So you want to become a screenwriter – Part 2

by James Bell on January 22, 2009


Last time, we went over the basics before writing a script. Now let’s look at the considerations after writing a script.

I’ve written a script, now what?

This is a multi-part answer. There are lots to do, and lots to know. First things first though, let’s protect it.

There are a couple ways to do this:

NOTE: Laws and Jurisdiction applies differently in different parts of the world – research the laws to fully understand them so you know just what your rights are.
  1. Go to any registered post office and send a printed copy of your script to yourself. Make sure it’s registered mail, which will get you a date and time stamp on the envelope by a registered authority of Canada.
    NOTE: Do not open it. This is used as proof for time of creation, if you open it you will lose that. This will cost about 8-16 dollars.
  2. Go to the WGC or WGA websites (writer’s guilds of Canada and America, respectively). Navigate your way through these sites to find either an online registry or a mailing address and application for your work. Fill out applications and send or upload a file of your screenplay (usually PDF if uploading). All guilds keep databases for your work in case of problems. Usually costs between 20- 40 dollars.

These are the most effective ways to protect your work and it pretty much ends there. You cannot trademark a name, or a concept. We highly recommend looking into all the aspects of intellectual copy write law for your own good, or contacting a lawyer if you feel the need.

But understand that just because you have an idea, doesn’t mean you were the first. Idea’s are great, but they’re a dime a dozen. What you need to do is execute them to the best of your abilities. Often, the execution of a premise is better than the premise itself.

Do I need to join the union?

No, you don’t. Most writers don’t even get the chance to, even if they want to. Getting into the union works like this-

If you sell a screenplay to a production company, they must be an authorized signatory of a union. All unions have lists of signatory’s on their sites (we recommend checking them out). If they are a signatory, then to purchase your work they must give you a contract structured under bargaining standards set within the guilds guidelines. They may not buy your work without doing so.

If a producer or company is not a signatory they do not, in fact, have to give you such a contract and may actually give you something far below minimum, or nothing at all. Both guilds have ‘low-budget’ standard contacts for productions that may fall under the usual guidelines, but even a ‘low-budget’ contract has minimums.

If you work for a signatory, you must become a member. If you don’t work for one, you can’t become a union member because you won’t have the required credits. Also, once you’ve become a member, you may not work for anything outside of guild standards, low-budget or not. Please check guild sites for updated information on such practices, we aren’t lawyers here and are by no means the final say on any of this.

Do I need an agent to be a writer?

No. Does it help? It can, for sure. There are many working writers that have no agents, or even some that only have managers. This really comes down to networking, who you know and who you don’t. Agents and managers are in the business to sell work. They have contacts that all writers hope to find. But getting an agent isn’t easy. It’s much harder to get an agent for writing than it is for, lets say, acting. Your work needs to be top class to send to an agent, and we don’t recommend wasting time sending them work that isn’t.

A smart move to garner some interest though, if you’re ready, is by querying agencies and in particular, assistants. Assistants often become the next agent. And the best way for them to get ahead is to find something so valuable; it can’t be missed out on. Your script could be that. Don’t think of assistants as just the people that answer phones. They may be much more down the line, and as it stands already, they are working in closer proximity to people you want to get to know. So treat them well, with respect and see if they might be interested in reading your script. Couldn’t hurt.

Another route is screenplay competitions. The Nichol fellowship is perhaps the world’s most acclaimed screenplay competition (the Academy puts it on), but there are others. These competitions are often browsed or even judged by agents and managers, producers and directors too – to see what types of writers are coming down the pipeline. It’s a great way to get noticed, but it’s never a sure thing. There are always more writers than there are great scripts.

Be VERY WARY though, as you’ll find more competitions out there than are worth entering. Look around, ask questions and see what ones come recommended. Sometimes competitions will promise the winner’s script will be made, but have a hidden clause for them to back out with – stay away.  Stick to only the ones with a great reputation.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole Fairbrother January 25, 2009 at 3:54 pm

Do the same rules apply for your Canadian screenplay if it’s being bought and made in L.A.?

Kenji Maeda January 27, 2009 at 7:46 pm

@ Nicole
I asked James and this is what he had to say:

If the question is more directed towards the ‘Union’ Process of things – then absolutely it applies. In fact, it may be way more strict. You always have the choice to go fi-core…but that’s a tenuous path at best, and not one likely to make a ton of friends – but one way around union contracts.

In terms of the rest of everything – it all pretty much applies, the same works for LA as works here- except everything is bigger, more challenging, stricter and difficult.

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