The Screenwriters’ Plight

Imagine for a moment that you want to be a screenwriter. Screenwriting is just about the cushiest gig you can get as a writer, short of being a renowned best-selling author like Dan Brown.

By any writing standards, you get very well paid. A single television script can net you $40,000 (the current Writer’s Guild minimum for a 60 minute story and teleplay is $35,568), and if you’re on the writing staff of a show, you’re on salary and can expect to have a minimum of two scripts produced in a given season, plus rewrite work on other scripts, which also does not pay poorly.

If you sell a film script, your situation is less stable, but potentially even more lucrative. Six figures for a script is very common (in fact, if the movie’s budget is over $5 million — and that’s practically every studio film — then your minimum compensation will be $124,190), and if you build a reputation for dependability, you can pick up a lot of money doing last-minute or even on-set rewrites, because even if the script is “perfect” (nobody ever, ever believes a script is perfect), production is not, and locations change, circumstances change, and rewrites and additions are almost always required.

But there’s more than just money. How many people have read Gone With The Wind? I can’t find solid sources, but many say that it has sold more than 30 million copies in all. Even with an average of two people reading per copy, more people are likely to have seen an episode of Friends or Seinfeld than to have read one of the most-read books of the twentieth century.

So there’s the money. And exposure for your work. And if you’re lucky, and the WGA rules and arbitration break your way, you even get your name in the credits (probably).

What you do not have, at any point, is any right or ownership in what you have created (with some extremely limited exceptions).

Hollywood is built upon a very twisted interpretation of an oft-abused legal theory.

Pretend you’ve spent several years honing your craft as a screenwriter. Then you take these skills and you write the greatest movie script of all time. The story is universal. The characters are both original and widely relatable. The pacing is perfect. The dialogue all but sings off the page. There is slam-bang action, spectacle, and small human moments that will bring even a grizzled Marine drill instructor to tears. It can even be shot on a modest budget and a short schedule without any artistic compromise.

It’s perfect. And it’s original. And it’s yours.

Until you sell it.

In the act of selling your original work to a producer — any producer, even the most honest, ethical, upstanding producer in the town’s history — you agree, in writing, in a legally binding way, that you did not create your original script. In order to sell it and have any chance of seeing it made into a film, you are required to lie, and “agree” that you did not create it yourself. You “agree” that you wrote it as work-for-hire.

That is to say, you are engaging with the producer in a legal fiction (I would say “fraud”, but this has long legal precedent, unfortunately) that the story was the producer’s original idea, and that you were merely hired to write it out for him. More or less a hired typist.

In theory, you, the creator of the original work, hold all the intellectual property rights to it. But in Hollywood the only thing you can do, if you want to live by your creativity, is to surrender those rights so completely that, legally, you did not create the work. You will (probably, although not definitely) get credit for the script, or at least the story, depending on how extensive rewrites are, and how WGA arbitration goes.

In another legal fiction, you are also entitled to royalties, a percentage, on any profits the resulting film makes. It’s a fiction because no Hollywood movie ever makes a profit, once Hollywood’s esoteric accounting practices and the legalese in your writer’s contract both come into play.

(That’s not a joke. The late Jeffrey Boam got screenplay credit on Lethal Weapon 2. It was the number three movie of 1989, making $227,853,986 world wide just in its theatrical release (i.e., not counting home video releases and sales to TV and cable). It made nearly ten times its production budget of $25 million. And yet in an interview, Boam laughed that, according to Warner Brothers, the movie had never made a profit, so he never got any residuals from it.)

You do retain two rights and a few options under something called “separation of rights“, a “de-bundling” of copyright in the script. You retain the right to publish it. And you retain the right to “dramatic stage rights”, to put on a play based on the script, after a specified period of time. That, and getting some money and a “creator” credit on any sequels, and that’s about it.

There are many, many rationalizations for this state of things. The most common is that producers, or studios, take a huge financial risk in making the film, and thus they need to legally lie so that they hold all possible rights to the work you created.

Never mind that stage plays are large financial risks, yet somehow playwrights retain ownership of the intellectual property they created. Never mind that books are also financial risks, and yet novelists (nominally — I’ll deal with the actually another time) retain ownership of their intellectual property.

Never mind all of that, bud. You wrote a screenplay, you got paid, so you have no right to your own work.

That’s how it is.

And if you are a defender of intellectual property law as it currently stands, then you own this grotesque distortion of what copyright is supposed to protect.

Just don’t tell me that you’re defending creators’ rights, because you’re not.