The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

April 1998

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 5 April 98 Copyright ©1998 alt.screenwriters

Many of the screenwriters who have entered the New Media market have found that the traditional writer-for-hire model they are used to in the film and TV world doesn’t work as well in this new venue. Because no pre-existing payment models (e.g., residuals, sequel payments, etc.) and creative rights models (e.g., separated rights, right of first refusal, etc.) exist, writers have found it difficult to negotiate both the financial and literary protections taken for granted when working for a studio or network.

Not surprisingly, screenwriters who have staked out terrain on this new frontier are seeking new models and rethinking what it means to be a creator of entertainment content. Some of them have even elected to start their own development companies. How is this new breed of entrepreneurial writers redefining the term “screenwriter”, and is this a viable route for writers as we enter a new century? We talked to several writer/entrepreneurs to find out the pros and cons of their move: Jeff Sullivan, who with partner Bruce Onder founded Digital Arcana (which is developing online role-playing and adventure games) in Los Angeles; Melinda Bell, who with husband Bruce Ford started up Play Again Interactive (which develops children’s CD-ROM and Web projects) in the Bay Area; and John Geilfuss, who began his Jet City Studios (which develops online entertainment for the subscription-only Disney Blast website, among others) in Seattle.

“One of the key reasons we created our company was to enable us to create original content and get it out there,” states Sullivan. This is echoed by by Bell and by Geilfuss, who found that “Freelance writers are typically only brought in (by new media companies) to embellish an existing concept. Forming my own company was the only way of insuring creative involvement from beginning to end.”

While creative control was the primary reason for all of these writers starting their own companies, they had a secondary reason as well. “You get to keep all the money,” Bell points out.

Wearing two hats, that of writer and of owner, creates new problems, however. The primary disadvantage of this arrangement is succinctly summarized by Bell: “You get to keep all the money.”

In other words, your pay is not a fixed amount with possible profit participation or residuals to come. Your pay is the profit, if any. “You have to wait until the product’s finished to know if the effort/time/emotion you put into the product is actually going to bring financial reward. I was very lucky,” reports Bell.

And all of that is after expenses, after taxes, and after everyone else is taken care of. “You’re on the hook for a constant ‘burn rate'”, says Sullivan. “No matter what paying projects you’ve got going at any given time, you still have to pay all the bills and payroll of your people. That keeps the pressure on you to be out there making deals — sometimes, even ones you wouldn’t otherwise make.”

All of these writers agreed that potential conflicts lurk between the writer and owner roles. Sullivan notes that “You need to wear two hats: creative visionary and hard-nosed cost- conscious producer. It’s a delicate balance keeping them both in line.” Another conflict, according to Geilfuss, is “having to pass on projects that are of creative interest to me…but aren’t robust enough to support my whole team.”

Sullivan has found yet another conflict: “There are issues with us covering ourselves for Pension & Health that have yet to be ironed out. Because we make money both as management and creative in our company, it is difficult to define what contributions should be based on, and the default answers seem to be unattractive to us as business owners.”

Clearly, if the writer-as-entrepreneur model gathers steam, the Guild may have to begin redefining its relationship with the writer…

But for the present, is this a path other writers should explore? Maybe, these writers say. Bell: “Make sure you’re a risk-taker.” Geilfuss seconds this: “If you’ve got the stomach to be an entrepreneur, I definitely recommend giving it a shot. But remember, writing is only one piece of the job. Make sure you understand the other responsiblities of running a new media company before you dive in (working for an existing company is a great way to learn the day-to-day ropes).”

If you’re lucky, these writers say, you might actually wind up making a little money and keeping your company going. But there are other rewards aside from the financial. “I remember the first time I showed my product,” recalls Bell. “And kids who had just come from the LucasArts booth — where they were playing Rebel Assault — took up the mouse and started playing with my one-man project and said: ‘This is cool.’ Well, even if I hadn’t made a dime after that, it would have all been worthwhile.”

Written by tborst

April 5, 1998 at 11:21 pm

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