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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Periodically I get an email more or less like this:
Q. I have a surefire idea for a [movie / TV show], but I'm not a writer. Can I sell my idea? Or hire a writer to write it?
I don't know any writers who buy ideas. Producers don't, either, except from writers.

You could theoretically hire a writer to execute it. That's what producers do with their own ideas.

The problem is that hiring good writers is really expensive. WGC scale for a feature film is around $50,000. WGA scale is quite a bit higher, even with the weak dollar.

You can hire non-Guild writers and pay them less. The problem is there are very few experienced, talented non-Guild writers. Bill Cunningham and... I don't know anybody else.

So that leaves you with hiring an inexperienced writer who's hopefully talented. How do you discover one?

As one of the commenters below pointed out, you can try film schools. Call a film school professor and ask him to recommend some good students.

What you might also do is check out the various script competitions. See who's done well in one with a script that is similar to yours in tone. I.e. if you want to commission a horror film, hire someone who won a prize with her horror script.

With a less experienced writer you'll need to agree that there will be lots of drafts, since it will take a while to get to a draft that you're happy with even if you've hit gold (meaning found a great screenwriter). Of course, you're dealing with an uncrafted screenwriter, so you may never get to a draft you're happy with.

That's why you pay a pro so much. Not for the time he spends writing -- that may not be very long. But for all those years it took for him to get to the point in his craft where he could bat a professional quality feature out in six weeks. You could spend a year with a film student or talented amateur and not get a professional quality draft. But hey, you're the one who didn't want to pay fifty thousand bucks for a pro.

I took a few paid jobs when I was in film school. In one case my professor Lew Hunter was kind enough to send someone my way. I think the low budget horror movie I wrote for $800 was probably worth what I was paid for it, but I tend to doubt the historical miniseries bible I wrote for $2500 was.

Practically speaking, I think most ideas that civilians have aren't nearly as fresh or brilliant as they think they are. Some of the comments below say ideas are cheap, but it's not true. Great ideas are rare and quite valuable. But civilians almost never have them. Because a great idea isn't just a one line pitch, it's the setting, the characters, the theme... everything that you might put in a 6 page pitch document. What makes BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, say, great isn't the one line pitch --"all the surviving humans in the world are being chased through space by evil robots they invented!" -- it's something else that I'm not enough of a BG fan to crystallize for you here. What makes THE SOPRANOS great isn't in the hook -- "a mob boss tries to balance his family life with his Family life" -- but something deeper.

Only in the rarest situations would a civilian have a great idea as I'm defining it here -- because anyone that good has probably been thinking about TV seriously for ten years, and is, in fact, an aspiring TV writer.

Also, let's be frank. The people who ask me the question don't really want to pay even $5,000 for a script. What they really want is for someone to write it for free, and do all the work, and they'll split the profits -- which is not something I'd recommend to any writer.

Labels:

5 Comments:

There is one other place to look for talented, non-union people: film school. If you're in NY or LA, look at UCLA or USC or NYU or SVA or Columbia's screenwriting departments. These kids (I'm one of them) will mostly be guild members in a few years and are looking for a way to get there. They'll be better equipped than most non-union writers, although not quite union-level yet. Plus, they'll work for food. All of them are looking for a way in, and if juniors already know enough to tell you if your idea is good or not.

By Blogger Daniel, at 12:01 PM  

i don't know, man. Alex, I think by even encouraging this kind of thing you're exacerbating a big problem.

One of the reasons why people have such a problem with the whole film and TV writing strike is that they lack a fundamental understanding of just what it is writers do. And part of that is because EVERYBODY thinks they've had a great idea for a film or a TV show.

Everybody.

And the thing that 90 percent of people will never understand is that ideas are cheap. Finishing, developing, and executing them is not.

That means getting into a discussion of ideas, and how they're not copyrightable, because it's the expression of them that is the true valuable piece of property.

But yeah, you should probably just scare'em off with the quote.

Film school dude, 999 times out of 1000 you're better going with your own idea.

By Blogger DMc, at 12:42 PM  

Thanks for the "plussing", Alex.

And yes, I agree with Denis that there is a fundamental lack of understanding of what a screenwriter does and what it takes to craft a good, marketable script. However when I start to go through the stages of a "step deal," the fog lifts and the harsh light of reality sets in:

"A treatment? What's that? I just want you to write the script...

"Yeah, but its a GREAT IDEA. What do you mean we have to craft characters? Don't the actors do that?

"I just want to have a script so I can sell the idea and cash out... What do you mean it's not that simple?



;D

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 1:34 PM  

I think there's one important positive point to take away from this. You're getting emails from people who are actually bright enough to know they can't write. If more people realized that, they'd perhaps have a modicum more respect for writers.

By Blogger R.A. Porter, at 3:17 PM  

"The problem is there are very few experienced, talented non-Guild writers." Well, I think there are more of us than you think. It's hard as hell for us to sell a script, even when we're good. And know people. But that's beside the point. I'm with dmc: don't encourage these people. ;-)

By Blogger Michael Strickland, at 10:52 AM  

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