How To Navigate The World Of Screenwriting Managers, Agents, Attorneys, and Publicists
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
The following screenwriting interviews are from our older blog. Below, please find excerpts from 4 articles tackling the ups and downs of locking representation, dealing with contracts, and more. Interviews were conducted by Screenwriting Staffing's Founder, Jacob N. Stuart Join Screenwriting Staffing's next indie film here: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/gringo
INTERVIEW WITH LITERARY MANAGER (KATHY MURAVIOV) ON DEALING WITH SCREENPLAY OPTIONS [to view full interview, click here: SCREENPLAY OPTIONS: THE DO'S & DON'TS]
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What is an option agreement? Why does this benefit the writer and producer?
KATHY MURAVIOV: An option agreement is an agreement in which you hand over your right of ownership to a producer for a reasonable amount of time, typically six months to a year, enabling them to shop it to studios and/or financiers. The terms of these options differentiate and are typically dependent on producer’s trajectory.
There are a few different types of option agreements, i.e., straight options, which are those that include the length of time the producer will have the right to shop it; and a purchase option, which includes a purchase price, duration, credits, any back end compensation, etc.; in other words, the complete deal should the movie actually get made.
Options are not legal unless money switches hands – and never a good idea to make option fee applicable against purchase price.
In other words, you don’t want it subtracted when you are paid that purchase fee.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What is an adequate amount of time to option a script? Should the writer accept an extension if the option expires.
KATHY MURAVIOV: This tends to vary from project to project. In my experience most options are one year with a right to renew after that one year, sometimes with extensions after that. This gives the producer time to package and/or obtain financing.
If the extension expires and the producer has momentum and you are happy with that momentum, absolutely extend.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What should a non-WGA writer (even an unproduced screenwriter) expect from an option in terms of payment? What about WGA writers?
KATHY MURAVIOV: Typically a writer is paid anywhere from 2% to 5% of a proposed budget, but of course can and will deviate. WGA schedule of minimums outlines what WGA writers can expect to receive, and of course a writer’s fee escalates the more credits he has accumulated. [NOTE FROM SS: For more information regarding writing agreements and contracts, visit the WGAW.]
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: If a writer doesn’t have representation, should they seek a lawyer (or even a manger/agent) if a producer approaches them with an option?
KATHY MURAVIOV: Writers should always seek out a lawyer, manager/agent to help them evaluate what’s in their best interest, not the producer’s.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Should a writer be picky when it comes to an option? (i.e., the producer lacks any significant credits and produced work.)
KATHY MURAVIOV: Just because a producer doesn’t have any significant credits and/or produced work doesn’t mean they won’t deliver.
Have any producer lay out his business plan before making any kind of deal.
Sometimes this might be your only shot and is certainly better than nothing happening at all. Of course, each scenario is different.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Why is it important for the writer to negotiate a purchase price and writer’s credit during the option phase?
KATHY MURAVIOV: This is really more of a question for an attorney but this is something that should always be discussed up front so there are no misunderstandings later. With a simple option, where a budget has not yet been determined, it’s impossible to know what the purchase price should be (at least the floor amount) so this is a bit tricky at this point. Of course you could stick to the rule of 2-5% of the budget… but each case is unique.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: In the event a producer can’t find funding for a script, and the script’s rights are reverted back to the writer, should a screenwriter mention the previous option to future producers?
KATHY MURAVIOV: Yes, you always want to make sure the new producer knows where it’s been shopped as you wouldn’t want the new producer submitting to a company that has already passed.
INTERVIEW WITH WGA LITERARY AGENT, BABZ BITELA [to view full interview, click here: LANDING AN AGENT]
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: “Does a screenwriter need an Agent?”
BABZ BITELA: “I’m one of those agents who knows you don’t need an agent, until you need one. Here’s the point: writers use to need agents to do deals for them because the ‘writer’ persona was a ‘loner’ typically and not very outgoing. They didn’t market themselves and thus, the agent needed to step in and not only write the deal, but market the writer to get a deal in the first place: the agent was the FACE and the PUSH of the writer. No longer: for the most part writers, sadly, can no longer just write: they must get into the movie business the way rock bands embraced video: meaning, the writer must now work to brand themselves and their own efforts. There’s simply too much competition: it’s THEN you need an agent. You, dear writer, have no business signing anything unless you fully understand what you’re signing.”
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: “When screenwriters’ submit their work, what is your biggest pet peeve (immediate turnoff) i.e., not following directions, spelling mistakes, too many pitches, rude follow-ups…?”
BABZ BITELA: “Not doing three simple things to set themselves apart, now apart from your list which is “TOPS” in my book so good on ya: writer – do this — READ SCRIPTS. DO A TABLE READ. GET COVERAGE. RINSE. REPEAT. You’d be so surprised as to what you catch doing a table read. We do them here. Everyone takes a few parts, and I read the action and slug lines, and everyone makes notes to look at later. HUGE. A table read is what your actors will do; why not do it first. Also “ing” words: slow down the readers eye. Run, not running. Or runs. Adjectives: ick.”
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: “What is the #1 advice you give to newer screenwriters when submitting to agencies?”
BABZ BITELA: Write a low budget gem! Then keep it .. LEAN. Logline. Page count. Genre. One paragraph pitch who’s doing what to whom and what’s stopping them and why can’t they get there and to do this avoid proper nouns! Don’t say Joe told Mary about Jenny and all hell broke loose, say A dude’s got two women, and they both find out about each other, and plot to ruin him. (verbs, verbs, hurdles and more verbs) ONE paragraph is fine; in short get in and get out – never lead with “I’ve just finished” say “After a few table reads and some coverage, I’ve found this one may be ready for market.” (not done, ready for market. Two different things.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: “In your opinion, what is Hollywood looking for: thrillers, dramas, pilots, reality pitches, etc? And why?”
BABZ BITELA: “Hollywood is not the way in for most new writers, but OK let’s go there: Hollywood wants the next NEW THING: period. That’s all they hunt for. Because if it’s not there, head’s roll. Better to write a LOW BUDGET GEM with few locations and grab hold of that credit, it’s huge! It’s everything; it’s fuel. I am asked DAILY: single location shoots. That means then it’s GOT to be great. Not good. Not really good. GREAT. How do you get to great? Practice and luck. And let me tell you, Lady Luck? She’s a tramp, fickle and wears cheap shoes so don’t trust her – hone your craft. The sale ain’t the thing; the story is the king.”
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: “What are the top 3 things you look for in a screenwriter/screenplay: produced credits, contest wins, great story-line, large network, etc?”
BABZ BITELA: “Scripts are a lot like porn; it’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. I know from page one I’m in for hell or heaven: I HEAR VOICE on the page, and it’s SO obvious. How do I know this; well, I do what you my fine writer must do: I read tons of scripts. I hunt for voice and a marketable idea and I must fall in love. Because to hawk it I’ve got to believe. Jason Bortz found success early this year with a big budget option and when it goes it’s going to be big. And now with Screenwriting Staffing, we pitched a script I’ve loved for years and couldn’t find a home for and Screenwriting Staffing brought me a lead and I pitched it and Jason got the job! That’s a long way of saying, I will run with great: I know great when I see it. Credits help, but voice is everything.”
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: “What is the #1 mistake you find when screenwriters submit their scripts to companies?”
BABZ BITELA: “IT’S A TIE: a) They are too in the moment: they write zombie as zombie is hot. Those projects have been set up YEARS ago. Writers need to write THE STORY they want to tell, that they are certain will be something marketable. b) they write a period piece and they have no credits.”
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: “Can non-WGA screenwriters still find PAID screenwriting jobs? And if so, what can they expect as far as professionalism and pay?”
BABZ BITELA: Screenwriting Staffing proves this happens all day long! But this is important so I hope folks are really paying attention: most scripts DON’T sell for big bux: they can go for a few hundred bux to a few thousand and anywhere in between. Don’t be deluded to think that your script is going to be a lottery ticket. Take the low paying jobs why wouldn’t you? I do! My eyes are on the prize all the time, but I need to make sure my ego doesn’t get in the way of progress for my client. It’s called in house here: the “2 2 3 if we can” (we want two to three percent of the total pp budget if we can get it.)”
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: “What should a screenwriter expect from their Agent?”
BABZ BITELA: “Nothing except candor. The writer should write. A manager can rock up the career trajectory, but the writer who looks to the agent and says “what are you doing for me”? I don’t have those kinds of clients. My clients are screened mightily before I sign them. They must produce work I CAN TRY TO SELL. I am working for them FOR FREE and thus, you dear writer must write and pitch while I try to find inroads for your voice.”
INTERVIEW WITH ENTERTAINMENT ATTORNEY (HAKIM MULRAINE) ON DEALING WITH CONTRACTS [to view the full interview, click here: WHY A SCREENWRITER NEEDS AN ENTERTAINMENT ATTORNEY]
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What is an entertainment attorney’s duty in the Film Industry?
Hakim Mulraine: The duties of an entertainment attorney in the film industry vary greatly.Depending on the stage that the film project is in when the attorney is hired: pre–production, production, principal photography and post–production, a number of legal agreements must be negotiated, drafted and signed. The attorney may be responsible for: business formation; acquiring rights: Life Rights, Option and Literary Purchase Agreement; clearance of rights: Copyright Reports; Finance/Investor Agreements as well as Distribution, Above the Line and Below the Line Agreements.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Why would a screenwriter need an Entertainment Attorney?
Hakim Mulraine: A screenwriter would need an entertainment attorney to help them protect their work (copyright); acquire rights to literary property, negotiate Option, Literary Purchase Agreement, Script Submission Release, Nondisclosure and/ or Work for Hire Agreements; which may include: Step Deals or Flat Deal Agreements. Some entertainment attorneys can assist with packaging and pitching a screenwriter’s work to production companies and film studios. There are different kinds of attorneys. There are the traditional entertainment attorneys and there are the more modern dealmaker type entertainment attorneys. The more modern attorneys, based on their skill-set and knowledge of the business, are able to assist their clients with packaging and pitching projects to production companies and film studios. The traditional attorneys are more apt to address offers as they come in.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: When would a screenwriter be better off with an Entertainment Attorney as opposed to a Literary Agent?
Hakim Mulraine: Whether a screenwriter would be better served by an Entertainment Attorney or a Literary Agent will usually depend on a screenwriter’s access and needs. It is very difficult for a writer to obtain an agent, especially inexperienced writers. However, a screenwriter would be able to approach and retain an entertainment attorney if he/she is able to pay the attorney’s hourly rate, a lump-sum of which must be paid up front, called retainer fee, and deposited into escrow. Agents generally take a percentage of the profits that they’ve earned for their clients, usually between 10 to 15%. There are no upfront costs when you work with an agent. A common complaint among writers represent by agents, especially those represented by big agencies, is that they don’t feel that they’re apriority. This may or may not be the case but agents tend to focus a great deal of energy on those clients who are making money at the present time because they get paid when their client gets paid. An Entertainment Attorney; however, is better able to prioritize their clients workload because they are traditionally paid on an hourly basis. If they don’t do the work, they don’t get paid. There are times when Entertainment Attorney’s will accept a contingency fee. Some attorneys will accept partial contingency and partial retainer fee, based on their belief in the screenwriter’s work.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Should a screenwriter register their script with the Library of Congress or the WGA… or both? And why?
Hakim Mulraine: It is in the best interest of the screenwriter to do all that they can to protect their intellectual property. The best way to do that is by registering your scripts with the Library of Congress and the WGA. If your script is stolen, you will be unable to file an infringement claim in federal court if you haven’t registered your script with the Library of Congress first. Also, you must file your script with the Library of Congress within 90 days of completion. Doing so will allow the writing to seek more compensation from infringers, which include, attorney’s fees and statutory damages.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What suggestions would you give a screenwriter looking to acquire rights for a book?
Hakim Mulraine: In the age where film studios pay millions to option and acquire the film rights to popular books, I would encourage the screenwriter to seek a partnership with the author. If the author is incorporated into the film process, with the promise of receiving a producer’s credit and greater compensation based on the successful of the film, they are more apt to forgo a large upfront sum. Also, who better to steer those fans that have purchased the book to see the film. Traditionally, studios acquire the film rights to an authors work through an Option and Literary Purchase Agreement. The studio will either hire a screenwriter to write the screenplay or allow the author to write it, which is rare. The author is often times offered an additional consulting fee to be on set during principal photography, in case there are any questions for him/her. However, this consultant title and fee is really a courtesy that is given to make the author feel as though he/she is actually involved in the process. Rarely is the author asked to actually give his/her input.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: When a screenwriter forms a partnership with another writer, and they want to split credit down the middle, what‘s the first thing you suggest to the screenwriter(s)?
Hakim Mulraine: It’s in the best interest of both writers that they negotiate and sign a collaboration agreement before they begin working together. The collaboration agreement will outline the parameters of ownership, control, compensation and credit between the two screenwriters.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: If a screenwriter is not a part of the Guild, what legal battles are they looking to face regarding re-writes, compensation, and rightful credit? Is there a plus side to not being a part of the Guild?
Hakim Mulraine: It is in the best interest of the screenwriter to become a guild member. The terms of the collective bargaining agreement, which was negotiated by the guild, was created to protect screenwriters from being taken advantage of by employers. It outlines everything from: compensation, credit, re-writes sequels to health insurance. As a guild member, screenwriters are protected from writing on spec without any fixed compensation. The guild sets minimum scale payments for flat fee deals as well as minimums per step, for any step deals. Step deals are often used when an employer is using an inexperienced writer. It allows the employer to end the services of the writer at the completion of any step in the writing process. Minimums covered under the collective bargaining agreement includes: Additional Compensation. Addition Compensation is paid to the writer if the Producer makes a sequel, remake or a television spinoff, based on screenwriter’s initial screenplay. These royalties are guaranteed and requires no additional work from the screenwriter. If the screenwriter is asked to write the sequel, remake or television spinoff as well, he/she would be entitled to an additional payment on top of the royalties for writing the initial screenplay.
Screenwriters, who are not members of the guild, will have to make sure to that they negotiate a detailed agreement with their employer that mirrors that rights in the WGA collective bargaining agreement. If not, screenwriter may not receive Addition Compensation for remakes, sequels,spinoffs or receive proper credit for their work. If the nonunion screenwriter doesn’t have good legal representation, then they put themselves in a position to be taken advantage of by their employer. If there is a benefit of not being a union member, it is that the screenwriter may be able to negotiate higher compensation than the WGA minimums.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: In your opinion, what dangers does a screenwriter face if they choose to opt out of using an entertainment lawyer, and take legal matters in their own hands?
Hakim Mulraine: There are a number of dangers that screenwriters face by not hiring an entertainment attorney, which include: poorly negotiated agreements, assigning away their copyrights, not receiving proper credit or compensation as well as being subject to legal liability from investors, copyright holders, distributors and talent. It is extremely important for screenwriters not to just hire any attorney. Find an entertainment attorney who knows the customs of the entertainment industry. As a seasoned professional that has worked with writers for over a decade, I’m always surprised when I’m asked by a writer to explain the terms and conditions of a contract that they previously signed, which was negotiated by their tax attorney. Hiring an attorney that doesn’t know the business and customs of the industry is a mistake. Many successful industry professional will tell you that they wish they could’ve negotiated better deals in the beginning of the careers. Screenwriters must invest in good representation, because they can’t realistically expect a producer or studio to invest in their work if they are not willing invest in themselves.
INTERVIEW WITH SCREENWRITING PUBLICIST, JOHN STELLAR [to view full article, click here: SCREENWRITING PUBLICITY]
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Why would a screenwriter need a publicist?
JOHN STELLAR: One of the main reasons is that every great screenwriter wants to begin building a support team around him/her as soon as possible. The majority of people find it difficult to “sell themselves” and an efficient publicist is a professional who can help tell your story powerfully, connect new dots and open doors through networking for your career.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: PR isn’t FREE. So what should a screenwriter look for in a publicist?
JOHN STELLAR: The first quality to look for is Passion. Is the PR person passionate about their life and work? And most important do they show some passion for your screenwriting abilities? Do you have a natural connection with the publicist and does it seem like they authentically resonate with your vision for screenwriting and your work? There are many PR professionals and firms that will happily take your money and you need to do your best to determine if there is a real connection for long term collaboration with them/their firm. And before signing any PR service agreement make sure to ask yourself “Do I really like this Publicist or PR firm?” If the answer is not a definitive YES do yourself and your career a favor…keep on looking for the right fit for this important member of your team.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Is the theory that “negative” PR is still “good” PR still accurate?
JOHN STELLAR: For years people have reasoned that any/all publicity (even negative) is still good publicity and it is true to some extent. Even negative focus on a company is attention for them and if it is all negative it will eventually take a negative toll.
During the past 22 years of providing PR service we have actually seen that it can be helpful to have a book or film considered “controversial” to bring attention to it. For example, we are still best known as the PR team that helped launch The Secret (book and DVD in 2006-2007) and it got labeled “controversial” just enough people to help fuel a “media frenzy” and give it a huge amount of global-attention.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: Can a publicist put you in contact w/ producers and industry professionals? If so, can you give an example?
JOHN STELLAR: Yes, an efficient Publicist who is passionate and connected to your work and vision will be able to make contact with producers and industry people in a variety of different ways. One recent example of a helpful connection we were able to make for an author client of ours was connecting him with Oscar Winning screenwriter Barry Morrow (creator/screenwriter for Rain Man). Our client had written his memoir about growing up Autistic in the 1950’s and 1960’s before it was a known thing. This ended up being the ideal type of story for Mr. Morrow and he had access to many things, including financing, that were a big help to our client making his story into a film.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: For screenwriters, who are the most important people in this industry that writers should foster a relationship with?
JOHN STELLAR: In general, you really do want to have great relationships with every quality person you meet in the Entertainment industry as it is a very small, essentially tight knit community. That said, some of the most important people for screenwriters to foster relationships with are development executives, directors and producers as these are the people who have the “keys” to having scripts made into feature films, television shows and web based series.
SCREENWRITING STAFFING: What’s the worst thing a screenwriter can do in today’s industry that could scar their career for life?
JOHN STELLAR: Our sense is that the greatest harm a screenwriter could do to his/her career is to be caught trying to pass someone else’s copyrighted material off as his/her own. This kind of news would get around the Entertainment industry quickly and would severely limit or cut off opportunities for future screenwriting projects. And so the best thing you can do is BE yourself, BE creative, and BE true to the dream and vision that you hold as a screenwriter regardless of what medium you prefer to write for.
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This article was written by Screenwriting Staffing’s Founder, Jacob N. Stuart. Jacob is an award-winning screenwriter with over 20 scripts either optioned or produced to screen, airing in over 15 different countries. He is a graduate of The Los Angeles Film School with a degree in FILM/ENTERTAINMENT. Outside of judging and spear-heading multiple film festivals across the country, he is a regular contributor for FINAL DRAFT and CREATIVE SCREENWRITING MAGAZINE. You can follow him on TWITTER.
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