Thursday, November 01, 2007

On Writers & Strikes: Richard Cox reply

Over on Myspace, fellow novelist Richard Cox posted this response to last night's blog about the WGA strike. I had a lengthy reply I'd prefer to not get lost in the Myspace ether, so I'm reposting here for posterity.

Richard's reply:

Even after reading your blog I'm not sure I understand the situation well enough to comment.

However, as a novelist, I don't incur any risk when selling my novel to a publisher. The publisher shells out the money to print the book and market it (although in my case, they didn't shell out much for marketing, haha.)

And yet I am still paid for each book sold, assuming I earn out my advance.

It boggles my mind that you could write a brilliant screenplay or teleplay and be paid a flat fee no matter how well it performed.

From my uneducated position, writing suffers when you treat it as a commodity. I realize producers believe they can take any high-concept piece of junk screenplay and, with the right actors and director, turn it into a moneymaker.

But why don't they learn from the lessons of really awesome movies that are well written that become juggernauts? Why do they accept mediocrity?

And then there is the whole argument of how a brilliant screenplay becomes a lump of generic mashed potatoes after studio people muck it up with test screening results. In trying to minimize risk, they ruin the chance to make a mint. And the original writer probably doesn't want to claim those mashed potatoes, anyway.

Posted by Richard on Thursday, November 01, 2007 at 8:00 AM

And my reply:
I did gloss over a few points to make the issues more palatable, but the gist is there. Perhaps the most important point I did not make is that there isn't One True Way to offer financial remuneration from producers to writers—there is only precedent, and precedent is always rooted in historical and cultural contexts. In Europe or Asia, they may treat this issue in an entirely different way. Nevertheless, all that is really moot: what matter is what has been done in the past and how the present deals on the table relate to past precedent.

In the past, writers have been offered what's called "scale", or a salaried pay, which is agreed upon three years advance in a document called the Schedule of Minimums (which you can find online here). Much like an advance for novelists, it has to be done this way because what happens if the final product, for whatever reason, does not get produced? At least the creator's time has been appropriately reimbursed. Writers do get residuals from DVD sales (see the car/idea analogy above), but writers feel like they got screwed 20 years ago on that deal. Internet residuals are on the table and they're not making the same mistake twice.

However, producers paying scale mean they're shouldering the cost and that means financial risk until the product makes money. For novels, there is relatively low cost incurred compared to films because a publisher can issue multiple prints to gauge market interest whereas only one film or set of TV episodes is "published" at once. Movie producers have a lot at risk, financially speaking, and when money comes into the picture, people tend to get gunshy. (The solution here is obvious: make all writers producers by forcing them to invest their own money up front. That would change their toon pretty bloody quickly!)

Novels are also a low collaboration medium, compared to movies. As Orson Welles said, "A poet needs a pen, an artist, a brush, and a filmmaker—an army." So the payout structure for films calls for a lot of employees to make the product, whereas with a novel, you need three people: the novelist, the publisher, and the printer; in some cases, the novelist is even the publisher, too. It would be pretty cheeky for a publisher to pay a novelist $100,000 for a novel and then make $10,000,000 without any kind of royalties since the novelist is the TOTAL creator of his medium. Comparatively, a screenwriter is just a blueprint maker, since actors, directors, and even producers can add their 2 cents along the serpentine path to the movie theatre. Should the actors, directors and producers then receive a residual based on their input? It's a slippery slope.

The answer to your question about why producers don't learn from the lessons of well-written films is simple: it's about money. Producers want to make hits, so their initial intent is to make the next American Beauty, but along the way, producers (or more accurately, producers' employees) have second-thoughts—what if the script I'm gunning for doesn't do well?—and thus the truly original writing self-selects out. In this respect, literary writers will always hold a trump card over screenwriters. If a novelist or journalist fails, they wipe egg off their face, but if a screenwriter fails, their producer's very career is at stake.

Thanks for posting! It's good to have another writer's perspective. I neglected to mention that the National Writers Union ( recently supported the WGA strike; they are a "United nationwide local of the United Auto Workers representing (at this point) about 2000 freelance journalists, book authors, PR writers, etc."

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