One Step Closer To Writopia?

John Wells
A while back, I wrote about a magical studio called Writopia, where writers were treated the way they ought to be, and their lives were better, the movies were better, and dogs and cats played happily together in the sun.

Leave it to the incomparable John Wells to try and actually make it happen.

Yesterday, the Writers Co-Op was announced, and it includes eighteen writers: Ron Bass (“Rain Man”), Henry Bean (“Internal Affairs”), David Benioff (“Troy”), Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”), Robert Nelson Jacobs (“Chocolat”), Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”), Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”), Richard LaGravanese (“The Fisher King”), Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”), Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”), Stephen Schiff (“The Deep End of the Ocean”), Schulman (“Dead Poets Society”), Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”), Dana Stevens (“For Love of the Game”), Robin Swicord (“Memoirs of a Geisha”), Michael Tolkin (“The Player”), Rafael Yglesias (“Fearless”), and the writing team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (“City Slickers”).

When I read this, I thought, “Great. Ted Elliott and I had the same damn idea a year ago, and we never did anything about it.” Then I read that it took Wells and Co. took several years to figure this all out, so I guess I’m not that lazy.

The way it works seems pretty simple. Each of the 18 must write one original script for Warner Brothers within the next four years. The Co-Op will act as the producer of the script. The writer will not be rewritten without their approval, which is obviously a revolutionary idea, and the writer will be meaningfully included in the development and production processes from start to finish.

The enticement for the studio is this: if they want to buy the scripts, they will cost in the low mid-six figures. This is an enormously advantageous term for Warner Brothers, as most if not all of the participating writers typically sell specs for no less than a million dollars, and sometimes upwards of three million or more.

So are these writers trading creative rights for money they should be rightfully earning?

Quite the contrary.

I’ve spoken to someone on the business side of things who worked on this deal, and while I’m not going to be so gauche as to spell it all out, I can tell you that if any of these guys get movies made under this Co-Op, they will be rewarded under terms better than I think any writer has ever received.

If Warner Brothers agrees to produce the films, the first thing that happens is that the writer is “made whole” on his quote. In other words, if he or she normally writes an original for $1.5 million but sells a script under this program for $300K, when the script is greenlit, the writer gets the remaining $1.2 million and then additional money as their credit bonus allows.

Beyond that, the writer gets a significant first-dollar gross position.

For those who don’t know what first-dollar gross is, it works like this. If you have, say, 2.5% of first dollar gross, then once the studio meets certain agreed-upon conditions, the studio then gives you two and half cents out of every dollar it earns on the film via theatrical, broadcast, pay-per-view, home video, etc.

What are those conditions? They vary, and I don’t know what they are here, but generally speaking, they’re better than “first we have to recoup our entire investment.” If you have first dollar gross, you’re very likely going to see some real profit out of the back end of the film.

However, most first dollar gross deals state that the upfront money is “against” the back end money. In other words, if you earn $1.5M up front and you have 2.5% fdg on the back end, the studio doesn’t have to pay out profits to you until the amount you’ve earned through your 2.5% exceeds the $1.5M they’ve already paid you.

That’s why first dollar deals sometimes seem better than they actually are. If you make a lot up front, the movie has to do very, very well for you to make significantly more on top of that.

Not so in this case. In this case, I’m hearing that the upfront money for the Co-Op writers is not applicable against the back end, which is a fantastic term for the writers, even considering that part of the profits are kicked back to the Co-Op to help offset operation expenses.

Of course, balanced against all of that reward is a substantial risk: they’re agreeing to sell their scripts at a steep discount of anywhere from 70-90%.

What’s fascinating about this particular group is that it bucks a number of trends. I don’t think any of the writers (save Benioff) is under 40. Quite a few are in their 50’s. Most write challenging fare. If we’re to believe the conventional wisdom, studios are frightened to death of older, high-priced intellectual scribes.

Turns out they’re not, and that’s good news for any of us in the business who plan on aging or being serious (I’m one for two on that account).

In addition, many of these writers are pretty well-known as WGA guild activists. Through one sort of Guild thing or another, I’ve come to know John, Scott, Robin, Phil, Tom, Ron and Stephen. I don’t know if long-time Guild activists (including some people a lot of us think as “militant”) getting in bed with Warner Brothers is a good thing or a bad thing, but since I believe in labor detente, I’m going to say it’s a good thing.

It’s possible that nothing will come of this, the way the much-heralded Sony program fizzled out years ago (that was a deal where writers who met certain criteria could access back end profits on their movies, but the definitions weren’t that spectacular and Sony didn’t really seem to want to make any of those writers’ movies at the time).

Personally, I think this will matter. The business is changing. Whether writers take the reigns through partnerships with financiers or by creating mini-unions like the Writers Co-Op, one thing is clear. The old ways are starting to fade. I fully expect other A-listers to attempt to follow suit. As for me, all I can say is that Ted and I were on the phone for a long time yesterday…

Naturally, a lot of non A-list writers want to know how this affects them.

There’s good news and there’s bad news.

I think if this kind of idea spreads, it puts a downward economic pressure on spec prices, and an upward economic pressure on production prices. In other words, it’s a lot harder to get a million bucks for a spec when studios are suddenly accustomed to paying much less than that to world-class writers.

On the other hand, the barn doors that hid the real prize from us—true back end participation—have finally been flung open. The floor has been lowered a bit, but the ceiling has been raised a lot. Furthermore, studios will become more accustomed to partnering with writers, rather than marginalizing them.

To sum up: if you think the best years of your career are ahead of you, this is great news.

If you think you peaked a while ago, this ain’t gonna make things any easier.

I tend to be an optimist. I don’t know if what Wells and Co. did here is necessarily a good thing for writers per se, but it’s a great thing for the profession of writing, and for that, I applaud them.

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