Thursday, 10 February 2011


This is a long overdue rant about a very boring subject. Sometimes this blog is about me trying to get attention for cool stuff I'm doing, sometimes it's a platform for me to ramble on about things I feel strongly about, and sometimes it's therapy. Today it's definitely therapy.

So on Tuesday I was on a bit of a high from MovieBar (and also a bit hungover) and was checking my e-mails all day for any feedback. And at around 3 in the afternoon I see an e-mail that makes me furious.

Earlier last year Brother Pete and I had a meeting with a production company in London about a script we had written. The script was written for a director friend. It was not a spec script that we wrote because we were in love with the idea - it was technically a commission, only for no money (and yes, that was the first mistake - I'll come to that later). So the meeting goes well, we discuss the script and take their notes. They're not prepared to option the script until we implement these notes. I have a bit of an issue with this because in my opinion the notes are a bit vague and we don't necessarily agree with all of them. They were the type of notes I am now really sick of getting - a request for the 'explain absolutely everything' draft.

I have been asked to write the 'explain absolutely everything' several times before. Someone gets a script and for whatever reason they decide that the fact that certain actions and events that are self-explanatory to anyone who's ever seen a film actually need 30 pages worth of explanation. So you put in the explanation and the script is suddenly 30 pages longer and unsurprisingly feels a lot slower! Then you get more notes saying it's all wrong and the script has taken a step back, only it's now your fault and you need to fix what they asked you to do.

This has happened with almost every script I've written and on every occasion I've had to go back and strip out the useless stuff I was asked to add. Why does this happen? Because the people telling you to add that stuff aren't writers. Funnily enough, most writers know what they're doing. That's why the script wasn't overloaded with exposition in the first place. But for some reason every non-writer involved with a project seems to have the right to tell the writer how to do their job...

Sorry, that's another rant for another day.

Anyway, as there's a possibility of an option at the end of this we decide to put the work in and do another draft based on the notes provided. And to be fair some of the improvements we do are good and help the script. It's the exposition and backstory we add that doesn't help. The once 90 page script is now 120 pages. I know there will be more work required, but we did what we were asked so we send it on.

Guess what? The draft isn't good enough. We're told it's a significant improvement which is nice, but it's not quite there. And we get some more notes. There are a couple of points in these new notes that really bug me. The first is a whole paragraph dedicated to the overuse of exposition in the script (the exposition we were asked to put in). The second is a paragraph questioning the whole third act of the film. I don't want to talk specifics, but let's say the script is called Giant Umbrella Men. The third act would be where the Giant Umbrella Men appear. Without it you may as well scrap the film and write something else instead.

This was back in August last year. I was disappointed to say the least, but no one had been misled and there was always a danger that things might go this way. I was working on Jenny Ringo at that point anyway so doing further work wasn't really going to happen. I discussed it with Pete and decided to try and make a stand. We said we wanted an option agreement before we did anymore work. My fear was that we could do another twenty drafts and they could still turn around at the end and say they were no longer interested. And the script we would have by then would have gone through so many changes and amendments that it wouldn't be ours anymore. If they didn't take it most of the work would be useless. I wasn't prepared to waste that much time on it.

One difficulty here is Brother Pete and I both have dayjobs. This makes being a professional screenwriter very difficult because you can't get to meetings very easily. I think this whole thing might have been easier if we'd been able to attend the meetings ourselves but unfortunately this is a bit impractical.

The response is a draft option agreement, for what I think is a pretty standard option fee. Only they're not going to sign it until we do another draft addressing their last batch of notes. Not only that, they are also now saying the latest draft was a step back in quality. We messed up and they won't pay us until we sort it out.

I am now slightly angry. For a start I don't understand the point of showing us the option agreement in the first place. It feels like they're saying 'look, this is what you could have won!'. It feels a bit insulting to be honest, although I appreciate that this wasn't the intention. But most annoying is the suggestion that we've done a bad job. I'm not saying all of their notes are wrong, it was the fact that Pete and I had just spent a good couple of months working on the draft based on their suggestions. Like I said, slightly angry.

We discuss it. Part of me wants to say forget it, we've wasted our time. Part of me thinks we've come this far, no one else is interested in this script so why not do one more draft? We decide on the latter, but not on their terms. The new set of notes ask a lot of questions. Questions mean the script could go one of several ways on each of those points, which means we're onto the 'exploratory what if' draft - something else I've done several times before. The 'exploratory what if' draft isn't always as much of a waste of time as the 'explain absolutely everything draft'. But it is something you do early on in the process, when you're still figuring out what the film is about. We did all the exploring we needed to in our first few drafts. Following the new batch of notes isn't going to get us very far and it certainly won't get them a script they're happy to option.

We decide on a compromise. We'll do another draft, but we need to discuss it in more detail first. We want a conference call. We'll decide on a way forward and go with that.

Here's where I'm not really sure what happened. I think meetings occurred but we didn't get our conference call. I bumped into one of the producers at a party and got the impression nothing was happening. I was copied in on several e-mails saying more meetings would happen soon, but no mention of our conference call. And to be honest I was getting a bit tired of the whole thing and didn't really chase it up or put forward my suggestions when I should have done. I thought all this was being done for me.

Then last week another meeting goes ahead and we get another option agreement. This one is for less money and also stipulates that we produce another draft before we get the full amount. Because of the additional conditions, the reduction in the fee, and the fact that the project had otherwise come to a standstill I make the assumption that this is a compromise. That's also the impression I get from the e-mail that the document is attached to. Pete and I discuss, and decide that some money is better than no money and we'll happily sign it off and work on the next draft on this basis.

This is a significant moment for me. It will be the first time I've ever been paid for writing. After all the promises of payment and the times I was actually supposed to get paid and then it never came through, this is the first time it looks like I might actually get some money. And I decide that from this moment I'm not going to work for free anymore. That the basic amount I was due to get in the first installment from this option (not a significant amount - less than I earn in a week of the dayjob and my dayjob is not very well paid) will now be my basic fee for working on anything.

Then on Tuesday I get another e-mail from the production company. They are not optioning the script. There has been a misunderstanding. They sent us this new option agreement on the same basis that they sent the first one - as an example of what we will get if we do the draft. What we will now get is apparently less than we were offered before.

Needless to say I was confused and mostly furious when I got the e-mail. 6 months ago we agreed to do another draft and asked for a conference call to agree a way forward on our own terms. 6 months later and we're no further forward but there does seem to have been a lot of messing around.

After some discussion with Brother Pete I responded to the e-mail with a plan of action. I did express some dissatisfaction about how this has been handled, but I'm not necessarily angry with the production company. I'm mostly angry at myself for getting into this situation again. I have a lot of stories like this. Too many.

Recently I listened to an interview with Neil Gaiman in which he said that all the times he's tried to work on projects for money they never really worked out, and after a while he learnt that when he worked on his own stuff he would eventually get paid for it so he may as well just work on his own stuff. I think this is something I maybe would have learnt, if I hadn't spent the last ten years working on projects for other people I thought I was going to get paid for. I sometimes feel like I'm having career-related epiphanies without having the actual career.

I don't think of that work as a waste. Every script I've written is an improvement over the last. But my free time is becoming more and more precious as I get older and I'm not sure it's being put to best use. Though this may sound arrogant I am good at writing. The times I'm not good are when I don't get enough time or when I take too much on. When I get the time and the inclination I'm really very good indeed. But I've started to realise that the more I do for free the more I devalue my work. In monetary terms my writing is worth nothing. So when I get into situations like the one above and am actually made to feel like my writing is worth nothing I can't really argue.

What I've decided from all this is that the decision not to work for free anymore has to stick, even though I didn't get paid. I've talked about doing this before, then someone comes along with that one project that sounds too good to be true and I do it. Then it's only after five months work that I realise it actually was too good to be true.

So I'll see through the projects I've already started, but anything new has to be paid for. And if I lose out on projects because people refuse to pay me then that's fine. I'll have more time to spend with my wife and see my friends and play Xbox, all of which are a lot more fun than sitting alone in my room for hours at a time writing someone else's projects. I'll also have more time to work on my own stuff, which may never get produced and may never exist outside my head, but at least I'll enjoy the process. I might even remember why I wanted to be a writer in the first place.


Blazing Modesty said...

Hear hear! I especially like the bit about more time for me.
And your own stuff never has to exist only in your head as long as you've got a live-in producer...

Christopher said...

It is hard working during the day and writing at night. Sometimes that difficulty blinds us to what we are seeking.

I had a producer asking about my zombie holiday stories. Wanted me to do a lot of work. Basically write a pitch and a sample.

There was a lot of back and forth but it really started to sound like this was just going to be a lot of work and for very little chance for success.

I finally had to walk away. I told the producer I would be more than willing to option the stories and then do the work. I'll that I have heard since then is silence.

Back to the novel for me.

Anonymous said...

It's a shitty position to be in, but this step has to be made; if only so that you can catch up on your xbox.
Good luck Chris. You deserve millions for the work you've put in, I hope people start to realise.

Chris Regan said...

Thanks for the support everyone!