The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hi y’all my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 423 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Often on this podcast we ask How Would That Be a Movie, but today we’re going to ask an even more fundamental question: Is that a movie? We’ll try to lay out the minimal requirements for a motion picture, which you may want to consider as you set out to write.
We’ll also be answering some listener questions and, of course, following up on assistant pay.
Craig: Oh yes.
John: But first, Craig, you are headed to Austin for the Austin Film Festival. Can you talk us through your schedule?
Craig: Sure. What an exciting schedule it is. It’s jam-packed with stuff. [laughs] It’s really not. It’s one of the lightest schedules I’ve ever had and I’m incredibly appreciative for it. Friday morning is my first thing and I guess it’s probably the most substantive thing I’m going to do. It’s called On Writing Chernobyl: A Conversation with Craig Mazin. I don’t know who I’m talking to. It just says me. What is that?
John: It could be a conversation with yourself?
Craig: It will not be.
John: I think you should do the Frune voice and just be interviewing yourself.
Craig: Well that’s not a bad idea actually. I can totally do that. What’s the story?
So, that’s going to happen with someone talking to me, I guess. And then that night at 10pm roughly, depending on just how tipsy we are I’m going to take the stage in the big Driskill ballroom with a bunch of other fantastic guests – really, really good ones. You’re going to want to show up, as always, for a free-wheeling live episode of Scriptnotes. So always fun when we do it there. It’s very raucous. We’ll take lots of questions. Do lots of answers. Tell stories. Laugh. Enjoy life. And record it all for posterity.
Craig: Yeah. And then I’m going to be introducing Dan Weiss and David Benioff at an awards luncheon where they’re getting an award. So I’m putting together the world’s snarkiest speech as we speak. And also on Saturday night I will be one of the judges judging the finals of the Pitch Competition which is in a big bar and it’s–
John: I went to that last year and it was really fun. It was sometimes hard to hear people as they were pitching, but the vibe was really great. So, I really enjoyed it last time.
Craig: It’s a good vibe and as always I’m relied upon to be, you know, Johnny Tough Love, I guess.
John: Mm-hmm. So I’m looking forward to hearing what happens. I will not be at Austin Film Festival this year at all, so I will only know when I hear the audio for the assembled episode, so enjoy. People are going to be there live and in person seeing stuff and it could be so raucous and so un-broadcastable that only by being there in person will you really get the full experience.
Craig: I think it will be broadcastable. It may not be an episode you like. [laughs]
John: But that’s fine.
Craig: It will be broadcastable. It will be sound waves.
John: There will be sound waves that can be transmitted through the Internet.
John: Nice. Last week we talked about the WGA and videogame awards. We got a couple emails in. One was a listener who wrote in with a sound file, which I always love when people sort of record themselves. So let’s take a listen to that.
Anthony Johnston: Hi John and Craig. Anthony Johnston here. Just wanted to point out something you didn’t mention regarding the Writers Guild dropping the videogame award. The reason some years only saw a minimal amount of entries is because only games written by people who were either full guild members or had joined the Game Writers Caucus, which John mentioned, were eligible. The problem with the caucus is that the only thing your yearly sub gets you is the ability to be considered for that award. Well, and a copy of the magazine. But, you know, come on.
But it doesn’t even count in any way towards full guild membership as I found out a couple of years ago when I wrote my first screenplay for Hollywood. I understand why the guild doesn’t want to give out awards to non-members, of course, and that’s their prerogative. But it’s not like game writing is covered by a different guild. And this all speaks to those concerns you had about them simply not reaching out to games writers in a meaningful way.
I’m on the Games Committee of the British Writers Guild and our annual award is given to the best written game, regardless of whether the authors are guild members or not because from our perspective the award is about advancing and promoting the field, not the guild per se.
Anyway, I’ve ranted about the lack of unionization in games many times before and I won’t get into it again, but suffice to say this latest action by the WGA certainly isn’t helping. Thanks for listening. See you later.
John: To start with I want to stipulate that I would like him to narrate a bunch of nature documentaries because he has a fantastic voice.
John: And I want to hear him talking about geese and other things and small woodland creatures having fun.
Craig: But the geese doesn’t see the predator nearby. Sneaking up on her and her loved ones. Something like that?
Craig: Do we even need him anymore? Or can I do it?
John: He’s actually better than you.
Craig: Yeah, I know.
John: And that’s a high bar.
Craig: I know.
John: So let’s get into the substance of what he’s actually talking about which is that this videogame writers caucus is a thing you have to join in order to be considered for an award, but you get essentially no benefits other than being eligible for an award, which feels like a fundamental flaw in that system. But I do want to point out that the British system is different also because it’s not truly a union. The British Screenwriters Guild is not a union in the same way that we are a union. They’re not representing employees. They are a bunch of people who work in the same industry but they are not a labor organization. So they’re not quite similarly situated.
Craig, what did you take from his discussion of this topic?
Craig: Well, what he’s shining a light on is that the entire decision to award videogame writers was a scheme to try and see if we could advance the organization of videogame writers into the Writers Guild. So what the Writers Guild did was they created this caucus category. A caucus category in the Writers Guild essentially means, meh, you’re not actually a member of the Writers Guild. But we’ll waive some magic fairy dust on you. You give us some money. And you become eligible for things like these awards. But over time what happens is the videogame companies realize that there’s actually like he says no actual significant benefit or upside to being in this caucus. It doesn’t apply to your membership in the guild for other things because you’re not doing anything that’s covered under a Writers Guild contract generally speaking.
So, the entire point of it just sort of collapsed pretty quickly. But my feeling is if you’re going to give awards to videogames in an attempt to say, “Listen, one day we’d love to have you in our fold. Could we unionize your shop?” Do it.
There’s no need to – I agree with him. Don’t pin it all on some meaningless Writers Guild caucus membership because then the awards don’t mean much anyway. And in fact what it seems like has happened is they’ve said not enough people are paying us the caucus money so nobody gets an award. I think we should acknowledge that we don’t represent videogame writers, but we have given the award so let’s continue to give the award and start talking to the employers. That’s kind of the point, right? That’s the job.
John: Yeah. Organizing any new sector is incredibly difficult, so trying to go out and actually organize these folks is a difficult thing on a very long term basis. And so a concerted effort by the WGA over many years, maybe you could make some progress. But it is going to be difficult because videogame industry is not – while the work is actually very similar to sort of what we’ve been doing, it’s not concentrated in the town the same way. It’s diffuse. There’s a lot of challenges to doing it.
So, a person could also argue whether the WGA is the best organization to being going after trying to organize videogame work. I don’t know. But it was good to hear his perspective from somebody outside of our videogame industry.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, when it comes to any kind of writing employment I tend to think that the Writers Guild is the best union option available to anyone that writes, because well we do the best job of defending the writer’s right to credits, defending the writer’s right to residuals, I think we have the best guaranteed minimum salaries. So I’m always interested in that. I do think that you’re right. It’s a hard thing to organize any shop. If the guild spends ten years trying to organize a videogame shop and it fails, or five years and it fails, at that point for the guild to say, “Listen, guys, we’re not going to do the Writers Guild videogame awards anymore because none of your employers are willing to talk to us and you guys aren’t signing cards, so it’s enough.” At that point I don’t really think the videogame writers would have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to complaining. But they haven’t tried that. As far as I know they haven’t done any of that work. They’ve just handed out awards and then one day they were like, “Meh, you’re not giving us our caucus money anymore.”
It’s not a great look. I’ve got to say. I’m just going to continue my theme on this. I don’t think it was a great look. I don’t think it was handled well. And, you know, I think they should reconsider. I really do.
John: Let’s end this topic on some happy news. The folks who work at the LA Times have a new union. So that’s a thing that happened this past week. So the LA Times employees are now under a union, which is great news.
Craig: Who covers them? Is there like a newscaster–?
John: I think it’s its own special new union. I have no sort of great insight to it, but it’s a thing that happened just as we were starting to record. So that’s exciting.
Craig: That is exciting. And just to be clear when I said that our union is the best at representing writers what I mean is representing writers – those writers who do work for screens as opposed to just print.
John: Yep. Exactly. All right. Let us get back to the topic of assistants, which has been a big thing this past week, past couple weeks. And so much has changed since the last episode we recorded. After we recorded the hashtag #PayUpHollywood came out. There were a lot of new anecdotes that were being shared along with that hashtag. LA Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter all ran stories on the issue. I know I had a lot of private conversations, I suspect you have had them as well.
John: With writers, executives, other folks who are thinking about this as an issue. We’ve gotten a ton more emails in, including some emails that reference friends of ours who are not doing right by their assistants. So, that’s interesting and awkward.
Craig: Oh? OK. I haven’t seen those.
John: All right. So we’ll forward some of those onto you.
Craig: Do I want to see those? [laughs]
John: I think you do want to see those. I think it’s good for us to see all of these things. But this week has also got me thinking back to my own time as an assistant. I did a blog post about it. And so I was describing how one of my first jobs in Hollywood was as an assistant. It was just after film school. I was working for two very busy producers. I did all the classic assistant things: answering phones, reading scripts, making copies. No one makes copies anymore.
And I said in that blog post that I thought I was making $550 a week. I ended up editing it back out and putting a footnote there saying I’m not sure it was $550. I couldn’t actually find any pay stubs or tax records. But I was able to make enough money to pay rent. I was able to buy groceries. I could see all the movies I wanted to see. And I could write on nights and weekends. It was enough. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was enough. And that was my two years in assistant-dom and then I was able to transition out of that.
And Craig you had a similar experience as an assistant right out of college, right?
Craig: I did. I didn’t quite have the leg up you had, because you were coming out of the Stark program. So it makes sense that your first gig probably would be a little bit better pay than mine. I didn’t know anybody and I wasn’t coming out of film school. So my first job in Hollywood, my salary was $20,000 a year. And so I did a little math using just a standard inflation calculator. $20,000 in 1992 is the equivalent of $36,600 today. OK, well as it turns out that’s not far off from what a lot of assistants are making when you just look at kind of a $12.50 or $15 an hour rate, and a typical 50-hour week or even more. It’s sort of settling in around there.
So, what’s the difference? Well, first of all, I don’t want to pretend that I was living high on the hog. I was not. I also had student loans I had to pay off and all the rest. But here’s the huge difference. I shared a two-bedroom apartment with a friend of mine and that two-bedroom apartment was in North Hollywood. And the rent was $700 a month. So my rent was $350 a month in 1992. What is that in today’s dollars? It is $640 a month. No, I think Megana is on the line, right?
Megana Rao: Yeah, I’m here!
Craig: OK. And Bo is with us, too. So, Bo Shim is my assistant and Megana Rao is not only our producer but also your assistant. So, I’ll ask you Bo, $640 a month would get you what right now?
Bo Shim: [laughs] I don’t even know. Like half of a studio?
Craig: Half of a single room? So you’re like bunking with someone in a single room?
Bo: Like a dorm.
Craig: A dorm. I checked. And the rate of rent increase in Los Angeles has far outstripped the rate of inflation. So essentially even though people are being paid similarly to how they were paid when I first started in 1992, their expenses are dramatically greater. And that is why the current situation is not at all tenable.
And I have to tell, John, based on what I’ve looked at here I don’t know if I would have been able to do it. I don’t know if I would have been able to move to Los Angeles and get a job and work as an assistant because I didn’t have any other source of money. There was no money coming from my family. Plus I had loans to pay off. I just don’t think I could have done it.
John: Well, we’re lucky to have two assistants on the line who have done this. And so let’s turn this over more to Bo and Megana to talk us through their path into the industry and becoming assistants. And if you guys can tell us how you started as assistants and how you sort of made it work. Can we start with you, Bo? What was your route from college into working with Craig right now?
Bo: Right. I graduated from NYU in 2016 and I took a more traditional route of working at an agency, kind of staying put and seeing that as a stepping stone for my next job. And I think that’s a lot of people working there. Not everybody wants to be an agent, but all the jobs out there require one to two years of agency experience. So, I did that for about two years. And when I started it was I believe $12.50 an hour. A non-negotiable rate of $12.50 an hour. And after about two years maybe it was like a dollar raise. And then by the time I left in the last couple months they bumped it up to $15 an hour.
So I know firsthand working in that environment. And I have to say of course I wouldn’t have this job right now if I wasn’t present at that place and working that job, and that’s why most people work there is for the opportunities that you’re exposed to. But that was kind of my path to working for Craig Mazin.
John: Now, Megana, you took a different route. So talk us through how you went from college and where you were at before you came to work as an assistant here.
Megana: Yeah, so I had a much more untraditional route. I graduated from Harvard in 2014. And then worked in tech. I worked at Google for about four years before I made my way out to LA and started working for you. So, I sort of had a very different introduction to the workforce than Bo in that immediately from day one I felt like I was very fairly compensated and just felt really valued by Google. I felt like they were investing in me and they really wanted me to grow there.
And, yeah, I think last week we sort of talked about that villainous HR person who said lower wages inspire people to get better paying jobs. And coming from working in a place where that’s absolutely the opposite case I do not think that that’s true. I think that being fairly paid made me feel inspired by the work that I could bring to the company.
John: So one of the things you’ve had to do over these last two weeks is go through a tremendous amount of mail that came in. I know you’ve also been sharing it with Bo. Can you give us a sense of what you’re seeing and talk us through the issues and sort of where we’re at in this conversation right now as you’re reading more about assistants and assistant pay in Hollywood?
Megana: Yes. So we have been getting a ton of emails. So thank you to everyone who has been writing in. I think one of the biggest issues that we probably will not be able to get into today but has been a big theme has been the mental, psychological, emotional abuse that a lot of these assistants are dealing with every day on top of their low wages. And I think that makes sense, because we sort of started this conversation in the wake of hashtag #MeToo and this is just another reckoning with the institutional failures that have gotten us to this place.
And on a more positive note I think people are feeling more validated and seen by the hashtag #PayUpHollywood and the coverage that’s been in the trades and the LA Times. And I think there’s been a sort of unification that’s been really exciting.
I got this one email from Christine that I’d love to share. She says, “I listened to your recent Scriptnotes episode on assistant pay and I teared up in my car because it hit close to home. Being a child of refugees I decided to go the safe route after college and pursue a stable and predictable career that would please my parents. But one that was also creative adjacent to please me. So I went to law school with the hopes of practicing entertainment law. I decided not to go that route after I did legal internship at a movie studio and discovered that the young and hungry attorneys in the legal department were working as glorified administrative assistants for $20,000.
“This was in 2001 and law students were taking out more in student loans per year, $26,000 per year, then the annual before tax salaries of these ‘entertainment lawyers.’ I didn’t know how they paid their rent and their student loan repayments until it finally dawned on me. They were trust fund babies. And that’s when I decided to become a litigator instead.
“18 years later and here I am finally trying to do the thing. It has taken me this long because my family had no money, no connections, and the risk of entering a career where I would have to ask my parents for financial help when they were also struggling was too shameful for me to contemplate. It took me nearly 20 years to gather the resources where I can now carve out free time for myself to write. This year I wrote my first screenplay. I literally couldn’t afford to do it as a career, so now I do it as a passion project.”
So, the reason I wanted to highlight this is because I wanted to bring it back to another reason that we were so compelled to take this on as an issue is that these really high barriers to entry are literally keeping the pipeline from being filled with any sort of diversity in Hollywood. And, Bo, I know you had experience working in the business affairs side, so I don’t know if you want to speak to Christine’s experience at all.
Bo: Yeah. I was working in business affairs and so a lot of the assistants there in that department went to law school and were bar’d and it was crazy to me that they were getting paid the same as someone who – I mean, no one really should be getting paid $12.50 an hour, but they were getting paid the same across the board.
Megana: Yeah. So I worked on Ad Words which was sort of the biggest, most corporate, and like least sexy part of the company, and I think because of the way that I was paid I was really inspired to do good work and to put my all in the company. And so it’s sort of wild to me in Hollywood where the impact of your work is so tangible in these productions that, you know, I would think that if you’re a creator or a showrunner and you have this vision that you would want to – you would want to have people around you who are doing their best work to help you execute your ideas and that you’re empowering them to be able to do that on their projects and that they’re not worried about how they’re going to pay for their lunch.
John: Yeah. So even working on this Ad Words team they were still treating you like you were a valuable person in the company and not just a body in a chair?
Megana: And I think something that they say all the time at Google is we don’t just hire you for the job, we hire you for Google. And I think that in the traditional sense of the pipeline for like a writer’s assistant to a staff writer that also holds true. You are hiring assistants so that you can grow them as writers and people who will become creators eventually. And it seems like something there has just been broken recently.
John: So, Bo, working at an agency what is the trajectory to rise up through the agency? I always hear about the mailroom and then you’re on a desk and then eventually you become an agent. Was that at all interesting to you? Or were you mostly coming in there just to learn about how the industry worked?
Bo: For me it was really just about learning the landscape and the business side of the industry. But if you did want to be an agent the steps are essentially you’re in the mailroom, and then you’re on typically two desks, possibly more, and then you go back down to the mailroom. And then you come back up and you’re on another desk until then you’re promoted.
So, I knew that I didn’t want to be an agent. And a lot of people are there to kind of just get the experience and hopefully use it as a stepping stone for their next job. And that’s what I observed.
I do think like – and not just this job in particular – but it is really helpful for someone to take you under their wing and really vouch for you. And that’s really an important aspect of being able to rise up the ranks. And it’s really hard, especially if you’re maybe not coming from a background where you’re familiar with the industry or you have connections, or you necessarily have the aspects that someone who staffs a producer, who staffs an agent, who staffs a director. I think they try to foster an environment where you felt like you were supported, but it felt more accessible to certain people as opposed to others.
Craig: I mean, are we dancing a little bit around the whole white guy thing right now? Because it does seem like – because here’s my concern. I’m going to tie it back to the money issue. Because the money issue makes it so that the most likely to be at these desks are people who have external support of the kind that I didn’t have, and John I don’t think you had either. You’re going to get a higher percentage of people that are white males. Or I suppose white females. But the point is not people of color. Just because we’re just going on statistics, economic statistics in the United States.
So is there a sense of a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where people take people under their wing. They’re looking for people that, I don’t know, remind them of themselves. I mean, we know how this sort of works with representation. Is there a sense that it’s harder for people of color in these places? They’re getting hit twice. They’re not getting paid enough and the kind of path to rise is even narrower for them than it is for their white coworkers.
Bo: Yes. Definitely it’s a factor in being able to enter this arena in the first place. And then I think there’s definitely unconscious or conscious bias when it comes to people looking at assistants and being like, oh, well that person – I don’t know, we talk sports and we jive and naturally there’s a way to bond. And I do think it kind of affects the way that you’re able to have those relationships and have a level of comfort so that you can kind of ask for things. So yeah.
John: It sounds like we’re talking about what is an assistant worth. And sort of like the worth of that person. And some of that comes down to the money that you’re paying them. So if you’re paying them a good salary you’re valuing them in a certain way. But valuing them and acknowledging their worth is also how you’re treating them and how you are – whether you’re treating them in ways that have some quality of mentorship that you’re actually going to be able to see them advance through the industry. And it doesn’t sound like these people working at agencies, but also people we’ve talked to who have been working with producers are really getting that experience.
Last week we had someone write in really pleading that if a showrunner is going to hire someone on as an assistant read their stuff ahead of time and be honest with them about whether there’s any chance to be moving up onto the staff, because you don’t want to be spinning your wheels and wasting your time.
Let’s transition to talking about some of the solutions or next steps that folks who’ve written in to us have suggested. Megana, can you get us started with what are people thinking we might want to be looking at in terms of fixing these problems?
Megana: Yeah, so you know I think there’s so much momentum and excitement. People are throwing out ideas of strikes and legal action that they can take. And I think an interesting thing that’s come up is having the protection of a union.
So, Marcia wrote in and she said, “Unlike most of the other types of members in IATSE, the overwhelming majority of writers’ room assistant aspire to ultimately do a different type of job – become writers. That is covered by a different union, the WGA. This means that writers’ room assistants like myself are transitory members of the IATSE. We intent to leave IATSE and join the WGA as soon as the opportunity presents itself. As a result, IATSE doesn’t have much reason to look out for the interests of writers’ room assistants since we don’t have much of a future in that union, or at least we hope not.”
And she also points out that IATSE 700 represents the Editors Guild in Hollywood and they have both editors and assistant editors. And she asks if it makes sense for writers’ room assistants who are on their way to becoming writers should also be a part of the WGA in some capacity.
John: So what Marcia’s suggesting here does on the surface make sense. You have writers’ room assistants who are very, very close to that screenwriting process. They’re part of the generation of TV shows and they ultimately want to segue into becoming writers so they would be joining the Writers Guild. And it feels really futile to be joining this other union for a time when you don’t really want to be a part of that union.
One of the challenges I think of unionizing assistants overall is that most Hollywood assistants don’t want to be career assistants. So a union makes a lot of sense if that is your chosen profession. But very few of the people who are in those jobs right now do they want to be doing this for 20 years. They’re not looking for a pension as an assistant. They’re looking to move into the next thing. So it’s worth talking about.
I don’t know that it solves the overall problem of assistants who are not in writers’ rooms. Because the WGA wouldn’t be able to cover them. But it’s always worth looking at sort of is there some organized labor way of addressing it.
Megana: And I think another big theme that’s been coming in, is that in the idea of taking a sort of legal route to addressing these issues–I mean, what do you do when people in HR and bosses are violating the actual laws in place? And asking people to do illegal things? So, Bo, do you want to read us what Greg wrote in?
Bo: Yeah. Greg wrote, “I assisted a showrunner who had two pilots shooting concurrently on location. We worked on one from Monday to Friday and then the other from Wednesday to Sunday. They also shifted the two production hours so they overlapped as little as possible. This meant I was working at least 16 hour days, seven days a week, covering showrunner assistant duties on both shows. To make it worse, they had me script coordinating both shows.
“When the studio production executive saw my time card she came to me saying I couldn’t work this much overtime. I said those were the hours I worked. She told me that they couldn’t approve it. I told her that I expected to be paid for every hour of work and that I was happy to cut back hours going forward. But she would have to talk to my boss, the showrunner, since I don’t control my schedule.
“She tried to tell me that I just couldn’t put down that kind of hours. She was talking around the illegal act of not wanting to say she wanted me to lie on my time card. She even suggested I was lucky that they were taking me on location. I told her that if she prefers she could find three inexperienced locals to do three of the four jobs I was doing. And I could easily work a regular schedule. She went to the showrunner saying I was being insubordinate. I was lucky the showrunner backed me up and even asked me if I wanted to continue working the overtime or hire more people. I made the choice to take the overtime.
“The point here is that the production executive at the studio was bullying me and had I not had the confidence of having done the job for years they would have probably succeeded at stealing from me.”
Craig: This is not at all shocking to me because John you and I both know that when these people – people who are pay masters at the studios – are dealing with us they’re also jerks. I mean, partly they’re professional jerks, right? I mean, not all of them are jerks. Don’t get me wrong. But a lot of times they will be really aggressive because the whole crux of their job is pay these people as little as possible. Well, if they’re doing that to us, you can only imagine what they’re doing to somebody like Greg who is apparently being held accountable for his hours while having no authority whatsoever over them. He’s being ordered to work. By the way, no one should be working that much. That’s insane.
Craig: That’s absolutely insane.
John: Absolutely insane. The whole sidebar conversation that nobody should be working that many hours.
Craig: Correct. And this production executive should have seen that timecard and called the showrunner immediately. But how dare she call this person and say essentially I’m not paying you for this, because I don’t want to. Tough. Talk to the showrunner. Tell them, hey, you can’t do this anymore. And what really lights me on fire is the amount of money that we’re talking about there to cover what is essentially the discrepancy of one timecard between what she wants it to be and what it actually was is not significant to that company. Guaranteed.
John: It’s less than one visual effects shot on either of those pilots.
Craig: Thank you. So she spent time browbeating this person and chiseling them down for what? For what? I mean, if you don’t want this to be part of your culture then cancel it as part of your culture by going to the showrunners and saying don’t do that. By the way, showrunner, whoever you are, don’t do that anyway. I mean, I’m sorry. You need somebody to go to you and say hey this is a problem before you go, oh yeah, I guess that’s a problem? Do you not understand how the world works? That people can’t work 16 hours a day, seven days a week? Why would you ever put anyone in that position in the first place? It’s wrong. Hire more people. Hire more people. And pay them a fair wage. There you go. There’s a big plan.
John: On previous episodes we’ve talked about there have been legal cases that have challenged things, especially on interns. So there was the Black Swan case we talked about. There’s another Viacom case. Where there were unpaid interns who were being asked to do work that should be paid work. There probably is a lawsuit that could be taking situations like Greg’s and especially when they’re actually being instructed to fill out false timecards where you are stealing money from employees. And that is what a lawsuit like that would look like. And if I were a studio or an agency or an employer who was listening to this I would be concerned about that because those things can happen and it probably should happen.
So I’ll be curious whether any of that stuff comes up in this next period of time.
Craig: Well, you know, I suppose that’s what happens when you don’t have the wherewithal to be a decent human being and do the right thing in the first place. Now lawyers have to get involved to force you to do the right thing. But I have to look at these situations and say to myself the people that need to be talked to are the people that are employing. So the showrunners who employ these folks, the agents that employ these folks, the studio executives that employ them, the HR people. All of them. This has to come from the absolute top. Somebody at the top who sets the tone for everything has to sit them all down and say, “I’m sorry. I’m not going to be the head of a company that does this to human beings. I’m just not. I don’t care.”
And look I understand. Sometimes we’re going to have employees that aren’t good. Sometimes you’re going to have employees that steal, or break stuff, or are incompetent and will need to be fired. I understand. I get it. I’m not, I don’t know, I’m not a hippie. I’m just saying if you’re going to hire people you can’t work them 16 hours a day, seven days a week. You have to pay them a fair wage so that they can live there. And you don’t want a situation where the only people that can work for you are people whose moms and dads can send them checks. It’s outrageous.
John: All right. Well let’s assign some homework for some of our listeners. So, this is sort of a challenge to the showrunners, writers, executives, or agents who are listening. This would be a great week to take some time to figure out how much your assistants are actually being paid and how that translates to take home pay. It’s a great week to ask are these assistants paying for health insurance out of their own pocket. How are they covering health insurance? How are they getting to work? Literally what are some of their expenses in terms of showing up there and in showing up there how do they have to be dressed. Are you being realistic about the expenses it takes to be doing the job that you’re having them do? And what are your company’s rules about overtime? How are you avoiding Greg situations where people are working these insane numbers of hours?
So, my challenge to everyone who is listening who is an employer, please do take some time this week to really figure out what you are actually doing. Because I don’t want to mistake ignorance for malice. I don’t want to sort of ascribe some evil intent when it’s really just people who aren’t paying attention to how much they’re paying and how expensive it is to live in Los Angeles.
Craig: And I would also just advise anyone who feels themselves falling into the trap of saying, “Well, that’s what I got paid when I came in.” Just please understand if it was longer than 10 years ago, they’re getting paid less effectively because expenses have outpaced inflation. Your argument is not valid.
John: Anyone who says, “It’s always been that way,” is ignoring two things. First off, it’s always been that way doesn’t mean it was ever right. Second, it’s always been that way ignores how much more expensive it is to live in 2019 than whenever they’re comparing it back to. So, stop with it’s always been that way. It doesn’t mean it was right. It’s always been that way for there was sexual harassment and other things that were always happening that way. It was never right then and it had to stop. So, enough of that argument.
I’m curious, a couple things that have come up that I’ve seen on Twitter. People talk about like some folks are sharing their information along with their name, but I think a lot more people are scared to come forward and sort of put their name to things because fears of reprisals. Fears of it being held against them. Megana, have you seen people who have been writing in express that sentiment?
Megana: Definitely. And a lot of people who have been writing in, you know, are very scared that we’re going to use their information because a lot of them have signed NDAs and have experienced really vindictive employers who have jeopardized their career in certain ways. And also terrorized them while they were working for them. But you know people have been suggesting a town hall or some sort of way to express what they’re feeling in a public way and to be around other assistants and actually like feel that people are listening to them. But I think it’s just a difficult situation because these are the people in Hollywood who have the least power.
Craig: Mm-hmm. I would say that honestly an assistant’s name is actually far less important than the employer’s name. So, you know, if you want to keep your anonymity I fully support that. 100%. Look, your business is your business, right? Now obviously we’re trying to address something here. I’ve got to be honest. I’m not sure our general problem is that we’re short on evidence. In other words, ICM knows exactly what they pay their assistants. And now we know exactly what they pay their assistants. There’s no problem with that. Finding places and people and saying, “Look, I worked for this person. This person whose name is this pays their assistants this.” That’s valuable.
And it’s not like they can really get away with claiming that it’s a bunch of crap because people have pay stubs, right? So eventually you can show a paystub. But I don’t actually think that it’s super important for people to hang their name out there because I get it and I think the bigger piece of information is who is paying not enough.
John: I think this would be a great week for an employer to step up and say, “We’ve read through, we’ve looked at stuff, and we are now as a blanket policy raising the minimum we’re paying to anyone including our assistants to this figure.” And if it is a livable figure I think you get a lot of good publicity out of it. And especially if you really are backing it up with some program or some system that is encouraging upward mobility and not just sort of grinding people.
Craig: That’s who we change this. And I am all for assistants getting together and talking and sharing because you need to feel heard and you need to feel seen. And when you are in a jam situation a lot of times you start to feel like maybe it’s only you, or maybe you’re crazy, or maybe you’re just a whiner. And it’s really good to be able to share that stuff with other people and get perspective. But if we want to change this business what we need is someone powerful who runs a big company who listens to this and says, “I would like to be the first hero and do this.” And I hope we do get somebody. I mean, step forward, look at your numbers, and do it.
Please do it. And you know you can do it, by the way. Absolutely affordable. You know, I mean, it’s easy enough to look at some of these companies and say, all right, CEO shave 3% off your yearly income and it’s handled.
John: Yeah. Megana and Bo, thank you so much for coming on the show but also for all the work you’ve done this week sort of organizing and figuring out this massive information coming our way. So thank you both very much.
Megana: Thank you both for letting us on.
Bo: Thank you.
Craig: All right, now back to work, both of you. [laughs]
Craig: And also I’m not paying for the amount of time that you were on this. This doesn’t go on your timecard.
Bo: But I did puzzles today.
Craig: Nope. [laughs]
John: All right, let’s segue to our main topic for today. I’m calling this segment Minimum Viable Movie because it was two weeks ago I went into a class at USC. Howard Rodman teaches a screenwriting class. And once a year if I can I go in and talk with his students. And they have their movies broken out in index cards. And they lay out their cards and they talk through their movie. And it’s a really useful exercise, I think both for them but also for me talking through what do I actually think is a movie and how movies work when they’re just broken down on cards.
And in some cases these were clearly very talented writers who had interesting things to say, but I challenged them on is that actually a movie. There was one writer who I said you’re entering an interesting story place, but what you’re describing sounds like a musical without songs. That so much of what she was aiming to do was going to be unspoken. There was no way to actually get to what was interesting about what was happening inside those character’s heads. So in a musical you could expose those things. In a movie I didn’t see how she was planning to do it and she couldn’t articulate how she was planning to do it.
So, I thought you and I might take a few minutes to talk through what you actually need to have in order to have something that is a movie idea versus a something else idea.
Craig: Well, I understand that when you are young and maybe you’re in a program like that one over there at USC that you might have a tendency away from what we would call conventional narrative and conventional movie. And you may be thinking of more independent fare of the sort that occasionally is dubbed mumblecore. And there are movies that are seemingly unrestrained by narrative demands. And those are cool. It’s just that, you know, if that’s what you’re aiming for go and do it, but you’re probably not actually – you don’t really need to spend all that money at USC at that point. I really do believe. Do you know what I mean?
There are great lessons to be had.
John: I actually wanted to draw a big enough circle to include the mumblecore movies which are genuinely movies, but some things are – there’s things that people try to write that aren’t even that. And they may even write a full screenplay, but you read the screenplay and you’re like, yeah, but that’s not actually a movie. Because you and I have both had that experience where we read a script that’s not very good, but we can say like, oh, but that’s definitely a movie. I see why that’s a movie.
John: Or other things that are actually well written, but like it’s good writing but it’s not a movie. And so I want to try to distinguish those two things. So, my first question would be is there a story. Is there a beginning, a middle, and an end?
Craig: Boy, this must have been some class over there. [laughs]
John: Well, here’s what it is. I’m not pushing for any one specific narrative theory or a thing that has to happen. It’s much less dogmatic than even sort of your Scriptnotes lesson when you talked through how to write a movie. But is it actually a story or are you just describing a situation? Because there are short stories that are really kind of just it’s a portrait. It’s a steady, still state of a thing. But there’s not forward movement. So that forward motion is a crucial aspect I think of a story that wants to be a movie.
Craig: Agreed. And I think probably it’s an essential building block of these things that the end be relevant to the beginning. In other words, you can have a beginning, you can have a middle, but if you end somewhere that has really nothing to do with the beginning it’s not actually an end. It’s just where the movie stopped. And that doesn’t count.
John: Nope. Is this a story that wants to be told on a screen? And by that I don’t mean it has to be on a giant screen. It doesn’t have to be projected. I’m not talking to classic feature film. But ask yourself is this idea really better as a book, a graphic novel, a stage play, a videogame, a VR experience. And that’s a question I ask myself when I had the idea that ultimately became Arlo Finch. I had all this stuff but I was like it’s not really a movie. And then I realized, oh, it’s actually a middle grade book series. That’s what it really wanted to be. But if I had tried to force it into movie shape at the start it really wouldn’t have worked.
And so I think it’s always worth asking is a movie the best way to explore this narrative, bunch of things that are interesting to you. Or is there a better way to do it? If it doesn’t have to be a movie, then it probably isn’t a movie.
Craig: Especially when you are contemplating a story that is very internal. If something really is living primarily in someone’s mind it’s probably a book.
John: Yeah. Books are great at that. And in Arlo Finch in the books I can go into Arlo’s head and really see what he’s thinking. And that is going to be very challenging to do in any screen adaptation. So ask yourself how externalized are character’s thoughts and motivations and ambitions. If they’re really internal then you kind of are writing a musical without songs and that’s going to be really challenging to do.
I’d ask is the story you’re trying to tell familiar to the point of being cliché. And so it’s absolutely fine to write within a genre. We’ve talked about how much we love rom-coms. But if you’re just stringing together the genre’s tropes then that’s not really a movie. There’s probably not a compelling reason to make that movie or a compelling reason to watch that movie. You have to really challenge yourself like given all the choices of things I could watch would you actually choose to watch that movie. And that should be a requirement before you’re going to spend months of your life writing this script.
Craig: I agree. I also think that if you are contemplating a story that is executed primarily through really big conversations you may be in trouble. I see this all the time. I think people sometimes have very meaningful conversations in their life and they think that’s a movie. It’s not. Generally speaking the stories of movies are pushed forward not by conversation but by events. Choices. Things that crash into people. Whatever it is. There are conversations and some of them are amazing. But movies that are just trying to mirror some conversation you had in your life will generally never be as interesting to other people as they are to you.
They kind of aren’t movies.
John: I would challenge you to look at the central characters in your story and are they compelling? Are they genuinely people you want to watch for two hours? And importantly does the action of the story happen because of things they do, or does the story happen to them? If it’s happening to them it’s unlikely to sort of really work as a movie because they’re just a cork sort of bobbing down the river as it goes down. They should be driving the action to some meaningful degree. And in driving the action classically you want to see them change.
I’m willing to go with characters who don’t change. I want to draw a really big circle around the kinds of things that can be OK to write as movies, but you have to have some characters. If you don’t have characters that are compelling to watch that make you want to stay with them for two hours – antiheroes, heroes, whatever. We’re not asking for likeable. Just compelling. Then you probably don’t have a movie.
Craig: I agree. And I think sometimes what happens with newer writers is they are in love with a kind of story. Maybe they come up with a great idea. But what they do is replicate their experience of enjoying movies. They create characters that are watching the movie that they’re in.
Craig: And that is no bueno. We’re watching the movie. That means the character is the movie. The character can’t be watching it along with us. That’s just dreadful.
John: Nope. The last challenge I’d put for people is do you as the author have something interesting to say about this topic or this narrative space that you’re describing. Because if it’s just going to be another manifestation of this thing then sort of why. What is it you are bringing to this that is different than other people are bringing to this? What is it that really makes this movie a unique expression of this kind of story? If you don’t have that then it’s probably not the thing you should be writing next.
Craig: Yeah. I completely agree.
John: Cool. So with those caveats, again, I don’t want to make this sound like we’re against small movies or mumblecore or intimate ones or things that don’t fit a very classic Hollywood architecture. I’m all for experimental whatever. But in the experimental things that you’re trying to do is there are real reason why this thing should exist? Maybe it’s like some sort of video installation piece that doesn’t have to have plot or story or anything moving forward. That’s great. That’s terrific. But that’s not a movie you would be writing as a screenplay.
Craig: Could be a song. Could be an album. Could be a painting. There’s all sorts of ways to express yourself. Moving images on screen, whether it’s television or feature films, is really specific. It’s a very specific art form that some stories are perfectly suited to and others not at all.
John: Yep. All right. We’ve got two questions here to answer. Tom asks, “Have you done anything on developing and defining the concept of a franchise in TV and how that’s evolving? For example, take a classic procedural show like Chicago Fire or NYPD Blue. The traditional franchise of that show is the story of the week, usually with significant stakes. Yet it increasingly feels like the real franchise in TV shows is the interweaving of serialized relationship dramas between the characters. That’s what you keep coming back for week after week. Do you and Craig feel that the story of the week franchise model still drives television?”
Craig: Well, it seems like it’s been driving television for the network for quite some time. I mean, Dick Wolf, obviously our friend Derek Haas is the creator/co-creator of Chicago Fire. But that falls under the Dick Wolf empire. And he also has Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: CVS. And Law & Order: IBB. And so on. And I assume that they do this a lot because it boosts ratings. It’s a good ratings event for network TV.
I mean, I get it. Networks are still pounding out 22 shows a season, you know. I mean, that’s a lot. You’ve got to give people some curve balls in there to keep them excited and keep them coming back. I don’t think this is at all the model for streaming or cable. I mean, generally speaking I don’t know of any streaming or cable property that is kind of a standalone story of the week type of show. They’re almost always serialized to some extent or another. And sometimes they’re even anthologized like American Horror Story.
So, yeah, I think it makes sense. It’s a network thing because networks have way more shows to put out there. And, hey, in return they get way more eyeballs. You got to tip your hat.
John: I look at the progression of the hospital show from the old ones which were incredibly straight procedural. Like you could watch them in any order and it would make sense. You have a show like ER which is largely procedural, but there was some ongoing stuff that happened week to week. And so relationships would develop and change. But if you just dropped in on an episode you could follow it completely. Grey’s Anatomy is much more the soap opera model of relationships. Like that is what you’re really focusing on. While there is medicine there, you move forward.
I think it ultimately comes back to what is the expectation of the audience as they start watching that show. Are they expecting to have ongoing relationships with these characters that grow and change that the interplay between them is really meaningful? Or are they looking for just a simple thing happens. Like the classic old Star Trek episodes you can kind of watch them in any order because it is an alien of the week that is really driving the plot of a given episode.
John: So it’s about expectation. And I do agree with Craig that what we’re seeing on premium cable and streaming and even increasingly now on network is much more about the relationships between the characters and not the this is the plot that is introduced at the start of the episode that will be resolved by the end of the episode.
Craig: Yeah. In fact streamers or at least when you look at Netflix they seem so utterly disinterested in the old model of get to this many episodes so that you can syndicate. That they will routinely cut off shows after three seasons no matter what. Because they’re just like, meh, people are still watching it, they like it, but let’s just stop spending money on it and let’s put something else in. Because the old way, the network way of doing things was, OK, you’re a production company. You’re going to deficit finance a show. It’s going to go on a network, meaning you’re not going to get in the license the network pays you it’s not enough to pay for the cost of making each show. So how does this make sense? Syndication. How do you get to syndication? You need a minimum of 100 episodes. So your show has got to be enough of a hit that it can last all that time.
Well, if you’re a streamer and you’re making your own show and putting it out there and there’s no syndication to have, it just endlessly syndicates on your own platform, cut it off. Actors are asking for too much money? Cut it off. Make a new thing. That’s where we’re going.
John: It is. All right, Paul writes, “I know spec scripts for TV shows are a thing. But I just finished a spec feature script for a film franchise that I definitely do not have the rights to. But I think it’s a good script and I wanted to show it to people. Is this the sort of thing that agents or whoever would be willing to look at? Or will they roll their eyes and say, “Ugh, fan fiction,” and toss it?”
So, before we answer Paul’s question, spec is such a weird term because it means a different thing in television than in features. So just as a refresher a spec script in television is a script that I write for an existing TV show. So I wasn’t hired to write it, but basically I could write a spec Chicago Fire. It’s not designed to actually be shot as Chicago Fire, but people can read it as a writing sample. So specs in TV are really writing samples.
A spec in feature is something you’re writing with the intention to sell. So you hear about a spec script selling, that is a feature thing basically.
Craig: Yeah. And part of the deal with that is that at least traditionally because the kind of television show you’d write a spec script for does churn out episodes and should theoretically be out next year and the year after that. And you usually write spec scripts for well-established, well liked shows. There’s a chance they could buy it. I mean, they need more episodes. They’re always going to need more episodes. They hire lots of writers. But if you’re talking about a movie, a film franchise, and just side note I hate the fact that we are all using this word “franchise” now. Like some soulless goon came up with this franchise thing to stick on top of art. It makes me nuts.
Franchises are McDonald’s, OK. But whatever, fine. We all lose. So, people have this film franchise and they’re not necessarily looking to you to write a script. They’re not going to make one or two or 12 this year. They’re going to make one every three years and they’re not looking for outside writers to deliver those. There’s just not the demand.
So, right off the bat it’s a little questionable. It is at best a sample for something. You’re never going to get full credit for it unless it’s wildly subversive. In other words, if you write a spec feature in a well-established series like Fast & Furious but it is entirely the opposite of what you would expect, it’s like one quiet evening and it’s drama and there’s no car chases whatsoever and that’s the point is that you’re being clever, maybe that would attract some eyes and people would go, oh, this is a creative individual.
But, yeah, I think mostly you’re just not going to get the credit you should because you’re borrowing other people’s characters. You’re borrowing other people’s scenarios. And you’re bothering other people’s tone. You will probably get quite a few rolled eyes and people saying, “Ugh, fan fiction.”
John: So, yes, I agree. You potentially could get some fan fiction knock back. I will say that when people write scripts intending them to be writing samples it is a moment for some wild swings. And so those wild swings are the things that end up on the Black List that ends up getting attention or ends up getting passed around. So if you had a great idea for a mash up of Fast & Furious and the Marvel movies that couldn’t exist in the real world and you chose to write that, you would write that knowing that this is never going to be a thing that actually sells, but some people might really dig it and it might get you some meetings. It might get you an agent. It might get you started.
So it’s not not worth your time. But understand that you’re never going to be able to sell that thing. But you’re also not going to be sued over it. They’re not going to come after you for writing a script like that because you’re not selling it. It’s fine to do that. You’re going to be OK doing that.
And it is a little bit more like what classic TV staffing was like is that I was writing a spec Frasier episode, not because I was even trying to get hired to write on Frasier, but I might want to be hired on Mad About You or some of the other shows that were staffing at the same time. So it’s an example of like can I use other people’s characters and write those voices.
Mindy Kaling on Twitter recently was talking about staffing for her show and she was like why doesn’t anybody write spec scripts anymore. Like I love reading specs of existing shows because I know the voices of those characters and I can see very quickly whether you can actually write the voices of those characters. And to her it was more helpful to see like not that you had a brilliant original voice of your own, but that you could actually write the voice of these other existing shows.
So it goes back and forth. There’s reasons why both things exist. But I would say to Paul if he has the compelling idea and he probably also has some other original things he’s written and he wants to write this thing that he can’t actually sell, maybe.
Craig: Yeah. I’m a little concerned that that’s your one thing. If you’ve got three things, and that’s one of them that’s fine. But if your one thing is that I’m concerned that you are doing fan fiction and that you aren’t capable of doing a script without that kind of Hamburger Helper. So I would challenge you, Paul, to do a script without the Hamburger Helper. See how you do.
John: Agreed. All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. I actually have two this week–
Craig: Thank god.
John: But they’re both music related and it was a good week for music for me. The first is Taylor Swift did a Tiny Desk concert for NPR. It’s the ongoing NPR series where they invite in musicians and they perform a little concert in the NPR offices. What I liked about hers was not so much the performance but her talking between the songs. So there was no interviewer. She was just talking about writing the songs. And she talked about this one song Lover which was the title track on the album just sort of came to her all at once and it was the fantasy of like, oh, she sat down at the piano, the whole thing was there. She didn’t know where it came from. And she was like well that will be the title track. Like it all just works. But sometimes you show up at the piano and it just doesn’t work and that’s when you fall back on your craft to try to figure out how stuff fits together and how to make the thing work.
And it was just nice to hear somebody in a completely field talk about what I often experience. There are those moments where it just all flows so naturally and you don’t even know where it all came from. And other times when it’s a lot of craft and it’s a lot of pushing stuff around and making it work.
So, I’d encourage you to take a look at that. The second thing, Craig, I think you’ll appreciate.
Craig: I love this. I read it. I gobbled it up.
John: Seth Stevenson at Slate wrote a piece about The Terminator theme. And we’ll play this here so you can hear what we’re talking about. As you listen to it [music plays] it’s striking but a thing I used to do with my daughter in the car is as the radio was playing I’d ask her what count is this song in. And so she’d clap her hands and she’d figure out whether it was four, or three, or six. And very quickly sort of be able to figure out music tends to be three, four, six. Every once in a while you’ll get something really fancy. You’ll get like a take five, which is in five-four.
As you’re listening to this Terminator theme what time signature is this? And so you can try to count in four but it doesn’t work. You can try to count it in six, and it doesn’t work. And so there’s ongoing debate about it. So Seth Stevenson was able to go to the composer to actually talk to him about what happened. And the reason why it’s in such a crazy time signature is because of how it was actually made and sort of the state of looping software back in those times. And basically he couldn’t make the times match up right so it ended up in this impossible time signature that would be very hard for an orchestra to play for example.
So I thought it was just a great example of math and music and movies, so a combination of all the things we love.
Craig: They run it through carefully and come up with 13-16. It’s in 13-16. So, really what’s happening is it’s in a weird decimal of a four. I mean, whatever 13 divided by four is. What is that?
John: 12 and a fourth. Four, four and a quarter. Basically there’s an extra quarter.
Craig: Extra quarter note.
Craig: It’s so weird. It is a bizarre – it’s like so if you were to express four-four time in 16ths then it’s just 16 number 16. Easy. And three-four time is 12 over 16. So, 13 over 16 is almost in three but there’s a little extra bit. It’s like a tiny little extra bit in there. It is bizarre. You would never do it on purpose.
I mean, I love weird time signature stuff. I mean, if you want to look at some crazy time signature stuff Here Comes the Sun has some wacky crap that happens in it just for a few measures here and there. Led Zeppelin pulls out a nine-eight at one point I think for The Ocean. And then we have Solsbury Hill in seven-four, which is always fun. I like the songs in seven. And seven is really just alternating four and three I think. This is where musicians will probably get angry at me, but that’s how I kind of think of it.
John: Yeah. So take a look at it. Take a listen to it. I like that Seth Stevenson had a question and actually tracked down the composer to find the answer.
Craig: Yeah. Beautiful. Wonderful job. Well, you know what. You had two. That covers me. I feel great.
John: Good. That’s our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. Thanks to Megana and to Bo for their help this week.
John: It was edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Tyler Adams. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions or assistant emails.
For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. You can find all the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net. You can also download 50-episode seasons at store.johnaugust.com.
Craig, thanks so much for a jam-packed episode.
Craig: Thanks man.
John: Cool. Bye.
- Austin Film Festival Schedule
- Taylor Swift Tiny Desk Concert on NPR
- What Is the Time Signature of the Ominous Electronic Score of The Terminator? by Seth Stevenson
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Tyler Adams (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here