As talks are about to resume Monday on the final elements that many hope will lead to a new deal for the Writers Guild Of America, we wanted to lend some perspective and give voice to the TV and feature writers whose fortunes will be tied directly to the deal their union makes. This is the second in a quick succession of five questions we asked a panel of 10 writers. Here are their responses, and hopefully other writers will be moved to comment about the issues that worry them most as their work is monetized in this fast-changing digital age.
DEADLINE: As a working writer, what is the biggest hardship right now facing you (i.e., one-step deals for feature writers, exclusivity clauses for TV writers), the one that gives you the greatest amount of worry for you and your WGA brethren?
WRITER #1: I think the biggest setback from the strike was one-step deals. One-step deals were a direct result of the strike — a punishment that said “you think you’re in control, we’ll show you how control works.” It’s also a real mistake for studios that has resulted in crash rewrites deep in production and some god-awful movies. The great irony is that the scripts studios routinely praise like Gravity or Inception or Chinatown or Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid all took YEARS and MANY revisions to become the classic films they are today. Some of the biggest blockbusters of all time including Star Wars and Avatar (to name just two) had five- and even 10-year writing periods. The process allowed those films to go through a critical process of treatments and rough drafts to evolve to the great films they are today. The heavy lifting work was done at the writing stage.
But studios think bottom line numbers — they see one-step deals as providing them with the ability to cut bait when first-draft scripts don’t come in as home runs — but first drafts aren’t going to come in great except in a few rare cases. The scripts that become great films come in good or maybe even very good but not great. Almost all scripts need several drafts to reach the level where they become actually ready to film. The evil secret of one-step deals is that you sell your idea to a studio, you write it, and if a competing project at another studio comes along or a director or star falls out, the studios have a free out. As a result, good movies are dying before they are even really born. The other problem is now studios hire inexpensive writers, get a first draft, confirm that “there is a movie there” and then pay seven figures to someone like me to come in and actually write it and then often someone else during production. The result is that the voice of the original writer — the creator — is severely diluted.
The vast majority of studio screenplay contracts set strict delivery at 90 days. It doesn’t take a NASA scientist to realize that you can’t have that kind of deadline for every script — world creations like Star Wars takes longer than a 90-day romantic comedy? A complex piece like Inception cannot be done in 90 days — no matter who you are — that’s why in the published version of Inception, Chris Nolan talks about the 10 years he spent writing it. The writing process is a complete mystery to studios and executives — they all think they can do it but none of them ever do. This lack of understanding has haunted the film business and the writer-executive relationship since the first days of the film business. I read an interview with a very old screenwriter and he was talking about how things were in the 1940s and what he was saying then is exactly what writers are saying today. Nothing has really changed.
Personally, I simply refuse to make one-step deals. I won’t do it. You teach people how to treat you in life AND particularly in the film business and when you roll back your quotes or steps those slimy, filthy scumbags that work in studio business affairs make a little note of your compromise in their screwing talent ledger. That note is there when they go to make the next deal with you and they share it with their fellow slimy, filthy, scumbag colleagues at other studios. I simply don’t do it and my representatives say right up front, we will not accept a one-step deal. (more…)