GINA'S QUESTION: Why don't playwrights and novelists get rewritten?

Today’s reader question comes from Gina, who writes:

“I noticed that screenplays are always rewritten by many different writers but that would never happen to a playwright or novelist.  Why the double standard?  But, then again, that is how screenwriter’s will make their money on rewriting someone else’s screenplay.”
 
Well, Gina, screenplays often get rewritten by other people because– unlike in the world of theater or publication– when a screenwriter sells a script to a studio, he no longer retains ownership of it; the studio does.

In other words, if you sell a novel to Random House tomorrow, you’re really selling them just the publication rights (and probably only for a limited time).  But you still own your novel, its characters, the movie rights, the merchandising rights, etc. (probably).

Same thing if you get a play produced at a regional theater, or even on Broadway.  The play still belongs to you… so you could go sell the film rights or publication rights elsewhere… the producer is simply entitled to the stage rights.

Not so with movies or television.

In movies or television, the studio actually OWNS the script and almost everything that comes with it: merchandising rights, stage rights, etc.  This also means they can change it, re-title it, throw out half the characters, completely change the subplots, whatever.  They can also then hire ANYONE they want to come in and rewrite it… including you.  Which means if you sell your screenplay to Warner Brothers today, you are now– even though you’re the original author– just a “work for hire,” like every other scrambling screenwriter out there.  (However, the Writers Guild DOES mandate that when you sell a screenplay, you– the original screenwriter– must get first crack at the rewrite.  But after that first rewrite, the movie studio can fire you, team you with someone else, keep you aboard… whatever they want.  It’s their script.)

Now, just to complicate things, writers DO sometimes negotiate something called “separated rights,” which means they occasionally get to hold on to things like stage rights, publication rights, etc.  But how many separated rights you get depends on the stature and clout of you, the writer, as well as the quality of the agent or manager doing your deal.

Separated rights can get complicated, but here are links to a couple pages with good explanations…

•  The Artful Writer (a terrific screenwriting blog written by screenwriters Craig Mazin and Ted Elliot, whose combined credits include Shrek, Scary Movie, and Pirates of the Caribbean) – these guys do a good job of explaining separated rights simply and succinctly

•  The Writers Guild of America – Also good, but a much more in-depth, technical explanation

And for LOTS more information, check out The Writer Got Screwed (but didn’t have to), by lawyer Brooke A. Wharton.  The book is about 12 years old, but it still offers tons of great information on the legalities of screenwriting and Hollywood contracts.

I hope that helps, Gina!  Thank you so much for the question, and please keep reading!  We’ve got some great stuff coming up… many more reader questions, contests, book reviews, you name it!

Talk to you soon…

Chad

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