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Old October 26th, 2008, 11:55 AM   #1
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How to work with a writer?

Hi all,
Fledgling filmmaker here. I am in the beginning stages of pre-production for a (very) low-budget short film I want to produce and direct in the spring. I put the word out that I was looking for a screenplay and got several submissions. Writers are aware that this will be a vehicle for exposure, and I'm not paying them. One submission, in particular, stands out as the best and the writer seems like someone I want to work with. I do, however, want to make some changes to the script.

I haven't responded to the writer yet because I feel like I can't ask for changes until after we have an agreement. Initially, I was hoping to find something I could just use as is, but now I see I will need to develop the screenplay a little with this person. What do I do first and how do I approach this? I downloaded blank copies of deal memos, but am not sure what I should ask for (i.e., a specific number of rewrites or just an agreement to co-write?). Have any of you gone through this kind of thing for a short? Although it will likely be a ten-minute film (or less), I want to approach it as professionally as possible. This will really be my first independent short, outside of school projects. The only agreements I really have any experience with are actor and location releases.

Your advice is appreciated!
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Old October 26th, 2008, 01:44 PM   #2
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Open and honest dialogue is the key to successful collaboration. Your best bet is to be upfront, and tell the writer you like his/her script, but would they be open to making changes?

Depending on where the writer is in THEIR career, they may or may not be open to making changes. Frankly, as someone who has optioned screenplays before, I assume there are going to be changes going in. But when there's money involved, its a much more structured deal.

So my advice is to be upfront, and ask them if they are open to suggested changes. If not, then you know whether or not you want to move forward. The idea of 'getting something signed' and THEN springing a change on them, is a bad one.
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Old October 26th, 2008, 02:26 PM   #3
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Richard, thank you. I believe screenplays are new to the writer in question -- he has worked previously in prose and been published in anthologies. I haven't seen any reference to other screenplays when googling him. In his note to me, he said that he tweaked the screenplay before sending it, thinking the tweak would make it better for filming -- but it is different from the treatment he sent and I'm more interested in reading the "pre-tweak" version. The treatment had certain imagery that I could not stop thinking about after I received it. Plus there are some suggestions I have for another part of it. My overall sense is that this writer would be amenable to suggestions for rewrites. He said he would be honored if I chose his screenplay.

I also wondered if I could just contract for the rights to the material, and tweak it myself. I guess that's one option. But, although I am a pretty good writer, I'm new at screenplays too, and should probably defer to an experienced writer's sensibilities. I'd rather focus on directing and producing it, and tell the writer what I think the script should achieve visually while letting him write it.

But I love your advice -- why hadn't I thought of that? Just saying, "I like it but are you open to rewrites?", and proceeding from there to create a deal memo. Then again, that's why I asked... thanks!

Any suggestions, tips, advice, &/or war stories from anyone else?

Last edited by Diane diGino; October 26th, 2008 at 03:10 PM.
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Old October 26th, 2008, 07:03 PM   #4
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WHen a script is optioned, the steps are usually spelled out. Of course, if you're asking for the rights for free - you haven't got as much leverage as if you are paying for it.

Typically, when a screenplay is SOLD, then the buyer owns the rights, and can do whatever they want with the script. That's why screenplays sell for so much. Its an outright sale in 99% of the cases. Rewrites are either written in to the deal, or they are not - and the buyer hires someone else to do it.

If you're not paying for the script, than you are asking the writer to put 'sweat equity' into your production. He is - in effect - becoming a partner. What's in it for him, besides credit and a copy?
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Old October 26th, 2008, 07:21 PM   #5
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I work with a couple of writers and don't really have a problem. We're all in the same boat - trying to get some product out there.

Any script I get, I comment on what changes I'd like and let the writer do it, that way it's still their work. I've even work shopped a script with the director & DOP and writer and then it's left to the writer to make those changes.

There are people who are precious about their work but most are happy to at least discuss changes - after all we both want the same thing - a good film.

Since there's no money involved, I only have a verbal agreement as an option.
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Old October 26th, 2008, 09:24 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by Richard Alvarez View Post
What's in it for him, besides credit and a copy?
Exposure... and the chance to work with moi again in the future!

(my goal is to build a network of collaborators who "click" well together, starting out with low/no budget projects and work our way up!)
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Old October 26th, 2008, 09:54 PM   #7
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Exposure is a roll of the dice. It's never a given or a guarantee. Once the work is completed, who controlls where it goes? Who gets to enter it into which festivals? Who pays for the entry fee?

I don't mean to slam the effort, I'm just saying when you collaborate on the work as partners, everyone has a right to 'expose' it.

Copyright can ONLY be transfered by written agreement. Verbal agreement is not a transfer, and the author retains all copyright to the work.

If there is a 'falling out' at some point, the work cannot be exploited.
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Old October 26th, 2008, 10:56 PM   #8
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Exposure is a roll of the dice. It's never a given or a guarantee. Once the work is completed, who controlls where it goes? Who gets to enter it into which festivals? Who pays for the entry fee?

I don't mean to slam the effort, I'm just saying when you collaborate on the work as partners, everyone has a right to 'expose' it.

Copyright can ONLY be transfered by written agreement. Verbal agreement is not a transfer, and the author retains all copyright to the work.

If there is a 'falling out' at some point, the work cannot be exploited.
I didn't say I wanted a partner, though I do want at least one rewrite. And when I say I want to build a network of collaborators, I don't mean partners or investors - just people with whom I'd like to work again in future if the experience is positive.

I made it plain there would be no pay -- and the writer of the script I want to use still said he'd be thrilled if I produced it. I think he just wants to see it made. It's only going to be about 8 or 9 minutes long. I'm sure he wrote lots of essays for little or no pay before he started getting published.

I just want some changes, and came here to ask advice for the best way to go about getting the story with the changes I'd like -- without stealing it and rewriting it myself. I'm being upfront and this person is still willing to be a part of a small film that might not even be a blip on the radar screen.

Anyway, if I'm the producer and the only one who's putting actual cash into this, and I contract with a writer to give me the rights to his short screenplay, including rewrites, and they agree (in writing, of course) because they just wanna see their script made, even if they are unpaid or only paid a small token amount by me, why would they think they own the movie?

If anyone else has had a similar situation on a low budget short, how did you handle getting the use of someone else's screenplay?

Last edited by Diane diGino; October 27th, 2008 at 03:29 AM.
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Old October 27th, 2008, 08:51 AM   #9
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Diane, you are slowly filling in information you left out in your first post.

You say you don't want a partner, but the writer retains rights unless transferered in writing. In order to transfer rights, there must be a value exchange and the rights MUST be deliniated. It is possible to license limited rights, that should be in the contract. Then the writer would retain copyright for further use.

Making short films is great fun, and can be a terrific calling card for building community and credibility. IF a film is truly successful, then the rights must be cleared before it can be exploited. I've seen good stories die because the 'producer/director' didn't make it clear that the DP didn't own the rights to the footage shot (Work for hire) - didn't understand that the writer retained rights to the story since the rights weren't transfered in writing, thought the music was okay to use, since it was a 'local band' who gave them permission, but it wasn't their song.

So, going back to the first post on how to approach a writer. Ask them if they are open to changes, ask them what rights they are willing to give up/license - or tell them what rights you are seeking.

All of this up front so there's no misunderstanding later on. You don't want to find out after the film is in the can, that you are 'partners' with someone because you didn't secure licensing and they own a stake in your film.

Too many aspiring filmmakers go by 'verbal agreements' that seem to change with memories over time... and success.

Success has a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan
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Old October 27th, 2008, 10:39 AM   #10
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I didn't deliberately leave out info. I thought I asked my questions in a way that made it clear I don't know what to do - all I know is I like a script and want to use it. It would be my first indie narrative that I didn't write or produce as part of a school project. I said all that - sorry I didn't phrase my questions properly. I'm a newbie, so I asked whatever questions I knew to ask. And I never said I only intended to get verbal agreements -- what made you think I only wanted verbal agreements? Remember, I was asking about deal memos.

So, what is the protocol and types of rights I can ask for to use someone else's screenplay and get rewrites for a short film?

I would love to hear from other folks who have made a short film with someone else's script -- how did ya do it?
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Old October 29th, 2008, 11:50 AM   #11
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Well, I did something like this recently.

It was a little different, because I wrote a treatment, and asked a friend (who is a better writer than me) to write it. I found a sample contract on the net, and adapted it, so we had a written agreement. The contract has language to the effect that the script may be altered by the director, producers, etc.

Like everyone else, I say the key is to mention up front that when you actually have actors on set saying lines, well the lines sometimes come off differently than they read on the page.

My friend had a never had a script made into a movie, but wants to do more in that venue. So letting the the director (me) adapt the script will in the end be a great learning experience for the writer as well.

Hope that helps!
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Old October 29th, 2008, 01:01 PM   #12
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One day I started writing for fun. After a while, people started paying me - little by little. Then I got a modest offer from a magazine to first submit, then contribute, then join the masthead and become a Contributing Editor.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned was early in the process when one of my first editors said to me: "Bill, we're not paying you for spelling or grammar or even your sentence structure. We're paying you to generate and express IDEAS." And then he educated me on the process where the magazines editors would vet my copy - and sure enough, each month I'd check out what I'd submitted three months earlier and look at and learn from what the copy editors and others had improved. But the ideas were still all mine.

Diane, I'm interested in the how and why of what you're going to be "re-writing" for your collaborator. If, by re-writing, you intend take his/her ideas and simply make them clearer or simpler for the audience to understand - then I think you're just fine with your concept of providing "re-write" service. But the moment your re-writing changes anything fundamental about the ideas and concepts of the original author, you're suddenly not re-writing, you're "co-authoring" and that's a whole different kettle of fish.

You really do need to sit down with and talk to the original author so see where his or her head is at regarding you taking their original work and altering it.

It's precisely what you'd expect if you were the original author and honestly valued the time and effort required to produce work of quality.
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Old October 29th, 2008, 03:09 PM   #13
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I put the word out that I was looking for a screenplay and got several submissions. Writers are aware that this will be a vehicle for exposure, and I'm not paying them.
Draw up the contract so it reads like this. You give me script, I give you nothing but screen credit.

Quote:
I haven't responded to the writer yet because I feel like I can't ask for changes until after we have an agreement.
You don't have anything but a lawsuit until you have an agreement.

Quote:
I was hoping to find something I could just use as is...
Let me put everyone's hopes/fears to rest - this script does not exist nor will it ever.

Here's what you do: Sit down with the writer and be honest. As a director, you need to be artistically true to yourself and you can't do that when you can't make changes.

Ask the writer to be honest. How much time can he/she give to rewrites? Get an honest answer but get it in writing. It may be none. Re-write it yourself. He/she may pull the script and you can't use it. So you go back and do it from the start.

Writer's contracts start with a figure then they negotiate from there. That number is usually 3% of the total budget. A short film can cost a little or a lot but a nice round figure I've heard is $50,000. On a 50K short project you'd pay a writer $1500. This gets you total rights to the script and usually three to five re-writes. You're a new filmmaker so back end MIMs mean nothing at this point. All the money should be up front.

The first script I sold went for $5000. Down from the 3% rule by $1800. But I was new and really wanted to see something on the screen with my name on it so I took it. He called me twice for re-writes (contracted for five or five months which ever came first). After that he e-mailed me to tell me his funders dropped out and wondered if he could get his money back. We agreed on $3000 back since I had two rewrites in (which I promptly changed back) and I was free to sell my script to somebody else.

Good luck and I hope this helps.

There's a special place in hell for producers who cheat writers. At least I hope there is. ;)
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Old October 29th, 2008, 03:20 PM   #14
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Shame on that writer for taking no pay. It drags the rest of us down but that's just my personal opinion. If you get this person to give a script and time for rewrites then consider yourself VERY lucky. Even when I was in college I can't imagine myself not being able to get my hands on $1500 bucks.

In my experience there is no easy way to get something for nothing other than just coming right out and asking. Just make sure you get it writing.

And to answer your last question: It never occurred to me to make a film a I didn't write. But the other way around is a different story, money talks. ;)

More math: Most short films are 30 minutes or less. Round figure budget for one of these is $50K. That's roughly $1667 a minute. Your little eight minute flick could/should cost up to $13,336. 3% of that is $400.08.

Surely you can spend $400 bucks on a good script.

Last edited by Dennis Khaye; October 29th, 2008 at 08:08 PM.
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Old October 29th, 2008, 10:48 PM   #15
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Shame on that writer for taking no pay.
People do it all the time when they're starting out.
Quote:
Most short films are 30 minutes or less. Round figure budget for one of these is $50K. That's roughly $1667 a minute. Your little eight minute flick could/should cost up to $13,336.
Umm, no, not even half that. This will be a bare-bones budget production with lots of friends and fellow students helping out wherever possible.
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Surely you can spend $400 bucks on a good script.
Nope, not really. I figured if there weren't any writers who would do it for free, I'd just write it myself. But I did find someone.

Last edited by Diane diGino; October 30th, 2008 at 01:06 AM.
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