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  • The Biggest Threat to Screenwriters in the Digital Age

    March 26th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    It used to be that a screenwriter’s biggest fear was pitching or sending a script to a producer and them stealing their idea and making a billion dollars without them. But in the new digital, social media age where every week there seems to be a new website that writers can post their scripts on in the hopes of being reviewed, loved and discovered, the biggest threat to screenwriters – is other screenwriters.

    Between Amazon, BlackList, Talentville, Virtual Pitchfest, InkTip, Greenlightmymovie, Triggerstreet, SpecScout and many more – there are a ton of websites that promise (or at least intimate) you will gain access, attention, accolades and success from Hollywood heavyweights by using their sites and posting your scripts or pitches or synopses. And many of them do have great success stories. Some of them are even free. But there’s a downside to posting your script in a forum or on a site where ANYONE – not just Hollywood professionals – can see it.

    Let me preface this article by saying that I don’t have anything against any of the aforementioned sites and I have worked with (and continue to work with) a few of them. I believe the people running all of those sites have the best of intentions and are not doing anything wrong.

    However, this past week, one of my clients (who will remain nameless but I’m sure many of you reading this may know who I’m talking about) had an issue on one of these popular script-posting/review sites. She discovered that there was another project with the same title and basic concept, time period and protagonist posted onto the site months after she had posted hers. Now, it was a TV script and hers was a feature, and after reading both it was clear to me there were notable differences in the stories, writing and focus. But, they were definitely similar. And while it wasn’t a wholly original story, it was original enough – especially the title – to draw some ire from numerous writers.

    After much ado, and numerous emails between the parties (some of them contentious), the situation was looked into by the website and resolved as best as possible considering no one had sold their project yet and no one could actually PROVE anything. Though mark my words – if one of their projects sells, there will be a lawsuit. Which means both their projects are now tainted and if a production company hears there might be a registration claim against a script, they will most likely stay away.

    Writers need to know there is basically no recourse through the site when something like this happens (especially if it’s a FREE site), because most have terms and conditions you have to agree to before you post your material, and any smart site will include a big old paragraph that basically says – “Post at your own risk. It ain’t our fault if your story gets jacked.”  At least, that’s the legal terminology I would use.

    In addition, if you’re posting into Facebook groups, screenwriting forums like the notorious Done Deal Pro or others, many people use screen names, fake names or pseudonyms – so you’d never be able to find out who actually took your idea.

    Let me ask you something – why the hell do you care what a fellow amateur screenwriter living 3000 miles away from you thinks about your screenplay? Do you know what their opinion means? Absolutely nothing! Many of these sites and forums are the blind leading the blind. And in the land of the blind, the one-eyed-man is king.

    Situations like the one I mentioned above seem to be happening on a weekly basis now – and it’s not going to improve until these sites take more control over what’s being posted and have a more in-depth system or screening process or algorithm to compare (or search for) projects. Or until writers realize that posting their script for peer reviews is mostly a waste of time and often opens them up to more harm than good. Everyone is so hell bent on getting feedback from EVERYONE and getting their script in front of as many eyes as possible, that they don’t realize some of the pitfalls of posting their projects or loglines or ideas online.

    And some contests aren’t much better. First and second round judges for many contests out there, are writers. Perhaps they’re writers with a couple options under their belt or a manager or agent, or some credits. But for the most part, it’s out of work writers trying to make some extra money. And the rest of the judges are readers, who get 20 bucks a script. It isn’t until the quarter or semifinal rounds where more major Hollywood professionals get involved in the judging.

    So this leaves burgeoning writers with two very important questions – How do you promote yourself, get read and try to break in while ensuring your ideas won’t be stolen? And are you sabotaging your career if you refuse to post your scripts on these websites or enter contests?

    The answer to the first question is just to be smart and protect yourself and always keep a paper trail! Know when you registered the script, know when you copyrighted it, know when you started writing it, know the first time you pitched it to someone. Know what sites, at what times, your script was posted and keep a log of who has seen it or read it or commented on it. And that goes for your writers groups and friends as well. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned after 10 years in this business, it’s that friendships don’t mean dick when there’s money at stake.

    Read ALL terms and conditions before you post. Try to post on sites where there is more DIRECT access to professionals or where it’s only professionals who can access your projects. Or where YOU can control the access. At least with Virtual Pitchfest, for example, your query letter goes directly to the professional and no one else is able to see it.

    The answer to the latter question I posed, is YES. By choosing NOT to put your script out there at all, you are cutting off your nose to spite your face. You can’t be THAT precious with your idea, because chances are it’s already been done anyway. And if you’re not trying to pitch and sell your idea, then what was the point in writing it? You can’t sit there and complain that you’re not being discovered if you’re not being pro-active about getting your script read. But again, you have to protect yourself.

    Do NOT post your brand new, unregistered idea or logline or synopsis in Facebook groups or on twitter or in ANY screenwriting forum asking for feedback. If you want to know if your idea or project sounds commercial and might be worth pursuing, or you want to brainstorm your story concepts (especially before they are written), then for the love of God – go to someone who isn’t a fellow writer! You’re not selling your project to other writers anyway – you’re selling them to execs, producers and reps!

    I realize I’m a bit biased here, but use a professional! Pay the $50 bucks and use a professional who can give you constructive feedback but will also keep your project confidential and won’t be wondering the whole time if your project and idea sounds better than the ones they are trying to write.

    Pitching to an executive or producer or submitting work to a script consultant or even your own personal writing groups is much safer than posting your story all over the internet. Why? Because the former all rely on their reputations staying intact in order to stay in business. And if someone in your writers group stole your idea – you’d know who they are, where to find them, and exactly how they got it. There would be a clear paper trail.

    Now, the law of averages – and the sheer number of writers and scripts out there – dictates that your idea was probably thought of by someone else, somewhere. Every few months, I get two clients that submit a similar story or concept and they live countries apart and have no connection to each other whatsoever. Even the most random of story ideas, has probably been thought of in some form by someone else. It’s just a coincidence and there’s nothing you can do about it. And just FYI, I do inform my clients when that occurs.

    This happens to professional writers and production companies all the time as well. When I was at my old production company, Clifford Werber Productions, I sold an “Oz” movie to United Artists. We were first out of the gate. But within months there were 4 other Oz projects set up and as you can see…ours didn’t win the race. We developed a revamped Jack and the Beanstalk…oh well. We developed a project called “Family Bond” and the very week we sent it out to the town, another script titled “Family Bonds” (with an S) was also sent around by another producer and the story was eerily similar. And just this month, a consulting client of mine submitted a script with the same concept as one I developed years ago at CWP. It happens all the time because as different as we are, humans all share certain experiences and people write what they know.

    And if you suspect that one of your projects, ideas or scripts has been “stolen” in some way, the best way to handle it – is calmly. Don’t go threatening lawsuits or demanding anything – especially of the sites on which the projects were posted. First, read the other writer’s project to make sure it’s not just a similar title or same broad generic idea. Make sure there are REAL similarities throughout the script. Investigate, do your due diligence, go back thru your paper trail, and contact the writer or the site and try to come up with a resolution that benefits you all. And worst comes to worst, take down your project and just move on to the next one. Because if your script has been posted on a site for 9 months and NO ONE has read it or contacted you about it – it’s not doing you any favors anyway.

    In the 90s, it was snail mail query letters. In the 2000s, it was email queries and pitchfests. In the 2010s, the new norm of breaking in for writers without connections is thru social media and self-promotion thru certain types of websites. And the fact that new writers can more easily connect to big Hollywood players is a great thing. But with these new rules and opportunities, come new threats and problems that writers need to be aware of, and protect themselves. And hopefully now, you’ll be a bit better prepared.

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