, god forbid, on the clients.

Yes, the clients don’t have to pay commission on that. But as you point out the whole point of commission is I want to pay it because that means you’re motivated to get me more money. The problem as far as I see it in that case is a flat-out conflict of interest as far as I’m concerned. The issue is I don’t know if there’s anything we can do about that one, because it seems like the big agencies – UTA, William Morris Endeavor, CAA, ICM – all package. And we are mostly represented by them. And so it’s not like you can leave and go to the other one. It’s going to happen to you again. And it is apparently not illegal.

John: Yeah. So these are things that are going to be figured out over the course of the next year. And so if you’ve been to some of the WGA meetings you’ve heard some of the plans on that front. We won’t sort of rehash them here.

I think it’s important to talk about them because it is an inherent conflict of interest and there always are going to be conflicts of interest. Because I’ve heard people talking about like, “Oh, this WGA is to eliminate all the conflicts of interest.” And I want to stress that that’s impossible. That will never happen.

Craig: Right.

John: Because conflicts of interest are inherent in any situation where people are representing multiple parties. That’s going to happen. I think what you want to do is get to a place where one of the parties they’re representing isn’t themselves. And that’s not the biggest party that they’re representing. And we’ll see if we can make progress on that front.

But I also don’t want to leave it all on the agency’s doorstep here because studios have conflicts of interest as well. Look at pilot season. Pilot season is conflict of interest season. It’s basically “We are going to create a bunch of TV pilots and some of them we’re going to pick up to series and some of them we aren’t. But we don’t know which ones yet and so we’re going to pretend that each one of them is the most important thing and that we’re going to stick the best actors in each one of them. But really we know we’re not going to actually make it all – they’re not all going to work. And we’re going to be pulling people out of things. And we know it’s going to be a train wreck. But we’re going into it just thinking like, OK, this is our process. This is how we’re going to do it.”

There are inherent conflicts of interest in there. And if you go through like casting in the pilot season process, it’s all conflicts. It’s all people trying to negotiate these things and you don’t know all the information. It’s really crazy. But that’s just the way it is. And no magic wand will ever be waved that can make that all go away.

So as a writer you’re going to be entering into a system where that’s just part of the game.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, there’s conflict always. And then there are these times when you have – a very common situation that we encounter where the studio is engaging in conflict of interest. A studio head is fired. A new studio head is brought in or a new network head. They have an inherent conflict of interest when they’re evaluating the shows that are there. They may quietly think this show that this former head was developing is brilliant. But that just makes me look terrible. If I go ahead and greenlight that show and it becomes a big hit everyone is going to say, “Oh, look, see, they fired the wrong person. They hired him. They should have just kept her.” So, I think I’ll just kill that thing.

That’s just a classic conflict of interest. And also internally what a lot of people don’t know is that the – let’s call them the sub-level of executives. You’ve got the boss, and then you’ve got the two underbosses. And then you’ve got the layer of the five under-under bosses. Each one of those executives has shows for which they are responsible and accountable. They are being evaluated by the success of those. It is in their personal interest to see those shows get on the air. And it is in their personal interest to see their colleague’s shows not get on the air because there is an endless churn of competition and survival of the fittest in the ranks of these executives. That, of course, is also conflict of interest if we define the ultimate interest as good show, which John it often is not.

John: It is not. I want to quickly go through some of the other flavors of conflict of interest you’re going to find. So, self-dealing. Self-dealing is when you are basically buying something at a reduced price because you’re essentially selling it to yourself. And so that happens in television where a studio will sell its TV show into syndication to the network it itself owns. So that’s become a subject of several lawsuits where they’ve negotiated a lower price than it’s believed they could have gotten on the open market.

That can hurt show creators who are counting on that price to be what’s affecting their profits on the show.

Another situation we all face is outside employment which is basically you’re working on two things at once. A lot of writers are going to be working on two things at once. You kind of on the phone call sort of pretend it’s the only thing that you’re working on. But realistically you are going to be working on multiple projects at once. The buyer thinks that you are only working on their thing when in fact you’re working on multiple things. Usually that doesn’t become a problem. And usually it’s just understood that this is a thing that happens. But it is a conflict of interest.

Am I giving all of my best thoughts and words towards project A or towards project B. Sometimes you are making choices like that.

Craig: I think writers do face these situations of potential conflict of interest all the time and it’s fair, if we’re going to whack agents and studio executives for it, we also have to give ourselves a pretty good spanking because it comes up a lot. Writers are constantly playing this game of managing multiple children. Each one of those children is a project of theirs that they love or care about. Someone comes along and says, “Oh, would you be interested in helping us fix this movie?” And you know that you just worked on that movie’s competition at another studio. It would be proper to disclose that. But if you do not, you are engaging in blatant conflict of interest.

If either one of those parties find out that you worked on this movie and its direct competition, you’re violating everyone’s trust. You’re taking money and violating trust. And it would be fair for both of them to question whether or not you did your best on either one and even worse if you did then that meant you took money to hurt the other one. That’s a real thing that comes up all the time, especially because there’s – as we’ve often said – rarely a movie that doesn’t have some kind of direct concept competition at another studio.

John: So the most direct competition thing I can think of that’s happened in my career is I signed on to write an Alice in Wonderland movie and Sam Mendes was going to direct it and it was produced by Dick Zanuck. Separately, Tim Burton signed on to do Alice in Wonderland at Disney and Dick Zanuck was his producer so Dick Zanuck joined him in that. So, Dick Zanuck was attempting to produce two competing Alice in Wonderland movies at the same time.

Craig: Yeah. Yeah.

John: Dick Zanuck was amazing. And I am so sad he has passed away, because he was remarkable. And he was one of the best producers I ever met in terms of just really being honest with me. So, I remember sitting at lunch. It’s like, “Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s crazy that this is the situation. I’m going to do my best to support both things at the same time. I don’t know what’s going to happen. And at some point I’ll have to choose.”

Ultimately the universe chose and the Disney movie went and the Sam Mendes one went away. And I never ended up writing the Sam Mendes one. But those things do happen. And Dick Zanuck himself was – the role of a producer like that is always conflict of interest because he’s trying to protect the movie, and his relationships with everyone involved with the movie. You know, it’s complicated. So, I have nothing but sympathy for the kinds of situations we find ourselves in as we’re trying to make these nebulous, impossible things come to life.

Craig: Yeah. I would advise writers, I mean, because in a situation like that – the good news for Dick Zanuck was everybody knew. Right? So, the second studio that says–

John: Exactly. He was transparent.

Craig: Yeah. So they say, “OK, listen, we know you’re doing this. It’s crazy. We’re pricing it in. Everybody knows everything. We still choose this. Fine.” Conflict of interest has been avoided. Voila.

For writers who are working – professional writers – if something like this should come up, I think in general it is good to err on the side of disclosure. More disclosure than less.

John: Agreed.

Craig: About most things. Because I believe – and I could be just Pollyannaish about this – but in the long run people appreciate honesty, particularly in our business where it is in short supply. And you will be probably rewarded. You will probably end up if you were to say lose a potential job because of disclosed conflict of interest, the karma would come back around to boost you up later. I just sort of believe that.

I try my best to not get into a situation where if somebody were to find out that I were doing something they would feel betrayed. I think that’s the most important thing. I never want to walk around worrying that if somebody should know something that I’m doing that is true they would feel betrayed.

John: Absolutely. I think it’s always good advice to imagine the phone call you’d get if that person found out. And, all right, that phone call would be horrible. I should tell this in advance.

There was a situation where I was working on a movie for Spielberg and I was also working on the first Charlie’s Angels. And both things had to happen at the same time. I had days where I was going between those two meetings back to back. And so I told Steven I’m doing this thing for Drew. He knew Drew because of E.T. And it was all fine and it was all good.

But, if he had found out separately that I was still actively working on Charlie’s Angels, or if Charlie’s Angels had found out I was doing this other thing that could have been a real conflict. And so being upfront about it, just being transparent, is helpful. And just phrase it in a positive way. I want you to know that this is what I’m doing. It’s going to be these three days and then I’m back on yours fulltime. That it will all work out.

That’s much better than the betrayed call that you get from that person. Because it poisons things after that moment. Even when you give them that great draft they’re going into thinking that they’re upset with you. That you are a bad person who didn’t do their very best work because of this other reason. So, disclose.

Craig: Yeah. And, you know, it’s not like they necessarily always follow these rules. You will find yourself in situations where you are doing the right thing for someone and then they turn around and do the wrong thing to you. And you may feel that you have firmly discovered the whole nice guys finish last rule. And that you’re a sucker. And you’re a doormat. And you should check your morals at the door. It’s the only way to get ahead. And all I can say to you is no. It is not worth it.

Yes, there are unscrupulous, bad, evil people that work in our business. I think it’s become more evident than ever. And they do succeed. And it is nauseating. The levels of injustice at times can be nauseating. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be a bad person. Nor does it mean you have to embrace any kind of betrayal. You can absolutely succeed by being a decent person.

I’m not suggesting you have to be a saint. This is a tough business. Sometimes you sugar coat. Sometimes you have to kind of bend the truth a bit just to avoid – you know, it’s the whole white lie syndrome. Right? These are things that have to happen.

But, you can be a decent person and succeed in this business. Will you end up with $500 million? Probably not. Do you want that? Eh, you’re in the wrong business anyway.

John: Yeah, I think so. So let’s talk about what can be done, or at least what steps an industry can take and individual people can take. So I’d say industry-wide what works for lawyers, what works for doctors, what works for newspapers when they’re run properly are standards. Codes of conduct. Basically public statements about this is what our policies are. And so when you have standards and practices, if you have a fiduciary standard where a client’s needs have to be the primary thing you’re working for, that helps.

So even like the NBA players, they have a code of conduct with their agents which sort of dictates these are the things that are allowed and that are not allowed. And so the degree to which you can figure out ways to codify what the expectations are, that helps. Because it’s when there are no clear cut expectations that these conflicts of interest become so pervasive.

Individually I would say that as a writer you have to acknowledge that those conflicts are going to be there. And that some of them are completely unavoidable. Like your agent represents multiple people. That’s just the nature of it. And so unless you are the only client, that’s going to happen.

And in a weird way the bigger your agency, the more of those conflicts are going to be a factor. That’s just the nature of it. You may have more access to some things at a bigger agency. But you also are going to have more conflicts just because there’s more people and more relationships there.

Some of the things that I think are useful to ask on the phone call is “What’s been your experience with this person?” Just get them talking about like who this person is, who this executive is, who this producer is to see if they have some preexisting thing. I’ve always been surprised where studio execs when they are renegotiating their contracts at the studio, it’s the agents who do that negotiation for them. So, agents have ongoing relationships with these people at studios that go much beyond just their clients working with them.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, ask about that stuff.

It’s fair to ask, “Hey, do you have anybody else going up for this job?” I think that’s a fair question. If your agent won’t answer that question, they’re not really your agent.

Craig: And also the answer is, “Yeah.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: I think that Hollywood and DC are very similar in this regard. The lobbyists and the politicians and the people who run businesses that the laws govern are all way too involved with each other’s lives and there’s simply not enough separation there. That said, like John said, be aware of the stuff that’s obviously there. Just as, by the way, the studios are aware that every time they talk to us about an idea there’s a decent chance that we either have been working on a similar idea on our own, or could love that idea but want to do it on our own and not tell them. Everybody’s kind of dealing with that sort of thing.

So, by and large you can only essentially govern your own honesty and your own sense of decorum and good behavior. And you can only really govern your own representatives in as much as you have a sort of choice. But that sort of choice isn’t great. I got to be honest when it comes to these issues I don’t know of any particular agency where I would look at it and go, “Oh well, they are more, I don’t know, above the board and clean-handed than any of the other ones.”

John: Yeah. I would say you can find out reputations of people who are – you can avoid some shady people by asking questions. And that’s why when other writer friends ask us about agents or that they’re moving around we will tell them quite candidly what we think and sort of what’s happened. But in terms of the inherent systemic conflicts that are going to be there, they’re going to be there regardless. Even the best agents are going to have those conflicts. And I would say the agents I would choose to work with are the ones who are going to be most transparent and are going to put my interests as far forward as they can. That’s all you can sort of ask for.

Craig: I agree. I agree.

John: Cool. All right, let’s get to some other questions.

Jay writes in, “In regards to sitcoms, what factors are used in deciding if it should be a single camera or a multicam? Should the teleplay’s formatting differ based on the camera setup?”

Craig: Well, generally speaking multicam shows are fixed in a couple, two or three, key locations. So you’re thinking about your Seinfelds and your Cheers and a number of the Disney and Nickelodeon sitcoms where you’ve got the living room, the bedroom, and the office. You’ve got the movie theater, the kitchen, and the schoolroom. It’s that kind of thing. Or in the case of Seinfeld, it’s Jerry’s apartment and it’s the diner, right?

So, the reason why is if you’re camping down with the multi-camera setup you kind of are living in a space. You don’t want to yank all of your multi-cameras around. The whole point of multi-camera is we’re on a stage. We have a base. So we can set up our cameras and go from there. We’re probably going to have an audience. There’s a fair chance of that as well.

Single camera you have quite a bit more freedom. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have certain sets or locations that you use over and over. In terms of formatting, I don’t know necessarily if the formatting is hugely different as much as the style of the writing itself is necessarily going to be different. You can have lots of shorter scenes when you’re single cam. And obviously you can go outside and you’re going to want to find some different locations to move around and justify your single cameraness.

If you’re a multi-camera format and you’re in the living room, you’re probably not going to do the three or four line scene. You’re going to camp down for a while. You can kind of get this just from watching these shows. It’s sort of intuitive I think.

John: So, right now a couple of listeners are screaming at their podcast player right now because multicam is formatted differently. So, if it’s a multicam show it looks really different on the page. It’s double-spaced.

Craig: Oh, that’s crazy.

John: It does. It’s double spaced.

Craig: Why?

John: Scene headers are underlined. I’m going to send you a link. It will drive you mad. I don’t know the actual origin of the multicam format, but it is a very different looking thing. So, it’s double-spaced. Action lines are all uppercase. So you’ve got to really look at the shows that are multicam and study that format because if you were to sort of halfway do multicam people would be – they would throw the script across the room. It’s a really different look.

Craig: Are the multicam shows all exactly the same? Or are some different than others?

John: You know, there are going to be some house styles. But part of the reason why I know what multicam looks like is the new Highland has multicam as a template. It looks so different. Here, I’m sending you a link to what this looks like. I’m going to send you the link in screenwriting.io, a website that our own producer Megan McDonnell updates, to show some of the big differences here. I’m going to throw it in Skype for you.

Craig: What the F? This is stupid. I hate it. All action and description is in all caps. Well, I guess they hate – you know what? I sort of understand. How much action and description can you have when you’re in the same damn set every time? You know what I mean? So maybe that’s why they do it that way. That’s so weird. All right.

John: And so I also put in an image there.

Craig: What the – that’s ugly as F. Oh, and they put the characters underneath. It’s almost like a cross between a play and a – yuck.

John: My guess is that the multicam format evolved sort of with the birth of television and it was a little bit more like a play. And if you really think about it, television and film came from kind of different worlds. And so film was done out here in Los Angeles. It was a thing that sort of grew up 100 years ago. TV had its own origins. It sort of came out of radio and plays and multiple cameras doing stuff. And they’ve co-mingled, I mean we think about them in the same way, but multicam shows are written in this different way. And it’s jarring when you first see it.

So you still see INT. You still see DAY. But character names are listed in there. There’s much more underlining, all uppercase. It’s a really different looking thing on the page.

So, getting back to I think Craig’s more important point is that the writing is also different. There’s an expectation in multicam shows that we are getting to jokes and that the jokes are presented and are landing and they are acknowledged by generally a laugh track and an audience. And there’s just a timing and a spacing. We’ll put a link into the show notes for this great YouTube clip of Big Bang Theory without laughs.

Craig: It’s so great. It’s eerie.

John: It’s so disturbing. But it’s this moment that like plays totally natural with laughs, but if you take the laughs out feels just bizarre. So, you will know whether your show is meant to be a multicam or a single cam. It’s also weird we still use the term single cam because all of the “single cam” shows they use multiple cameras. It’s just they are shot more like a drama or a TV show in that they have – yes, they have coverage. They’re shooting A and B camera. They’re doing more complicated things.

So, the shows, half-hour comedies that are single camera include things like Modern Family, Blackish, The Office. A lot of these shows have that sort of half-conceit of there is a documentary crew there. But the other ones that are just truly fully dramas that happen to be half an hour long.

You will know whether your show is which one. But they are actually very different. I’ve never written multicam. But some people love it.

Roseanne is a modern example of a multicam that is hugely successful.

Craig: Yeah. I obviously have never written in it because I didn’t know that it was a different format. And I’m kind of hoping that there’s somebody out there that’s working on a multicam show that’s striking some sort of blow against the tyranny of this very silly format.

John: Absolutely. Another format which is related to both of these but different still is the graphic novel format. Graphic novel format is not as standardized as either screenplays or this multicam format is. But it’s a way of sort of reflecting the script of a book and sort of where the panel layouts are and what is dialogue. It’s not just screenplays, you learn.

Craig: Precisely.

John: Charles writes, “When writing a period piece, how would you establish a time period? I suppose putting something like The 1920s in description would suffice, but it feels a little too simplistic and the opposite of artistic.” Craig, how would you specify the time period for something like Chernobyl? What details do you put in there to let us know – to anchor us in a time and place?

Craig: Well, you have some choices. I mean, the first thing you can decide is exactly how you want your reader to discover the time period and by extension the audience. Obviously the audience does not see scene headers, right? So I don’t like to put in the establishment of a time period in a scene header. I feel like that’s the least interesting way because, again, the audience won’t have it.

So what you start with are some key things. We know that there are certain things that stick out. Appliances. Streets. Clothes. Technology in general. And even language. There’s all these little bits and bobs that kind of make indications. Smoking in a weird way has become a signifier of a time period.

So, little things like finding a cool reference to a brand that no longer exists. Little subtle ways so that people can figure out the mystery on their own. And then, if you desire, if it’s important for your story, you can indicate exactly when this is. It depends on the time period. People may think, well, this is 30, 40 years ago. If it’s important for them to know which then you throw the subtitle up on screen.

But first I like to kind of let people figure it out on their own. So we’re talking about our environment. Hair. Makeup. Props. Location. Language choices. All the things that make a period as vibrant as it is.

John: So situations where you may want to put the year in there is if it has to – like there’s multiple time periods in your script and you need to make it clear which time period you’re in for this thing. That’s a great time to put some time period in your scene header.

Or if you’re anchoring two specific real world events, then that’s a situation where you might honestly just put it on screen because it’s clear that this is a very specific moment in time and you want the audience to be crystal clear on exactly when you are in time and space, because this is going to be a hugely important part of your story.

But what Craig describes is right. I think your job – remember always – in the screenplay is to be the movie in paper form. So if there’s specific things we’re going to see and hear in the film that are going to clue us into what time period we’re in, those should be in your script.

Craig: Yep. Even sounds. You may have somebody walking along a street at night. And it might not be necessarily evident from the way that they’re dressed what the time period is. But you hear a car going by in the background and a horn. And there’s a certain kind of old car horn. That alone just puts you in a space. So use all of the things that exist. And I can tell you now that I’m here and we’re shooting a show that is period, every single thing has to be thought about. Everything. And the question that is often asked is “Did they have this?” That would be the worst thing of all. Like, “Oh, we put a thing in that just didn’t exist during that time.” That would be a nightmare.

But every single thing there is an attempt to source it to period so that it is accurate and the world feels true.

John: Absolutely. All right, so it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing could not be more related to what you just talked about. So in terms of anchoring you into a place and time this is a re-endorsement actually. Dana Stevens on Slate Culture Gabfest mentioned this. It’s from 1911. And so the Swedish company Svenska Biografteatern took a trip to NYC and they filmed it on the motion picture cameras of the time. And so we’ve all seen that kind of footage. It’s all herky-jerky and odd because the frame rates are different. But this person named Guy Jones on YouTube has taken that footage and adjusted the frame rate so it’s smooth to modern eyes. And he added sound effects. He added ambience and full sound effects. And it’s really amazing because it’s like, “Oh, that’s what it actually looks like.” So we’ll put a link into the show notes, but you see horses and cars both simultaneously moving around NYC. You see the Flatiron Building which looks just like the Flatiron Building.

Everybody wears hats. We’re in Chinatown. You see this little Chinese kid and he’s doing what kids now would do is like, “Oh, it’s a camera. I’m going to try to get in front of the camera.” And that’s just a great sort of instinct. It’s just really cool to see the real version of this, because I’ve seen movie versions of the same time period a lot, but we can never actually build something this big. I mean, you see all of these people on these giant sets and it really is incredible. So I encourage people to take a look at this thing. And also just to – the sound design on this is really good. It’s very convincing and it’s more believable and more interesting because it feels like you’re really there in the time. Because this was a silent film, but they built a really good ambient track for it that feels like the period.

So, that’s my One Cool Thing.

Craig: Well, my One Cool Thing is somewhat similar, but I’m not looking at the way things really were in 1911. I’m looking at the way things really were in Cleopatra era Egypt.

John: Ooh.

Craig: And Greece. Yeah. Because I’m playing Assassin’s Creed Origins. Of course. And I believe it is accurate in all ways. So naturally at the time I would have been this wonderful man named Bayek who goes around – only in pursuit of justice – just shedding massive quantities of blood. But it’s a really good game.

I like the Assassin’s Creed series. Have you ever played an Assassin’s Creed, John?

John: I never have.

Craig: There’s this underpinning concept to it that is so stupid I don’t even – it embarrasses me to say it. But you’re not really – the idea of the game is you’re not actually an assassin running around in ancient Egypt or in 1800s London or in Renaissance Florence or all the things that they’ve done. You’re actually a person in the modern era accessing genetic memories of somebody. It’s absolute nonsense. I hate that part of it.

John: I saw that in a trailer for the movie. So I saw Michael Fassbender in this big rig. And so that’s what you’re describing.

Craig: Yeah. Like if it had been me – no one asked me to write Assassin’s Creed – but had they asked me I would have said just slice away this ridiculous thing and no doubt they would have said to me, “Um, Ubisoft, the company that’s licensed us the rights, they’re not going to let you do that.” Then I would have just fired myself.

Regardless, the actual gameplay though of Assassin’s Creed is really good. They’ve made a lot of them. They seem to make one a month. So, I had kind of gotten off the Assassin’s Creed wheel. But the aforementioned Chris Morgan said, “Oh no, this one is really, really good.” And it is. It’s really fun playing as somebody in a completely different culture. The Assassin’s Creed games have generally been white, white, white, white, white. So, it’s fun to be an ancient Egyptian. Well, I wouldn’t say ancient. I mean, you’re talking a little bit before the Common Era as they say.

But it’s just a cool time period. You’re riding a camel. You’re lopping people’s heads off. It’s great. So, you know, I’m a big fan. I say yes Assassin’s Creed Origins.

John: Yes Assassin’s Creed. The common thing said about Cleopatra is that she lived closer to our time than to when the pyramids were built. I don’t know if that’s actually true. But it’s a thing I hear repeated a lot.

Craig: It is true. And, in fact, it is mentioned in a splash screen at one point while the game is loading up.

John: Ah-ha.

Craig: Yes, so that is true. Cleopatra was fairly modern. I mean, we’re talking just – we’re starting to edge towards the 0 Common Era. But you do – there’s one point where you’re running around. You’re doing stuff. And you just happen to turn to the left and there in the distance are pyramids. And it’s quite breathtaking. So big fan.

John: Very nice. That is our show for this week. So, as always, our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Tim Garcia. If you have an outro you can send us a link to ask@johnaugust.com. That is also the place where you can send the lyrics to the song you’ve now written about being on the other side of a velvet rope so you can join us for the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend special Q&A thing.

If you have longer questions like the ones we answered, those are great at ask@johnaugust.com. But short ones are easy on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.

You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to leave us a review, that’s lovely. It helps other people find the show.

Here’s my reminder that we have a game that is out there in the world that is called AlphaBirds. It is a fun game for people who like words and like Scrabble or Boggle. Craig played it along with Melissa, god, like two or three years ago at Austin Film Festival.

Craig: Yeah, in Austin, right? Yeah.

John: It’s a fun game.

Craig: It was fun.

John: Back then it was called Sparrow. It’s now called AlphaBirds and it’s available for purchase. So that’s at store.johnaugust.com. Or alphabirdsgame.com.

You’ll find show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. The transcripts go up about four days to seven days after the episode airs. All the back episodes are available at Scriptnotes.net. It’s a subscription. It’s $1.99 a month.

We also have a few more of the USB drives that have the first 350 episodes of the show on them. Craig, delightful talking with you across the world.

Craig: Indeed. Thanks, John. I’ll see you next week. Bye.

John: Bye.

Links:

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