Will Hollywood Steal Your Screenplay?

Right up front, let me tell you this: This blog post is going to piss some people off. There is no doubt about it in my mind. Even if I try to keep it as vanilla as possible (which, me being the well-expressed Israeli that I am, we all know that I won’t), I’m readying myself for a little bit of hate mail. Turns out that when you’re an opinionated individual, that’s just what you sometimes get. So this one time, I will start my blog with an apology: I am sorry if what you will read here offends you. It is not meant to insult or disempower screenwriters – who I spend every working day championing – in any way. It is simply the reality as I know it, and as I have learned it over my many years in the industry.

The question of whether or not writers should fear the industry – or individuals within the industry – outright stealing their work has been around since the days I myself was a writer, and I am sure long before that. You hear horrific stories about writers who’ve had their work lifted from right out under them, without any avenue for recourse. Heck, the husband of a good friend of mine had elements of his work lifted by a major studio (which then went on to pay him handsomely for them). I am in no way saying that these things don’t happen. They have, more rarely than people believe, but they have. However, despite all of those tales of horror, when I sat down for a taped interview with Film Courage a couple of months ago, and they asked: “What you would tell writers who worry that someone would steal either their idea or their work?” My immediate response was: “Get over it.”

Now, just to be clear, GET OVER IT does not mean that they’re going to steal your work and that you should smile and say thank you. GET OVER IT means: Anyone who is so precious about their work probably shouldn’t be trying to work in this space in the first place. SO DON’T BE PRECIOUS. Your job is to get your writing out there, to get it read and exposed, and you can’t do that while being precious. And the job of your first industry-ready script is not to sell it for a million dollars (because these days very few scripts ever do) but rather to get you that first agent, to get you that first manager, to get you noticed in the space. If you get your work out there wisely, you will expose your work only after registering it with the WGA and/or the US Copyright office. You will also keep a paper trail of everywhere and anywhere you sent your work to, so should you have the unfortunate experience of discovering a similar project in progress you will easily be able to follow the trail and assert whether your own work might have been compromised at any point.

Many production and management companies out there require writers sign a release form before submitting work to them. And for many, the writer’s willingness – or refusal – to do so, is the first telltale sign of whether or not this is someone a producer or manager wants to work with. When I interviewed manager John Zaozirny, for my upcoming book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES he told me: “(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.”

Managers and executives require these release forms across the board because they don’t want to read any script that could put them or any projects – future or present – that they are working on at risk. If the script they agreed to read off a logline has a story or story element similar to one in another script they are currently developing with a screenwriter, then their own, higher-priority project may have just been compromised. Additionally, executives, producers and managers never want to have to consider everything they’ve ever read when they consider what to develop moving forward. If they develop a project that has similarities to another project that they’ve read three years ago, they will likely not remember it. A release form makes it so that they don’t have to. “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.” John Zaozirny concluded.

Over the years, I’ve heard my writers blame everyone (agents, managers, producers, and especially other writers) of stealing their work. This is not something that happens with any regularity, but it does happen, and when it does, we do all we can to put the writer’s concerns to rest.

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 pilot set up or feature spec sale. And sometimes these scripts do have eerie similarities – down to plot twists – to my own writer’s original work. Can it really be a coincidence? If the writer is able to track where their particular script had been sent, any compromise of the work is easy to assess. But sometimes, the work hasn’t even gone out yet. Recently, one of my writers forwarded me a news item about a script almost similar to the one she was at that moment outlining that had gotten set up. My writer used very specific historical source material, but the story she weaved together was entirely her own. My client went as far as to get a hold of the other script and see if the similarities were glaring. Working in credit distribution herself and closely familiar with the WGA’s arbitration process she then wrote to me: “I’m reading this script now and it’s kind of insane, like I’m in a parallel universe. There are several scenes right now that are essentially the same and hit in the same spot. If I were looking at credit distribution this writer would get a credit on my script.”

So how do we explain that? Tom Petty (yes, the musician) often talked about plucking songs out of the universal song repository in the sky. And even though screenplays have significantly more detail, story and nuance, I do believe that they follow a certain innate rhythm, that they meet certain requirements that cause two stories told by two different writers without any awareness of one another to unfold with similar pacing and sometimes similar story points. That’s not thievery. That’s zeitgeist. But then, whether or not writers steal material and ideas from other writers is a different question; what I would like to explore here is the likelihood of agents, managers and executives stealing your material from you.

In my many years of experience in this space, I’ve learned that 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 already-working-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 (or “earner”) 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 have gotten had it come from a name scribe, 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.

It’s important to remember that – no disrespect, but ideas are just ideas; success in this industry, especially for new writers seeking to break in, is all about execution, and that is not something that can be easily stolen or replicated. For confirmation of this simple principle, look at the fact that ideas and loglines cannot be registered with the WGA. In the very least, you need a treatment or a synopsis in place. Writing is all about great execution. And great execution is the best tool to generate attention. If you are able to deliver that, agents, managers and executives will flock to work with you, rather than give credit for your work to someone else.