The Business of Screenwriting: OWA

Three little letters: OWA. But they mean big things for Hollywood screenwriters. What do these letter stand for?

Owen Wilson’s Assistant?

Afraid screenwriter Mike Le has that covered already.

Okay, maybe Overworked Wretched Assistants.

Nah, see in Hollywood, they’re just called assistants.

The real significance of OWA in relation to a screenwriter is this:

Open Writing Assignment.

There are basically three ways for a Hollywood screenwriter to make money plying their craft:

* Sell a spec script.

* Sell a pitch.

* Land an open writing assignment.

The odds of doing either of the first two are quite long, which is why writers — and their managers and agents — focus a lot of attention on OWAs.

So what precisely is an open writing assignment? They are projects owned by a studio or production company that need a writer’s services. That can range from the very beginning of the script development process, such as a new manuscript the studio has acquired that is set to be adapted, to a project that has already been written one or more times and needs a rewrite, to a project that requires a production polish, and so on.

The world of OWAs used to be a pretty mysterious one, studio development slates and the status of their projects shrouded behind a wall of secrecy. Nowadays where spy satellites can zoom in on you from outer space and transmit information to the Department of Homeland Security about how many nasal hairs you have, Hollywood’s defenses are officially pierced. There are online resources where for a mere pittance, you can see what writing assignments there are, what their status is, in short wallow in a virtual world of OWAs.

What is the process whereby a writer goes up for an open writing assignment? I can only speak from what I have learned based on my personal experience and the plethora of conversations I have had with other working writers about how they have fared on the OWA front. For all I know behind closed door, agents and studio executives engage in some sort of satanic ritual to determine who lands an OWA or not. But basically the situation plays out like this:

* Once you break in and become established as a working screenwriter, your name goes onto a list, sometimes multiple lists. For example, let’s say you have written and sold two action spec scripts. Your name will go onto an action list. What if the buzz about your scripts is that you are really good with one-liners? You may go onto a punch-up list as well. Every studio has their own list although my guess is the degree of cross-pollination of names is pretty substantial. And it may shock you how specific some of these lists can be. If a studio has a found footage project that desperately needs a rewrite, there are names of screenwriters around town who have a reputation for writing those kinds of projects… *cough* John Swetnam *cough*.

* Your reps track the OWAs all around town. When they hear of a project they believe to be up your alley, they may contact the studio or production company and pitch you to them. If that conversation goes well and the studio has read you recently and likes your writing, more than likely you get to go up for the OWA. However there are no guarantees. If you haven’t worked for a half-year and are considered cold, that’s a tougher sell for your reps. That’s when you may find your reps putting you up for gigs that are somewhat outside the domain of material for which you are known.

You: I’m an action script guy, not a kids movie writer.

Agent: “Barney the Purple Dinosaur A-Go-Go” has got action. Hence the whole “Go-Go” thing.

Hey, at the end of the day, it’s your rep’s job to get you into the room.

* Now you are officially up for an OWA. You may go in for a preliminary meeting to discuss the broad perimeters of the project. This session could be mostly about them getting a feel if they like you or not. Other times, you may simply receive a script that is to be rewritten. Once you have the material in question, your job is to read, analyze, and come up with a new take.

Let me stop right here and ask a simple question: Can you see one big fat reason why I keep pushing the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series? To help you develop your critical analytical skills. You absolutely need to be able to break down a script, determine what its problems are, then come up with a take that resolves those issues.

* Here comes the tricky part: Almost assuredly, you will not be the only writer going up for an OWA. In most cases, there will be multiple writers brought in to pitch their version of the story. In some situations, that number can be a lot. I’m not going to name any names, but there’s a certain studio which rhymes with Frisney who for years has been famous for bringing in dozens of writers on OWAs, then ending up giving the assignment to a writer with whom they have an overall or first look deal.

* Here’s another tricky part: You go in and pitch your story, don’t land the gig, then a year later see the movie, and there they are, some of your ideas in the final product. Now to cover my ass, allow me to clamp a big honking version of the word “allegedly” onto that statement, but the simple fact is, as a writer you can bust your hump, generate an incredible take, and have zero protection on those very ideas. All the studio needs to say is this: “Gee, we already came up with that idea internally.” How can you possibly disprove that?

* And there’s this: Preparing to pitch on an OWA requires a lot of man / woman-hours. Over time, this will wear on you. Your first OWA opportunity, you will move the sun and moon to come up with an incredible take. By the 20th time you go through the routine, make sure you do not have any sharp objects in your vicinity because it can be soul-stultifying stuff. Suddenly you look at your calendar and you realize that you — ostensibly a writer — haven’t actually penned a story in months. Oh, sure, you’ve worked up a bunch of OWA takes, pitches, and treatments, but other than receiving a lot of gauzy feedback from gaunt black-clad execs, you may find yourself with little to show for it and drained of energy.

* On the other hand, you may land an OWA. Perhaps two back-to-back. I’ve had three in hand at once. That feels pretty good. Here you’ve got your work schedule lined up for the next 6–9 months. Plus all those pretty, pretty checks. And because the studio or prod co already owns those properties, for which they have spent money, and you are now writing said property, for which they will spend additional money, the more pregnant they get, the more likely they are to pull the trigger and greenlight the movie… that is assuming you do your job and turn in a great script.

Bottom line to live in the world of OWAs, you need a delicate balance of boundless creativity, endless energy, mental dexterity, ignorance of the facts, leather-skin, blind faith… and the ability to do it over and over and over again.

Not to mention a large reserve of Chivas 18.

UPDATE: I meant to include this thought in the OP. Piece of advice: While you are busy going up for OWAs, always work on a spec script. Whether you’re just cracking the story, prepping an outline, writing a first draft or revising it, that way you ensure that you are always producing an actual finished product, not just pitches, treatments, etc.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted March 1, 2012]

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