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 Episode 446 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we go back to fundamentals to discuss what screenwriting actually is and what both new and experienced writers need to keep in mind as they start their work. Then we’ll answer a bunch of listener questions on how the pandemic will effect writers’ creative and career decisions.
John: Craig, we are back to basics. It’s just you and me talking on Skype. We’ve got no Zoom. I don’t see you, I’m just hearing you. It feels familiar.
Craig: Yeah. You and I have always been quarantined essentially. We have socially distanced from each other our whole lives. And we continue to be socially distant and yet in each other’s lives. We’ve moved our Dungeons & Dragons campaign online.
John: It was hugely successful. Craig, thank you for your hard work getting that set up.
Craig: My pleasure. You know, tip of the hat to Roll20. That’s what we’re using. It’s a very powerful platform. It’s not at all welcoming to new people. Like if you are not a programmer, I guess. But once you dig in and you kind of go through it and as the case was – I talked to a friend of mine named Thor – Thor, from Norway – who walked me through some of the fundamentals that you would have never known otherwise. I mean, I went through the tutorial and the “goggles do nothing.” [laughs]
And so I had to do a little bit. But once you get into it it is incredibly powerful and delivers an excellent experience I think. It seemed like our first session was a hit.
John: It was a hit. So, Craig maybe a few weeks into this as you become a master at doing this I might ask you to do a screen recording just to walk people through the basics because it really was hard for me to figure out what was going on and bless you for all the hard work you did. But I just feel like you can pay it forward by maybe doing a screen recording, talking through what people need to know about having it set up.
Craig: That’s a great idea. I can definitely Roll20 for Dummies because it is not easy. And happy to relay what I have learned. Because there’s a lot.
John: There’s a lot. All right, this is the first of two episodes this week. So in addition to the episode you’re listening to right now later in the week we’ll be having the audio from a live show that we’re doing which will have already happened by the time you’re listening to this. We’re doing another one of our live shows where we are on Zoom. We’re streaming it through to YouTube folks. This will be a live Three Page Challenge. I hope it goes well. I think it will go well. Dana Fox is scheduled to be our guest for that.
So our episode with Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Ryan Reynolds was really fun and a good conversation. So I think we’re going to keep trying to do some of that, at least during this weird pandemic-y time when people are stuck at home and looking for reasons to see hopeful and joyful. So we’ll keep trying to do some of these to mix it up a bit.
Craig: Well, when you want hopeful and joyful you turn to Dana Fox who is a ray of sunshine.
John: She is. She’s terrific. So, listen for that later on this week. Or if you’ve already watched it by this point it will come up in your normal Scriptnotes feed down the road.
A lot of people have written in asking about our setup and sort of how we do things. So I thought we might spend a minute or two talking about how we record normal episodes versus how we are recording these special episodes. So this is a normal episode for you and me. You and I are talking live over Skype, but we are also recording our audio independently on our own computers. And that’s a really useful thing for people to try to know if they’re trying to do this kind of stuff because that way when Matthew gets the audio he gets clean audio of me and clean audio of you.
So the track I’m sending to Matthew only has me talking. The track you send only has you talking. Matthew is able to join them up and cut between them seamlessly so if he wants to cut out all the times I stumble over my words it’s very smooth and easy to do. Or all the obscenity-laced tirades that Craig gets on. It’s very simple.
Craig: It’s an equal amount of those things. It is interesting. I’ve done a few other podcasts, like as a guest, and they are so grateful to hear that I can record my side of the audio properly. Because they’re just used to people essentially phoning in on whatever they have. So it’s a nice thing that we can do it this way. And microphones, I mean, there are nice ones that cost a little bit more, but there are some pretty affordable ones that would vastly improve the quality of any recording that you do into your computer.
John: Absolutely. So we’ll put in the show notes a link to the little USB mic that Craig and I use for when we’re traveling or if we need to send it to a guest who is going to be joining us for an extended period of time. It’s great. It’s useful. And it does make a difference for a podcast. When people are just talking on Zoom you sort of forgive it because everyone is sort of used to how audio sounds when there’s video associated with it, but for a podcast it really does sound better if you can find any kind of proper microphone to record into.
Craig: No question.
John: Now, for the live shows where Craig and I are on Zoom talking and we have guests coming in, we’re using the Zoom webinar feature, which is about $40 a month. We’re doing that because it’s a little bit more secure. It allows me to invite panelists who are all the people whose faces you see. And those panelists get special invitations so it doesn’t get out in the world. It’s not going to be guest-able. We’re not going to get Zoom-bombed.
And the webinar feature also has a useful thing where you can click a button to stream onto YouTube. And so I’m doing that and it’s going to my YouTube channel. It’s pretty good. It’s not perfect. I wish I knew how to create a blank livestream before I actually start pumping to it. And I don’t quite know how to do that. I’m not sure it really is possible. So, we had some hiccups this last time doing it, but it works pretty well. And so given where we’re at in 2020 I’m happy that we’re able to stream it out to the folks on YouTube live.
Craig: Could you not create a second YouTube account that is just for testing?
John: We absolutely could. What I really would ideally love to see – so it’s not even about the testing. It’s that tomorrow’s show at 10am, we are all getting online at 9:55. We will quickly make sure that we’re setup and proper and correct. But I don’t want to start that livestream until we’re ready because the minute I do it we’re all there in front of the cameras working live. What I’d love to be able to do is create a dummy thing that was there that was ready so the minute we start piping to it. Instead I have to send people to my general John August page and say like at 10am it will suddenly show up.
Craig: Got it.
John: That’s the issue.
Craig: I see.
John: I’d love for there to be a waiting room where people could hang out.
Craig: Sure. No, that makes total sense. I get it.
John: For now this is great and I’m delighted with what we’ve been able to do so far.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, we get to air television shows from our home. I mean, 1979 John August is surely listening to 2020 John August going, “Dude?”
John: “What are you complaining about?”
Craig: You can air a television show to the world.
John: Indeed. All right. Some follow up. On previous episodes we talked about Support our Support Staffs which is a fundraiser, a GoFundMe we did to help raise money for Hollywood support staff. This was with the Pay Up Hollywood folks. Craig and I were sort of initial seed donors to this. We ended up roping in a bunch of people and raising about half a million dollars to pay out money to support staff who have been laid off as the pandemic has swept across the industry.
That was successful. Some news this last week is that we got a bunch of the checks out but more people kept coming. More applicants kept coming in and it became clear that, wow, somebody other than us is going to be much better at actually processing the checks and sending them out. So, we announced that we’re moving all of that infrastructure over to the Actor’s Fund which is a longstanding Hollywood charitable foundation that sends out money to people in need, not just actors but everyone else in the industry.
So, we partnered up with them so they will be handling the back end administration on all this stuff going forward.
Craig: That’s got to be a relief. I mean, I’ve been on the board of two charities and it’s like any other business. It’s a lot. There’s a lot to do. Just a side thing about charities and the money that is required to run charities. There’s a whole interesting discussion – good bonus topic maybe for us one day – the economics of running a charity. And why our obsession with bottom line is probably hurting charities.
John: I think that’s a great topic. In fact, let’s have that be our bonus topic for our Scriptnotes Premium members at the end of this episode.
John: Another bit of follow up. So, back when I was on the WGA board I was one of the people heading up this No Work Left Behind campaign which is where we are trying to convince our members but also the town to recognize how important it was to not leave documents behind after a pitch. Basically why you should not do that free writing in order to get the job or to leave that written up version of your pitch after you’ve had that meeting, why it was a really bad idea to be doing that.
So we had messaging, we had videos, we had a bunch of stuff. In this time where those meetings are not happening face to face weirdly what I’ve found is that there’s been a lot more pressure to write up stuff and send it in because like, well, you kind of weren’t in the room so it’s easier than getting on a Zoom.
So this last week I helped out with an article that we sent out to all the WGA members reminding people like, hey, just because we’re in strange times here doesn’t mean that the fundamental ideas of not leaving writing behind have changed. That it’s actually in some ways even more important not to be doing that free work and sending it out there in the world.
John: So, I point people to this article. But I just wanted to talk through sort of what you’ve found, Craig, in this time of Zoom meetings.
Craig: Well I haven’t had to have too many Zoom meetings because mostly I’ve been kind of covered in terms of what the work was initiated before all the shutdown began. I did have one sort of large conference call, but that wasn’t a Zoom thing. It was just audio, like the good old days.
I am concerned a little bit – look, I’ve always had issues with managers. That’s kind of been a little bit of a hobby horse of mine as any manager can tell you. And I’m a little concerned that they might be a bit loosey-goosey about this because they also act as producers. And things can get really mushy there when your representative is producing. This is literally the problem that we had with the agencies is that they were engaging in production or working with companies in a way that kind of made them aligned with the company financially through packaging.
Well, managers have always done this. And I do get concerned that when a manager is in a producing position, or even if a manager is not in a producing position but has produced anything else with a company that your own representation is going to put pressure on you as well. This is a very difficult thing. We have now, you and I, 20, 25 years of experience of the Writers Guild attempting to try and fix problems like this. And in the end we always run into the same essential problem which is that it comes down to individuals in individual moments, when they feel powerless and afraid, and I can only imagine that people feel even less powerful and even more fearful now.
All we can say to you is to be prudent about this and have faith in the value of your own work because if you give it to them for free you are devaluing yourself in that moment strategically and your work in that moment strategically. They are going to bluff you like good poker players and your job is to recognize that you have the hand that is best. Play it that way.
John: I am going to attempt a metaphor that may completely fall apart as I articulate it, but I’m going to try it right now.
Craig: Love it.
John: So I would say No Writing Left Behind is in some ways the face mask of the screenwriter profession. So here’s what I mean by no writing left behind. The face mask offers some protection to you, but also protects everyone else around you. The ways that No Writing Left Behind protects you is that the minute you’ve given them a document you don’t know what’s going to happen with that document. You don’t know if they’re going to use that and send it up the chain. If they’re going to incorporate some of those ideas into other stuff. If they’re going to drill down into that document and try to pull meaning out of it that really was not your intention.
So, the minute you’ve given them a document to focus on that becomes the thing rather than the possibility of working with you. So that is a way that you’re protecting yourself. But I think it’s also protecting everyone else around you. If you are turning in that free work, if you’re giving them that stuff for free it’s making it harder and harder for the next writer and the next writer to protect themselves from having to do that. Because it’s become a norm to turn in that stuff.
Even though as we’ve discussed before on the show it is actually really dangerous for companies to be taking that unpaid material into their possession because that is a huge copyright violation potentially happening there. So, for everyone’s protection just don’t be handing in those written documents before you have a signed contract.
Craig: For everyone’s protection. It’s absolutely right.
John: So, that metaphor kind of worked.
Craig: I’m with it. I’m with it.
John: So I’ve had a lot of new work that’s come up during this time of Zoom meetings. And where I’m pitching on Zoom a lot, there’s probably a project I’m going to be going out with that’s pitching on Zoom. And I found myself thinking like, oh, I should just write this up and send this in. And stopping myself and realizing, oh, you know what, that is actually a really bad idea for all the reasons I just articulated. But also in some ways because these virtual meetings are so easy to set and establish it’s very easy for me to send emails saying like, “Hey, let’s get online again and let me talk you through this point. Or if you need me to pitch to that other group let’s get on Zoom.” Everyone is available. Everyone – I can talk to everyone.
So it’s not about sort of like this executive is flying in from Montreal, how are we going to talk with him? Things that used to be physical meetings or hard to organize are now actually really simple. So it becomes very easy to just pitch it. So I still am writing the same stuff I always wrote, but like always I’m just talking it aloud rather than actually handing it in to somebody.
Craig: Yeah. And look you do have some leeway when it’s original material of course because it’s yours. So, people obviously submit spec scripts. That doesn’t count as writing you left behind and all that stuff. But if there’s any concern whatsoever that you could be compromising your own leverage, just don’t do it. I mean, I think what you’re saying is it could not be easier right now to have people jump on good old Zoom. So that’s my theory is stay safe. I think your mask analogy is actually perfect.
John: Great. One other bit of news that came up this week, and I don’t know if you had a chance to look through these articles that people sent through. This is a Supreme Court decision that came back regarding copyright law and state government and the intersection between the two. Craig, do you want to give us a quick summary of what happened here.
Craig: Well, sure. It doesn’t actually even matter what the case was about. What matters is this. The Supreme Court essentially said that individual states cannot be sued by individual people over violation of copyright. As far as I can tell it seems to come down to the separation of powers between states and the federal government because it’s a federal law. And somehow one way or another, I mean, copyright is written into the constitution, but somehow one way or another the Supreme Court – and this was not one of those 5-4 decisions. This was unanimous. The Supreme Court said a state, a United States state, has immunity from federal lawsuits charging copyright infringement.
And that’s fascinating.
John: It is really fascinating. So it’s worth looking at the original case because I remember hearing this as a podcast a year or two ago before it went to the Supreme Court. It revolves around this videographer who is brought in to record footage of this Black Beard pirate ship that had been found. And the state government ended up using it. I guess it was Florida. Ended up using some of that footage and some of those photos for its own purposes without compensating him. And that was the initial lawsuit was about that.
The reason why we’re talking about it on Scriptnotes is that you can extend this to in theory a state could take copyrighted film material, copyrighted written material and use it for its own purposes without incurring a violation which seems not great. So it could mean that a state could take a book and sort of publish it itself and send it out to everybody and there would not be recourse for the author or the publisher to go after the state.
I would be surprised if we get to that point. I would be surprised if suddenly every state is sort of taking Spider Man and making their own Spider Man movies. But the kernel in there, there’s nothing kind of preventing it based on this Supreme Court decision.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s right. Currently if the state of California saw a shortfall in its funding and decided it was going to, I don’t know, self-fund a Mickey Mouse cartoon or a new Avengers movie they could. That said, it does seem like what the Supreme Court was saying was that Congress could fix this. This is a weird loophole that can be closed if – I think Justice Breyer said, “A more tailored congressional effort through legislate in this area might pass constitutional muster.” So it may come to pass.
But it is not a pleasant feeling to know that the state can just essentially just grab your work and reprint it. Or adapt it. That’s a strange one. So, so far it does seem like it has occurred in this very narrow sense. But odd. I sent this to Ted Elliott immediately because I said this is the best intersection of your interests I can imagine – copyright law and pirates.
John: Yeah. That is a really strange intersection. So Ted Elliott, writer of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and lots of other amazing movies, the original Aladdin, who can talk in exhausting circles about anything related to federal law and copyright law. So, this is of course right up his alley.
Craig: I was so happy to send it to him.
John: Yes. So we’ll keep an eye on this. I doubt that there will be a huge repercussion in the near term for anything related to what we are doing. Honestly, I could imagine this would be a story that would have sent shockwaves through the industry in a time when the industry was functioning at all normally, but this is just not a thing that anyone is focused on right now.
Craig: And it won’t. I don’t think this will result in actual shockwaves.
John: Because Disney will not allow it to happen.
Craig: Well, yeah. Good luck to the state of Florida trying to do that and Disney is like, oh OK, we’ll just remove our weird kind of extra governmental fiefdom from your state. I mean, that is a whole other area by the way that is fascinating is Disney’s weird country inside of Florida. It’s bizarre what they’ve worked out. Anyway, another time.
John: Another time. All right, well this is a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. And so I thought we might actually take this time in Episode 446 to define screenwriting and what screenwriting actually is. Because I don’t know if we’ve actually talked about it in actually that much depth weirdly over the course of this. Because Craig, you did your solo episode about how to write a screenplay. That was really sort of fundamentally kind of 101 the things about writing a screenplay. But I wanted to sort of do some backstory about the origin of screenwriting and sort of how screenwriting began to what it has become now. Sort of what those transitions were. I have three things I want to keep in mind as we talk about what a screenwriter does and what screenwriting is. And maybe sort of tease them apart a little bit because I think especially newer people who are approaching screenwriting, which we have a bunch of new people listening just because they watched Ryan Reynolds and Phoebe Waller-Bridge last week, really talk about what the screenwriter does and what screenwriting is about.
Craig: I hope that my understanding of it is correct. I’d be very embarrassed if I’m wrong.
John: I think you will probably be very, very correct. So let’s talk about the origin of screenwriting because screenwriting as an art form is only about a century old because movies are only about a century old. When the first motion picture cameras were aimed at things and it went beyond just photographing a train coming into a station to actually trying to tell a story with a camera, at some point people recognized, oh, you know what, it would help if we wrote down the plan for what we’re going to do before we actually shot this stuff.
And so those initial things that would become screenplays were sort of just a list of shots, or a plan for how you’re going to do the things. And so when we talk about screenwriting being like architecture that’s kind of what we’re getting to is that sense of like it’s a plan for the thing you’re going to make. It is a blueprint for what the ultimate finished product is going to be which is the finished film, the thing that a person is going to watch which is not the literary document or not the paper document that we’re starting off with.
And, Craig, I don’t know if you’ve seen any of those first screenplays but they don’t closely resemble what we do now.
Craig: No. And I think that when people say a screenplay is a blueprint, I always get a little fussy about it. But in this aspect of it that’s exactly what it is. So part of a screenplay – a screenplay is many, many things at once. One of the things a screenplay is and has always been going back to those first ones is essentially a business plan. It is an outline of where you need to be and how long you need to be there and what needs to be seen.
There’s not a lot of art to it. It really is more of an organizational thing and the modern counterpart to it I guess would just be sometimes a director will come in and make a little shot list for the day. That is appropriate to blueprint.
John: Yeah. Or agenda. It’s basically these are the steps. This is how we’re going to do it. And because it’s written on 8.5×11 paper and it is done with words rather than a flowchart it feels somewhat literary. I mean, the words you pick matter a little bit, but not a tremendous amount. Basically as long as you’re going to be able to communicate what your intention is to the other people who need to see this document that’s all that really matters.
Craig: And that tradition carries through to this day when a screenplay still uses Interior/Exterior. Every scene must give you blueprint information that is not literary information. There is nothing literary about Exterior-House-Day-Rain or whatever you say there. The literary part comes in this other stuff that started to emerge as our craft of filmmaking and writing evolved.
John: Now, that evolution, I’m not enough of a student of the history of cinema to tell you exactly when the screenplay became more what we talk about today, but often you’ll hear Casablanca referenced as sort of a turning point between this kind of list of shots to something that is more like a modern screenplay in the sense of like it’s a document that you can read and in reading this document you get a sense of what the actual film is supposed to feel like. So it’s not just the pure blueprint. It’s more sort of like this gives you a sense of where you are, what’s going on. It gives you a preview of what the film is actually going to look and feel like versus just a straightforward list of these are the things you’re seeing.
Craig: This is not necessarily historically, yeah, you can’t call me a professor here by any stretch of the imagination. But my understanding when I look at the early stuff is that it was the American movie business that was very blueprint-y and shot list-y. But there is a pretty famous – so you’ve probably seen the silent film A Trip to the Moon.
John: Oh yes.
Craig: Where the moon gets shot in the eye.
John: The Brothers Lumière.
Craig: Exactly. George Méliès. If you look at the script for that it actually feels quite modern. There is a literary aspect to it. It’s more descriptive. I think in Europe probably there was a little bit more of a literary aspect to this much earlier than there was in the United States. But eventually by the time you get to films like Casablanca you’re fully in the swing of a literary screenplay that is combining two things at once – a non-literary production plan and art.
John: Now, in both the literary form and in the blueprint-y construction plan form the fundamental unit that you come back to is the scene. And so even novels have scenes. That sense of there is a moment in space and time when generally characters are saying something or doing something. It’s one carved out moment of a place and a time where things are happening. That idea of a scene you see in both the really clinical early versions of screenplays and you see them in modern screenplays. That sense of like this is a chunk of time in which these things are happening.
And I want to suss out three different kinds of things we mean by scene. So first is that moment of space and time where characters are doing a thing. That’s scene version A. Scene version B is the writing of that scene and by the writing I mean this is what the characters are saying and doing. It’s where we’re coming into that moment. It’s how we’re coming out of that moment. It is the words we’re using to describe the world in which the characters are happening, the actions they’re taking, basically everything we call scene description. Which you compare to stage plays, which is the other sort of natural version of this, the scene description in stage plays tends to be incredibly minimalist. And it’s much more robust in screenplays because you are trying to really visually describe this world in which the characters are inhabiting. So that’s an important transition.
So that’s version B is really the writing. The third version of a scene I want to distinguish between is all the formatting stuff. All the basically the grammar of screenplays that we use that make them – the conventions that make it easier for people who read a lot of screenplays to understand what’s actually happening. So, the same way that commas and periods become invisible to a reader, people who are used to reading screenplays they don’t even see INT and EXT and DAYS. Your brain just skips over those things and is able to concentrate on the meat of those. So all that other information is there, but it’s invisible to a person who is used to reading them. And being able to understand those conventions and use them properly really does affect how a person perceives a screenplay.
But that formatting, that syntax choices and all that stuff, is really a different thing I would say than the words you’re using to describe stuff. It’s really grammar versus the actual creative act of writing.
Craig: Yeah. And that grammar is eventually going to be analyzed by a grammar specialist known as the First AD who along with the production managers are going to be taking those scene headings and asking, OK, are these scene headings accurate to what we think we’re going to be actually doing in terms of the locations we found. How can we group them together? We need to make a timeline, night, day. All those things have huge production implications. None of them have to do specifically with art. So you’re guessing at what you think the ultimate grammar will be. But then you make adjustments once you get into production. And individual first ADs will have different ways of adjusting that grammar.
But you’re right that for most people reading it those things serve weirdly as just paragraph breaks. They’re paragraph breaks which are incredibly helpful. It’s one of the reasons why my formatting preference is to put two lines before a new scene. Because the scene, the EXT, the INT, is serving as a kind of break in the visual flow of the reading. So, I make it one because I agree with you. I think that that’s really what it’s doing. If you took out all the INTs and EXTs and just mentioned those things in action lines the script would become a book and it would be harder to read.
John: Yeah. So, in thinking about scenes in three different waves, so there’s the visualization, the imagination of sort of what’s happening with those characters in space and time, that is a thing that a screenwriter does, but it’s also the kind of thing a director does. It’s a thing that other creative people can do. It’s a thing an author does is envision people in a place and a time doing a thing or saying a thing. So, directors often do that scene version A a lot. They’re really imagining sort of what that scene is like. And they’re thinking about it through their own specialties. So they’re imagining it’s like, OK, so I’m envisioning this scene, this moment happening, and then they’re thinking, OK, where would I put the camera, what are the opportunities I have here, how would I use my tool set to make this happen best.
What am I going to tell the cinematographer about what I’m looking at? What am I going to tell the editor about how I would imagine this being paced? What are the costumes? What are all the things that I will need to be able to describe to other people about this moment? So that’s a version of crafting the scene.
The screenwriter has to do all that stuff but then take a second level abstraction thinking, OK, having thought through all that stuff what are the words I’m going to use to describe what’s most important about this moment? Because I could describe everything, but that would be exhausting and it would actually hurt the process of being able to understand what’s important. So, how am I’m going to synthesize that down to the most important things for people to understand if they’re reading this scene about what it’s going to feel like, what’s important, what they need to focus on?
Most of what Craig and I really are talking about on the podcast is this second level, is the B version of that scene which is how do we find the best way to describe and tell the reader what they would be seeing if they were seated in a theater watching this on a screen. How are we going to convey that experience, what it feels like to be watching that moment on the big screen? That’s mostly what we talk about on this podcast.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a weird kind of psychological game we’re playing with scene work. In the way that Walter Murch wrote this great book about editing, I think it’s called In the Blink of an Eye, where he says we’re kind of cutting in the pattern of people’s blinks. That we blink in normal moments. We’re kind of predictable this way. We have a rhythm. So we’re editing slightly on that basis. Editing feels like music. It’s all about timing. You just know like, there, cut there. That’s the spot.
And it’s kind of the same thing with scenes. What you’re doing is feeling a psychological impact and then there’s link a blink, like a story blink, that just needs to happen. We have reached a point where something should happen and the story should blink and reset. And in a different place or a different time or with a different person, a different perspective. That to me is where the scene begins and ends. Inside of the scene we may have additional slug lines or scene headers because we’re giving that blueprint information, that nonliterary blueprint information to our production friends. But for the purpose of being artistic and literary the scene is the psychological unit. And I don’t know how else to describe it other than something blinks and the story moves.
John: Here’s an example. Imagine you could take a real life thing that’s happening. Like, you know, we’re in a room, there are people talking. Imagine we’re at a cocktail party. And so there’s a cocktail party. There’s maybe six people in this room. There are discussions happy. We could invite three screenwriters in and have them see all of this. And then each of them goes off and writes their own version of this scene. There would be three very different scenes because as screenwriters we are choosing to focus on different things.
So even though we all encountered the same moment, we’re writing different scenes because we are choosing to focus on different things and we want to direct the reader’s attention to different moments. And so it’s what snippets of conversations we’re using. It is who we are choosing to focus on. The same way the director is choosing where to put the camera, we are choosing where to put the reader’s attention.
John: And that is mostly what we talk about on this podcast is how as a writer you make the decisions about what you’re going to emphasize and what you’re going to ignore about a moment that is happening in front of us as an audience.
Craig: It’s one of the reasons I stress transitions so much and we have a podcast we’ve done about transitions. I can’t remember offhand the number but we’ll put it in the show notes. Transitions help the audience demarcate the blank – the beginning and end of the scene. Because inside of scenes, once you get away from the page and you’re just watching a television show or a movie, well, there is the montage effect which is essentially – in the old sense of the word, not the “we’re doing a montage” but rather when you show something and then you cut to something else. We understand that time is continuing even though we have moved the camera and cut.
So these things are constantly happening. So how do you know when one thing begins and one thing ends? Since it’s all cut-cut-cut-cut-cut, why does one cut signal the beginning of something? And why does one cut signal the end? And why do others feel like they’re just part of a continuity? Transitions. They let you know when the scene has begun and they let you know when it’s over.
John: Absolutely. And that’s a great segue to really this third version of what I’m describing of this scene which is all of the formatting and the standard conventions and grammar that we’ve come to expect out of screenplays. And it’s different from the transition that Craig is talking about because Craig is really talking psychologically what are we trying to do by ending the scene there and getting to the next scene. But that will also have a reflection in literally the words and how we’re formatting that moment to get us from one scene to the next scene.
So, all the stuff that your screenwriting software does for you that is the sort of technical details that makes screenplays look so strange and different. And as I was reading through all these entries for the Three Page Challenge, picking them for the episode we’re recording tomorrow, I was struck by many of our listeners really get it. They know exactly what they’re doing. But some of them are actually still struggling with that third kind of scene writing which is basically understanding how standard screenplay conventions are so helpful in letting the reader understand what’s important in this moment. And so some of them are still struggling with that stuff.
John: That’s the kind of thing I think you can actually teach and be taught. And the best way to do it is to read a ton of screenplays and see just how it is so it becomes really natural. So, you read a bunch, you write a bunch to sort of match up to that thing. But you will very quickly get a sense of how screenplays are formatted and how to make that feel effortless. Make it feel like it’s not in your way but is actually helping you.
What’s much harder for us to try to teach you is that second part. That part of how to very naturally convey what a moment feels like. And I want to make sure we keep that distinction clear because being able to type “cut to” and understand how to get down a page is a different thing than being able to really shape what a scene is going to feel like for the reader.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, literally anyone can put something into a screenplay format. It’s never been easier. And saying “cut to” and then “EXT. Such and such” will make something look like a scene has ended and a new scene has begun on the page. But it actually will not translate whatsoever to the actual viewing experience. The only thing that you have in your arsenal to demarcate that for the viewer is creativity. A sense of rhythm. A sense of conclusion. A sense of propulsion. A sense of surprise. Contrast. All the things that we talk about when we think of transitions that have nothing to do with formatting because alas there is no sign flashing in the movie or on your television set that says “new scene has begun.”
So, this is the craft part. And, man, if I were teaching a screenwriting class at USC or UCLA or one of those places I think honestly I would just begin with that. I would just begin with please let’s just talk about the art of letting people know something has begun and something has ended.
John: Yeah. Because “cut to” is not when a scene ends. The scene ends when the scene is ending. And so often you feel like, OK, that scene is over, but there’s a couple more lines. When you actually film that you’re going to realize you don’t need this extra. You recognize that that moment is over and therefore the scene should be over. And it’s a hard thing to learn until you’ve sort of gone through it.
Craig: That is where the sort of talent and instinct is. Obviously experience helps as you go on, as it does with everything. But there is an innate sense that something has concluded. And even, you know, for those of us who have been doing this for a while and we’re professionals, we will often make a mistake of going a little bit too far. Or not far enough. And then somebody will come and say, “I feel like maybe the scene ended here.” The key is that when somebody says that you can look at it and go, no, it hasn’t and here’s why. Or, yeah, you’re right. That’s where it ended.
But there is a sense.
John: So having written the Arlo Finch books one of the great advantages to traditional literary fiction is that if you’re lucky you have a publisher and that publisher provides an editor who is going through that work and doing some of this actual checking with you. Whereas I might send Craig a script and he can say like, oh, I think your scene really ended here, the editor’s job is much more sort of clinical and saying like, OK now, she’s actually cutting some stuff, saying, “No, you’re done here.” And sometimes you’ll get to a line editor or a copy editor who is going through and actually fixing your mistakes.
Screenwriters generally don’t have anybody like that. So we are responsible for doing all of that ourselves. And I do sometimes wonder if sometimes there are people who are really pretty good at that stage A of writing a scene and stage B of writing a scene, but are really kind of terrible at stage three, that stage C of writing a scene and doing the actual making it work right as a screenplay kind of thing would just be so helped out by having someone who could just go through and make it read better, make it read more conventionally on the page so we can really see what the intention is versus being hung up on the strange mistakes they’re making.
Craig: You know, I was a guest for a webinar, a Zoominar, a Zoominar–
Craig: Through Princeton University. I did it yesterday. And so they open it up to members of that community, and I don’t know there was 100 people or something like that watching, which is kind of fun to see all the little Zoom faces. And someone asked a question and it essentially went to this which was when you look at how screenplays work as opposed to a novel there are so many other things that you have to be thinking about. In a novel you’re just thinking about what people are saying and doing and thinking. And in a screenplay you’re managing all this other stuff, like time and the camera and the visual space and how it will be structured, and when things move from one place to another. And unfortunately that’s true. If you want to be a good screenwriter you’re going to have to be a little bit of a Swiss Army knife.
It’s very hard to be a good screenwriter but only be good at one thing. Every now and then you’ll hear somebody say, “Oh, well we’re bring them in but they’re doing a character pass.” And I’m like well what the hell does that mean? What’s the difference between character and story? They’re exactly the same thing to me. They’re interwoven. I don’t know how to separate these things. Or sometimes they’ll say, “Well we’re bringing somebody in to do a comedy pass.” OK. So is that just like somebody is going to stop in the middle of the movie and do some stand up? The comedy has to come out of who they are and what the situations are.
We have to kind of do all of it at the same time, which is why it’s so hard.
Craig: It’s really, really hard. There are, I don’t know, 4,000 times as many successful novelists as there are screenwriters.
John: That is true. What I will say though about the Princeton question is the things that the student was asking about, like you have to do all these other things, those become really kind of automatic and much simpler with experience. So, you stop having to worry about them so much. The same way like once you really learn how to use a semicolon you can just use a semicolon. And so a lot of the – to try this and the sort of weird things about our modern screenplay format, once you get used to it you sort of stop thinking about it and it becomes less of an obstacle. So I’m never as a screenwriter frustrated by like I don’t know how I’m going to do this in a screenplay format. It just becomes really straightforward after a time.
Craig: It does take time. But eventually it’s like touch typing. I don’t think about where the W is. My finger just goes there.
John: Absolutely. All right. Let’s answer some listener questions. Y asks, “I’m in the midst of writing a show for a big streamer that is currently scheduled to start shooting early in 2021 and should air at the end of that year.” Congratulations, Y.
Craig: Y, good job.
John: “The series takes place in present times and is set in a Central European city. It suddenly occurred to me that I might need to write this pandemic into my show. We don’t know when this will end, but when it does finally end there will obviously be a last effect in the world. Can we ignore it? Does every non-period show need to have the coronavirus pandemic as part of its history, its world? I guess you could make a show in the early 2000s and ignore 9/11, right?”
Craig, should everyone rewrite their scripts now?
Craig: No. There’s an easy answer. No. You can make a show in the early 2000s and ignore 9/11 because not everything that was going on in the early 2000s was all 9/11-y. I can assure you of that. I was there. I’m pretty sure that Y was there, too. There is a real danger when you have an event like this, and it’s been coming up lately in a couple of things that I’ve been working on or developing, where people will say, “Oh my god, how do we work this in?” And the answer is you don’t because as I put it you can’t beat Dick Wolf. Right? That’s my general rule of thumb. You can’t beat Dick Wolf.
If there’s going to be a pandemic show on the air it will be a Dick Wolf show. It will be NCIS: Pandemic and it will be on. It will be on way before you can get it on. But also it’s very narrow. It’s very topical. Do not underestimate the capability of humans to forget things. That’s why we ended up in this mess in the first place.
Now, hopefully as a world we will respond to this and be smart about it. But not every show or movie needed to be about Vietnam in the early ‘70s. And not every show or movie needed to be about 9/11 in the early 2000s. And certainly not every TV show or movie needs to be about COVID in 2021. People will have died just as people have died through terrible things multiple times in multiple ways. We are not going to want to have everything soaking in COVID, COVID, COVID all the time. It will become oppressive and limiting.
And honestly I don’t think it reflects the reality of existence. If you want to make a drama about COVID or about a pandemic response, or if you want to acknowledge that it occurred obliquely, or have somebody just mention, yes, it was a thing back when COVID was happening. Or, oh yeah, he was a doctor during COVID time, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But I don’t think we need to tie ourselves up in knots just because this has happened in a creative sense. What do you think?
John: Not to contradict you, but I do think that this is going to have some repercussions in terms of what normal character behavior looks like in 2021, 2022, and beyond. So, this is a thing I’ve seen on Twitter, but I also feel this in real life. As I watch some things I see characters, like strangers shaking hands, and hugs, and things like that that feel kind of weird now because it’s not a thing that’s actually happening. So, I would tell Y as you’re thinking about this show and thinking about what’s going to happen I think it’s fair to imagine what normal social interactions might look like at the time you’re filming this and be cognizant that some stuff that made total sense in 2019 isn’t going to make total sense in 2021 or 2022. And you’re going to have to be mindful that some of this stuff would happen.
Would people wear masks in the backgrounds of shots? Maybe. You just don’t know what’s going to feel real or feel right. But you probably will have a sense of that more when it comes time to actually make this thing. I’m working on a project right now with a partner and a conversation we’re going to have to be having is that the central couple in this thing we’re writing live in New York City and have been a couple for enough time that they would have lived through this pandemic. And so will that be a factor in their relationship? Like is that a thing they would reference? Is that a thing they would have gone through together the same way that any couple in the 1940s would have had to deal with the Second World War?
And so that is a thing that may factor into this. But I’m certainly not basing everything around that.
John: I’ll be curious whether our friend Derek Haas who does the Chicago Fire show and other Chicago shows for Dick Wolf, they’ll have to reference it some degree because they are a show about emergency medical professionals. But how much it influences the seasons they’re writing right now and going forward.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, they’re going to have to make their interesting choices. Obviously you’re not going to want your show to feel like it is taking place two years prior or a year prior. Yes, if there’s normal human behavior that is permanently disrupted like handshaking or hugging then, you know, you’ll want to reflect that. But you barely will even have to comment on it because it just won’t happen. You know, you just stop doing it. And if people routinely wear masks in public, which I don’t think is going to happen, but if they do it will just happen. You’ll just do it. You won’t even have to write it in, because you don’t have to write in that people are wearing pants, right? We just know they are.
Craig: I just think that there is a little bit – the dangerous topicality. You just want to avoid topicality, meaning you don’t want your movie or your television show to feel like it only made sense in 2021 and then every other year later you’re like, wow, look at that thing, it’s all freaked out about the rise of disco. That is a ’79 movie. You know, it’s that kind of thing.
John: Agreed. Do you want to take Brendan’s question?
Craig: Sure. We’ve got Brendan from Toronto. Not Toronto, but Toronto. “I’ve heard John talk on the show about how you don’t generally write in sequence, instead work on whatever scene appeals to you at the moment. I’m working on my first screenplay on Highland 2, it’s brilliant, and my question is about organizing all of those out of sequence scenes. Do you create a new document for each scene? And then later assemble them? Or is it one master document that you organize into sequence as you go?”
Perfect question for you to answer because I do write in sequence, so how do you handle this, John?
John: So I do write each scene as a separate document. And I’ve been doing this since the very start of my career. So back in the day I would handwrite scenes and then type them up later. Or if I was out someplace writing them up I would fax them back to my assistant Rawson Thurber who would type them up and keep each of them in a separate folder that we would share.
So, yes, I tend to keep scenes separate until it’s time to assemble them into one big screenplay. I generally start assembling when I have about 60% of a screenplay done, if I feel like I’m through about 60% of the scenes. Then I’ll assemble it. Back in the old times I would just copy and paste into one big document. Now in Highland 2 there’s a really handy feature where you can literally just drag the scenes in from the desktop and into a master document and hit assemble and it will pull all those scenes in together so that you have one thing nicely assembled for you.
But, no, I do keep them separate. Mostly I want to keep them separate because I don’t want to rewrite things until I actually have enough stuff that’s worth rewriting. So I try to avoid that problem where if I start at the beginning of a screenplay and move forward I’m constantly rewriting those first 10, 20, 30 pages and I have a very hard time moving the ball down the field. But if I’m writing those scenes individually I just get a lot more scenes written. And then I can look at them all together and I have to do a good amount of work rewriting everything to make it feel like one consistent document sometimes, but I get a lot more done if I’ve written those scenes separately, kept them separate until I’m really ready to focus on the script as a whole.
Craig: It’s so funny how different we are. I mean, I’m literally the opposite. I do write it all in one document and I do rewrite it as I go. We have our rhythms. This is the, you know, vive la difference.
John: And I will say that writing the Arlo Finch books I would still be writing the first book if I had started at the beginning and kept it as one document because I would have just kept rewriting those early chapters. And so keeping each of those chapters separate was absolutely essentially to finishing the books.
Craig: That makes sense.
John: All right. Penny from Chicago writes, “I’m still in the early stages of becoming a screenwriter, but as I look to the future I worry if I’m cut out for it. I have a neurological disorder that significantly limits my ability to be around people or handle high levels of stress. So my question is does the industry accommodate people with either physical or mental disabilities? Or do those kind of limitations make it impossible for someone to become a screenwriter?”
Craig, what’s your instinct for what Penny should be thinking about?
Craig: Well, the industry like any industry has certain accommodations for people who have disabilities and those accommodations unfortunately usually don’t go far beyond what is required by the ADA or any other legislation. And to some extent there are physical or mental disabilities that make certain jobs impossible. If you are paralyzed you’re going to have a hard time getting a job as a stuntman. And if you have a certain kind of neurological disorder that makes for instance organizing words into speech easy then that’s going to be difficult for you as a writer.
Your neurological disorder as you have defined it here is not disqualifying as far as I can tell. There are a lot of screenwriters who are kind of famously reclusive. They don’t have neurological disorders as far as I know. They just don’t want to talk to anybody. And they don’t want to be involved in high stress situations like production. What they do is they write a script and it is emissaried off to a studio by a representative. And hopefully a sale is made and money is returned. And that’s what they do. And then other people who are more interested and capable of face-to-face interactions with people and high stress situations are then brought in to continue the process.
To do that you have to be really good. Your work has to be outstanding because there is a part of the job that is dealing with people and handling stress. So what you’re saying is I can do a good amount of that job. I can’t do all of the job. Is it disqualifying? No. It doesn’t make it impossible. It will make what was already a very difficult job to get and succeed at harder. So that’s just something you have to price in.
John: Absolutely. As Craig was saying there are a tremendous number of writers working in this industry who have issues with anxiety and depression. That is totally common. What you’re describing sounds like it goes beyond that and if you’re doing the best you can do it and it feels like interactions with a lot of people and high stress environments are not your thing it’s great that you recognize this now.
And what Craig describes in terms of the social aspect of screenwriting is real. There is having to interface with people and deal with people that is bigger than what it would be for say a novelist or for some other people who have writing jobs that let them not interact with people so much. So doing what Craig describes in terms of being the writer who hands the thing in but is not sort of in the room with people a lot is possible. It’s more difficult to get started that way, but it is possible.
The other thing Penny that I would keep in mind is that sometimes having a writing partner may be a huge help here. Where if you have somebody who was actually pretty good at all the public interaction stuff. That could be a tremendous support structure for you to do some of the social aspects of the screenwriting job. So, I think we’re both telling you don’t stop screenwriting because you’re worried that the career of it is going to be more challenging because of what you see as limitations. It’s great that you’re being mindful about it. But I would say don’t let it preclude your dream of being able to write movies if that is a thing you really want to do.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. And I would also say Penny that I’m just going to guess, because you say you’re still in the early stages of becoming a screenwriter, I’m just going to guess that you are on the younger side. It’s not necessarily the case based on what you said, but it seems like a reasonable guess. And if that is the case neurological disorders don’t always sit where they are and never change. They can change over time. And they can improve. They can worsen. They can transform.
So, you’re not always clear about where you’re going to be with something. I mean, mental illness, which is different than neurological disorder, can be more easily transformed or mitigated by medication, but neurological disorders are really interesting because the brain is so plastic. And you never know.
So, I’m hesitant to say, “Yeah, no, don’t do it,” because it is doable. Just I think you’re asking the good questions and sounds like you’re kind of coming into it with open eyes. And you may be surprised. Look, the only way to find out ultimately Penny is to give it a shot.
John: Agreed. Craig, do you want to take Jared’s question? Let’s have that be our last one.
Craig: Jared asks, “Toward the end of last year I received my first ever offer from a major studio to option a feature screenplay I wrote on spec, which is also included on 2019’s Black List. There were other parties involved in the sale of the script,” I’m already confused, “and after months of waiting to see if all parties’ deal would close and whether or not a worldwide pandemic could thwart this project from ever getting off the ground I just got word that we are finally moving forward and next week we will have what would have been a kickoff meeting, our official kickoff call, with the studios, the producers, and myself.
“Scriptnotes has successfully guided me to this point in my career and I am turning to your wisdom once again.” You got it, Jared. Here we go. “I’m an assistant in the industry but I don’t recall hearing the term kickoff meeting if ever prior to selling my script and I’m feeling a little underprepared. I am ready and excited to hear their notes to commence my rewrite on the script, however there is an intimidating lineup of people scheduled to be on the call and I’m hoping that one or both of you might be able to share with us your experience with kickoff meetings and any advice you may be able to provide to help it go well.”
I just had one of these not a week ago.
John: Yeah. So kickoff meetings are great. And first off congratulations Jared. It’s a very exciting time for you. I mean, when the sale happened that was great, but this is going to feel more real because this is a bunch of people in a room or a virtual room talking about how excited they are to be making your movie and what they see as the next steps to make that movie a reality.
So, that really is a kickoff meeting. It’s sort of the first time the whole team is together to talk about their mutual goals in trying to create this project.
Craig: Yeah. I never had one in movies, in features. My kickoff meetings have been in television. And we just had one the other day for The Last of Us. And, yes, you can get a lineup of intimidating people. I’ll tell you right now, Jared, you’re getting more of those intimidating people because they got less going on during the pandemic, so they’re getting on these calls because they can. Don’t panic about it.
But just know that while they’re all going to be talking, you have a voice, and a calm reassuring manner is always appreciated by everyone. It costs you nothing to be open right now. Listening is great. Being pleasant and reassuring I think is always your best bet. If they ask a question that you’re not prepared to answer you can say, “That’s a fantastic question and I want to give myself the benefit of time before answering. So I’m going to consider that one. Let me get back to you on that because I want to answer it correctly.” But otherwise just, you know, listen, people love hearing themselves talk.
Now, that’s actually happily not the case with my kickoff call. My kickoff call was awesome. But there are people that are just like blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And if you have one of those, let them do it.
John: What Craig says about being open and positive is absolutely correct. To really be listening. And it’s also fair to ask follow up questions that are phrased in a way that you’re truly trying to understand more information rather than being defensive. So just watch your tone a little bit there. What I think will be helpful about this kickoff call is it gives you a sense of what each person on the call’s vision is for what the movie is going to be. Because they have your screenplay, which they love, which is great, but they may each have slightly different visions of what that movie is going to be. And so it’s a first chance for you to clock what people actually think the movie is going to be in terms of what the budget is like, what the timeline is like, who they might see starring, a director if there’s not a director on board.
It’s a great chance to get a temperature reading for where people are at in terms of this. You’ll also probably hear some conflicting notes or some conflicting ideas. So, this won’t probably be a notes call, but you’ll get a sense of what’s important to different people. And it’s good for you to know that as the writer and to be able to assess how you might be able to implement those things or what things you’re going to need to watch out for down the road.
I would say be mostly excited and happy about this. Certainly publicly be mostly excited and happy about this. But also just be mindful that this is going to be your first chance to really get a sense of what people see for your movie down the road.
Craig: Yeah. For now.
John: For now.
Craig: Right. Because they’ll change their minds later.
John: They will.
Craig: And if anyone says something that freaks you out, don’t worry about it. You’re still going to do what you want. You know what I mean? They don’t know what they’re talking about until they see what you’ve done. The truth is that the kick off meeting, the real value is for them to find out vaguely when are you turning this in. That’s the most important thing. When are you turning this in?
John: Yeah. So, Craig, when are you turning in The Last of Us? That’s what we want to know.
Craig: Hmm? What?
Craig: They want to know when you’re turning it in. And they want to know that you’re not a knucklehead. And they want to know that you’re listening to them. The things that they’re saying in any given moment, especially if they’re disagreeing, are not super relevant because everything will be ultimately contextualized within the script itself that you write or rewrite in this case. So, good luck, Jared.
John: I’m going to sneak one last question in here which would have gone really well earlier on. Anne asks, “Will handwashing become the new ‘don’t start with your character waking up’ moment?”
Craig: God, yeah, there’s going to be a lot of that.
John: You’re going to see a lot of handwashing in movies.
Craig: Yeah, yeah, yeah. A lot of handwashing. I’m just saying already don’t do it.
John: Don’t do it.
Craig: Just don’t do it. There’s a lot of things we don’t show in movies. We don’t show people wiping their butts either. You’re clean. We get it. Don’t do it.
John: Yeah. Up to this point if I saw a character washing his or her hands for 20 seconds in a movie it’s like, oh, that person has OCD. Now you see it and it’s like, oh, that’s a perfectly reasonable person.
Craig: Right. That’s a responsible human being.
John: That’s a responsible American citizen. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is pandemic-related. It is a comic prepared by Nicky Case, Carmelo Troncoso, and Marcel Salathé that talks through how contact tracing actually works. And so contact tracing is this idea that at a certain point in this pandemic people will start going out into the world more and you’ll want people to see, OK, that person bumped into an infected person. How do we get information about who that person interacted with?
And I was really confused about how you would do this, especially how you would do this in a way that wasn’t incredibly oppressive and big brother like. What I liked about this comic is it talks through the ways we’re probably going to be able to do this app wise where you’re actually not spilling a ton of private information to this. It’s just that if two phones are close to each other for a certain period of time they will just exchange secret codes between each other. And then if one of those people does test positive it can notify the other phone that it bumped into saying like, hey, you should go get tested.
So, it’s actually a pretty clever way that this might all work. So it gave me some hope that as we move into further phases of how we’re dealing with this stuff there could be some pretty smart solutions.
Craig: Yeah, I think pandemic technology, preventative technology, and mitigating technology is going to be a massive new industry. It just feels obvious to me.
My One Cool Thing is similar to one I did recently, but you know, just helping people out during the quarantine phase here. So I had Online Codenames. And now I’m here to offer you Online Decrypto. Have I – I think I’ve done Decrypto.
John: I think it’s been a previous One Cool Thing. It’s such a good game.
Craig: It’s a great game. So the online version of it, rather than go into – it’s sort of Codenames in reverse. It’s actually more fun and intense than Codenames. It’s not as casual as Codenames is. Especially if you’re playing with some intense people it can be awesome.
So, as always, please make sure that you purchase the actual game. And for Decrypto I think it’s even more important than it was for Codenames because the actual notepad that they provide in the Decrypto game is excellent and really helps you organize the game play.
There’s a gentleman who wrote a script. Well, I don’t know. Might be a gentlewoman. It was a Redditer so I just immediately went to dude. I don’t know if it’s a man or woman. But they wrote a little program and it’s up on GitHub and it works really well.
If you don’t have your score pad you’re going to have to sort of cobble one together. But like I said you really should be buying these games if you’re going to be playing the online amelioration versions.
John: Cool. That is our show for this week. So stick around after the credits and Craig and I will talk about charity stuff. But otherwise Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Out outro this week is by Scott Anderson. If you have an outro – and listen, you have time. You can write us an outro. You can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. But 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. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs. And actually it’s really fun. With the transcripts I’ve been able to update the captions on our YouTube videos as well. So, Craig, you no longer say a bad word in the transcripts.
Craig: That was awesome.
John: For that. You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. Craig, thanks for a good discussion.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Craig, so you brought up charities. Let’s talk about charities and the challenge of running charities, fundraising for charities, actually doing the work of charities.
Craig: So, charities in the United States and I think this carries through across the world have to be registered if they’re going to confer the basic benefit of a charity to a donor, which is tax deductions. So, if you make a donation to a charity and it’s a proper registered charity with the appropriate tax service then you get to discount that amount of money from your taxable income.
In the United States most of your major charities will fall under something called a 501(c)(3). That’s the ridiculous tax code number that addresses this thing. But that means that a charity is a real company. It needs to have a board of directors. It needs to have bylaws and officers and accountants and accounting and all these things. And, of course, charities employ people. People are fundraising. People are disturbing the money. As you guys found out collecting a bunch of money might be easy initially. Dispersing it and handling the requests is hard.
Craig: And you are entrusted with enormous amount of cash. You need to make sure that the people that are working for you are trustworthy and that there are systems in place to prevent embezzlement and misappropriation. It costs money to run a charity.
Now, what happened sort of, I don’t know, seemed like it started happening in the ‘90s was a kind of reasonable concern about charity overhead. If I give my money to an organization and then I hear that they spend 30% of that on their overhead, which sounds like a bunch of crap stuff. Like, blech, lunches? Well, OK, you’re asking me for $10,000 and you’re going to spend $3,000 of it on stuff that isn’t helping poor children? No. I don’t want to do that.
And then another charity comes along and says, “No, we don’t do that. We’ve gotten our overhead down to 2%.” Well, you get my money. But here’s my question to you, John August. Two charities, both are going to be giving money to feed hungry children. One charity raises $1 million and they have a 1% overhead. So they have to remove $10,000. They give $990,000 to hungry children.
The other charity raises $10 million. They have a 10% overhead. They get to give $9 million to hungry children. Which charity is more effective?
John: Yeah. So the answer is both the second one and the answer is also you can’t necessarily know. Because effectiveness is really a measure of how much have they achieved of their goals. And their goals might be very different based on the community they’re trying to serve, what their actual objective is.
So, yes, the one with higher overhead probably is raising more money and putting more money out there in the field. But effectiveness really comes down to is the charity well run. Is it actually efficient at doing what it’s supposed to be doing? Is it putting the money that it has raised to the best use of the people they’re trying to serve or the animals it’s trying to serve or whatever organization it’s trying to serve? Is it really doing the thing it’s meant to be doing? And that you sometimes can’t know just on a numbers level.
Craig: That’s right. And it’s really hard to tell what the impact of overhead is on an organization. Because there are organizations where people can just get paid too much. Money can be wasted. There are organizations that are run poorly and they need to be held accountable. That’s in theory what a good board of directors would do.
On the other hand what we do know about charities is that getting really good people to work for that charity is hard. There are people who are excellent at their jobs. Having been on the boards of a couple of charities I have seen the difference a really good staff person makes as opposed to a not really good staff person. It’s transformational.
So, how do you get that person? You have to pay them.
John: You have to pay that person.
Craig: And like anyone else, you’re in a competitive employment marketplace and there are other charities that might want them, too. You need to compensate them. And in compensating them what you’re saying is we actually will be a better organization. We will raise more and we will distribute more and we will achieve more.
So, one of the things that has kind of been evolving in the charity world over the last 10 or 15 years is a notion that rather than looking at overhead percentage you try as best you can to, A, look at independent metrics of success as you’re suggesting. And also increasing the size of the pie. It’s not so much about how big of the pie is sliced for overhead but rather what is the slice of the pie. Or as George W. Bush famously said, “Make the pie higher.” [laughs]
John: I like a good high pie. I don’t know about you.
Craig: I mean, we used to think that he was a problem. Anyway. So because I have interfaced with people who work in charity and work for 501(c)(3)s, and my wife was working for nonprofits for quite some time, you begin to appreciate how dangerous the kind of squeeze became. Because it was hurting good people who were trying to do good things. And what was happening was a brain drain, a talent loss. When you ask, well, I can run your organization for $100,000 a year and have people tell me I’m paid too much, or I can just go across the street and work for private interest and get paid $700,000 and everyone tells me I’m successful and wonderful.”
Craig: Hmm. So these are the things that charities have to kind of balance. But if you are ever considering how to donate try to avoid the sites that are just like “overhead is everything.” It’s not.
John: Yeah. I will look at sort of how much money an organization brings in is designed to actually just continue fundraising. Because if an organization seems to mostly exist to fundraise that’s probably not going to be a very good use of money. So, if most of the money I’m giving them is going to go back into them sending me glossy magazines then that’s not an organization I necessarily want to be supporting as much. I always look for sort of what are they literally trying to – what are they doing – what did they do this last year? What did they do the year before? What is the actual effect of donations happening?
So a charity I work with is called FOMO. I’ll put a link in the show notes for that. It’s Friends of Mulanje Orphans. This is the orphan group that I visited in Southern Africa ten years ago. And I’ve been working with them since then. So they are a British charity and so when I give them money I can’t get a tax write-off because they’re a British charity. And trying to setup the US arm of that was so complicated that I ended up sort of giving up on that. But I can see exactly what they’re doing because they’re literally building buildings and schools for these kids. And so money I give directly becomes buildings there which is fantastic. And it’s great to be able to see what they’re able to do.
And when a charity is run long enough that the kids who grew up through it are now actually running it is terrific. So, that’s a sustainability that feels really important for me as I’m looking at some charities.
And then there’s just ad hoc stuff like what we did for Support our Supporting Staffs which was sort of a crisis need. But could clearly not become the sustainable solution because a bunch of volunteers like me going through Google spreadsheets to sort of figure out how to send out checks was not going to be sustainable.
Craig: Yeah. Precisely. Fundraising is a tricky one because it is the lifeblood of a charity. That is weirdly their business. Like those are the people that are paying and then the product is the charity that is delivered. And so development is an enormously important thing for any charity to do, because if the money doesn’t come in you can’t achieve your goals in any way. It’s a tricky thing because having been involved there are times when what will happen is you’ll say, you know what, let’s not send the glossy magazine out. We can save $40,000 and not send the glossy magazine. And you make that decision and then you get a phone call from a very irate person that donates a million dollars a year saying, “Where is my glossy magazine.” Get the glossy magazine back out because the numbers are the numbers. Math is math.
And this is why running charities is really hard. And all I can say is that try and find a charity that is doing the work that you want to see done and doing it effectively and make that your focus. Don’t make the focus how much the person running it gets paid or anything else. Just say are they getting the job done well and effectively and impressively or not. That’s kind of the way I analyze these things.
John: I’m also really mindful of mission creep which is where a charity is set up ostensibly to do one thing but then you look at them five years, 10 years down the road and you’re like, wait, that’s not at all what you’re supposed to be doing. And I’m not going to name the organization because I don’t want to blow up my replies, but there’s a big Los Angeles charity–
Craig: I know the one you’re talking about.
John: Yes. And so you’ll see billboards for it everywhere and it’s like, wait, that’s actually not what you’re about at all. Then when you actually look at what they’re doing it’s mostly about real estate suddenly. And it’s like, wait, that does not feel very close to the healthcare thing that you started off your mission doing. That is a great frustration of mine and that’s why there are charities who by name I would absolutely support but when you actually look at what they’re doing, oh my. No. I am not eager to support them.
Craig: Yeah. There is a sociological phenomenon called Crusaderism and crusading always – well not always – but typically starts with a kind of purity of purpose. Something tragic happens. A crusade is formed to combat it and fix it. And what happens is the crusaders become comfortable with crusading. If the problem is solved the crusade must continue, so what else? What else can we do? Because we don’t want to just shut down. They get used to it.
And I agree with you. Now, it’s possible that there are organizations that overtime you just look at and say, well, your name doesn’t really reflect what you do, but what you do is fantastic. OK, that’s different. Because a name is a name. But, yes, that is something to be aware of. And there are people who become incredibly comfortable with just donating to the same thing.
Shake your charity up a little bit. You don’t need to be in a rut and just keep pumping it into one thing. Look around. Diversify your portfolio a little bit as you seek to help people around you.
John: Yeah. So an example of a charity that I am involved with that its mission did change but they actually changed the name of their organization to reflect their mission had changed. So it’s now called Family Equality. But when it started it was basically a support group for gay and lesbian parents and trying to make sure that they had the emotional and community support they needed as gay parents. AS marriage equality became the law of the land some of their advocacy stopped making as much sense because like once you had marriage equality a lot of the other family equality stuff sort of came in with that. So they could instead just focus on what are the aspects of state and federal law that is not treating same sex couples the same when it comes to their parents. And so they changed the whole name of the organization to Family Equality to reflect like this is what we’re actually doing now and that felt like a good honest pivot to sort of where stuff needs to be at this moment.
John: Because it is recognizing that they couldn’t just keep fighting the last fight. And I would say that some of the organizations that were designed for same sex rights back before marriage equality have really struggled to figure out what their place is in this world once marriage equality became the law in the US.
Craig: It happens. I mean, sometimes a charity is a victim of its own success, particularly if the charity is kind of dealing with a binary cause. We are trying to switch something from off to on. Or from on to off. If it happens, well, what now? And you can see this obviously with certain disease-based charities. If you solve a particular disease then the charity that was dedicated to curing that disease becomes somewhat superfluous. What happens to that organization? To the people who work for it who rely on it for their livelihoods and so on and so forth?
Interesting questions and organizations have to face those challenges. Sounds like Family Equality did exactly the right thing which was just say we’re not going to pretend that this is still a problem. We’re not going to fear monger you and tell you that it will go away next year. We’re going to try and do something different but equally as important to the same kind of families we were advocating for before.
John: Agreed. Craig, thanks for a good discussion.
Craig: Thank you, John.
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