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Asked & Answered: Can a screenwriter retain control?

Q: Is it possible through an entertainment attorney, for the screenwriter to have control of rewriting, changing, adding or eliminating scenes, etc.?

Also, what advice do you offer if a studio picks up an option on a script?
I know the quandary of whether or not to accept $50,000 for all rights and if it never gets produced, the author is ahead, but if it becomes a blockbuster, the author gets nada, zilch, zip, rien.

A: While it is certainly possible for a screenwriter to retain control over rewrites, ‘cutting' and adding scenes, in practice, it is very rare for a writer to wield such power in Hollywood.

Film is, by its very nature, a collaborative medium, in which many creative talents come together to develop and produce the final product. Writer, Producer, Director, Actors and Editor all contribute creatively to the process, and ultimately, it's hoped that the end-product is the better for their efforts..

Screenwriters are (depending upon their bargaining power) often guaranteed one, or even two rewrites and/or polish drafts of the screenplay before the producer is free to hire another writer to work on the project. This protects not merely the creative integrity of the screenplay, but also the writer's credit and, in many cases, the writer's compensation. (The writer's contingent compensation (the so-called “back-end”) usually is halved if the writer receives shared credit.)

Beyond guaranteed rewrites, even the most powerful screenwriters have difficulty negotiating for control (or even rights of consultation) regarding additions or cuts from the script as it moves toward and through production. Once a script is greenlit for production, it's safe to say that the Director controls its content, subject to the Producer's control of the purse-strings. Then, after the film is “in the can”, the editor and the director may decide that certain scenes or lines of dialogue don't work, or don't advance the story in a meaningful way. Sometimes, too, the producer or distributor(s) may feel that the film is too long, or needs editing to assure a desirable MPAA rating, etc.

So, you see, the Writer creates the foundation on which a greater work is built. Difficult as it may be to accept, the screenplay is but one of the raw materials used in making a motion picture. Ultimately, many hands will be involved in sculpting the finished product.

If a writer is unhappy with the finished product, and feels that it undermines his or her reputation, it is sometimes possible (if negotiated in the option/acquisition agreements) to require that the writer's credit be removed from the Picture.

The answer to the second part of the question is simple: Try to negotiate the best possible deal for the option and sale of the screenplay. Success in negotiations depends on many factors, including the bargaining power or ‘clout' of the writer, and the perceived demand for the material. In most cases, (particularly when the guaranteed compensation is small) it's possible to negotiate for some kind of contingent compensation or box-office bonuses. Beware, however, that these back-end payments are carefully defined in the contracts. The help of an experienced entertainment lawyer is absolutely crucial to ensuring you're not taken advantage of.

This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for readers’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.

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4 Responses to Asked & Answered: Can a screenwriter retain control?

  1. Remarkable clarity on the process of a script once it is being consider for optioning, etc. Thank you!!

    David Michael

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