The original post for this episode can now 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 488 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show the two-year battle between the agencies and the Writers Guild has ended. We’ll discuss what was gained, what was lost, and some of the things I couldn’t tell Craig along the way.
Then we’ll answer a bunch of listener questions ranging from cold feet to writer vacations to killing a project. And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will discuss what essential advice we would offer to our 20-year-old selves.
Craig: That will be fun.
John: Yeah. A good adventure-packed episode.
Craig: Start drinking. Drink more. No.
John: No. I have meaningful things to think about with both my own 20-year-old self and sort of a general 20-year-old self.
Craig: There you go.
John: Looking forward to that. But, hey, Craig, this week you had some exciting news. Tell us the exciting news that happened this last week.
Craig: Yeah. So we announced our casting for the two main characters in The Last of Us HBO series. Pedro Pascal is going to be playing Joel and Bella Ramsey who people might be most familiar with as Leona Mormont, the terrorizing fierce wonderful lady of Bear Island on Game of Thrones, is going to be playing Ellie. I was a bit nervous – I don’t know if you know this, but the videogame fan base can be a little harsh. You may have read about these things from time to time.
Craig: And there have been months and months of people sort of tweeting at me or at Neil Druckmann about who they wanted to – “you have to cast this person.” Everybody very much was like, “You have to do this, or this, or this.” And we didn’t do any of those. We did what we did.
But it went over pretty – actually, went over really well. I was thrilled with the response. And more importantly we know what we’re doing. We know why we made these choices. And we are thrilled with them. We couldn’t be happier on our end of things. And so this was fun to announce. But, out of that emerged a thing that we need to talk about.
John: All right. Let’s get into it.
Craig: This is a serious thing that has been happening on Twitter that is upsetting.
John: Yeah. I mean, you have it listed here and I think it’s time we finally do discuss this. So, I’m ready.
Craig: Let’s just tear the Band-Aid off on this one. When we’re talking about casting actors in film or television we’re using the verb “cast.” The past participle of cast is not “casted.” It is also just “cast.” No matter what form of the verb cast you’re using, whether you’re saying cast a role, or casting a line as a fisherman, the past participle is cast. These people were cast.
John: Absolutely. Whether it’s transitive or intransitive.
John: Yes. It’s cast.
Craig: Cast. So, Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey were cast in The Last of Us. They were not casted. No one has ever casted. And we must stop saying casted. This has been hard for me to talk about because it’s upsetting. And I know it can be re-traumatizing for people. But listen, and listen good. Because you and I, I think, safe to say we have lost the beg the question battle.
John: I’ll still try to use it correctly. But yes.
Craig: Of course. It’s just us and it is we and Peter Sagal standing alone on a mountain swarmed by everybody else who uses it to say “prompt the question.” But on this one I’m not letting go. We just – casted is not a word. Strike it from your lips and fingers.
John: Yeah. So clearly what’s happening here is as English changes and drifts, John McWhorter would have a whole episode about this, there is stuff that happens and things like cast is a special case. There’s been other verbs that are like it where we’ve stuck the “ed’ on the end of it. Like it lasted until dawn. So we’re generalizing from other things that sound like it and putting the “ed” there. But you don’t need it. Let’s try to go ten more years without that becoming the default. If we can last ten years that would be a victory.
Craig: Maybe this moment right now is what–
John: Is how it–
Craig: Yeah. Kind of drives–
John: It pushes it over the edge.
Craig: John McWhorter is so much fun to read, by the way. He’s really good.
John: Talented guy.
John: I also want to acknowledge that I’m so excited for your casting. So I’ve never met Bella Ramsey. She’s fantastic on Game of Thrones.
Craig: Lovely person.
John: Pedro Pascal was also great on Game of Thrones. I got to hang out with randomly Pedro Pascal over a year ago just at a social setting and he was just delightful and lovely. So I think he’s going to be phenomenal and phenomenal to work with. This was also a week in which some actors who are apparently not phenomenal to work with or who did some things which were controversial. And maybe we’ll have this as a whole separate discussion in a different episode. But I just want to acknowledge that it’s a weird time for actors right now. It’s a weird time to be thinking about who you’re putting into these roles who are going to be so prominent because what if they go off and do something terrible?
Craig: Yeah. And this I guess applies across the board to everybody that’s hiring. Anybody that has any sort of social media presence. One thing to appreciate is that social media presence and reach is not unconsidered when they are casting people, because they want to know who has this sort of built in fan base. It’s exciting for them. If a company wants to put an actor on a show and that actor can say, “Look, I have all these people that follow me, I have this devoted fan base,” then that is attractive to them.
I’m not sure it should be. And it is a double-edged sword. The wider your audience the more likely it is that you are going to, you one, is going to be tempted to throw chum into the water. You know? If you have a million people waiting for you to talk and you haven’t talked in a while, you’re going to talk. And sometimes people say dumb things. And, look, you know we’re talking about Gina Carano obviously who was also on The Mandalorian and she said a really stupid thing. And it was stupid and it was also, I mean, did you see the particular tweet in question?
John: I did not see the tweet in question. I sort of saw the backlash over it. And we should stress that we’re recording this on Friday so who knows what the social media universe is going to be like by the time this comes out. And there was the “get rid of Gina Carano” and then the “no, no, you have to save Gina Carano and cancel Disney+.” It becomes this whole storm and it’s like argh.
Craig: Well Gina Carano has apparently signed on to do a movie in conjunction with Ben Shapiro. So I think it’s safe to say that she’s heading off in a very different direction from where she was. But it was upsetting. It was an upsetting thing that she posted. And it was an upsetting photo that went with it. And it was just upsetting.
So, without getting into how these things sort of shake out, the danger of social media and a social media audience is that you have an audience. That’s the danger. And whereas a studio clearly controls what an actor does to the show’s audience through a script and editing, they don’t have any control over what actors or other very prominent people or entertainers do to their audience that is outside of their purview.
John: It’s a very natural segue to some follow up from our last conversation. So in 487 we talked with Rachel Miller who had suggestions for writers looking to staff on a TV show. David wrote in to say that, “I’m an editor for TV digital in the UK and I’m also pursuing screenwriting outside of that. So Rachel mentioned the importance of social media presence or online presence in general, but my social media presence is there to advertise me as an editor-for-hire. If a script of mine hypothetically got attention would my work within the industry in a completely different department hinder me? Would it be confusing to a producer or to a reader?”
Craig: Maybe. I don’t think it would hinder you. If a script gets attention, meaning people like it, then it takes quite a bit to hinder people from mining it for whatever goal they prospectively see there. Would it be a little bit confusing initially? Possibly. But then people get over it.
John: I think in general don’t worry so much about that, just worry that you don’t have stuff out there that makes you look like an absolute monster. And so I feel like this might be a good time for you, David, to go back through your history and like, oh you know what that joke does not actually read as a joke out of context. This might be a good time to delete that before there’s any exposure being placed on me.
Craig: And humor we know changes over time. And it is important I think to consider that. Maybe a good approach to this is expiring social media.
Craig: If you approach social media as kind of a disposable, cheap throwaway thoughts, which I think a lot of people do because that’s what it’s really suited perfectly for, then let it be thrown away. Let it disappear. It’s not meant to just sit there forever like a fish slowly stinking over time.
John: Yeah. So, if you’re a WGA member I’m going to be talking more about this topic. I’m on a panel this next week on Thursday February 18th. The WGA is doing a panel on social media for brand and navigating industry publicity. So it’s social media but it’s also basically how you do publicity for your projects and sort of advice for that. So it’s going to be Julie Plec, our friend.
Craig: Oh Julie.
John: LaToya Morgan, me, and then editors from Variety and other sort of media strategy folks. And so we’ll be having a nice little Zoom conversation. And so if you’re a WGA member I think only in the West, but maybe the East can come as well, there’s a link in the show notes to that. So we have a bunch of people coming, but it’s virtual, so we can fill – I think we can take up to a thousand people. So it’s not like a normal WGA event where it gets limited to like the first 100 people. So come.
Craig: What do you think your brand is, John? Do you think you have a brand?
John: I think I have a really good clean brand, honestly. And that really starts with johnaugust.com. I’ve sort of been this person online really from the start. And so Megana forwarded a question from somebody this last week and they were linking to an old blog post. And I looked at it and the post was like from 2007. And I was like, oh, it still sounds like me and it was basically good advice. It was about using opportunity to name characters in order to suggest an ethnicity. And so I wrote that and I think I refer to you in that post, but I didn’t know you at that time. You were just the guy who had that other blog. And so it was–
Craig: That’s true.
John: Yeah. It’s strange. There’s a dead link to your nonexistent blog in that post.
Craig: My brand is a big bucket of nothing. [laughs] It’s a confusing jumble of contradictoriness. I don’t have a brand. I don’t have a brand.
John: But I think to the degree you have a brand though it has shifted considerably over the last four years. I think you are mostly known as the Chernobyl guy and not the Hangover or Scary Movie guy.
Craig: True. But that’s not really a brand.
John: It’s brand-ish.
Craig: I don’t actually know what a brand is. I’ve got to be honest with you. Like when people talk about their spirituality and I also don’t know what that means. I don’t – like what is it?
John: OK. So I’ll try to define it. It’s a set of principles and ideas and images that are associated with a person or product that is narrow enough that they can say, “Oh, that feels like that person or that does not feel like that person.”
And so to the degree I’m a brand is like John is a helpful screenwriter, I mean, that sounds really general, but going back 20 years that’s sort of who I am. That feels on brand for me.
I think and you’re also a helpful screenwriter. And back to your blog days. But I think your brand is crankier?
Craig: Yeah. Well, I am crankier. God, I’m so cranky.
John: Well, it’s a natural time to segue into the agency campaign. So that’s been a source of a lot of crankiness over the last–
Craig: Two years. Three years. Well, yeah, two years plus, right?
John: Two years plus. To set this all up, and I want to kind of recap where this all began because it’s so important I think as you come to the end of a series sometimes you have those flashbacks to where everything started and you see how young the kids were on Game of Thrones at the start.
John: I want to remember how this all began. So on Friday, February 5th right after we finished recording last week’s show the WGA announced it had reached a deal with the final agency holdout in this big campaign to rewrite the agency agreement. So, that agency was WME. They signed the same agreement as the other agencies and a side letter to divest its affiliated production company called Endeavor Content. And there was is an outside monitor who is there to oversee that sale and the transaction and all the inner workings of how that’s going to work, especially with their clients.
And with that the agency campaign, this thing we’ve been talking about forever is finished.
John: So I have a blog post up, or just a page up that runs through a timeline. And because we say it’s two years, but it was really three years because we had to give a year’s notice for the expiration. And even before we decided to pull the trigger to expire the 1976 agreement we had to have a bunch of meetings with writers to figure out is this really a thing that’s going to work. Is this a thing we should try to do?
So that timeline is long and it was sort of exhausting to put together, but I wanted to do it just to show kind of how much happened before anything happened. And then to remind me of some of the steps along the way. Because it’s so easy to forget like, oh yeah, that was a thing that happened. Over the course of two years it all kind of gets lost.
Craig: Yeah. Pretty great that we have this little time capsule of this show.
John: Yeah. Our first conversation really where we got into this was with Chris Keyser. So Chris Keyser was one of the negotiating committee chairs for the agency thing, and so this was back in 389 we sat down with him.
John: And we talked about it. And so we were all in a room together. Remember when we used to record this sometimes in a room together?
Craig: We were in a room together. And not only were we in a room together, but we were in a room together. There was really no disagreement about anything. It was one of those rare guild moments where it didn’t seem like there was, at least in terms of what we felt about the value of the way agencies were performing their jobs packaging and producing.
Craig: There was no difference between anybody on it. It was bad.
John: So let’s take a listen to some of the goals that we’re laying out for this thing. And we’ll start with what packaging was and sort of what was important to think about with packaging. Let’s take a listen.
Chris Keyser: The heart of the conversation is about conflict of interest. The idea that the agency practices have ceased to align their economic interests clearly and solely with the economic self-interests of the writers whom they represent. And that’s a fundamental problem.
Craig: And so for people, I think a lot of people probably have a general sense of how this is supposed to work. Agents represent writers. Agents get writers work. They are allowed to do that by the very power that this AMBA grants them. And then whatever the writer earns, the gross, the agent takes 10% of it. Seems very simple. And in fact they used be known as ten-percenterees.
And so the more the writer makes the more the agent makes. But as it turns out that simple reality isn’t really the reality at all.
Chris: No, in television in fact essentially the standard method of payment now for agencies is to take what they call a packaging fee. And that packaging fee is tied both to the license fee of the show and ultimately the profits the show produces. So the agency makes – and we talk about this and if you read or have seen David Goodman’s speech he’s pretty explicit about this – 3, 3, and 10 is the standard formula. They make approximately three percent of the upfront license fee for a show, although that’s negotiable, somewhere usually between $30,000 and $100,000 an episode. There’s three percent of the backend that’s deferred that is not often collected by them. And then 10% of the adjusted gross.
Craig: And that’s great information, but again just to sort of simplify it for people what we’re talking about with these packaging fees is instead of the agents taking 10% of what we earn as writers what they do is they don’t take any commission from us. Which, ooh, great, we get to keep that 10%. Except, what they are getting in return is more than that from the studios that are producing the television shows.
John: So, Craig, in that conversation we were sort of laying out sort of what packaging was and it was probably the first time we had sort of talked about packaging really on this show. But you had a firsthand experience with packaging as well, right?
Craig: Yeah. I was surprised. I was hit in the face with a surprise package. On Chernobyl it was the first television show I’d ever done. I didn’t really have any experience with packaging. I’d been paying 10% of my gross earnings my entire career. My relationship with my agent for my whole career minus Chernobyl was what the guild was trying to make all of the arrangements like. So I didn’t have any experience with it. And then I got a check in the mail that was refunding me commission and I found out that CAA had gotten a package on Chernobyl and were extracting quite a bit more than what that 10% was from the budget of Chernobyl.
Chernobyl was not – I’ve said this before – no one thought it was going to be a bit hit. The fact that we got as much money as we did was amazing. But we were pinching every penny. And to send over six figures in money out of the budget to CAA just seemed crazy. But more importantly, they just did it. They didn’t even ask me. And that, you know, as I said to them was what radicalized me. And it became clear to me that packaging just simply in the version that it existed was not tenable and needed to be destroyed or significantly altered.
John: Yeah. No, for me, my concern wasn’t so much about packaging. And I’ve said this a lot. I was more concerned with affiliated production. Because I really saw that as the bigger issue on the next 10, 20, 30 years going ahead. And so the pitch from agencies about why affiliated production was good, like why they should be able to own production entities, and why it was great for their clients to be working for these production entities is, hey, we’re already on your side. We can give you deals that you won’t get at the studios. We sort of know what’s best for you.
Let’s listen to what I said then.
You are competing with them for IP sometimes. Like if you want that book they may own that book. And so you’re actually in competition with them for the things you’re trying to buy.
John: And it’s also just the most classic conflict of interest possible. Something that David Goodman says in his speech is you wouldn’t want Peter Roth negotiating your salary. And that’s ultimately where you’re kind of getting to.
And so those were the things we sort of lay out going into it, the concern about packaging fees and affiliated productions. And so what happened? What was the outcome of all this?
Craig: Well, the outcome is that there are no more packaging fees – well, there will be no more packaging fees after a certain sun-setting amount of time. I think a year and a bit. And also when it comes to the production companies the talent agencies have either completely divested or will eventually within a certain window sufficiently divest to the point where they have what is it a–
John: A 20% cap.
Craig: Under 20%. So that they are no longer the driving force of those production companies. So, in theory we have achieved the goals that we set out to achieve.
John: Yeah. And so a clarification on the 20% thing, you know, it’s one thing for the agency to own a production entity, but what you also don’t want is for the same company to own both a production entity and an agency, which was sort of my bigger concern. We had the possibility that theoretically a Disney could buy a WME and then you’re literally just working for the same company. And so this agreement precludes that. And so you cannot own or be owned by a company that owns more than that threshold of production entity which I think is a crucial distinction.
So those things that we wanted to get achieved were achieved, along with a bunch of information sharing stuff. So the requirement that agencies have to CC the guild on invoices so we sort of know what money is coming in to writers and what money could be coming in late. And to send in contracts so we can really get a sense of what compensation is looking like above scale, which is a thing which has always been sort of murky. So we’ll actually get a better sense of that both in features and in television. So, that information sharing should be really important.
Craig: Question for you about the information sharing. So, I don’t know if traditionally if my agent has gotten copies of my contracts.
John: I don’t know either. I suspect they probably have, because that’s how they sort of have a sense of what deals look like and how to negotiate for their other clients.
Craig: I think they just leave that with the lawyer.
Craig: So it’ll be interesting to see how that shakes out practically. Like the points where reality rubs on theory. And we’ll see, hopefully, well any amount more than we had is good. So, you know, in general.
John: And we’ve already seen some good progress of that in terms of collecting money from people. And really getting the data to show what is happening with feature screenwriter salaries for example. And that’s really fascinating and of [unintelligible] to both of us.
Craig: Yeah. Nothing good I’m sure.
John: Pros and cons. So it’s not all grim news.
Craig: Well that’s good.
John: Let’s talk about what was expected and what were the surprises along the way. And I’ll start with some of the things that surprised me going into this. If you look at the timeline I was in a zillion meetings for this, in addition to sort of board meetings and committee meetings, I was in a lot of meetings with writers and showrunners, screenwriters going into this and talking about stuff. And sort of what we anticipated things to look like. No one anticipated it was going to take two years to do.
I think part of the reason why we didn’t think it would take two years to do is that we thought that either we would be negotiating with the ATA all together and together they would come to an agreement that we could live with, or that they would split apart and we’d be talking to them individually and sort of make individual deals with places. And they both stuck together longer than I sort of guessed they would have. And splintered in different ways than I would have guessed.
And so the timeframe was longer than I thought it was going to be going in. No one expected this to be a two-year campaign.
Craig: No. But also of some concern was that we weren’t told it was going to be a one-year campaign either. We were told it was going to be a couple of weeks. Or three weeks or something like that, you know.
John: Yeah. I don’t remember ever saying weeks.
Craig: Oh, you didn’t. You didn’t. No, I never heard that from you. But, no, we were in meetings and things. Weeks were thrown around. And there was somewhat of an arrogant sense of like they can’t – they won’t last a month. And ICM will collapse. And the other one was that obviously the big agents at these agencies who probably detest their own agency for taking their money are going to leave and form a new super agency that will sign up at the WGA. There was just a lot of, I think, just conjecture that was based on nothing except hope. And that’s not a great, you know, that’s not a great basis.
John: There were misassumptions I think on both sides. And on the agency side I think there was this patronizing tone. There was this agent-splaining of like “let me explain to you how this all works.” And it was happening to clients, but it was also happening in meetings with negotiations where they said like, “No, no, let’s explain how packaging actually works.” No, we know how packaging works. This is the problem. This is the problem with affiliated. And it took more than a year for the big four agencies to sort of acknowledge that. And that was a surprise that it took so long to get to them, even acknowledging that like, oh, this is what’s happening here.
John: And a misassumption that the guild was different than the writers. And that 96% vote to approve this thing was all just show, there really wasn’t support for it, when there was support for it. And we’ll get into the times along the way where it looked like there was not support for it. But I think they misread the guild is the writers, the writers is the guild.
Craig: It was a complete miscalculation and I remember before we all signed the things and sent them in saying, OK, we’re terminating your services, and the whole thing began, I was talking to an agent. And he was saying, “Look, you know, I find it hard to believe that clients who have had 20 or 30 year relationships with their agents are just going to fire them because of this. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.” And I was like, and I tried to explain to this agent not only is it going to happen, but you have to understand it is going to happen and it’s going to happen permanently until the union says it’s not happening anymore because what you guys think, you see a labor union. That’s what you see. You see a union with rules and stuff. What members, a lot of rank and file, see is the place that pays for the healthcare of their families.
Craig: And that more than anything is going to put the union first. The fact that there are also rules in place and the potential for discipline and all that, sure. But at the heart of it I just always felt like they didn’t understand what our own relationship with our own union was. And so they miscalculated terribly and then dug in.
John: A thing I misunderstood, and I didn’t really understand until we started talking with UTA seriously, which was a lot sooner than it sort of probably seemed, is that a lot of their concern about packaging really had nothing to do with writers. It was mostly that high-paid TV actors have never paid commission. And so if you are an actress on a big TV show you’ve never paid commission because it’s always been covered by a packaging fee. So suddenly that actress does not want to pay 10% of her salary. And it’s hard for an agent to say like, “Oh, now you’re going to have to start paying us that money.” And they don’t want to. And so they were worried about losing those kind of clients.
And so when we started having those conversations like, oh, the calculus is really different on your side. I get it. It’s not going to change what we’re willing to do, but that was a thing that I just hadn’t anticipated it was going to be such a roadblock for some of the agencies.
Craig: You shouldn’t have had to anticipate that. That should have been laid out to you guys by staff before you ever got into those rooms. Because that was so obvious. And we weren’t saying you can’t package writers anymore. We were saying you can’t package anymore. The amount of money that actors and certain directors make on these shows is astonishing.
There are absolutely writers that make astonishing amounts of money. Don’t get me wrong. But there are way more actors that make astonishing amounts of money in the long run. And the fact that we were telling the agencies how they had to conduct their business with not writers was always going to be a massive problem and a roadblock that had to be figured out. Or just waited out.
But you should have been – to me I’m mystified that that wasn’t something that was made clear to you guys immediately.
John: Well, to be fair, we had many, many showrunners involved in the negotiation who had firsthand experience with obviously making these shows and making shows with these clients. The other way you can look at that calculation is ultimately these agencies will probably end up making more taking 10% of that actor’s salary than they would have in the packaging fee. But because we all recognize that the classic backend, which was the huge payday, just doesn’t happen anymore. Or doesn’t happen to the same scale. And so I’m just only talking for myself personally. I misassumed that their desire to hold onto packaging was just this misguided belief that this old system was going to come back or be meaningful when really it was more about fear of other clients.
So I think that’s just a personal – I wasn’t weighting that properly.
Craig: Yeah. It seemed to me that one of the – so this group of whatever it’s called, the Association of Talent Agencies, is that what it is? ATA?
John: Yeah. ATA.
Craig: That’s not a thing. They hate each other. They hate each other so much. And they would occasionally say things like the only people that we hate more than each other are you. But, no, that’s not true. They hate each other more. They are their direct competitors. They eat each other’s lunch. They steal each other’s employees. They want to dominate each other. They are in a competitive, capitalistic business. We’re a union. We’re not competing with each other. We don’t want to kill each other. We want to do the opposite.
So one of the things that made this difficult to do was how much they hated each other and how they saw this as a way to maybe screw over another one of them. So, if we make a deal, like the game theory of it, if I make a deal to get rid of packaging now my big actors have to pay me 10%. The agency across the street is going to immediately call them and say, “Here’s how much this is going to cost you now to stay with your agent. It’s in the millions. Come on over here because we’re not doing that deal and we’ll keep packaging.” That part of it makes it very, very tricky, even more so than dealing with the companies because while the companies also compete with each other in the end what they’re talking – they don’t have much of a way to screw each other over with our negotiation.
John: Well, I think it’s also – people have been asking me like, oh, so how does this change to calculation in terms of like how you would normally do a MBA negotiation, the regular studio negotiation. And really they’re so different because this group we were dealing with like they had never done this negotiation either. And so they didn’t have a great sense of how they were going to conduct themselves or what the priorities were. It was comparatively easy to split them apart because they had no history of working together versus the AMPTP which negotiates this way all the time. Each of the individual unions time after time after time they’re so good at it. And it’s just a completely different experience.
Craig: Yeah. And they know what to make of the union when the union sits there and negotiates back, because they don’t draw conclusions about the way the union is presenting itself because they understand. I mean, it’s like anything. If you’ve been through it before you kind of know, oh, OK, I don’t need to overreact about this, or this, or this. But they had not gone through this before and they did not – I mean, look, I can’t defend the way the agencies conducted it, because, A, it took way longer than it should have, and B, they lost. So, their strategy was bad. It hurt us, too. But it was worse for them than it was for us. That’s for sure.
John: So, some things that I want to say and give them credit for. They held together and those big four held together especially longer than I would have expected. And they kept agencies 5-12 on board longer than I would have guessed. And so it became one at a time they were dropping off. But to their credit I was surprised they were able to hold together as well as they could. And both sides were really good at not leaking. And so there were so many talks happening and you didn’t hear about it in the press. And that’s impressive on both sides. So good at that.
Once it became clear that this was going to be a tug of war where literally the rope is stretched and your heels dug into the sand and then it just becomes a game of inches then it became the dominoes one by one. Agency 12. Agency 11. And you’re working your way up the line and it became much more clear like, OK, this is how it’s going to be resolved. And so one at a time rather than all at once. That was just the way it was. But that certainly wasn’t my expectation going in.
Craig: Yeah. I think everybody was surprised. I mean, I was surprised.
John: Now it’s time for the other surprises. So, this is way back in November 2019. You and I have obviously talked about this a lot, and with me being on the negotiating committee I couldn’t say things that I knew. And you had expressed your great frustration over how stuff was going on in the campaign. And I was trying to articulate sort of like why I feel so differently about these things just because of what I know that I couldn’t share. And so I make up a PDF. I encrypted it. I put it on a USB drive and I handed it to you. I handed it to you before we recorded a live show.
Craig: I’m opening it up.
John: All right, Craig. You have the PDF, so you’re getting a little password screen on it.
John: Now, here’s the password. I’m going to send it to you. And…open.
Craig: It is open.
John: All right. So there should be four things you’re seeing on your screen. So do you want to just read it to us here?
Craig: Number one, and should I say what the date is?
Craig: So November 22, 2019. Number one. The agency that was close to signing a deal before the rival Writers Guild slate was announced was Paradigm. They had promised a red-lined agreement, then said no, we’ll wait until after the election.
John: So I’m trying to remember the conversation that was happening between us right before then.
Craig: I remember it. [laughs]
John: Tell us what you remember.
Craig: Yeah. So the Writers Guild every year has a constitutionally mandated democratic election, which is apparently upsetting to some people. And every two years, every other election, also includes officers. And in that year that was one of those elections. So, there was a group of writers initially including myself, and then I had to drop off because my son got sick, who were running against David Goodman and his group of candidates. And one of the arguments that people made that was essentially anti-democratic in nature if you ask me was that because there was support for a rival Writers Guild slate a major agency that was going to sign and therefore deliver this whole thing into a kind of paradise of collapsing dominoes wouldn’t sign. And apparently that is kind of true. Paradigm was never going to be the one that was going to do that. I think it was implied that it was UTA. That was at least the sort of rumor that because people had dared run against David Goodman that UTA was no longer going to sign with the guild.
So this is not–
John: Some contextualization around this. So I think it had been said publicly that we were in negotiations with a major agency. And so Paradigm at the time was the first largest agency. So, it wasn’t the big four, but it was just smaller than ICM. And so I think the pushback had been like, oh, you’re talking about some podunk agency we’ve never heard of. And so that’s why–
John: I wanted to say this that it’s Paradigm which is a significant agency.
Craig: They were. But I don’t think they’re a packaging agency.
John: They do have packaging fees, but they’re mostly splits on packaging. They don’t have whole packaging fees.
Craig: They don’t have full packaging fees and they don’t have production.
John: They don’t have production at all. So only the big three have production.
Craig: Yeah. Basically I’m always going to come back to that this was really a negotiation about three agencies or 3.5. But, regardless, that is interesting and also stupid on Paradigm’s part. I don’t know why they thought that that was ever going to matter. I mean, there was such a misunderstanding about what – and we can get into all the politics later about what people were saying and what the differences were between how people wanted to litigate this fight with the agencies. I mean, I personally had my – Shawn Ryan was kind enough to just invent an articulation of my thoughts and feelings and send it to everybody. And it was just completely wrong.
Nobody wanted to end this. There were disagreements about how to do it so that it could get done quicker perhaps. And also I still have concerns about what this means for lower earning writers and whether this is going to help or hurt them.
John: Before we get into this next point though, one of the big things that was – I looked through all of the writer statements from the rival slate yesterday just to see what the consistent them was, and the consistent theme was we have to go back and we have to keep negotiating. We can’t be silent. We have to actually negotiate and engage. And my point is we were engaging the whole time as we get to point number two.
Craig: And that’s a perfectly fair point. Point number two. UTA came back and was negotiating before the vote, meaning the election. UTA insisted on keeping it super-secret. Their packaging proposal was basically that everyone pays commission but their own clients get it back. It led to weird misincentives which is why it was a non-starter. But I get why they’re doing it. They want to protect actors who don’t or won’t pay commissions. They’ve scheduled and canceled several sessions. They still say they want to be the first of the big four to sign.
John: Which ultimately became true.
Craig: Well, if they canceled the sessions I’m not sure how – I mean, was that an active negotiation or kind of a teasing of a negotiation?
John: So these conversations were happening before you joined the rival slate. And then they came back–
Craig: Oh, it was me? It was me personally?
John: To recall the events, originally you were running for a board seat. And then ultimately you decided to run for a VP slot.
John: And so it was when you announced you were running for the VP slot that all suddenly got very quiet. And then when you withdrew the conversations started again.
John: And I don’t want to pin this entirely on like Craig Mazin influences everything, but–
Craig: I mean, is this a causality/correlation thing? I mean–
John: Causality is too much to say for it. But I think it’s fair to acknowledge that of the people on that slate you were the one with the highest profile and the one who would attract the most attention. That’s fair. You can stipulate that, right?
Craig: I think that’s fair. And they would have been terribly disappointed by my position, deeply. Disappointed by my position. Because my position was never going to somehow keep them rolling with money. The only thing I ever wanted to explore was whether or not we could take the money that was coming in from the companies and redistribute it to the writers. That I thought was interesting. . Particularly writers that were earning under a number. Or writers that were under a certain credit. Because what I didn’t want was this to just become something where showrunners got more money. Showrunners don’t need more money.
And I wanted to be more or what I would consider to be more aggressive about negotiating and, you know, in this case there was – sometimes there is value in kind of change in the sense of like, OK, if you’re stuck in a rut with a certain group you may be able to get out of a rut if they change up who is looking across the table from you. But they would have been terribly disappointed.
And honestly it’s silly if they had to do was just listen to the conversation we had with Chris Keyser. I couldn’t have been clearer about where my heart was.
Craig: All right. Number three. WME has come with packaging proposals as recently as this past week. So this is referring to November 2019. They’re not doing it through the ATA. They want to meet as often as possible.
Did that actually happen though?
John: So, they would come back with proposals and then it would be radio silence for a long period of time. And so ultimately the issue you run into is they come up with these packaging proposals that are like, OK, that’s a half-step towards a place we don’t want to end up. So that’s really fundamentally what it was. I think there is an assumption that like, oh, if you would just sit down and talk and talk and talk and talk you would get to a place and that wasn’t actually sort of what was happening. But we were trying to keep those channels open as best as we could.
Your point about sometimes you just need to change the players is kind of where I think the progress was ultimately made in those last things. Because suddenly different people were showing up to those conversations and it’s just like they were empowered to actually get the thing done.
Craig: Yeah. And then the final thing is number four. At the moment the only agency – again, November 22, 2019 – at the moment the only agency not talking with the WGA is CAA. And then in parenthesis, to be fair it’s been a moment on ICM as well. Meaning I guess ICM had sort of started a side discussion and then just dropped away completely.
Craig: So my guess is that that’s going to be amusing and annoying to CAA because I presume that they were all like, “We’re not talking to those guys,” and then CAA was actually not talking to you and everybody else was like whisper, whisper. So, yeah.
John: So obviously these are four things that I wish I could have – I felt like if I could have shared them with you it would have made our conversations so much less – I would have felt better if I could have told you these things, but I couldn’t tell you these things. And it just really helped to explain why I could seem Pollyannaish about how things were going to get resolved compared to your grumpiness.
Craig: Well, I mean, it still did take–
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: –beyond a year from that point to get resolved. It didn’t go – I mean, it was expensive for our union to file all the lawsuits and hire all the extra lawyers and all that obviously.
John: And ultimately we will know what that is because as a public union that’s all going to show up in the report. So we’ll see it.
Craig: And so, you know, sometimes unions have to spend money to win fights. Obviously the longer they go the more expensive they are. There are a few things about this that I love and there are a few things about it that I hate.
Let’s talk about the things I love. We won. Right? So we wanted to achieve something and we did. And it was something that – well the end of production, of agency-owned production, and the stripping away of the onerous aspects of packaging, which is most of them, was something that ultimately I did thing that we had total leverage to do. I didn’t see how this was even really a negotiation if the Writers Guild wanted to just not have any other version beyond all or nothing. It was never going to be something the agencies could win. They just couldn’t, because we are in charge of that agreement and we can cut them off. And furthermore the Writers Guild sort of changed their position. Initially they were saying it was sort of voluntary and then they said it’s not voluntary. You have to fire your agents.
And so it seemed to me like that was something that was very achievable. And we did achieve it. The only thing that could have kept that from happening as far as I can tell other than an adverse legal decision, which was possible I suppose, was some kind of like march on the guild by a thousand writers saying we want to go back to our agencies, which didn’t happen.
Now, some people think it happened. But it didn’t. We’ll get to that in a minute. Another thing I love about this is that it sets a precedent for the companies to some extent that when we have a firm kind of life or death position on something it’s firm. And we mean it. And we are willing to go to lengths. And we are willing to wait. Times have changed. It’s a different kind of situation out there in part because of the way the companies have demolished the middle class. They have done this to themselves, and the agencies did this to themselves, too.
And so the demographics are such of the union that people really, you know, they have fewer Fs to give as the phrase says. They are not going to let the companies or the agencies kind of roll over on them when it comes to odious practices like packaging and agency production. That’s what I loved.
John: Let me talk about the things I loved, and then we’ll get into the things I didn’t love. One of the things I really loved about the whole thing was watching people step up. And so we’ve talked about members stepping up and actually just like, OK, I’m now literally going to take agency and start working to find my own jobs and start working to find jobs for people I know and people I don’t know. So things like the staffing boost challenge and other things to sort of get people read and sort of get, especially TV writers, staffed. It was great to see that.
John: I saw lawyers stepping up. And independent of sort of like having to do agent-y kind of jobs, what I did find consistently is like, you know, attorneys had to be more involved in their client’s lives and actually talking with them about sort of what they’re trying to achieve. And that’s good. I mean, without lawyers negotiating some of these big things I think you wouldn’t have seen some of the headlines that were sort of encouraging along the way. And your attorney had to do great work for you obviously. So that was great to see. And I think reminded people that you have more than just your agent sort of on your team. And I saw the guild working its ass off. And so I think there’s obviously things to criticize, but you see the new things that they rolled out in terms of the directory, in terms of new systems, about letting unrepped writers advocate for themselves was really good an important. Because while I think you and I both have been pretty consistent in terms of like agents can be really helpful for writers, but they shouldn’t be absolutely essential for writers. And there’s a lot of people who are especially in TV and places where maybe they don’t actually need to have an agent doing some of the stuff that we’ve been having them do.
So I think some of the systems that the guild was able to put online were good and smart and should continue. And apparently will continue, which is great.
Craig: Yeah. I agree with all of those. I think everything you said is more stuff that I love. And I do.
Stuff we didn’t love.
John: Stuff we didn’t love. I’ll start with stuff I didn’t love.
Craig: Go for it.
John: That first year was one of the most stressful years of my life. Just in terms of the number of phone calls I had to be on with people who had worries or said they had worries. And these are 45 minute, hour-long calls with a single person talking them off the ledge about what was going on. And some of these people were historically anti-WGA. And the people who are historically anti-WGA is often because they had a bad experience with the guild, especially about arbitration. There’s people who just don’t love the guild and I was dealing with them.
But some of them actually were concern trolls who – and by concern trolls I mean people who pretend they’re on your side, but they kind of aren’t and they just sap all the energy out of you. And it just gave me such a bad taste for that. And I can think of probably 30 people I had to have those phone calls with. Not one of them has contacted me in the weeks since this has signed saying like, “Hooray, this is done.”
And it’s not important really, but also it shows me that I think some of these people really weren’t acting in good faith. They were kind of honestly being selfish and were not thinking about me as an individual during all of this. And that sucks.
And so it’s a small part of the experience. On the whole I’m so happy with where we ended up. But I do have a particular distaste for some people and sort of how they chose to demand my time during this period.
Craig: Yeah. Same.
John: Yeah. You got a few of those.
Craig: Yeah. Have you heard of the phrase “sea-lioning?”
John: No, I want to know what sea-lioning is.
Craig: OK, so sea-lioning comes from an Internet cartoon. And basically it’s the idea that it’s a kind of troll that asks you questions. The questions are incredibly innocuous like, “You know what, I’m not necessarily in agreement with your position but I want to know more so can you just tell me how would you do something differently?” And you’re like, OK, you’re coming at me with a perfectly good faith nice question. Let me answer. And they’re like, “Huh. All right. Let me just ask you this then. How is that different from this? OK, one more question. If you do that…” And then about a thousand questions later you realize you’ve been sea-lioned. That this was never in good faith. This was literally something where they were just tormenting you by asking you endless questions that they were not interested in actually. This was not in good faith.
There’s one person in particular that I tip my hat to him. He was really good at it. I will resent him forever for it, but I tip my hat to him.
So there were a lot of people who were engaging in kind of bad behavior and that does happen.
John: It does happen. And one thing I do want to acknowledge is that, yes, I left the board during the time, so people maybe weren’t as focused on me, but I was clearly still on the negotiating committee for this and for the MBA. And I was surprised how much it died down. Like there were still people who were clearly like when is this agency campaign going to be over, but also like I wasn’t getting barraged by those same questions and there wasn’t the same sort of panic and dread.
Even David Goodman who is our president said like, “Yeah, it’s weird how quite everyone just sort of got.” And everyone was sort of like, well, yeah, it’s going to get resolved eventually.
Craig: I actually got nervous about that. I thought that was possibly a sign that people were just sort of slinking back. And maybe they were. Yeah, I was getting nervous. In fact, that is one of the things that I don’t like – one of my not like things was a sense that the guild has, or had, during this exercise a tendency to let in and emphasize good news and ignore and deemphasize bad news. And I don’t think the guild should be in that business. I don’t think the guild is like a store that should be talking about how great sales have been in the first quarter and sort of ignoring that costs have gone up or something.
It always felt a little bit – at times you felt a little gas-lit. When things are not going well they’re telling us it’s going great. When we get a very adverse legal decision and we’re told it’s not that bad actually. Or, you know, yeah, we said it would be four weeks, but it will probably be in another two weeks. I wish the guild would do a little bit better, or a lot of bit better at being a little bit more pessimistic in the sense of being realistic.
John: Yeah. I can see that. And so there were moments where the headlines weren’t awesome, but I also felt like the headlines that weren’t awesome were kind of deadline headlines that were kind of misconstruing a bit of what was going on. So, the bad headlines were mostly about court decisions. And they would say like, oh, they threw out 20 of the WGA’s complaints, but didn’t acknowledge that like, oh, and actually 15 of them are still going and discovery is about to happen. So there was that.
So, point five on that PDF I sent you was probably the crucial thing which I knew that you didn’t know at that point was that a global pandemic would shut down the world. And with that in mind I knew that things would take a lot longer. So, it’s been frustrating this last week. People say like, oh, it’s all because of Covid that the agencies signed. And it’s like, well, that’s not really the case. Because as I made clear like we were talking with them beforehand. Some of this stuff was getting figured out. And then Covid kind of slowed a bunch of stuff down. We signed a couple of deals right away, but then everyone is figuring out like what the hell are we doing. And so it’s hard for us to have these agency negotiations when the agencies are like do we have to lay everybody off? What is going on?
Craig: I agree with that. I don’t think that this was something that Covid precipitated, meaning that this resolution, this favorable resolution was precipitated by Covid. If it were precipitated by Covid it would have been done a year ago.
Craig: Or, whatever, ten months ago I completely agree. I think Covid slowed down a lot of stuff there. I mean, in a way maybe that’s why it got quiet. People were suddenly concerned about dying, handling their families.
John: Hierarchy of needs sort of shifted there. It’s so easy to forget how scary that was right at the start. We just didn’t know what the world was going to look like, and so do we bother negotiating this thing? And at the same time in context we were also negotiating the next MBA agreement which was we started to have the big public meetings about that. There were clearly a lot of things on the table and we had to postpone. There was a lot going on. So, you know, everything would have been different without the pandemic, but that’s just the last 12 months. There’s nothing in the last 12 months that wouldn’t have been different without that.
Craig: I agree. A couple more things that I rued. Rued. The promotion of managers by the guild I thought was unnecessary and dangerous. Specifically because managers literally embody everything that we’re trying to get rid of in the agencies. I mean, I really do not like this conflict of interest stuff. It’s why I’m against the way packaging functions. It’s why I was so angry about the agencies and their production companies. And so we start sending writers to managers that have been doing this forever? It didn’t make sense then. It makes no sense to me now. It will never make sense. And just today the Writers Guild helpfully informed us all that managers can no longer procure employment for us per the Writers Guild. They could never procure employment for us per state law.
So that was the other thing that kind of blew my mind was that the Writers Guild just kind of said this like it wasn’t even fair to managers in a sense, because managers are not legally allowed to procure employment. Lawyers are in a different place because they have a fiduciary responsibility that was a different situation.
So I just was really just regretted that the guild did that. I wish they hadn’t. And it was unnecessary. I think maybe they did it because they thought it was going to strengthen our hand, but I don’t think it did. I just think it drove more writers into the arms of people that do precisely the thing we want to stop. And if everybody gets ready for another war, please let me know, because I hope it’s against the managers.
John: Yeah. And I should stress that when we surveyed members, members love managers, and members did not love their agents. That’s what it comes down to. The idealist in me sees that. But the pragmatist in me sees like people don’t have a beef with their managers, so yeah.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I think that they don’t have a beef with their managers until they do.
Craig: That’s what happens generally speaking.
I am hopeful but skeptical about how this is going to impact the bottom line of our most vulnerable writers. There is a good economic theory that I myself – I wish that people who think that I was like some sort of agency toady could have seen how – here’s my secret belief – how many arguments I would get into with people explaining why this was exactly a fight we needed to fight. It’s really frustrating when you’re being called like a scab and all the rest of that and you’re like I also just called a union idiot 30 minutes ago by somebody who didn’t think we should be doing this at all, but OK.
But the point was that if the agencies are – if their income is decoupled from the earnings of writers they have no reason to push earnings of writers up. Earnings of writers will drop to their minimum and stay there. So, the question now is with the money that the studios used to be shipping to the agencies are they going to be shipping it to the writers? Remember that the lower earning writers on TV shows are, at least in the short term, are going to be losing money on this because they have to pay their agents now 10%.
So will salaries go up? I hope that they do. And I would argue that it is going to be primarily the responsibility of showrunners to make that happen. And fulfill their end of this contract, this bargain, with the membership. Everybody sacrificed here and it is my great hope that we start to see those salaries coming up.
We did not make any kind of official instrument to redirect that income, which is something I was interested in. Fair enough. Other people weren’t. So it’s going to have to be done informally. And I hope it is.
John: So, two points of clarification there. We say that those writers weren’t paying 10%, but a lot of them were. So it’s only if you were at the same agency that packages that you weren’t paying that 10%. So many of those lower level writers it’s a wash. They were paying 10% regardless.
Craig: That’s fair.
John: And we should actually know the answer to these questions. We should actually have a much better sense of what writers are really getting paid because we will have contracts and invoices. And so traditionally the only thing we know about TV writer pay has been – this is a whole other issue – but we only knew what they were getting in WGA coverage rather than sort of–
John: Producer fees. And now we’ll see the contracts and actually really know what the take home pay is. And we’ll have to survey people and we can actually have hard data of that. So we can see what the growth is time after time.
Craig: Do we have time for one more gripe?
Craig: And this is the most important one. There was a remarkable expression of anti-democratic thought inside of our union. It’s happened before. It happened again. And it will happen again I’m sure. And it goes like this. If the majority leadership is doing something you have to support it. If you disagree with them publicly, if you run against them, if you challenge them for election, you are not only disloyal to your union, you are actively undermining what the union is doing, therefore you are a scab. This is not something that I’m saying out of fabulizing some crazy person’s thinking. This is something that was said repeatedly, over and over, and written over and over in public. There’s evidence of it all over the place.
Now, for me, there was a very strange week and I don’t compare this to the strange year you had because a week is way shorter than a year. But I did have a strange week where I was sitting in a hospital in Salt Lake City with my son who had had emergency abdominal surgery, and tubes going in and out of him, and trying to write a campaign statement and being called a scab on Twitter. And a lot of other things. [laughs] Word things that were worse.
And it was deeply unpleasant. And also frustrating. Because there is something so evidently self-denying about it. A unity argument in which unity must be enforced by screaming at people who disagree with you. That’s not unity. That’s just bullying. And there was an example of it recently from a member of the board who went on Twitter and said some things about, you know, other members and other people, not me specifically. But it was just mean. And I thought uncalled for. And the spirit of it is not forgotten.
And so if we’re trying to be unified we have to figure out a way as a membership to respect each other as long as we are following the rules. Right? If you follow the rules, you fire your agent, you stick by your guns, you do it right, and then you are, you know, and you have disagreements about how we are pursuing the goals, then you’re following the rules. And we need to figure out how to allow that to exist without defining it as disloyalty or god forbid scabbing which is a terrible thing to accuse somebody of.
John: Two kind of related points is that during the time when things got really heated and leading up to the election and such, I sort of got thrown out as the person who had to be the peacekeeper and let’s remind everybody that this is a democratic process and stuff like that. What I couldn’t say that I wanted to say is that when stuff like scab were being thrown around constantly what I was being told is like, “You’re lying.”
Because we would say that this is a thing that’s happening and people would say to my face in front of a whole crowd, “Well I don’t believe you. You’re lying. You’re making that up.” And I couldn’t say because we were – I was telling the truth, but I couldn’t prove it because we were in these negotiations.
So, I got so sick of being called a liar, sort of those words, constantly. So that was my frustration. I was not allowed to yell back about sort of what they were calling me. So that was a great source of frustration.
John: The other thing which was happening which again I don’t know that it’s useful to dig out all of this and I think someone will write a book that actually sort of goes into what was happening on the agency side of this.
Craig: Worst book ever. [laughs]
John: Well, I genuinely don’t have a sense of like what those negotiations were like between the big four and stuff like that.
We do know because these people would also then reach out to – there would be people saying like, “Oh hey I’m brokering this thing.” There was a lot of time people were trying to have side conversations to do stuff. That was really hurting us. And that truly is a thing.
And so is that against the rules? Yeah. It’s not good. It’s not helping. And so that was – I think some of the frustration you’re hearing from folks who were on the negotiating committee or the board is we know what certain individuals were doing and how much it did screw us.
Craig: That I understand. I still think, look, if you are in an elected office in the union, and I was, and you were, then you have a certain kind of added responsibility to be–
John: That’s why I didn’t and that’s why I’ve not shouted out to people or called them by name.
Craig: That’s correct.
John: Just so you know that’s where a lot of that frustration is coming from. They may have genuinely believed that they were helping, but when we tell them that they’re undermining they just keep doing it. And so I think things went on a little longer, maybe in some cases a lot longer than they needed to, because they were instilling a false belief in our adversaries that we were close to folding, or that some middle ground was going to be formed. And it wasn’t there.
Craig: All I can say is that I hope that there’s a way for folks to treat each other a bit more respectfully.
John: I would hope so, too.
Craig: In all directions. I think that we have to remember in the membership that our board members and our president and vice president and secretary and treasurer are writers. They’re not being paid. They’ve volunteered for that. Granted, they did so voluntarily and, you know, there’s a little bit – you’ll always have to take a little bit of heat when you’re in that position, but you have to keep in mind that they’re not your servants. And then, you know, in the other direction we have to figure out how to respectfully tolerate dissent. As long as people–
John: That’s crucial.
Craig: –are following the rules. I mean, that’s the important thing. And if we start stretching the word “scab” to mean anybody that disagrees with something the president of the guild says we’re in serious trouble.
John: I would agree with you there. I would look forward to hopefully more normal elections where we get a range of opinions and it’s not – it shouldn’t be and it probably won’t be so polarized about a single issue.
I want to wrap this up by saying I always kind of dreaded these discussions with you on the podcast because it was just so uncomfortable. And we don’t fight in real life. But the closest we ever come to fighting has been about these issues. And so I just feel so good to be able to put a pin in this and to move past this. And I know it was a source of stress for Megana as well because she is just listening to us fight, it’s like mom and dad fighting. And for our listeners, too.
Craig: That’s the worst part. If Megana gets upset then I just feel terrible. I know that you don’t actually have feelings. You have circuitry. You have your root sub routines. But Megana…
And, listen, you did a great job. That’s the god’s honest truth. And we were both of us in a strange position, because I get blamed for stuff all the time that I didn’t do. And also apparently entire agencies think that I’m who I’m not.
We were each getting it from multiple ends. And so it is a difficult thing to process through and there were times where you definitely were in a tough spot. And I give you credit. You always listened respectfully. I mean, you behaved the way elected officials should behave.
John: Yeah. And I think people would comment on like, “Oh, I like how you’re modeling the conversation of respectful listening and sort of talking through the issues and not getting upset about it.” But I was secretly really upset. But we’re still modeling. I’m still modeling–
Craig: So was I. I mean, I think that’s part – look, you can’t avoid getting upset. There are times when we’re going to head into situations where we are going to feel things, you can’t avoid that. All you can do as hopefully a decent person is remember that the person on the other end is a human being. That they are a good human being. That you hope that they listen to you. And you hope that you can do the same for them.
And so, yes, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get upset. There’s no shame in being upset. It’s just how you handle it. So, you know, and you had a harder job for sure and so I just, you know, tip my hat. You did a really good job. You were my favorite, by far.
Craig: Of all of the leadership.
John: Now I feel all warm and happy. Now he loves me.
Craig: Oh yeah. Of course. Listen, of course I love you. But, you know, you really did a great job. And that’s not surprising to me because you are, you know, all joking aside you are more human than I am I suspect. And you want to bridge gaps and find common ground which is exactly the right instinct. And we need more of you, not fewer.
John: Well thank you. That was really nice to say. Thank you.
Craig: Hats off to you. And, you know, listen, hats off to the membership and the guild for achieving something while arguing amongst themselves, which is what we do. As long as you followed the rules. I’ll just keep saying. You’ve got to follow the rules. So, there you go.
John: All right. This is a time in the show where we listener questions where we invite on Megana Rao to ask those questions. But I’m going to start with my first question for Megana. Was this experience uncomfortable for you because I didn’t want to put words in your mouth? How are you feeling about the end of this and this end of this chapter in Scriptnotes?
Megana Rao: I’ve been like so giddy. I feel a lot of emotions right now just in this past hour of recording. I’ve been sad, and happy, and relieved. And I have been dying to know what was on that USB. I didn’t realize the toll it was taking on my mental health having it be encrypted. And now I feel just like a huge weight has been lifted off of me.
Craig: Wow. You’re way more curious. I should say, I’m way less curious.
Megana: Well, I feel like it’s come up in conversations between John and I and I just keep being like what is on that USB.
John: And so that was a long setup on the show. And was the payoff worth it? You tell me. Was the payoff worth it?
John: No it wasn’t. Was it? [laughs] It really, I oversold it.
Megana: It’s like when you have a time capsule and you think it’s going to be the coolest thing ever and then…
Craig: I thought there were some interesting – I mean, look, it’s about wonky stuff.
Craig: So it’s not like oh my god this is going to tell us who shot JFK.
John: Well let’s answer some listener questions in the here and now. Do you want to start us off, Megana?
Megana: Great. So Ryan asked, “I’m finishing up the first draft for a feature and having that cold feet moment I sometimes get before I turn in a draft to the studio. It’s an original story and my deal includes revision steps. So I know I will get notes and I know I will make changes. There are a few minor things I’ve already spotted that I may end up changing, but overall the draft is in pretty good shape. Do you guys sometimes send your first draft for feedback knowing there’s still edits you’ll probably make on the next pass, even if you don’t get the specific notes? Or do you make all the possible improvements you can before you open the kitchen to other cooks?
“Basically, how do you know when your draft is ready to send?”
John: So, the realistic answer is the draft is due, I have to send it in. So that becomes the deciding factor. But, I get what Ryan is asking here. Sometimes you know that there’s things you’re going to want to change and maybe you’re going to save/hold back on changing some of those things because it will give you a thing to do in the next pass.
I would not send in that thing for preliminary review. First off, you shouldn’t do that. Because then you’re going to end up doing free work and it’s going to be a mess. And you don’t know what kind of stuff they’re going to ask for. But you only get really one shot for that first impression. So if you’re going to share it with somebody share it with somebody who is not in the chain of decision-making and get their take on it. And in that conversation you can have like, “Oh, I’m thinking about changing these things. Is that something I should think about?” And you can really have a conversation with the person who has read the script.
But in general every draft you turn in should be the best reflection of what you hope the movie could and should be.
Craig: Yes. Ryan, I know what you’re feeling there, too. And I have to say that I’m kind of extreme on this. So I don’t know if this is good advice or not. But the way I approach it is when I turn in a draft my job, I believe this is my job, is to hand over a document that could be shot the next day.
Craig: If I know that there’s something that could be better and I know how to make it better I should make it better. That’s what the job is. Now, if there is something that I think is wrong, but I don’t know why or how, that’s where hopefully there’s somebody in the process I can talk to like a good producer to say, “Let’s just talk for an hour, because I’m running into a stumbling block.”
But I don’t want to send a script with that stumbling block included. I want to resolve it before I turn the script in. So I know the draft is ready to send when it feels like it is a good solid, clean undamaged representation of my intention. And that’s not easy to do.
John: Yeah. It’s tough. But I think we’re both saying like every draft you send in has to really reflect your best work. And so don’t send in something that you know is broken.
Craig: Correct. That is a bad look as the kids say.
John: Megana, what else do you have for us?
Megana: OK, so Michelle asks, “How do screenwriters take vacations? Let’s say you have a two-week Europe trip planned six months ago and then you get hired to do a writing assignment a month before that long-planned vacation. The draft is due in ten weeks, but two of those are supposed to be vacation. Do you cancel the trip because you need the work? Or is there any way to tell the producer that you need an extra two weeks? Or do screenwriters just book all trips last minute once they turn in a draft?
“Also, what if you and your partner are both screenwriters?”
John: Writer’s vacation. This could be a whole episode. I’ve had a really hard time – I have a hard time taking vacations, but my husband will say like, “Oh, we’re taking a vacation during this time,” and I’m like OK. And I do it.
Craig: Yup. That’s how it goes over here. I’m like you. Vacation isn’t a thing in my head. You know like people sit there and daydream about vacations and I don’t. And if left alone no vacations will occur. So it is up to my wife to say, “All right, that’s it. We’re doing it. It’s happening. This is when it’s happening.” Because then at that point it’s not me. I’m not the one calling people saying I have to go away for two weeks. I’m calling them and telling them that I’ve been hired by a higher power to go away for two weeks. And that people seem to understand. Everybody has a boss. And when it comes to vacations my wife is the boss.
John: Michelle asks sort of on the ten-week writing assignment and two weeks of those you’re on vacation. That just happens and you just make it work. And you can work from anywhere. When I was doing the Arlo Finch books I just absolutely had to write a thousand words a day. And so wherever we were I would block out an hour or two hours of my time and get out of the room and write during that time. And that’s great, too. But I also feel that there’s a place at which writers actually do need to take real vacations. And I’d welcome our listeners to write in, especially our listeners who are working writing professionals, how do they think about vacations and how do they actually take time off, because I’ve never been good at it.
Craig: Same. Yeah.
John: How about one more question.
Megana: All right, so Mr. Aussie writes, “Last year my dream came true. I finally got the call from Hollywood after a short film of mine went viral. I got an LA manager and many chats and phone calls were lighting up my life. Now Covid has prevented me from flying over for general meetings with all the major studios. And I finally felt like I had made it. I find myself in a dark depression waiting for a call back of good news, or that something is being picked up or green lit. I know the odds are low, but now it’s like I just lay on my bed at night in the dark with no hope or desire to write or create. I feel empty and jaded and I know I’m better than this but can’t seem to snap out of it.
“I’d love to know if depression is real with those over in Hollywood who have movies and TV series green lit year to year and how they deal with it.”
John: Oh, Mr. Aussie. You have depression.
John: You have depression. You have an actual medical condition. It’s called depression. And you need someone to help with your depression because that’s what you’re experiencing. It’s a real phenomenon. And it’s not just being a little sad. You have depression. It’s the thing that you have. And people here have it. People everywhere have it. And people who have big successful TV shows have it. And you need someone to help you with it.
Craig: Yeah. We’ll talk through the easy parts first, Mr. Aussie. The fact that Covid has prevented you from flying over here is actually irrelevant. Covid prevents all of us over here from going anywhere also. We might as well be in Australia. The only difference between us and you in terms of meeting people is just that we’re on the time zone so we’ll probably be a little more awake. But beyond that all chats and all phone calls are being done over Zoom or regular phones. So that as a circumstance is actually not the problem.
I’m not here to tell you what has led you into this depression, because I’m not a professional. What I can tell you is depression is real with people in Hollywood who have movies and TV series green lit year to year. Without question. In fact, there is a higher, I would argue, incidence of depression and crippling anxiety among artistic, creative professionals than in any other occupation because our minds are overactive and we work with emotion. That’s our paint. And at times it backfires on us, and at times it gets depleted. And we get hurt and everyone’s damage manifests in different ways and this is how yours is manifesting.
John is absolutely right. This is not a thing that you snap out of. This is a thing that you get treated for. So you’re going to make an appointment to see a therapist and a psychiatrist. You’re going to talk about your symptoms. You’re going to talk about your situation. And they are ideally going to treat you well. There is absolutely hope. You may not feel hope, but feelings are not facts. Hope is there regardless of whether you feel it or not.
So, go ahead and reach out and start doing the work to take care of this condition. It is a medical condition. And you should not ignore it or think that you’re responsible for ending it yourself. [Craig’s phone rings] Decline. Sorry. You know what? I think maybe just leave it here as an example for Mr. Aussie of things are just messy and awkward in real life.
John: Yeah. And so I would just urge you, do something right now. It doesn’t have to be like making the appointment with the therapist, but tell someone in your life that this is a plan that you’re going to be doing and get them to help you just make that first step to talk to that person. Because it’s going to get better as you start doing the things to make it get better. That’s just how it works.
All right. It has come time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing I have actually had for a while and I just keep forgetting to give it. So, this is the Kikkerland Make Your Own Music Box Kit. So click through the link there Craig and you’ll see it’s this little, it’s like a music box assembly with a little crank and these strips of paper that you feed in and then you use a special hole punch to punch the notes into the strips and it feeds through.
Craig: Oh my. This is the most John August thing I think I’ve ever seen.
John: It’s musical. It’s mechanical. It is just delightful. And so I was trying to figure out – somebody on Twitter, I think another screenwriter, had linked to it and had done Tainted Love with strips.
Craig: Oh nice.
John: Which is fantastic. I think the ideal use of this gift would be to buy one of these kits, make the song for like a gift for somebody, like their favorite song, and to hand them the device and the thing. But I will give you an example, just a little short thing that I punched myself.
[Music plays – the Scriptnotes Theme]
Craig: I know that song.
John: So I will build out a fuller version at some point, but it’s just simple and delightful, so try that.
Craig: Wonderful. And affordable.
My One Cool Thing this week is a person by the name of Thor.
John: I like Thor.
Craig: Thor. Not God of Thunder Thor, but my friend Thor Knai. I think it’s Knai. I don’t really ever say his last name. It’s Knai. It could be Knai, but I think it’s Knai. He’s Norwegian, or Knorwegian. And Thor is the dungeon master of the game that I play in. So I DM a campaign with our friends, like you play in that game of course. And then I am a player in that game on a further along path and Thor is the DM of that game.
Thor is also now available essentially to hire. So the way we play is over Zoom and Roll 20 and it works beautifully. But it will only work as good as your DM.
John: That’s true.
Craig: Thor is spectacularly good at it. I mean, he’s really, really, really good at it. He runs a number of games and his expertise and his style are just spot on. I’ve learned a lot just observing him DM. I think every DM should be playing also. It’s good for us to always be on the other side and feel what works and what doesn’t work.
So he’s available to hire. If you are thinking about putting together a private game but you don’t have a DM, reach out. So he’s on this site called startplaying.games. We’ll include a link in the show notes. And he puts together custom games, modules, all sorts of stuff. And he’s terrific. Just a very gentle, sweet, fun dude who knows how to DM as well as anyone.
John: That’s great. So I strongly recommend if you have a group of friends who want to play or you played when you were in high school and haven’t played since it feels like a great way to get back into it. And typically Roll 20, Craig and I did this series that we’ll put a link to in how to get started GM’ing there. But someone who really knows what they’re doing will have a much better landing experience. So, yeah—
Craig: John, have you clicked on the link? Don’t if you haven’t yet.
John: I have clicked on it.
Craig: Oh, you have. Because I was going to ask you if you hear about a guy named Thor Knai from Norway who is a DM what would you imagine he would look like?
John: Well, bearded. And so bearded was correct. But he’s also sort of like more kind of like Rob McElhenney sort of like white attractive actor guy.
Craig: He’s a very handsome guy. I think people sometimes are like, “Oh, yeah, you know, Dungeons & Dragons are nerds.” He actually looks a little bit like he could be Thor. Like he could play Thor. And he is an actor.
Anyway, so great guy. Check him out.
John: Cool. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. Thank you, Megana. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Eric Pearson. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is no longer really on Twitter so don’t tweet at him.
We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You can also find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. We’ll include a link also to the WGA timeline that sort of talks through when everything happened over the course of the past three years.
You’ll find transcripts at johnaugust.com. And you can sign up there for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of links to things about writing.
You can sign up to become a Premium member of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re about to record. Craig, thank you for a fun show and a nice closure to a whole saga.
Craig: Ah, it has been laid to rest. Thank you sir.
John: So that music was sort of nostalgic and got me thinking back to my youth which ties in very well to a question from Alec Amate who is a curious 25-year-old. He asks, “The further I get into my 20s the more I realize how little I know and how I really have no clue what’s going on. While this doesn’t disturb me that much, I’m curious. If you could offer one essential piece of advice to someone in their 20s what would it be? Thanks so much.”
So I took this to be like my 20-year-old self. Really he’s talking early 20s. What things do you think would be helpful for a person in their 20s to know?
John: I can start.
Craig: Go for it.
John: Or you start.
Craig: No, no, no. I want to hear what you say.
John: So, to me, I think it took me a long time to realize that everybody around me was faking it. I felt like I was the imposter and everybody else knew what they were doing. And eventually I realized like, oh right, no one knows what they’re doing and they’re all just winging it. And if I had realized that earlier on I would just have had much more confidence and given myself permission to take risks because like no one knows what they’re doing.
And I would also understand, like I’d be a little more sympathetic to people knowing that they’re messing up because they really had no idea what they were doing. And they had no clear plan. They were just faking it, too. So I would have left myself off the hook and other people off the hook a little bit more if I had just understood that no one kind of knows what they doing.
Craig: Yeah. No one does know what they’re doing. Everyone is a child. It’s just that we get more wrinkly.
Yeah, I think maybe if I were giving myself in my 20s specific advice I would probably say that even though you are angry for all sorts of reasons, including a number of very good ones, that empathy is going to make you feel better than anger. Now, I still get angry all the time. Don’t get me wrong. But I get angry about things. I try not to get angry at people. When I do feel angry about people or angry at people then I try and forcibly put myself in their shoes and remind myself that everybody has got something going on. Everybody. And that has made me happier. Seems maybe it’s counterintuitive. I don’t know. Maybe in your 20s you’re so ready to take on the world and you’ve been taught that you’ve got to beat the world into submission that it seems counterintuitive. But here I am on the doorstep of 50 and it seems more clear to me than ever that the more connected I am to another person the happier I feel about myself.
John: Yeah. But it’s not an illusion. There’s many, many studies that back that up. Essentially being able to think about someone else’s well-being ends up making you feel better. It does reflect back on you. So there’s a classic example where you sit still and you watch people walking past and you just think good thoughts about all of them. You wish them well individually. And you will noticeably feel better about yourself. And you will personally feel better just because it gets your brain thinking in that space.
Craig: Vastly preferable to Sea-Lioning.
So, Craig, I think you know that I have one tattoo. Do you know about my tattoo?
John: Is that a surprise to you?
Craig: I mean, I think it’s a surprise. It doesn’t strike me as something I knew.
John: Yeah. So I got this tattoo when I was 21 years old. It was while I was at USC, my first year at USC. So friends came down who were living in San Francisco and we had a really drunken, debauched weekend, which was really fun. And we ended up in Venice. And they all had tattoos and I was like I want to get a tattoo. So I got a tattoo on my ankle. And I wanted it to be Latin, but I also didn’t have a lot of money, so I just did the initials for a Latin phrase, which is [Latin phrase] which would translate roughly to “Let me fear nothing, not even fear.”
And it’s been really good advice for me. I come back to that a lot. Most of the things in life that I regret are the things I didn’t do rather than the things I did. And so really to take more chances and to not worry that I will chicken out. Not to worry about being afraid. Just get over it. And that pushing ahead is generally the best policy for me.
Craig: Yeah. I think that’s great advice.
I have no tattoos, but I do often think about Don Rhymer’s final words which I believe his son has tattooed which simply “Focus on the Good.” And it’s so simple, but you kind of just want to float right by it until you realize how frequently we focus on what’s not working and we focus on the worst parts of ourselves. Where we are too fat. Where we are too thin. Where we’re too bad. Whatever it is. And we focus on what we haven’t achieved. And what dream hasn’t come true. And all of that.
And, sure, count your blessings and all that. But focusing on the good is really valuable because there is something good there to look at and to appreciate. You know, I like that.
When I remind myself that it came from a dying man it becomes all the more true. Because I will be a dying man and I know there’s no way that I’m going to be there and go, “Oh, Don, you were totally wrong. You should totally focus on the crap, man. That’s important.” No, I mean, of course. Of course. As it is all coming to its conclusion you’re going to – it’s the things that are beautiful that you’re going to miss. So focus on them now.
John: Yeah. Whenever these kind of exercises come up where think back to your 20s and stuff like that I look back at those photos and I’m like, oh my god, you were better looking than you realized. You could have slept with a lot more people. Those are all sort of things that you can think about. You had these opportunities. Look at the body you had at that age.
And then I inevitably stop and think like, wait, what will the 80-year-old me think about the 20, 21 version of John? Why are you not taking advantage of the body that you had, the opportunities you had? And so I think I’m being more realistic about that now. And, you know, there’s a story you tell yourself, like a negative story, like I’m not that kind of person, I can’t do this kind of thing. And I always assume like, oh, you’re not an athletic person. But then it turned out I actually can do all that stuff pretty well. I could run a half-marathon.
So I would encourage my 20-year-old self to look at the negative stories you’re telling about yourself and really challenge them because they’re probably not actually true. They’re probably things that are difficult but not impossible.
Craig: Yeah. Great advice.
John: Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- Last of Us casts Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey
- WGA PR and Social Media Event join John this Thursday, February 18th, 2021.
- Timeline of the WGA Agency Campaign
- Scriptnotes 389: The Future of the Industry
- Sea Lioning
- Kikkerland Make Your Own Music Box Kit
- Thor Knai, DnD Dungeon Master for hire
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Eric Pearson (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.