MMP 2014

Scriptwriter and Co-production Event

Julian Friedmann

MMP 2014 EVENT No. 2: THE SCRIPT WRITER AND CO-PRODUCTION - A British writers’ agent‘s point of view.

Are the problems that scriptwriters face in domestic production the same as in international co-production? Our speaker at MMP 2014, Julian Friedmann of London literary agency Blake Friedmann, started by saying that this is 90% true – so we went to find out ....

(Note: The role of the scriptwriter is seen differently by producers in the UK compared to the European Continent. But it is also true that professional scriptwriters, wherever they are, have a right to be treated by (co-)producers as discussed below. What we won't deal with will be writers as writer/directors, or directors as writers. Co-productions can also involve co-writers from different countries and cultures. Julian Friedmann’s view is that if the writer is any good they should want a better director to direct the script they have written. And if the director is any good as a director, they should want to direct a script written by a better writer than they are.)

Julian Friedmann:
The role of the scriptwriter in co-production is not a common subject for discussion, but as the proportion of international co-productions increases in the world, conflict between creativity and commerce naturally intensifies. 

Co-productions exist for mainly financial reasons, so (co-)producers’ priorities are often more about raising money from international sources than getting a great script. So how can we make sure that the scripts involved are the best possible? 

Some scripts are organically co-producible, while others are artificial financial constructions designed to make a co-production more likely. Compromise is always necessary, and the ability to achieve a correct balance will be the sign of a good (co-) producer. 

So we need to distinguish between genuine co-productions and co-financing arrangements. The former involves creative and cultural collaboration as opposed to the traditional British way of co-production, which is “Give us your money and we’ll pro- duce it” – the British are not easy to co-produce with.

In this session we are concentrating on the development phase – how you can get to the best possible script – and this from a (co-)producer’s point of view. From a writer’s point of view, this could be “know thine enemy”. 

Let’s start with a lead producer’s relationships with the other co-producers. Co-producers can fall out very easily and one is then left wondering how well they knew each other before they got married. Indeed, many people have done rather less than they claim, so one needs to prepare by knowing what it is exactly that each co-producer is bringing to the table and what each expects to get back for their contribution. 

The results are less: what can be discussed at a nice dinner, and more: what is in writing when you wake up the following morning.

Every meeting, every telephone conversation should be followed up with a confirming email, if not on paper, making sure that what you believe is what the other person believes. 

So writers talking with producers about their projects or drafts of the script, should always send a confirming email afterwards with a copy to their agent. What happens often is that a producer will call the agent claiming “I never agreed to point 4!”. The writer will say he did, and it becomes a case of sorting something out before it becomes a problem. People tend to hear what they want to hear. 

So how do you help improve your position despite being perhaps a minority producer? By working with writers who can be problem solvers, not problem creators. They should fit constructively in the team, whatever the problems that might arise – from bad notes to bad weather during shooting, a favoured actor dropping out to some of the budget not arriving... the writer who is a problem solver is someone producers can go to in times of crisis and talk constructively with.

That kind of relationship also helps increase the authority of a hands-on (co-)producer - and it doesn’t always have to involve extra pay for extra work, once that positive relationship is there.

So clear documentation of record is always valuable. 

Further, producers in co-production will come up against the question “Are you all making the same film”? If not, an early divorce is infinitely preferable. “Thriller” or “love-story”? “Arthouse” or “Commercial”? Co-production increases difference of perception among different cultures, individuals or financing bodies – all of this will affect a writer’s output.

“Writers working with several producers in a co-production will face questions of power vs. authority, influence vs. control.” 

The producers must make it clear to the writer how the writer is to relate to each of the co-producers – e.g. - can they all give notes, do they all share the same authority? The hiring producer might not be the one with the most authority.

Again, it will be useful for a writer to find out what track record these co-producers have in treating other writers. And the producer should try to get a handle not only on the best qualities of the writer, but also the worst ones – and vice versa. “If in doubt - don’t”

Don’t make the assumption that all co-producers will agree on the script. Or if a writer is bringing in his or her own spec written script, to whom should he/she relinquish final say? A frequent problem arises with re-writes: co-producer A will want certain changes and co-producer B will want other changes. So it should be clarified who has the authority to supply the notes to the writer. If there is a script editor in the co-production, it should probably be that person.

If this is not clarified the writer will end up promising more than can be delivered, or different things to different people, and another problem will have been created. 

The co-producers should contractually agree dates for script delivery and notes. 

Drafts: how changes are to be handled will normally be pre-agreed in the writer’s initial contract. But what can sometimes be puzzling – and is a problem that will probably arise through co-producers changing during the financing process and demanding fresh script changes – is what will constitute a new draft of the script, what constitutes “just” a re-write, and what is a “simple” polish? There will doubtless be differences in under- standing of the process between producers of various countries and cultures.

And where changes in geography are necessary to facilitate finance, it is up to the production and the writer to make changes that seem both organic and authentic. Faking something is possible – finding real elements is sometimes more interesting.

Fees: It is also important who will actually pay the writer - it might well not be the producer who has final say on the script.

As for termination, for an original idea brought by the writer it should be agreed that there have to be three drafts developed before they can be fired.

For an idea brought by the producer (original or adaptation) to the writer, the writer might be fired earlier, but it should be stipulated that if a percentage of the material written by the writer is used for shooting, then that part of the principal photography payment should go to the writer even though they have been fired.

If a co-producer complains that a writer does not fit, and demands that he/she is fired, then the notes given point to whether work has been carried out as required on not. But ultimate control will rest in the agreement between the contracting producer and the writer – if firing is agreed on, the co-producers have to work out among themselves who will pay the writer’s cancellation fee (usually the sum due on start of cinematography) or what is known as a “kill fee” – a (pre-)agreed amount for the writer to leave.

Then come questions of non-delivery, especially through a lack of time with (often late) multiple notes coming from co-producers. It is useful to have mutually pre-agreed fixed dates for drafts, as well as (for example) four week periods for re-writes, with notes always delivered two weeks before.

All producers like writers to be available when the producer requires it – writers on the other hand don’t like being kept hanging on and on... A writer will always be unhappy when notes come months late and the writer is in the middle of a different project. Or when a producer suddenly realizes a funding body for one of the co-producers needs a script draft very quickly. A draft delivered under such circumstances can be rubbish. Something like that is not the writer’s fault but the producer’s, and the more co-producers there are the more problems are possible (and the more expensive the legal fees!). 

Each difference in (co-)producers’ taste is also an invitation for more things to go wrong. Mutual trust and respect is essential, not only among the producers in a co-production. Making the writer an integral part of the team helps establish that kind of trust – which is also a reflection of the production’s relationship with the writer’s agent. 

Personally I think, if there is no script editor in the production, there should always be one. I think there are very, very few producers who are sufficiently script-literate, and who indeed have the time to spare to work on a script. And for co-productions, a script editor should preferably come from the language area the film is being made in..

It’s worth mentioning the question of co-producers commissioning a script analysis or report. From a writer’s point of view it would seem to me insane not to do so, but in fact very few (co-)producers actually do. Occasionally a writer will hire an independent script reader – especially when they don’t like what a (co-)producer is asking them to change.

Underlying rights are always an issue that is just as important to co-producers as to writers. Thus a writer should have right of access to all relevant agreements concerning underlying rights. as well as some idea of potential plagiarism or breach of copyright, whether in basic concept or in elements brought in by co-producers. 

Producers also might hire the wrong writer....A producer might come to an agent and ask for a writer the agent knows is wrong for a project. - whether for a first draft or a re-write. Finding the right solution is a way of avoiding even bigger problems, which might well multiply as you add further co-producers. Not all agents will be honest and say they don’t have an appropriate writer.

Exit strategies for writers: what happens when a writer wants to bow out of a project where he/she has brought the script that has undergone changes at the behest of the co-producers so that the writer no longer believes in the script?

And what happens to a writer if the producers run out of money and can’t or won’t pay? Do possible deferrals result in the writer becoming an investor? Or an official co-producer with all that would entail in Europe when e.g. a Eurimages application might be expected?

We know there are very very few great scripts. In each thousand scripts perhaps four or five will be outstanding. As agents we see fewer really bad scripts today than before, but more and more “just OK” scripts. As agents we like to work with those producers intent on raising the quality of the scripts they work with.

But even with renowned writers you might, as a producer, pay money to someone who will write a specific project really badly. Another strange phenomenon is when a producer approaches a successful book author and tells them they would like them to adapt their novel into a script. Such thinking might possibly lead to an easier path to co-production funding, but nearly always also leads to disaster. There are many script-writers who become good novelists, but very few novelists who can write a good script.

The converse can also be true: a producer finds a good script from an unknown writer and believes they will only get funding through a better-known writer being attached – or if potential co-producers claim that and raise pressure accordingly. The extra points gained for a “local” writer can swing a co-producer’s ability to access local funds. But it can lead to problems with the first writer.

Co-producers can further be obliged to spend certain amounts of funding by certain dates or such amounts are “re-possessed”, or when producers need to access money by a certain time they go into shooting before the script is ready. The majority of produced films in the US and Europe are financial failures and a large part of the reasons for this is that the finished films are just not good enough.

Which makes the film industry unfashionable for investment. As soon as a set of financing elements are in place and pre-production starts or shooting has to start, the reality that a script is not ready loses importance, and a producer will say “the director will fix it”. And when a director does not fix it, then “the editor will fix it”. Film is indeed a very dysfunctional industry.

We expect development to take much longer than is assumed, we expect underfunding, and that there is never enough time – add to this funding complications of co-producers and in sum you have a pretty weird picture.

So if a writer says he/she needs six weeks, give them eight and make sure the co-producers are in agreement, especially in matters of cut-off and turn-around provisions. 

Again, always give timely notes and keep all agreements clear and in writing.

There might be some difficulties in the area of “droit moral” between UK/US and European partners on a co-production – in one case it might be waived while in another it might be illegal to do so. Right of paternity is not waived, whereas the right of integrity can be in - for example – the UK. Co-producers’ funding bodies and bilateral national co-production agreement might require splitting of copyright – all parties in the co-production including the writer should be aware of all this..

All matters of definition should be dealt with beforehand, and not only for language variations, but also definitions such as establishment of profit , remakes, assignment, payment stages, ancillary spinoffs, and so on.

Libel readings by co-producers, reverse warranties, appropriate E&O cover – all these are relevant to the writer. 

As for writer/directors: coming from the UK, as agents we are not huge fans of such, though there are some great exceptions – in our experience they are often only as good as what they are least good at. So as brilliant directors they might end up working on their own - weak - scripts.

It is often said that the more culturally specific a subject is, the more universal – this can be generally agreed to, where an audience can believe what they are seeing is authentic in some way, and therefore they are more ready to buy into it. If you connect to an audience emotionally, if you know how to make an audience become involved, you leap over cultural barriers, making stories accessible and solving many of the problems inherent in any international co-production. 

Films are made more often because finance is raised than because a script is ready – co-production adds pressure to this..

Being good at raising money and understanding treaty, legal and other financial conditions, are all qualifications that make for a good (co-)producer, - but so is the capability of assessing a good script.

Failing to provide a proper and effective development process that enables the writer to do their very best work makes film production vulnerable.

Co-productions increase the problems faced by film writers in getting to the best script, and different parts of Europe show differing tendencies - in the UK for example, we now favour longer script development periods with much more money available, very experienced script editors, reasonable fees paid to the producers during development, and a very large number of drafts expected from the writer seen as normal – I would say certainly up to twenty.

As you work through Scandinavia, France Germany, Benelux, everything - including the length of time for development - becomes less, including the number of drafts, which average between five to ten) . In Eastern and southern Europe the development time seems to be even shorter, and without any ready money available for the producer, the number of drafts comes down to below five.

So co-producers from different regions face factors such as differing rates of writer’s pay – the UK will pay much more than Central Europe.. As more and more international co-productions are made, better methods of managing them might well be needed. Because when the co-producers have finally brought together the amount of financing required for their project – that still does mean their script is ready. 

Points raised from the floor:
Every script that has been written can be made better.
Every film that has been (co-)produced, the script could have been better. 

(transcribed and edited with agreement of speaker) © Julian Friedmann 2014