The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 442 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we get statistic. First, for decades the film and television industry has used a rule of thumb that one page of screenplay equals one minute of movie. But does it really? New research shows the correlation is not particularly strong. We’ll discuss what that means for screenwriters and look forward to a future that moves beyond pages.
Craig: And then we’re going to look at how the coronavirus, have you heard of that, John? Coronavirus?
John: I have. Yes.
Craig: We’re going to look at how that has impacted Los Angeles and the industry and we’re going to talk a little bit about what we’re doing and what you might want to do.
John: Yes. And for Premium members we’ll have a bonus segment in which Craig and I will debate which first level D&D spell we would choose to be able to cast in real life.
Craig: Throw down.
John: I put some real serious thought into this last night and I have my choices.
John: Now as we get started on this episode let’s do a little table setting here because we are recording this on a Thursday. You’re hearing this on Monday or Tuesday. So whether you’re in the US or somewhere overseas things are probably kind of weird and scary in regards to coronavirus and they’re probably different than how they are as we’re recording this.
So, we were talking before we started airing is that we’re not going to be a definitive podcast about all things coronavirus and there’s a hundred other podcasts out there you could be listening to. So, I’d like this to be kind of a safe place to not be freaked out about everything, if that makes sense.
Craig: Yeah. We’re already freaking people out about how hard it is to become a screenwriter. So, I mean, why pile on?
John: This will be our little nest of self-care. So it’s not going to be a doom and gloomy kind of podcast.
Craig: Yeah. We’ll give you some information. We’ll tell you how things are going here. But, yeah, you’re going to want to get your doom and gloom or hopefully your scientifically accurate information from places like the CDC or Johns Hopkins has a really good specific COVID-19 newsletter that you can subscribe to. So, good stuff out there.
John: All right. Let’s start with some follow up. Last week on the episode we talked about professional readers and how little they’re paid. We talked about the union. We talked about freelance readers. And we asked for listeners to write in with their experiences and a whole bunch of them did. So Megana went through a bunch of them and here is a sampling of some of what we got. Craig, do you want to start us off with Taylor?
Craig: Sure. Taylor from Burbank writes, “My fulltime position is as a development assistant for a production company but as the salary is barely enough to cover my monthly rent I also have a few jobs on the side. One of those is as a freelance script reader for Alibaba Pictures, or rather was as a freelance script reader because after about three years and no decline in the quality of my work I’ve been essentially ghosted. No more assignments. No more email responses. While I’m not exactly happy I have to find another side gig, after listening to this episode I was a bit horrified to realize how little I’ve been making. Two years in I was met with a congratulatory email I was now getting a raise from $45 a script to $55 and would now be paid $75 for a book, $85 if it were over 300 pages.
“Wow, almost a half a day’s salary for reading a script. And then John mentioned the rate he was receiving at the beginning of his career. I’m still not quite sure why Alibaba dropped me without warning, but as I was freelance and often wasn’t assigned enough scripts to even qualify for taxes at the end of the year it doesn’t seem like any big loss.”
John: Oh, Taylor from Burbank. So the fact that you were receiving the same money that I was getting 20 years ago, that’s a problem. I mean, reading scripts and writing coverage is hours of work. And to be making that little is crazy. I mean, you’re barely making minimum wage at that point.
Craig: And I assume that Alibaba Pictures is associated with Alibaba the large Chinese company?
John: I don’t think it actually is. I think it may be a different company. We left it in because he said we could leave it in, because he wasn’t working there anymore. I’m not sure which company that is, but they’re not paying a lot.
Craig: Well, I’m happy to say since he let us say it that Alibaba Pictures sucks. Yeah, you suck.
John: They should pay their people more.
Craig: They should pay their people something even approaching fair. That’s terrible. Shame on you, Alibaba Pictures. You suck.
John: Leslie would agree with you. She writes, “It is unconscionable that many agencies and production companies get away with paying readers the same rates that were paid to readers in the 90s, or barely a little bit more. #PayUpHollywood shows us that shame can work in getting Hollywood to live up to its so-called progressive values espoused by many in Hollywood. Granted, not all smaller companies can afford union rates, but there are plenty of higher-tiered companies that are getting away with paying too little.
“Not everybody wants to be a fulltime reader, but there should be more union reading positions for those that do. Considering how important reading is to this industry there should be more companies that provide union positions.”
Craig: Couldn’t agree more. And we’re going to try and exercise a little shame here.
John: Yeah. And I think Leslie does bring up a good point. There are people who read fulltime as their main job. Like our friend Kevin is a fulltime reader, which is great. But it’s more common that it is a little bit of piecemeal work. That people are doing a little extra on the side. And I think we’re trying to address both situations. If this is your side gig reading it’s got to be a side gig that’s actually worth doing. And if you are a fulltime reader you need to be paid like a fulltime employee and that’s why these people who have union benefits are getting union benefits.
Craig: No question. We can’t afford to have the reading of these things and the coverage of screenplays be reduced down to the lowest quality of gig economy as possible. It’s just not going to work for anybody at that point. That would be the definition of penny-wise, pound foolish.
Should we keep reading some more? Because we got a lot here.
John: Go to Colin.
Craig: Colin writes, “I’m a reader for an established entertainment company that will go unnamed because I love my job.” You got it, Colin. “They pay me $30 for a feature-length script. Less if it’s an hour-long or a comedy half-hour. Considering it takes around four hours to read a feature script thoroughly and produce the coverage, even $50 a script wouldn’t cover minimum wage. When I was first offered the position I quoted my employer $50 for script and was negotiated down to $30 because they make the very good point that they can find an intern to do it for free. Won’t be as good, but it’s not about being a good analyst, just one who can get the job done efficiently and quickly. I’m sharing this story because I feel lucky to have this opportunity and would never give it up to an intern.
“I’m proud to put it on my resume, but my resume also contains three other jobs that I need to have to support keeping the one I love. Fair warning to aspiring script analysts.”
John, I feel like Colin is being way too easy on this terrible established entertainment company.
John: I feel like Colin is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.
John: It’s just, come on. They’re not paying you well. It’s the job you love. The reason why you love the job is because you like reading scripts and writing coverage on it and because it’s giving you some creative satisfaction. That’s fine. That’s good. But you are not being paid properly for what you are doing. And the fact that you have to do outside work to cover your reading work just to make a living, that is a problem. You are not being paid nearly enough and so maybe they’re super nice where you work but they need to pay you better.
Craig: They don’t sound super nice.
John: No they don’t.
Craig: He says, “When I was first offered the position I quoted my employer $50 per script,” which was already low as far I’m concerned, and then was negotiated down to $30 because they make the very good point they can find an intern to do it for free. No they can’t. Colin, if they could find an intern to do it satisfactorily for free they would. You see what I’m saying? They’re just ripping you off.
So, “established entertainment company” that currently pays anyone, including Colin, $30 to cover a feature-length script, you suck. And you should be ashamed of yourself. And you have to stop and treat people humanely. The work that you’re going to get back from these people will not justify the cost savings. And even if it did, don’t you just want to be a human individual that treats people nicely?
John: Yeah. Well, there’s other people who are not treating people nicely. Let’s wrap up this segment with Ken who writes in, “I attended a graduate film program and in one of my classes we had a guest who is a big manager for writers and directors.” Craig, do you think this guy is going to turn out to be a good guy or a bad guy?
Craig: I’m going to go with terrible human being.
John: “He was a graduate of this university and offered the entire lecture hall of aspiring writers the opportunity to come to his office to meet with him one-on-one to discuss our scripts and careers. He seemed so sincere and eager to help.”
Craig: [laughs] I bet he did.
John: “When I went to the office he gave me about five minutes of his time to ask questions while he responded to emails. Fine, he’s a manager with successful clients. He’s busy. But then as I was leaving he told me the best way to stay in touch and build a relationship was to become a reader for his company. And unpaid reader. He had his assistant email me a few scripts and a coverage template and sent me on my way.
“I talked to my friends who also had meetings with this guy and they all had the same story. He spent a perfunctory couple of minutes with us hopeful aspiring writers in order to get free coverage. I found the whole situation pretty gross. I never heard of a single student receiving any meaningful career advice or help, even after covering many scripts.”
Craig: I mean, first of all, the graduate film program needs to never have this person back. Let’s start with that. Because they’re just letting the fox into the henhouse. Second of all, I’m not saying that this person is a horrendous pile of flaming garbage. I’m saying that they have behaved in a way that is consistent with being an enormous flaming pile of garbage. What an outrageous and disgusting thing to do.
John: So this is making me reflect back on the time after I graduated from film school and I was working as an assistant. My last assistant job. And so I was working as an assistant to these two producers. And they said, “Hey, get some film school people in to be interns and they can do coverage and such.” And so I posted it at USC and I actually had a couple people come in who were my interns. And I would give them scripts and they would come in with the coverage and we’d talk through their stuff. And I don’t think they got anything meaningful out of it except for the one who was ultimately hired to replace me when my bosses fired me.
But I will say there is some logic to if you were doing this for two or three weeks, if you’re going through a couple of times of coverage, and I think I actually did help them write better coverage because I would sit with them, read their coverage, and sort of be able to help them write better coverage. So I think I did help them to some degree. So I don’t want to say that an unpaid – well, unpaid internships are problematic for many reasons. I do think there is some value to learning how to write coverage. And if you’re not being paid to learn how to write coverage I get that for a small period of time.
But to try to bring through wave after wave of these people to do free work for you is ridiculous and needs to be stopped.
Craig: I mean, it’s exploitative. They asked this person to come in because he’s a big manager for writers and directors. They’re hoping that this individual can provide value to the students in a graduate film program. Again, to put in perspective, Ken and all of his fellow classmates paid money to be in that room. An enormous amount of money. I assume that a number of them took on significant debt. But the whole point was that they would have access to interesting people who would benefit them, like a manager who has no interest in benefiting them. He just wants to beat them up even more by getting free work out of them like they’re, I don’t know, Dickensian orphans that he can gather up, Fagin style, to go pick pockets.
It’s sick. It’s absolutely sick. I’m so angry. I want to know who it is. Oh, god, I want to know who it is.
John: We’ll email off the chain and sort of see if Ken will tell us who that person is.
Craig: If people read about a prominent big manager for writers and directors turning up dead in a week or two, I didn’t do it. I’m just going – not at all.
John: Not at all.
John: You’re saying in advance if it were to happen it wasn’t Craig who did it.
Craig: I’m saying I didn’t do it. [laughs] I didn’t do the thing that hasn’t happened yet.
John: So, as we wrap up this little discussion about professional reading and people who are reading for their careers, we made no great progress here. But I think the way forward is to chart out sort of what’s acceptable and start applying shame for doing things that are unacceptable. And some of that shame should be vastly underpaying or not paying for this kind of work. And recognizing that there may be a place to learn how to do coverage, where you’re not being paid for it, but when you are doing the kind of work that a person is normally paid to do that means you should be paid to be doing that work.
John: It’s just sort of a definitional circular logic thing. So the quality of paid work should be for pay.
Craig: I completely agree. I hope that what we can do is something similar to what we did alongside all the assistants who were struggling and continue to struggle for fair treatment in the Hollywood workplace come up with a vague guideline of what seems right. And then say, invite I guess, major employers to sign on and say, yes, that’s the way we’re going to do this. We are going to pay that amount. And it’s important because the clients of awful people like this manager have no clue that their scripts and other scripts that are being submitted to them have been covered by unpaid interns. Unreal.
John: Yep. Now, in the setup for the segment last week I said that we would talk about both professional readers and like reading your friends’ scripts and we sort of never got to the reading your friends’ scripts and some guidance on that. So Jerry wrote in saying he really wished we would talk a little bit about that.
And so I want to spend a few moments to talk about the difference of reading someone whose script you know and sort of someone comes to you with a script and says, “Hey, would you read this and tell me what you think?” Because that’s a very different experience and it’s important to sort of distinguish those two things.
So, if someone comes to me with a script that they want me to read, I will start with a question and this is a question that Kelly Marcel actually sort of first asked me. I’ll ask do you want me to tell you that you’re brilliant, or do you want me to tell you what’s broken and needs to be fixed.
John: And when she said that to me it’s like a lightbulb just went off. It’s like, oh, yeah, you know what, those are very different things and sometimes I need one and not the other. And so just being clear what it is the person actually needs.
So, if it is a situation they are looking for things that need to get fixed it’s important to structure your feedback to them in terms of the movie that they’re actually trying to make. When you are giving them your honest feedback don’t try to change it into a thing it’s not, or at least not the movie that they want to make. So you are going to need to ask some questions probably at the start like I see two different ways this could go. It seems more like you’re headed in this direction. If that is the direction you want to go in let me structure my comments towards that movie rather than the movie I sort of wish you would make. That always feels really important to me.
And finally I would say one of the most important kinds of notes I get from a friendly read is when they tell me where they fell off the ride. Because hopefully they were with you for a lot of the script, a lot of the story, but at some points they dropped off or they got a little bit bored, or they might have stopped reading if they didn’t feel a social obligation to keep reading. It’s so important to tell people where you got confused, where you got bored, where it just wasn’t clicking for you. Where you lost faith in the movie. Because those are the things that are so hard for the writer sometimes to recognize in their own work.
Craig: Yeah. You’re describing somebody who is serving a friend in an advisory capacity. So you’re not saying, “Well, I read your script. I don’t think anybody is going to make this.” That’s not useful. Or “I don’t this idea.” That’s also not useful. “I don’t really go for these sorts of movies.” Not useful. “Wasn’t very funny.” Not useful. None of those things are useful. You’re there to be advisory.
The scale that I offer is regular, spicy, or extra spicy. And many times people will say, “Oh yeah, no, extra spicy.” And I’m like just take a moment. Think about it. Extra spicy means I’m going to talk to you the way I talk to myself. And it’s not pretty. OK? So, take a moment. There’s no shame in regular or spicy. And a number of times people are like, “Oh, OK, let me back off to spicy or regular.”
The idea is to try and suss out from them what they were trying to do. And then say, listen, I think given that you’re trying to do that maybe consider doing this. So it’s all very advisory. As opposed to professional reading which is entirely a kind of marketplace analysis. It’s evaluatory rather than advisory. Is this what we want? Is it to our standard? No, yes, the end.
John: Yeah. I mean, literally coverage on the title page it says pass, consider, or maybe. And you’re scoring things into a grid. It’s not the same function as trying to help something. And so it’s also important to note that if you ever see coverage on your own project first sit down and be ready to just shudder a bit. Because you will see that it’s only pointing out problems and not pointing out solutions. It’s literally just looking for threads to pull. And so it’s not a constructive thing to read your own coverage. I’ve done it a couple of times. I would not recommend it to anybody.
Craig: It would be extra spicy almost always.
John: Yeah. So a thing to avoid.
Always imagine yourself getting the notes that you’re about to give and be thinking what would be constructive to you as a writer to hear and that can include some tough love about things that aren’t working, but it can be tough love delivered really genuinely with love.
John: All right. Let us move on to one of our main topics. So back in 2006 I answered a question from a reader on my blog. And I should stipulate it’s just so weird that I can Google questions and I find answers to things I answered in 2006.
Craig: You mean you’re providing your own Google hit back is what you’re saying?
John: I feel like past me is offering a gift to present me.
John: Aw. And it’s weird reading my old posts because I still sound like myself. I’m very consistent sort of year to year. But here was the question I answered–
Craig: Robots don’t age. [laughs]
John: We just don’t age at all. “Every screenwriting book I’ve read, class I took, and basically the first rule I learned says one page of a properly formatted script equals approximately a minute of screen time. I know one page of say a battle can last five minutes whereas one page of quick dialogue may last ten seconds if the actors talk fast. So my question is is this rule true?”
And so back in the day I said the rule is not really a rule. It’s true-ish, but it’s true-ish mostly because most scripts are about 120 pages. Most movies are about two hours. It kind of works out that way. So, I guess you can say it’s a very crude rule of thumb, but it’s no more than that. And we can obviously think of exceptions and I listed the movies I’d made at that point and sort of what my script page count was and what the actual running time of the movies were. And there wasn’t a strong correlation.
John: But then a couple weeks ago I got thinking, you know what, I wonder how strong the correlation really is. And so I asked Stephen Follows, so he was the guy – remember, god, a year ago, two years ago I was talking about missing movies, like the movies you can’t find on DVD or on streaming? Like movies that just sort of disappeared.
John: He’s the guy who did a systematic study of like which movies are not available for streaming anywhere. So I went to Stephen Follows and said like, hey, would you be interested in tackling this question and going through a bunch of scripts, going through a bunch of running times and really charting this out how strong is the correlation between how many pages a script is and how long a movie is.
John: And, Craig, can you guess the answer?
Craig: Not in any real significant way.
John: No. It’s not a very strong correlation at all. There’s some clustering around one would be a perfect correlation, so a 111-page script is 111 minute movie. But only 22% of scripts had a ratio between 0.95 and 1.05. And two-thirds were within 0.8 and 1.2. So a lot of them were even sort of beyond those borders. You can have scripts that were 100 pages long, it could be anywhere between 80 and 120 minutes, which is not surprising to you or to me because we’ve all encountered that.
Craig: Yeah. So, if you’re supposed to have a 100 and your range is between 80 and 120, this is not good. The concept we’re dealing with here is standard deviation which is to say how average is your average? If you add it all up and, yeah, there’s like a lot of scripts turn out where they’re really close to 1:1 ratio, in this case 0.95:1.05, then OK, it’s good enough. But the problem is standard deviation. A lot of scripts are not even close to that. And so you average because there are a bunch of outliers, if you want to call them that, to the left, and a bunch of outliers to the right. And in our case there’s so much variation it would seem in the actual timing of anyone’s particular page length that the measurement is not useful at all.
John: So we should say as an industry we have a person whose job is to do script timing. That is generally the script supervisor. He or she sits with the screenplay before production and in consultation with the director goes through scene by scene, does an estimated running time per scene, adds it all up and comes up with a crude estimate of like this is how long this movie will probably last if we were to put all of these scenes into the finished film. That is useful. That is useful to see if something is going to be really short or really long, or if things are feeling long that we might want to take something out. But that is a completely different skill than just counting the number of pages on it.
Craig: Yeah. There are two reasons that a studio needs to know from a screenplay how long of a movie are we looking at. Reason number one, as you mention, is what’s the running time of the movie going to be because they don’t want say a family comedy to be 2.5 hours. Kids are not going to make it. And the other one is how expensive is this going to be because the budget of movies is defined in no small way by how many days you have to shoot.
It turns out that the one-page per minute rule satisfies neither of those needs. You’ve got a script supervisor who can do a much better job of telling you roughly how long the movie would be. And you have a first AD who can tell you a much better job of roughly how many days you’re going to need to shoot it. So, we should get rid of it entirely. Warner Bros I think still contractually requires that your screenplay be 120 pages or fewer.
John: Yeah. I’ve signed contracts that require that. I was just looking at the contract I did for this next thing. And I got up to 130 pages, so I could just go nuts.
John: But literally they don’t have to accept the script if it’s longer than that which is just ridiculous. So, let’s talk about sort of why it matters overall. The industry is obsessed with page count. And because it’s a number that they can look at and try to quantify and so that pressure pushes down on screenwriters in that we sort of have screenplay dysmorphia disorder where we will do crazy things to try to cut page count down. And so it’s the reason why the decision to double space scene headers or single space them. Why we’ll take out words on page 14, just like small little words, or like cheat margins on a dialogue block just to sort of pull up later pages.
And we waste hours–
John: Hours. Collectively we waste thousands of hours probably a year doing these little tweaks on things just to bring it from 121 pages to 117 pages because it matters, even though it doesn’t matter.
Craig: Yeah. It matters even though it doesn’t matter. I mean, I’m really bad because I also hate dialogue being split across pages, so I fiddle around and try and avoid that as well. But, yeah, we waste a lot of time doing this and it speaks to the stupidity of it. If I can not change the meaning in any way, shape, or form and reduce my screenplay by six or seven pages which I could easily do. Easily. All those little widows, those huge blocks of white space–
John: Widows and orphans, yeah.
Craig: Gone, right? So you just eliminate those and, boom, you can do it. And so then what does this one-page-per-minute thing mean at all? People should just start talking about it. It’s stupid.
John: Yeah. Another reason why it matters is because movies don’t have pages. Pages only exist in the screenplay format. But the pages don’t match up to the movie at all. And so movies have scenes, they have sequences, but they fundamentally don’t have pages. And so working in animation one of the things I actually really enjoy about it is at a certain point you stop caring about pages because it’s just become sequences. They number things really early on in the process because they move from the pages to boards to actually animating things. And so you stop caring about what page something was on.
That is good and that is probably how we need to move overall as an industry is to stop thinking about pages and start thinking about scenes. And stop thinking about the screenplay being this paper document that has now become digitalized as a PDF but is still essentially the paper document that everything is sort of focused around. If it’s actually the text that matters, it’s the scenes that matter, the sequences that matter. We should really be focusing on a format that is about those scenes and not about what could be printed on a piece of paper.
Craig: Yeah. We are riding in a jalopy just cause. There’s no reason for it.
John: Yeah. Now, if we were to move beyond pages, if we were to move beyond the PDF, some things that could be vastly improved. First off is security. So, right now Craig you’ve probably had to deal with these when you get a screenplay that’s locked down that you have to go through the special app to use? Have you dealt with that?
Craig: I’ve done that. I’ve also had to physically – so when I read Rian Johnson’s script I had to drive to Disney, go in a room, give them my phone, and then get like AE Ink reader kind of thing, not an iPad, but some sort of reader like that. Read it. Hand it back to them. Get my stuff back and go, after signing 400 NDAs. Yeah.
John: Yeah. I’ve had that kind of situation or things that are printed on red or other situations. Or like they would send me an iPad that had been locked down that I could only read that script on. But more often I get this terrible app and it’s the equivalent of [Pix], but it’s just for like PDFs. But it’s essentially like a Flash app that shows you one page at a time and they can digitally cancel you from it. So like if they decided they wanted to hire a different writer instead of you, like you could be on page 67 and it would just disappear.
And so if you’re going to do that, I guess you’re going to do that. But the problem is it’s all still based on a PDF and so they’re still sending you an image of a page rather than actually sending you the text. And there’s so many better digital ways to handle that kind of security to keep that stuff locked down. And if we were to be willing to get rid of the PDF we could do that stuff a lot better.
Craig: Well, eventually we will. I mean, it is disturbing to think of any kind of – I mean, maybe that application isn’t Flash-based, but when I hear the word Flash I definitely don’t think security.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really backwards. I mean, one of these days I’m going to go off on CastIt.Biz. Have we ever talked about CastIt?
John: I don’t think we have. It’s worth a small discussion of what CastIt is, because everyone just loathes it.
Craig: CastIt is a web-based “solution” for casting where you log in, you access your project file, so let’s say it’s for Chernobyl. And then it keeps all of the little video clips of the taped auditions of everybody, along with their names.
John: In theory it is so much better than the days of tapes you’d get from casting.
Craig: Sure. But what I just said does not sound like it would be hard to do. It seems like most of the web has mastered the art of video archiving and database management. CastIt.Biz is literally unchanged since, I don’t know, 1998? I’m not kidding. I mean, I remember using it in 1999. It looks exactly the same. It is horrendous. The navigation is dismal. It’s ugly. For the life of me I have no idea why people are still using it. It sucks.
John: A friend of mine was working on a rival situation, a rival platform for it, and wasn’t able to make it work. It’s the Final Draft problem. It’s just they are established and people are familiar with it and so people are scared of change and they’re not changing but they should change.
Craig: Well, CastIt.Biz is a weird – I actually feel bad for them. Whereas Final Draft makes me angry. Because they have all this money and they keep “innovating” which is worse than actual innovating. It’s like fake innovation. Like, look, now we can do dual dialogue better. It’s like, dummies, that should have been there from the beginning, but whatever. CastIt.Biz, it’s almost like one day someone is going to be like, oh yeah, there’s a weird smell coming from their apartment.
Craig: Like you open the door and there’s going to be a coder slumped over and his cats have mostly eaten him. I mean, I can’t imagine that someone is actually over there going – anyway, poor CastIt.Biz. I do think that we do need a much better solution for this. The screenplay, first of all the screenplay format is ancient and creaky. And the idea of PDFs is ancient and creaky. The page-per-minute is ridiculous. It literally makes no sense.
Yeah, technology has not – well, we lag behind terribly.
John: Yeah. And so two last things. Collaboration could be much better if we’re not so obsessed with the physical representation of the page. So I both mean in terms of real time collaboration, the way that you can share Google Docs and update stuff in real time. The way that you and I are updating our workflow in real time as we change stuff. That is much simpler if you’re not trying to match a PDF page.
Also, the ability to sort of put notes on things makes much more sense if you don’t have a physical page that you’re sort of trying to represent.
And then version control. So really when we talk about script revisions and colored pages and all that stuff, it’s a really archaic old way of doing version control.
John: Where everyone says like, OK, well, we’ll now add page A36, which is going to be a cherry page, which will go into the script. And you know what? It’s charming that we had that system. That system needs to go away.
John: No other system would ever have sheets of colored paper to represent sort of how stuff needs to fit together. We can do version control so much better and push it out to everybody and everyone can be looking at the most recent version of the script at all times because we’re not so paper obsessed.
Craig: 100%. The current revision system with revision marks and all the rest of it is based on Xeroxing. That’s just based on a large copy machine cranking stuff out. And we don’t have the ability to do very simple things. Everybody reading it for instance with a certain level of permissions should be able to just cycle through the revisions of a single line of dialogue. Just cycle through if you want.
And setting permissions, by the way, is another huge aspect of this.
John: Totally. That’s both security and collaboration. That’s what you need to do.
Craig: What are we going to do? Are you going to fix this?
John: I am not going to fix this myself. But I will say that as I think about this the two main products that my company makes, Highland 2 which its first claim to fame is that it could melt PDFs down so you could get the actual screenplay text out of it. That was its first trick was its ability to do that. And then Weekend Read which is to reformat PDFs so that you can read them on your phone. In both cases they’re trying to deal with the huge limitations that the current system is putting on things.
I would love to not have to solve these problems because we just agree as an industry – it doesn’t have to be one other solution. It can be multiple other solutions. It can be different ways to handle stuff. I kind of don’t care how we decide to do it. I don’t care if it’s one industry standard. I just think we need to be willing to move beyond our current situation that’s set up. And I think the page-per-minute is a part of this. We have this illusion that this rule of thumb is actually a rule. And it was never a rule.
The world is not going to fall apart if we stop worrying about screenplay pages and just focus on the actual text.
Craig: Yeah. That’s not why the world is going to fall apart. [laughs]
John: [laughs] There’s lots of other challenges facing the industry.
John: Yeah. There is. All right, so that’s my little rant there. This is one of those rants without an actual call to action other than just as screenwriters, as people in the industry, hey, what if we were to stop just obsessing so much about pages and page count. And recognize that there could be different ways to do this that would make so much more sense. And we have lots of showrunners listening to us, lots of writer-directors out there. Maybe on your next project think about how you might go to a workflow that was not so PDF/page obsessed.
Craig: Maybe I can get Neil Druckmann to figure this out.
Craig: I mean, the videogame business is so version controlled and collaborative and permission based and all that.
John: Craig, maybe I’m just speaking to an audience of you. You have this opportunity with your new show. Think about ways that don’t have to use the normal screenplay way of doing stuff.
Craig: Oh, I like where this is going.
John: And report back to us what you decide.
Craig: Fine. Done.
John: Cool. All right. Now it’s come time for us to talk about the coronavirus or COVID-19. And really we want to focus on the unique impact it has had on film and television in Los Angeles because that’s sort of what we know.
So, I wanted to start by talking about film because movies, theatrical films, are designed to shown in big theaters with a bunch of people. And you talk about opening weekends and buying tickets and popcorn and a bunch of people in a place. And that is not conducive to keeping this disease under control. So, right now as we’re recording this it’s not clear what’s going to happen with movie theaters, which ones are going to stay open, but clearly we’re looking at dramatic declines. Already Broadway is closed. Disneyland is closed. Sporting events and concerts are canceled.
Movies are shifting their release dates. And the film industry as a whole I think some of the greenlights have started to become kind of flashing yellow lights because we just don’t know what is going to happen to the future of theatrical releases.
Craig: It’s not good. The thing that haunts me a little bit is how much time these businesses can withstand while being closed down. Because it seems that a lot of businesses run the way a lot of homes run financially, which is hand to mouth. No pun intended. If we’re not open today we’re going to be out of business. And that’s frightening.
So, yeah, I’m very concerned. The movie theater experience was already being severely impacted right now. It’s going to be hammered. And also I just think studios are not releasing their movies. They’re just delaying them until such time as theoretically everything is OK. But we know that Broadway as of today, our recording, has shut down. Disneyland is shutting down. The NBA suspended their entire season. I have no doubt that Major League Baseball will – I think Major League Baseball, my guess is continue but not with people in the stands. They’ll be playing to empty stands.
John: They’ll be playing to television. So sporting events I could see the ability for them to carry on in some way because they do have a tremendous home audience there. They’re not making all their money by selling tickets to that venue, that event. Versus theatrical features it is about butts in seats. And I’ve talked about on the show before that my husband Mike used to run all the movie theaters in Burbank. So he had 30 screens that he needed to run every weekend. And a ton of teenagers are working for them. And just imagine how stressful it must be for the person who is in his job right now to be thinking about safety of his own employees but also thinking about how do we keep this business running.
Craig: I mean, in some ways it becomes a very simple thing. There’s not a lot to do except shut down. The obligation that we have to our employees as employers becomes an enormous thing. As a nation we’re not particularly good at it. And so we’re about to find out what we’re really made of.
John: Now, Craig, if you were a studio boss and we often cast you as the studio boss on these podcasts–
Craig: Yes, of course.
John: And you have something like the Bond movie, some sort of giant event, at what point might you decide to put that on Pay-per-view or some sort of like launch that movie somewhere other than in the theaters? What would go into your decision making process?
Craig: It depends on the film. So, a movie like Bond is essentially an evergreen. You can theoretically release a Bond movie whenever you want. Is there an enormous cost to delaying a Bond movie? Probably not an enormous cost. There are other movies that feel somewhat timely. A sequel for instance, like a proper sequel. You want to capitalize on a hit. Well, if you delay it for a year it’s not going to seem so timely.
Or, if you’re in competition with another movie. Things like that. But again you don’t really have much of a choice. If you put something on Pay-per-view you’re going to be losing an enormous amount of money. Because when they decide to release something theatrically they have already done the numbers. They modeled it. It makes sense to do it. It doesn’t mean that their models always turn out correctly. Obviously there are huge bombs. But by and large something as blue chip as a James Bond movie they kind of have to release it theatrically. Because the amount of money they’re going to make on “Pay-per-view,” they’re going to make that anyway after the theatrical release.
John: Yeah. I do worry that if you were to release a movie like Bond on Pay-per-view it immediately drops the value for – it becomes pirated on day one. And so if you’re trying to maintain some window between the Pay-per-view event and sort of it normally being on iTunes, that’s difficult because everyone can pirate it immediately. It is a real challenge. I don’t think there’s a great solution to it.
John: I will say that I’m working under the assumption that movie theaters probably will close. Who knows where we’re at on Tuesday when this drops? I will commit at this moment that once the government says that movie theaters can reopen I’m going to go that weekend. I really want the theatrical experience to remain. I want to make sure our theaters don’t close. That our theater chains can keep going because big screens are great. And I love to be able to watch a movie with an audience. And I would hate for this to kill our theatrical experience.
Craig: Yeah. Me too. It’s disconcerting.
John: Now let’s talk about both film and television, the challenges facing there. The challenge of a group of people working together. So in some ways it’s like any office or any sort of workplace. There are people working together to make our movies and to make our TV shows. In the case of TV you have writers’ rooms. And so I just saw Ryan Knighton was headed back to Vancouver because the TV show he’s on is now a virtual writers’ room rather than an actual writers’ room with people in a room together.
John: And that’s a choice that showrunners are making or studios are making for showrunners about we’re not supposed to have a big group of people together to do stuff. So for writers’ rooms you can make that virtual. It’s not ideal but you can make that virtual.
For actual production, for gaffers and grips and props and everyone else, there’s no working at home for that. And production is already being hugely impacted.
Craig: Without question. Across the board everything. I mean, I heard that NBC/Universal had shut down all production of all television shows. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I’m hearing stuff. I mean, it does seem like that’s what’s going on.
John: The other challenge is if you are a show that’s traveling someplace, so like the Mission: Impossible movie was supposed to go to Venice. Not only can you not film where you’re supposed to be filming, but there’s the real risk of being stuck someplace. Like I was supposed to be going to France and Switzerland in two weeks for my vacation. Even before this got especially bad my real worry was like, oh, we could just be stuck there and not be able to come back to the US. And that is the concern for anybody working on a production overseas is that you cannot get back to where you’re supposed to be getting to. So it’s tough.
Craig: Yeah. I was supposed to – we’re recording this on March 12. I was supposed to be on a plane yesterday to London for a couple of award ceremonies. And we obviously canceled that trip like two weeks ago. But I think the ceremonies themselves are canceled. If I had been there, well, it’s the weirdest. I can’t understand. So apparently we have stopped accepting people from Europe except from the United Kingdom. So if you’re in Europe just get to the United Kingdom. What?
John: It makes no sense.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: Take the train and get to–
Craig: Oh geez.
John: As we’re recording this I’m supposed to be at the Tucson Festival of Books. And so they kept sending updates like, you know, oh, here’s the precautions we’re going to take. I’m like they’re going to cancel the Tucson Festival of Books. I’m just waiting and waiting and like, yep, they pulled the plug. That’s why I’m here recording on a very rainy Thursday afternoon rather than from Tucson.
Craig: I guess if there’s a silver lining here it’s that it’s never been easier to communicate with each other and see each other without being physically with each other.
John: Absolutely. So a lot of my meetings for this week and next week have become phone calls or Skype sessions. That’s fine. A lot of that stuff does make sense. There are advantages to being together in a room. There’s a reason why writers’ rooms are rooms and there’s things you can do in a room that you can’t do virtually. But given the choices, yeah, virtual makes a lot of sense.
John: Now let’s talk about sort of if there’s any upside is that this is a great opportunity to catch up on a bunch of stuff you’ve been meaning to watch. If you’re a streamer this feels like a time to really showcase the things that you’ve got. And so some of the features that would have normally been going to theatrical will probably end up on streaming. They’ll get an audience. And it will be interesting to see over these next few months what that feels like.
I know our family, we started making a shared Apple note listing out all the movies we planned to watch as a family. And so it is an opportunity for your own film festival.
Craig: Well that is true. Just as it is the best time to communicate without being near each other physically, it is also the best time to be stuck in a house with a want for entertainment. Because there are thousands. Thousands.
John: Yes. There’s far too much TV to watch and now you have a little more time to watch all the TV you have not watched.
So let’s talk about in addition to safety precautions and sort of all the standard advice which people should follow. You should watch your hands. You should stop touching your face. You should listen to the advice of actual medical professionals. But what are some creative precautions or preparations that a writer could take? Let’s take a few minutes to talk through those. Because if you’re listening to this podcast and you are a writer, how do you best take advantage of this time? And to me I think it starts with making some sort of writing plan. List the projects you’re considering. Pick one of your projects. And then schedule time each day to write it. And make a plan for how you’re going to do it. Set some goals of effort. Not necessarily that you’re going to finish by a certain time but that you’re going to get a certain amount of work done each day. It could be pages. It could be words. Whatever. And find some system for holding yourself accountable.
If you have some friend who can be your accountability on this. That you are going to spend some time over these next challenging couple of weeks and months with your Internet turned off, with your Twitter shut down, actually focusing on doing something productive and good creatively and not just be a despair machine.
Craig: Yeah. You don’t want to be a despair machine. I mean, look, I’ve got my work to do. I’m doing my work. It’s hard. I find myself very distracted. Very worried. Very concerned. And I have to allow for that as well. I think it is perfectly reasonable for us to say as writers, “Maybe I don’t get as much done over the next few weeks as I would normally, because there’s stuff going on in the world.” And if we’re any good at our job we are kind of spongey when it comes to emotions and feelings. And we’re going to feel stuff. And it’s not going to feel great.
If you’re sitting there writing something sunny or happy it may be harder for you. If you’re sitting there writing something brutal, it may be hard for you. So, you know, just take it easy on yourselves. I don’t know how else to advise here because, of course, the most important thing is that you try as best you can to stay healthy and keep your loved ones healthy, and that includes your noggin. Writing second, health first.
John: Yeah. I got offered a project this week that I think in a different week would have been like oh yeah absolutely I’ll do that. That feels like a dream. And literally just like what that project was about and this week is just not a good combination. This period that we’re in is just not a good combination. So I passed on it. Not because it wasn’t a great and worthy project, but because I just knew that I did not have the emotional bandwidth to be putting it into that script and be living my actual life.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, it’s weird. With me sometimes the subject matter, you think like, OK, writing Chernobyl or Last of Us, which is a global pandemic, you know, I mean, you think well geez. Actually weirdly for me individually the subject matter isn’t what does it. It’s just the concentration. It’s when the world is demanding my attention and I have to leave it and go to the world in my head it’s hard. It’s just hard.
John: The one thing I want to make sure listeners keep in mind though is you have permission to turn it off. It is important to sort of keep informed, but you can keep informed like once a day. And that’s OK. If you’re not up to every hour’s new drama that’s all right.
When I was living in France in the lead up to the 2016 election I got so stressed out that at a certain point I took Twitter off my phone and took all the news sites off my phone. And I just made a deal with Mike where once per day he could just give me the recap of what’s going on because I just couldn’t actually process it anymore. And I think it’s all right to give yourself permission to look away and to focus on some other things. And indeed it’s probably healthier to just draw some boundaries between when I’m going to be aware of the stuff and when I’m going to let myself cocoon within myself and work on my own stuff.
Craig: Right. Exactly. You just have to take care of yourself, as best you can. Yeah. Maybe it will become a nice escape. It’s hard to say.
John: Yeah. It could. I mean, I will say that a lot of our listeners are probably younger than 9/11 or other sort of big dramatic – the Northridge earthquake.
Craig: I was here.
John: Yeah. I was here. Those were big, scary times. But there were also good moments during it where there were moments where you saw everyone coming together and rising up and being better. So, I don’t get concerned about everything falling apart as much when I realize that there are good people out there who are trying to put stuff together. And I can imagine myself as one of those people.
I often talk on the podcast about sort of seeing yourself as the protagonist of the story of your life. And so if I imagine John August as the hero in this saga right now, I think about what that person would do and what are some choices that he could make that would – as difficult as things are – would lead to a better outcome. And that’s sometimes helpful.
Craig: In your story though you’re just laughing as all organic matter perishes.
John: [laughs] That is true. Finally the robots will–
John: Will rise up. All right. It has come time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is actually a bit of a law rule here. It’s actually a Scriptnotes episode. Episode 99, which was our Psychotherapy for Screenwriters. So, I posted it on YouTube and one of the cool things about having all of our transcripts is you can now post videos and then upload the transcripts and it will automatically sync up the transcript to our talking. And it turned out really, really well.
And so Episode 99 is when we talked with Dennis Palumbo who is a therapist who mostly deals with screenwriters and talks through their issues. It’s one of our most popular episodes and I just thought it was a good time to put that up for everyone who wants to listen to it can listen to it.
The idea to put the transcripts as closed captions came in conversation with Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman. Shoshannah Stern was on our Christmas episode. And as we were working through the logistics of getting her on the show it really became clear that for folks who are deaf podcasts aren’t like such a great thing.
Craig: Yeah. Weird.
John: Weird, huh? I mean, as an audio-only format they’re kind of inaccessible. And so in the interest of accessibility we’ve always done transcripts. The YouTube video is another way to make some of what we do a little bit more accessible. So check that out if you want. There’s a link in the show notes to Episode 99.
Craig: Great. I like that. Even if there’s nothing to watch per se, if you are deaf and you’re able to watch the captions go by in the cadence of the discussion–
John: That’s right.
Craig: You get, I think, a better sense of the way the discussion flows as opposed to just reading it, which is, you know, reading.
John: Cool. Craig, what do you got?
Craig: Well, sticking on this whole COVID-19 thing, there is a very helpful, I think, newsletter the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security is putting out. You can subscribe to it online. We’ll provide the link. But, well yeah, no reason for me to read it out loud. By the time you hear this you will have that link.
It’s good. It’s good because it does not bombard you every two seconds as far as I can tell. I’ve only received one so far in the one day I’ve had the subscription. But it’s very measured and thoughtful and scientific, fact-based. It keeps you updated. It has running totals. It is not a freak-out alarm, but it is really informative. So, probably worth taking a look at that.
They are, because of the demand, sometimes when you sign up some people may get a timeout error. Just try it again.
John: Great. That is our show for this week. So reminder, if you’re a Premium member stick around and we will be talking about our first level spells. But otherwise Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by James Launch and Jim Bond. We’re using one featuring Aline Brosh McKenna. It’s a repeat, but it’s a worthy repeat because it’s happy and bouncy and sometimes you need a happy, bouncy, dancey song.
Craig: True that.
John: If you have an outro send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re running a little bit low on outros, so maybe you could take some of this time to write us some outros.
Ask@johnaugust.com is also the place to send longer questions, but for short questions on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re just about to record.
Craig, have you a good week.
Craig: Thanks, you too, John.
John: Craig, magic. Let’s talk some magic. So this was a random idea. I’m not sure where it came from. And we should say that the idea behind this, so this is Dungeons & Dragons Spells, Fifth Edition. First level spells can be from any class, but you suggested and I think it’s a good suggestion that no healing spells will be included in this pack.
Craig: Yeah. So obviously because it’s a gaming simulation of reality the HP hit point system of defining how healthy somebody is just has no connection whatsoever to reality. Also, in the world of D&D when you sleep for eight hours and wake up you’re totally healthy. Wouldn’t that be nice?
John: Oh, it would be so nice.
Craig: So spells that are like “restore half your health points,” it just doesn’t have any possible relation to our existence. So I figured let’s just skip those. Yeah, it would be nice if I was like, oh, I have good berries so I can make a berry that makes me feel a little bit better.
John: No good berries.
John: All right. My choice, I was debating between three. And so I’m going to pick this one, but I’m also going to argue for the other two because I think they’re really good. Looking through this list I was struck by how many of the spells I would pick in real life are not the spells I ever pick when actually in the game.
Craig: Oh, for sure.
John: Because I’m always worried about like attack or defend. I’m not worried about sort of utility spells. But they’re all utility spells the ones I picked. So I picked Comprehend Languages. It has a verbal, semantic material component. It lasts for an hour. I need a pinch of soot and salt. But for the duration you understand the literal meaning of any spoken language that you hear. You also understand any written language that you see. But you must be touching the surface on which the words are written. It takes about one minute to read one page of text.
Craig: [laughs] Apparently they do have the one-minute-per-page rule. I like Comprehend Languages. Here’s my argument against.
John: Go for it.
Craig: Argument against is, A, it lasts one hour which is kind of frustrating in the sense that you can hear and understand some things and I suppose have the memory of it, but then if you are at a party and you run into hour two, I guess you just cast it again. Is it unlimited casting?
Two, bigger issue, you can’t speak it. You can only understand it, which is kind of limiting.
Craig: And then argument number three is we sort of have this magic in our phones.
John: Yeah. I would say that Google Translate does a really pretty good job of this in a lot of situations. So, I totally hear you, but the ability to understand languages does feel very useful. And so I guess I did miss the fact that it doesn’t give me the ability to talk back.
Craig: Well, you’re dealing with a DM over here.
John: You are.
Craig: I’m always looking or the loop holes.
John: And also just the literal meaning. So, if it is – oh crap, the Jean-Luc Picard, something when the walls fell. What was the one, the civilization that only speaks in metaphors?
Craig: Oh, right. Yeah.
John: Is it Shaka, When the Walls Fell?
Craig: Yeah, I can’t remember.
John: I’m looking it up now. I will get the answer while you tell me about what spell you want to do.
Craig: So, I took at your other, you had a couple of backup choices which I’m happy to discuss, and one of which I looked at very carefully. Your two backup choices were Sleep and Disguise Self. Now Sleep, you know, has a little bit of a hit point in there because the amount of people you can put to sleep. But let’s just limit it to one person. Let’s just say Sleep is one person. The thing about–
John: How often would I want to cast Sleep on my kid when she was little? So often.
Craig: I mean, over and over. You’d spam that. But these days I’d mostly just want to cast it on myself.
Craig: Because my theory is that if you cast Sleep on yourself you will fall asleep. Now the sleep only lasts for a minute, but my feeling is like if it’s midnight and I’m having a little bit of insomnia and I cast Sleep to myself, all I need is that starter.
Craig: And my brain will take over from there
John: Gets it going.
Craig: So I thought about that one. You also have Disguise Self. That’s a very interesting one. So for Disguise Self which also lasts an hour you can make yourself, including your clothing and other belongings, look different. You can seem one foot shorter, or taller. You can appear thin, fat, or in between. You can’t change your body type meaning you can’t have 12 limbs or turn into an octopus. But it’s pretty good.
The downside, and what use would that be? A lot of shenanigans, right? That’s a heavy shenanigans spell.
John: Well, it’s shenanigans but also like Instagram. I mean, the fact that it could make you look like anything else could also make you look much better. So in a culture where we are constantly putting filters on our stuff to make things more attractive Disguise Self is your friend. It’s just an ability to present yourself as you wish you could look rather than how you actually look.
Craig: Or as we also call it, Photoshop. But, I mean, the bummer is it only lasts for an hour. So you run into that thing where you show up at a party and then like Cinderella you’re suddenly running to re-disguise yourself or else people are like oh my god.
Here’s what I went for. A spell I would never, and I mean never–
John: I’ve never seen anyone take this spell.
Craig: Ever pick this spell as a caster. But in real life, super freaking useful. Unseen Servant. Unseen Servant. Duration one hour. This spell creates an invisible mindless, shapeless force that performs simple tasks at your command until the spell ends. It springs into existence and then you can ask it to perform simple tasks that any human servant could do, such as fetching things, cleaning, mending, folding clothes, lighting fires, serving food, and pouring wine.
Once you give the command the servant performs the task to the best of its ability until it completes the task. And then it waits for your next command. Uh, yeah.
So basically this is the most ethical way to have the most abuse-able, unpaid intern ever. Right? I mean, so cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring, lifting, carrying, schlepping. This is incredibly useful day after day after day after day. If I had an Unseen Servant right now I wouldn’t have to touch the doorknobs anywhere.
Craig: It would be so useful.
John: It’s like [unintelligible] but actually a little bit more flexible.
Craig: So much more flexible. Like, OK, you know what? It’s pouring rain and I need to get the mail. Hey, Unseen Servant, go get the mail. Brilliant. Love it.
John: All right. So circling back, it is Shaka, When the Walls Fell. That’s the Jean-Luc Picard reference. Here is my argument for Comprehend Languages which I just now thought about is that while we have Google Translate to do languages that people actually speak right now, Comprehend Languages would work on all the old stuff that we see that we can’t actually translate. So we’re talking about not hieroglyphics but other lost languages where we have things written in clay tablets and we have no idea what they actually are.
So the ability to actually understand what was written there would be a game changer for historical research.
Craig: Unseen Servant, do my laundry. I rebut it thus.
John: I find it interesting. Unseen Servant does not cook apparently.
Craig: It could. I don’t see why it won’t. Lighting fire. Serving food. I think cooking is too creative of a task. What you could say is Unseen Servant boil this chicken and put it on this plate. I think really simple – well, it says, actually the servant can perform simple tasks that a human servant could do. Simple dishes.
John: A boiled egg it could do, but not chicken cordon bleu.
Craig: No. Exactly. So, but this is very useful.
John: I agree it’s useful. It’s also – the D&D we play has very little to do with daily tasks.
Craig: Utterly useless in D&D. It is literally only useful as far as I – by the way, a billion nerds are like, “Hold on.”
John: “Hold on. Here’s a way I used it once to do stuff.”
Craig: To the keyboard. I apologize to you as a fellow nerd. I’m sure you have found a brilliant use for Unseen Servant, but honestly, er, meh, you can only have so many spells. Why pick that one?
John: Absolutely. Craig, I wish you and your Unseen Servant a very good week and stay safe out there.
Craig: Thank you sir, you too. Bye-bye.
- Scriptnotes Episode 441 – Readers
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