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Screenwriting : What do you do when you feel beholden to a slow-moving producer/friend who does not in fact have an option on your script? by Richard Willett

Richard Willett

What do you do when you feel beholden to a slow-moving producer/friend who does not in fact have an option on your script?

An agent/producer friend of mine threw a short film idea at me when my partner and I were having dinner with him and his fiancee. He gave me only the bare bones and I then went off and wrote a script that he absolutely loved. He left the agency to become a full-time producer, did a very successful staged reading of my screenplay, and has been fund-raising toward producing it, but other projects (and life itself) keep getting in the way. Meanwhile, because we never did any kind of formal option agreement (and I was careful to copyright the script in my name and also register it with the WGA), I've been (with his full knowledge) entering it in short screenplay competitions, and it's been doing really well. I would sincerely like my friend to produce this movie, but how do I light a fire under him, and how ethical (and forgivable) would it be for me to just take it away from him at some point (we're good friends)?

Craig D Griffiths

The last three words sum it up. He shouldn't want to stand in your way. What is stopping production? Solve that issue. If he has raised most of the cash, you raise the final amount and go in as a co-producer. In that way you can assist in being a motivating influence. Plus it is great to have the writer on hand during a short.

Samantha Bryans

Be careful of working with friends. My friend asked me to produce his film and then he kept me in the dark and wouldn't let me do my job properly, the second I put my foot down, he makes up some excuse to throw a fit, pull the plug, and never speak to me again. And that's the short version of the story. I think Craig^^ has the right idea. I hope everything works out for you, whatever you decide to do.

Geoff Webb

Finding someone who wants to produce your script is a brilliant thing. Be patient patient patient and write something new, you can then sell yourself as an optioned writer.

Regina Lee

If the slow-mover brings something to the table, consider partnering him with a second producer rather than taking your producer/friend off the project.

Regina Lee

That said, it's completely ethical to take him off the project if/when he is not holding up his producing duties. As a friend/colleague, you might have a heart-to-heart and give him a 2nd chance before resorting to the nuclear option.

Elisabeth Meier

I don't know if the friend has "a duty" to produce it, guess he is waiting for something. Hence, it is wise to act as Craig advised you. You simply need to TALK which would clear the situation and rescue your friendship. Further, as I learned from our friends here, the WGA registration is nice to have, but will not protect your copyright at all. Better register at the Library of Congress, because this will really count if anyone should go to court. :) Good luck, I hope your friendship will survive.

Regina Lee

Btw, the more clout your friend has, the more business he's doing, the slower he might be -- but in the long run, he may also be extremely valuable because he's doing so much business.

William Martell

I've never done business with a friend that ever worked out.

Justin Murphy

I'm having a similar (yet slightly different) experience. An early writing mentor offered to pay me for adapting his out of print novel. He's been non-communicative this week, citing reasons outside of this (including health issues he has). He also does not want anything changed from the book (which is a bit of a problem). I really want to stick with this out of both loyalty and possible paying opportunity. Should I?

Regina Lee

Justin, my 2 cents - if he has simply "offered" to pay you, just wait and see if he comes back around with a contract. Those are not ideal circumstances. I wouldn't expend effort. If he comes back, fine. If not, fine.

Richard Willett

Another possible reason to do something like this, I suppose, is to get the experience. If you've never done an adaptation before, for example, Justin, this might be valuable just for the learning. If payment is important, then I would agree with Regina that a contract is a good idea. I never thought I would get payment for my short script up front, so I was willing to write it with no contract because that meant I still owned it. My concern is not so much payment but that my friend and I are both missing a great career opportunity. I'm waiting to hear back from the Austin Film Festival on the script's fate there in their new short script category (it's done well almost everywhere I've entered it), and then I'm going to call my friend, with or without good news from Texas, and I'm pretty optimistic we'll work it out. I just need to be more proactive and assertive. Easier for me to do, I find, with someone who's just a colleague and not a friend.

Regina Lee

Hey Richard, you're right, but because Justin will be handcuffed (the novelist will not allow him to take any creative license from the source material), the script will most likely not be a good writing sample of his work. In fact, the complete adherence to the novel may well result in a clearly BAD writing sample, thus possibly creating a bad first impression for him when the script goes out. He will have to make excuses, "Well I didn't want to write it that way. The novelist made me do it. I would have made better choices." Just wanted to state my reasons. I was being lazy the first time.

Richard Willett

I was being lazy, too, Regina, because I overlooked that detail. Of course if there really can be NO changes, then it's not a genuine adaptation and nothing much gets learned or gained. I've adapted my own stage plays and been amazed at how much they change (reams of dialogue, for example, fly out the window).

Justin Murphy

I should probably find a way to break off this transaction w/ the mentor. I have many books on Amazon Kindle. Should I revert back to writing those (despite going through a Spring/Summer sales slump)? Or go forward with another screenwriting endeavor? And same goes for Richard, you still have your own screenplays and stage plays to fall back on. Probably a smart decision for both of us.

Richard Willett

I think at this point you should do whatever your heart's in, Justin. I'm lucky because what's at stake for me here is a short script I wrote over a few days a couple years ago, so yes, I've moved on to other things. I just want to see the script filmed because people tell me it's one of the best things I've written.

Justin Murphy

And I hope the best for you...

Michael Eddy

Richard - I feel for you brother. Always a dicey situation at best - trying to get into business with friends. Wasn't it Shakespeare who said "Be not a borrower nor a lender" - or something in that neighborhood? And borrowing or lending - or doling out free options to friends and family is usually asking for trouble. I once had a friend come to me with an idea for a feature - because I was starting to make inroads there while he was toiling away at the occasional TV gig. It was based on a true story - but he had a twist ending in mind. I loved it - we were going to write it together. Barely got started when he got a paying job and asked to put it on the back burner. A lot of time went by. I was meeting with a prospective agent and told her the idea and she asked why I wasn't writing it and I told her I was waiting for this other guy. She suggested going to him and saying if he was busy - I'd write it on my own so it would regain some forward momentum. I pitched that scenario and he says, "Great idea. You write it and I'll be the producer". Red flags went off in my head because he'd never produced a thing. But I didn't want to put the cart before the first draft - so I went ahead and threw out the meager amount we had both done - started from scratch and did a first draft. Now this guy is like an albatross because our long ago agreement (spelling out a 75/25 writing split - which doesn't even conform to WGA rules and his getting a separate producer deal he does himself) was replaced when 2 other producers came on board - loved my script (which I had revised on my own a half dozen times over the years) - but didn't want a producer partner they'd never met. I broached that with the guy - and he says, "No problem - I'll drop my producer deal and we'll share the writing credit and all the writing money 50/50" - except that he hasn't written a word of the current script - and by WGA rules - would be entitled to only 1/2 of 25% of the writing monies attributed to the "story by". It's become a road block every time I'm close to a deal. As far as your guy dragging his feet and making you feel as if the forward momentum is being dissipated - at some point - you need to have "the talk" and move forward and cover your own ass. Like Regina said - if he has raised some of the money and gotten busy with other things - there are suggestions you can make - but the bottom line is if he's truly a friend - and realizes that his inaction is slowing you down - he can be creative about ramping things back up - or step aside. I once sold a spec to a major studio. They had a star in mind and contacted him - but he was notorious for saying yes (but never definitively so) and then wait and wait and wait. Since the studio was in control (supposedly) - I asked some friends (Oscar nommed writers and producers) "How long do you wait for a Star to make up his mind before you go elsewhere?" (Not a perfect parallel to you and your producer friend who pitched you an idea over dinner, but close enough for arguments sake). They told me about Warren Beatty being offered the lead in MISERY by Rob Reiner (coincidentally - and to my amazement since I never mentioned a name - Beatty was the guy the studio had reached out to on MY script). Warren said yes and then dragged his feet and never gave them a firm commitment and kept delaying. Finally, Rob said enough - and offered it to James Caan - and the rest is history (BTW - Bruce Willis is taking over the role on Broadway this fall). I was not so lucky. Beatty played the studio while he had another writer write him a completely different script (based on the same real life gangster), set it up at a different studio - screwed all of us. The moral is - you wait too long and it can come back to bite you in the ass - no matter how noble your intentions.

Richard Willett

Thanks for the advice, Michael. The saving grace here is that it's a short script I only invested a matter of hours in. It just happens to have been almost universally praised. I have a feeling my friend and I will be able to work something out. I blame the delay partly on my own reluctance to ask tough questions, and that's over now. I will keep my Stage 32 pals posted on how this goes.

Michael Eddy

It's not so much the amount of time invested as it is the results and the potential payoff down the line. Sounds like things are moving forward in a positive fashion. Best of luck.

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