Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty Screenwriting, TV and Game Writing Blog


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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Q. I wrote a script called "LIVING NIGHTMARES" several years ago and had it registered with the WGAw. Found out recently that AMC ripped the title for one of there own films. Called the Writer's Guild to see what they could do and was told that it's perfectly legal for companies to rip the title of your work. Talk about some B.S.
Yep. Titles get recycled all the time. Especially titles like yours, which are based on extremely common phrases. "Living Nightmare" gets 714,000 Google Hits. (I assume that your LIVING NIGHTMARE was not a remake of the 1977 critical hit NAZI LOVE CAMP 27, which was also released as LIVING NIGHTMARE.) So if you can't protect the title to a produced movie, you definitely can't protect the title to an unproduced script.

My question is how Disney prevents people from releasing their own movies called SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS. I think that might have something to do with trademarks, or possibly just having a massive legal department. (UPDATE: See RJ Reimer's excellent explanation in the comments for how studios regulate the re-use of titles. Thank you, RJ!)

But there have been other SNOW WHITE movies. You can make one, too.

By the way, registering a script with the WGA gives it no legal protection whatsoever; it just provides evidence should there be a lawsuit. If you want legal protection, register your script with the Library of Congress, on any day the government is not shut down. 


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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Q. If you wind up as a staff writer for a television show, how do you handle things like health insurance and taxes? I would guess the first one might be easier with the Affordable Health Care Act in play here in the US, and I know the WGA offers insurance after you earn a certain amount. But how do you actually live and get covered? Is it doable? For some of us with pre-existing conditions, that's a Real Thing To Worry About. 
The WGA has a very, very good, gold-plated health plan. So good that people continue to pay their WGA dues even when they haven't written anything in years, just so they can buy into it.
Q. Taxes. As a contractor, you're responsible for all of that stuff on your own. I assume there are oodles of accountants specializing in helping people in the entertainment industry, but can you give me a thumbnail sketch of what it's like? Do you get to deduct things like cable TV if you're a working TV writer? Is the tax burden better or worse than if you were a traditional employee?
Yes. There are oodles.

You can deduct quite a bit. Cable bills. Computers. Movies you go to. Lunches. Books. I am not an accountant, and this is not accounting advice, but there's a reason so many of us have loanout companies.


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Monday, October 28, 2013

Q. What if a producer just wants to option my film idea? I.e. I have the one pager and he loves it and has initial interest out there and he wants to keep shopping it around with me?
You don't get paid for an idea. Sure, Joe Eszterhas optioned a napkin for $4M in the 90's after BASIC INSTINCT, but then the napkin film did not do as well as BASIC INSTINCT, and it is no longer the glorious 90's, age of the ridiculous spec sale. Anyway, you don't. You give the producer an informal, or formal, right to shop the idea, with the understanding, or written agreement, that you are attached as the first writer, at a reasonable (e.g. Guild minimum) writing fee.

Generally speaking, your right to write the film stops at either a draft, or two drafts and a polish, depending on your clout. After that, the producer can take you off the project.

A typical deal for a pro writer might be a Right of First Refusal to write two drafts and a polish for scale (or scale plus X% if s/he's an overscale writer), plus a hunk of money if the film goes into production (say 2.5%-4% minus what he's been paid already), plus a ROFR to write sequels/prequels/spinoffs/TV and/or passive payments in case s/he isn't the writer of the sequels/prequels. Plus monkey points.

If you are a beginning writer, the producer may offer you only the production bonus, intending to give the idea to someone else to write. Don't accept that. The whole point of you shopping your ideas is to get to write them up. Vastly more films get developed than get made.

In the case of a one-pager, you're probably better off with, at a minimum, a written one-page deal letter clarifying that it is your idea and the producer is attached to it in the event he sets it up (finds development financing) within X time period. After that the producer is no longer attached, and any creative ideas the producer may have contributed are your property.

All of the above is technically redundant since you own the idea and a producer's doesn't own his notes once he gives them to you, but having it all on paper clarifies things for everyone, and if the producer has different ideas, you want to know them now, rather than later when he attempts to tie up your project without paying you. 


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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Tim Kreider writes in today's Times about all the people who write him asking him to contribute writing to their website for free. (He probably got paid a little for the article.)

In the Middle Ages, writing was not something you did for a living. Writers were noblemen or clerics; someone was already feeding them. They wrote for fame, or to scratch an itch, or to praise God, or to argue that someone else was praising God the wrong way.

Then the printing press came along and you could actually sell books. (I have no idea if it's accurate that Gutenberg had a side business in pornography, but I hope so.) And copyright laws eventually made it possible to protect your content.

The internet has the lowest imaginable threshold for entry. So lots of people with paying jobs are also creating content (essays, short stories, YouTubes) in their spare time and throwing it up there for all to see. Twenty years ago it was difficult and expensive to make a short film, even a badly made one. Now it's easy to make something.

And many of the somethings go viral. And people make money off them. Get a million hits on YouTube, and they'll send you a check.

Suddenly professional writers and filmmakers are competing with myriads of amateur writers and filmmakers.

They're also competing with promoters. A lot of viral content has funding behind it. Lonelygirl15 turned out not to be a lonely girl in a room but a group of people who wanted to sell a series.

The paradigm has changed. You're now expected to give it away, in the hopes that this will vault you to a position where you can now sell your stuff for a whack of dough. Of course, for most people, the second part never triggers. There's no "path to Colonel," as they say in the Army.

To be sure, there never was a path to Colonel in content creation. Aspiring TV and feature writers always had to write spec scripts. And Stephen King wrote a lot of unpublished novels before Carrie got bought. J. K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter on the dole. Aspiring game writers are expected to program up something in Unity or Twine, so have a portfolio to show when Rockstar posts an opening.

But it does feel like what used to be a pyramid has shrunk its middle, so its base is impossibly wide, and the top quite pointy. The middle seems to be disappearing. There's room for star journalists, and free Huffington post contributors, but no room for journeymen. Right out of college, my Mom got a job at a local paper. "There were a lot of cars parked outside the Murphy's last night," the editor would tell her. "Find out what happened." That is no longer a job.

(I realize how ironic it is that I'm writing all of this on my blog, which I write for free. Though people keep offering to buy ads on it.)

The middle is disappearing in features, too. There are so many $100,000 features and $1M features out there that you can no longer sell a $3M feature, I am told. $2M to $8M is a no-go area.

Nobody makes a living making hundred thousand dollar features, or even million dollar ones. I have one friend who works as a P.A. to support her directing addiction, and another who works as a production manager. Of course they'd like to break out of the low budget ghetto. But the next few rungs on the ladder are missing. How do you jump from $100,000 to $10,000,000?

You win something at Sundance, of course. If you can become a star, you can vault. Until then, you have to keep giving it away.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. The new paradigm has mobilized a lot of talent. Annoying Orange is way funnier than Two and a Half Men.

It had to be. It had to promote itself.


(Though the lingering death of journalism does create public policy issues. Democracy becomes corrupt in the absence of muckrakers, and no one can afford to do a three month investigation on the if-come.)

This process has been going on for a long time. Before recorded music, if you were semi-good, you could become a traveling musician. You could make a living, of a sorts, playing to crowds of 40. Or, at least, you could eat.

That living hasn't existed for a long time. Instead you play to crowds of 40 to get exposure (and learn your chops) so you can play to crowds of 10,000 for money.

But it does feel like the change has accelerated. There are some pockets where you can still make a living without making a fortune. Games, for example. While the indie game world is full of opportunities to make a game for nothing in the hopes you'll have a hit on Steam, no one asks a writer to contribute barks to a AAA game for free. TV, too, is a process where professionalism is too important to give up. You can make a living as a TV writer because TV is a beast that eats scripts. A TV show doesn't depend on one viral episode. It depends on consistency, both creatively and in production.

But if you're thinking of getting into the rest of the content business, there's the old joke about the jazz musician whose doctor tells him he's only got a year to live. "That's cool, man," says the jazz musician, "but what do I live on till then?"

You need a plan for how you're going to live.

That can be a day job in the biz. For years as an aspiring writer my day job was development executive (another job that I think the industry has shed).

Bartender works, but there's the risk of waking up 50 and realizing you're a career bartender. (So then you write a blog about it, and it goes viral, so you get to adapt it into a bestselling book...)

"Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" is good advice, but it becomes a problem if you are the cow.

The center cannot hold you. What you gonna do?


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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Mein Novel ist in German gepublished!
My novel's out in German!

So for all of you German speakers who are reading this blog in Google Translate, now's your chance!


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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Hey, guys, maybe one of you who is a gamer can help.

For my MIGS talk, I need an image of an NPC follower in his underclothes. You know how, in some games (I think Dragon Age: Origins, but not II), you can remove your follower's garb to the point where they're wearing nothing but their Fruit of the Looms? I need a good quality JPG of that.

Can any of y'all help?


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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Q. Does someone who traditionally writes in novella format have any place in television writing? I’ve learned a lot about the differences, and I’m eager to see if my own style of writing can be adapted to the far more fast-paced scripting I am learning. Since you’ve written both for television and your own books, what are the biggest speed bumps you encountered, transitioning from one format to another? 
There's no hard and fast answer. If you're a writer, you're a writer, and you can adapt your muse to different media. But certainly each medium has its strengths and weaknesses, and so do writers. If your gift is to delve into the deep thoughts of a character -- well, that's something TV is very poor at. Actors convey feelings well, but not thoughts. TV is very good at showing the dynamics of a family (whether kin or a family of choice) and characters making emotional choices.

TV has demands novella writing doesn't. You can polish and rework your spec pilot for a year, but spec episodes get out of date fast, and if you should be hired, you better be able to bang out a sixty page script in a week. A couple of times I've had to write a script in a day. That's not pretty, but you can't be precious. If the production meeting is Tuesday morning, the script better be there Tuesday morning.

Speed bumps? There's a learning curve to any medium, and in TV, there is a whole industry to break into. If you work hard and thoughtfully, and if you like writing what people like seeing on TV, and if people like you, you'll probably get in. The key, as in any new field, is listening -- to what's said, and to what's not said -- and carefully applying it to your work and your processes.


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Saturday, October 12, 2013

On the 22nd, I'm moderating one of the IGDA Montreal's roundtables, on "Women Characters in Games: Getting from Yorda to Ellie." Should be interesting. Here's the long version of the topic:
Some game critics say that women characters in games have too often been either helpless objects or ass-kicking men with boobs. 

Is this still true? Is there something about gameplay itself that gravitates toward masculine characters? Do gamers really not want to buy games with real female characters, or do marketing people only think so? Are we missing opportunities to tell compelling stories that will attract lots of players?

What could change — in our approach to game narrative, in marketing, in the structure of game teams, in hiring, in game culture, in the game media or elsewhere — for us to do better?
If you're coming, here are some interesting links...


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Tuesday, October 08, 2013

How did I not think of this???


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Saturday, October 05, 2013

Writing ruins you for most TV.

So, Hunter is re-watching, and I'm watching, GAME OF THRONES together. And the rap about GoT is best summed up by this fake book cover:

I've heard a great deal about how many main characters die in GoT. And yet, 19 episodes in, I can't say that I've been shocked by anyone's death so far. Sure, some people have died, sometimes suddenly. Some important people have died, important in the sense that many fictional people would have considered them important to, say, the balance of power.

But no really great characters have died. No one has died who, in dying, would have left Westeros a less interesting place. No one with a really interesting character flaw, for example; no one you could get a lot more stories out of. 

This is a cable show. So likable and good characters are not immune from fatality, any more than a certain adorable teacher was immune in BUFFY. But really fun characters are, as far as I can tell, still immune. And "really fun characters," of course, in a cable show, often includes "really atrocious people." 

I called out my guesses for who I was sure would make it to at least episode 30, and Hunter did not contradict me.

Writing TV kind of ruins you for watching TV. We watched a SLEEPY HOLLOW episode, Lisa and I, and the moment we were told in Act 2 that the [entity] could only be killed by fire, we knew that it was going to be the convenient trunkful of [inflammable substance], shown in Act 3, that did for the [entity] in Act 5. And so it was.

That's one reason my writer friends watch so much BREAKING BAD. They're sometimes surprised. 


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