The Writer’s Toolbox

A GUIDE TO NEGOTIATING CONTRACTS

Negotiation is not a mystery. It’s a skill that can be learned. Following are some basics on the art of the deal.

Don’t Be Afraid to Negotiate

In an industry such as ours, where work is often scarce, writers may be reluctant to negotiate. Writers may feel they should just accept the contract and rates they are presented with, lest they appear “difficult”or “ungrateful”, but all writers have the right to negotiate a fair deal. Writing for free is NOT a fair deal!

Be Flexible

The easiest way to fail at negotiation is to have a traditionalist win-lose mentality (I win, you lose). Modern negotiation favours the win-win model. It is not always possible for both sides to win all the advantages they want in a negotiation, but both should feel mostly comfortable with the outcome. Any writer should have a bottom line, something they are not prepared to go below, but equally, writers should avoid unrealistic expectations. Writing for free is NOT being flexible!

Understand the Economic Realities of the Industry

The most common complaint the Guild hears from producers is that writers don’t understand the economic realities of the local industry. These realities shift from production to production: a low-budget short film is produced on a different scale from a one hour drama series. Find out what is an achievable rate for the type of production you are working on and negotiate around that. Writing for free is NOT an economic reality!

Know Your Value

Many writers seriously undervalue themselves. Good writers know that their services are worth more than the average, because of the skills they bring to a job. If you are bringing experience, skill or specialist knowledge to a production, then that deserves to be appropriately rewarded. Knowing your value also means understanding what your bottom line is, and being prepared to say no or refuse low-paying work if necessary. Writing for free has NO value!

Be Clear

Clarity is vital in a successful negotiation. If one party doesn’t understand your request, how can they grant it? Understand exactly what you want and be prepared to accurately communicate that to the other party. Make certain that you understand exactly what the other party requires from you. Draw up a list of your expectations before the interview to make sure you remember everything you want to say. Once you have reached an agreement, insist on a contract which includes everything you have discussed. Do NOT commence work without a SIGNED CONTRACT.

Trade Off Concessions for Demands

Good bargaining is about give and take. Ensure that you prioritise your wish list. What things are most important to you? Trade off your lesser wants for things that are most important to you.

Upskill Yourself on Negotiation

There is an entire industry devoted to helping people improve negotiation skills. A good place to start is with a basic primer on the subject, like Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William L. Ury and Bruce Patton.

BUSINESS TERMS YOU SHOULD KNOW

Against

Such as: “100 thousand against 300 thousand which looks like this:
100k/300k. This is the option price against the total purchase price. So in this instance it means that the writer was paid 100 thousand upfront and will be paid 200 thousand upon start or completion of principal photography, or whenever the contract calls for the last payment.

Agent

They are the folks who sell your material and get you an assignment. They take 10% of your pay-cheque, which gets sent to them first before you see it. Agents represent more clients than managers, and many don’t have the same amount of time to work with a writer on rewriting material. Their day is spent on the phone selling specs and getting assignments. They’ll read a script only after their assistant reads it and likes it. Avoid the big agencies. You’re better off with a smaller agency that deals with new writers. Are there any in South Africa? Not yet, but there are some ex-South Africans working in the UK as script agents and managers. Do your research. WGSA is presently investigating the feasibility of having local agents and/or managers.

Assignment

This is when a writer is paid upfront for writing services, whether or not the screenplay is produced.

Attached/Attachment

No, this isn’t the file you send with an email. In film terms, this refers to an actor, producer or director who has agreed to do your movie. When a star comes aboard, the chances of the movie getting made goes up tremendously. That’s because usually a star guarantees a big opening at the box office and the first two weekends of a movie’s release, which is when the studio makes most of its money.

Beat Sheet

List of the major story changes or beats in a screenplay.

Bidding War

This is when two or more companies are bidding on one spec script. This is usually done when the agent has a high concept script from a produced writer (although non-produced writers have sold this way in the past). With the right material, it’s a great way to drive up the price of a script.

Coverage

Written synopsis and evaluation of any literary material such as a script, book or play provided by a reader or “story analyst” so that agents and producers have an idea of what the material is about before they decide to read it. Most material that gets submitted in Hollywood is usually given coverage first before it moves up the ladder.

Creative Exec

In the USA, after the reader or story analyst reads a script and writes up coverage, the next person up the ladder is usually the creative exec. They will make a recommendation to the company or studio whether to option/buy the material or not. If the material is bought or optioned, they most likely will be in charge (possibly along with others) in developing the material. Locally, this person could be the creative director, or the head writer.

Deal Memo

Summary of the major points of a contract. This is used so that the writer can begin working while the much larger contract is being drawn up. In South Africa we hardly ever work with Deal Memos, but talk about MOUs or MOAs, which stands for Memorandum of Understanding and Memorandum of Agreement. These signed Memoranda do not replace a the final contract, but can give you the peace of mind to start work while your contract is being drawn up.

Development

This is when a story, idea, script, is rewritten many times, based on notes and meetings between the story execs, producers, directors, actors and the writer. Each company works differently, so it’s possible at a small company that only the writer and story exec will be involved with a screenplay’s development. The studio or production company’s goal is to get a better script, but sometimes the script ends up in the dreaded “development hell,” which means that each draft makes the screenplay worse and the movie is never made.

Development Hell

This is when a script gets rewritten so many times (usually by many writers) based upon studio or production company notes, that it faintly resembles what the studio saw in the original script in the first place. William Goldman said that nobody knows anything when it comes to picking a winning script and maybe he was right. If they did, most of the movies we see would be hits. “Hell” for writers is almost a given these days in Hollywood. Story execs have to give notes to justify their paychecks! Even if a script is great and ready to shoot someone will probably have notes for it. If you want to avoid this, write novels or plays. This is a tough, crazy business which is not for the faint at heart.

Element

A Star, producer or director who, when attached to a project, adds credibility to it, and a better chance of it getting produced.

Feature

Another name for a full-length movie that usually runs from 85 to 130 minutes.

First Look Deal

This is when a company or individual producer finds a project, and must first allow the studio to have the first right of refusal on that project. If the studio passes, then the first company or individual can take the project elsewhere.

Four Audience Quadrant

An audience that consists of men, women, young, old. Huge tent pole movies are designed to appeal to the four quadrants. This type of movie is what drives the studio machine.

Green Light

It’s when a script gets the nod by the studio to go into production. There is no guarantee it will ever see the theaters though. When you see your movie in the theater is when you know it has happened.

Gross Profits

Only major writers like Shane Black get this kind of deal. It means that he/she will get a cut of the gross profits, not the net like most of us mere mortals do.

High Concept

1-3 line logline (see logline definition below) that gets a response from a producer or exec such as: “Hey, now that’s a movie! I can see a movie star in the lead role and on the movie poster. Send me that script yesterday!” Studios prefer high concept because they can sell it to a large audience much easier than non-high concept stories. Here’s an example: Romantic Comedy. Title: “Blind Date” – A couple on a blind date from hell witness a murder and are whisked away by the FBI into the Federal Witness Protection Program and have to live together as husband and wife.” High concept can be any genre. New writers stand a much better chance of selling if they have a high concept script.

Hip Pocket Deal

It’s when an agency signs someone only to sell a spec script and not to get the writer any other work. It’s better than nothing, but you want an agent who believes in you as a whole and not just one of your scripts. The bigger agencies tend to offer this to newer writers.

Indie

Short for independent. Can refer to a certain type of movie, or the company that produces them. Usually the movies are lower budget, and character driven. For many years, it usually referred to companies that worked outside the studio system, but today many studios have their own indie or specialty division, such as Fox Searchlight.

Logline

Short 1-3 line description of any literary material that tells the reader concisely and succinctly what the movie is about, who the characters are and what they are going to experience. The logline is extremely important in the film industry, as many producers do not even look at a script if the logline doesn’t grab them.

Manager

A type of rep similar to an agent, but who will work for a larger piece of the pie (usually 15-20%) and with fewer writers. They are usually more about career guidance, whereas as agent is about getting the deal.

Material

Can be a script, book, play, article etc.

MOW

Movie of the Week, which is a movie written especially for television. Written in screenplay form and feature length, but usually with 7 acts instead of 3.

Notes

Written feedback and suggestions on a script that’s in development. Can be offered by agent, manager, producer, creative exec etc.

Option

Agreement by which the optioning party pays the writer to keep the work off the market, while the optioning party seeks financing to actually purchase the work. The time of the option can be any length and for any amount. The legal minimum price is $1. If possible, get a short option for a lot of money. This is because most movies don’t get made. There are plenty of writers in Hollywood just living on option money without ever seeing one of their movies made.

Outline

Summary of the major scenes in a script.

A Package

The marketing elements of a film project. These can include a good script, a good director who has committed to do the film; film stars who have committed to it; unusual locations; a “high concept hook,” etc.

Packaging

This is usually when an agency company adds elements to your project such as a star, producer and/or director before presenting it to a production company or studio.

Page One Rewrite

This is when the writer has to completely rewrite the script, usually because of plot or structural problems.

Production Bonus

A cash reward given to a writer of a screenplay who ends up getting sold or shared “screenplay by” or “written by” credit on the movie.

Pass

This word has several meanings. With coverage, getting a pass means that the company is rejecting the material. You don’t want the dreaded pass. In terms of writing, it has a better connotation. It means that a writer will work on a project. They’ll take a pass at it.

Purchase Price

The amount paid for literary material. This price is negotiable and is based on current market conditions. If five studios want your script, you’ll get more than if one indie company wants it. Spec scripts have sold for 50k up to a few million. As with anything, your price will go up as you make a name for yourself.

Pitch

It’s when you give a short summary of your script to a producer or someone else in the industry, with the goal of having them pay you to write a script based on the pitch, or read the script if it has already been written. The goal here, as with your script is, “less is more.” Give them just enough to arouse their curiosity, but not too much to turn them off. A high concept pitch is best if you are pitching to a company that has a deal with a studio.

Producer

Anyone that has access to the industry and some money to be able to option your material. Many producers with money still won’t give you much on an option, especially if you’re a newbie. That’s because most movies don’t get made, and there’s a rule in town: “spend as little as possible and never spend your own money.” Your job, along with your representative’s job, is to get as MUCH as possible for your material, but the main thing is to get it made. Some producers are called line producers. They work on the money side of the production of the film, and not on finding new material. They are of little interest to a writer who is still pitching his work.

Production Company

A company that is in the business of creating entertainment products, such as movies or TV shows. Some production companies are owned by a writer, actor, producer, director or a combination of the four. Generally a production company is funded by a studio or financing company. A production company can have a studio deal, but still be located off the studio lot. Deals can last one or more years, depending on how successful the TV shows or movies are that the production company produces.

Project

Another name for literary material that is in development. “Tom Cruise is working on the British Magician project.”

Property

Any type of literary material such as a book, play, short story etc.

Query or Query Letter

Letter (usually snail-mailed) to see if an agent, manager, production company, studio etc. would look at literary material that is available for sale. Addressed to a specific person, it includes a brief description of material and a short bio of the writer. Wait a few weeks before calling to confirm that your material was received. Then wait about a month before calling again. If you become a pest, they will trash the script. At this stage, you need them more than they need you.

Reader

A person who reads literary material for an entertainment company, and who provides an analysis of the material aka “coverage.” The old adage of “no one reads in Hollywood” is somewhat true. Material that is submitted in town is first read by the reader. The reader writes up a coverage report and passes it along to their superior who decides to read the script based on the coverage. With this system, it is possible for a producer to produce a movie even though the producer read nothing more than the coverage report.

Release Form

A document signed by a writer that frees the creator of the document from any kind of liability. Most production companies, studios and agencies will ask for a release form to be signed before they consider reading material from a writer.

RomCom

Short for romantic comedy. We know how it’s going to end but “how” is the operative word. Often they are female-driven and can be made on a budget. If you write one of these, make sure it is unique! What are you bringing to the genre that is new?

Scale (as in work for “scale”)

Writing for the minimum that has been set. Usually it is scale plus 10% to include the fee that the writer’s agent will receive.

Signatory

Any company, such as a studio or production company, that is bound to the Writers’ Guild by a signed agreement, agreeing to the Guild’s rules and procedures. In the USA, most companies that deal with the production of major TV shows and features are signatories. In South Africa, WGSA is only starting to build signatories to its rules and regulations.

Sneak

Short for sneak preview. It’s when a movie opens in a few theaters in order to gauge an audience’s reaction to the movie before its big release. Often a studio will sneak in a movie in a small city so they can get a good idea of how the film will fare throughout the country.

Spec Script or Spec Screenplay

Script written on speculation, without any deal in place. The writer is hoping to sell it upon completion. This is the opposite of a writer writing a script based on an assignment. The advantage of writing on spec is that the writer is writing an original story and not having to answer to anyone. Also, if the spec sells, the writer can make a lot more money than they would if they wrote this on assignment, but there’s no guarantee that it will sell. Writing on an assignment still doesn’t guarantee that the script will be produced, but it is a guaranteed pay-cheque.

Screenplay Polish

Minor rewrite, but what is a minor rewrite to one, is a major rewrite to another. Usually includes changes to dialogue and action, but nothing that will affect the structure.

Story Analyst

See “reader.”

Synopsis

Short summary of a literary property, written in prose form. Usually one-two pages that include the major plot points.

Tent pole Movie

This is a term used to describe big event movies, that drive the rest of the studios’ slate and generates a franchise. They appeal to the largest audience (men, women, young, old) known as the four quadrants. An example of a tent pole would be the Batman series.

Theme

This is the ultimate meaning behind any story. On the surface “Wizard of Oz” was about a teenager trying to get back home, but it was more than that. It was also about the how love of family and friends can enable us to overcome all adversity. A theme is a universal thing we can all identify with.

Treatment

Told in prose form and similar to a synopsis, the treatment goes in-depth in terms of what happens in the story. Can be many pages and include some dialogue. Most professionals first write a treatment before they write their screenplay.

Tracking

Process of following what projects companies have in development and what material might be available for sale. All the major studios have personnel who are responsible for tracking.

Turnaround

This is when a company offers the rights to a literary property to another company after the first company has developed the property, but has not turned it into a movie. This can be very expensive for the second company acquiring the rights since they must not only pay for the script, but all development costs that have incurred. Usually a company buys something in turnaround when they are very sure they will produce the movie. They are sure when they have a star and a director. Even then the star or director can back out, but that’s a chance they usually are willing to take.

Unsolicited

This is when a company or broadcaster receives material that it did not request. Many companies will simply return it unread and unopened due to legal hassles. Usually it’s a waste of time and money to send material out like this and far better to mail a query letter first. Presently in South Africa, however, SABC has been requesting producers to submit unsolicited proposals.