The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hola y bienvenido. Soy John August.
Craig Mazin: Soy Craig Mazin.
John: Y esto es Scriptnotes, un podcast sobre la escritura de guiones y cosas que son interesantes para los guionistas.
Today we have the grab-baggiest of episodes with topics ranging from screenwriting competitions to toxic fandom to the new Apple deal, plus we’ll be answering questions about capitalizing on heat after a sale, Bad Robot, and NDAs.
Craig: Ohh. But can I do the entire episode in my telenovela voice? Soy.
John: Oh please.
Craig: Craig Mazin.
John: You absolutely should. So, I should say that I’m doing the Spanish because I am here in Spain. I’m in Barcelona at the moment, and it is great. Craig, you’ve been to Barcelona, right?
Craig: I have not.
John: Oh, put it higher on your list of places to go.
Craig: It’s pretty high up there. Just in the midst of all the work travel we sort of put other travel vacations on hold just, because I’m starting to hate planes and time zones. But, yeah, it’s definitely high up there. My daughter is quite demanding about it.
John: It is fantastic. I recommend everything that everybody always recommends about Barcelona. I was here in high school and did not like it, because it was sort of the first big city I’d been to and it was overwhelming. But it’s a really good, approachable big city. I was a little bit nervous about the Catalan of it all, but everyone here speaks Spanish and English. And it’s fun to watch what language they default to you in.
So, if they kind of recognize that you probably are a native, then they’ll speak Catalan. Otherwise they’ll speak Spanish. Unless you’re Asian, and then they’ll speak English.
Craig: Well, what’s going to happen with Melissa is they’re probably going to speak English to her because she looks so not Spanish. And then she will speak Spanish back to them. And then they’ll be surprised, which is one of the most fun things to watch for me.
Craig: Watching native Spanish speakers listening to Melissa speak Spanish for the first time, they all make the same face. And the first face they make is what’s going on here? What is this? Is this one of those hidden camera shows? What is this?
And they start getting very curious because they want to know where she’s from. Because they’re quite sure she’s not American. Because her accent is too good. But it’s not their accent, so they start thinking are you like one of those German people that ended up in Chile? Or what are you? And thus–
John: She could have escaped–
Craig: The Nazis.
John: Who hid off in Argentina, yes.
Craig: Yeah, no, she looks like the great-granddaughter of some sort of Nazi escapee. Yeah.
John: But she’s a lovely woman and a great wife I take it.
Craig: Yeah. She’s none of those things.
John: She’s none of those things. Let’s get into this because there’s so much stuff on the agenda for today. So, we’ll start with what was going to be our feature marquee topic. We thought it was going to be a whole special episode and it is not a whole special episode. But to sort of give a little recap, this started on Twitter. Someone tweeted at you and me saying like, “Hey guys. You should be aware that there’s a giant scam going on. It’s about Coverfly.” I didn’t know what Coverfly was.
Craig: Me neither.
John: There’s a long blog post. You and I read the blog post. And it looked like, wow, there’s actually a lot here. And then it has all sort of dissipated.
Craig, can you talk us through what you’ve discovered so far, at least what this was?
Craig: I mean, vaguely. I mean, this is the same – so somebody was complaining about this group Coverfly. Coverfly apparently is a service that provides coverage for payment, I guess. And then also offers as part of its conglomeration with 12 other business names offers paid consulting – you know, the sort of thing that you and I don’t like very much.
However, Coverfly also provides a service to other screenwriting contests. They have their own contest, I guess. And then there are other screenwriting contests that become overwhelmed with submissions and need readers to evaluate these scripts. And so they essentially – I guess they outsource that to Coverfly.
Coverfly in turn has its own sort of like script hosting service I guess you’d call it. Right? It’s sort of like a Dropbox for screenplays. And I guess what happened was they started signing people up or migrating accounts to their service without people knowing and then people thought that essentially, “Look, I’ve entered the Austin Screenwriting Festival Competition for instance and suddenly I’m getting an email from these Coverfly people telling me that I can create an account for free if I want, which I didn’t want. And who are they? And why are they sending me ads?” And all the rest of that.
And so it seemed a little stinky and smelly. And interestingly enough it was the same guy that we had our last and final Scriptnotes Investigates episode on which was that former service where the whole thing went kablooey and people lost some scripts.
Anyway, it turns out it’s sort of not really any of that. It’s just kind of actually very mundane, boring, reality of the way businesses work. And it didn’t seem like there was anything particularly unethical going on any more than there usually is in this area of the world.
So, I don’t know, what did you think?
John: I felt we ended up in a place where there were sort of counter-balancing unethical things that were happening. So the initial blog post that we were tipped off to was taken down afterwards, but the Coverfly people had responded to it. I actually tweeted at the Coverfly guys saying like I know you’re going to do a blog post response to this, so I’ll just wait until you do the blog post response to this.
It was not clear who this anonymous person was who was putting up this thing. Whether it was a rival? Whether it was a former client? So the person we were talking to before was John Rhodes. This was back in Episode 191. And the service was called Scripped.com. They’d bought it out, some people lost their material that was on that. It was a special Saturday episode that we put out. Like I think it’s the only time we’ve put out a Saturday episode.
And so we talked with him about that way back when. This seemed like a situation where both sides were doing a lot of Googling of each other to figure out who the other person was and all these Coverfly businesses were related. But also the same guy had taken screenshots from a certain thing. It all got very forensic and kind of dull and boring.
Where I came out of this, and a question I asked on Twitter as it all sort of blew up, was I asked to Twitter at large, “Hey, can anyone tell me whether winning a screenwriting competition actually had a meaningful impact on your career. Like did it actually start your career?” And I said specifically I’m curious who out there has produced credits that they believe only came to be because they won a screenwriting competition.
And if so, which competition? And I think not surprisingly at all Nicholls Fellowship is meaningful. If you win the Nicholls Fellowship, great. That’s fantastic. It’s run by the Academy. Everyone knows what that is.
Some success out of Austin Film Festival. Very little success out of anything else.
Craig: Of course.
John: And that’s what we’ve always kind of said.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, it’s not surprising at all. And one thing that did come out of this which was a bit surprising to me is, look, the guy that made all these charges seemed like an Internet crank honestly to me. One of those people that just goes way, way deep in a Zapruder film-like examination of something. But they did make one point that I thought was kind of remarkable that this company – so the parent company that owns Coverfly and a bunch of other things is called Red Ampersand. And Red Ampersand owns ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft operates at least 15 different screenplay contests. OK?
So, the Coverfly Company is involved with 15 different screenplay contests that are run by itself, meaning its parent company. Also, they are supplying coverage for other people’s competitions. Meaning you’re kind of ultimately paying twice to submit to the same people. Now, what they say is, “Oh, we have different juries and judges for those different kinds of things. And so it doesn’t work like that.”
But here’s the truth. None of this is worth a damn thing and nobody should be using it. Apologies to everybody involved, because some of these people are nice people, but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. I don’t know how else we can say it and how many times we can say it. It doesn’t work.
There are so many people out there charging you money to enter contests, charging you money for notes, charging you money for consulting. It doesn’t work. And more to the point, not doing it has worked. In fact, not doing it has worked for literally everyone you and I know who works as a professional screenwriters. So at some point I think we’re asking people to take a leap of faith here and stop doing this. We know that the Nicholls Fellowship matters. It doesn’t always work, but it can work. We know that Austin to a lesser extent can work. Beyond that, stop.
John: Yeah. I do feel like screenwriting competitions are the astrology of our business.
Craig: It’s the homeopathy, right?
John: It is. It is. Just maybe entering one more competition is really what’s going to do it for you. It’s not.
Craig: It’s not. It’s not. And people are losing money and I have to also just point out that there is something at some point when you do look at the fact that the parent company owns 15 different companies, they each run – there’s 15 different screenplay competitions. It’s all promotional so that you’ll end up spending money. They are businesses to make a profit. And it starts to get byzantine and more to the point literally they’re charging you money for a lottery ticket and the thing that you can win is not money or prize but rather a brief moment of pride.
And perhaps even a brief moment of not feeling bad. Maybe that’s the best it can be, right? That’s all they’re selling you is false comfort. That is what that industry is. And I don’t begrudge people a right to make money doing a legal thing, but it is our, I think, obligation to tell all of you at home the truth, which is that they don’t matter and they don’t work.
John: So, when I talked with writers who did succeed off of Nicholls or Austin, like Stephen Falk of You’re the Worst was a person who wrote in saying like, yes, winning at Austin was incredibly helpful. And I asked him why and he said, “It helped me get my managers,” and that was important to him. Basically it provided some legitimacy so as he went in to talk with managers he could get over that next little step. That I could totally see and that’s why the prestige of Austin and the prestige of Nicholls Fellowship helps people start careers.
But these things you’ve never heard of, well, Craig and I have never heard of them. Managers have never heard of them. Winning it is not going to do anything for you and that’s what it comes down to.
Craig: Everybody at some point is going to say I was a semifinalist/finalist/winner of some blank fill-in competition named here. Nobody cares. No one cares. No one knows what those competitions are. You know what else they don’t care about in Hollywood? They don’t care about your college degree. They don’t care about your work experience. They don’t care about how many languages you speak. They don’t care about your skills, your volunteerism. You know what they care about? The document they just got handed. That’s it. Period. The end.
They read the script. They don’t care about anything else. So, stop.
John: Yep. Another group of people we’d like to stop are some fans of the Star Wars franchise who seem intent on destroying it, in a way. So, this has been sort of bubbling up for a while, but this is the most recent example was the stuff that happened to Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose in Rian Johnson’s film, The Last Jedi. She left Instagram. We’re recording this about a week before the episode comes out, so who knows what will happen in the meantime.
But I wanted to just take a moment to talk about fandom and sort of this most recent wave of destructive fandom that you see out there. And see if we have any recommendations for creators dealing with it, or an industry dealing with it, because it just sucks. And it’s just so dispiriting to see every day.
Craig: I cannot explain this beyond the obvious explanation. It’s so bizarre to me. You and I – I look at a lot of these people out there that are complaining about Star Wars because they don’t like, I don’t know, the cast or something, or what happened to a character. These people certainly must be younger than you and I.
You and I grew up in the age of Star Wars. We were each about six or seven when the first movie came out, right? And then the second movie came out nine/ten. So, we are prime Star Wars generation. We are the Star Wars Generation. And nobody ever, ever, ever when we were young talked about these movies this way ever. Ever. Never. In any way, shape, or form. And part of the reason was we felt no ownership of it whatsoever. None. It was a gift that we went to go see.
We all saw them. And, yeah, you know what? I remember thinking the Ewoks were stupid. I didn’t care. Whatever. You know what? So then the Ewoks were stupid. What am I going to get angry? That’s not how it works.
I have no ownership over these movies. They’re movies. My ticket back then cost the same price to go see Max Dugan Returns. A pretty good movie, by the way. It didn’t matter what the movie is. You paid your ticket, you went down, you saw it. And now what has happened is, and I can’t put all of the blame on the fans. I put part of the blame on the companies. The companies have managed to monetize and exploit this fandom, this experience. I mean, you can’t say convention without con. It’s all a con to take your money. They are religiousifying their products in such a way that people begin to feel religious about it. What a shock.
And then they are surprised when it sort of bites them in the butt. I blame the butt-biters for it. However, I do think that the fact that we have kind of built these mythological and engaging worlds around these movies has engendered a certain problem with what I’ll call a problematic segment of our society, specifically young men, young white men, I’ll say between the ages of 15 and 30.
It’s interesting from an anthropological point of view, or a sociological point of view, they didn’t seem to have a problem with a black man in Star Wars. Well, they did, but they didn’t lose their minds. But when you start putting women in Star Wars then they start getting crazy. And my god, you put an Asian woman in Star Wars and they lose their S.
John: Yeah. There wasn’t backlash against older Leia because Leia was already established. She was cannon. People love Leia. She’s seen as a princess. Everyone sort of got that. It was the other women being added to the franchise that hurt it.
I think you’re picking at two very interesting aspects of this, which is that you have the religious fervor quality and whenever people become true believers in things that belief in things can be transformative and it can become dangerous. It can become sort of fanaticism. It can become this kind of zeal that is destructive. You see that happening again.
And also this sort of that 15 to 30-year-old white male culture, which is really the heart of the sort of troll culture. It’s the people who have grown up in the system of like always snapping back against the things they don’t like and feeling that they need to exert control over things because they feel out of control over things.
John: A related thing which I listened to this last week was a great piece on the shippers of Sherlock. So basically the people who watch the BBC Sherlock and believe that they are absolutely, 100% a couple and that the creators of the show are lying to them when they claim that they are not a couple. I’ll put a link in the show notes to a really great podcast that sort of explores, called Decoder, that explores how that fandom sort of came to be and how it became a giant schism within the community of the fan fiction writers for Sherlock and their fervent beliefs in the nature of that relationship and the degree to which the creators of the show are lying when they say that they are not a couple.
Craig: Yeah. Including the gay co-creator, Mark Gatiss. It just, ugh, I don’t get it. First of all, I have trouble with just anyone talking about shipping or ship instead of relationship, because it makes me itch. Just like I have a huge problem with people using the word stan for fandom, because it feels so blech.
John: And some of it is generational. Sometimes it’s us old men shaking our canes at things.
Craig: Some of it. Some it also is just like I think you guys are just making up words to make yourselves feel like you’re part of a secret group of people with inside knowledge or coolness. It’s not cool. It’s inherently not cool to explain to creators of a show why they’re lying to you about what their two characters should be doing. That’s it. That’s what they showed you is it. That’s it.
John: So do we have any theories about why some properties seem to be a little bit better protected from that sort of toxic backlash than others? Because when you look at the Marvel universe, it seems to have done actually pretty well at sort of keeping the main through line of the movies moving ahead fine. And all the shipping can happen over at the margins, but it’s not affecting the main product and you don’t see a backlash against the main product from the fans.
Same with Harry Potter I’d say. Like there’s always been a lot of shipping happening in Harry Potter. There’s always people who believe that Harry and Hermione belong together, but it never seems to come back to J.K. Rowling that she has done something wrong.
And I wonder what it is. I wonder what is the difference between those kinds of properties. Is it that Star Wars is perceived as being more adult and therefore adults are sort of more engaged with it? There’s something different happening there. If you could figure what that is it would be so useful for us as people creating these giant properties that go out into the world.
Craig: I have a theory. It’s going to be disheartening, but that’s what I do. I think that had Harry Potter begun to come out say two years ago it would be a nightmare for J.K. Rowling. Every single new book would be a nightmare of how could you do this, why would you do this, what happened to so-and-so, why aren’t they together, how could you lie. When she finally reveals seven years from now that actually Hermione and Ron get together, people go bananas. It’s just going to be – and every single who is or is not white, black, Asian, why are there no transgender characters? Why are there no openly gay characters? It would just be an endless thing. And it would be a very different experience. And the reason I would say it would be horrible for her is because every decision she would make would be terribly questioned.
As opposed to what used to happen where a creator would do something and that person’s creations would be considered “cannon.” In other words you would receive them. You wouldn’t question them or feel entitled to have a conversation with them. You would receive them the way we received Lord of the Rings or the way we received George R. R. Martin’s books, or the way we received the original Star Wars.
Now as things on go, it is no longer considered a receiving. It is considered a conversation. So when something new comes along, like the new Star Wars, it’s considered a conversation. Marvel movies are all based on old characters that have thousands of comics behind them. They don’t give us new ones. They just keep giving us old ones. And so they stay within the cannon that exists. These new movies are tellings of stories that have been around for a long time. Infinity War, that whole storyline has been around for a while.
So they’re weirdly not breaking new ground. The only times that they get in trouble is when they try and cast away from what the comics were, which created a huge problem with Doctor Strange.
In the case of what we’re seeing I think with Sherlock, again, they sort of remade a thing. They made it new. So it’s modern day London Sherlock and therefore people were entitled to have a conversation with it. And I think more than anything it is about the time you start something. And unfortunately if you start something now, that’s the world you live in.
John: Probably so. On the sixth or seventh episode of Launch, I guess it’s the seventh episode, we had Tomi Adeyemi on. And her new book, Children of Blood and Bone, is a bestseller. And so it’s the first of a three-book series. And I am fascinated to follow up with her to see now that the book has done so well and the second book comes out what the nature of her fan relationship becomes. Because right now people love the books. They love her. She’s fantastic. She’s exactly the right vessel for this book, but what’s going to happen when she makes tough choices in book two and things don’t go the way that people had expected. What happens in book three? What is the pressure as a movie comes out? It’s going to be fascinating to see what it’s like because your proposition that essentially any piece of popular culture you make right now that has a fan base behind it is going to face these pressures, she’s ground zero for that.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s terrifying because you cannot actually function as an artist if you are responding to the conversation. It’s just not possible. Well, you can, but you won’t do a very good job. The people out there will destroy that which they love. If you ignore the conversation entirely you just have to be ready to know that you’re going to get beaten around the head and face for a bit from now time to time.
A good example is Dan and Dave who do Game of Thrones got an enormous amount of grief in season, I guess we’ve just seen season seven, so season six I think – maybe season five – somewhere in there Sansa ends up getting married to, what was that guy’s name? He’s so bad.
Craig: We’re practically – it’s so terrible that I can’t remember his name. Anyway, that guy. She’s married to that awful, awful guy. And then they had a scene where it was just this very hard to watch, drawn out, difficult rape scene. And the show had already dallied in rape scenes a number of times. This one really sent people into a very bad place because it wasn’t in the books. This was something that they had invented. They didn’t take it from George R. R. Martin. And everyone felt it was just gratuitous and brutal to do to this character that they loved.
And then by extension Dan and Dave were misogynists. They were sick. They were A-holes. They didn’t understand – they were part of rape culture. Etc.
The next season they get the revenge and Sansa watches as Ramsay is ripped apart by his own dogs and everybody loved it, including I think all the people that had complained. And one of the reasons they loved it so much is because his brutal death had been earned by his brutal acts.
Sometimes we just have to be patient. Sometimes characters must suffer. Sometimes in really challenging art they suffer and do not survive. And people seem to not be accepting of this when they are engaged in conversation with the author.
John: Yeah. So to wrap this up, let’s go back and imagine The Empire Strikes Back, and let’s imagine that the Empire Strikes Back comes out now, so there already was a Star Wars. Now Empire Strikes Back comes out. It’s the same movie. Same incredibly great quality movie. But you end that movie with Han Solo frozen in carbonite. What is the fan reaction? How dare you take away my Han Solo? How dare you imprison him? Basically that sense of you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re getting rid of the best character of it all. You’ve made this fundamental change in the nature of Luke and Leia’s relationship. And you’re going to make us wait years to find out what happens next.
Craig: I think that people probably would have approached that the way that many people are approaching the end of the current Avengers movie which is to say, “Not really dead,” and in both instances I suspect, certainly in one different correct, and the other one almost certainly correct. But I think they would have had a huge problem with Luke being weak. They would have had a problem with Yoda. I’m sorry, a Jedi master is a stupid puppet, so now for kids we’re just doing dumb hand puppets. That would have been a meme within four seconds. They would have just absolutely trashed Yoda today.
John: Well, also he has Grover’s voice.
Craig: Exactly. So it’s Grover or it’s Miss Piggy. So, I’m sorry, the most powerful Jedi in the world is Miss Piggy? They would have made fun of that. They would have gone after that. And I think, let’s see what else, Lando, who is this guy? Social justice warriors obviously are demanding that the Colt 45 guy being in Empire Strikes – there just would have been racist stuff. It’s all the things that are just predictable. It’s the same thing every time.
And then for the third movie on the far left people would have been accusing it of being imperialist because it’s talking about white saviors and exploiting the native people of a jungle climate for themselves. You know. It would have been the thing. And we can all write that script. And it’s dispiriting because that’s how you know we can’t go on like this because it can all just be written ahead of time. Nothing will survive the crucible of these extremes on either side. Nothing. There is not art that can survive it except bland art.
John: We don’t want bland art.
John: No, we want great, vital art.
Craig: Yeah. And you know what? I don’t mind mistakes. I also don’t mind bad movies. Just do them honestly. And so with the case of Rian’s Star Wars movie, I really like that movie a lot and it’s just so bizarre that it is a discussion involving politics. It’s Star Wars for god’s sakes. It takes place in a galaxy far, far away a long, long time ago. What the hell?
John: Frustrating. OK, last bit of new news. This past week the WGA announced a new deal with Apple. So Apple is moving into creating original programs. They have not announced the name of this service or sort of how the service is going to work, but they’ve started making shows and so they need to make a deal with the WGA to cover the writers on those shows. Some shows that Apple is doing are through a studio, like a Paramount, or a Disney, or some other place. Some of the shows they are doing are directly for Apple. And the so the WGA made a deal for those shows which Apple is doing directly. And the deal is better than it could have been.
There’s basically two ways these kind of deals work these days. There’s the deal we have with places like Netflix which are subscription based. And there’s places like Crackle, was the example, things that are free to people to watch those shows, and those deals tend to be terrible.
So, the good news is that the deal with Apple if Apple ends up making a free service, free to consumer service, it will be better than that deal which is a good sign because there will be things like minimums for writers to be paid, residuals, other good stuff along the way.
Craig: Credit protections I presume?
John: Credit protections, yes. So it’s a decent WGA deal by most measures.
Craig: And I think that in time these will become the deals. It seems all inevitable. I don’t know what the specific numbers are on these deals. But I don’t know if any of us have any clue what our contracts or our compensation would be on our initial self-negotiated compensation will be in, I don’t know, ten years. I don’t think we have any clue whatsoever. I mean, ten years ago it was 2008 and the iPhone came out in–
John: 2006 I believe. We’re past the tenth anniversary.
Craig: We’re just past it, right? So that’s how much has changed in ten years. So ten years from now, good lord, right? I mean, it’s going to be unrecognizable.
So, yeah, first generation iPhone was 2007. So, we have to keep doing what we’re doing here I think which is just sort of piecemeal-ing these things and going along. But there will be a reckoning.
John: For sure.
Craig: The reckoning will come. And here’s what’s interesting: when that reckoning does come, it will not come against our usual foes. You know, to strike a company that does nothing but exploit the work that we do is an interesting probability. It’s self-destructive but also other-destructive. To strike Apple, uh, OK.
Craig: Good luck.
John: It is a challenging thing. So, I mean, the programming that Apple makes will be a very small percentage of the income for Apple overall, or maybe actually it will make no income for Apple, but they’ll be used – if it’s a free service – perhaps they will use the programming they make to sell Apple TVs, or iPads, and other things. So, you know, if we say, no, we’re not going to write your stuff, it’s like, well, it doesn’t sort of matter so much for them.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t think they’re actually running any of these shows in a sense to get people excited about a show. I honestly think they’re doing this just to hurt each other at this point. I don’t even know if Apple knows why they’re doing this beyond, “Well, why let Netflix be the only people that does a thing. That just sounds dangerous to us. And we literally have $80 billion sitting around. So let’s spend a little bit of it just to make it competitive. We’re not even sure why.”
Well, that’s a tough employer to negotiate with.
John: Yeah, but right now if they’re going to spend that money on us, as writers, that’s fantastic.
John: And what we should stipulate is that it’s not like people who are writing these shows these people weren’t getting paid or individually they might be able to get some good things in their contracts. The challenge is that that showrunner might get a really good contract, but it’s very hard to get a good contract for that staff writer on that show because there are no minimums. And so a union has to negotiate the minimums that any writer is going to get paid. And without that it’s just all the way to the bottom. And that’s what happened with Crackle.
Craig: Is there pension and health involved?
John: I believe there’s pension and health. I have not seen the final deal. I just know that there was a push to get good coverage on the whole shebang.
Craig: I mean, that’s really important.
John: Oh my god, pension and health is so crucial.
Craig: That’s kind of the reason we’re here.
John: If you talk to folks who work in animation, who write for animation, pension and health can be a huge deal, because there’s coverage sometimes through the animation guild, but if you’re working on some WGA projects, some non-WGA projects, it will be hard to keep your health together. So, it’s tough.
John: All right, let’s get to some questions.
Craig: All right.
John: We’ll start with Evan in Philadelphia who writes, “I’m a former comic book author and in comics we call the space between the panels the gutters. The gutters are almost as important as what you see in the panels because your brain is actively filling in all those blanks as you move from panel to panel. Scott McCloud has a book called Understanding Comics for an excellent explanation. Do you ever think about the time that passes in between scenes of a script and what your characters are learning, changing, what’s happening to them, etc., in these interstitial spaces and cuts?” Craig?
Craig: Evan, that’s a fantastic question and a great observation. It’s a really interesting analogy. Absolutely. It’s not just something that I – do I ever think about it – I always think about it. The design of scenes from one scene to another, we talk about a lot of times when we’re reading scripts we want to feel compelled through. We want it to seem seamless. And so much of that is about designing the end of a scene and the beginning of another to acknowledge something is happening. And that’s how you can figure out what you don’t need to show.
A lot of times you’ll hear very broad-based advice like “Start your scene later than you thought you needed to, and end it sooner than you thought you needed to.” Well, that’s really referring to this interstitial phenomenon where we can fill things in. But you have to know what those things are. That’s the most important thing. And therefore you have to be thinking about what they are. And then rather than sort of saying, oh you know, hmm, I wonder what could go in this space, figure out what should be there first before you start thinking about what comes after. So I’m constantly thinking about all this. And for actors, one of the classic bits of acting instruction is the moment before. A scene begins, but what were you doing before it? Otherwise it just seems like you’re one of the hosts in Westworld that gets switched on, you know?
John: Yeah. Exactly. So that common advice, like starting a scene as late as possible, ending a scene, I always think about it as a scene ends and it needs to have a little bit of forward momentum. That’s why it’s sort of slanting into the next scene. You’re tipping that energy across the cut into the next scene.
But you’re also always mindful of what had to happen beforehand. And it’s really not you as the author who is filling in those details. It is the audience. So you have to think about expectation. What is the audience expecting to happen next? Or when they see that first shot of the new scene, what are they doing to expect happened that go them there? And if you can do that math in your head you can very often skip over a lot of things that people will just see what it is that they’re doing next.
When it comes time for direction, really literally like moving left to right across the frame versus right to left across the frame, our brains do stuff to fill in the things that we missed based on the way the camera is moving, the way the characters are moving through the scene. You do that work to figure out sort of what must have happened right before this moment and what’s going to happen next.
So, yes. And I think gutters is actually a really interesting way of thinking about those missing scenes, those missing connection pieces that we use all the time in screenwriting.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a great question. I love that. And we talked about this sort of from a different angle when we discussed transitions. We talk about it a lot when we do our Three Page Challenges because sometimes those things feel like they’re not there.
You know, it occurs to me that when people ask what do you need to become a professional screenwriter and work steadily we always say, look, talent, hard work. But talent in what? Vocabulary? Sentence structure? We’ll talk a lot about dialogue, so an ear for dialogue. Things like that. But I suspect that one of the most important talents that we don’t really talk about is what psychologists call mind reading. There’s this aspect of social communication that’s essentially mind reading where we’re trying to figure out what the other person is thinking. And then we shape our comments or thoughts to achieve a change in their thinking state.
The game of charades is just mind reading in that sense writ large, because you’re trying to figure out what someone is thinking. And when we’re writing we’re always trying to think about what our characters are thinking, how they can change what the other person is thinking. How much they’ve picked up on what the other person is thinking. And then in a meta sense, we are in a relationship with the audience where we’re trying to figure out what the audience will be thinking. So that’s predictive mind reading.
These things if you were bad at are going to limit you as a screenwriter. And possibly disqualify you as a screenwriter. It’s a talent that I don’t think anybody really talks about in film school, but it’s a huge part of this.
John: Yeah. And so when you’re getting feedback from somebody and they say like I was confused by this moment, I didn’t understand what this character was trying to do, really you’re discussing a breakdown in that mind-reading. You had not read their mind properly and they couldn’t figure out what was happening next, or where you were trying to lead them. When they talk about like “I kind of lost faith in it, I lost faith in where the story was going,” that’s again a breakdown of this mind-reading about what you’re trying to do and what those characters are trying to do next.
We can’t see inside their heads. We just don’t know what we’re watching.
Craig: Yeah. And none of us are 100% at it. Of course. We all make mistakes. But generally speaking you want to be more right than wrong with that sort of thing.
All right, well we’ve got another question for Miranda in LA. And she asks, “I have a question that NDAs, that’s non-disclosure agreements, and parting ways with an employer with whom you are working on an idea.” And I really like that you said with whom. “Here’s my scenario. For a while I worked as a writer’s assistant to an established screenwriter.” John, I’m already telling you my butt is clenching. OK. My butt is clenching.
“I had developed a concept for a show that needed a plot. Through the course of my work my employer said something that gave me an idea for the story and I ended up with a cool pitch for a show. I wrote up an outline, we talked about it once, and then I was let go a couple of weeks later.
“I’d like to pursue the project, but not with my former employer. I signed an NDA that grants ownership to everything I came up with to my former employer.” That’s not what an NDA does. “Does that mean I can’t work on this project without them or their permission? Or can I use my original concept and take out anything that relates to my former employer’s idea”
Oh. Good. Lord.
John: Oh. Good. Lord. So, first off, we will say that an NDA does not strictly mean that there’s ownership of ideas, but you could have signed something that including NDA language and included that all things discussed as part of work belong to your employer. Without seeing your contract I don’t know. So we cannot give you great legal advice here. And we’re not lawyers anyway, so we wouldn’t be able to give you great legal advice.
What I will say is as a person who has had a number of assistants who have gone on to have great careers, I’ve always had those kind of discussions about the things they were writing and I’ve offered them advice and they’ve gone off and they’ve done stuff. That kind of discussion should be encouraged and is part of the process. So, I hope your boss is not listening to this podcast saying like, “Oh, I know exactly who Miranda is and I’m going to get that idea back because that is a terrible person.” That is not what a screenwriter should be doing.
Craig: Yeah. We would destroy that person.
John: We would absolutely destroy this person. So that sense of like I have this story world, I’m working on this plot, I had those same conversations with assistants over games of pool and, you know, watching Martha Stewart, and all sorts of other discussions I have now with Megan all the time. And so this is not a thing that is unusual.
I would say it’s a little bit unusual that you signed this contract going in. I don’t know many writers who are having their assistants do that. But my instinct is you should feel free to pursue your idea that is your idea. But I would say just look through that thing you singed to make sure it doesn’t say that anything you ever brought up in the office is theirs.
Craig: Yeah. Certainly have somebody review that and have the discussion with them and just say, look, I’d love to do this and is it OK if I just go off and do that please?
Just a little tip. If you do review your agreement and it is – so non-disclosure agreement basically says you can’t talk about any of the stuff that we do here with other people. Right? So it’s pretty normal. If John and I are working on a screenplay that’s something that’s confidential in almost every case. So, we don’t want our assistant tweeting about it, right? Standard NDA sort of thing.
But then there’s this other agreement where you’re essentially saying anything that you think or say belongs to me. It’s my property. It’s considered a work-for-hire. Therefore the copyright is mine. If anyone asks you to sign something like that it has to be basically a company. And I don’t mean like just some random company. I mean like a studio-type company.
So, if say I wanted to talk to some scientist for Chernobyl, just interview him and get some information, he said, “You know what, I’ll write down some things for you and send them,” and I go, oh, if you’re going to write anything down and send it to me you need to sign this thing that basically says HBO now owns what you just said in this piece of paper because we’re not saying, “Oh, we’re looking for people to write a scene or anything. That’s not what we do. We’re just looking for some research or advice.” And as long as then they’re OK with that that’s the document they would sign with a company like HBO or a studio like Paramount, or Warner Bros., or anything. That’s pretty normal.
But if some person asks you to sign that, that’s an alarm bell. It’s a massive alarm bell. So, I think Miranda what you need to do is find yourself an attorney. Talk to them. And then assuming that that person gives you the thumbs up, reach out to your former employer and say I’d like to do this. Would that be OK with you?
John: Yeah. And hopefully it should be OK. And if the guy says no–
Craig: We’ll destroy him.
John: That was a bad guy. Yes, tell us what his name was and we’ll go after him.
The last thing I want to say is I think there’s understandable concern about NDAs overall and NDAs that are used to protect people from being called out on bad behavior.
John: Crime. And creepiness. And so NDAs cannot and should not be used to protect people from doing terrible – certainly criminal things but also just bad things. And so I want us to always shine a spotlight on NDA abuse.
Craig: I agree. And so eventually there will be some sort of legislation with a different congress that will attempt to address this. And I think it could also be a state-by-state thing.
John: Yeah. California could totally do this.
Craig: California could do this. There is a weird thing that also happens where NDAs start to protect what I would call reluctant whistle-blowers. So people will say I have a whistle I could blow but I can’t because of my NDA. Well, I think you can. I think you can. I think you don’t want to. So, it’s a weird – it’s a whole weird thing. Anyway.
John: It’s a whole weird thing. All right, Dan has a question. He asks, “How do big production companies like Bad Robot work? They get a deal from a studio and that funds the company and the development of shows and movies? What’s the corporate structure like? When JJ is paid does it go to the production company and he just takes a salary? Speaking as a company owner, why would JJ want to deal with the business-running stuff? Wouldn’t he just work as a freelancer? What happens to the company if he’s off directing for six months? It would seem that the revenue that people like JJ would make as a company is insanely profitable. So, anyway, I don’t mean to pick on JJ, but I was just thinking of him as an example.”
So, Bad Robot is a company that makes Mission: Impossible movies, they make Westworld, they make other JJ Abrams movies. Like they make Star Trek. And so I’ve gone into meeting with them. I’ve never written anything for them. But they have really nice offices out in Santa Monica. They have a lot of people who work there and they’re really smart, great people. So they are busy doing stuff. Their deal is with Paramount, but they’re always doing other things. They just started a videogame company as well.
So, Craig, why do you not have a Bad Robot?
Craig: Well, no one has asked me to have a Bad Robot. I think that the prerequisite for these things is television. So, people think of JJ as a movie guy. He’s actually a TV guy. He came out of TV. And when you come out of TV and you’re making a few hit shows then there’s a massive revenue stream.
So earlier this week, Dan, there was a news story about Greg Berlanti who is an incredibly prolific television producer with Warner Bros. And they just made him I think it’s a 10-year deal for $400 million. That’s guaranteed $400 million. And then it goes up from there. And the reason why is he has 14 shows on the air apparently, which is insane. And so this is really a television empire business. And this has always been around.
There have always been these little mini studios that were mini studios making television. So, Chuck Lorre has a little mini studio. Back in the day Stephen J. Cannell who would make a lot of the action programs that John and I grew up watching, he had a little mini studio.
John: You had MTM.
Craig: MTM. And John Wells had a mini studio. So these have always been around. And now we have this crossover where they’re making television and also big movie franchises. So how does it work? Basically, yes, the studio will make a large deal with that business. They will guarantee them a certain amount of money. That money is used to cover overhead and employees. There’s almost always somebody other than the principal creative, which in this case is JJ, who is helping to run the business, like a principal business runner.
And then sub-business runners underneath. JJ and the company are paid as producers. JJ is then also paid individually as a writer. JJ is also paid individually as a director. So he has three different streams of income. And typically the production company is making a fee off of everything it produces and then that fee is either applied against, or in really great cases not applied against a backend percentage of profits or gross, depending on how good your deal is.
So the question is why would JJ want to deal with all the business-running stuff? Well, he’s not sitting there signing certificates for office insurance and handling human resources. There are people that do that for him. But he’s of the mindset of that. That’s what he likes to do. Same with Simon Kinberg. They like this kind of I make things but I also overlord things.
Our friend Chris Morgan has a – I mean, it’s smaller than JJ’s thing, but it is a similar kind of thing. I don’t have an interest in it. I like doing what I do. I mean, I suppose maybe one day, but I don’t want a building with a lot of people in it. I don’t want human resources. I don’t want development people. I don’t want it. I like my office. It’s me and then it’s Jacqueline Lesco who is my associate, who is sort of my editor, and it’s the two of us. And it’s wonderfully quiet. And I love it. So, I think maybe it’s a question of ambition. It’s basically is there a desire for you to do this and do you have the ambition to do it.
John: Yep. That’s really what it is. A talent, and a vision, and an ambition to do all those things. And I would hope that I have talent and that I have vision, but I do not have the ambition to have this massive company. And the overhead, the emotional overhead, of having all of those employees.
So I’ve got four. And four is plenty. Four is a lot for me. And so I’ve got Megan. I’ve got Nima. And I’ve got Dustin. And we make stuff. And that’s great, but really mostly my software company. Megan helps me out with my writing stuff — I am working as a freelance writer. I’m not working as some big production company entity.
I don’t want to have to go to some other office every day. I don’t want all that feeling. And so even though JJ Abrams would have really smart people to do all that stuff, and even though he gets to participate in lots of other projects because his company is making 30 things, that’s exciting. But he also has to participate in some of those projects. And I’m sure it is challenging when he goes off and directs a Star Wars movie in London for all the other stuff to get done. And that’s going to be the same challenge with Greg Berlanti running 14 shows, or Chris Morgan with Fast and the Furious, plus other franchises. But that’s a choice they’ve chosen to make and that’s great. But it’s just not a choice that I would want to make.
Craig: No. Not at all. And Spielberg has been doing this sort of thing forever. So he has his own at Amblin and then DreamWorks and then back to Amblin again. But then he does his own movies. And so, yeah, it’s really just a question of desire and scope.
Yeah, and by the way, even for Greg Berlanti. So he does most of the television shows, but then he does Love, Simon. Right?
Craig: I think that’s part of it also is that you like doing different things and you don’t mind never being at home. That must be a part of it. It seems like a very busy life.
Let’s get this last one in here. Alex in LA. Who knows, maybe we’ll get more than one more in. Alex in LA – I get all the LA people. He writes, “Recently,” or it could be she, writes, “Recently after years of struggle I finally made my first big spec sale.” Yay.
“While the sale is great, what I really want is to have a long and sustained career and not just be a one-hit-wonder. So my question is what can I expect to happen next and how can I maximize my opportunities when I’m in that rare moment where I actually have a nice Deadline write up and a little career heat? What are the traps to look out for?
“For context, I’ve had some minor successes before and I’ve even been on the bottle water tour when a previous script of mine got a lot of attention, but sadly no sale. So I’m not a complete newbie at this, but I’d like to know what happens when you move past the level of general meetings at random production companies and into higher levels of the industry.”
All right, John, we’ve got a new kid. What do you tell ‘em?
John: All right, so first Alex congratulations. I would say here are some priorities for you. Priority number one: let’s get that script made. So having sold a script is fantastic. Having a script actually produced and a movie is out is much, much better. So if there’s anything you can do to get this movie made, I say do those things to get that movie made.
So that is taking the notes, trying to make those notes actually work. Always asking about the next step. Always asking how are we going to get a director. What are the things that are happening next? Try to make that thing actually become a movie and not just one thing that you sold. So, great that you sold it, let’s make that a movie would be my first thing.
Second priority I would say let’s get you another job. Let’s get you writing something else. So, that could be a pitch that you’ve gone out with, that you’ve set up, that you’re going to be writing. It could be an assignment for something to write, a preexisting piece of material. It probably won’t be a rewrite if it’s so early in your career, but it could be a rewrite. But getting you as a person who gets hired and not just a person who has sold something is great.
Third I would say maybe you need to staff on a TV show. That’s not advice I would have given ten years ago, but I think most writers are working in television right now. And so if there’s a TV show that you could be staffed on I would look at staffing on that TV show, especially if your script is a perfect example of something out there. Maybe try to staff on a show, even like a short-run show for Apple. An eight-episode Apple show would be great experience for you and get you more scripts under your belt.
Craig: All fantastic. I’m not sure what I could possibly add to that other than you should continue to be concerned that this will end tomorrow, because that’s kind of the way it works. The trend is to get rid of you. You are a new infection in the body of Hollywood. It will try and get rid of you. The good news is eventually it will stop trying to get rid of you and then you will start to try and get rid of it and you won’t be able to. But that’s a long way to go.
So, get the next job. Get. The. Next. Job. Go out there swinging at as many things as you can to get that next job, to keep working. Nothing is sexier than a writer who is unavailable. And it’s a shame, because it has nothing to do with our abilities, but being unavailable is the thing that makes people excited about you because that means somebody else likes you, which means you’re likeable. That’s the mess of it all.
So, yeah, stay ambitious man.
John: Alex, you’re going to be very busy because you’re going to be rewriting your script that you sold. You’re going to be going out and pitching on a bunch of things which means you’re really going to be doing the internal writing of all these different projects. You’re going to be figuring out how you’re going to tackle these projects.
Plus, you’re going to be writing new stuff for yourself because where I do see writers who have sold that one thing who never sell another thing it’s because they never really wrote another thing. They just went out and tried to get that first movie made or try to get a deal and they never wrote something else new.
So, you’ve got to do all three things, which seems crazy because you worked so hard to get to this point, but you’re now going to be probably working a lot harder.
Craig: Yeah. And you’re going to have to assume that there are going to be some swings and misses along the way.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: You may also work on something that doesn’t work out and you get fired off of it and then, you know, OK, well you’re going to have to deal with that fallout or whatever. But it won’t be your problem because you’ve already got the next thing lined up. So actually now is when you have to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. And you should enjoy and be proud of the moment, but I think honestly Alex your questions are implying the right mindset.
John: 100% agree. All right, let’s save that last question for next week and instead go to our One Cool Things. So, my One Cool Thing is an article by Avi Selk for the Washington Post called The Worst Sex in the World is Anglerfish Sex, and Now There’s Finally Video.
So, anglerfish are those things you’ve seen in cartoons. They’re these monstrous sort of Precambrian Jurassic fish that have the little lantern dangling over their heads. They live deep, deep in the water. They’ve never seen sunlight. But there’s video now of this anglerfish and it’s a female anglerfish you find out because female anglerfish are the giant ones and male anglerfish are tiny, tiny little fish. And when males mate they bite into the female fish. Their teeth hold on basically forever and they basically become subsumed into the bigger fish.
The video is fantastic and disturbing. It looks alien. So I just encourage you to see it. I’ll actually put two different video links in there. One which simulates what it would look like if humans did this, which is so disturbing.
Craig: It’s the best. I’ve seen this, too. It’s awesome.
John: Yeah. So I love that we live in a world that has such incredibly freaky creatures out there. And while it seems like, “Oh, that poor male fish is dying to procreate,” it’s also very kind of smart mechanism. Because literally all of his DNA gets in there because he becomes part of the other fish. So he’s both a parasite and he’s eaten by it. It’s all interesting and it feels alien in a wonderful way.
Craig: Yeah. I got to say once you get past the mammal situation and you get into insects and reptiles and fish, women – I think they generally win the whole battle of the sexes. They seem to be winning. And violently in all sorts of fun ways, like biting the heads off their mate. You know, I always love those things. But, you know, I’m a praying mantis fan.
John: Well, if you think about it there’s a reason why women should win because essentially if the goal of reproduction is to pass along your genes, ultimately the women are going to be the ones who are going to give birth and raise the children in many cases. So there’s a reason why you’d want them to be stronger and survive.
Craig: Yeah. It really comes down to math from what I understand. It’s a question of how many eggs, you know, so mammals are basically we’re pregnant with one offspring at a time. And then when you’re in reptiles, fish, and insects they’re pregnant with a million offspring at times. So, like the math has a huge impact on whose head gets chopped off basically. It’s a real mess out there. Biology is brutal and doesn’t care about our feelings. Isn’t that terrible?
Well, I got all geeked out yesterday and watched two of the E3 press conferences. The one was the X-Box press conference and then the other one was the Bethesda press conference. And really I was just watching the Bethesda press conference to see if they would finally just say, OK, yes, there will be an Elder Scrolls 6. And they did. There’s going to be an Elder Scrolls 6. But not for like four years probably.
And one of the reasons why is because it’s going to be the game they work on after the next game they’re working on. And the next game that they’re working on is their first original franchise in 20 years or something. Because Fallout was actually based on something they had purchased from another company. And then they made it what it is.
But in any case Bethesda, my favorite game studio, has a new game that they are going to be putting out I think probably for the next generation platform, so my guess is 2020. And it’s called Starfield. And what we know about it is it’s in space. That’s it.
But I have a feeling if it is remotely like what we have all come to love from Bethesda games then even if it’s just Fallout in space, I’ll be thrilled.
John: That will be great.
Craig: So, anyway, Starfield is hopefully heading towards us in 2020. And then I’m thinking Elder Scrolls 6 in 2022? Then at that point if I get hit by the bus I’m OK.
John: Yeah. Hopefully there will still be a planet in 2022.
John: No guarantees in this world.
Craig: There’ll be something.
John: There’ll be something. Will there be humans? Yeah. There will still be a planet.
Craig: I’m optimistic.
John: All right, good. I like the optimism.
Craig: I don’t why. Because I’m stupid.
John: You’re not stupid, Craig. You’re smart and you’re wise and you have umbrage for only the right things.
Craig: Thank you.
John: That’s our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Jeff Mooney. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. But Craig and I are always delighted to answer your questions on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
You can find us on Apple Podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there, leave us a comment. That helps people find the show.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes, plus links and such at johnaugust.com. You’ll also find transcripts. They go up the week after the episode goes out.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. Last episode I proposed that we may end up doing a digital version of the USB drives down the road. We’re thinking through that. We still have a few of the existing USB drives if you’d like one of those. But they may be the last of their kind. So, we may end up going to a fully digital version. And let people download them in chunks or maybe batches of 100 so they can live on with–
Craig: I think that’s smart.
John: Yeah. It’s really the international users are really facing – sometimes the import fees on the USB drive which is hard to value.
Craig: Yeah, you know what, and then they have to pay those taxes that end up coming back to us as foreign levy fees.
John: Yep. Crazy.
Craig: That part’s nice. I finally get–
John: Actually that’s true. Craig is referring to writers get paid these foreign levy fees that are not residuals. They’re kind of like residuals but they’re not residuals. The WGA handles it which is controversial. But it’s nice extra free found money because of Europe and other countries.
Craig: Thank you Europe and other countries.
John: It’s nice. Craig, thank you for this discussion which happened in Europe for me, Los Angeles for you. Lord knows where you’ll be next time we try to talk, but–
Craig: I know where I’ll be next time. In Europe. When you’ll be in the United States.
John: That’s what it is. We’re always – someone is always safe and out of the country when we’re doing this.
John: Cool. Craig, thanks so much. Bye.
Craig: Thanks John. See you next time.
- Coverfly’s response to accusations in a now-deleted blog post. Here’s a conversation on the Screenwriting Reddit page about it.
- In 2015’s Episode 191 The Deal with Scripped.com, we invited John Rhodes from ScreenCraft and Guy Goldstein from WriterDuet to investigate a data management crisis with Scripped.com.
- Toxic Fandom Is Killing ‘Star Wars’ by Marc Bernardin for the Hollywood Reporter
- Slate’s Decoder Ring podcast covers the Johnlock Conspiracy.
- Apple has made a deal with the WGA
- Evan in Philadephia recommends Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art for a great explanation of “gutters.”
- JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot is an example of a big production company led by a creative.
- The worst sex in the world is anglerfish sex, and now there’s finally video by Avi Selk for the Washington Post. This video’s upsetting animation shows what the process would look like for humans.
- Bethesda’s Starfield has been announced
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Jeff Mooney (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.