Getting the Memo

It’s about ten months since I posted about my belief that I was nearing my first script sale. There have been no heroics about the scenario, which, in this case, has been completely lackadaisical, a situation I’m sure is very atypical.  The fastest I’ve written a screenplay from beginning to end was ten weeks. I took two, somewhat chaotic, years over this one, my first version lost to a hard drive failure and subsequent work developed in economic circumstances akin to Wile E. Coyote running from one piece of falling cliff face to the next in a bid to cross the crashing void and reach a place of safety before completing his long fall. It’s not fair, but it never is, no matter how much you wish it were; all I did was once volunteer to write a script on spec, using a producer’s idea. I was, therefore, introduced by another writer to that producer at long distance to discuss the opportunity that had been offered to him. The other writer had made some preliminary notes before deciding to pass on the job, feeling the genre, the subject matter, something about the idea was not a comfortable fit for him.

You may have read that referrals are the way to really get work as a screenwriter. Could be!

Though I have made all-too-sporadic efforts to market original spec scripts I have written, such as using InkTip after a contest win, and a couple of calls to production companies, where I was greeted well, or long-distance pitching via The Happy Writers, and these efforts have resulted in a few  read requests from producers and directors on the make, none of these have resulted in an option or sale for me, just a few pats on the back.

However, I finally presented a treatment of the tailor-made script to the producers last month. Luckily, they’re still motivated to make the movie, and now, the first steps toward drafting a contract have now been made; we’re signing a deal memo.  More on that in a moment.

People often ask what a treatment is, and, as is so often the case, I would refer them to the wit and wisdom of Terry Rossio’s Wordplayer column where the topic is covered. I didn’t agonize over form when I prepared my treatment for this script. I just thought of it as a summary with script samples sprinkled in. I had written the script in Movie Outline, so it was already organized into numbered steps with summary points I would print out to use as headers. Then, without even the need to know if the producers prefer Macintosh or PC personal computers, I built up the treatment by fleshing out the descriptions a little more and, in many of the steps, sprinkling in a representative scene so they could get a clear feel, not only for how the storyline progressed, but for how I was handling the characters, dialogue, description, and action.

I did this for one simple reason. We had not talked about money in any specific sense when we had our phone chat, and the producer of development answered my initial questions about their ideas. There was a vague agreement that this would be a paying gig IF they adopted my script for development. Having completed a script, I didn’t want to just hand it over.  I’m fortunate, in that I’m dealing with what  seem to be real nice and straightforward people, but, so am I, and I had worked on the script quite a lot, contributing my ideas for how to make happen in the story, the list of things they wanted to see happen.

As it turns out, the company is not a signatory to the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), but they seem to want to treat me on those terms, so they are, if this whole thing materializes, treating me much more generously than I expected — or than they have to.  That’s, again, lucky for me, and potentially a huge relief, because I’m finding it increasingly difficult to stay in the day-to-day workforce in recent years, to the point where I am actively trying to establish alternative income sources. (That set of projects have been keeping me very busy in recent months, actually. I hope to have more to say about that, later, because what I have in mind to do, in the next stage, is to build an immensely valuable online tool for screenwriters. It’s a vast project, now in progress.)  At any rate, the deal memo I was given to sign is very simple, and would not fit the description given in This Business of Screenwriting, an educational and practical book which I recommend keeping nearby in case you need it for reference. Author Ron Suppa, Esq., states that a deal memo is typically binding and can serve as a substitute for a contract. I did not insist on getting a document so detailed as that. I have a promise to pay me and credit me if the producers manage to raise the budget to make the movie they have in mind, and it also promises a contract. I see no need to have a lawyer look at such a simple proclamation; the contract itself may be a different story. That’s when we really should include such details as terms for royalties and residuals…

So now, I’ve been asked what I want from the deal, and I’ve explained my desires. Ballpark sums (floors and ceilings) for my pay have been arrived at, and I have, on paper, what amounts to a promise to hire me and pay me IF they can raise the budget to make the movie. My obligations are basically clear, and so are theirs. The deal memo is a skimpy, two-page letter which specifies that a more detailed contract will be made out as budget materializes. The screenwriter pay amounts are specified as to a low budget pay range for me as screenwriter (if they put together a financing package which is under $5 million dollars) and a pay range for a high budget (if they succeed in raising a budget that’s above $5 million). The memo states I will receive screenwriter credit and be retained for a rewrite and a polish, as needed, when the movie production is under way.

I’m not going to spell out the details of this pending deal, which I regard as being only potential good news (which I’m glad for, but it is a long way from money in the bank right now). I’m always amazed, though, at how many writers I’ve met who are fantasists,  imagining, because of some exceptional deals they’re read about in press articles, that they’re going to become overnight millionaires from screenwriting. Curious, then, that they do not even bother to learn about the business aspects of screenwriting at all. There’s a new MBA the WGA is about to vote on, to take effect May 1, 2014, eight days from this writing.  You can see the current MBA, and a lot of other contractual document forms, prepared by the WGA, here.

Aside from money considered as total sums, screenwriters need to be business-like in making out their own budgets, for both living and tax purposes. Those large totals aren’t paid out at once, for one thing. They’re paid in “step” deals, which specify percentages of total fees to be paid at different stages of production. Taxes can eat up 25%-40% of the gross sums offered as pay on MBA deals. Every business person knows it can be an advantage to have payments span more than one year, to lower the rate paid for a given year. What if you have a deal made via an agent? Deduct another ten percent. Manager (who can pull stings, but cannot legally “sell,” as an agent can)? Deduct another 15%. Attorney? Take out another five-ten percent, depending on their policy. A screenwriter can potentially end up netting 25% or less of the sums involved in their “deal.”

As usual, another Wordplayer column explains quite well  the risks vs. rewards of writing original stories on speculation vs. what I’ve essentially done here, writing. an assignment. The difference is, I’m playing in a little pond where I’m not going to get anything up-front, I can only expect a first payment once money is raised and production begins; it’s in the memo.  At any rate, for once in my life, I “got the memo.” Now, the thing is to keep moving,  keep planting seeds, and trying to make this thiing called “life” as healthy and long-lasting as I can, fingers crossed in hopes civilization holds together in the meantime.

Peace out.


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