View Full Version : Screenwriters/Other Hollywood types-questions about screenplays & writers

08-28-2001, 03:15 PM
Some statements made in this thread (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=83975) got me wondering. I'm currently stumbling through a screenplay.

1. If I sell it, as a first-time writer, what kind of sum am I probably looking at(working on the premise that this is not the next Best Picture)?

2. Is it uncommon for contracts to have riders in them that allow the author of a work to regain rights to it if a studio hasn't produced the film in a certain amount of time?

3. I'm also interested in directing. Exactly how impossible would it be to get something into a sale agreement that would allow me to be on set with the director? I know this is something that would probably vary wildly from director to director, but humor me with an "on average" answer.

08-28-2001, 03:22 PM
I seem to remember hearing that Lethal Weapon was sold by a first-timer for $400,000. I suppose that you can try to extrapolate from that what a comparable script would fetch today. Of course, a script with the commercial potential of Lethal Weapon is quite a rare thing, so I wouldn't start spending the money quite yet.

08-28-2001, 03:30 PM
I never sold a teleplay, but I landed an agent (and no, not
one you have to pay up front) for one of my spec scripts.

You'd get scale if you were able to sell it. Probably, *if
you were able to sell it*, they'd bring in someone
experienced to 're-write it' - that is, make small
corrections, and then you'd get half-scale.

Here's your resource: http://www.wga.org/

08-28-2001, 03:35 PM
Originally posted by Flypsyde

1. If I sell it, as a first-time writer, what kind of sum am I probably looking at(working on the premise that this is not the next Best Picture)?

You've sort of answered your own question there. It depends on who's buying it and the marketability of the script.

2. Is it uncommon for contracts to have riders in them that allow the author of a work to regain rights to it if a studio hasn't produced the film in a certain amount of time?

You're talking about an option, and it's a common thing.

What might happen is this; you get an agent interested in your script and he manages to get, say, Dreamworks interested in it, but Dreamworks has a lot on their plate. What they will do is offer to buy an option - let's say, for $200,000. They pay you $20,000 now, with a contractual arrangement that they have X time (a year or two is common) to produce the script. If it gets produced, they pay you the $180,000 plus interest. If at the end of the option it still hasn't been produced, they keep the $180,000 and you get the script back - but you keep the $20,000 they already paid you.

3. I'm also interested in directing. Exactly how impossible would it be to get something into a sale agreement that would allow me to be on set with the director? I know this is something that would probably vary wildly from director to director, but humor me with an "on average" answer.

It would be pretty unusual for the screenwriter to not be around during production, especially if you're contracted for a certain number of rewrites. It is highly unlikely any spec script WON'T be heavily rewritten; try to negotiate to do the rewrites, and you're in like Flynn. If you manage to actually sell scripts you'll get plenty of opportunities to see the work being done.

Goofy as it sounds, if you want to direct, get a Super 8 camera and start making amateur movies. You'll be amazed at how much you learn and how quickly.

08-28-2001, 04:06 PM
The Lethal Weapon sale was very much on the high side. Shane Black wrote an article about the process. The script was actually sold at auction, and he recalled how his agent would call to give him updates. Once the bidding got past $50,000, he was relieved. By the time it hit $400,000, he was hyperventilating.

So the sale price depends entirely on who's buying, how much money is backing them, and the marketability of the script.

As for the writer being on the set, it would depend on the director. I saw Robert Rodat on the set of "The Patriot," but I guess if you won an Oscar, you could go where you want to also :D

Guy Propski
08-28-2001, 05:23 PM
The Writers' Guild of America's website (http://www.wga.org/) has a schedule of payments for original screenplays. It looks like you can expect a minimum of about $32,000 to $67,000 for an original screenplay, including treatment. The site also contains information on contracts, options, and other legal details.

08-29-2001, 10:15 AM
Thanks to everyone for the responses, and for the link.

08-29-2001, 11:02 AM
I remember reading a book (that happens on ocassion...) about the screenwriting process.

It's called "Monster" by John Gregory Dunne, and is a wonderful portrayal of what he and Joan Didion had to go through in selling their script for what became "Up Close and Personal" (Redford/Pfieffer).

I say 'became', because the story as they originally wrote was an entirely different being from the final product. It gives an interesting inside look into the hollywood machine and the insane number of rewrites that they had to make in order to appease so many people(27 drafts!).

The book perhaps documents a worst-case scenario, but still opens your eyes to the process.

Another thing that also comes to mind is the (sadly) short-lived show "Action!", which portrays the writer as an oft-forgotten, ignored and used tool who has to stress himself out in order to appease too many people through too many rewrites.

08-29-2001, 11:26 AM
I am sure you will get this at the WGA website, but before you do anything, register your screenplay with the WGA. Although your screenplay is copyright protected already, registering it with WGA saves you a lot of potential trouble.

Also, it is always a good idea to have someone who knows screenplays to read your script. I have read a lot by good writers that simply are not goor screenplays. Too often they think a screenplay is dialogue, so they fill it with witty conversations. It is not, the most important thing in a screenplay is structure and character development. In fact most screenwriting classes barely touch on dialogue.

08-29-2001, 12:17 PM
I haven't sold a screenplay myself - yet - but a good book on the subject is Selling A Screenplay by 'Syd Field. He also has written some how-to books on the subject that I highly recomend.
Then unknown Sly Stallone, sold 'Rocky' and then got to direct it. BUT he took a huge cut in $ for the SP for the studios taking that chance. Conversly, I have spoken with several people who have wrote (and sold) successful SPs, including the woman who wrote 'Witness' (Harrison Ford). Their opinion of directing your own SP - zero. Not only that, once it's sold you pretty much lose control over it. It will be re-written and made how the studio wants it. It the way the biz works.

08-29-2001, 02:27 PM
I think this will make a good addition to the new dumping gr--er, the fine new forum that we have now.

moderator, GQ

08-29-2001, 05:05 PM
Flypsyde, I about to embark down this same journey (if I actually get anything written). I don't have answers for you, but some great book recommendations:

Rebel Without a Crew, by Robert Rodriguez. It's the story of how he made Desperado for $7,000 and had all the studios kissing his ass.

Which Lie Did I Tell: More Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. It's got a lot of backstory on the relationship between writers and directors and producers, plus a lot of advice on writing screenplays, told in a human, funny, cynical-older-brother voice. This guy KNOWS his stuff. He also wrote Adventures in the Screen Trade, which I am meaning to read, but WLDIT relates more to the movies I grew up with.

My roommate is working in development for a production company out West, and on consulting with her the best info I have is "it varies." You need to register it with the Writer's Guild, so people can't steal it, and try to get it read by people, and hope that one of them wants to be your agent. The amount of money you can expect depends on how marketable they think the film will be.

Good luck!

08-29-2001, 05:07 PM
P.S. If you want to direct, just make the film yourself and try to sell the completed film to a studio. Once you sell it, it's out of your control. If the studio turns it into a sucking hole of cheese and pain, you have the right not to have your real name on it, but that's about it.

08-29-2001, 05:18 PM
Let me second those William Goldman books recommended by magdalene. Just for clarification, Goldman was the author of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and also wrote the book The Princess Bride (although I think someone else wrote the screenplay).

Monster which someone else mentioned is also very interesting. I especially like the part that is the motivation for the title.

In terms of craft I must recommend Story by Robert McKee. I guess this is a bit of a hijack, but I like discussing these things.

08-29-2001, 08:43 PM
Originally posted by magdalene
[B]Flypsyde, I about to embark down this same journey (if I actually get anything written).
You'll work on your grammer first, right?


even sven
08-30-2001, 02:39 AM
(Note: I am not here to crush your dream. I am here to relate my experiences. If what I say is harsh, remember it isn't directed at you personally. For all I know, you may be the total exception and make me look foolish)

I am a film major. For some reason, those words are magical. No matter who you say them to, you get the same response:

"Oh, really? You know I write screenplays- why don't you take a look at my scripts?"

I am not kidding! Everyone I have ever met has a screenplay in the works. Everyone! Writing screenplays is apparently America's favorite hobby. I can't understand it.

You see, the reality of screenwriting is nothing like what people dream. First off, your not gonna get lucky and rich by just sending your screenplay to people. Studios do not, under any circumstances, accept unsolicited screenplays. This goes doubly so for tele-plays. They hire writers for that sort of thing- what makes you think they are going to use your instead? In fact, they arn't even allowed to look at them because that would set them up for copywright lawsuits. They just close their eyes and chuck it into the wastebasket. And posting it on the Internet, a method which many people somehow assume is going to lead to instant fame, won't work either. Studio people have better things to do than slog through the masses feeble artistic attempts.

Probably the best chance to get your script produced is finding a college kid or indy director to pick it up. You will probably get paid a percentage of the profits- which will likely be zero squared. That is the price you pay for having your work see the light of day.

Beyond all this, most "screenwriters" plain old don't know how to screenwrite. It isn't a matter of throwing down some dialogue. Even if you learn the standard screenwriting form, there are still things to learn about content. Most would-be writers write what we call radio-plays, meaning scripts that would work just as well on radio. Film is a primarily visual medium, and that has to be taken in to account. You have to ask yourself "Why is film the best medium for this?" and write for film. There is an art to it, and it doesn't come automatically. Just because you think you might be good at it, doesn't mean you are. Producers are as likly to trust their multi-million dollar investment of a film to an amature screenwriter as you are to trust your bypass to an amature surgeon. And amature scripts are as likely to turn out good as an amature coronary.

Finally, even if you beat all the odds, write a good screenplay and get it picked up- you are still screwed. SCREENWRITING IS AS UN-GLAMOROUS AS IT GETS! I don't know why everyone is so keen on doing it. Screenwriting is arduous, unfufilling and unrewarded. In any production, the screenwriter is on the bottom of the totem pole. Heck, screenwriters are buried in the mud underneath the totem pool. Right below the kid that brings the electricians their coffee.

Once that script leaves you hands, it is gone. Everyone on the production wants you out of their lives. You see, they are eager to mutilate your script. They are out to make their piece of work, not yours. They could care less about your artistic vision. In fact, they activily spit on your artistic vision. If you write Saving Private Ryan, they will turn it into Rambo. If you write Spaceballs, they will turn it into 2001: A Space Oddessy. You don't matter in this equasion. The egos of directors is the stuff of legends. It is certainly a force that no mere mortal wants to come up against.

So by all means, follow your dreams, but keep in mind reality as well. You will probably be able to acheive some really cool stuff on a local, independent basis. Local fame might even lead to bigger projects. But screenwriting is like all kinds of writing- it takes a lot of work and usually gives few rewards.

08-30-2001, 03:18 AM
Well, your questions have been answered pretty well, so I won't add anymore. Except to say again that if you were a screenwriter on a picture, you'd almost definitely be on-set (or on-call) for changes and such.

But I will say that if you're having trouble with writing your script, one of the best books on screenwriting is Story, by Robert McKee. McKee has taught, and continues to teach, a very involved workshop/class on screenwriting that is renound as one of the very best. It costs around $400 to take it.
The book contains everything from the course, and much more, and sells for around $50. There's another author (whose name escapes me) of screenplay writing books that is fairly popular. However, this one has as much, if not more, than the sum of his books, IMHO.

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