The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode of Scriptnotes was recorded live at the Austin Film Festival. There is some swearing, so keep that in mind if you’re listening in the car with your kids. There’s also a very special introduction by Beto O’Rourke. So, if you want to see the video of how that all went you can click on a link in the show notes. So, enjoy.
Beto O’Rourke: Good evening Austin and welcome to Scriptnotes Live. I’m just going to take a quick moment to remind you that you can vote any time between October 22 and November 2, early voting in your polling location of choice in the county that you’re registered. And then if you didn’t get a chance to vote early, vote the 6th of November, Election Day.
Craig Mazin told me to tell you so. And we’re all counting on you turning out and winning the victory of our lifetimes for Texas, and for the country.
And now on with the show.
John: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is…this is Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are…?
Crowd: Interesting to screenwriters.
John: You guys are so good.
Craig: Well trained. Well trained.
John: This is the 19,000th year we’ve done a live show at Scriptnotes.
Craig: Yes indeed.
John: Here at the Austin Film Festival.
Craig: Correct. Although we’ve never quite had that amount of firepower to open it up.
John: That was a lot of firepower.
Craig: Concentrated firepower. I have to say I was a little concerned because there was a chance that maybe all these people would be Ted Cruz fans. [laughs] Just a small chance. And if you are, get out!
Craig: Not a Republican/Democrat thing, just a me thing. It’s just a me thing.
John: Yeah. Because you have a personal issue.
Craig: A little bit of a thing. Little bit of a thing. But we’re so happy to see you all here. What an incredible crowd. And this is our favorite, honestly, it’s my favorite show of the year because there’s just a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and we love seeing you all and we have great guests and we have so much cool stuff, although we’ve sort of piqued, so you know, lower the expectations now and everything will be great.
John: So, for people listening at home I always think of the listeners at home. And so it is 10pm at night. It is a Friday. I have lost all track of what day it is.
Craig: It’s a weekend night.
John: It’s Austin time. And we are in an incredibly crowded room with standing room only with amazing screenwriter people. They’re all wearing something around their necks. It’s like a blue band. Do you recognize what this–?
Craig: Yeah, I don’t have to do that shit.
John: Yeah. So they’re all wearing–
Craig: I’m too cool.
John: They’re all wearing these lanyards that say Highland 2 on them.
Craig: Wait, what?
John: Yeah. If you notice they all–
Craig: Oh my god, you did that?
John: I did that, yeah. And so I got this for you. I spent thousands of dollars so that Craig would have to use Highland 2 for a weekend.
Craig: I’m not going to use it, but that’s, I mean, no, that’s actually pretty amazing. I can’t believe you – god, I’m not paying for this, am I?
John: No, no, no.
Craig: Oh, you’re paying for this. OK, great.
John: You pay for nothing and I pay for everything.
Craig: Phew. Got a little freaked out there. That’s actually pretty impressive. And I will say that I have bumped into a bunch of people that do use Highland 2.
Craig: And they love it. I’m not an anti-Highland guy in any way, shape, or form.
John: No, you just promote my competitor at every moment. And that’s OK. That’s absolutely fine.
Craig: I like his work. Yeah.
John: Absolutely. Let us sit down and we can do some follow up, because one of the first things we have to do in any normal episode of Scriptnotes is some follow up.
Craig: Follow up. Yep.
John: So in the last episode of Scriptnotes we talked about this WGA campaign for No Writing Left Behind. So that’s a thing which happened. So we got some great emails back from people and some representative stories. We got some, you know, well what about this situation. But we got this email that I was like oh yeah that’s exactly the right thing to talk about.
So this is an email from Eva. So I’m going to read aloud Eva’s letter because this is what a good live podcast is is reading aloud stuff.
Craig: We should, before you know Eva is going to be listening to this, we have to let her know just as a disclosure that we’re a little drunk. So, OK. Traditionally this is our drunk show. We’re not Austin drunk. This is like Austin breakfast level alcohol. But still for us, yeah.
John: For me especially. All right. So Eva writes about No Writing Left Behind. She says, “This just happened to me in a very brutal way. I was asked to read two novels a company had just bought rights to and they asked about what I thought about them and what was in my opinion the best way to adapt them. When we finished our meeting I was asked to put together a document that talked about all these things. So, I’m aware I’m a ‘new writer,’ so I will only do that if it’s clear that I will get the job. They say I am the frontrunner. That my credits are not an issue.
“Fast forward two weeks later, and they have a pitch booklet/look book, complete bible for a premium TV series adaptation with a breakdown for the entire 12 episodes of the first season. And then I am called into a meeting with all parties involved. I am praised for my work. Everyone is so impressed. They just need to send to the director and see what he thinks.”
Craig, what happens?
Craig: “A week later I receive a call. The director doesn’t feel comfortable having someone so new onboard. So they’ve decided to look somewhere else, meaning a more established writer.” You didn’t take that job, did you?
John: I did not.
Craig: That would have been brutal. “Before meeting with me they didn’t even know what they were going to do with the source material. Now they have everything they need to develop a TV show, and they have literally thrown me to the curb.”
She doesn’t mean literally there. “And what control—“
Craig: “And what control do I have in how they use those documents moving forward? Zero. If you need a clear example to support your cause I am more than willing to share. This is a very big company we all know and the director and other producers are also very big. Thanks for giving a voice to us writers.”
John: “Thank you guys for making us feel less lonely.”
Craig: Yep. Just checking the grammar on that.
John: So, Eva’s situation is sort of a why we were talking about that last week because that is the thing that happens where you’ve gone in and you’ve done all this work for somebody and then it’s not your work because you didn’t own those books. You didn’t own the stuff underneath that.
So, we were talking this afternoon Craig and you and I had two different opinions about sort of what Ava’s situation was and what her best play was now. So the best play Ava could make would be to build a time machine, go back, and not give those pages. And not do all that free work for those people. Best scenario. Second best scenario in my mind would be to go to those people right now and say like, “Look, I wrote all this stuff. I clearly wrote all this stuff. You are in a weird place because all the stuff you’re basing this on is stuff I wrote. Make a deal with me now. It’s going to be a scale deal. It’s going to be some deal that sort of says that I am the first writer that wrote this stuff. Even if you go with the other fancy writer, I was in the chain of title. That’s my play. What’s your play?
Craig: And that is what a reasonable person would do.
John: All right. Let’s hear Craig’s version.
Craig: What I say is: lie in wait. Because one day they’re going to make that thing and then about, oh, I don’t know, three weeks before the first air date you call them up and say, “I’m suing you. Because you stole my shit.” And then they’re going to settle. And it’s happened. This happened before. It’s just maximizing your leverage via evil. And the service of an attorney. But it’s deserved. They asked for it. They are doing a bad thing.
And the reason I’m so glad that you made this our follow up here because for you guys out here there is a decent chance this is how it’s going to happen to you when it happens. Your first encounter very frequently when you have that first sale, that first good meeting, that first kind of yes/almost yes, there’s a decent chance you’re going to be dealing either with peripheral people who are maybe a touch on the shady side, or you’re going to be dealing with established people who are still on the shady side.
The cost of someone asking you to just do a little free work is zero. Zero. So they’re going to do it. And then you are put in this terrible spot. But we’re here to tell you it’s actually not that terrible. The answer is nah. And if you’ve done a good job and you’re impressive and the work you’ve done at least in describing what you want to do is impressive that should be enough.
If you have to write a bunch of stuff up the potential for abuse is enormous and the potential for wasted time is enormous. But I guess there is the one up side that you may be able to lie in wait and sue. But if you’re not particularly litigious, don’t leave anything behind.
John: Yeah. All right. The other categories of responses we got in Twitter would fall into sort of four basic general buckets. The first one is the question of like well what if it’s my own thing. What if I came up with this original idea, this original pitch, this original thing, and went in to describe to these people and they said like, “Oh, could you send me through that thing you wrote about?” You could theoretically do that. That is your own thing. That is not mostly what we’re talking about here. You own that idea. The only thing I will caution you is the moment your idea becomes four paragraphs you’re sending through, then it’s all about those four paragraphs and it’s not about you and you as a visionary writer with those ideas. It becomes about that thing. So while you can legally do that and maybe in some situations it makes sense to do that, the more you can keep it in the realm of talking before you get to a screenplay is usually a good thing.
Craig: Professional writers get paid to write. So if you want to be a professional writer, and I’m thinking a lot of you do, get paid to write. If you are writing something for free you must control it all the way, meaning it’s your own spec work. It’s your original work. If someone is saying to you I have a book, I have an idea, I have a piece of this, I have a song, I have a toy – anything – that you don’t control completely you start writing when they agree to pay you, in writing, period, the end.
John: The other thing which showed up in our Twitter feeds, Craig what would you call this category of like people objecting to this idea of not leaving stuff behind?
Craig: There were a certain category of people who said, “Don’t interfere with my right to take abuse in order to get a job.”
John: My process is to be abused.
Craig: Sort of like you fat cats are trying to keep us out of the business by taking away our ability to write for free.
John: How dare you, Craig.
Craig: Right. Your rhetoric has disqualified you from our business. I don’t know how else to say. It’s just a silly line of reasoning. If your way into the business is writing for free, big headline, you’re not in the business.
John: Yeah. A related category of criticism was “but what about…” It’s what about ism. It’s basically like this thing you just said, yeah, but this other thing is more interesting. OK, great. This thing we’re talking about is specifically leaving stuff behind in a room. There are many challenges facing feature writers. They all are worthy of attention. Most of them are worthy of attention. This is about the one thing. So, what about ism I’m always vigilant for.
Craig: “Tu quoque”, is that how you pronounce that?
John: I don’t know.
Craig: It’s the you too. It’s a fallacy. It’s Latin. Guys, it’s Latin.
John: Latin. Latin.
Craig: It’s Latin for what he just said.
John: The last thing which came up a lot in this thing was the sense of like “Well why did nobody tell me about this before?” And the somebody telling you about things from before that’s institutional knowledge. And I feel like that’s a thing maybe we haven’t done a great job on is like when Craig and I were starting in the business other screenwriters would say like, “Oh, no, whatever you do don’t leave stuff behind.” And I guess we didn’t communicate that message through to everybody else. And so part of the reason why we have these amazing guests with us here tonight is so we can pass along some of our institutional knowledge of what’s happened before and hopefully fix people in the future.
Craig: Yeah, you know, maybe whatever happens, maybe it’s a little late. Maybe we should have said this earlier. Acknowledge/stipulated. But that’s not a reason to suddenly question the validity of it now. It is valid now. And so we’re saying to all of you don’t do that. For yourselves. Honestly for yourselves. It doesn’t change our lives, but for yourselves. And also I guess for the people that are with you in the room tonight. There is a certain impact we have with each other. And every time we agree to a condition that is unprofessional and debasing we’re making it a little harder for the next writer, or the writer next to us, to be treated well.
So, consider that as you go through your lives, you wonderful people.
John: Let us bring up a panel of institutional knowledge we are so lucky to have. First off, Wendy Calhoun. She is a writer whose credits include – Wendy Calhoun – credits include Station 19, Empire. She’s on a development deal right now. Wendy Calhoun, welcome to the show.
Wendy Calhoun: Thank you. It’s such an honor.
John: Yay. Next up we have Phil Hay.
Craig: Phil Hay.
John: Phil Hay, oh my god. Phil Hay has done a ton. The Invitation, which was amazing. Destroyer, which is coming out soon. Crazy Beautiful. Ride Along. Clash of the Titans.
Phil Hay: Right on.
John: Phil Hay, welcome to our program.
Phil: Can I ask a quick question before we start?
Craig: There’s another guest coming. You know that right?
John: Two more.
Phil: Yes, no, it’s addressed to Craig and it’s regarding the video. How the fuck did you get so relevant? I can’t believe it.
Craig: I was born relevant, yo. When I came out people were like this means something.
John: This guy is…
Craig: This is important.
Phil: In relation to something else, this guy…
Craig: Nurses who literally deliver nothing but babies all day long, day after day, were like, “Stop everyone. Something just happened.”
John: One day you will have a famous roommate. He’ll have a famous college roommate and everything will change.
Phil: That’s it.
John: Nicole Perlman.
John: Nicole Perlman. Her credits of course include Guardians of the Galaxy, the upcoming Captain Marvel, Detective Pikachu. Nicole Perlman, welcome to our program. Thank you very much.
Nicole Perlman: Thank you for having me.
John: Finally Jason Fuchs. Jason Fuchs.
John: Writer whose credits include Wonder Woman, Ice Age: Continental Drift. Jason Fuchs, welcome to our show, a return guest from last year. Nicely done.
Jason Fuchs: Thanks for having me back.
John: Yeah. So you passed some test with Craig.
Craig: Did you guys hear the show last year? Do you remember the greatest story in the world that Jason Fuchs told us? He can’t top that this year, can he? No, not a chance. Try. That’s a challenge.
John: We’re not trying to top, we’re trying to educate. We’re trying to discuss.
Phil: And what about the year before, Craig? What about the year before that?
Craig: Phil killed it.
Phil: It was fantastic.
Craig: Phil killed it.
Phil: This is a very controversial item with John.
John: Craig wanted like 20 people on stage and I said like let’s limit it to four.
Craig: Oh, I’m sorry I wanted to give you guys more.
John: Always the buzz kill. I sent through a depressing article for everyone to look at. So if you’re following me on Twitter you see that we’re going to discuss this article. This is an article that came out by Nicole Laporte on Fast Company. It came out yesterday. And it’s titled The Death of the Middle Class, but it’s really about how streaming has effected writers’ lives and streaming not just for TV, because you think about TV being all the TV shows that are going to Netflix and other channels, but also increasingly for features. So, I want to–
Craig: Happy time is over.
John: Happy time is over.
Craig: Here we go guys.
John: So we have four writers up here who work in sort of various capacities. Now Craig now has a TV show for HBO. And I want to talk about the change that’s happening for writers right now because these are mostly people who are moving into this industry and while there are more TV programs on the air than ever, in some ways it’s harder to make a living, or at least a middle class living in this. In this article that she lays out the people at the very top, the people who are making the giant deals, they’re making a lot. But the people who are going show to show, it’s actually harder than ever.
So, Wendy, I want to start with you because you have the most TV experience of the people here. What have you seen changing over the last maybe five years? And as you talk to writers who are trying to make a living, what’s different now?
Wendy: Well, I mean, I can use a very personal example. How about that?
John: I like those.
Wendy: I was on a show called Nashville. I worked on the first two seasons of that show.
John: Heard of it.
Wendy: I don’t know if anyone has seen it. Thank you. It’s about country music. The show was the hardest show I’ve had to launch. I’ve been a part of seven new series and that was the hardest. So to break up a bit of the sadness and monotony that we had in the room I would come in and pitch the black version of the show. And very often those pitches landed, by the way.
So, when we were in season two and I got sent by a friend a pilot script that had not been shot yet but was to star Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard called Empire I read it and I said, holy crap, I’ve been pitching this for two years.
So, I had to quit my job at Nashville without having an offer yet for Empire. It was a real flyer. I had kind of built my entire career writing, sorry to say, but white men with guns. And I thought this would be a really kind of different thing. I’d like to write a show with black people. That would be interesting, wouldn’t it?
I did get the offer, thank goodness. I went on as a co-executive producer of the show. I worked my ass off. The show came out of the box and it was a big hit. Now, we on Nashville were making 22 episodes a year. Fox ordered 11 episodes of Empire. That’s a half pay cut for me. Right?
Craig: Because just be clear, when you’re working in television you are paid per episode. Not by time, but by episode.
Wendy: By episode. Right. So do this math. So we got that going. And on top of that they added 12 weeks to the schedule before we actually shot. So, we had scripts written before we actually shot, which is different for broadcast television. So my money is not only half but it’s stretched out over three extra months.
Now, the show comes out, is a big hit. And I’m thinking, well, those residual checks will start rolling in. The green envelopes will start coming, right? No. The show goes directly to Hulu and I don’t get any–
Craig: I love the way you say Hulu.
John: I love that you say Hulu.
Jason: I can tell you, Hulu actually pays way better.
John: Directly for Hulu, yeah.
Wendy: Not for broadcast repeats it does not.
John: But Hulu, the other one, it’s the wrong one. That’s the problem.
Wendy: Because it’s sponsored by Le Croix. Anyways, so you can kind of see how that is just one example of the economic impact that’s happened in the last five years. And that is to a broadcast television writer-producer. So you can only imagine when you start talking about cable where you’re making, what, $0.60 on the dollar? When you’re talking about digital where you are trying to – you have to rely on your management and agents and reps to try to get you some sort of back end participation so that you actually see some sort of money for all of your shows being shown again. And it becomes a real issue. A real issue in the middle when you’re in the middle.
Craig: So this is something that the Writers Guild had a big deal with the companies and we kind of went up to the edge of a strike with. So the old way of doing things, if you became a writer, a new writer, and you worked on staff at a show like Nashville, which was a classic network show, 22 episodes a year, you were paid per episode usually some sort of producing fee or consulting or something per episode. You got your episodes that you wrote. They had a rerun. Those generated a lot of extra money for you.
Now they cut that in half or even less. Sometimes it’s just eight episodes. That’s all you’re getting paid. But the amount of time you spend on it gets expanded so essentially what was a living at a certain number has been quartered in some senses by this evolution that we all kind of love as consumers. But as writers it’s become a real problem. It’s a real squeeze.
Wendy: Yeah. It’s an interesting conundrum because on the one hand side I love what digital has done in terms of democratizing our ability to distribute content. On the other hand side, this digital revolution is led by disruptors and they are disrupting the content creators so that they can have content for their technology.
John: Nicole, what are you seeing? So right now you are doing Captain Marvel, so it’s going to be a giant Disney/Marvel/Touchstone, or Guardians of the Galaxy. That is a big movie that gets a big theatrical release. It has a whole residual life to it.
Nicole: I mean, yeah, all the movies, the hope is that you’ll make a lot of money and the residuals and that will sort of make up for all the pain and suffering that goes into the writing process. But I haven’t written for television and frankly I’m so in the dark about all of it. I always assumed that my reps would warn me about it. And then just talking to you guys out in the hallway they’re like, oh, that company that you’re pitching for, yeah, that’s rough. And I was like, what? Wait, what?
And it’s not that I haven’t been paying attention, but I haven’t been paying attention.
John: And one of the challenges, so classically what Wendy is describing is a thing that’s been happening to TV writers over a period of time. But increasingly it’s happening to feature writers, too. So I went in to meet on a project at Fox, a big Fox movie. And my question was like but, wait, will there still be a Fox? Where does this movie go? And so you ask this question and they’re like, well, we’re not sure. I’m like, wait, is this going to go to the Disney streaming thing? They’re like “Maybe.”
And so I said like, OK, on one hand it’s going to be great if the thing got made. But then I’m thinking like, wait, then there are no residuals because then it never goes anywhere else. And so then it’s only showing up on Disney. It’s like, wait, then I don’t have a back end. Or that thing that I had in my deal with like box office bonuses if it crosses a certain threshold, well, there’s no box office, so it all goes away.
Phil, have you encountered that in any of your deals yet? Have you started looking at feature stuff where it’s like you don’t know where the feature is going to end up? Like you just did Destroyer. It was an indie movie. So you didn’t know who the distributor was going in.
Phil: Yeah, I mean, I think that if you make independent movies you’re comfortable with the idea that you don’t know what that end is. And that you don’t know if the movie that you’ve made and intended to be released in theaters is going to ever be released in theaters because for example Netflix has the power to take whatever they want. So, had we – we were fortunate that we’re with the distributor Annapurna that is committed to releasing movies in theaters. But we were well aware that Netflix could have at any time decided to take the movie because of the amount of money that they offered and there was not much you could do.
And many people are thrilled with that actually, but I think when I think about some of the stuff we’re talking about what strikes me is that there’s a real short-sidedness that is happening with the kind of business strategy that’s going on that I think is extremely inhumane and very brutal. And there’s sort of I think maybe a culture that certainly in Hollywood and in Silicon Valley that kind of values brutality. That there’s some truth to that. There’s some core Hobbesian thing that they’re chasing. When in fact I think that when we talk about the demise of the middle class of writers that the idea that it’s very short-sided to kill the ability of people to develop and to be able to create the things that are going to make you a lot of money. Because people have options, right? I mean, you know, I grew up wanting to be a screenwriter and people grew up wanting to be TV writers and people still want to do that because there is something truly magical and special about it.
But people can do other stuff, right? And the business as a whole has an interest in keeping people able to have a life and a family and develop their craft to then create stuff that makes money. And I’m afraid that now all the opportunities are at the very beginning level, which is great because you need those opportunities, and at the very, very top level. And if you’re at that level that’s great because you can do those things. But that part in the middle that we’ve talked about for several years and seems to be accelerating, I think it’s beyond a business problem. It’s a societal problem. It’s not valuing the ability to make a living at something, and to develop, and to work, and thus you’re going to drive talented people into other businesses. And that’s my biggest worry for us as a business.
Craig: Yep. And my guess is they won’t stop until they start feeling the impact of it, of their loss of talent. I mean, for you guys the thing to understand about the way a career in television – because television is just statistically where you will get your start. They just make a thousand television shows now. Netflix will have 700 titles. 700 original Netflix titles. It’s insane.
So, they’re making thousands of these TV shows across these new platforms. But traditionally television writers, the people that ran the show, these were the big guys, the big guns, and they were the new writers. But the bulk of people kind of – what they would do is they would get a job working on a show. And maybe if the money they paid you to write a script or two or work on that show wasn’t quite enough to afford to live in a place like Los Angeles, which is expensive, there were these residuals. That was the reuse money. When they would do reruns you would get this extra money and it would keep you going and you could raise a family and support a family and send your kids to college. The American dream.
And what they’ve done – and I think part of it is what Phil is saying, it’s a Silicon Valley, well, humans are just meat and computers are computing. Like we don’t care. They’ve eliminated a lot of that rolling support. So you now are hand to mouth. And when you are hand to mouth you tend to, I think, emphasize younger workers, newer workers who are willing to deal with it. And then when they get to a certain point if they don’t have their own show they look around and go I can’t make a living at this.
John: I think what you’re describing is that in some ways the proliferation of all these services and all the shows mean there are more jobs, total number of jobs, for writers. And so in many ways people entering the business like there’s more spots open, there’s more chairs. The thing is you’re not advancing because the shows don’t go on, or they’re only half a season so you’re jumping from show to show. It’s very hard to build up from one to the next. Agents aren’t pushing to advance your quote so your quote is how much you got paid on your last job, how much you’re getting paid on your next job. There’s not an incentive to sort of keep pushing your quote up. And so it makes it harder and harder to grow up the ranks of a business.
Wendy: I thought it was really interesting the fact that linking, I mean, maybe it’s obvious, but linking back that Netflix doesn’t release data on how well your show is doing, it takes away a leverage that you might have to say this is a top three rated show that you have. We deserve to be getting paid more. You can’t say that if there’s no data to point to.
Jason: I think everything everyone is saying is spot on.
Craig: Thank you. Thank you, Jason.
Jason: It’s probably something that the guild – particularly you Craig.
Craig: Thank you. I agree.
Jason: But isn’t there a certain component of this that’s organically also going to tilt a little bit in our favor? What you said, John, or Craig, you said 700 Netflix shows, so it feels like there’s this proliferation of material, but really it’s not competitive because you can’t very well tell Netflix you’re going to go off and do this other Netflix show. It’s still them.
As the studios all develop their own streaming platforms, right, Disney over the top has won. But at a certain point Time Warner has already announced it. It’s going to make sense for all of these studios to develop streaming platforms. There’s also going to be a proliferation of competition. I’m not saying that’s going to be enough to create a playing field where we can negotiate fair deals, but I also think it will help level the playing field a little bit.
John: I have a very specific question for you, because on a previous panel you were saying how you developed this new project with a director, you were very excited to do it, like it was a shared interest, a piece of property that you guys did together. As you have developed that property did you say like oh we want to go to a studio, or were you open to the idea of going to a Netflix, of going to an Amazon, or going to an Apple rather than going to a studio? Because it changes the equation of what that is.
John: The project he’s referring to is Robotech, which I’m writing for Sony and Andy Muschietti is directing. No, it wasn’t a conversation on that because Sony controlled the rights. It was something we knew Sony had and had been developing. So it wasn’t–
John: But if Sony wanted to do it for a Sony streaming platform would it have been as interesting to you?
Jason: For me it would have. I can’t speak for Andy. For me, I’m still in shock at the opportunities that I have. Robotech is a property that I loved. I loved the series growing up. So, yeah, for me the creative would have driven me to do that regardless of whether maybe it was a less financially rewarding situation. But I think it’s something we’re all going to face. I mean, as I’m developing more original stuff, it’s a big conversation with filmmakers. Do you want theatrical or not? Does it matter? Does it have to be a theatrical experience? And every writer is going to have to make their own choice.
Craig: I’m kind of curious what you guys think. I hate to do the Applause-o-meter but if you think that something means more because it’s in a theater as opposed to being on a streaming platform please applaud if it means more. OK. Now, if you don’t really care one way or the other whether it comes through a streaming platform in television or if it’s in theater, please applaud.
Interesting. Now. You do that six years ago, that’s everybody in the first applause, no one in the second applause.
John: So I’m here at the Austin Film Festival, but I’m also here at the Texas Book Festival which happens to be the same weekend. And so for Arlo Finch I’m doing all the book events for that. And so this morning at 7:20 in the morning a van picked me up and I went to a grade school and I talked to 300 kids about Arlo Finch and did my little slideshow. It was great. I’m really tired now.
But, I asked the same question. And so there’s been a lot of talk about will you do Arlo Finch as a movie or as a TV series, and so I polled the audience. I did the same thing. You don’t let kids clap. They had to raise their hand quietly. And so I asked them “Should Arlo Finch be a movie or like a Netflix show?” And it was pretty evenly split.
Craig: And so I’m glad that some of the kids knew what a movie was. That’s very good.
John: Yeah, exactly. What’s a movie?
Craig: A theater?
John: A recurring topic that will be a topic on Scriptnotes for the next however long we do the show is what is a movie? We talk about like is a movie a piece of entertainment that’s about two hours long that is a one-time story? Probably, because right now we have these definitions of what a movie is versus what a TV movie is for Netflix, which are just ridiculous. They don’t match reality at all.
Phil: But I think it’s a cultural. It’s not just the responsibility of the people making the stuff, or the people distributing the stuff, because you know what I would say as a person who is a diehard believer in the theatrical experience. It’s just what I love. But to look at it and say that it’s really the responsibility of people who write about movies, people that talk about movies. For example, right now I would say – and this may be changing really fast – but I’d say right now a TV show on Netflix, there’s no difference in the culture between a TV show on Netflix and a TV show anywhere else. It is not less than, it is not different than. It just is.
For some reason, and I think it’s because maybe the critical establishment or maybe the press doesn’t treat them the same, a movie that’s on Netflix is not quite the same. And that can change. That just takes the culture changing to kind of embrace and treat them the same way. So that’s the thing that I’m interested in seeing is if the people that kind of keep the culture alive decide that there’s no difference between a movie that is streaming only versus a movie that appears in theaters for however long it does. That will be different. There’s power in that in itself.
Jason: Is that also just a qualitative distinction? Like the reason that there’s no difference between a Netflix show and a broadcast show or cable show, I think, is because it’s just so good. Right? There’s started to become content on streaming and Netflix–?
Craig: Wendy hates what you just said.
Jason: No, no, no, but there were so many shows–
Wendy: That’s a relative opinion though, isn’t it?
Craig: Finally a fight.
Jason: It’s all a relative opinion. But didn’t – there started to become content on streaming that people were really excited about and so people started to take it seriously because they loved it. And I think that it’s not to say there aren’t films particularly in the last year like Roma that have come out in streaming, but I suspect that as there are more great films on streaming platforms, perhaps that will change people’s opinions just a little bit of what a streaming two-hour film could be.
Craig: In rebuttal–
Wendy: Having developed for both Netflix and broadcast television–
John: The expert in the room.
Craig: Here we go.
Wendy: They’re very, very different. They’re completely different. They have totally different models about how they approach content and about the kind of content they want to create. Typically what I find is when I’m developing with a streamer or with a cable, they want to do something that is absolutely the opposite of what’s happening on broadcast. And when I’m developing with broadcast, which by the way I’m developing two at this very moment, they are still playing by an old rule book.
So, I’m not going to say necessarily that what you’re saying like all of Netflix’s content is great, because I think some people here beg to differ.
Jason: No, I don’t think it is.
Wendy: You can’t have that volume and have that much greatness. But there is still something to really be said for broadcast. I mean, I love developing in broadcast and I’ll tell you why. I do believe that the Netflix, let’s call it a revolution, is changing the landscape of what kind of stories can be told and how much an audience can absorb and how smart audiences can be. And that is something that the broadcasters are catching up to fast.
There’s a reason that Fox gave us 12 extra weeks in the room, because they know how impossible it is to write a series in the short amount of window that was that traditional broadcast model. Right? A lot of times if you were on a broadcast show you would start writing in May and you had to start shooting by July. So they realize that that time crunch was an issue.
And, you know, people that are working on Netflix shows, they may be developing for a year before that show is even shot. I mean, it could go on forever.
John: Yeah. But in developing for a year, the extra time in Empire, the extra year for Netflix, that’s costing you as a writer money.
Wendy: It’s costing us money. Absolutely.
Craig: They’re penalizing you for the care you put into your own show.
Wendy: That’s right. And people say this all the time. I’m not the first person to say this. They say well the quality of shows, these shows are winning all these Emmys. OK, I got an opinion about that, too. But, winning all these Emmys versus broadcast and it is true. And broadcast is a completely different monster that you’re playing with. You are on a train that you’ve got to deliver every week a certain amount of content that is not equal to what’s happening on Netflix or even FX or anything.
Craig: And Nicole you were ready to jump in there as well.
Nicole: I was just going to say exactly what Wendy said. Not at all.
Wendy: Now that you got me fired up. Now that my Coca Cola has kicked in. Coca Cola.
John: Coca Cola, nothing more. Well, we need to move on to a craft topic that everyone can relate to. So we’re not all going to be making TV shows, but we’re all going to be writing stuff.
Craig: Most of these people will be making TV shows.
Craig: If Netflix continues at this rate.
John: Everyone in this room.
Craig: Almost everyone here will have a TV show.
John: As you walk out, please pick up your No Writing Left Behind sticker and your Netflix deal.
Craig: You will all work for Hulu.
John: This was a tweet that was sent to me and to Craig. Nicola Prigg tweeted, “Is there any storytelling reason why we get bored during an episode of television? Or why we feel a story is slow in a movie?”
So Craig and I both saw this tweet. Craig said, “Yes, that’s a good topic for an episode.”
Craig: Yeah. Do something about it, John.
John: And so I said, yes, let me put it in the outline where we actually keep these ideas for episodes.
Craig: He’s scolding me now. Because I’m lazy. But it worked.
John: But Nicola Prigg actually had a really good topic. So why sometimes as you’re watching TV or watching a movie–
Craig: Or reading a script.
John: Or reading a script, yeah, which is the prototype to sort of both of these. I’m bored. And this actually happened to me this last week. I was talking to a writer-director about his script, which I loved, but I had to say like, starting at about page 45 I got kind of bored until we got to this moment. And I could describe exactly why it was. And so I want to talk with this panel here, as you’re watching a movie, as you’re reading a script, the things that get you bored.
And so I can tell you what happened to me was the writer had set up that in like two days this thing is going to be happening. And so once he established that landmark, like this is a thing we’re going to be watching for, everything that wasn’t that was kind of filler and felt boring to me. So that was a reason why I was getting bored in that script. As you’re reading–
Phil: I know the answer, John.
John: Tell me why you get bored.
Craig: Came out of the gate very strong there. You have nothing. Got nothing.
Phil: No. I think that one of the best pieces of advice I ever got about writing in classic form, I don’t remember who gave me this advice, but I remember the advice. And the advice was to get rid of everything in your script that seems remotely obligatory. And so I think people get bored when they smell that there’s something even in a well-written, engaging, funny, interesting script something obligatory is happening. We have to show that this is a good person. We have to show that they’re really worried about this. Any statement that starts with we have to do this, and I think you hear when you work with people, a lot of times you hear that exact verbiage. We have to see this. We have to see this. We have to know that.
Sometimes that feeling, sometimes you do have to know stuff, yes, but to me that’s the thing like if I’m watching a movie or I’m reading a script, when I get bored is when I can smell that the person is doing it because they think they have to. And the scene is over and it’s not over because there’s still a little bit more – we have to show how nice this guy is now, or something.
So I think the word obligatory is what always comes to me as boring.
Craig: I think that’s good advice.
John: So that sense of like you’re doing a thing because you feel like you need to do it rather than you want to do it. There’s not an excitement. And there’s no curiosity from the reader because—
Phil: They see it coming. They’ve already seen this story.
Craig: The calculation is evident right. When you’re reading it you go, oh, they’re doing that thing because they feel that they have to do the thing. That immediately is boring. And it’s probably a sign that you didn’t need to do the thing at all.
Phil: And maybe the remedy or the experiment doesn’t work every time is to try to do exactly the opposite and see what happens because sometimes that does work. To truly deny the thing that everyone has told you to do could. So just even as an experiment in your writing, I mean, I found that helpful in our writing is to sometimes do the thing that’s the opposite and see what happens.
Craig: Nicole, you are particularly good at entertaining me, in particular. And you’re not at all boring, you’re the opposite of a boring writer to me. What are you doing to avoid being boring and what are worried about when you read things and you go, oh, it’s happening?
Nicole: Of my own work?
Craig: No, of other people’s. You are never boring.
Nicole: Well, so I read a lot of scripts because I mentor a lot, so I do a lot of work with Sundance and with SF Film and with Sun Foundation. And so I’ve read a lot of scripts that I would say, there’re a few things. I mean, I could speak many things of this. But one is when the writer doesn’t trust the reader to be following them, and so it’s not breadcrumbs, it’s like loaves of bread being heaved at you. And you’re like, yes, I get that they have an issue with their mother. OK. This is like the fourth time you told us. So obviously the thing with the girlfriend is going to echo the mother. We know. And then you’re just waiting for it to happen.
And I think a lot of times I’m sitting around reading a script waiting for them to get to the part where the story really should start. Or just like get past the thing that is the big reveal that we all saw coming. So I would say people who don’t trust their reader to be more subtle or to be more complex or sophisticated. Or they’re just telling us too much. Shoe leather I think can be really boring. A lot of the like how did they get from this file that they found on the desk, and then they have to go to the gas station to talk to the guy. And a lot of the times it’s just following a paint-by-numbers kind of thing and it’s just not that interesting because there’s not necessarily any compelling emotion or conflict that’s inherent in that scene. They’re just sort of following a to do list. And so then we feel like we’re reading somebody’s to do list.
And the other thing I would say is that as much as I love research and I’m a big research fan, I think I’ve read a lot of scripts especially because I frequently am given science-based stories that are just like there’s an interesting fact that I’m going to shoe-horn in there that isn’t that interesting. And it’s like maybe if I was reading it in a game of Trivial Pursuit, but not in the second act reversal.
Phil: And just to add to that, I think that what you’re saying is so right because I think a lot of times there’s a false value that has kind of taken hold which is no one should ever be confused for even a second. No one should ever wonder for a second. Or just think, whoa, what, for a second. That there’s this weird impulse that everything has to be explained. It doesn’t come from us. It comes from other people.
Phil: But that idea that it can be fun and entertaining to sit in not knowing and wondering. It’s a whole concept called suspense. That’s a great concept but that is kind of weirdly under attack all the time, with the fear that the audience will just be so mad that they don’t know right that second. And I just don’t believe in that, but I know that there’s a lot of people who do. And so I think a lot of the stuff that you’re talking about is exactly that. That people are trying to cover all their bases and make sure no one is ever wondering for a second. And to me wondering is an amazing thing. That’s a great thing.
Craig: Love of my life.
Wendy: Hello. What’s your number? Just kidding.
Craig: I just love, “Wendy, love of my life” is the greatest movie quote of all time. Any time I hear your name I’m like, “Wendy, love of my life.” You guys know what I’m talking about, don’t you?
Wendy: The Shining.
Craig: Thank you, Wendy. The Shining. I’m not being creepy. I mean, I am.
John: We’re in a hotel.
Craig: I mean, I’m being creepy a la The Shining.
Wendy: A couple of things. When I go into a writers’ room and we are breaking the story for an episode of television, I’m going to stick with broadcast because the gauntlet has been thrown down there. So, in broadcast television, which millions upon millions of people watch–
Craig: Do it. Keep going.
Wendy: Maybe less than five years ago.
Wendy: But there’s still a lot of people who don’t pay for content and want to watch it for free and don’t bother watching a tampon commercial. OK, so.
Craig: You’re the villain of the podcast now.
Jason: Just to clarify, I was not taking down broadcast.
Craig: No, no, no, it’s too late. It’s too late. You’ve been defined.
Wendy: He likes the conflict. And that’s actually what this is all about.
Craig: I love conflict.
Wendy: This is where I’m going. I always go into the room when we’re breaking a new episode and I say, OK everybody, what is the climax of this story. Show me the climax. I want to see what’s happening at that act five break. And I drive people bananas because they’re like, well, we want to talk about the teaser. And we have an idea–
John: You have act breaks. That’s a crucial difference in broadcast. You have act breaks that you’re building up to.
Wendy: Yes. And if you have story blocks that don’t service that climax, bye. It’s not here. We’re not using that. And, by the way, it takes me a while to get there. As a writer I’m very honest about this. What I find in my drafts as I go along is I’ll just – I don’t know, we’re in Texas so I’ll use a gun analogy because ya’ll understand that.
So like, OK, imagine you’re at target practice, right. You’ve got your gun. You’re looking down range. So, what I find in my scripts, especially the first few drafts, is that I’ve shot all around the middle target. Like the scenes are almost there, but they’re not quite there. And when I hit the bullseye, damn, you know that’s not boring. Right? So to me that’s really how I feel. I often say what is the highest point of drama that I can find in this story I’m trying to tell and then what are the highest points of drama that will get me to that place.
And so that’s how I keep it from getting boring.
Craig: That’s kind of where I’m at. Well done. And I think when I’m reading something and I get bored, or when I’m watching something and I get bored it’s because the show has decided to take a break, or the movie has taken a break. And what I mean by that is there is a propulsion going on. Somebody needs something. At all points something must be done about something, or someone. And then another thing happens that makes it really hard, or really surprising. But every now and then a show will take a break and go, OK, let’s just have a chat. Or, you know what, I want to tell you what I think. That’s a break.
I don’t want it. Even when people – sometimes you’ll have that moment in a movie where someone will sit down and there will be a little fireside chat of some kind and someone will start telling a story, but you don’t get bored because there’s a meaning to the story that impacts the end. Case in point, Gandalf sits down at one point. They are lost in the mines of Moria. And little Frodo notices that Gollum has been following and he says, “Oh, Gollum has been following me.” “Yes, he’s been following us for a long time.”
And then they have this very long – this is an action-packed movie and now it’s just two people talking. But what it comes down to is Frodo says, “I just wish I were not alive right now.” And he says, “It’s not our choice to determine when we’re alive. It’s only our choice to determine what we do with the time we have.” That is literally the theme of the entire series and it is why in the end the end happens the way the end happens. That is not a boring scene.
Right? Because they understood if you dare stop and take a break you better deliver something that matters. OK? If you dare to stop it’s got to be amazing. Like that. Just so you know, write Gollum.
John: So that’s a quiet moment. But so often I get bored during really loud moments. So like a bunch of stuff, like cities are being destroyed, and I’m like I’m just so bored. And because I’m not watching characters do anything that I care about. I’m just watching stuff happen. And it’s basically they’ve stopped actually the story of the movie just to show a bunch of special effects. And you can only take so much of that. It’s just like, no, I’m done, let’s get onto the next – stop. Stop destroying the buildings.
Craig: How many buildings can you blow up? At some point there’s just enough–
John: So many it turns out.
Craig: Oh no, the city is, again with the buildings. And I also think about the insurance adjustors.
John: Yeah. That poor man.
Craig: Or just like people that erect and take down scaffolding. There’s so much work to be done.
John: There’s a lot of work to be done. So, Jason, I wanted to get to you because you have done some of the big smashy things. So, can you give us any suggestions for a bunch of smashy stuff is happening, what are you doing to keep us engaged during the smashy-smashy bits?
Jason: I think the thing about broadcast is…
Wendy: Bring it.
Craig: You’re so funny. You’re so funny.
Jason: When you’re writing these big action sequences I think it’s very easy for audiences to tune out. It’s very easy for it to become about the logistics, about sort of the physics of what’s going on and the visual effects. And it just has to be about character. And it’s so rare that you have big action sequences that are driven by character. And I think Nicole you did something really brilliant with the finale set piece of Guardians of the Galaxy where it’s just about this group finally learning to trust each other and to work as one. And so it really is just a group of friends who all got thrown together, or hate each other, trying to figure out how not to for one moment.
And the stuff that’s going on around them is cool and beautiful and James Gunn does an amazing job of visualizing it, but it really does feel like it’s just a character piece. That’s what I aspired to do with Wonder Woman. And I think it all stems, you know, to your earlier question about why audiences get bored when they get bored. I think a big part of it is familiarity. And everyone was sort of hinting at the same thing which is lack of faith in the audience.
And I think audiences are ready for smaller act three set pieces. I think an example, well, World War Z is a movie that’s not necessarily beloved.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: So World War Z is a great lesson because initially the climax of World War Z was a massive action set piece that took place in Moscow.
Jason: Big Red Square finale set piece.
Craig: Where Brad Pitt faced off against waves of Russian zombies, which we wouldn’t know anything about now today, but when it was revised it was determined that actually Brad Pitt versus one zombie.
Jason: And it works way better because it’s character.
Craig: Much better.
Jason: But I think underestimating – we’re still I feel like–
Phil: Would have loved to see a sky portal in that opening.
Jason: Sky portal would have been nice.
Phil: Just for me.
Craig: Just one portal.
Jason: But I do think we’re still a little bit behind the audiences in big studio feature film land. I think audiences have gotten so smart and so willing to experience different things from characters. And it’s not just about, I think confusion is a good point. There’s a real aversion to allowing audiences to live in that space of confusion which I think is valuable as he was saying. But I also think audiences are able to process complicated characters. I think probably all of us, or at least maybe this is just me, you get the note about characters being likeable. Your hero being likeable.
Craig: Oh, that’s the worst note.
Jason: Heroic enough. And that’s boring.
Craig: Never do that. Never do that.
Jason: People can be unlikeable.
Craig: If anyone ever says to you your character is not likeable, you say thank you.
Phil: And even worse if they say the word relatable. Because honestly, you know, we just made a movie about a character who is not likeable and not relatable. And the only thing that’s important to me is if you think the character is interesting. That’s all that matters.
Wendy: And now add gender and race to that equation. Tell me. You know what I’m saying.
Wendy: It’s very, very different.
John: You can’t throw that out there and not do anything more with that.
Craig: What else is there to say? She said gender and race. End of discussion.
John: End of discussion.
Wendy: If you don’t know what that means I can’t help you.
Phil: But relatable to who, likeable by who.
Wendy: Exactly. Exactly. Who says what’s relatable? Who says what’s likeable?
Craig: There we go.
John: There it is. I wanted some closure on that moment. This next moment–
Phil: You did it again. Perfectly.
John: Is a moment we’ve been waiting for for 370 episodes perhaps. So this is about a character who is perhaps relatable.
Craig: Not likeable.
John: Not always likeable. Not always entirely consistent. But it’s a character who we’ve all come to know really, really well. So this is a new game we’re going to play tonight called Why is Craig So Mad?
So, one of the things we did very early from the start of Scriptnotes is we have transcripts of every episode. So I can Google words to see certain words. Words like “angry,” or “umbrage.” And so what I did yesterday–
Craig: Or “fucking.”
John: Is I went through and I looked through the transcripts to find examples of like Craig being angry. And the question is would even Craig remember what he was angry about. So, in previous years we’ve brought a person out from the audience to guess. When I showed this to Craig, Craig had no idea so Craig will be the contestant and the host of this.
So, we’re going to take things, real things from the transcripts and Craig is going to have to figure out what he was so angry about. And our panelists here, so you have this Why is Craig So Mad? And so we’ll be reading down A, B, C, and D so you’ll be offering these alternatives.
This is from Episode 34, way early on. Episode Umbrage Farms. Craig, can you reenact your speech here?
Craig: The thought that you would poison your show with somebody because their daddy was somebody is insane and inane. I mean, I don’t know, I haven’t watched the show. Obviously you do and you like it. I haven’t seen it yet.
John: All right. What is Craig so angry about? Option A.
Wendy: Now do I read the parenthesis as well or no?
John: Including the parenthesis, yeah.
Wendy: OK. He’s really angry about Zoey Deschanel on New Girl. Her father is acclaimed cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
John: Or Option B?
Phil: He’s actually angry about Allison Williams on Girls. Her father is disgraced news anchor Brian Williams.
John: Or is it Option C?
Nicole: Angelina Jolie in Girl Interrupted. Her father is wackadoodle actor Jon Voight.
John: Or is it Option D?
Jason: Jason Ritter, in Another Period. His father is actor John Ritter, rest in peace. Why did I get the sad one?
John: So, Craig, talk us through your mental process here.
Jason: Tonal train wrecks in this show.
Craig: By process of elimination it can’t be Jason Ritter because it can’t be. That would be crazy. I can’t imagine that happening. Who would dare question lovely Jason Ritter? And I can’t imagine Angeline Jolie. I’m torn between Zoey Deschanel and Allison Williams. I’m going to go with Allison Williams on Girls.
John: You are correct. It is Allison Williams on Girls.
Craig: I’m so proud of myself for guessing something I said once.
John: Indeed. Zosia Mamet would also have counted for the same thing. All right, by the way, I should say you weren’t angry at her. You were angry at people who were angry at her being cast on the show.
Craig: Correct. Correct. I was in support of Allison Williams.
John: Yes. Next up is Episode 305. Forever Young and Stupid. Craig, take it away.
Craig: Second of all… [laughs] You can see by Episode 305 I had really fallen into my kind of rhythm. Second of all, screenwriters working in the feature business, I mean, the people that are constantly telling us, hey, things have to change are directors. And now directors are just shocked. Hey, it’s the same deal with us. You took a check. You did something as a work-for-hire piece. Shut up. Piss off.
John: What is Craig so angry about?
Craig: I don’t know.
John: Option A?
Wendy: Sony’s plan to sell clean versions of its movies with none of that upside down kissing in Spider Man.
John: Or B.
Phil: Bryan Singer complaining that he was fired off Bohemian Rhapsody after, you know, not showing up for days at a time.
John: Or Option C.
Nicole: Louis C.K.’s movie, I Love You Daddy, being pulled from theaters after Louis C.K. pulled his dick out.
John: Or Option D.
Jason: DGA complaints about Netflix not showing director credits on the ten thousand billboards they buy around Los Angeles.
John: Craig Mazin, which of these things were you so angry about?
Craig: Oh no. Sony’s plan to sell clean versions of its movies?
John: Craig was right!
Craig: Again, I’m so bizarrely proud of something that should just be normal.
John: Yeah, so I don’t even know, did Sony do the clean versions? I don’t know. But we talked about it.
All right, last one. So Craig has two so far.
Craig: Two out of three. Basic memory, yeah.
John: Absolutely. Episode 221, Nobody Knows Anything Including What this Quote Means.
Craig: Because you’re a good person – I’m talking about you – because you’re a good person. You know, here’s the difference between you and me. A good person sees something that is deserving of vomit and says I don’t understand. Those words don’t fit together. I’m puzzled. I will take a nap. The bad person says I am filled with rage because I can see the bad conscience behind this.
John: What is Craig so angry about? Is it?
Wendy: Warvey Heinstein? Or, I’m sorry, Harvey Weinstein.
John: Harvey Weinstein. Or is it, B?
Phil: Final Draft!
John: Is it C?
Nicole: College students protesting Kimberly Peirce.
John: Or is it D?
Jason: The Blue Cat Screenplay Competition.
John: That’s a hard one. I got a good one for this last one.
Craig: I mean, they’re all really good. God, it would be so depressing if it was the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition. I got to go with an old chestnut here. Final Draft.
John: It was the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition! Oh, Craig, you almost won the whole game.
Wendy: You’ve got to trust your gut.
Craig: You’re right.
Wendy: Trust your gut.
Craig: Never change your answer.
John: Yeah. You could have won the Showcase Showdown. Instead you gave it up at the end.
Craig: Could have spun the big wheel. Dammit. That’s great. I’m smart. “A good person sees something that is deserving of vomit.” That’s great.
John: We have transcripts for the whole thing. If you listen to the show or read the transcripts you would have an idea of what our show actually is.
Craig: I just finally got why they listen to the show.
John: Yeah. Sometimes it’s funny.
Craig: It’s actually quite entertaining.
John: Yeah. With some planning it sometimes works out pretty well.
Craig: You guys aren’t crazy. This makes sense.
John: We have time for some questions. So, who would like to raise your hand to ask a question?
Hello, what’s your name?
John: Atticus like Atticus Finch?
John: All right. Very nice.
Atticus: So my question has to do with like writing for TV and streaming and stuff like that, like the difference. So, with the culture of like binge-watching shows now where like on Netflix and streaming stuff you can do a whole season in a day, like do you have to tailor your writing of a TV series differently nowadays?
Craig: That is a great question.
John: Yeah, because you do that.
Craig: That is a really good question. It deserves commendation. It does. You guys have been around these festivals. They’re not always good.
John: So let’s talk about why that was a good question. So that is a good question because it speaks to the expertise that people have on the stage. That’s always good. It is a thing that will be generally interesting to everybody else around you. That’s another good thing.
Craig: Also, there’s something very real and craft about the way that has changed. So, I’m going to start with you here on this one and maybe you have the full answer to this one, Wendy, because you are primarily working in network where you do write week by week, but have you written anything in the binge space?
Craig: So do you do it differently?
Craig: Tell us.
Wendy: The companies that make binge product [laughs] really believe that their audience will sit through probably the first three episodes before a major incident happens. That’s very different from network television, where we have about 15 minutes. So that’s a completely different way of thinking. So, that extra two to three hours allows you to develop character, place, set a world that in broadcast your window is about that big. So, you can imagine then the type of choices you can make as a writer.
So, when you’re writing in broadcast and you’ve only got 15 minutes to sell it, you have to go right for the punches. And when you’re doing something on a streamer you can take your time with it. You can flow with it. You can let it go a little looser.
Craig: And you’ve got, I guess the most helpful tool in your tool belt to ensure that somebody comes back seven days later because they don’t have another episode to watch is the cliffhanger.
Wendy: Right. Right. I mean, both models use the cliffhanger. That’s for sure. Because they do want you to keep watching. But I would say that on the streamers, because they do slow it down so much – sometimes too much if you ask me. Sometimes I’m not willing to invest that amount of money. Money, ha. Time. Time is money. What am I saying? But you know what I mean. So it is interesting, because it does change the way you approach the story. It changes the way you approach the season because when you’re making the season and you’re not having the constant interaction of an audience that comes through social media or through ratings or through any kind of, you know, that sort of constant interaction that you have when you have a show that’s on week to week, and you’re making it in a bubble and you’re going to release all of them at the same time you can really approach your storytelling in a much different way.
I know that the way they try to emulate is they imagine that it’s – if you’ve got ten episodes you think of it as a long feature. Right? So your first act break is actually the third episode. Second act break is actually towards the seventh or eighth episode.
Craig: All right.
John: So another episode you might want to listen to, Stephen Schiff came on and we talked about The Americans. And so The Americans is a show that kind of feels like it was streaming, but it was a week to week show. And so they talked a lot about the previously ons and sort of how you have to build in the expectation like a person could be watching them all at once or the person is watching them week by week and you have to make sure that they’re caught up in a way that’s different. Because classically on Netflix there’s no previously on. It just assumes that you’ve watched all of them all together.
Another question. Who has a question?
Male Voice: Hi. After writing so many successful comedies, how did you come to Chernobyl and what was the experience like?
Craig: And who is that question for?
Male Voice: For the whole panel. And when do we get to see it?
Craig: Thank you for asking. Don’t know when I’m allowed to say.
John: Not when it comes out, but you can say why you wrote it.
Craig: It will be coming out next year. Not past the halfway point. The first half of next year.
The way I came about writing it is, I mean, the thing is it doesn’t matter the other stuff I wrote. Like Phil for instance writes all sorts of stuff. I don’t know if you saw The Invitation. It’s a wonderful movie that he wrote with Matt Manfredi and Karyn Kusama directed. It’s a fantastic movie. It is not at all like for instance Ride Along. But he also wrote Ride Along.
I generally think that people that write funny things can do anything. I like the Vince Gilligan method of hiring funny people to play dramatic parts. But I’ve always been interested in not funny things. It’s just that they were mostly paying me to write funny things, so I just did what I could. But probably Chernobyl is the most me thing I’ve ever done. So, really I guess it was just me being me. There you go.
John: You being you. We have time for one more question. So, right behind him is a gentleman who is wearing a shirt. Great, you, sir. The gentleman in a shirt. That’s a really specific thing. You sir, what is your name?
John: Hi Christian. What is your question?
Christian: OK, so Oscars are coming up, award season. What’s one screenplay for each of you that you hope gets nominated, besides your own?
John: I would hope that Black Panther gets nominated, because Black Panther is fantastic. And it’s a fantastically well-made movie, but it’s also a great script. And so Joe Robert Cole and the director also deserve huge credits for how good the writing was in that. I’m trying to think of another – there’s other good stuff, I just wasn’t thinking about what was great this year.
Craig: Oscars are coming up now already? Didn’t we just do them?
John: No. I know it feels like we did.
Craig: I so don’t care.
John: Yeah. Franklin was the show and we talked about like we just don’t care about the awards.
Craig: I mean, I just like movies. The whole rat race of it all. I mean, I know people do get into and everything. I just wish – I love the way the AFI does it where they’re just like it’s 2018. Here are ten movies we loved. Let’s celebrate these ten movies. They’re great. Instead of like pitting them against each other in a fight. But that’s just – oh, probably also because I’m never going to get an Oscar so it’s easy for me to say that, isn’t it. To be like oh Oscars, blech.
John: Can I punt your question a little bit and say that one of – the only good thing I will say about the whole award season bullshit is that the studios all publish their scripts. And so you as writers who are like curious about screenplays–
Craig: Oh, that is true. This is good.
John: You can now read all the screenplays. And like us growing up, it was hard to find screenplays–
Craig: Is there an app that they could read those on?
John: You could read it on Weekend Read, for example. So, Megan, is also going to be putting all of those scripts as they become available up on Weekend Read. So that’s a place you can read them, but you can also find the PDFs other places, too.
Read good scripts. You should also read some terrible scripts so you can understand what never works in scripts. But reading really good screenplays is a great way sort of to develop those muscles and sort of see like, oh, I should aspire to do these really good things. And you see like what it looks like on the page before it becomes the movie.
Craig: I feel like there should be one more question.
John: There should be one more question because I kind of punted that question.
Craig: Can maybe not a dude ask the last one?
John: Which woman in the audience – this young woman right here has raised her hand. She’s wearing a–
Craig: A shirt.
John: She’s wearing a shirt.
Female Voice: I’m also wearing a shirt.
John: All right. People in shirts. But it’s the same color. Is that an Austin Film Festival shirt?
Female Voice: No, it’s just palm trees.
John: Because that is the Austin Film Festival color. The official staff are wearing those shirts.
Female Voice: Oh that’s true. Please don’t ask me anything. I don’t know anything.
John: All right. But you have a question for us.
Female Voice: So my question is at this level of your writing I hear a lot of you guys talking about assignments and I want to know how often, I don’t know, weekly or if it’s maybe daily, you get to work on your kind of pet projects and your own things that nobody pays you for. Or, are they paying you for those?
John: They’re not paying. So, let’s talk about that. Let’s start at the end. Jason Fuchs, how much are you chasing or writing on assignments versus your own thing?
Jason: I would say right now it’s probably weighted more heavily on assignment stuff. But I think that part of staying sort of fertile and fresh creatively is focusing on things that are originals that mean a lot to you. So my time for the most part right now is divided between Robotech which is, although it’s a passion thing, it’s obviously something was an assignment. And an original. And so I try to split time between that and then in the back of my mind there are always original ideas percolating. But I think it’s really easy to get excited about open writing assignments and these are things that you have to work very hard to get.
And oftentimes they’re properties that you fall in love with and that you care as much about, at least in my case, certainly as some originals. But I think it’s really helpful to still focus on what those originals might be.
John: Nicole, what’s your split?
Nicole: Well, let’s see. The last year has been really intense. So, I did a studio project that was an assignment but it was based on an IP that was just basically a title and like a bad guy, so it felt like an original but it wasn’t. And a pilot that was also based very, very loosely on a short film. And then I wrote my own short film and adapted it from a New Yorker short story and directed it. That was a passion project which was great. My agent was like where have you been for three months? So that was fun. And then I have two passion projects I’m working on now in addition to the writing stuff. So, I would say that it’s about 50/50, but this year it’s been more like 60/40. It’s been a lot.
John: So Phil Hay, you do assignments but also this Destroyer, would you consider that – that’s your own thing? That’s your fun thing?
Phil: Yeah. Well, I think, I mean, it’s changed for us. So, my partner Matt and I who have been together for a really, really long time now work with my wife, Karyn, so the three of us – we basically have a family business. So we try to always have – we have one way where we’re trying to just make our own stuff at whatever budget level that is. And sometimes the next thing we do might be a studio. We have a studio that we might do next, but we also have an independent thing that we’re writing. So, for me personally and really fulfillingly the needle has shifted way toward just building stuff originally from the bottom up. And then doing assignments that really has a goal because it’s just our little group doing it.
But still doing some studio assignment work. But I would say like generally my lesson of my whole life and career, and I’m sure you guys feel similarly, you said something similar, is that you need to be doing your own stuff. Regardless of whether the results of it, just for you to be you as a writer and to stay alive emotionally and intellectually.
So, the original stuff always had a huge spot for me. But sometimes it’s had more of an economic spot and sometimes it’s had less of an economic spot. But it’s always been equally important.
Wendy: Yeah, I mean, he’s clapping. Like a dad.
Phil: I’m going to buy you a beer. Let’s go.
John: Wendy, do you get a chance to do your own original stuff? You’re doing TV for folks?
Wendy: Well, god, I’m so lucky right now. I feel kind of shamed.
Craig: You’re ashamed because good things are happening to you?
Wendy: Because good things are happening. Yeah. Yeah.
Craig: That’s the most writerly shit of all time.
Phil: Here truly is a writer.
John: Tell us why you said that. Why do you think he said that?
Craig: That is so writerly.
Wendy: Because I’m so used to losing, man.
Craig: There you go. There you go.
Wendy: I’m so used to being the – I had actually a showrunner once say to me in the room, “Learn to take a yes.” And, I mean, that’s me. I’m so used to fighting. I’m so used to having to push so hard. But this year was pretty brilliant.
So I’m in a deal and I sold two projects that I love. And so they’re assignments, but they were created by me. So, I don’t know, where does that fit in? So I would say 45% on the one piece that I sold, probably 45% on the other piece that I sold. But you know me. I always save 10% just for me. So I got 10% of things that are stories that I’m incubating that I’d like to go sell next year. Because, I mean, it takes a long time to develop what could be the concept for a television show.
You’re talking about millions upon millions of dollars of investment. So it’s important. I take that 10% and I invest my own money, not very smart but whatever. I invest my own time and really try to develop those stories so that come next June when the wonderful studio I’m working for comes and says, OK, what do you want to go pitch, I can say I got this ready, I got this. What are we going to do?
John: Craig Mazin, obviously Chernobyl is a passion project. It’s your own thing that you sort of came out and created.
Craig: It’s my own thing.
John: But the sort of – the stuff you don’t talk about on the show, you’ve also done a lot of work for other folks this last year, too.
Craig: Mostly. I mean, the truth is I have deferred for the longest time any kind of me time.
John: The personal enjoyment.
Craig: Like I’ve just always been somebody that’s helping someone else do what they do. And a lot of it has been wonderful and fulfilling. I don’t mean to ever suggest that I was not grateful for it. And a lot of it I loved doing. I mean, I loved working with Todd Phillips. That was great. But those were his things, you know. And I’ve spent so much time helping other people with their things, or coming in and fixing things, or dealing with distressed property, whatever it is, and to finally just do my own thing was wonderful. And I want to keep doing it. And so I think I’m going to.
And, you know, you can do the other kinds of stuff if you need money and you’ve shown that you have a track record of doing those things. That’s great. But I’m an odd one actually. I do feel like I’m very odd in the sense that I kind of started in a weird way, even though the first thing I did was like my own thing kind of. But it was really honestly it was a service job. It was like you guys need a movie like this. I’ve always been that. And only now weirdly after fucking 23 years am I finally just – so it’ll be tragic if it’s awful, wouldn’t it? I hope you don’t think it’s awful. Because if you do, then you think I’m awful.
John: No, we don’t think you’re awful, Craig.
Craig: I’m a little bit awful.
Wendy: Would somebody buy him a beer?
John: And so I will say from my perspective like doing Arlo Finch was a chance to just do completely my own thing. And so the best thing about making movies and television is it’s incredibly collaborative. The worst thing about making movies and television is it’s incredibly collaborative. And no matter what your vision is going into a thing, it’s always being filtered through a bunch of other people. And so to actually say like, oh, you know, that comma is there because I want that comma there and it matters to me was a great change for me and really, really good.
I won’t ever have that in features because it doesn’t matter. The screenplay is a plan for making the other thing. But to make the thing as a book was great. So that’s been my three books of doing my own stuff.
Craig: That was also a good question.
John: Yeah, see.
Craig: This row was nailing it.
John: The question row. Another free beer.
Phil: Another free beer.
John: This was a really – this was a pretty good Scriptnotes I think.
Craig: I don’t know. Was it?
Phil: It’s really up to them.
John: A good audience! We need to thank some very important people, starting with Beto O’Rourke.
Craig: Yes. And in all seriousness, how many of you – just raise your hand if you are a registered voter in the state of Texas. Now, lower your hand if you have not yet voted. So if you’ve voted lower your hand. If you still have yet to vote keep your hand up. You haven’t voted yet. And you can vote in the state of Texas. Very few of you. Wonderful. You’re voting, right? Good.
Craig: Yeah. Yep. I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but I will tell you do not vote for Ted Cruz.
John: The only thing he asks is not to vote for Ted Cruz. We need to thank Megan McDonnell who made this whole night possible. Megan McDonnell, our producer.
Craig: Where is she?
John: She’s right there.
Craig: There she is.
John: Our show is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Thank you Austin Film Festival’s Colin Hyer. Thank you very much for having us here again.
Craig: Always wonderful.
John: Olivia Riordan. Travis, Joseph, Sonja, James. All the Austin Film Festival volunteers. You are fantastic. So let’s thank everybody here at Austin Film Festival. And Ben thank you very much for the lights. Hey guys, thank you very much. This was another fun year to do this.
Come tomorrow if you can get into our Three Page Challenge. We’re going to be talking through three Three Page Challenges.
Craig: We’ll be tearing humans apart in front of you.
John: Indeed. And we won’t be drunk. Well, we may be a little bit drunk.
John: Thank you all very much. Have a good night.
Craig: Thanks guys. Have a great night.
John: And Craig has one more thing to say.
Craig: So, if you’re a WGA member you now know that you can vote on our proposal to amend the credits rules for screenwriters. We strongly, strongly, strongly, both of us, urge you to vote yes on this. If you have questions, take a look in the booklet. There is a statement against it, which I strongly disagree with. And in fact you’ll see that the committee, including a lot of terrific screenwriters, have put together a very clear argument rebutting all of those points. So we really, really urge you to vote yes. It’s something that we need as writers.
- Thanks for joining us, Wendy Calhoun, Phil Hay, Nicole Perlman, and Jason Fuchs!
- And thank you, Beto, for the message! Check out the video from the audience.
- The Death of Hollywood’s Middle Class by Nicole Laporte for Fast Company
- This tweet by Nicola Prigg
- Keep an eye on Weekend Read for screenplays this awards season.
- T-shirts are available here! We’ve got new designs, including Colored Revisions, Karateka, and Highland2.
- The USB drives!
- Wendy Calhoun on Twitter
- Phil Hay on Twitter
- Nicole Perlman on Twitter
- Jason Fuchs on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Scriptnotes Digital Seasons are also now available!
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
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