Archive for the ‘Screenwriting Biz’ Category

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation 
When the winds of changes shift
Forever Young lyrics by Bob Dylan

A few days ago The Wrap announced a deal between actor Michael Mosley and Brother’s Blood author Scott Cawelti that left out one screenwriter that was about as close as one can get to a project and still get legally left out of the loop. I know because that writer just happens to be me. (In 2011 Cawelti and I completed a script based on the events covered in his book—and I later sent the WGA registered script to Mosely on his request.)

But I’m fine with the deal, and hope there’s a lesson you can learn here. A few of my friends called and emailed me this week about the deal and I’ll pass on to you what I told them.

Once upon a time (2008 to be exact) I was living in Cedar Falls, Iowa and I started writing the Screenwriting from Iowa blog that went on to win a Upper Midwest Emmy that year. In 2009, I read a newspaper article about a 1975 quadruple homicide in Cedar Falls and that Cawelti was giving a talk about a book he was working on about the murders. I went to the talk and met Cawelti afterwards and asked him if he was interested in writing a screenplay together and he liked the idea.

At that point he had already been working on the non-fiction book for over five years and it didn’t sound to me that it was going to be completed or published anytime soon so what I proposed was we do is write a fictitious story that has the bones of the actual story. So that’s what we set out to do. The main reason I chose the fictitious angle was because the convicted murderer in the case (Jerry Mark) to this day professes his innocence. Many have said that if the trial was held today he would not be convicted based on the circumstantial evidence presented in the 1976 trial.

I was very interested in the facts as we knew them, but believed the story could be better served by exploring what could of happened if Jerry Mark (a trained lawyer himself) was just a little more clever. Could he get away with murder?(Mark, now in his early 70s, is serving his four life sentences at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison where he uses his law expertise to help other inmates.)

I did not option Cawelti’s unpublished story—a mistake on my part—nor had I read anything he’d written on his work in progress book. What Cawelti and I did was meet at his house, a restaurant, or coffee house,  and discuss as many things we could about the case. Then I would go home and continue writing the screenplay. It was agreed that we would spilt the screenplay credit. I never imagined the screenplay would take us three years to complete, but I was running my own production company at the time in Cedar Falls—and three years is just how long it took to complete the script Shadows in the Dark.

The single biggest decision I made was not to make it a story about the murderer, but about a young, small town cop who was investigating his first homicide. The unproven Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs was my main reference protagonist. Brad Pitt’s character in Se7en was another reference point.

Long time readers of this blog may recall on March 20, 2011 in a post called Marketing Your Script (Part 1) I actually asked readers to help me put together a longline for Shadows in the Dark. (Still to date the most comments I’ve ever received from a post here.) In June of 2011 in my post Query Letter Strikeout I walked readers though the process of WME Story editor Christopher Lockhart shredding my query letter. (All in the name of screenwriting science to help you in your own writing and marketing.)

I knew a period piece screenplay set in a small town in Iowa about a murder was not the most mainstream, Hollywood friendly, commercial concept, but had hopes that someone like actor Ben Foster (who got his start doing theater in small town Iowa) could get attached and help the screenplay get made.

In September of 2011, Cawelti’s book Brother’s Blood, finally got published and as a nice bit of trivia Cedar Falls-based artist Gary Kelley (who knew I wrote the screenplay with Cawelti) asked me to pose for the cover of Brother’s Blood—and I did (See the post. Do I look Like Ethan Hunt?)  

Cawelti got a call from the actor Mosley (who was originally from Cedar Falls, Iowa) asking about doing a screenplay on Blood Brother.  Cawelti told him there already was a screenplay based on the events in the book and Mosely contacted me and I sent him Shadows in the Dark. Mosley read the script and told me that it felt like a big budget Jeremy Renner-type script–and what he actually wanted to do was a small indie film where he played the convicted murderer. I believe his intent was to do more of a character-study movie.

In 2013 I moved back to my hometown of Orlando and have limited contact with Cawelti since that time. Fast forward to today and Mosely’s career is hotter than it was in 2011 with the success of USA program Sirens. This positioned Mosley to pick back up on his personal project on Brother’s Blood giving himself a a feature project to star in. And so the deal was made with Cawalti, and in the recent announcement it mentions that the script is being written my Cal Roberston.

Again, the intent is to use Cawelti’s book for the script, anything from the script I wrote with Cawelti would be an infringement. We’ll see if Mosely’s version makes it to the big screen, but I’d personally love to see how they tell the story from a convicted killers perspective—especially since, as I said, Mark has professed his innocence for almost 40 years. Meaning unless he  makes a sudden confession and tells all, their script will also be largely fictitious.

I have talked to writer friends about my situation, and have been told that this stuff happens all the time. Though the Shadows in the Dark and Blood Brothers share DNA, and even a writer, they are different entities. If Brother’s Blood gets produced it’s because Mosely stuck with his passion and vision. Mosley both went to cedar Falls High School and was the class president as was the convicted murderer Jerry Marks (though decades a part).

The biggest lesson I learned all of this is to secure what rights you can and write an agreement between the others writers because, you know, stuff happens.  I’m in the pre-production process  of producing a feature documentary and along with writing a business plan I have talked with an entertainment lawyer about securing the rights to the story which ideally would include ancillary rights. That means if my work in launching the doc brings in additional revenue such as a book, feature film, TV program, clothing that I would get a piece of those deals. A happy ending to the Cedar Falls story—and a great bookend to the regional Emmy I received as well, as my time in Cedar Falls—would resulted in Shadows in the Dark being produced. But as you know, not all stories have happy endings.

Related links from this blog:
Marketing Your Script (Part 1) Query Letter Strikeout
‘I can’t keep handling this rejection.’ On the road to becoming an Oscar-winning screenwriter.

Related books: The Writer Got Screwed (but didn’t have to) by Brooke Wharton Related

Podcasts: The Moment interview of filmmaker Edward Burns by screenwriter Brian Koppelman where Burns talks about lessons he learned about getting burned on the distribution deal he made on his film Purple Violets. In fact. starting Monday I’ll be doing several posts based on that interview with Burns.

Scriptnotes episode 193 where screenwriter John August and Craig main discuss How writing credits work. On another podcast they handled a Q&A where they answered the question, what happens to a script when c0-screenwriters break-up. (If you know what episode that was shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com so I can add the link here.)

P.S. Missed opportunities, like rejection, and highs and lows are a part of the film, video, and TV business. I’ve been fortunate enough over the years that working in production has allowed me to pay some bills, win some awards, work with many talented people, and to travel to all fifty states in the US and to five continents for which I’m thankful.

But here’s an actual email that I received last September that didn’t pan out: Are u available Sept 19-Oct 4 (ish)? I am DPing a new Nat Geo show and we need someone who can shoot/produce a segment w/ an Alaska bush pilot. You would be a one-man-band.  That show, Dead End Express, debuts on TV May 7. And here’s a text message I received back in December: Wanted to to check and see if u were interested/available for a shoot the end of the month Tenative Dates: fly 12/27 Shoot  12/28-1/9 I know over New Years…it is in the Bahamas LMK. That opportunity didn’t pan out either because I was going through cancer treatment. So instead of shooting in Alaska and the Bahamas in 2014 I got to experience chemo and radiation. (Even spent Christmas Day in the hospital.) Like the country song states, “Sounds like life to me.”

I’m grateful to be healthy again and back on my feet and working again on projects. So hang in there and don’t let set-backs drag you down. Starting Monday we’ll hear from filmmaker Edward Burns on the importance of resilience in a lasting career.

Scott W. Smith

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The single thing that mostly sets apart screenwriter John Jarrell’s book Tough Love Screenwriting is the more than 70 pages he spends on WGA Credit Arbitration. (With a nod to producer Joel Silver for giving him his own “Cliff Notes on Arbitration.”)

He points out that while not common, it’s not unheard of to have 50 drafts of a screenplay worked on before it goes into production and as many as 15 writers having worked on the script to one degree or another. Who are the 1-3 writers who will get credit? If contested that’s where arbitration comes into play.

(Note: Read ‘Jurassic World’ Writing Credits Dispute Goes to Another Appeal to read about an up-to-date battle.)

You can download a PDF of the WGA Screen Credits Manuel to give you an understanding of the process.

I won’t even try to compress Jarrell’s thoughts here, but he mentions in his book that he’s had three wins and zero losses over his 20 year career—and here’s why it’s so important:

“Each writer’s contract contains a credit bonus figure — the amount of additional money you’re owed above and beyond your writing fee if the project ultimately gets produced. Here’s where the plot thickens — studios and production companies only pay credit bonuses to the writers who wind up with their names officially on the film. In a nutshell, no screen credit, no bonus. Simple as that.

“These bonuses can involve mad cashish, ranging anywhere from say $5,000 to well over $1,000,000. Intense right? Keep in mind, this is ‘passive income’ — payments you get without ever having to lift a finger or write another word. The studios just fire off a fat check with your name on it.”
John Jarrell
Tough Love Screenwriting: The Real Deal from a Twenty-Year Pro

Jarrell calls those fat checks with your name on it,”Little green envelopes of love.”

P.S. If you’re in L.A. and would like to take a screenwriting class with Jarrell, check out his website howtoscreenplay.com.

Related Links:
Screen Credit Procedures PDF
Behind the Lines with DR: Writers Guild Arbitration Fight or Flight, Script Mag
Barry Levinson Quits WGA Over Sloppy Credit Arbitration, Deadline
The Bitter Script Reader: An introduction to the WGA arbitration for determining credit

Update 4/18/15: Just read the transcript from the most recent Scriptnotes podcast where screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin unpack How writing credits work.  Good stuff.

Scott W. Smith

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“I know this may sound silly but if you write something great it just gets seen. I can’t explain it but it does. If that’s not enough for you, then put yourself out there to anyone who will read it. Target your brand, who you are as a writer, and follow other writers and directors and producers’ work that’s similar to yours. Find ways to reach out to them: in this digital age people are far more accessible than, say, when I had to sneak into premieres to merely be around anyone I could. But, most importantly—I can’t stress this enough—figure out your brand, what you have to say and why, why someone would hire you over other writers, what it is you do that’s unique. In business you have a USP [unique selling point]. Well, this isn’t show fun, it’s show business, and our USP as artists is our voice, our own, unique voice.”
Screenwriter Cliff Dorfman (Warrior)
Filmmaker Magazine interview by Chris Knittel

Related post:
Screenwriter/Salesman Pete Jones
Screenwriting Quote #172 (Christopher Lockhart)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1) “I suggest writers write the ‘right’ script.”
Stories That Will Always Sell (Tip #89)

Scott W. Smith

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All Glory is (Still) Fleeting

“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
Gen. George C. Patton

In digging around for quotes on Gone Girl novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn, I found this quote from Ben Affleck (who stars in Gone Girl):

“When I was doing The Town, I’d tour the actors around Boston. I was with Blake [Lively], and I saw Matt’s childhood home. And I said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s where Matt grew up.’ And she said, ‘Who?’ And I said, ‘Matt Damon.’ And she said, ‘Oh my God! You know Jason Bourne?!’ She really didn’t know. And I thought, ‘There it is. The first age of people who are adults who missed the whole Matt-and-Ben propaganda campaign!’ Mostly, it just made me feel old.”
Producer/director/actor/writer Ben Affleck
Details 2012 interview with Mark Seliger

Yeah, Affleck knows Jason Bourne/Matt Damon. They made a little film few years ago called Good Will Hunting which they not only starred in, but won the Oscar for writing.  Granted that was way back in the 90s, but it was kind of a big deal.

Just remember that the next time you’re practicing your Oscar-acceptance speech in the shower. And remember the quote from Off-Srceen Quote #28:

“In Hollywood people are nice to you just in the first week after the [Academy Award] ceremony. Then they are like, ‘Oh, you just won an Oscar, right?’ Three weeks after the big party people are already thinking about the next year’s Oscars. Life goes on. Winning an Oscar is an honor, but, between you and me, it does not makes things easier.”
Oscar-winner Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting)
1998 Interview in Veja magazine with Ruben Edwald Filho via Forbes

And Williams and Affleck had the advantage of being actors so you’d think the glory would be less fleeting, but that doesn’t appear to be so. I saw an interview with screenwriter Sheldon Turner recently where he said it’s silly for screenwriters to think they are going to be stars like the  glory positions of QB or linebacker on a pro football team, but that screenwriters are more like the right guard on the front line toiling away in anonymity.

Scott W. Smith





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Back in 2010, J.C. Frenan of Slant Magazine asked Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan this question, ‘You’ve worked in both television and feature films. Do you have a preference for either one?’

Vince Gilligan: I would have to say television, because once you are on a writing staff, or once you create a television show, for as long as that show exists you know that you’re writing, you know that your work will get produced. The same can’t be said for writing for features, unfortunately. Write a movie script, you can put your heart and soul into it for months, for years, and peddle it around Hollywood and ultimately it may well go nowhere. I’ve experienced more heartbreak in the movie business than in the TV business.

In the next day or two we’ll take a road trip of sorts and see how Gilligan went from Richmond, Virginia to New York City to Los Angeles to Albuquerque, New Mexico on his way to becoming a two-time Emmy winner.

Related posts:

Screenwriting Quote #190 (Vince Gilligan)
Writing ‘Water Cooler Moments’
Aaron Sorkin on Failure   “Breaking Bad is the rare success I’ve had in my career.”—Vince Gilligan

Scott W. Smith


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“This is a business that’s based on rejection and the anticipation of rejection. It’s tough. You have to be like one of those mechanical toys that, when you knock it down, it pops back up again.”
95-year old Oscar-nominated screenwriter Walter Bernstein (The Front)
Variety article by Scott Foundas (@foundasonfilm)
H/T Christopher Lockhart, The Inside Pitch Facebook group

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #141 (Melissa Rosenburg) “Don’t give up. You’re going to get kicked in the teeth. A lot. Learn to take a hit, then pick yourself up off the floor. Resilience is the true key to success.”—Rosenburg
Jailbait, Rejection& Screenwriter Mark Boal “You have to be willing to get your teeth kicked in continually before you achieve even a modicum of success. And once you achieve that you have to be willing to put up with a bunch of rejection before you can get anywhere.”—Two-time Oscar-winner Mark Boal
Perseverance (Werner Herzog) “Perseverance has kept me going over the years. Things rarely happen overnight. Filmmakers should be prepared for many years of hard work.”—Herzog

Scott W. Smith


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Filmmaking Baby Steps

“All my career–from television to today–I’ve always felt on the brink of getting something right. Anything. Thirty odd films later I look back and it’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other. And all that’s kept me going is the feeling that as long as I was improving….”
Mystery director

Before I tell you who said that let’s all read that together outloud:
“All my career–from television to today–I’ve always felt on the brink of getting something right. Anything. Thirty odd films later I look back and it’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other. And all that’s kept me going is the feeling that as long as I was improving….” 
Sidney Lumet
As quoted in a blog post by Doug Richardson
Richardson was one of the screenwriters on Bad Boys and early in his career sold his script Hell Bent…And Back in a $1-million deal with Disney. Read about it the New York Magazine article, Million-Dollar Babies.)


As in five time Oscar-nominated writer/director  Sidney Lumet (The Verdict, Prince of the City, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men). Baby steps.

It’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”


Related posts:

Sideny Lumet (1924-2011)
Sideny Lumet on Theme
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46) Example from The Verdict

Scott W. Smith

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