The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 389 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we will be discussing nothing less than the future of the film and television industry.
John: With special guests to talk about the ongoing agency negotiations and a new initiative to bring the special magic of Sundance to more filmmakers around the globe. But first, Craig, I have to ask why have you destroyed my Twitter timeline?
Craig: It’s fun? Oh no, I know the answer to this. Because it’s there.
John: Argh. So here is what happened this last week is somebody asked like a screenwriting formatting question, or basically like was it a “we see” kind of question, or directing from the page, and tagged both me and Craig into this question. And then for the next week my entire mentions is nothing but this question and people responding to this question.
Craig: Well, I mean, we were joined by other writers like Rian Johnson and Chris McQuarrie and James Mangold and Beth Schacter and so everybody brought all of their people along. So there was a lot of interest in it. But you know, John, you can just say ignore conversation.
John: I can ignore the conversation. I should just ignore the conversation. I was curious at some points what people would say, but mostly I felt like we had talked about it so much on the air. That’s my frustration. I wanted to point people to the podcast and say like, no, no, we really have gone through this.
John: But for people who haven’t been listening to the podcast, and we could just sort of dispense with this in a little five-minute chunk, let’s talk through some of what came up in that thread and why it’s nonsense and how to move on past it.
So I think the initial question was the sense that are rules about what a screenwriter can or can’t put on the page and that it crosses some sort of line at which it is directing from the page. So classically things like, oh, you shouldn’t put camera angles there. You shouldn’t say “we see.” We shouldn’t do any of that stuff that is a director’s job rather than a writer’s job.
John: And the answer to that Craig is what?
Craig: That that’s the stupidest thing in history. Because for whatever reason, and I don’t know why they do this, a lot of these screenwriting gurus or sometimes sadly screenwriting professors will push this narrative that screenwriting follows the same sort of union divisions as like work on a set where an electrician can’t move equipment and a grip can’t plug something in. That’s not at all the case. There’s this feeling that somehow if we “direct” on the page we will be offending a director. No we’re not. And if they are offended, screw them.
Our job is to create a movie in your mind. That means of course we’re directing on the page. In fact, I would argue that’s what screenwriting is. It’s literally directing a movie or a television show on the page. So, this comes up all the time. Now, of course, of course, two things we’ll get back all the time. One is that a lot of amateurs will overuse things like stage directions, camera directions, and so on. Of course. You can do anything poorly. They also write dialogue very poorly, but we’re not saying you shouldn’t write dialogue.
Secondly, people will say, “Well OK, that’s true for you guys because you’re established.” Let me ask you something, John. Before you were established did you ever write “we see” or “close on?”
John: I 100% did. It does not matter sort of where you are at in the industry. You don’t cross a threshold in which like suddenly you can do anything on the page, where there’s a certain set of rules for what’s on the page before a certain point. And as I was scrolling through these things and not trying to engage with the conversation, I would see people saying like, “But you don’t understand, it’s harder for a young writer.”
John: “Or for a writer of color or for other people.” That can all be true. That can all be true that it’s hard for people in different circumstances to do stuff, but that does not change the words on the page or sort of the rules for the words on the page and the over-insistence on a set of rules that someone made up at some point. So that thing your screenwriting professor taught you about you can’t do that thing, always question it.
Craig: Always. Always. And whatever makes your circumstances uniquely difficult, the one thing I can assure you is that it’s not that you’re not able to write “we see” or “push down” or “tilt up” or “pan right.” None of that is a problem for you. We did hear quite a few people say that their professor at – or professors at Chapman, I guess it’s the dodge school, just sort of laid out this orthodox you cannot write any of these things and if you do you will fail.
So, I want to go there. [laughs] And I just want to say like, what, you can’t tell them – that’s malpractice.
John: It’s silly. So, here’s the best counter example I can offer to folks is that one of the best things that’s happened in the last 10 years is that all of the Academy nominated scripts are available online. You can find a PDF of every screenplay for pretty much every movie that’s been nominated for an award.
Craig: That’s amazing.
John: So read these scripts. Read these scripts and you will see that they are full of things that professors might call directing from the page. And then the next person will rush up and say like, “Oh, but it was a writer-director so it’s OK for that writer-director.” It’s not any different. There is not one standard set of rules for how it all has to work. You can do stuff in the scene description that creates the experience of watching the movie. That’s all you’re trying to do. And if to do that you end up saying “we see/we hear,” if you end up invoking a sense of angles or like shots, that’s fine. That’s good.
There’s clunky ways to do things and so we are totally not arguing for clunkiness. We are arguing for the best way you have to express what it is that would feel like to be in that theater experiencing this movie.
Craig: I wonder why film schools that are so invested in pushing the auteur theory are also apparently invested in convincing us that directors should be feared even when we’re writing on the page. Huh? Huh? Hmm. Pfft.
Craig: Only in academia could something called the “auteur theory” not refer to the actual person authoring a movie. Oh my god. Don’t even get me going.
John: Yeah. Now, let’s talk about sort of what things are useful to learn as you’re reading through these screenplays. Because hopefully you are taking advantage of this wonderful time we live in that you can just read all these screenplays. It used to be so difficult when Craig and I were starting. You would trade scripts will people and you would actually have to physically copy scripts and stuff. Now it’s so easy. So you have all of these resources.
I would take a look at how are they conveying the information that they want the reader to get about what the movie will feel like. How are they describing how characters are interacting with their space? How are screenwriters describing what you will be seeing and what you will be hearing in that scene? Look for how they’re doing that and you’ll find there’s different techniques. And different writers will have different techniques. It’s OK to use multiple techniques. It’s OK to use whatever works best for you. A voice is partly deciding what the things are that you’re going to focus on.
Craig: Right. Right.
John: That’s great. So find what works for you. Experiment. But don’t just be beholden on someone’s rules that you cannot do X, Y, or Z. Quentin Tarantino, you know, labels the kinds of cameras and angles he’s using. He really wants that very specific classic cinematic feel on things. So he and James Cameron will both reference cameras and specific lenses at times. Great. If that works for them, if it gives you a sense of what it feels like more power to them. That doesn’t mean that you need to do that, that you have to do that, or you can’t do it. It just means that is a way of conveying what something is going to feel like.
Craig: Amen brother.
John: All right. So this is going to be an unusual episode for us because generally when Craig and I are recording an episode we are on Skype together and it’s all kind of happening largely in real time. This episode is going to be cut together from different conversations that we’ve had over a couple of different days. And so when we come back from this break we are going to be sitting and talking with Chris Keyser about the agency negotiations.
And we’re back. Chris Keyser is a writer and showrunner whose credits include Party of Five, Tyrant, and The Last Tycoon. He’s also a two-time former WGA president and frequently leads the MBA negotiating committee along with David Shore and Meredith Stiehm he’s leading the negotiating committee for the ongoing talks with the agencies. Welcome back, Chris.
Chris Keyser: Thanks John.
John: It’s nice to have you here. So I think last time you were sitting talking with us was about an MBA negotiation a couple years back.
Chris: I only show up for–
John: Ah, he’s here to talk through stuff. But let’s recap what’s happened so far with the agency stuff because it’s been a while. So the guild met with members about the issues regarding agencies as we came out of the last MBA negotiation. So you led the last MBA negotiation. What were those conversations? You were just sitting down talking with members about where they felt the industry was at?
Chris: Yeah. We talked about a bunch of different things and the pressures on writers and one of the conversations was about the way in which the relationship between writers and agents might be affecting the downward pressure on writer’s pay for example in television and features. Or the inability of feature writers to actually solve some of the pernicious problems.
John: So, every three years we have to negotiate with the studios and that’s called the MBA, but what I wasn’t aware of until I joined the board is that there’s also an agreement with the agencies called the AMBA. And we negotiate that once every–?
Chris: Well, it’s been 42 years I think.
Craig: That’s a normal cycle. Yeah.
Chris: I think it’s like six times, or seven times Brigadoon.
John: Yes. So it’s a crazy document. It comes in this yellow folder. And it is not – you try to read it and it doesn’t make much sense because it’s describing a time that is so different from what we’re in right now.
Chris: Right. By the way, can I back up for a second and just explain? You know, the guild is the legal representative of writers. The guild in fact is the only organization that has the legal authority to negotiate for writers. But because writing is not the same thing as some other professions because writer’s salaries vary based upon their experience and their success, the guild has allowed individual contracts to be negotiated by agents. In order so that we franchise those agencies. And that franchise agreement, the AMBA, which they have to sign on to, permits them to negotiate for individual members. Similar thing happens in the sports world and a few other places.
John: Yeah. The most analogous situation is if you’re a professional football player or professional NBA player you have a union, but you also have an agent who is negotiating for you above those minimums.
Chris: Right. So we negotiate for minimums. We negotiate for pension and health and certain working conditions. The things that unions usually do. And the agents are changed with negotiating over scale pay for our members.
John: So in your conversations with members you’re saying some of them felt like the agencies weren’t doing their jobs in negotiating those above scale things?
Chris: Exactly. Exactly.
John: So in order to change this agreement, this franchise agreement the AMBA, we had to give a one-year notice. Part of the actual existing agreement was that you had to give a one-year notice. And so we had these member meetings and then we gave notice to say that we would like to renegotiate this agreement. And then nothing publicly happened for a very long time. So–
Chris: Well there were member outreach meetings through last year. David Goodman, the president of the Guild.
John: But that was before we signed–
Chris: In and around.
John: Yeah. Around that time. And then we sort of went quiet because there was kind of nothing to do publicly because you didn’t want to have a protracted conversation when there was not actually a thing you could solve or fix at the moment.
Chris: Right. And we were spending that time, the guild was spending it’s time – you know because you were on the board – spending your time thinking about what the new AMBA should look like, what specific requests we would have at the agency to sign onto. I guess requests is the wrong word.
John: What we were looking for. What the actual outcome was that we wanted. And so then we started the member meetings and that’s been two or three months. We talked with the captains. We talked with screenwriters. We had this big meeting at the Sheraton Universal a couple of weeks ago with like a thousand people.
Chris: 1,500 writers have shown up. Maybe more at this point. It’s a fair percentage of the guild.
John: And the public goal was to really talk with every member about sort of what was going on.
John: And so then at those big meetings and smaller meetings we had – David Goodman would read his speech. That speech is probably out now for everyone to see or to read. And there’s more details specifically about what we’re asking the agencies to sign onto, sort of what we would like the agreement to look like. Plus there should be some FAQs out answering a lot of the questions that you and I get. So we end up getting emailed a lot of questions and so that’s been really useful because we can talk to members about sort of what their concerns were, but now there’s FAQs that can really answer a lot of that stuff.
Craig: And I think that’s good language that you’re saying what it is that we’re asking them to agree to, because in a very real way this is the opposite of how things go with our negotiations with the AMPTP. In those negotiations we’re asking a concern to give us stuff. And in this negotiation, whether they know it or not – and I’m not sure they have yet come around to absorb this – the agencies are asking us for something. We’re not asking them for anything. They’re asking us. They’re asking us to be allowed to represent writers. So, we’re kind of in charge. Well, in charge, I think anybody that’s in the giving side of a negotiation has a little bit of a built-in upper hand.
Chris: That’s right. I mean, in this case we get to say what’s in that AMBA. And if they don’t sign on to it, they are not permitted to represent members of the guild.
Chris: Whether we can’t – what we decide to ask them to sign onto depends upon what the membership votes to, you know.
John: So there can likely be a vote sometime at the end of March about stuff, but we’re not there yet.
Chris: We should get back into that. We should be clear about what that means, what the vote is going to be about. But that probably takes a little bit more conversation about how we get to the point of that vote.
John: So at some point there could be a vote from the membership asking whether we want to sort of impose this agreement. Basically–
Chris: Let me put it this way. So right now we’re in the middle of negotiating with the ATA, which is the organization that represents talent agencies. A number of those meetings have taken place already and they will continue to take place between now and the April 6 expiration of the AMBA.
In those negotiations we’re trying to hash out exactly what the terms of the AMBA will be. If those negotiations do not provide us with a fruitful resolution it’s within the guild’s right to impose a code of conduct, much like the code of conduct that professional sports unions have imposed on agents there. And David Goodman for example mentions that all CAA agents who are part of their sports management group they all sign on to the player’s association code of conduct.
The vote by the membership at the end of March will be to approve the code of conduct, say we should adopt this code of conduct onto which the agencies must attach their signatures.
John: So what is the single issue that is at the heart of this discussion/negotiation?
Chris: The heart of the conversation is about conflict of interest. The idea that the agency practices have ceased to align their economic interests clearly and solely with the economic self-interests of the writers whom they represent. And that’s a fundamental problem.
Craig: And so for people, I think a lot of people probably have a general sense of how this is supposed to work. Agents represent writers. Agents get writers work. They are allowed to do that by the very power that this AMBA grants them. And then whatever the writer earns, the gross, the agent takes 10% of it. Seems very simple. And in fact they used be known as ten-percenters.
And so the more the writer makes the more the agent makes. But as it turns out that simple reality isn’t really the reality at all.
Chris: No, in television in fact essentially the standard method of payment now for agencies is to take what they call a packaging fee. And that packaging fee is tied both to the license fee of the show and ultimately the profits the show produces. So the agency makes – and we talk about this and if you read or have seen David Goodman’s speech he’s pretty explicit about this – 3, 3, and 10 is the standard formula. They make approximately three percent of the upfront license fee for a show, although that’s negotiable, somewhere usually between $30,000 and $100,000 an episode. There’s three percent of the backend that’s differed that is not often collected by them. And then 10% of the adjusted gross.
Craig: And that’s great information, but again just to sort of simplify it for people what we’re talking about with these packaging fees is instead of the agents taking 10% of what we earn as writers what they do is they don’t take any commission from us. Which, ooh, great, we get to keep that 10%. Except, what they are getting in return is more than that from the studios that are producing the television shows.
Chris: That’s right. And in fact they make deals specifically with the studios and in our budgets we see the results of studios that are made independently between the agencies and the studios, often without the writer knowing about it, that identifies what the agency is going to get. And what they get is not tied to how well we do but how much money is spent on the show on the one hand and how much the show makes on the other.
Craig: Correct. Essentially in this arrangement rather than the agency being concerned, financially at least, with the amount of money their client is earning, what they are concerned with is the amount of money the show is earning, meaning the amount of money the studio is earning. So suddenly their interest is in aligned with the studio’s performance, not their own client’s.
John: Now, I want to separate out two terms that I think get conflated a lot and we really need to think about them as separate complete concepts. So there’s packaging which is a verb. And what packaging really means is that you have a writer or a script. You have a piece of talent like an actor. You have a director. And sometimes agencies or management companies will put these elements together and that will be a package. And through this packaging process they create value because they can get more for that client, they can get more for the writer, they can get more for the director because they have a full thing together. They have a script, they have a director, they have an actor. They can sort of sell that on the town and get good money for everybody.
That kind of packaging is good. That kind of packaging can help a writer get his or her script out there in the world. It’s attaching that piece of talent. It’s attaching that director. That kind of packaging we don’t really have a big issue with. The problem is the noun of packaging fees. Packaging fees is that 3-3-10, or is that other cut that the agent is taking that is not related to a person’s commission. It’s not that 10%. It’s a special fee that they’re getting for the work that they’ve done to put this thing together which in some cases is really kind of no work at all.
Chris: Yeah. Maybe no work at all. And even if it’s a good deal work, the argument you would make or certainly used to be made is every person you add to that package, every attachment you make of talent you get 10% of that individual salary. So you have a writer, and a director, and an actor, maybe a couple of actors on a show. You get 10% of all of their salaries and the total of that is how much you ought to make for a show.
Here’s a thing that gets complicated for us because one of the arguments that the agencies are making back to us and are almost certainly making to their clients individually which is this: you want to eliminate packaging, which means you want to eliminate our ability to make your shows more valuable in the presale moment by attaching talent to it. What they’re essentially saying is if you don’t pay us the outside fees we’re not going to do our job. It is essentially the same thing they’re saying to the studios which is – and here’s the reason – why do studios pay these packaging fees? They don’t need to pay the exorbitant packaging fees. They pay those packaging fees because in a sense the agencies have said we have all of our talent corralled behind a fence. If you want access to them in order to get access you need to pay a kind of ransom. You need to pay a packaging fee to us which is over and above what we would make from the show.
Now they’re saying to us if you don’t allow us to charge the studios that exorbitant, over scale compensation we won’t actually do the work of attaching your script to a writer or a director. Well, if they don’t do that what else are they doing?
Craig: Ah-ha. Exactly. I mean, look, when we are wooed by an individual agency – and I’m talking about the big ones. So the big four agencies that we talk about in town here are CAA, WME, UTA, and ICM. When they’re trying to grab somebody from say CAA to go over to William Morris, but it’s Endeavor, but it’s always the same – look at all the other people we have. We can help you get your movie made. We can help you get your television show on the air because we have all these other people. They don’t say, “But only if you accept a circumstance by which we may make more money off of your work than you do.” They don’t mention that.
And the interesting thing about the circumstance is they are free I suppose to engage in this kind of extortion with the studios because the studios don’t have necessarily any kind of legal gun to the agencies’ heads. But the agency does apparently have a legal gun to their head behind held by us. And their behavior I think up until this point has been to essentially ignore that face. And so we’re entering this fascinating and somewhat disquieting period where the way that things have been going for decades is now suddenly not just being threatened to be toppled over the way that for instance a strike may topple over the labor market for who knows up to a year or something like that at most, I suppose. But permanently. We may permanently topple a kind of bedrock manner in which the business operates because packaging has been going on for decades as well.
Chris: Yes. That’s true. You said a lot of things and I want to comment on all of them, but now I can’t remember the first few you said.
Craig: That’s how I do it.
Chris: Exactly. Let me say a few things about that that strike me. The first one is this. Those packaging fees they’re requiring, they are doing that because they claim to be attaching actors. Now what work are they doing for actors, for example? It may be that as a writer I can bring my script to the agency and that agency can say we’ll submit this to the studio. That’s the job we’re going to do for you. If you want us to do more you have to pay more for that. I don’t think that’s true.
But what do they say to the actors? We’re not going to introduce you to a particular project.
Craig: That’s crazy.
Chris: What is that work that they’re doing? I don’t think it’s anything at all. The other thing we should say by the way is that packaging is more insidious than packaging fees and the system by which talent is corralled and then packaging fees are assessed on the basis of having that talent in your stable can be very detrimental to writers because – and you probably have had this experience, both of you. If you are at one agency looking to for example attach a director from a different agency, or an actor from a different agency, what you end up with is a lot of resistance often from that agency because they’ll end up having to split the packaging fee.
And so I just heard another story just the other day of a writer who said my project is being delayed because of a contentious negotiation between two agencies about who is going to get which packaging fee. By the way, splitting of packaging fees belies the entire notion of packaging because it means you’re not even attaching two things. Two different agencies are attaching pieces of talent to it.
Craig: Exactly. They have something called a half packaging fee, which tells you everything. What you’re kind of getting at is there’s absolutely no service that agencies can provide in return for this packaging fee that they cannot and should not provide just in return for the normal 10% of our earnings.
Chris: Right. What writers need to be aware of though is they’re going to hear this argument back. They’re going to hear the conflation of packaging fees with packaging which means attachments. Here agencies say to them you’re going to be a big risk for ending packaging fees because it means you’ll no longer have the advantage that you had by signing on with CAA, WME, ICM, or UTA and having access to this other talent. That’s not true.
Craig: Of course not.
Chris: Business itself will take care of that. The studios and networks that want movies and television shows made need the actors and writers and directors attached to each other. And so if those particular agencies refuse to do it except for an outside fee, someone else will do it for them.
John: So, the idea of packaging fees has been around for decades. That’s not a new thing. But what is relatively new is producing. So this move by talent agencies to really become direct producers of material. And so the notable ones in town right now are probably Endeavor Content which is related to WME, wiip which is related to CAA. So they are affiliate companies. They are not the same company. It’s not literally CAA producing, but they are very closely connected companies.
And to be clear the problem isn’t with those companies, it’s with really any move by an agency where they are directly owning content. Where they are competing with the studios for content. And puts a writer in a situation where that thing you write may be owned by your agency. Where you are actually an employee of your agency rather than them being an employee of the writer.
Craig: I mean, can you imagine? That’s exactly why the law that allows agents in California, the Talent Agency Act, that allows them to represent us – so they need two things, right. They need the Writers Guild to allow them to procure employment on our behalf. And they also need the state of California to license them to procure employment on our behalf. And in exchange for that right, that exclusive right, they get two limitations. One is they can only change 10%. And the other is they cannot be financially interested in the employment that they’re procuring for us.
Craig: What they’ve done is they’ve set aside these little side companies, but I believe the first time I ever heard of this was I think MRC, which was tied into Endeavor, I think, maybe even before it merged with William Morris, and all sorts of alarm bells went off in my head. But it is spreading now like Kudzu. This is not a good thing for us as writers at all.
John: Well let’s list some upsides, because sometimes you’ll hear upsides. That they’ll say like these are the good reasons for having these affiliate companies.
Chris: We hear a lot of writers talking about the fact that they’re getting better deals. The agencies themselves say we’re more generous in our backend. We often for example in television have less onerous spend requirements. All of these kinds of things.
John: We’re already your friends. We’re already on your side.
Chris: We just want to provide new opportunities.
John: Our clients are asking for these opportunities and we’re providing these opportunities.
Chris: And you don’t need to take it if you don’t want it.
John: Absolutely. And sometimes they’ll say like well we require that you have an outside attorney to review the deals. So those are things that they are saying. The downsides are also pretty obvious. So you can fire your agent. It’s very hard to fire your boss. You are competing with them for IP sometimes. Like if you want that book they may own that book. And so you’re actually in competition with them for the things you’re trying to buy.
John: And it’s also just the most classic conflict of interest possible. Something that David Goodman says in his speech is you wouldn’t want Peter Roth negotiating your salary. And that’s ultimately where you’re kind of getting to.
Chris: Right. I would make two arguments about this, one on either side of it. On the one had we’re fully in favor of the idea of more buyers, more people making content.
Chris: They just don’t need to be our agents. And those studios that they’re forming, they can exist if they want as long as they are separate from – really separate from – our agencies. In the same way that MCA in the 1960s, in 1962, the largest talent agency in the country–
Chris: Was forced by the justice department to choose between its talent practice and becoming Universal Studios. And they chose to become Universal.
John: And what happened to all those agents? They became agents somewhere else. That agency business kept going. But they separated completely.
Craig: Or they moved on to become producers. And Lew Wasserman, who was the head of that talent agency became the head of Universal and in many ways became even more powerful. And that’s fine. You can do it. You just have to do one–
John: That’s fine. We’d love another studio.
Craig: Yeah. Just one or the other. The whole reason that writers, actors, and directors want agents is not just merely to do the formality of being a buffer between us and the people paying us, because lawyers can do that pretty well. It’s because we need people who understand aspects of the business that we don’t necessarily understand or are as invested in. Giving us counsel. What would be the right job to take? Who would be the right person to work with? What should we avoid? How far should we push it?
All of these things are what we agree to pay 10% for. And behind that is the theory that their bargaining acumen will also pay for that 10% because they’ll be able to bargain that much more than we could on our own. But, if they are involved in the production of the work we’re doing there’s absolutely no reason to think that nature and quality of the advice that we’re getting isn’t going to be infected by this very different role. Essentially we are asking them to manipulate us for their benefit instead of ours. Whether or not an individual agent does so, you won’t know. And that’s the problem with conflict of interests.
John: There have been so many times in my career where I’ve run into a situation on a project with an employer where I’ve had to go to my agent for help. And I needed that agent to be a separate person who had my back and didn’t have the other person’s back. And that is a crucial role for an agent to play and I just don’t know how you play that role when it is your own agency that the person is working for.
Chris: Right. I think the risk for us though is that at least early on these studios may be offering pretty good deals. You know, maybe even loss leaders.
Craig: Well, I don’t exactly–
John: They may be offering more backend. I think it’s good to have outside people who want to spend some money and build stuff up because that’s good and it can help push other deals up or help push other studios to try to match those deals in order to attract talent. So outside folks, fantastic. And Endeavor Content, the wiips, they have outside money because outside money wants to make stuff. They want to make content.
I think that outside money would find a way to do it that’s not through these two giant companies.
Craig: Now, I want to ask you guys something. What do you think they say to outside investors who are considering investing in Endeavor Content or wiip? What’s their big selling point do you think?
John: They have access to all of the best talent. All the best writers.
John: The best directors. And the best actors.
Craig: There is literally – there is nothing else, literally nothing else, they have to offer that would distinguish themselves other than that. So one of the things that I think we are all struggling with right now is that as this kind of creep has occurred, right, where it started a little, and then a little more, and a little more, what’s happening is the people that are supposed to leverage our talent and our efforts into more for us are leveraging our talent and our efforts into more for them. And I do not like being somebody that’s being – like I famously told this story. The way I found out that CAA was packaging Chernobyl, I did not know. I literally didn’t know.
What happened was one day I got a check from CAA. And I didn’t know why. And I think a lot of people get a check and they’re like, yay. I get a check that I didn’t ask for and I’m like, mm-hmm. Somewhere someone is taking advantage of me. And that’s how I kind of delved into this world of packaging. And in the end what concerns me more than anything is that they are using us. And on a principle level it’s driving me crazy.
Chris: Right. I think that our big challenge is to remind writers of exactly what you’re saying, Craig, which is that their value is inherent in themselves. That it doesn’t come from the agent who represents them. As generous as that moment was when that first agent said I see something in you, ultimately it is our talent that’s making the profits for these studios and for the agencies. And while when we negotiate with the companies at the MBA we have to respect the fact that capital and the risks they take give them some real reasons to push back against us. In this case the agencies have nothing but us. There is nothing of value. The leverage is our leverage and not theirs. But it’s hard for writers to think of it that way. In part because the agencies have cultivated a kind of aura of – we talked about – and people talk about this all the time – that we work for them. You said it yourself. You got your check from your agency. It said CAA on it.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah.
Chris: You walked into their palace.
Craig: Did not like that.
Chris: Nicer than any office you’ve ever had. And the feeling that you get from that is I’m working for them.
John: Now, Chris, you also lead our MBA negotiations often, so I want to sort of both combine and separate out a little bit of stuff that’s happening here, because I think what’s also true is that at this moment we are in a really strange place in the industry and time, where we have consolidation of these mega corporations. We have Netflix really upending sort of how things are done.
Agents will argue that this is the wrong time for this fight because now more than ever we all need to be working together to confront the challenges ahead of us. So what do we say to agents as they propose–?
Chris: I entirely agree. Now more than ever we need to be working together. But we need to be sure we’re working together for this. It is a time of very great risk and therefore writers cannot afford to have studios looking to take advantage of us in whole new fresh ways. And agencies who are conflicted and make their profits off of the success of our shows rather than our own success.
John: We want to be rowing in the same direction. And I don’t feel we are.
Chris: The fact that this is antagonistic to whatever extent it is is because this has gone on for a long time and it’s hard to make change. But in the end we see agents as our allies, true allies, are what we need. So we’re working in that direction. But I want to say this about the MBA negotiations in relationship to the AMBA. Because in the long run although we’re all upset about the thing that smells bad about our agents using our leverage for their gain, and the fact that they are almost certainly violating their legal obligation as fiduciaries to us, maybe, both California statutes that require them to do that and we will find that out in time. There have been economic consequences to the fact that the agencies have behaved the way they have. And one of the things that we realized is that as we push writers to take risks in our MBA negotiations to shore up their salaries, to increase minimums, to decrease spans so that their above scale is not driven toward minimum we’re losing what we gained in those MBA negotiations because the above scale negotiations that our agents are doing has consistently failed to keep up.
So, in the last decade or so while the industry is expanding, while company profits are skyrocketing, while as far as we can tell from all the outside evidence because their books are closed agencies are doing better than ever, writers are doing less well. And our writer surveys that we sent out in 2016 and 2018 prove that. In television over a period of time at one point writer above-scale income went down 23%. That’s what concerns us. Because when agencies say, “Hey, this is fine. Yes, we’re getting a lot out of this but periodically you save the 10% on your commission and you’re doing OK. You should be quiet about it,” we need to think good and hard about whether we’re going to ask writers to do something that’s actually ultimately going to be in their financial best interests.
Craig: That is a really important point, because I think a lot of people might say, OK, hold on a second. The people that are kind of getting ripped off the most are the showrunners because what’s happening is the agencies are converting the showrunner’s work into these massive profits that otherwise would go into the showrunner’s pockets but they’re not.
Let’s say I’m a rank-and-file writer. I’m a staff writer. And honestly I’m not getting any of those anyway. And I am not having to pay 10%, so why am I going to be cannon fodder for these rich showrunners? And to that I always run this little experiment. You are on a show that your agency doesn’t package. And the studio calls your agent and says here’s the thing, we want to bring back Chris but we’re a little squeezed on budget this year so we want him to take a pay cut. What does your agent do? I’m going to guess says, no, and fights. Because her money comes out of your money.
But if they do package and the studio calls and says, listen, we’re on the fence about bringing this show back. We need to reduce. Can you convince Chris to take less money? Why wouldn’t they say, sure, I can do that? Because their money comes from the continuity of the show, not you.
This absolutely impacts rank-and-file writers. It’s really important that they know that this is not about making sure that showrunners get their pockets stuffed with even more money. It’s about protecting their ability to be represented effectively by their own agents.
Chris: I think that’s right. That’s right. Each constituency in the guild is affected in a different way. Showrunners affected because their backend may be hurt. Showrunners may be affected because their inability to access talent across packages is hurt. But the rank-and-file members are hurt because their agents, they have been unable to defend their quotes because by and large in agencies whose money comes from packaging fees rather than the specific weekly income of writers are either less inclined to push for that or more inclined to rollover on studios who say we’re sorry that’s just all there is. By the way, that’s another thing we have to deal with.
We have to deal with these myths on how that in eras of rising budgets for shows and for movies that the only thing set in stone is how much money writers can make and there’s no one out there who can get us a single penny more. These agencies who have defended their own packaging fees without any reduction over all these decades somehow will be entirely incapable of budgeting those writers.
Craig: Great point.
Chris: And, by the way, that’s true for screenwriters as well.
John: Absolutely, so let’s talk about screenwriter issues, because packaging does exist in features. It tends to be much more invisible because it happens as part of foreign sales. It happens as part of an early gathering of talent. It’s more complicated and it’s hard to sort of see it at times. And there will be times where you have sold a movie and not even realize that it is a package. So it is confusing on that level.
But there’s fundamental things that you also rely on your agent to do like to protect you from abusive employers, or for like that ninth revision on a script that you thought you turned in. So, a lot of the work that I’ve been doing with the screenwriter subcommittee this last year for the WGA has been doing stuff that we kept saying like isn’t that the agents’ job? And it is the agents’ job but they’re not doing their jobs and so we’re trying to sort of make up for the agents not doing their job. So when we do our campaign for No Work Left Behind, we’re just encouraging people like don’t leave that stuff behind. Your agent should be the one who is telling you not to do that stuff because agents should know that it’s a terrible idea, but that they’re not actually communicating that. So they’re telling you to, oh sure, go on, send in that treatment, do that free work for people. It’s ridiculous.
And then this is the second thing we implemented this last year was the Start Button. And so the Start Button is a way of tracking like this is when a person started on a project. This is when he turned in a draft. All the stuff that we built, the system we built to track especially feature projects and the steps you’re going through on a feature project we built that because screenwriter contracts were not being sent through from the agencies the way they are supposed to be sent through. If we had all the contracts we wouldn’t need to have the Start Button at all because we would see where people were at in their drafts and be able to figure out, OK, are they getting paid on time?
Craig: And there’s always been a certain built in conflict of interest that’s unavoidable simply because your agent represents 30 different writers let’s say. So there’s only five studios. If they push it too hard on your behalf they may lose out on another client’s behalf. So there is always a little bit of a balancing act there.
Chris: Craig, let me tell you a story. A bunch of years ago, about five years ago, the guild tried to institute a policy by which the agencies would agree to send us the invoices for contracts when drafts were done. And we actually met with all the agencies and they all agreed to do that. And we said let us be the bad guys. You don’t need to do it. We understand. We’ll do it. We’ll actually consolidate those things and we’ll go back to the studios and say here are the writers you haven’t paid on time. We’re going to collect the money that’s owed in interest.
And almost no one ever followed up. Even when they were not actually going to be implicated in it, we just couldn’t get their energy up for–
Craig: They don’t care. In the end, that’s not really their gig. I will say that I’ve never – whether or not there have been packaging fees associated with a script that I’ve written that’s gone into production, I’ve never not paid commission. So I suspect that that hasn’t necessarily impacted me. But one of the reasons that I think this is becoming a much larger issue now and one that the agencies can’t simply skate by on is that the divide between features and television is collapsing. Not simply because there’s so much television production that a lot of feature writers are also dabbling in television like I am. But because the nature of what is theatrical and what is television is smooshing together into one thing.
So, at this point now this issue of packaging fees ultimately impacts everyone. And I do think that A-list feature writers have a really interesting role to play here. Because for a long time our relationship with our agents was not and has not been tainted by this. We have the ability to start talking with our agents in a kind of clean way that isn’t soaking in a certain amount of recrimination and regret and say, “Listen, going forward this makes sense. How do we get you guys to kind of get your colleagues come around to be the kind of agent that you have been for me in features?”
Chris: We’re having a conversation and we’re being pretty tough on the agencies here. And they deserve for us to be tough on them after all these decades.
Chris: That’s not the same thing as saying those things about our individual agents. And it’s hard to hear somebody say, hey, this is an attack on a system that has not actually played out in your own personal economy. I’ll say a couple of things about that. The first is in cases of all guild action this is not really about our individual experiences. This is about systemic problems. And trying to solve a problem for the membership as a whole.
The fact that you have a wonderful relationship with your agent is not a counter argument against the fact that the system as a whole is disadvantaging writers. And even your wonderful agent, by the way, has not succeeded in ending the scourge of late pay and free rewrites and one-step deals or the downward pressure on income both for screenwriters and for most mid-level writers in television. They haven’t been able to buck that trend.
They do however work if you are represented at one of the big four agencies for companies or they are partners in companies who make massive profits off a system that takes advantage of writers. They take that money home. And so that friendship that you have with them, as meaningful as it is, it comes with an extra price that you’re paying that they’re not paying. And that can’t go on forever.
Craig: Yeah. And normally in those circumstances the people that we call are our agents. And so in a strange way what I’m suggesting in particular for feature writers because as you know that’s the drum that I will bang forever is just making sure the Writers Guild continues to fairly and properly represent its feature writer segment is talk to your agents. Have the conversation. And be armed with all the facts that we’ve given you here. And if they say something that contradicts it write it down and then talk to the guild about it. But have the conversation.
I think it’s important that we all start talking about it, because the more we talk about it I think the more they’re all going to feed back upstairs that this is a thing. Because what I don’t want is for these talks to be so unproductive as to ultimately end up sliding off the edge of a table. There is a certain value to a stable working environment in any industry. And there are great costs. And great costs to upending an apple cart so thoroughly.
So, talk to your agents. I think that’s really important.
Chris: And then privately be OK with your own anxiety about this.
John: That’s what I think is crucial, too. That’s the takeaway I lead with a lot of people is that I think it’s OK to feel unsettled because it is so different. I mean, you have a relationship with your own agent which is different than you have with a studio executive or any other thing. So it does feel different going into this because when you go into a MBA negotiation, you know this as well as anybody, that it’s going to be a range of outcomes. We’re going to ask for X. They’re going to say Y. And we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.
This is going to be a big change sort of no matter what happens here. And six weeks out we can’t tell you exactly what the world is going to look like as this all shakes out.
Chris: Right. No one will be asked to walk off a job.
Craig: That’s right.
Chris: We don’t face that kind of risk. But we face a real anxiety in putting under stress what may be for many of us are most secure relationship.
Chris: In the business. That’s no small thing to ask. And by the way John you and I, we’ve been dealing with this for a year, coming to terms with it. But many of our members, they’re just hearing about it for the first time. And even in MBA negotiations it takes a while to process what exactly is being asked of you. What are the gains?
John: I always try to remind myself of that, is that when people say like, “Oh, this feels so sudden and so rushed,” I’m like this has been 16 months. But if they hadn’t come to one of those initial things a year ago and they’re only just now hearing about it, it does feel like but what.
Chris: And if you do feel anxious, you have concerns, you disagree with anything that the guild is talking about, you think it’s wrong, you have a counter example that you want to provide, you have to talk to somebody. Because the guild wants to hear from everybody. It’s impossible actually to hear from every individual person, but the more we know about what member experience is the better we’re going to be at making a deal.
John: Yeah. So I would say obviously good resources are take a look at the speech, but take a look at the FAQs because they are written in a way that is meant to anticipate what your concern and your question is and can maybe address that question. But come to one of the meetings and ask your question or ask a question of us.
Chris: Or talk to a captain if you’ve got a captain.
John: Absolutely. So almost everybody is going to have a show captain, a screen captain.
Craig: Yeah. And I think it would be good if you’re experiencing anxiety or concern or fear about this, the other reason I think it’s important to share that with your agent is because you need them to feel it, too. I think the first – if I were an agent the first thing I would be doing right now is assuring and reassuring my client that everything is fine. The guild is incorrect. The way it is now which say has been serving at least in appearance my client well this is the way we’re going to keep going. Don’t you worry. Everything is going to be fine.
Because that’s generally what agents are doing for us anyway. They’re reassuring us and calming us down. In this case I think it’s important that they start to feel the anxiety, too. Because that’s the only way they’re going to start talking amongst themselves and more importantly to their superiors because while they work for us in a sense, they’re also working for somebody that can literally fire them. And if enough people start saying, no, no, no, you don’t understand, we are now panicking, then things might get precipitated, or at least it might help.
John: Chris, as we head into these last six weeks can we have you back as our uncertainty grows and things change?
Chris: Sure. Of course. I’d love to come back.
John: Cool. So obviously we’ll follow up and sort of as stuff develops we may have special episodes just about things that are happening. Because as a once-a-week Tuesday show that’s great for some situations, but there may be cases along the way where we have to do some special episodes on stuff.
Chris: I can’t believe you’re making me say yes to this on air, but that’s OK. Fine.
Craig: That’s how he does it. He does it on air to shame you.
John: Thanks Chris for coming on the show.
Craig: Thank you, Chris, so much.
Chris: Thanks for having me. Bye.
John: So, Craig had to head off to deal with more Chernobyl drama. But now I’m joined by a new guest. Michelle Satter is the founding directing of the feature film program at the Sundance Institute which for the past 37 years has worked to foster independents, risk-taking, and new voices in film and narrative storytelling. I know her from Sundance Labs where I am often an adviser.
Michelle, welcome to Scriptnotes.
Michelle Satter: It’s great to be here with you John. Thanks.
John: I mostly know you from the Labs, and so the Labs experience from my perspective is I get to go up there as an adviser.
Before I’ve gotten up there I’ve read through these screenplays by some really talented filmmakers and I get to sit on these one-on-one meetings with them and talk to them about these movies that they want to make. And the first time I did it I was like well this is magic. Who could have ever thought up this idea of doing it this way? And it was you. You are the person who came up with this idea of the Labs. This place for filmmakers to sort of have other filmmakers help them out on the things they’re trying to shoot. Congratulations.
Michelle: Thank you. It’s a very simple idea but it works. And we’ve revised it along the way because we’ve been doing it for a long, long time. We were just thinking about it today in terms of is there anything that we want to change. Not much about it. Because the opportunity for writers on a project that they’re developing to have that deep dive and dialogue with a working professional screenwriter is like nothing else.
You know, you can say it’s a secret sauce of Sundance, but that kind of investment in a project on the part of an adviser like you and others and getting to go on a thought experiment, getting to learn about craft, specifically on a particular project. I mean, all that work that you all put into it preparing for it. And then that incredible experience of a two-to-three hour meeting which is as much about feedback as it is about an interrogative approach and going deeply into a project and finding out what the intentions of the writer that you’re working with.
John: What I think is so great about the process is that usually as a writer is getting notes that person who is giving notes has some agenda. So either they are a producer who has a vision for what they want the movie to be, or they are a friend or loved one who really wants to support that person but may not be an expert in that field. As we’re up there as advisers we’re just there to help. And so your sense of like what is the intention that is exactly always my first question. What movie do you see yourself trying to make out of this? How can I help you make that movie? I have no intention, no motivation other than just helping you do your thing.
Michelle: Yeah. And that’s a very – you know, that creates that safe space. Because no one is trying to impose anything. And, in fact, you get to do whatever you want once you leave Sundance. But the best thing you can do is go in very open but also with a clear vision of what you’re trying to communicate. What is the story that you want to tell that only you can tell as a writer? And every writer is so helped on craft, which is such an important part of it, because we often select a little bit more for voice and potential and where they need to learn is more about the craft.
That intersection or that connection of craft to story and voice, you know, is kind of perfect.
John: It is perfect. And what’s perfect about it is it is a small, safe environment. So generally we’ll have 12 to 15, maybe a few more fellows up there. We’ll have a few more advisers because advisers are talking to multiple fellows. But it’s a small, safe place and you’re in Utah. You’re up at this resort. You’re sort of isolated from every place else.
Now you’ve taken that same model and you’ve gone around the world with it. So, there’s Labs in different places and sometimes you’re helping establish the lab and it just runs by itself. So, you may have come up with the concept but you didn’t trademark it. You didn’t patent it. You’ve let other people do what you’re doing. But it feels fundamentally like it can’t scale all that far. It’s constrained just by it takes so many resources of advisers, and the logistics of getting everybody physically together in a space to do.
Michelle: Yeah. We’ve looked at numbers along the way and we have found that kind of perfect number. Because intimacy is really important. The fact that everybody gets to meet everyone and be in dialogue, not necessarily in a one-on-one meeting, but get to be a part of a community and build a family together is so key to the experience of the lab. And it has to be small.
John: There’s also the question of access because in order to go up to the lab you have to be able to take that time off from work or I know you sometimes have funds that can help bring those people to the labs, to help support them to some degree. But not everyone can sort of join you up on the mountain in Utah. And the question of how do you get some of that expertise and how do you get that experience to people who couldn’t show up there.
So that’s really mostly why you’re here today is to talk about this new venture that you’re coming up with which can sort of broaden that access to people. So this thing is called Sundance Co//ab. What’s the motivation behind it?
Michelle: For Sundance it’s opening access. It’s being able to reach many more writers, many more creators. Being able to reach out to parts of the world that we haven’t been in or even haven’t selected writers to support from. It’s looking at more under-resourced and underrepresented communities. You know, how do we create an inclusive, generous learning space and community for global creators.
John: Well there’s certainly, so Co//ab is an online community, or at least the first of it you see is an online community. So you go and there’s a website and it’s a really well put together produced website. And there are other websites out there that are about filmmaking or about sort of stuff, but deep down it’s like they’re trying to make a buck and that’s not sort of the impetus behind Co//ab. It’s not an attempt to corner the market on narrative storytelling on the web.
What is the model? If this is really successful five years from now, what do you hope it will look like?
Michelle: That’s such a good question. Four hours today thinking about what do we want it to be. What’s the future that we can imagine for Co//ab? And part of it is we have to look at where we are today. This is not a money-making venture for Sundance but we will charge a fee for courses and masterclasses and some of the things we do.
So much of the site, I would say over 50% of the site is free. And it’s an opportunity for people who are interested in writing especially right now, although we’re expanding to directing and producing and all the other creative disciplines that Sundance works in, but this is an opportunity for you to learn from some of the greats like you, John August, in a video that’s about the writing process for you. And sort of taking you through in a very short amount of time. They’re about eight minutes long because we know people have shorter attention spans. But you get nuggets of really important learning and inspiration from these what we call our learning library or videos.
But as importantly it’s creating a community online. It’s an opportunity for writers to share their work and get feedback. Get feedback from the community but get feedback from advisers who are rotated and on and are, again, giving back.
Tiger Williams who was our first instructor, and he teaches at USC, and he’s also an adviser at Sundance at the Sundance Lab, and was really exciting for this group of writers. They were from all over the world. People were up in the middle of the night to take part in this course. So it’s taking from a new idea to getting to an outline of what the story might look like going forward. You know, big focus on developing characters and character work as character evolves story. So a lot of the core elements of screenwriting.
But here’s what was beautiful about it, because I was worried about it by the way. I was thinking how do we take what we do at Sundance in person and bring it to an online community?
John: Because the Sundance experience is very much like we’re across a very short table and we’re just looking into each other’s eyes and down at the page. It’s a very intimate thing. And online can’t be that, so what does it feel like?
Michelle: Well, first of all you’re in a virtual community. We use a link. There are a lot of conference links. We use Zoom as a conference link. What you have to do is you have to get used to that space first. But what people felt is that they were there with Tiger in that space. They were learning about screenwriting. He spent one of the session just going through Moonlight as an example of great writing and choices that Barry Jenkins made as a writer and also as a director.
You know, it was pure gold.
John: Yeah. I would say that from our Scriptnotes listeners we have a ton of writers who are just off on their own someplace and really don’t know anybody else doing the craft of screenwriting. So the common things that happen again and again if you’re not in a group where you can sort of see like, oh, she’s struggling with the same thing that I’m struggling with, that can be hard. And so having some sort of group activity, some sort of group focus can be really good. Because it’s not just the feedback you’re getting on your own project. It’s what you’re hearing from the people around you can be great.
So, something like Tiger’s class, how many students would be in one of those classes?
Michelle: Well we went big. Not huge, but bigger than our intimate lab of 12 to 15. We had 30 people.
John: 30 people. So more like a traditional class.
Michelle: It was more like a traditional class. And Tiger was, by the way, worried about it.
John: Yeah. I can understand.
Michelle: It’s like I’m used to working with 12 in a workshop.
John: So let’s talk about access. Is there an age limit? Do you have to be a certain age to sign up for one of these classes? Do you let 16 year olds take this class, or do they need to be adults in college?
Michelle: Well, we don’t ask for their age.
John: All right. So as far as you know the people were old enough to do it. But I mean obviously the geographic thing is a huge aspect because I’m sure you had a bunch of international writers in this, but people in the middle of the country who are not around anything like this it’s a chance for them to actually talk with other writers and sort of explore.
Michelle: It’s a great opportunity for them. And it’s a great opportunity for writers who are working internationally. It’s interesting in forming Sundance we were very aware that – this was, as you said 37 years ago, we were very aware that there was very little instruction in writing at any of the universities, at any of the schools. Now, that has changed to a great extent.
But the value of that is sometimes questionable.
John: The cost of it is not questionable. It’s really expensive.
Michelle: It’s prohibitive for a lot of people to do that. And so we saw that not only in the US but really all over the world where there was no instruction around screenwriting, there wasn’t a value placed on writing in terms of teaching.
John: Well, also a lot of places around the world there isn’t even a concept of screenwriting. It’s just that a director makes a movie and the director might write the movie first, but there’s not a sense that like there is a writing process and a thinking process. You get your movie on the page first so you can use that as a jumping off place to make your film. And a lot of international communities don’t have that as their basis for how they’re telling their stories.
Michelle: Yeah. And what was surprising to us is there’s literally people up in India, you know, in Lebanon, in Australia, all over, Kashmir, I mean really all over the world who wanted to connect to learning about – to this community and also learning about writing.
John: Great. So right now the site is up and some people are using the site now. It’s growing. If listeners want to check it out, they go to – what is the URL they should go to?
Michelle: It’s collab.sundance.org.
John: Great. So they can check that out. They can check out all of the free stuff and then if they’re curious about the online classes, those just come up regularly right? So there’s new ones starting all the time in different topics?
Michelle: Yeah. There are. Our next screenwriting class is starting in about a week. And then the one after that, that’s our winter class. We have a spring class and it will start sometime in April. And we ask people to apply for the classes. And the reason for that is we want to make sure that people are serious about wanting to make a commitment to the class.
We’re not looking for sample work and we’re not reviewing the project that they’re working on. But it’s really important for us that the people that are going to connect with Sundance in a course at least this is an opportunity for them to really do the work.
John: While I have you here I want to make sure that we don’t miss any other aspects of the Sundance Institute process because Craig and I are often hyping the episodic labs and sort of the other things. So when I first got started with Sundance there was the screenwriting lab which tied into the directing lab. And so they were sort of two poles of it. But it’s really grown tremendously over the years.
And so I know there’s a producing lab. There are composer’s labs. There’s a theater lab. There’s episodic television, or episodic storytelling I guess, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s a network drama or some sort of webisode kind of thing.
What I admire about Sundance is the way you’ve recognized that storytelling exists in all these different media and there are common threads linking them all in that sense of what is the story that you uniquely can tell. And that’s what I always stress to people who say like, “Oh I’m going to apply for the Sundance Lab. I have this thriller about corporate espionage.” And it’s like that can be a great thriller. That does not sound like the kind of story that only you could tell. And that’s the thing that I think Sundance is so good at helping people do is how to excavate that story that’s inside you that you are uniquely qualified to tell, in whatever the media is.
Michelle: Yeah. Absolutely. And it’s an interesting process, you know, to work that through and find those projects that we want to get involved with. But one of the things that’s interesting to us and we don’t get enough of is comedy.
John: Oh, of course.
Michelle: Thrillers. Horror films. I mean, we really are open to all genres. And also right now looking at hybrid. What is the fiction/nonfiction story to tell? We supported Bart Layton on American Animals and that was such an interesting process. We want to be challenged, too, and our writers to be challenged. I remember when we brought Beasts of the Southern Wild to the Sundance Lab and it was a very early stage script. And Ben described it as an unruly child, which was interesting. But to really help him shape that beautiful idea that came full cloth out of him was a long road, both in the writing process and in the editing process.
But look at the result of it?
John: Oh, absolutely.
Michelle: I mean, just a gorgeous film. So, yes, we’re supporting writers/creators across all forms, all formats. We also have a new Frontier Lab and we’re supporting artists and it’s very much a collaborative. I mean, it’s always a collaborative process, but artists working with technologists, working with biologists. I mean, it’s scientists, architects. You know, it can be anything. You know, a lot of the work more recently has been around virtual reality storytelling and augmented reality. But there’s so much going on with AI and mixed media. It’s really exciting. So Sundance has also become an incubator for that kind of work.
But what distinguishes us even in new frontier is we’re grounded in story. There’s a lot of so-called incubators out there supporting – and hackathons – and supporting a lot of really great, and interesting, and innovative work. But Sundance takes it back to sort of what is the story that you’re trying to tell. What is uniquely compelling and complicated and complex about these characters? And what’s the movement of this story?
So we’re looking at, in some ways very conventional craft, but bringing it to different forms and different formats has been incredibly exciting and an incredible learning experience for everybody.
John: Great. Well I can’t wait to see what happens with Sundance Co//ab. It seems like a really well thought out project and a great way to sort of – you describe it as widening the funnel just so that you can actually reach people who couldn’t actually make it to the top of the mountain in Utah and really benefit from what you’ve been able to create there.
Michelle, thank you for coming on the show and thank you for talking about it.
Michelle: This has been fun. And thank you. And I hope your listeners will check it out. We’re also looking for feedback, always. So if there are gaps or things that you want that you might be missing or that Sundance could be doing online let us know. Reach out to us.
John: Will do. Great. Thanks Michelle.
Michelle: Thank you.
John: And, Craig, you’re back. And so we are back because it is time for our One Cool Things. Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing for us this week?
Craig: I do have a One Cool Thing for us this week. As people know I am a big crossword nerd. I’m a mega crossword nerd.
John: You are. Everyone knows that.
Craig: Everyone knows this. And as you proceed deeper and deeper down the path of crossword nerdiness you start to accrue more crosswords to do. So I used to just do the New York Times crossword every day. And then it was like, OK, I’m going to do the New York Times crossword every day and I’m going to do the Washington Post Sunday by a guy named Evan Birnholz which is fantastic.
Then I’m also adding on Matt Gaffney’s meta crossword every Friday and the Wall Street Journal meta crossword every weekend and it just goes on and on. I’m collecting these. Fireball. And American Variety Crossword. Anyway, it’s out of control.
But there’s one that I wanted to draw people’s attention to, even if they’re not big crossword people but they’re just generally interested in social progress. There’s a new subscription crossword service called Inkubator. And it’s run by two women, Laura Braunstein who herself is a super crosswordy person, and Tracy Bennett who also similar crossword maker-builder-constructor. And the two of them are seeking to address this very stark issue – and believe it or not there are stark issues in the worlds of crosswords – and that is that by and large crosswords still are primarily authored by men, at least I should say the ones that get published in major newspapers.
The gender balance is wildly out of whack. And yet I think the demographics of people who solve puzzles are not at all out of whack. So what they’ve done is essentially put together this incubator with a clever INK Inkubator to not only bring puzzles constructed by women to crossword solvers like myself but also to start to train women who are interested in constructing crosswords how to do it. Just like David Kwong kind of trained me how to create a crossword puzzle.
So it’s a really cool thing they’re doing and the puzzles themselves are really interesting and oftentimes feature answers you would never see in the New York Times. So, if you go to inkubatorcrosswords.com you can see how to subscribe and support the excellent work that Laura and Tracy are doing.
John: Fantastic. That sounds great. My One Cool Thing comes from those videos you probably see online where a person is singing with themselves. And so you have videos where a person starts singing and then it split screens and they’re singing with themselves and they’re forming harmony with themselves and they’re doing sometimes really elaborate orchestrations of just them singing with themselves.
And so it is entirely possible to that with just off the shelf stuff and you just splice it together in an editing program and make it all work. But then this last week I noticed that someone had posted something that was done in an app called Acapella which is not new, I had just never seen it before. But it makes it incredibly easy to do that sort of split screen singing with yourself stuff, where you record one track and then you listen to it in ear phones and you sing along with yourself. And then you sing along with yourself again.
And it’s really just fun to do and really simple. And on the app you’ll see a bunch of examples of other people doing that kind of thing. But it’s great. And so I’ve had fun playing with it. So, it’s Acapella. It’s in the iOS App Store. Try it. Craig, you would love it.
Craig: I’m pretty certain that Jessica Mazin is all over that.
John: That sounds like a very Jessica thing.
Craig: Yeah, but I’m going to double check. My guess is that I’m going to say hey Jessie have you heard about Acapella and she’s going to roll her eyes and say, “Oh my god, dad. I’m on to the fourth thing behind Acapella.” You know, because they know everything. Did you know that, John? Did you?
John: They know. Yes, teenage girls especially.
Craig: My god.
John: They know everything.
John: And any given thing is either not worth their attention or it’s old. And so occasionally I will introduce my daughter to something that is just about to break and she’s like this is dumb and this is stupid. And two days later she loves it, but she will never acknowledge that I was the person who interested it to her.
Craig: To be fair I then also play the role of teenage daughter in your life. Because I do that to you all the time.
John: So we cut this out of the live show in Seattle, but it was the only time in Scriptnotes history where I was about to recommend something and Craig said like, “No, no, I already recommended that on the podcast.” Because that’s happened before. So it was the book Less, which is a fantastic novel. And Craig it turned out was right and he had actually recommended before I recommended it.
Craig: Oh my god, you cut it out? Ugh.
John: It was a long episode. So, Matthew had to find things to cut.
Craig: That’s fair. That’s fair. You know what? You’ve owned up to it here and now. And, of course, you know better than anybody you would have totally gotten away with it.
John: He never listens. And I may have Matthew cut this out, too.
John: And that’s our show for today. So I want to thank Michelle Satter and Chris Keyser for coming on the episode to talk to us about the future of the industry. Our show is produced Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by XLNYC. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we love to answer.
For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. John is @johnaugust. I might mute your conversation if it goes on for more than four days, but you’re welcome to start a conversation.
You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, wherever you listen to podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there leave us a comment.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs.
You can find all the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net. Craig, thanks again. It was good to have you back.
Craig: Thanks John. Good to be back.
- WGA Agency Agreement 2019
- WGA President David A. Goodman Speech
- Agency Campaign FAQ’s
- Co//ab at Sundance
- Acapella App for iOS
- Less by Andrew Sean Greer
- Chris Keyser on Twitter
- Michelle Satter on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
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