Screenwriters: Leave Your Mistrust at the Door
While most emerging writers who do their research and keep a level head come to screenwriting with a clear understanding of how the industry works, it does happen that a new writer will arrive on the scene, with his or her mistrust put broadly – if not proudly – on display. After all, there have been stories (rare but memorable) of screenplays being stolen (as well as story credit and payment being withheld and consequently and successfully sued for), screenwriters seeing their original idea suddenly fully realized and up in lights, or screenwriters being pushed out of a project that was once originally theirs. This mistrust comes in many forms: THEY want me to sign a release form???? or That screenplay has the same concept as mine; SOMEBODY stole my idea! or Wouldn’t THEY rather cheat me than pay me???? There have been countless advice columns and blog posts written about why writers – so long as they copyright their work and do their industry diligence – shouldn’t worry about being ripped off. But still, with some, the mistrust persists. And so I wanted to shed some light on why it is that coming from a place of mistrust is – on almost all occasions – not going to do much to serve the writer.
Before I take this any further, let me say this: I am Israeli, which means that I am a fan of bringing a healthy dose of skepticism to any situation. By definition, healthy skepticism has to be factually substantiated, rather than fueled by myths and unfounded rumors. So yes, question everything, but don’t rest only on the answers that imply that your suspicions could potentially – in some wild scenario – be correct. At the end of the day, it’s all about fact, fact, fact. Approaching the industry cautiously is healthy; coming into it with excessive mistrust and defensiveness can actually be detrimental to a writer’s career.
Over the years I’ve seen mistrust manifested in all shapes and sizes. Here are just a few examples of not only how it shows up, but also how the professional space may respond:
When I interviewed my friend, manager John Zaozirny, for my upcoming book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES he told me of writers who question the importance of release forms: “(If you don’t want to sign a release form) you’re probably not somebody I want to work with because you’re coming at it from a position of mistrust and I understand that ‘people have to protect themselves,’ but that’s what copyrighting your screenplay is for.”
John and I went on to discuss the importance of the release form, which most production companies and managers require the writer sign prior to accepting his or her unsolicited material. “There’s very little to gain on my end for reading some random screenplay unprotected; there’s much more to gain for the writer. Because if you are querying me then I’m probably in a more established position than you are. It’s all downside for me if I read the script without the release form.” But what is the release form protecting the manager or production company from? “If I do not like your screenplay and then later on I develop a screenplay that has any similarities, and lord knows there’s only so many stories under then sun, then I’ve opened myself up to a scenario where you could sue me for stealing your idea,” John said. “So if I want to develop a script about an Ambassador on the run for a crime he didn’t commit and you sent me a screenplay years ago about an Ambassador who was investigating the murder of his wife, you could argue that the two things are the same.”
More than once in my work as a screenwriting career coach, I’ve had the unfortunate task of forwarding a hard working writer a Deadline.com or Hollywood Reporter news item about a project with a logline, premise or subject matter similar to whatever piece they were working on in that moment. Usually, such emails pertain to a screenplay or pilot that just made a splash, in the form of a TV development deal, pilot set up or feature spec sale. And those emails are HORRIBLE to send. I know how hard my writers work. Informing them that something else, just like theirs, just got set up and that they should therefore put whatever they were working on down and move on to the next means nothing less than dreams dashed. But it happens. All the time. I sent such an email three weeks ago, and I can already promise you that it won’t be my last. The truth of the matter is that there are only so many stories to tell, and some ideas are in the zeitgeist, while others, whose time have come, are in the national consciousness. Never was this more abundantly clear to me than a few years ago, when BRIDESMAIDS came out. I must have talked to half a dozen writers who told me that they had that exact script developed in their arsenal. Even though one or two questioned whether it was possible for the producers to have somehow gotten their hands on their original work, others understood that this is just the reality of how the space works.
“If I read a screenplay and I thought there was something good in it, why wouldn’t I just develop it with you?” John Zaozirny told me. “Why would I go and try to back door something? What’s the upside? No one’s trying to mess you over, they have way too many things going on. Too many amateur writers are concerned with trying to make money off their ‘genius’ screenplay and not concerned about trying to make a career.”
Logically speaking, it makes no sense for an agent or manager to read a screenplay, find it market-viable, and rather than take the writer – or at the very least the project – on for representation, feed the concept to one of their writers to then go and write it on spec. The spec market is, and has been, retracting. Even the best spec is seen as a gamble. Whether you go with the more conservative number of set up specs for 2015, which hovers around 90, or the more optimistic one of 130, those numbers are not great. In 2014, 1799 writers working in feature film reported income to the WGA, which means that the vast majority of money being earned in the feature writing space is NOT earned from selling specs – instead, it is earned doing writing assignments, whether in the form of rewrites or writing a script, with pay, from scratch. Therefore, it would be foolish for an agent or manager to advise their writer to write a script on spec, even one that’s based on the most fantastic concept in the world, rather than try to book them out on assignment work, where there are many more dollars to be spent. Accordingly, the smart decision for any representative working on commission would be to book their proven writer out on assignment work, while attempting to sell a spec from a relatively new writer, not yet able to easily book assignment work. The end result would be double the income for the rep. Even if said rep is unable to sell the spec for the same price he would had gotten had it come from a name writer, at the end of the day a successful spec sale means that he would then be able to start sending the new writer out for assignment work as well. So, more established writers, more paying work.
Another example: I used to work with a writer who would not speak about his work in public places. He would not give a log line – let alone deliver a pitch – if anyone he didn’t know was within earshot of where we were sitting. In our coaching sessions – which I conduct out of a popular Culver City coffee shop – he would bring me written loglines, and ask that I refer to them only by logline number, while not giving away any specifics, certain that if anyone, anywhere heard what he had come up with, his ideas would instantly be ripped off, stolen and sold (probably to Sony which is right down the street) for millions. I warned him on more than one occasion: Industry meetings often take place in restaurants. In coffee shops. In crowded places. Agents, managers and producers meeting you in such scenarios are going to expect you to be comfortable talking about your work. When I finally asked him how he planned on getting around that, he swore that this particular scenario would never happen. He would never LET that happen. He would never let an agent, manager or a producer MANIPULATE him (his words, not mine) into meeting in such a public, compromising space. If they wanted to talk about his work it would have to be behind closed doors, and they would have to sign an NDA. Suffice it to say, he and I pretty much stopped working together that day. Not because he wasn’t a talented writer but because his mistrust was so deeply rooted, it would hurt his chances at a successful career and I knew there was no way of getting around that.
And speaking of little ol’ me… As I’ve been doing this for many years now, the bi-annual piece of hate mail that appears at my inbox has become near tradition in my world, and this latest one, which arrived on the morning of my July 4th weekend getaway to celebrate the completion of my second book in the screenwriting space was no different. To give you context, the previous one came almost two years ago to the date, when a writer replied to my monthly newsletter only to tell me that “people like you ruin it for screenwriters anywhere. You are the devil.” Okay… To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. But when she signed up for coaching six months later, I promptly refunded her money. Life’s too short, and frankly, if someone is that mistrusting and offended by a freaking good-spirited newsletter, I have to question how they would show up when things got even a tad bit challenging in the professional space.
This latest iteration of said email, a.k.a., bi-annual hate-mail – which comically was titled RESPECTFULLY and then went on to berate me, was a bit more verbose, but not much different, with lines like “Why would anyone take your advice let alone pay you to give it?” “Your IMDB is embarrassing.” Of course it is – I am a career coach, not a screenwriter, and “You should be ashamed of yourself” and – my favorite – “You sound like a script groupie.” (If anyone knows what a script groupie is, please email or DM me!) For the record, I love how people think that if they enter the subject line RESPECTFULLY they can then proceed to be the complete opposite, as though one absolves them from responsibility for the other. But that is besides the point. The point is that this is a man I did not reach out to. I did not approach him. I don’t even know that I ever met him. But my guess is that I probably know a few more people in this space than he does. I probably have just a tiny bit more experience, and accordingly a few more meaningful relationships. And yet his choice is to come at me with guns blazing for absolutely no reason, instantly marking himself as someone that this industry is not likely to want to work with. Bitter mistrust, specifically when unprompted, is the fastest way to identify a novice.
This letter I’ve received is in no way singular. Nor are the few anecdotes I shared. Friends in representation have told me many stories on many occasions about new writers who not only questioned their notes, but their overall understanding of the space. They shared with me stories about offended scribed who went on to argue with them that their script does work, and when the rep disagreed, the writer went on to tell them they are clueless, corrupt, and stupid.
At the end of the day, those stories all leave me feeling sad. Because my weekend was not the least bit affected by this hate mail; agents and managers are not scarred by writers refusing to sign their release forms. No one is going to feel the void left by the new writer who wouldn’t share his ideas unless the listener signed an NDA. It’s the screenwriter’s journey to a professional career that is affected, if not by misguided choices, then by the venom and mistrust they bring with them into the space. The sort that – spelled out or otherwise – can be detected from a mile away. No one wants to work with someone who comes from a place of mistrust. Who is automatically suspicious of them.
Don’t get me wrong: the majority of writers who come into this space arrive prepared and reasonable, able to differentiate between reality and a cautionary tale. But of the few writers who have read all this, and still feel that the industry is going to rip them off, break their heart, steal their work, that I myself am a sham, I have to ask: Why do you even want to work in this space? Isn’t life too short to work so hard in order to break into an industry that won’t ultimately have your back? There are two things you can do: Either find a way to leave your permanent mistrust at the door, or seek out another path to writing, one in which you will not constantly feel the threat of others aiming to squash your dreams, or steal your work.