Australian screenwriters have known for a long time that they can leapfrog the limited opportunities available in Australia and talk directly with Hollywood. Actually doing it is like squelching off into a tropical jungle in search of El Dorado.
One useful tool is the Black List, a way of exposing spec scripts to the public gaze, which has substantial traction in the US. The actual list is an annual assembly of the most liked but unproduced scripts circulating round Hollywood.
Now the connection between Australia and The Black List has been formalised via Warner Bros Pictures and ScreenWest in the inaugural Australia Script Writing Opportunity. According to the announcement,
Eligible writers must be at least 18 years old, be either a legal Australian citizen or a permanent resident of Australia (with the intent to remain a resident), and have received writing credits on no more than one feature film or up to three hours of broadcast television (or a combination of both). First time writers are also encouraged to participate.
In other words, this scheme works for scriptwriters with no formal credits whatsoever.
It aims to generate one viable project, though Warner Bros could easily engage with more. The final date for the collection process is September 13, 2018, while any additional script assessment material must be created a month earlier, by August 13 2018.
The key to this scheme is Chris Veerhuis, a location manager and producer from Western Australia, who explained how it started and how it works.
'I was working on Breath as a co-producer, and got on really well with [LA executive] Tom Williams who invited me to Los Angeles.' Veerhuis is one of those rangy, practical characters who American studio heavies adore and secretly want to be. Williams has form in Australia as he was involved in The Chronicles of Narnia films shot on the Gold Coast.
Via another friend Veerhuis got to meet Greg Silverman, then the Head of Production at Warner Bros. 'We got chatting about Australian scripts and Australian writers, and Warners was talking about diversity and new voices and breaking through the ceiling.' said Veerhuis. 'Why don't you find us some amazing Australian talent?'
Not an easy ask, but Silverman was a friend of Franklin Leonard, who set up the Black List program, and the footballing boy from Wagga talked to the LA insider at the launch of Breath at the Toronto Film Festival, and they devised a system between them.
It works like this.
1. Screenwriter loads a script into the Black List website, and starts paying the US$25/month to keep it on display.
2. It is tagged as an Australian script.
3. Black List will engage a US reader to provide coverage on the script, for which the writer pays. They don't have to do this, but they are strongly encouraged to do so, as it provides a summary and a US-focused outside opinion. According to the release,
The Black List recommends—but does not require—that writers obtain at least one script evaluation for their hosted scripts, as the data from script evaluations inform the process by which the short list of writers is determined for this Australian Script Writing Opportunity. The Black List offers writers many opportunities for free script evaluations. Evaluations can also be purchased for $75 USD.
4. Data about external interest is created, and a short list of the tagged scripts is assembled.
5. Those scripts are diverted to Warner Bros, where they are read in the script department. They already have a deal with Leonard to divert other scripts from non-traditional sources to the studio.
5. This pile also goes to Veerhuis' own company. He may choose to indicate interest for production in WA - which is part of the reason why Screen West is also behind it.
6. The WB creative executives could discover a possible creative link between a script and another project on the slate which needs a writer.
7. WB will then develop a deal for what is called a two stage blind scriptwriting deal. In the first stage, the writer fleshes out the idea with the studio and - if that works - does an initial draft in stage two. After that, everyone is doing business in the normal way.
8. There is an Australian kink to this. WB will be offering ideas which the studio thinks could be shot Down Under, which is why they want an Australian writer.
9. It is possible that the spec script itself will be commissioned. It can be picked out of the list in the usual Black List process by other companies, which could be clever Australians also looking for fresh voices, or it could entice Warner Bros in itself. Or Veerhuis could pick it up on his own slate, and it could be produced in Western Australia.
Everyone is being transparent here. Black List gets paid by the writer, Warners gets access to a line of scripts, Veerhuis gets to see the bundle of projects, WA gets a tendency for the project to be made there.
The writers get to belong to the Black List community, and can use the rich resources on the site, much of which is freely available. But they do have to accept that the studios believe pre-existing works of scriptwriting art are just demonstration jobs to get access to the real gig, which is working on their ideas and their IP.
The whole thing is also a cunning way in which Warner Bros gets into the development process for Australian films right at the beginning, to ensure that it has a global or at least US edge. They are tinkering with the DNA rather than retrofitting.
According to Franklin Leonard in the release, 'It’s especially exciting that our platform will be involved in exposing many writers—not just those selected to work for Warner Bros. Pictures—to industry professionals in Hollywood and in filmmaking communities beyond it. These are truly exciting times.'
In this chaotic time, the demand for material is insatiable, and the hopeful dreamers are gathered outside the gates. This is like getting a key to the side door in the mail. That, as Chris Veerhuis has already demonstrated, is the way it always works.
For more information or to submit your script, click here.
Jan Sardi, President of the Australian Writers' Guild pointed out that the organisation is generally happy with competitions, and runs the Scripted Ink program for experienced screenwriters. But he cautions that writers should check their agreements carefully, and members can use the Guild's legal services for that purpose.
American contracts can specify a work for hire clause, in which writers assign all rights in return for benefits like health care and pensions. There is no such provision in Australian copyright law. In a world desperate for content, it is important to defend the ongoing rights of writers, rather than exchanging them for a one-off fee, so they can take advantage of a project's success. Not to mention the rights to spinoffs and sequels. 'I recommend that before writers sign any agreements at all, they should seek advice on the rights being assigned,' he said.
Even with the inside running, making a living as a screenwriter is tough, lawyers can be slippery and functioning internationally is not always fun.
As Sir Walter Raleigh once wrote in his diary, deep in the jungles of Colombia,
'So we boiled our boots with spices and set out once more in search of El Dorado.'
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