Friday, September 13, 2019

Friday the 13th Questions

Hopefully they’ll bring you good luck.

Tom in Vegas starts us off:

For those of us not in the business, what exactly is a "Spec Script?”

Tom, it’s a script that is written on speculation. In other words, no one is paying you to write it. It generally is a sample script of an existing show.

At one time producers only wanted specs of existing shows. Then the trend turned towards spec pilots. Now I’m getting the sense it’s slowly coming back the other way.

If I’m a showrunner I want to see that the writer can write in the style and voice of an existing show. He or she may have a fresh voice in pilots but I’m not looking for a fresh voice. I’m looking for someone who can adapt to my show.

Along those same line, Mike Bloodworth has a question.

I've been told that when one is trying to get on a staff he or she should not submit a script for that show, but samples of other shows they've written to demonstrate their skill, I guess this is to avoid the old, "Hey! You stole my idea!" accusation. Is this true? Or was I given bad information.

That’s one concern although if it’s submitted by an agent there’s an understanding that the writer won’t sue. I’ve talked about this before. Spec scripts will come in that are coincidentally similar to stories already in development.

Even on a general level. Their script may be Klinger falls in love with a hooker and a script already out to a writer could be the story Klinger falls in love with the general’s daughter.

Typically writers have a tough time winning these types of lawsuits. And they do it at their own risk because no one will hire them afterwards. So you damn well better win. (And some have and have ridden happily off into the sunset.)

The real concern for writers is that the showrunner and staff of that show know it so well that any tiny infraction you make will be flagged. The thought is you’re leading with your chin.

However, I don’t subscribe to this. I would MUCH rather a writer do a spec of my show. I don’t expect him to know all the ins and outs. But can he write my characters? Are his jokes funny and in the style of the show? Even if the story has flaws, is it the type of stories we tell in an approximation of the way we tell it?

I’ve been burned in the past by good spec scripts for one show and a lousy draft for mine.

From JAS:

Friday Question: I saw an article today about Adele Lim quitting the Crazy Rich Asians sequel because she was being paid 1/10 what her (white) co-screenwriter was being paid. Warner Bros. put out a statement that compensation is based on experience, etc. However, Lim seems to have a ton more experience than her co-screenwriter. The difference is that she's written a lot of TV, while her co-screenwriter's (very few) credits are on features.

As someone who has written for both TV and features, can you give an insider's take on this situation? Is it pure racism/sexism? Or is there really that much of a disparity between how Hollywood values experienced television writers versus more inexperienced feature writers? Do you think you would have made more on the movies you've written if you didn't a television resume?

I would be so far out of line to speculate whether there’s racism or sexism. But it is true that the more experience you have the more money you can generally command.

When negotiating with agents, the first thing the business affairs person will ask is what were her “quotes?” In other words, what was she paid on the last assignment? The goal is to work your way up the ladder to a high quote because it’s easier for the agent to get that price again or better it.

But at the end of the day it’s up to the studio to determine how much this writer is worth it to them. Can they lowball a writer knowing it might insult him and he could break off negotiations? If they don’t give a shit that he walks then yes. But if they need the deal to be done they won’t start with a bullshit number. The writer’s quote is the bottom line. And here again the studio has a decision. Do they want this writer enough that they’re willing to match or beat the quote?

So was racism or sexism in the equation? I have absolutely no idea. But I know this: IF a studio has a chance to screw you, pay you less money than your co-writer assuming he’ll never find out, they’ll do it every single time. Regardless of race, sex, age, experience, blood type. 

And finally, from Liggie:

A baseball question. I've heard MLB would like to expand from 30 to 32 teams, to consist of two leagues with four divisions of four teams each a la the NFL. Which cities would you like to put these hypothetical two teams, and in which league? (Assuming they can get a stadium built, of course.)

Montreal and Charlotte, North Carolina.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

EP140: Inside the Writer’s Mind

Listen to a ten-minute play that Ken wrote and hear him walk you through his thought process. Lots of creative decisions need to be made. It’s a great lesson in how you craft a comedy scene. 

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

9-11 and David and Lynn Angell

I re-post this every year on this date and always will. 

9/11 affected us all, profoundly and in many cases personally. Two of my dear friends were on flight 11. David and Lynn Angell. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought of them, missed them, and not felt grateful that they were in my life.

David and I worked together on CHEERS, WINGS, and FRASIER (the latter two he co-created). We used to call him the “dean”. In his quiet way he was the one we always looked to for final approval of a line or a story direction. He brought a warmth and humanity to his writing that hopefully rubbed off on the rest of us “schickmeisters”. And he could be funny – sneaky funny. During long rewrite sessions he tended to be quiet. Maybe two or three times a night he’d pitch a joke – but they were always the funniest jokes of the script.

For those of you hoping to become comedy writers yourselves, let David Angell be your inspiration. Before breaking in he worked in the U.S. Army, the Pentagon, an insurance firm, an engineering company, and then when he finally moved out to L.A. he did “virtually every temp job known to man” for five years. Sometimes even the greatest talents take awhile to be recognized.

I first met David the first season of CHEERS. He came in to pitch some stories. He had been recommended after writing a good NEWHART episode. This shy quiet man who looked more like a quantum physics professor than a comedy writer, slinked into the room, mumbled through his story pitches, and we all thought, “is this the right guy? He sure doesn’t seem funny.” Still, he was given an assignment (“Pick a con…any con”) and when the script came back everyone was just blown away. He was quickly given a second assignment (“Someone single, someone blue”) and that draft came back even better. I think the first order of business for the next season was to hire David Angell on staff.

After 9/11, David’s partners Peter Casey & David Lee called me and my partner into their office. There was a FRASIER script David Angell was about to write. (It was the one where Lilith’s brother arrived in a wheelchair and became an evangelist. Michael Keaton played the part.) Peter & David asked if we would write it and for me that was a greater honor than even winning an Emmy.

David’s wife, Lynn, was also an inspiration. She devoted her life to helping others – tirelessly working on creating a children’s library and a center that serves abused children.

My heart goes out to their families. To all of the families.

I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

So tragic, so senseless, and even eighteen years later, so inconceivable.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

WHY we need to stick together

Hypocrisy in Hollywood? Nooooooooo.

Studios all say that they embrace diversity and parity for women.

And then they do this:

For the CRAZY RICH ASIANS sequel the studio, Warner Brothers, approached the two writers of the wildly successful original.

Peter Chiarelli was offered between $800,000 and a million. His co-writer, Adele Lim (pictured above) was offered $110,000. Lin wisely told them to go fuck themselves.

Warner Brothers claims Chiarelli received more because he was more experienced. Here are his extensive screen credits:

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (story by)
THE PROPOSAL (written by)

At this point I should say I don’t at all blame Chiarelli. If he or anybody can get that kind of money then more power to him. He’s not the bad guy here.

But let’s look at the facts.

Adele Lim has multiple writing credits on 14 TV series. The first one coming in 2002. She’s also produced 9 TV series. Beginning in 2006.

The more experienced Chiarelli’s first writing credit is 2009.

TV used to be a step down but not anymore.  Top flight screenwriters are fleeing to television as if someone yelled "FIRE!" in a movie theatre.  

Sorry but Warner Brothers argument doesn’t hold up.

What really happened is that Warner Brothers thought they could pull a fast one.

And this is yet another reason why writers need to stick together when negotiating against studios or networks or (currently) talent agencies. If there’s a chance they could screw you they will. They’re not going to be “fair.” At the end of the day they look for any weakness and exploit it.

So I double back to the WGA faction that believes inviting the agencies back to the bargaining table and negotiating in good faith is the way to secure a fair and reputable deal. That’s the LAST THING the Guild should be doing.

So again, I urge WGA members to vote for David Goodman and his team. Make no mistake, we’re all Adele Lim in the industry’s eyes.

Monday, September 09, 2019

There is some justice in the world (not much but I'll take what we can get)

This is a follow-up to a blog post from March.  Remember that "Neil Simon Festival" theatre in Cedar City that had the unmitigated gall to charge $150 submission fees to all struggling playwrights entering their festival?  The Heritage Theatre.   I wrote about it here.

In short, I said FUCK YOU a lot and called them greedy bastards.  It was one of my more eloquent rants.

At one point I said this:

This festival has been going for about ten year, but this new insulting submission fee is new. Gee, I wonder whether they would have done it while Neil Simon was still alive. I’m guessing no because I’m also guessing that Neil Simon’s response to this would be…

Well, it turns out I was right.

The Neil Simon estate has pulled his name from the Festival and even forbid the theatre from doing any of his plays.   And the reason is the unconscionable $150 fee.

You can read that article here.

At a time where we are being screwed left and right by greedy corporations and government officials who only are looking out for their own self-interests and could give a shit about ours, at least there's this one tiny almost microscopic bit of good news.  

Oh, and if losing their affiliation with Neil Simon wasn't enough to send the Heritage Theatre reeling, I won't let them do any of my plays either.   Let's see if they survive now.  

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Weekend Post -- The WGA-Agencies Dispute & WGA election

A number of you have asked what my position is on the dispute between the WGA and talent/literary agencies. Also my thoughts on the current election of WGA officers – an election that will be decided based on the members feelings of that standoff and the way it’s being handled.

So here’s my position. 

The Guild is trying to do a heroic thing – get major agencies to stop making more money off their writer clients than the writers are making themselves. By cleverly instituting “package deals” the agencies get a bigger share of the pie than writers despite the fact that the writers do all the work. And some agencies have formed their own production companies. Can you see where that might be a huge conflict of interest? If an agent is negotiating a deal for you at their production company the agent is negotiating against himself.

Writers now work for agencies instead of the other way around.  

A similar situation occurred in the 1960’s when talent agency MCA also owned Universal. Then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy said that was illegal and broke it up. (The company chose to keep the studio and unload the agency -- a wise choice.) The WGA is going to Federal Court to try to get the same result. I believe they have a good case. But it might take some time.

What’s happened so far? First, let me back up. When whatever form of “management” there is in show business – either the studios, networks, or in this case agencies – WANTS to make a deal then deals get done. And they get done quickly. When they don’t want a deal and think freezing out the writers will force them to cave then there is no deal. Negotiations in that case are a sham. And that’s what these negotiations have been so far. Sabre rattling, blaming the other side, stonewalling.

Let’s say this goes to court and it looks like the WGA will win. The agencies will want to get back to the bargaining table and make a deal so fast your head will spin.

What the WGA is attempting is unprecedented. Make no mistake, it’s a David & Goliath situation. The only possible leverage the Guild has is withholding services to the agencies. Staffing season and development went on this year without the agencies. New deals that are being made without agencies mean they are not entitled to commissions. That’s a nice 10% bonus to the writer. And no package deals to boot.

What happens when the industry discovers it can function without agencies? It might not function as well but the gears keep turning. Playing this out is not necessarily a bad thing.

Personally, I wish it could be resolved in a timely manner. I have lots of friends on both sides. I love my agent and appreciate all that he’s done for me. But for us to go back to the bargaining table now would be a huge sign of weakness and we might as well just run up a white flag.

There is a faction of the WGA that wants to do just that. They naively feel a deal can be reached by being "reasonable."  History has taught us otherwise. The way the industry has screwed writers for decades  has taught us otherwise.  And yet (another history lesson) they want to be Neville Chamberlain.  He brought "Peace in his time."  Yeah, how did that work out?

Sometimes you have to sacrifice. I’ve been through numerous lengthy strikes. They're not fun and they eat through your savings and you have to hold off buying that house.  But writers before me suffered so that I could enjoy residuals, health care, and a pension. It’s my obligation to fight on behalf of future generations of writers.

Whenever there’s a difficult situation like this there is always the faction of writers who want to settle. They don’t want to be inconvenienced, they don’t want their paycheck to be affected. The issue at hand might not immediately benefit them personally so screw it. Studios, networks, and now agencies are hoping that contingent gets large enough that they’ll force the Guild to settle. Why was there no strike the last time the WGA dealt with studios? Because well over 90% voted to authorize a strike. If 60% had authorized it we would have come away with nothing probably after a four month work stoppage.

Solidarity is NEEDED. And granted, it’s hard when you have TV writers and feature writers and hyphenates. Not all writers are on the same career path. We’re not longshoremen. But feature writers struck in the early ‘60s for residuals for TV writers. We NEED to stick together. If not, that’s how management breaks unions. And if there was no union protecting writers studios would be paying $100 for feature scripts (and desperate writers would take it).

Like I said, there is an election going on. For all WGA writers, I urge you to stay the course. Agencies won’t go back to the bargaining table because there’s a new friendlier regime. They’ll go back because the Guild stands by its current leaders and they’re a force to be reckoned with.

Was this the right course of action? I don’t know. This is all uncharted territory. But the only way we’ll know is if we play it out. If you’re a WGA member, this is the slate I urge you to vote for:

David A. Goodman for President
Marjorie David for Vice President
Michele Mulroney for Secretary-

For the Board of Directors:

Liz Alper
Angelina Burnett
Robb Chavis
Dante Harper
Zoe Marshall
Luvh Rakhe
Meredith Stiehm
Nicole Yorkin

Remember, deals ONLY get done when management feels the pinch enough to want to make a deal. And when that happens, as if by magic, deals get done quickly. No posturing, no bullshit. Let’s not make it easier for them.

Thank you.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions with several MASH-themed ones this week. But not the first one.

Frank Beans has a question about attending TV tapings.

"Some shows have an age requirement..."

Could you elaborate on that a bit more? Is it too young, too old, or some other random criteria, and on what kinds of shows typically? Do you think this is a practical, ethical, or wise practice?

For adult oriented shows the age limit is 16. Time is money and the show doesn’t want to hold up filming for screaming babies and unruly children. And since we’ve all seen this behavior tolerated by parents in movie theatres and fine restaurants, and considering tickets to TV filmings are free, they have every right to set restrictions. Take kids to Chuck E. Cheese, not CHEERS.

However, if the show is a Disney Channel show or one that is geared to kids and pre-teens, the age restriction is either eased or eliminated.

Chris Thomson wonders:

At the end of MASH are big part of the story is dealing with him and BJ probably never seeing each other again, after their time together.

And BJs difficulty with saying good-bye.

I just wondered after a long running series like MASH, Cheers, and Frasier, especially given in interviews everyone seems to get on with each other, how much people do still meet up when in town etc, cast and crew etc.

I think it’s a lot like college. How many of your close college friends do you still see on a regular basis? People move, they drift out of the business, they establish new families with new long-running series, etc.

I’m still friends with all the writers on MASH, CHEERS, and many on FRASIER. We email, get together for lunch occasionally, help out on each other’s pilots, etc.

From time to time I also meet up with actors from these shows and especially the shows I co-created. And they’ll pop up from time to time either as podcast guests (like Jamie Farr recently) or guest bloggers.

But it’s difficult to maintain as close a relationship with someone when you no longer see them every day.

From Wayne Carter:

My agent submitted a spec script of mine to MASH in 1979-80. Though well received, we were offered only $500 for the story instead of a chance for me to sell the script ($10,000?) and get a chance for revisions or credit. We were basically told the writers' staff was locked and no outside script assignments at this point of the show were available (except supposedly one by a producer's girlfriend). Do you remember such a situation at that time? It's always bugged me, but I can understand staff writers locking the gates once hefty syndication residuals come into play. It was just frustrating. We didn't accept the deal.

First of all, this was after my time. We never bought a spec script during my tenure. So it’s hard to speak with any authority. I’ll tell you what I think happened just reading between the lines.

They liked your story but not the writing. And they didn’t like the story enough that it was worth it to them to pay for a full script and then do a page-one rewrite. That’s just my guess.

My policy was never to buy a spec unless it was so good and the story was so good that I could keep most of it. And I never found one of those.

However, if I really liked the writing I would bring the writer in and give him another story and script assignment. So the spec didn’t sell but it got his foot in the door, which realistically is a home run with spec scripts.

And finally, from Edward:

In the scheme of things, wasn't CBS' decision to have Radar leave at the beginning of Season 8 a smart move? Ending the season with a cast member leaving might take the wind out of a show during the hiatus.

It was a smart move but not for that reason. The key benefit for CBS was that it had an event show to promote for November Sweeps. Lots of shows lost characters at the end of a season. It’s less of a big deal than one exiting in November.

CBS was also able to make it a two-parter to really take advantage of the situation with double the programming and double the commercial intake.

November, February, and May Sweeps are not as big of a deal now, but back in the broadcast network-only days they were HUGE. Imagine movie studios during summer and Christmas breaks. That’s when everybody gets out their big guns. Radar leaving MASH was a big deal as was reflected in the ratings I’m happy to say.

What’s your Friday Question?