by Leah Griesmann
Brooke Wharton, Entertainment Attorney, is also author of a guidebook for screenwriters called The Writer Got Screwed.
Now wait a minute! For those of you whose sensibilities have been immediately offended by the use of the A-word, think again. The fact is, I first met Brooke as a student at USC Graduate School of Screenwriting, where I was required to take her Law Class as a first-year screenwriter. Engrossed in my creative ambitions, myopic with my commitment to exploring human nature through drama, the last thing I wanted just then was to be force-fed torts and precedent. I resisted, I struggled, I nearly flunked the class.
But a mere two years later, creative ambitions still intact, when I had begun earning my living as a working writer, paying my rent through the product of my words, the scenarios Brooke had first discussed kept coming back to me. Copyrights and contracts were no longer soporific jargon; they had become my day to day, bread and butter reality.
There are many issues that affect aspiring writers, particularly as the entertainment industry grows more amorphous, and the traditional routes and boundaries no longer hold. And with each new column of The Write Angle, these questions will be considered and adressed. But to kick off our discussion, let’s go right to the source – Hollywood – screenwriters and the career issues they face- Brooke Wharton talking about her book – The Writer Got Screwed.
FILMDEPENDENT: The title of your book – The Writer Got Screwed- has such a familiar ring to it unfortunately. It seems like the writer’s position has existed throughout history to fulfill this particular construct.
BROOKE WHARTON: I believe it relates to two separate things. One time a while ago I was negotiating a deal and at the end we all just looked at each other and admitted, “the writer got screwed.” But also it speaks to the writer’s position in the industry. The writer is never recognized or compensated commensurately for her or his contribution. But the writer is enormously important to the industry as it exists now, and as more venues are created in which writers’ product can be bought, sold, or exhibited, writers will become even more important. The word “content-driven” really means “writer-driven.”
FILMDEPENDENT: How much does this relate to the influence of Hollywood on would-be fiction and drama writers; the fact that we now have a rising generation of writers who are actually cutting their teeth on screenplays?
BROOKE WHARTON: It’s not the industry raising screenwriters, it’s writers looking to join this industry. The industry remains just as aware, if not more aware, of writers in other forms. Studios watch publishing, they find hot books right off the galleys, and playwrights are heavily recruited. The Entertainment Industry has a love affair with playwrights because their work is so character-driven.
FILMDEPENDENT: What kind of writers do you represent?
BROOKE WHARTON: I would say 85-90% of my clients are writers working in the entertainment industry, many beginning, in TV or books, or hyphen-writers, as in writer-directors or writer-producers.
FILMDEPENDENT: I’m sure some of our readers are wondering what a lawyer could possibly be doing with beginning writers. You’re not an agent, and yet you represent clients who are screenwriters. What is this alliance exactly, and how did it begin?
BROOKE WHARTON: The way I got involved with them, is actually a result of my own background as an artist–as a classical musician. When I got out of music school I had received an aesthetic and technical education but I didn’t have any knowledge about business. I didn’t know how to protect my work or deal in an industry that was all business. I decided to go to law school and come back and work with artists because there was such a dearth of information.
I joined a firm and ended up getting a call from USC to create a course for their screenwriting students to learn about the business side. It seemed stupid that there was no book out there. There’s a cottage industry around getting people in to the business, the writing for Hollywood, and most of this information is false. My lawyer role with my clients started taking on a more managerial quality when most of the agents I was hooking them up with weren’t doing their duties.
I work with many people in the emerging stages of their career, and I’ll be involved in introducing them and linking them up with agency representation or creative executives in a position to hire writers. I’ll advise them, read their work, and give them the format to move a career into the entertainment industry. My book really adresses this process.
FILMDEPENDENT: The first part of your book adresses legal issues initially faced by writers who have a property, such as copyright, contracts, WGA registration, and the issue of privacy. Which of these do you think it is most important for a aspiring career writer to understand?
BROOKE WHARTON: Well they are all important, but I think that the most primal worry of a writer with a completed script is, “I don’t want someone to steal my idea.” Urge your readers to not worry about having their ideas stolen. It’s much more important for them to have their work read.
(FILMDEPENDENT: Note: Readers-do not worry about having your ideas stolen)
BROOKE WHARTON: What I mean by that is, copyright protects the fixed and tangible expression of ideas, not an idea itself. A writer is hired for the written expression of ideas. Secondly, it is important to know about living people–to insure that if you are writing autobiographical material for example, that the people are fictionalized as much as possible so that you are not sued for libel. Thirdly, contracts are of the utmost importance. For anyone, anywhere it is important to understand that you have an agreement that states when and how you are going to be compensated. This part of the book adresses basic things that every writer should have a working understanding of.
FILMDEPENDENT: The second section of the book talks about the different kinds of representation writers can seek out- big agents, little agents, lawyers and managers…
BROOKE WHARTON: Writers worry too much about the agency rather than the actual agent. No one cares if the agency is big or small. It’s the work that they do.
FILMDEPENDENT: The third section I thought was particularly interesting. It describes the different scenarios for being hired as a writer- whether it’s selling a screenplay or getting a staff job on TV. Can you talk about a couple of different scenarios for writers earning money beginning with a finished piece of work?
BROOKE WHARTON: There are two primary scenarios for getting hired from a piece of work. Two things generally happen. One, a script goes out and sells, which is very unlikely. Two, a well-written script is well-received by people in the industry, and though the script itself doesn’t sell commercially, it enjoys a long life as a sample script. The person reading it says to themself, “what we have here is a great writer,” and eventually the writer is invited to meetings and the writer is put on a “short list” of writers who are categorized–action-adventure, romantic, whatever, categories filled by writers they like. These writers are remembered when they are hiring writers for a job.
FILMDEPENDENT: What about the quality of writing. You insist through the book that good writing, and writers with passion will prevail.
BROOKE WHARTON; I believe that. When the writing has a voice and the reader recognizes this and says, “this is good writing.” This happens when writers write something that they are passionate about.
FILMDEPENDENT: OK, but I’m still skeptical that this means it sells.
BROOKE WHARTON: Maybe it doesn’t sell but it gets them writing assignments. My experience has brought me to that conclusion. Good writing is hard to define. I think what you’ll see in good writing is uniqueness, or freshness, an interesting human way of looking at the person, a universal trugh within the story. I can’t tell you the amount of writers I have worked with where this kind of script gets them in the door, and though it might never be made, the people still want to employ them as a writer.
FILMDEPENDENT: But on that note, many aspiring film people, screenwriters included, are now looking towards independent film rather than Hollywood because it seems more….creative, diverse, inviting.
BROOKE WHARTON: Sure, there’s that “not wanting to participate in anything LA” attitude but yes they do kind of want to, at least where financing is concerned. There are so many different types of Hollywood now, that there is enormous room for getting financing for a product. The industry is inclusive at this point. One example is I previously worked with the createor of a small documentary film about a lesbian marriage called “Chicks in White Satin,” who was called up by Disney! There is no firm, one-vision Hollywood any longer. Even the people who made “Crumb” have an office in Beverly Hills.
(FILMDEPENDENT: Note: Take that Zwigoffiliacs)
FILMDEPENDENT: Lastly, let’s talk about financial planning of an aspiring screenwriter because this is supposed to be a fiduciary column and somehow I don’t think we’re talking 401k’s.
BROOKE WHARTON: You might make a killing one year, and the next five you’re out of work. I represent people making zip money and people making millions. The only mid-range people who exist are the episodic writers in entry-level positions, who earn a pretty high yearly salary. But this is a very good time to be a writer. And in the entertainment industry, let’s face it, successful writers are compensated better than they are in any other medium. There’s a reason playwrights end up doing work for TV. With new content-driven industries created by the internet, there are still more opportunities for writers. I’m serious–this is a very good time for writers.
FILMDEPENDENT: And a good time for readers as well–The Writer Got Screwed by Brooke Wharton:, published by Harper Collins, currently available in bookstores everywhere. A useful primer for aspiring writers, and at $22.00 hardback, it’s still only about a hundredth the cost of the USC course.