What does the screenwriter want?

What does the screenwriter want?

The screenwriter wants to get into the room with The Person Who Can Say Yes.That is the only thing that matters. Everything before that is preliminary, and, often, a complete waste of time for everyone involved.

Here is a typical scenario:A producer has optioned a piece of IP. It could be a book, a graphic novel, a Twitter account, a board game, a toy, a sticker, a photograph, anything. The producer, also, wants only to get into the room with The Person Who Can Say Yes.The Person Who Can Say Yes is someone high up in the studio food chain, someone who has been authorized to spend money to hire writers. There are very few in Hollywood, and they wield enormous power.

The Person Who Can Say Yes wants only one thing: to keep their job. Because they wield such enormous power, every other executive around them, at their studio and other studios, is constantly trying to get them fired so that they might take their job and wield that power. But that’s a subject for another time.

Between the screenwriter and The Person Who Can Say Yes are lots and lots of other people. Producers, lower-ranking studio executives, development executives, story executives, and unpaid interns, all of whom wield more power than the screenwriter.

To say nothing of the screenwriter’s representatives, who have their own agenda unrelated to the writer getting into the room with the Person Who Can Say Yes.

So the producer has a piece of IP. The producer also knows some screenwriters. That, essentially, is what a producer does: they know people. They own a phone, and a car, and they know people. Those are the only requirements for being a producer.The producer calls the screenwriter’s representatives and says “I have this piece of IP and I think your client would be a good match for adapting it for the big screen.” The screenwriter’s representatives then call up the screenwriter and breathlessly exclaim, “Big Important Producer has obtained the rights to Hugely Popular IP and he wants YOU to adapt it!”

The screenwriter can then say “Eh, that doesn’t really sound like a good idea,” or they can say “Wow, Big Important Producer wants ME to adapt Hugely Popular IP? I can’t wait to meet them!”

Maybe the producer DOES want the screenwriter to adapt it, and maybe the producer has called a dozen different screenwriters’ representatives and told them all the same thing. It would certainly make sense to do so, since some might say no and some might say yes and then fail to come up with any ideas.So the screenwriter meets the producer and they talk about the idea. The producer may have specific goals in mind for the IP, or they may have specific ideas about casting or directors or whatnot, and they’ll ask the screenwriter to incorporate those ideas into their pitch. Then they’ll set a meeting for the pitch.

So the screenwriter has to come up with a pitch. The screenwriter hasn’t been paid anything to come up with a pitch. The screenwriter doesn’t have the power to say “No, I’m not going to write a pitch for you, put me in the room with The Person Who Can Say Yes.” If the screenwriter did say that, that would be the end of his relationship with the producer, who controls the IP. The producer, like the screenwriter, wants only to get into the room with The Person Who Can Say Yes, but they’re not going to go into that room without knowing what they’re pitching, because they only get once chance to pitch to each Person Who Can Say Yes, and there are very, very few People Who Can Say Yes in Hollywood.

So the producer tells the screenwriter to develop a pitch and get back to them.

What does the pitch entail? Basically, it’s the story of the movie. Beginning, middle and end. The three acts. What does the protagonist want, what do they do to pursue their goal, what stands in their way, how do they prevail, etc. By the end of Act I, the protagonist must be headed toward their goal. By the middle of Act II, they must have a “false victory” that makes it look like they’ve got it made. By the end of Act II they must suffer a fate that makes it look as though they will never achieve their goal, and by the end of Act III they must achieve their goal or else they must fail in a way that makes the audience feel good.

So the screenwriter sketches all that out. It doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? And yet, that’s the whole movie.

So the screenwriter pitches the story to the producer, who inevitably says “I need to know more.” They need to hear the “trailer moments,” the scenes that will hook an audience into the story. They need to know the twists that will come out of nowhere and yet seem inevitable, they need to know the last-minute reveal that will shift the paradigm of the narrative. They need to present to the Person Who Can Say Yes the entire narrative of the movie.

Now the screenwriter has another choice. They can say “No, you’re asking me to write the whole movie for free and that’s abusive,” but that would end their relationship with the producer, who will never work with the screenwriter again because the screenwriter is “difficult.” The screenwriter has spent maybe a week of their life at this point working on breaking the story, but the producer likes what they’ve heard so far, why not fill in some details?So the screenwriter spends another week writing a treatment, and then there’s another meeting with the producer, where the screenwriter pitches the entire movie to the producer: all the major scenes, all the twists, all the aspects of the narrative that will hook an audience. The producer loves what the screenwriter has done, but “has some notes.” The producer confers with his assistants and unpaid interns and they put together a list of notes that they want the screenwriter to address. And, also, as long as the screenwriter has a whole treatment written, can they see that treatment so they can understand the story better?

All of this is against the rules of the WGA. And it happens ten thousand times a day in Hollywood.

So the screenwriter does another draft of a treatment for the producer. And another. And another. What choice do they have? Nothing else will get them into the room with The Person Who Can Say Yes.

Now, maybe six months have passed. The screenwriter has produced maybe ten drafts of a treatment for the producer. Every scene in the movie has now been outlined.Now, remember, the screenwriter, statistically, has no money, and has no hope of money without selling a pitch, so, in order to stand a chance of selling something to anyone, they have to have a dozen or so different projects going on at once, in different stages of development, all before they can ever get into the room with any Person Who Can Say Yes. Some of the projects will be dear to the screenwriter, some will be for movies that the screenwriter would never even want to go see, much less write. Some of the projects are with people the screenwriter enjoys working with, some are with abusive assholes who like to bully and mind-fuck people. The abusive assholes tend to get more projects made, hence their attractiveness to screenwriters.

Sometimes, for an especially high-profile piece of IP, or for an especially high-powered producer, the screenwriter’s representatives will get in on the action, demanding to read the treatments and presenting their own notes, which the screenwriter has to then incorporate into the pitch or else run the risk of alienating their representatives.The producer then takes the screenwriter to the studio, and meets with someone high up in the production chain, and the screenwriter pitches the entire movie to that development executive.

The development executive then says “I love it, let’s take it to the Person Who Can Say Yes” but, yes, before that happens, has some notes.

So the screenwriter now, again, has a choice. They can say “Fuck you, it’s been six months of me working without getting paid, I’m not working on this project for one more second without a substantial paycheck,” but then that would end their relationship with the producer and the studio executive and the studio itself. So the screenwriter says “Yes, I’d love to hear your notes,” and the development executive says “Would you mind if we took a look at your treatment? It would really help us focus our notes.”And the screenwriter turns over their treatment, and the development executive and their assistants and unpaid interns get together and put together a list of notes.

This might go on for another six months, as the development executive asks for more and more changes. And then the development executive might want to show the pitch to ANOTHER development executive, so the screenwriter and producer will have to pitch to that development executive too, and so forth. Maybe a year into the process, maybe longer (my record is two years) the big day arrives, and the screenwriter, the producer, the producer’s assistants and unpaid interns, the development executives and assistants and unpaid interns, all meet at the studio with the Person Who Can Say Yes, who has their own platoon of assistants and unpaid interns.

The producer then sets up the pitch, tells the Person Who Can Say Yes why the project is commercially viable, and then turns to the screenwriter and says “And here’s the screenwriter, who will now pitch you their ideas.” No one else in the room ever, ever, ever steps forward and says “We’re really proud and excited about this pitch that we all contributed to,” because if the Person Who Can Say Yes says no, they’re all in danger of losing their jobs. So everyone in the room who has given notes to the screenwriter and has followed every step of the process behaves as though all this is brand new to them.The screenwriter then does the pitch. The pitch must be delivered with the creativity, dynamism and force of a $200 million dollar spectacle. It must feel to the Person Who Can Say Yes that they’re seeing the whole movie there in there office.

The Person Who Can Say Yes then, usually, says no, for any number of reasons. Maybe they said yes to a similar project the day before, maybe they’re mad at the producer for some reason unrelated to the project, maybe their third-quarter projections aren’t hitting their mark and they’re afraid they’ll lose their job if they start a project like the one the producer has brought in, or maybe they don’t like the pitch. And sometimes the Person Who Can Say Yes says “I like it, but I have some notes,” and the screenwriter, once again, has a choice to make. They’ve come this far, they’ve spent a year and a half on the project, all without pay, but here they are with the Person Who Can Say Yes and the Person Who Can Say Yes has not said “No.” The big paycheck is dangling in front of them, what is the screenwriter supposed to say?

The screenwriter might go to their representatives and say “What am I supposed to do, I can’t pay rent and I’ve been working on this project for a year and a half and they’re not paying me anything, and the screenwriter’s representatives will say “Do the extra work for free,” because, here’s a secret, the screenwriter’s representatives don’t represent the screenwriter, they represent the Person Who Can Say Yes. Why? Because the People Who Can Say Yes control the entire Hollywood economy, and if an agent or manager demands something from them, the People Who Can Say Yes won’t hire that person’s clients anymore.

Anyway, that’s just one tiny aspect of what the WGA is up against in this strike, and it was my day-to-day reality for 25 years.


2 Responses to “What does the screenwriter want?”
  1. julius says:

    This is exactly the same approach studios take with visual effects facilities. Because there are only a few People Who Can Say Yes, and they will never say ‘yes’ to you again if you cross them, the VFX companies have no power when it comes to the People Who Can Say Yes extracting free work from them, which quite often leads to bankruptcies.

    I’m with the writers.

    • Todd says:

      And there are SO MANY effects houses this applies to. It’s mind-boggling.