The Six Degrees of Collaboration
Film is commonly called a collaborative medium and with good reason.
Unless you’re a world-renowned writer-director (an “auteur,” as the French would say), you’re going to have people helping you shape your script at many stages. Below are six scenarios — six degrees of collaboration — aspiring screenwriters should understand.
1.) Writing Partners
Some writers like to bring in another writer with whom they will bounce ideas around and flesh out the story. If that’s all that person does, they are probably due a shared story credit. If they’re doing more — actually writing the screenplay with you — they’re a co-writer. Not all writers need or even want a co-writer, but many find it useful. As in most partnerships, there are upsides and downsides. If you do choose to work with one, make sure they share your vision, and their writing complements yours. Remember that once you break in with a partner, the two of you will be linked for a while. They’re doing half the work (or at least they should be), and they’ll most likely get half the pay.
You’ll be thought of as a team throughout the industry, and a manager or agency will sign you as that, not an individual. In short, if you don’t want to be part of a team, don’t use a writing partner. But even on your own, you’ll have to learn to work with others.
These days, most writers break into the business through managers, who are usually more open to reading unsolicited material than agents. Managers, many of whom are also producers, often look to develop a writer’s career from the ground up. If you work with one, they will give you notes on your screenplay and expect you to rewrite it accordingly. That will be your first big test; if you don’t like the idea of rewriting to suit somebody else’s perspective, you might not care for the film industry. They will be the first people in a line of many to give you direction. At each stage, it will benefit you to consider others’ points. That doesn’t mean you can’t question some notes or fight for your ideas, but if you’re obstinate and simply don’t like collaborating, life in the film industry will be difficult.
In short, managers are a filter; they help transform the novice screenwriter into someone professionally-minded, someone who is ready to play ball.
After a manager helps prepare your screenplay for the market, they will shop it to agencies. By nature, agents don’t give many notes; they prefer managers bring them clients, so they don’t have to develop the material. In general, agents are more about the sale than the rewrite. That being said, they might have one or two suggestions to improve your screenplay.
An agency will likely slip your screenplay to production companies. There, producers will see it as a rough draft that needs work. So, you’re potentially back to square one, but again, this is the business — if you don’t like rewriting, you don’t like screenwriting. If the manager’s goal is to shape the writing for agencies, the producer’s goal is to shape it for a specific studio, actor or director. Ideally, the producer is someone who has proven they can set up a movie and if that’s the case, keep an open mind and revise the script according to what they say.
When a producer doesn’t go straight to a studio, it’s because they first want to attach an actor or director to the screenplay. While actors might have notes, directors certainly will; most are also producers, and some are writers, too. They’ll have their vision for the work, which will put you back on the path to rewriting. Unless you’re an A-list screenwriter, the director’s vision will be the one all interested parties will support — they’re the person who can bring in a studio and the necessary talent.
If you don’t like the idea of rewriting your script to please a director, consider becoming a director yourself. Otherwise, you’ll be fighting a losing battle. The screenwriters who work well with directors are often the ones with successful careers.
6.) Studio Execs
Unlike notes from a manager, producer or director, notes from the studio will come from several people, which makes them the trickiest of all to navigate.A number of execs will tackle your screenplay at once, and you’ll have to make them all happy, to a degree.
Like any business model, there’s a hierarchy; learn who has power and know those notes matter most. There’s steady turnover at studios, so you’ll likely have to deal with new execs coming onto the project with entirely new takes on the material. If things go well, though, your work will go up the studio ladder, and at each rung, you’ll get a new set of notes. If you have a director and/or movie star attached to your script, the chances of it getting the green light increase. If not, your work is likely to fall into what is called “development hell,” or “limbo,” and new writers may come in. Don’t take it personally, though. It’s just part of the business.
Every writer, including A-list Oscar® winners, have been rewritten by other writers. Nobody sees a screenplay as finished until the cameras start rolling and even then, there might be changes. A screenplay isn’t a play. It isn’t a novel. It’s a blueprint for a motion picture. And as a collaborative medium, it’ll have the mark of many. Sometimes this is creatively for the worse, but not always. Many great screenplays are the result of abundant reimagining.
Often, the masterpiece is in the rewrite.