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.

Via Script Magazine

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

  • Sell a spec script.

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*.

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.

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.

This is especially true in the current Hollywood business environment in which there are fewer and fewer OWAs. Plus they’re harder and harder to land. You don’t want to spend a year or more chasing assignments with nothing to show but a bunch of unsold pitches.

Put your time and energy to good use: Write at least one spec script per year. An original screenplay is actual thing you can sell, a writing sample your reps can use to promote you as a writer, and writing a spec can keep your creative muscles active and your mind sharp.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly 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.

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