Monday, November 2, 2009

Selling Scripts and Selling Out

Last night during script chat we had a lot of discussion surrounding the issue of selling vs. selling out when it comes to screenwriting. There are three different schools for writers, as far as I can tell:

1. Writers who want to sell their scripts, whatever the cost, and will collaborate to all extents. They want to earn their bread and butter by any means necessary.

2. Writers who want to sell their work, but do not want to sell-out, meaning that telling their story is still very important. They are looking for a compromise, they still want to eat, but aren't willing to sacrifice their story for a Porter-House steak.

3. Writers who don't care about selling and just want to tell their story. They aren't looking for the cash, and will work a day job for the rest of their lives if need be, in order to tell a story their way. The trick here is getting people to listen.

I can't say what category I fall into. I guess it really depends on the day and how good my tips have been at the restaurant. At this point I work a day job because I don't have a choice, a girl's gotta eat. If I were given the opportunity to exclusively write to pay our bills, I think I'd jump at the chance to do so, even if it was based one someone else pulling the strings; however, just like the H1N1 vaccine, I'd be concerned about the long term effects.

The way I see it, a lack of creative control in the long run would either spur me to write my own projects on the side, or turn me into a jaded bitter writer, hitting the keyboard for the man. I'm not sure the lines are as clear as I've defined them above. As was mentioned on last night "Film is a collaborative medium... bend over."



  1. I think there is a happy medium in the middle, for sure - but I also think that different rules apply to every project, and that if you really want to work, getting your foot in the door is paramount to "having it your way or the highway."

    There are certain projects I have that I'm not willing to bend on - there are others that I am. But fundamentally, the reason I want to work in TV is to collaborate - I can't imagine anyone wanting to become a TV writer who couldn't bring themselves to collaborate with others.

  2. Here's the thing though. Unless you're one of the very few screenwriters at the tippitytop of the Ho'wood heap, you're not going to be making a consistent living solely off of your own work. Especially if you're working in features.

    The majority of your year to year income is going to be generated through writing assignments. Is taking an assignment selling out? You're being hired to write someone else's story, it's not yours, so you damn well better be willing to collaborate.

    If you're working in TV your first few jobs are going to be freelance or staffing other peoples shows. Sure you can push, pitch and prod things towards what you want to do, but at the end of the day it's not your show. You're writing your stories, but ultimately it's serving someone else's vision.

    Is that selling out?

    Personally I don't really buy into "selling out" as a concept. I think writers can become hacks if they're willing to compromise their story by taking really bad notes, but it's important to realized that most notes aren't that bad.

    I do think there's a word for people who are completely unwilling to compromise or collaborate though, and that word is "Amateur." No professional writer could ever get away with pulling that kind of crap, and nor should they, because I can pretty much guarantee the end result would be weaker than if they were willing to take a bit of outside feedback.

  3. Perhaps I'm mixing up two separate issues here.

    Collaboration is not something I'm afraid of. I wouldn't have gotten even close to where I am with my writing without collaborating with others. I want to be clear when I say that collaborative writing is a must, and I realize and embrace that.

    What I am trying to explore here is the idea of abandoning the story you want to tell for a paycheque. Perhaps this pertains more to the feature market, since Television is more of a continuous thing (...unless you're on FOX. I kid, I kid). Maybe I'm trying to talk about changing your feature because a studio tells you to. I'm not sure.

    I just wanted to clear up the fact that I believe there are a few issues at stake here, and I do play well with others.

  4. For me the term "selling out" is writing a script I'm not proud of just to put food on the table. Would I do it? Probably. Will I choke on the porterhouse steak I am now able to afford? Probably. But if that "sell out" leads to advancing my career so I can THEN write what I love... the deep, twisted, sick dramas that swirl around my brain... then I'll do it in a heartbeat. Money isn't my goal as much as being able to write the stories I want in the future. I'll bend over for the that...

  5. I know what you're trying to get at. It's the "what-about-a-dog?" scenario. Writer pitches a story idea to a producer. Producer comes back with "and what if the main character was a dog?"

    To which I'd respond: Will it hurt the story you're trying to tell? Will it destroy it completely? Or is it just a change for changes sake?

    Say you pitched a story about two kids who are best friends. One day one of them gets swept downstream while playing in the river. The other kid follows his friend and tries to rescue him. Together they have a series of great adventures before eventually finding home.

    It's a story about friendship, loyalty and love.

    Now say the studio you pitched it to responded "Great! We love it! We want to make it! But instead of kids we want it to be about a cat and a dog! It'll be great!"

    Does turning the kids into a cat and a dog destroy the story about friendship, loyalty and love that you're trying to tell? What's at the heart of your story? Is it theme and emotion? Or is it plot?

    It's a decision each writer's going to have to make for themselves, but every time you go out you're going to have to make it. It's important to remember that a script isn't a final document. It has no intrinsic value. You give up control of your story as soon as it starts to get made into a movie. But you're not trying to write scripts, you're trying to write movies. If you want to always have complete control then better off to stick with novels.

    And the movie pitch above? That was a great little flick called "The Adventures of Milo and Otis."

  6. Peter 'Goldenboy' Rowley, ladies and gentlemen.

  7. I remember Milo and Otis. I was a fan. I think we've got a better handle on the issue here. I like the example of "What about a dog?" that's what I'm talking about.

    I'm still not sure about the term "selling out". It seems like a blanket judgment. It leaves a bad taste, something akin to when you walk through the Sears perfume aisle and get nodes of Reese Witherspoon's new fragrance in your mouth.

  8. Listen to Peter. Good advice.

    I teach a couple University classes nowadays and a recent screenwriting class was going through my credits and one student said: But you're not proud of a lot of this shit, are you? I mean, you were just doing it for money, right? (in essence, selling out). I didn't know how to respond. I mean, one day I was graduating film school with loose plan to write/direct TV and then I scrambled making educational docs and industrials and then directed/co-wrote some family fantasy/adventure dramas, which led to moving to Toronto and gigs on Top Cops and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, which led to gigs on Psi Factor and Outer Limits and Earth Final Conflict and Scariest Places on Earth and The Collector...and before I knew it I'd been doing it for almost 15 years and had a career in paranormal/sci-fi genre fringe television! Didn't regret it...proud of most everythng I did, just surviving and not giving up was an accomplishment...yet here I am getting questioned about my I was supposed to agree and say my 'REAL' career was going to start now that I was finished with all that naive bright-eyed students thinking that what happened to me 'would never happen to them'. Reality is that 'shit' IS the majority of TV and film that we're gonna be able to work on, and unless you are one of those talented and lucky and connected enough to become part of that .0001% that can actually write their own ticket, you're NOT selling're just making a living doing what you love to do as best you can.

    Or what Peter said.

  9. Nothing like a bright eyed student out to conquer the big bad world of writing with their epic tale of love, lust and romance and their selectively chosen indie soundtrack that MUST accompany the story they've so carefully laid out.

    Haven't even sold my show yet, and already sounding so jaded. I mentioned to someone to day that I'd happily write scripts for LiveLinks users if it'd pay my rent, so I think we all know where I'm at.

    WCDixon, I had just meandered to your blog, read your bio, and would be stoked to have any one of your credits on my resume. Thanks for all the chatter folks, the perspective is great!

  10. "Selling out" is such a judgemental term. I cringe everytime I hear it. I feel like it's used by people who think they are the "real writers" and look down upon the "commercial writers."

    I want to write movies that people want to see... that they want to pay to see... that studios make money off of so that they ask me to write for them again. Is that selling out?

    I want to write movies that cause people to think while entertaining them... LOTS of people. Is that selling out?

    Does that require compromise? For sure. Are there lots of people to please? For sure. But I also hope that when faced with notes that don't make sense to me... I'll have the insight, creativity and influence to suggest solutions that don't cause me to write something I'm not proud of. I hope that I will handle myself in a way that causes my collaborators to say "I want to work with her again." And I hope that collaborating will lead to a better end result than if I were the only one calling the shots.

    At the end of the day, I'm not going to have complete control if I want to write for the masses... I recognize that and I accept that. That's my choice. And, if it's my choice, how can it be "selling out?"

    Thanks for making us think, Rachel!

  11. If being Joseph Finder, Harlan Coben, Nora Roberts, or William Martell, or even John August is "selling out" then I'm there. I agree with Dawn about cringing every time I hear the phrase. I want to write for a living. And I'm used to living well. So is that selling out? I write because I love it, and to get paid for it is great. I know, I've been paid to write (magazine articles that paid $1 a word). Would I write even if I'd never get paid for it, well, I am right now, and I'll keep doing it.
    Any writer who says they don't want to be on a best seller list, or have a major film on the screen is lying to themselves. Hate me for saying it if you want, but please we are human, we crave recognition. Or course, we get it and then only want anonymity again. Those who write only for themselves write in journals, and don't make pitches or write queries, because they just want to write.

  12. >> "Film is a collaborative medium... bend over."

    LOL Not a screenwriter but a novel writer. Lots of what's said here about one also applies to the other. In other words, I can SO relate! I think we walk a fine line between so-called "selling out" and that little bitch known as "integrity".

    Example....I LOVE paranormal/sci-fi and urban fantasy (as a reader) but it's not my first love. So when my agent said, write me a paranormal proposal, I know you can, I hesitated. I did it. But I hesitated. In the end I think it's made me a better, stronger writer, and even though I 'wrote for genre' if you will, I also created a series I loved. THAT, I think, is that fine line of love and money. As long as I can look myself in the mirror every morning, I'm good :D


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  14. The first script I wrote was for a sci-fi, Cdn-UK-France-Germany co-pro. After they bought the script, while I was re-writing for production, they asked for an extra scene that would run in the European version - the T&A scene. The producer suggested a rape. I wrote it, and I remember feeling really dirty about it.

    I feel like it would have impractical to refuse to do it, but at the same time I still feel a bit queasy about contributing that kind of thing to the world (however small our audience was).

    No clear moral to that story! Otherwise I agree with what everyone else said. On my current project, I'd say 99.9% of the notes I've gotten have been useful and it's in my interests to put them to use as best I can (that doesn't always mean taking them literally).

    The relevant skills here, I think, are confidence in my material and the ability to articulate my beliefs about the project. It takes experience to develop those skills. Perhaps what the students in WD's class don't know yet, bless their boots, is that very few people get the opportunity to gain that experience working on 30 Rock.