Terry Rossio’s Time Risk in 11.5 minutes instead of 150

Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem
So I just finished an excruciating page-1 rewrite of Whose Wife Is It Anyway for Zero Draft Thirty.
I thought I’d take a glorious week off. Do some yoga. Meditate. Bake. Paint. Take deep slow nourishing breaths.
HA!
My friend Hudson Philips posted this on the Facebook group for ScriptBlast.
Terry Rossio, writer of Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, wrote an article called ‘Time Risk’ for his excellent site ‘Wordplayer’.
I read. I cried. I read some more. Cried some more. And now I want to get to work.
This article really made my head spin and it hasn’t stopped spinning yet.
I thought I’d do other time-poor writers a solid and write a Cliff Notes version. Feel free to suggest amendments.

What’s the one take-away?

Spend time making films, not trying to get films made.
That is, with the cameras rolling. When cameras are rolling, brands are built and power accumulates.
The assumption here is un-produced work is perhaps a paycheck but does not build a writer’s brand. (I only call it an assumption because I imagine tons of people have different beliefs. I believe this assumption myself.)
Damn. Makes me want to go out and get an Arriflex right now.

What is time risk?

Time risk = time spent on task (divided by) probability of said task resulting in writer brand-building, career stability or worst-case scenario, money (I know, Mr. Rossio has high standards for us.)

What kind of time-risks do other players have, compared to screenwriters? 

Directors

Directors can direct a hit feature and almost certainly be asked to do another, though it may not be something they are nutty about. They can direct a string of hits and become major league players who get to choose what they want to do next e.g. Spielberg, Nolan, Cameron, etc. Rarefied air indeed.
If they direct a flop film, they do land in movie jail.
Note – this is only with regards to features. I don’t think this language of flops and hits exists in the short film world, which are directing samples much like specs.

Actors

Actors are all looking for that big break. A lead on a hit film or TV show can instantly book tons more projects. If even one of these is a hit, it leads to even more.
Their foes:
  1. Time risk at the beginning is enormous: auditions, preparation, classes, etc. But the payoff, as described above is EPIC.
  2. Competition.
  3. Age (mostly for women – it’s a fact, don’t shoot me).
A working actor’s job also has lower time-risk in a few other ways:
  1. Their work usually starts when the camera is rolling i.e. onmaking films.
  2. Their time commitment to a project might be measured in months, not years. I’ve spent four years on Whose Wife alone. Gah.
  3. They can do multiple projects in a year due to this relatively lower time commitment.
Once they hit the big time:
  1. Much like directors, they might not always do work they like. But if they get really big, they get to choose.
  2. They might even charge a reading fee (just to read but not commit to the script). This further mitigates time risk.

Producers

Of all of the monkeys in the circus, I feel the most kinship with this one. With a few differences.
  1. We commit to one, maximum two projects per year. They commit to numbers in the double digits. Hedging their bets.
  2. Most of their work happens after the deal goes through. And they are paid for it. Ours – well, anyone who’s written a spec will know what a beast it is. And we’re only paid after the script is sold or optioned. And sometimes…not even then (wait till you see what I have in store for you.)
  3. They sometimes don’t even read the screenplay. They might have only read coverage.
  4. The writer faces that blank page with an idea and faith in that idea alone. We’re betting on our good judgment. The producer would likely only read the script after it was recommended by a trusted source. Raising the writer above the competition. He likely has more knowledge whether the finished project will work or not in the marketplace. Again elevating the writer. Then and only then does his/her work begin.

Agents:

All I could glean is that it is not the agent’s job to produce. It is their job to manage ‘heat, maximising pay-off when a project or writer generates interest.’ So after a writer does her job and a producer does hers, then the agent steps in and really blows it up. Right? No idea. Yet.
Okay, here we go. Clutch your pearls.

Screenwriters cop the most time-risk. Why?

Most of our work happens before cameras roll. By definition, we really get the short end of the time risk stick.
I tried looking for patterns, but realized that what we all want to know: Is there anything I can do? If so, what?
The only things we can control are our actions. So I divided the time liabilities by what we do to ourselves, what others do to us and things that no one can anticipate.
So here goes.

Things we do to ourselves.

Writing on Spec: Of course we all know what the time risk here. We’re faced with it everyday. The odd thing even pro writers are often asked to write on spec. WTH.
 
Free Revisions: Essentially it’s work for free for people who do not deserve it. Both factors must exist for this to be time risk. Free work. And the people must really not deserve it – bad notes, revisions are only a stalling tactic etc.
 
The Agent Hoop: Agents giving you notes when we are the experts here.
Assignment chasing: Essentially this is a job interview, which is enough to give me the shakes (I was laid off twice, fired once. Thank you, Recession). But it’s much WORSE than a job interview. You have to review materials – think of comic books that have editions stretching back decades. You have to develop a take. That won’t tick off fans but will hit all the right ‘boxes’. It’s enough to drive you potty.
The Free Outline: Unpaid work. Always a time risk
Giving notes: more unpaid work. But this time for friends. It’s awesome and fulfilling to help out friends. But there comes a point, I think, when it becomes a time risk.
There’s an old saying in Hollywood: “Get them into your film before they get you into theirs.”

Things other people do to us.

Death by Sale – a company might buy your script to hedge their bets and do jack with it. If we sell, we put all our eggs in one basket.
“Sell the screenplay, transfer the copyright, the day cameras roll, not before.” – Ram Bergman, producer (Looper, Brick, Don Jon)
Getting fired: Despite the fact that everyone who signs on does so because of the script, the person most likely to get fired for one reason or another…is the screenwriter.
Credit arbitration: The first time I’m thinking about it this way. When multiple writers are used on a screenplay, this naturally leads to credit disputes. The WGA limits the number to four and stratifies them according to who got there first. Not letting the un-credited writers leverage the produced film into their brand. Which is a huge bummer.
Sweepstakes Pitching: Oddly enough I think I was landed with this one recently. I guess I’ve arrived right? Arf.
Sounds like the studio opens it up, knowing that only one can be hired. Another way of hedging their bets. Sometimes there is no assignment a.k.a. The Phantom Assignment. Sometimes they’ve already chosen their writer and are simply mining ideas from the pitches that, if not written down, will show up in the next draft of the project. Sometimes they are leaning towards one writer.
The Rights Hustle: You think they have the rights to something branded, but they don’t.
Hidden Previous Materials Boogie: You think you are the first and the last on a project, but you weren’t (this is sounding a lot like a country music song.) Leading to a messy credit arbitration.
The Vanity Option: A movie star’s pet project (yours) is humored to stroke the ego of ssif star. Nothing ever comes of it. But no one will tell you that.
Parallel Draft Deal: asking one or more writers to write their take on an idea. Sweepstakes writing, rather than pitching.
The Round table: Writing in a round-table. May not be a bad thing, but when it comes to credit arbitration?
Contract delays: Nobody gets paid unless those freaking documents are signed.
Turnaround costs: Projects that die can be sold to other studios. Sometimes the first-buyer studio can charge a thumping sum or are just plain difficult to deal with.
Lawsuits: Apparently successful films are always sued. God.
Whims: Well. You can guess this one.
Gone in 60 seconds: A concept spoken about verbally is stolen.

Circumstance

 
The Boxed In Draft: Your draft is boxed in by the tastes of a high-powered player (director or actor, from what I’ve heard).
Pitching up the ladder: Us first-timers are unlikely to meet people at the top – the one who really makes the decisions. We are likely the people lower down who, if they like it, pitch to their boss. Then they bring us in to pitch to their boss. If they like it, so on and so forth….Lots of potential for rejection.
Note Delays: 
 In Hollywood, it’s well-accepted that projects in production take priority, then films in pre-production, then films in post, and after that, new projects.
That means that we get pushed to the back-burner. This is especially significant if a step must be executed for us to be paid.
Developmental Art: Might work in spades. Might also cost a lot of time and money.
The Competing Project
The Child Killing Gorilla: An executive who takes over from another and murders all their children (figuratively) i.e. their projects.
The Hit Song: We need more than one hit. We can’t be Milli Vanillis.
Option Expiration: Studio options an IP (not buys it). We get called in to write a script. Option expires before script achieves escape velocity (first day of principal photography). Now studio no longer owns IP. You would think that we could sell the script to the next owner. Nope. They can’t even read it for fear of plagiarism suits if they don’t buy it. Lord have mercy.
Learning curve: Man, it takes long enough learning this stuff.

What can screenwriters do about time-risk? 

Answer: spend time making movies, not trying to get films made.

This means becoming a hyphenate, whether we like it or not. Believe me, I don’t like it myself. But those doors slamming shut in my face are starting to ring in my ears. I’m starting to be frightened of my inbox. From those e-mails that start ‘Thank you for your submission!’ <—- notice the guilty exclamation mark.
We all know what they REALLY mean when they say ‘thank you’.

If you have a career:

Start and finish: If you’ve originated a concept – write a book so you own the IP. Insist on being a producer so again you’re attached to the IP.  Or if it’s the tail end of a project, write production rewrites, so you know your work will be filmed. It’s the middle that’s commonly termed ‘development hell’.
Pitch as high up the ladder as possible.
Double-book – train your agent to always be lining up jobs. Given the Hollywood machine – it’s hardly likely you’ll have two jobs at a time.
Prepare for the ‘You’re Dumped’ phone call – The phone call that lets you know that any or all of the above things have happened and your time has just been wasted. The hardest part is the person on the other end will likely be excited that their project is further along.

If you don’t have a career yet:

Make friends with sellers, sell to buyers: The buyers are the ones who greenlight pictures. Everyone else, even in their production company, is trying to get them to do so. So really we’re all in the same boat, just with various levels of access. Until you reach the seller, it’s relationship building, not selling.
Stop-loss: put an expiration date on your project.
Own your IP – write the book or the play instead. Then you own the original IP.
Ask the right questions. 
Spend your time risks – at the beginning of your career, we have time to burn. Use it wisely.
Stack: Work on two projects at a time. Maximise pace and benefit by working on one project with a partner or playing producer and outsourcing a concept to another writer.

General good sense: 

Make a movie, anyway, anyhow. Get your name on that screen however we can. More importantly:
Become a director. I’ll let Mr. Rossio say it himself.
“Either become a director, or form a team with a director. But better to become a director. And not a writer who directs, but a director who happens to write.”
When I asked if we should turn our focus away from screenwriting:
Be the Cohen brothers. Learn to direct as well as write. Concentrate on learning both crafts.
Television – Television is harder to break into but more stable once we get there.
Sequels: If you’re choosing between two ideas and one of them has sequel potential…Ocean’s Eight. Need I say more?
Give upwardly mobile notes: notes can be like a job interview.
Avoid the Money Guy like the plague: This is someone who doesn’t have the money, but claims they do from some rich recluse somewhere. Always boasts about something big they did previously. Always negotiating their cut.
Make incremental progress : one task a day rather than racing towards a deadline (that actually would never work for me. But to each his own.)
Start an animation studio: Because all you need is an idea, some clay, a kitchen table and a camera that takes good stills. Which is probably all cameras these days.
Is your head spinning yet? Mine is.
Once it stops spinning, I’m going to ruminate on next steps. Maybe road-test some things in the next few months. And come up with a modified plan.
Because those ‘thank you’ emails make me want to punch someone.
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6 thoughts on “Terry Rossio’s Time Risk in 11.5 minutes instead of 150

  1. This is very well done, Sabina! I thought I would hate it, instead, I found myself thrilled to be understood. Of course, all the anecdotes and the asides of the original article help drive the points home emotionally. But this is all clear and correct.

    I do have one revision suggestion, if I may. Under the Producers section, you write:

    >> They rarely even read the script. They usually just read coverage.

    I didn’t mean to imply that. I would say, “They sometimes don’t even read the screenplay. They might have only read coverage.”

    In truth, the majority of producers will read the screenplay, or at least part of it, or at least skim in.

    Thank you for taking the time to do this. (See, there’s a thank you that actually means thank you!)

  2. Amended, using your words exactly. And you’re welcome!

    Thank you so much for being so very generous with your time and your expertise. It’s clarified what projects might be ‘worth my time’ and what isn’t – a huge problem I’ve had. And with regards to making my own movies, your article has inspired me to turn my terror into action. I hope the inspiration sticks. Thank you again!

    1. Good luck!

      If I may, your note compels me to make one more suggested change. At various points in the article I emphasize the strategy: “Become a director.” I don’t see this mentioned in your summary. Perhaps it belongs in the take action section? Either become a director, or form a team with a director. But better to become a director. And not a writer who directs, but a director who happens to write.

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