The Business of Screenwriting: OWA

Via Script Magazine
  • Sell a spec script.
  • Sell a pitch.
  • Land an open writing assignment.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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