Here's a Nickel for your Idea, Now Eff OffComplications Ensue
Complications Ensue:
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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Just got off the phone with a writer friend who's been offered a lousy deal for his pitch for a TV series. The deal boils down to some money if the show goes, but no "created by" credit and no guarantee of being in the writing room. If the production company actually shot a whole first season of the show, he calculated, he'd get a maximum of under $20K, and a very, very vague non-writing credit.

The production company, of course, wants to keep their options open. They figure they'll bring on a big-deal showrunner who will rewrite the idea and want a created by credit. He may not want to involve my friend in development. He may or may not want my friend involved in the writing room. There may not even be a writing room. So the production company says they can't give my friend a credit or promise to involve him in development.

By "can't," of course, they mean, "don't want to." Of course they can. They can give my friend a (shared) created by credit. They can guarantee him involvement in the development. He's not asking for control of the show. He's asking to be part of the process on a show that he originated.

This is why writers need agents. Not just agents, but agents who are willing to stick up for them. And are willing to walk away from a deal if it's a lousy one.

The fact is, most shows don't go. If writers had to live on working on their own shows in production, all but maybe two dozen of us would starve. Writers mostly live on (a) working on other people's shows and (b) developing their own shows. The key word here is development. Lots of scripts get developed. Very few pilots get shot. Fewer pilots get picked up. Almost no shows survive their first season.

So when you make a deal for your pitch, you need to get paid every step of the way. Obviously you get paid less for a pitch document than a pilot script. Obviously you get paid less, per hour, for a pilot script (which will have to be rewritten 99 times before it's a go) than for later scripts. But you need to get paid something at each step.

And you need to be creatively involved. If you're not a showrunner yet, you want second chair. If you don't qualify for second chair, you want to be on staff. If they can't put you on staff--

--they can put you on staff. They just don't want to. They can, if necessary, pay you to write 1 1/2 development scripts and then throw those scripts out if they hate them. It's just a cost of doing business.

They can give you a created by credit. After all, it's your idea. And any decent showrunner who comes on later will just have to understand that.

If I were taking over someone else's show, I don't think it would be a dealbreaker for me that they share a created by credit. After all, they created the show. Sure, I would rewriting lots of stuff. But I'm rewriting from what they brought. Someone who tries to erase their name is a bit of a jerk.

I once optioned a script from an amateur writer. I rewrote everything. New plot. New characters. Basically, I kept his title, because it was a great title that suggested a better script than he had written.

I could have just written my own script. But that would have been stealing.

("Good Army compass. How if I take it?" asks Sherif Ali. "Then you would be a thief," says Lawrence, understanding perfectly that Sherif Ali would not at all mind considering himself a murderer, but could not tolerate being thought of as a thief, even by a dead man.)

A good showrunner does not need to steal your credit. He's the bloody showrunner. It's going to be his show to play with anyway.

Here's where your power comes in. You do not have to sell anything. They can't make your series without your agreement. You can't ask for unreasonable things -- to be a showrunner if you don't have the experience, to get paid huge money up front -- but you can insist on reasonable things. And it is reasonable to expect that if someone makes a series out of your pitch, you get some credit and money for it. That's what writers invent series for.

You will lose a few deals by insisting, in the long run, yes. But in the long run, the deals you improve will more than pay for the ones you lose. And companies that are really serious about making your pitch will ultimately consider your demands just the price of doing business. The ones that can't stomach giving you anything, I tend to think, are not the ones who will get your series made at all, ever.


Good one. Which company? Did they have a, oh, I don't know, say a letter in their company name, and maybe, say, a number too?

Every once in awhile we need to do things that buck up the courage to the sticking place. And we all have to start going for this at once, because truth to tell they can just move down the list to the next sucker...but not as much as they used to be able to.

Part of getting that courage might be googling and re-acquainting oneself with what Chazz Palminteri did to sell A BRONX TALE from his one man show, or what Sly Stallone did a million years ago with ROCKY.

They get you because YOU WANT TO. But at some point, down the line, if you idea really is worth it -- and there's a spark there -- they do need you. More than you need them. And til then, hey, if you aint got nothing you got nothing to lose.

By Blogger DMc, at 2:17 PM  

Are you sure about "created by" credits?? It's my understanding that only the WGA can give that credit. The credits you negotiate for with production companies, studios and networks is "executive producer" or "co-executive producer". Your point is right that you negotiate up front for a place on the show, but I understood the "creator" credit differently. Can you elaborate?

By Blogger writerjoel, at 2:37 PM  

Yes. It depends on the jurisdiction. This deal is under the WGC contract, where Created By is negotiable. You are right that under the WGA, the person who gets credit on the pilot script, as shot, gets the Created by credit. So under the WGA contract, to ensure you get a Created By credit, you have to insist on a contractual right to write the first draft of the pilot.

They'll whine about that, too. But they are welcome to throw away your draft after you're done. If the showrunner rewrites you to the point where you don't wind up with any credit on the pilot, then you shouldn't feel you've been cheated -- it really isn't the show you sold at that point any more.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:45 PM  

Ah! Interesting! Thanks for elaborating!

By Blogger writerjoel, at 12:16 PM  

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