Tough Love – A True Story of WGA Credit Arbitration
Completely out of the blue, a long-time producer friend of mine called. Reza was 100% Persian but spoke with a disarming Texan drawl, mind-fucking a ton of folks the first time they sat down together. Five or six years earlier he’d hired me to rewrite a film his company was developing.
“Great news, John,” Reza greeted me. “Alien Zombie Munchers has a shot at getting made.”
This was the project I’d worked on; a fun, campy, low-budget homage to ’50’s monster movie drive-in fare that involved cannibalistic zombies. It’d been a blast to work on, certainly a poor man’s The Thing, but done very self-aware and tongue-in-cheek.
“Fantastic,” my voice waffled with surprise. The odds of cobwebbed projects finding their way into production were sadistically low. Theoretically, it’s always a possibility, but long shots rarely pan out. When a project fades to black, smart writers learn to walk away, hunt for a new gig and simply get on with their lives — it’s the only way to stay sane. “Shoulda-coulda-woulda” is a psychic black hole that, when indulged, can swallow a writer whole.
Goddamn, I thought, you’ve gotta love this business. Most days it was violently trying to stove your head in, but once a blue moon it sent golden ducats cascading into your lap like some Karmic slot machine.
“Yeah, it is fantastic, John. Here’s the thing…”
Whoops. Producorial curveball dead ahead. I’d opened the floodgates of hope and relief too soon.
“The money guys have given me an extremely tight budget, absurdly low. Frankly, given the films I’ve made, it’s a fuckin’ insult.” You could sense Reza warming to the sound of his own pitch now.
“Bummer, Rez… But I’m not sure how that involves me.”
“Well, not sure if you remember, but way back when this thing first started, you had a tiny production bonus coming if Alien Zombie Munchers ever got made.”
Bet your ass I remembered. Screenwriters never forget potential paydays, however remote or unlikely. We’re neurotic shut-ins, after all, without much to focus on except Final Draft upgrades and, you know, other tiny concerns like OUR DAY-IN, DAY-OUT, HAND-TO-MOUTH SURVIVAL.
“Yeah, something like $22,500, right?
“Exactly. Twenty-two five.” Reza awkwardly cleared his throat. “But I really can’t afford to pay that now, John. Not with this dogshit cable budget they’ve crucified me with. The whole thing’s touch and go. Having to shell out that much could keep the movie from getting made at all.”
“Really? Doesn’t sound good.”
“No, but hey, count your lucky stars — I’m calling with a golden parachute,” My old friend artificially brightened now, like he’d tucked back a hit of hospital-grade helium. “I convinced the Network financiers to approve an offer of $5,000 for you up front — whether the picture actually gets made or not. Manna from heaven, baby! This whole shitty deal is hanging by a thread but I’m still making sure you get paid! You know how crazy making a fuckin’ movie is. Nothing’s ever real until you’re standing on set with film flying through the gate — and even then sometimes it’s not real!”
“Hold it, Rez. Did you say five thousand dollars???”
“Pretty sweet, huh?” But my utter disbelief had thrown him. “Hey, John, buddy, like I said, if we can’t make something work, it might deep-six the whole fuckin’ project. I’m doing the best I can here under pretty shitty circumstances.”
Couple quick things about my old friend Reza —
He’d invented one of the most popular franchises in cinema history, which means, of course, of all-time… ever… on Planet Earth. One helluva accomplishment and no small feat. Pushing two decades now, his creation had dominated multiplexes, generating beaucoup bucks for all involved. Rez personally made millions each year in royalties and licensing fees, quite literally whether he got out of bed or not.
Further, as much as I legitimately like Reza (to this day we’re still friends), he’s a shameless, unrepentant, unapologetic penny-pinching son of a bitch. That’s not a slam or insult in the slightest, just a simple statement of fact. Ask anyone who knows and loves him, hell, ask Reza himself — they’ll all tell you the same thing. Nothing personal about it, that’s just Rez’s trip, how he came hardwired from the factory. In my experience, it’s also a trait shared by most successful producers.
So while having a certain theatrical quality (he did make movies, after all), Reza’s fairy tale of being some white knight dispatched with a save-the-day offer of $5K — less than 25% of what I was already owed contractually — from these mysteriously tight-fisted “money men” fell a little, shall we say, flat. Like a cold pancake frisbeed from atop the Chrysler Building. Not a word of this bollocks did I believe.
Pleading poverty would never be one of Reza’s strong suits. He spent more maintaining his pool each month than my entire bonus. But much like Lesson Number Two in Scarface, “Don’t get high on your own supply” is the mantra of anybody on the money-end of moviemaking. None of them want to pay for anything they absolutely, positively, one-hundred percent don’t have to… and then they’ll still fight shelling out until the Courts force them to.
Simple reason for this? Whatever they save goes directly into their pockets.
For Chris’sake, New Line tried to screw Peter Jackson out of The Lord of The Rings profits despite making a couple BILLION worldwide. Why wouldn’t any producer worth their salt have a go over $22.5K with some fresh-faced unknown? I mean, he kind of has to, doesn’t he? Nature of the beast.
“Tell you what, Rez,” I offered. “We go back. You hired me during a pretty rough period in my career, and I’ll never forget that. How ’bout we split the difference? Say $11,000 — half the bonus — and I’ll sign whatever you want and walk away.”
Right about now you may be wondering — what in the fuck was I thinking? Giving up REAL MONEY to a very rich man who couldn’t possibly spend his evergreen fortune?
Truthfully? I was being a nice guy; a stupid, thankless and potentially lethal take I’ve repeatedly warned others against. But I was overjoyed to learn I’d be seeing any money from Alien Zombie Munchers, had another writing gig and Rez had hired me during some lean times, helping keep my drive for screenwriting glory alive.
One good turn deserved another, right?
“Eleven thousand?” Reza’s dissatisfaction inflated with an onrush of dead air. My generosity obviously wasn’t as heart-warming as I’d expected. You’d think I’d just crapped in his cruelty-free Whole Foods kale salad.
“Five’s the ceiling, John. That’s all I’m authorized to offer. If by some Act of God this thing still gets off the ground, I’d rather let you roll the dice in Arbitration.”
I was good with that and told him so, without a second’s hesitation. Trying to be cool was one thing; allowing a multi-millionaire to freely bend me over something else entirely.
There wasn’t an ounce of hostility or anger to any of this. It was business after all, not personal, and being professionals we both understood that. We politely small-talked it home and wrapped up the call.
Many moons would pass before I’d hear Reza’s voice again.
* * * * *
Months flew by. Then after a particularly brutal day of Boardwalk hoops, I staggered home to discover a manila envelope perched python-like on my front porch. The telltale blue-and-white WGA logo was plainly visible on front.
It contained a Tentative Notice of Credit for Alien Zombie Munchers.
Sure, I was surprised. Especially since nobody had bothered to tell me it’d already been shot. Why bother? I mean, I was only one of the writers. One of those invisible inconveniences who made the whole thing up.
Good news was inside. The letter informing me I was sharing credit with two other writers.
Guess the dogshit budget hadn’t handcuffed Reza after all. I wondered which had finally pushed the picture over the top — that fortuitous Act of God he’d ranted about needing or the paltry cash savings of trying to hose me out of my production bonus.
Neither of which mattered now. It was what it was. I was getting fair credit and my ol’ buddy Rez was on the hook for the full freight — $22,500.
Yeah, right. As if it could be that easy.
Sensed a pattern by now, Dear Reader? Nothing in this diabolical business ever ends that cleanly or with that little carnage.
Very next day, I bike home from the most morally abhorrent “coffee date” in human history — a buxom Child Psychologist happily admitting she nuked Malibu toddlers with anti-depressants whenever their divorcing, dysfunctional parents felt they “couldn’t cope” with them anymore — and what should I find but a second manila python on the porch.
That’s right. Envelope Number Two.
This one included a “new-and-improved” Tentative Notice of Credit — one without my name on it.
What fresh manner of Hell was this? I’d seen some dirty, wild shit before, sure, but could Reza’s company even do that?
Eager to find out, I called his attorney’s number straight off the notice.
The gentleman explained that, regrettably, Reza had “made an error” — my name had slipped through “accidentally”. Although Rez was sorry for the misunderstanding, he couldn’t in good conscience recommend me for credit. It was a “matter of principle”, I was told — he simply didn’t believe I’d earned it. Too much time had passed and too many writers had been involved.
Sure — which totally explains why he’d tried to buy me out in the first place.
Pissed off? Quite the opposite. In all honesty, I started grinning like an idiot.
Tomorrow I’d be off to the Venice Library’s children’s section with those tiny-assed Tyrion-sized tables and chairs — full-speed ahead writing my Arbitration letter.
* * * * *
Reza didn’t understand Arbitration, didn’t get what it was about. In all fairness, why would he? He was a producer. It would be tantamount to asking me to take the Master Sommelier Diploma Exam. It’s not my field. I don’t drink wine. What the fuck would I know about it?
Cosmetic concerns like how many years had passed or how many writers had been cycled through mean nothing when it comes to WGA screen credit. Personal preference and/or personality don’t play a part. Arbitration is an exercise in screenwriting forensics — the only thing that counts is what’s on the page. All that matters is the material actually used in the Final Shooting Script; what’s down in black and white for the whole wide world to see. This is the one inviolate truth about the Arbitration process which never changes.
Had my buddy Rez taken a second to survey the material, he would have realized what I’d already known long before he’d tried to buy me out —
My drafts had created several crucial devices which informed every single scene of the Final Script. Without what I’d personally invented, there was no script as he knew it. Reza could churn-and-burn through an army of cut-rate word-slingers and it wouldn’t make any damned difference at all.
Let me illustrate this dynamic with specifics. Who knows? Maybe it’ll prove helpful during your own Arbitration some day.
The project was a riff on John Carpenter’s The Thing (and Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians before that) scripted on a much smaller scale. Out of financial necessity, low and no-budget films need to stay self-contained with one main location usually doing the heavy lifting. From studio-level Aliens to Indie-made Reservoir Dogs, “hotboxing” your world, keeping it small and cut off from the universe at large, is a tried-and-true genre standard. Not only does this keep physical production costs down, it also helps alleviate endless potential logic problems.
Every project has pesky questions you’ll eventually be called upon to answer, like “Why don’t they just call for help?” Hotboxing backstops you with credible answers. Because they’re in deep space, light years from Earth, that’s why. Because they just robbed a bank and they can’t risk leaving their hideout. Because a big storm’s a comin’, cutting off all phone and radio communications for a hundred miles. Most any potential plausibility killer can be layed neatly to rest by simply keeping your characters locked down.
This particular project was set in a bus station besieged by an approaching winter storm (what? you’ve heard that one before?). The protagonist, Striker, escapes from a prison transport and takes shelter inside the terminal, holding the waiting passengers hostage. The twist is that one — or maybe more — of these folks are actually people-munching alien zombies who recently crashed their flying saucer nearby.
It ain’t Dostoyevsky, I know. But for the most part, big budget or small, these familiar paradigms are the very life’s blood of genre fare. Even something as awesome as Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (shameless ripped off and sodomized by The Hunger Games) remains full-blooded genre to the core. What really decides the perception of something being considered “B-Movie” or not is the execution of this type of material. Blood Simple is a classic example of taking stock elements and set-ups and elevating them beyond their modest, derivative genre means. Fully aware of the cringe factor from piggybacking words like “cannibal”, “aliens” and “zombies” together, our project was designed as cheesy Eisenhower-era ironic fun from the start.
So… Striker takes over the bus terminal. His plan is simply to surf the situation, survive the aliens, ride the storm out, then disappear into the sunset.
Dramatic? Satisfying? Not so much, right? Sure, it’s a classic set-up, so there’s plenty of potential. But built in at the core is also a mind-numbing level of passivity. I mean, seriously, what’s the Striker character gonna do for ninety minutes? Drink root beer floats and read Highlights?
Further, the film lacked a Female Protagonist. That’s right. Frame one, the picture was a sausage fest. Granted, Carpenter’s The Thing is one of few modern films which doesn’t have a single woman in it. That said, we didn’t have John Carpenter, this wasn’t 1982 and flying estrogen-free simply wasn’t marketable, especially for a cable movie. Besides that, for any writer, having a solid female character is always preferable from a myriad of creative standpoints. Most obvious of which is giving you the raw material for a lot more scenes with the protagonist.
Passive protagonist. No Female lead. Straightaway, my rewrites focused on dealing with this pair of script killers.
Step One, I changed the bus terminal into a small rural airport. Doesn’t seem particularly earth-shattering, does it? At least not until you consider that it ultimately provides Striker with something completely non-existent in earlier drafts — a viable plan for and means of escape, by aircraft.
By clearly defining Striker’s goal as escape (as quickly as possible, mind you), he’s no longer sitting on his ass, hoping to get lucky and avoid annihilation. This one bold stroke has now created the primary motivation for his character to become proactive above and beyond just routine survival.
First, Striker will need to search the airport (proactive). During the search, he’ll now discover an old hangar with a broken-down ski plane inside (proactive). Being broken, Striker will have to repair it (proactive). Other passengers will discover what he’s up to and Striker will have to turn back a revolt (proactive). The rest of the plot plays out similarly.
By answering that essential Syd Field’s Screenwriting 101 question “what does your character want to win, gain, get or achieve during the course of the screenplay“, all the action, motivations, characters and pretty much the entirety of the storyline itself begins revolving around Striker, the aircraft and the possibility of escape.
Before you know it, the film has now become aggressively repopulated with new scenes supporting this refashioned infrastructure. Wholly original scenes that you’ve created and now get credit for. By inventing a serviceable Female Protagonist, you’ve essentially doubled your money in this department. Henceforth, there are all sorts of emotional avenues to explore between her and Striker; character traits to examine, backstories which can emerge, the suppressed stirrings of personal chemistry — none of which existed before your pages.
The plain fact is that one right idea can become of monumental importance, redefining the very marrow of any project. That’s how powerful one “simple” tweak or “little” change can turn out to be in a good writer’s hands.
Boiled down to its core, being a writer is about making choices — choices which best inform the project and give you the most storytelling options. This is a perfect example of how a great choice can pay long-term narrative dividends far beyond what anyone might expect.
My pages’ big payoff came in classic cinematic fashion — the ruthlessly self-interested Striker appearing to abandon the Female Protagonist before suddenly sacrificing himself to ensure her survival instead. This was critical because it served as Striker’s defining moment; neatly landing his character arc and allowing for a successful resolution as the film’s worthy protagonist.
For this particular Arbitration, the WGA Screen Credits Manual stated “for a second writer to share screen credit, the contribution to the screenplay must consist of changes of a substantial and original nature that go to the root of the drama, characterization and content of a screenplay and constitute substantially more than the contribution of the first writer.”
It also mandated that “A writer may receive credit for a contribution to any or all of the above listed items… in addition, a change in one portion of the script may be so significant that the entire screenplay is affected by it.”
My money points — having created a proactive lead who’s motivation informed all the subsequent action and inventing the film’s first viable female protagonist — went directly to the heart of these instructions. Providing more than enough of a platform to build my case for shared credit.
* * * * *
Couple weeks after all the statements were submitted, the Guild called. The Arbitration panel ruled to give me shared credit on Alien Zombie Munchers.
Way more fun than that? Reza’s follow-up call.
My slippery pal clearly hadn’t conceived of me winning. It’d never crossed his mind, a complete and utter impossibility. Homeboy was still trying to plead poverty when I needled him with my sweetheart offer of a beggarly $11K to walk away.
“I know, I know,” Reza’s voice was tinged with shell shock. “But given all that time and all those drafts and stuff…”
Crocodile tears flowing freely, yes, he admitted wishing he’d taken my deal (hint, hint). My end of the phone I was Mt. Rushmore, giving him nothing. If he paid me the full $22,500, Rez further pleaded, that would mean he personally made less than $20,000 on the entire movie!
Highly doubtful. But with the movie finished and the cable network no longer on the hook, there was no debating one thing — my bonus would have to come directly out of Rez’s own pocket.
I am Jack’s balls being laughed off.
“Rez, to be fair, you’re the guy who suggested I ‘roll the dice in Arbitration’.”
He made one, final, gasping Death Row appeal.
“Wow, John. What are we gonna to do about this?
(Thought bubble — What’s this “we” shit, paleface?)
“Well, Rez,” I told him. “I think you’d better send my attorney a check for twenty-two five. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Like I said, this was business, not personal. Nobody understood that better than us. Our exchange was totally cool and collegial. This is a guy I like. Still like. In fact, I’d venture to say we respected each other even more after the smoke cleared.
My take? There’d never been any “pre-emptive offer”, no mysterious “money guys”. Reza was just doing what smart producers do. A) Writers are generally hard up for cash. B) I’m a writer. C) Why not take a shot at getting me to snap up the chump bait, allowing him to cement the all-important Chain of Title for a bargain-basement $5K? It’s the same play anyone in his position would make, including myself. Don’t forget, because he controlled the script, Reza also charged the financiers a sale price for it — so how much he’d already cleared on top of what he might save from me is anybody’s guess.
And that, Dear Readers, is how the film business rich get even richer.
End of the day, Reza had taken his shot — rolled his own dice — and come up empty. Like a true pro, he took his lumps, manned up and sent me a check.
Of course, this being Hollywood, you always have to be careful what you wish for.
Soon after that, Alien Zombie Munchers aired — and I was stunned at how hard I’d fought to indelibly etch my name on a cruddy cable movie.
Excerpt from Tough Love Screenwriting Copyright @ 2014 Docaloc, Inc.
John’s L.A. classes begin October 5th — register at toughlovescreenwriting.com. You can pre-order Tough Love Screenwriting at Amazon now.
Find us here:
John Jarrell is a produced screenwriter with twenty-plus years in the Industry. He’s written films for most of the major studios and has worked with many of Hollywood’s best producers and directors, including Jeffrey Katzenberg, Joel Silver, John Woo & Terence Chang, Neil Moritz, Mike Medavoy, Luc Besson, Carl Beverly and Warren Littlefield. John is also a member of the WGA Screen Credits Committee.