Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tinseltown's "Third Party Rule" for screenplays; and a wayward approach to submissions

While I lived in Minneapolis, I was active in the Screenwriter’s Workshop (link now is this) which would meet in various groups periodically to review scripts in progress, usually five pages at a time. The most promising scripts would be chosen for table readings, and then for performance with actors in a theater, like Kerasotes Block E downtown, or sometimes the Jungle Theater near Lake Street. One practical issue was that, to be accessible in readings, scripts generally needed to follow the accepted three-part structure without too much in the way of flashbacks or “back stories”, otherwise audiences, without actually watching the film, would just get lost.

The Twin Cities (where I lived 1997-2003) was actually a good place for indie film, with many projects, a chapter of IFP (now the Center for Media Arts) or Intermedia Arts with its “Flaming Film Festivals” showing one of my little clips, and particularly Josh Margolis’s gender bending comedies), and a Minnesota Film Board. It sponsored an Academy Awards AIDS benefit at the State or Orpheum theaters downtown on Hennepin, and offered local filmmakers a Mayberry award. It had indie comedy actor Jeff Gilson (“Great Lakes” with its great line “does this count as a job interview?”) and director Jon Springer with his Cricket Films (“Heterosapiens”, “The Hymens Parable”), and apparently good access to Canadian producers. I once tried out for a part in the indie war horror film “The Retreat” (dir. Darin Heinis, 2002).

When I came back to the DC area in 2003, I found much less, but the Arlington Public Schools has offered a series of screenwriting classes taught by Carolyn Perry.

The point of all of this is to ponder who an aspiring writer really can promote his or her ideas, often in the form of spec scripts. In practice, it seems like one of the most important components of any sales strategy has to be networking in the real world, and living in an area where this is practical, or figuring out the networking with meetup or social networking sites (like Facebook) which I am just beginning to look at.

That brings me to the next point: you can’t just send scripts to studios. Just like you don’t send book manuscripts directly to publishers. Sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it. Usually, you have to find and go through an agent to have something considered by people with “real money”. That’s what Hollywood calls “The Third Party Rule.”

I heard about this first in the Minneapolis groups, with accounts of unsolicited mail returned to sender, unopened. The studios can’t even look at the loglines or taglines of unsolicited manuscripts. I've also heard that anyone can set himself or herself up as an "agent", as the "third party." Maybe I should. Or does this just create a "mutual admiration society"?

I had seen the Pakastani film “In the Name of God”, directed by Shoaib Monsoo at the DC International Film Festival in April of this year (see Apr 29 on this blog). I wrote an email to Lionsgate’s general email address suggesting they look at it for distribution. The next evening I got this enormously long canned email about “unsolicited submissions” (which this was not, since this film has already been completed, although it could stand some technical editing). The film obviously ought to be distributed to American audiences, and it looks like a good match for that company, known for controversial releases. Imdb still doesn’t show a distributor for it yet.

The reason for the “third party rule” would seem self-evident: studios say they don’t want to run the risk of lawsuits for copyright infringement. Of course, generally, ideas themselves are not copyrightable, but the entertainment world is filled with trademarked comic series and characters, trademarked movie franchises of sequels, and a murky legal world where there is a sense of ownership of “cash cow” blockbusters and formulas that generally make money and sell to large audiences. The practical problem generally is much more serious with the “that’s entertainment” sort of material of large studio releases filling the mall multiplexes than with the eclectic material that one finds in the arthouse of independent market. But the studios think they have to draw the line somehow. After all, even the “idea” of Batman or Superman is pretty much taken and owned. Trademark law and copyright law come together in this world.

As a result, Hollywood (and New York) developed systems for vetting material through parties that get their cut and depend on the system for a living. This is always true of bureaucracies that provide people and middlemen a living: they develop with respect to the technology known at a particular time, and then could become obsolete later. That sort of thinking helps structure the way members of guilds (actors, writers) expect to be paid, and these systems again can become insufficient when technology grows, as with the Internet.

One way for aspiring writers to get their stuff seen is to enter screenwriting contests. There have been many of them, but perhaps the best known is Project Greenlight, which was sponsored by Miramax Pictures before it was reorganized and taken over exclusively by Disney. There have been three contests so far, and I don’t see any evidence of another one yet. But quite a community built up around them. Entrants must review other screenplays, and the composite ratings sift the pool of winners down in successive rounds. (There was also a director’s contest built on a script, rather like the “48 Hour Film Project”, and it has produced some impressive work.) Another contest was sponsored by Fox and Dreamworks, called “On the Lot” where the contestants took on a succession of varied small film assignments with each week of the contest.

I entered a horror screenplay called “Baltimore Is Missing” in the third Greenlight contest, with mixed reviews. I think the concept is promising. I then posted it on my own doaskdotell.com site. I posted several small scripts, and three other features, which were called “Make the A-List”, “American Epic” and “69 Minutes to Titan.”

The first of these was largely vetted in Minnesota at the Screenwriter’s workshop before I moved back. The use of flashbacks did cause confusion, as the other writers in the group were challenged with following the complexity of the material from week to week from 5-page segments. The first two of these are scenarios for bringing the material in my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book to the screen, but would require large budgets. The third of these is a sci-fi story with very controversial social problems explored, and has attracted some comments.

The obvious, or at least logical question, is, have I end-rounded the “third party rule” by posting my own screenplays in a public space? If I then submitted them, would studios say that the story concepts or even loglines were compromised by their previous public posting? I honestly don’t know. Someone always has the legal right to post and distribute material he owns and wrote, as far as copyright law goes – unless there is another legal issue, such as disclosure of trade secrets, libel (which can happen in fiction), obscenity, HTM (which is no longer an issue because of the COPA rulings), or possibly, with some reasoning twists, enticement. It’s an interesting question that is created by the World Wide Web and search engines, and has been around for a dozen or so years, even before social networking sites were invented.

I do know that a few agents’ sites (at least one, apparently for horror films) say that they can work with material “online.” But I don’t know if this addresses the question of public searchability.

If a visitor knows, I would appreciate a comment.

I do have several other scripts which are not posted online and (except for one) have not been. However, I am planning to discuss the “story concepts” of one of them in comparison to a well-known recent film (actually one in more than one version) soon. It is helpful to me to see if I can put down on paper what would make a spec script “work”.

Much of the material is related to my books, at least in a non-linear fashion. The books are already publicly known, as are their basic arguments. What is less known is what storytelling techniques could really translate it to the screen, whether a conventional feature or conceivably a cable series. But how proprietary is something like this? It is still so “eclectic” that no one else could possibly “steal it” the way someone could “steal” a story from DC Comics. So the whole “third party” concept seems unnecessary to me.

One other point: I know that movie reviewers generally avoid giving away "spoilers" or revealing plot payoffs. With some movies viewed as "entertainment," that may be a big deal. I don't generally decide to see or not to see a movie based on knowing the ending. On IMDB, usually there are spoiler warnings in plot summaries, but the message boards below often discuss ambiguities or controversies in a movie's ending.

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