In a conversation with one of my writing clients recently, I stumbled into a strange point. It’s one that I think everyone out there who aspires to write in Tinseltown needs to know, thus, I’m going to share it with you all today.
Here’s the set up:
This client had just given me the latest draft of one of her scripts, and it turned out really, really well. I suggested a few small tweaks, but a lot of our talk revolved around how great a job she had done, how everything was working so much better now, how the characters were much more emotional, the plot line dynamic, etc.
Anyway. After a few more minutes of celebratory whoo-ha, she said something to the extent of: “Boy, I am just so glad to be done with this script! It’s finally over! All that’s left to do is sell it!”
“Yeah,” I said laughing, “except once you do, you’ll get lots of notes. That’s always fun.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. After a while, I heard her say:
“Um, yeah,” I said, all the fun having been unequivocally sucked out of this phone call. “If you get a network to buy this, you’ll need to make rewrites for them. That’s how it works.”
Another long pause, this one more awkward than the last …
“But … why?” She squeaked out. “The script is good. You like it. And if they buy it, that means they like it, too. Why would they want to change my vision??”
Ugh. These are the parts of my job that aren’t fun. Because contrary to popular belief, I do not relish having to shatter people’s perception of reality. However, everyone deserves to know the truth of things, at least that’s what I believe.
Look, a Hollywood writer’s job is to create the initial script for a potential movie or TV series, yes. They are the original auteurs in the process … the ones who get the ball rolling and who set the framework for the art that is to come.
But I have news for all you aspiring scribes out there—you rarely, if ever, get final say. Unless you are independently wealthy and can finance an entire film or season of television by yourself, you are actively seeking someone to buy your project. To pay all the costs that are involved in producing it for the screen. And when someone drops dollars on your material, that inherently means you are giving up control of it. It’s no longer (entirely) yours.
You, nameless, faceless person reading this article, the one with the script that you dream one day of selling. You are looking for a boss.
That’s literally what writing a “spec script” means, y’all. You are writing something on the “speculation” that you’re going to get paid for it. You are hoping and wishing and praying that someone is going to read your words, feel like your story has the potential to make money for their company, and pay you a yet-to-be-determined sum of bills for the ability to exclusively control it.
Take heed of exactly what I said in that last sentence: the studio/network of your imagination is not paying you for the right to produce your work exactly as you have written it at the time of sale. They are paying you to control the rights.
Which means only one thing:
There are going to be notes.
Lots and lots of notes.
Let’s pretend for just a second that you are the author of a kickass spec TV pilot. Your manager papers the town with your script, and low and behold, you get a bite! There’s a network out there that likes the material. You officially have a ball in the Hollywood lottery. You might get a sale here.
Now, let’s break down exactly what this means for those of you who are just starting out.
(And before I go any further … I cannot say that EVERY company works like what I am about to describe, but in my experience [ten years working on the development side of the business], this is the most common scenario.)
Likely, this means that a low-level executive (a manager or director … the two lowest people on the totem pole) read your script and didn’t think it absolutely sucked. In fact, they kinda liked it. For 98% of you reading this, you’re almost always going to be read by lower-level execs. Even if your agent or manager submits you to an SVP, the director, manager or *gasp* even someone’s assistant is going to hold your fate in their hands.
“But, but … why would that happen?” you ask. Well, it’s because that SVP who received your script has a lot better things to do than read some random submission by an unknown, baby writer. They have actual work they need to be doing on higher priority submissions (aka written by people with actual credits), and active projects in development or even production. This is why "low-level" execs exist. These jobs are tailor-made to take pressure off the higher-ups. They do the work their bosses can’t handle. Which means that at some point during the week (usually a Friday), your script will be passed down to them. It is up to them to decide if your material lives or dies.
This isn’t necessarily a problem, because as long as someone inside the company likes your work, you have a shot. But lower-level execs don’t (usually … again, I haven’t worked at every company in Hollywood, there might be exceptions) have buying power. They do not have the authority to pay you money for your work. They need to get a higher-level executive on board (generally these are SVPs, but can also be EVPs). Which means that someone else internally needs to read your script, see potential in it to make money, and agree to buy it.
But let’s just assume for argument’s sake that this all happens. The manager convinces someone with power that your script is good, the network wants to buy your show, the contract is hammered out (this usually takes six months or so, but that’s a whole different article), and all the Ts are crossed and Is dotted. You’ve got a sale. Congratulations!
Now the real work begins.
Because guess what? That manager who was responsible for getting you paid, the one who you owe your entire career to for making this monumental moment happen for you … they have thoughts on your story. Things they want changed. Characters they want tweaked. And that SVP that they brought onto the team? They have thoughts, too. Entirely different things they want changed, and characters they want tweaked. And if you want to get your show to air, you’re going to need to make those changes. The studio owns your work. Not you.
You have become, ostensibly, an employee.
So, you get to work. You do a new draft. And then a rewrite. And a second rewrite. And then a polish. Maybe even an unpaid draft because you realllllyyyy want this show to be filmed. The process takes months and months, but finally, you’ve exhausted all your steps and the execs on your team are happy with the script.
Hooray! It gets made now, right?
… not quite.
The executives submit it to their boss (generally, EVP or President level) to see if they like it. If they don’t, well, you’re dead in the water. Almost always the rights will revert back to the writer, and the manager can try to pitch it elsewhere, but this almost never ends in success. The other studios and networks will (generally) see that it didn’t work at its original home, and say, “Why would I want someone’s sloppy seconds? There must be something wrong with it.” This doesn’t always happen, but it’s the vast majority of cases in my experience.
Let’s say that the EVP likes your work. Great! They have thoughts on it, too. And you know what that means …
More notes. Awesome.
Fast forward to a few more months later. You’ve written the script with the EVP's notes, and they like it. You get an order for series. It’s time to find a director to helm this baby!
That person’s gonna have notes. More writing.
Oh, and casting is gonna get to work finding your lead protagonist.
That person’s gonna have notes. Make more changes, pronto.
And if there isn’t a producer onboard this series yet, you’re gonna need one of those.
Do I need to keep going here, or has my point been made?
I don’t mean to discourage any of you bright-eyed youngins out there. But I do want to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into by pursuing a writing career. Thinking that when you mark "FINAL" in your script’s file name means that you’re done with it is simply not correct. And believing that if you are lucky enough to sell something means you won’t ever have to take and apply notes is delusional.
There are seldom few scribes who reach the level where they do not have to bow to the whims of a buyer when it comes to notes (and some might argue their work actually suffers without this outside perspective). Is it possible that one of you reading this will be successful enough to become that person? Yes. Is it likely? No, not by a million years.
So, if you hate the idea of bending to the whim of people in suits working for a studio or network, then perhaps you should look into a different form of writing. But even books have publishers, and publishers give notes, too. Of course, there’s always self-publishing, but that route means you’ll need to do all of the added work (marketing, cover design, etc.) on your own. And if you don’t have the platform to market your story successfully, and nobody reads it, then what was the point of that decision?
I want you all to learn this very important lesson: writing is rewriting. Professional writing is rewriting. You will have to make changes to your story, at some point or another, that you might not want to. And this precious script that you have soaked your life into may, by the end of the process, look nothing like the draft that you originally sold. The one you fell in love with. This is just how the world works, for better or worse.
Unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy and can fund a whole movie completely on your own dime. In which case, what the hell are you reading this for? Go make your film!
*Feature Image: Portrait of Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos by Francisco Goya / Wikimedia Commons