The Business of Screenwriting: Sweepstakes Pitching, Prewrites and One-Step Deals

“You need to prepare yourself for all aspects of the craft, good and bad. That said writers have been dealing with things like this in one form or another for decades — and somehow we survive.”

If you want to know what screenwriting members of the WGA have to confront in their interface with the studios [and what you will eventually deal with], here are three common practices: sweepstakes pitching, prewrites and one-step deals. From THR:

The development issues the guild identified in its Pattern of Demands could result in contentious negotiations. These include “prewrites” — in which writers are asked to prepare uncompensated treatments — and sweepstakes pitching.

The latter is a practice in which a studio asks multiple writers to pitch their approaches to a movie idea proposed by the studio. The studio may then ask a number of those writers to come back for meetings repeatedly, using the process as an unpaid way of having numerous writers refine the studio’s initial idea. In the end, the studio hires — and pays for — just one writer (at least until it orders rewrites).

Creative rights matters such as sweepstakes pitching may be particularly touchy, since the issues are not just monetary. That means that studios’ creative management, in addition to business executives, will have to weigh in on the studios’ negotiating posture.

Another guild sore point: the prevalence of one-step deals, rather than the multi-step deals that predated the 2007–08 strike and the troubled economy. Writers dislike one-step deals not only because the money is less (unless the writer is then hired to do revisions), but also because it gives the writer only one shot to get it right.

Okay, let’s take a hypothetical screenwriter named Sammy Glick and run him through this maze of onerous obstacles.

Sammy’s agent calls.

“I got you a meeting for ‘Contagion 2.’”

“How many writers going up for it?”

“Studio says it’s only a couple.”

Sammy spends weeks working up a take. He meets with studio execs. Pitches his heart out. Feels pretty good about his chances. Then as he goes about his life in L.A., it seems like every writer friend he runs into has been pitching… you guessed it… ‘Contagion 2.’

Cut to a few years later as Sammy sits in a movie theater watching Contagion 2. He spots certain scenes, plot elements, even dialogue that seem awfully close to what he pitched.

Welcome to the downsides of ‘sweepstakes pitching’: Not only does a writer have to go up against — potentially — dozens of other writers in the hopes of landing the gig. There’s also the fact that at each meeting, there is a CE who sits in the corner furiously taking notes from what each writer is pitching, so Sammy can’t help but have a sneaking suspicion that the studio put together the best of those ideas, then handed them off to the one writer who finally landed the OWA. And Sammy is in no position to prove anything.

But let’s say Sammy lands the ‘Contagion 2’ gig. Good for him… until he smacks up against ‘prewrites.’

Sammy meets with the studio. They just loved his pitch, but… they have a few suggestions. They walk Sammy through their ideas. “Can you work up a really short treatment with the revisions? Then we can sign off on a draft.” So Sammy spends several days pounding out a treatment. Turns it in. They have more suggestions. “Just these changes and flesh out the story a bit more, then we’re set to go.” Sammy revises the treatment. More suggestions. This goes on for weeks of back and forth, multiple treatments, until there is a document with every beat of the story. “We just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

It would be one thing if Sammy was getting paid to write each of these treatments, but the dirty not-so-secret fact in Hollywood is writers most often do not receive any money for said efforts.

“Think of it this way. It’s really about giving you your best chance to nail the draft.”

Which leads to the third thing: ‘one-step deals.’ In the good old days [barely 5 years ago], when a writer signed a deal for a studio project, the standard contract entailed a first draft and a rewrite. That meant writers were guaranteed to have two passes at the story. Nowadays it’s all pretty much one-step deals. That means Sammy only has one shot. And that simple change, not only denying a writer rewrite fees, creates a situation where — even though it’s technically against WGA rules to write treatments without compensation — writers routinely do because they feel pressured to maximize their chance of nailing the script in that one draft.

So what of Sammy? Well, he could fight the system by not pursuing OWAs, only writing scripts on spec. He could become a writer-director and thereby control the content of his stories. He could leave the industry and write greeting cards.

Or he could choose as most WGA members do to work within the system… which means sweepstakes pitching, pre-writes, and one-step deals.

UPDATE: I’ve gotten a few dispirited emails and seen some chatter on Twitter about this post. Yes, the situation as described above is frustrating. But I feel I wouldn’t be doing my job with TBOS columns if I didn’t let folks occasionally see the dark underbelly of what it takes to be a professional screenwriter. You need to prepare yourself for all aspects of the craft, good and bad. That said writers have been dealing with things like this in one form or another for decades — and somehow we survive. And don’t forget, for all of these hassles, you can get paid a pretty penny for your troubles. Finally there’s this: You are getting paid to write. So while sweespstakes pitching, prewrites and one-step deals are a pain, there are other aspects of life as a screenwriter that can balance them out.

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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