BUILDING A BRIDGE TO HOLLYWOOD: Writing Partnerships Take Caution

Monica Lee Bellais is a screenwriter/producer who has worked at James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG, Smithsonian Networks, Discovery Communications, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and TeleProductions International (TPI). Follow Monica on Twitter @CreativeMonica.

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Writing Partnerships Take Caution – You’ll start out hot and heavy with epic ideas bouncing around, but a lot of writing relationships bite the dust, but writing partnerships can and do work.

writing parntershipsEnter each project intelligently.

Retain an entertainment lawyer (not a real estate lawyer, not a divorce lawyer, not a criminal lawyer, or your mom’s best friend’s brother’s lawyer) to draft up an agreement immediately.

Your friendship / writing partner relationship will change completely without this vital agreement.

Think of it as a creative prenup. The development phase is all lovey-dovey and hopefully doesn’t spiral out control as the world for your characters progress, or your writing styles differ. Otherwise, you’ll be left with a broken relationship, and it will evolve into a classic legal battle of who owns what part of the screenplay. See, this is why a solid legal agreement is essential!

BFF Screenwriters – If you’re starting out, do not write with your BFF. I guarantee your relationship will fizzle without a basic agreement in place. The best situation is to have an understanding of how your working relationship will pan out.

Remember, this is not your pal you hang out with on the weekends to bicker about your boss, family, or how the government is or isn’t working. This is someone you’ve developed a concept or awesome idea for a screenplay out of nothing more than a quick discussion along the lines, “Hey, that would make an incredible movie.” Before you can get this idea into the hands of a financier, producer, director or actor there are some cautionary tales to learn from.

Cubby-Officemate Screenwriters – If you’re in breaking into the industry because you want to quit your day job, and your co-worker hates working for The Man too, then stop now. This is completely the worst reason to attempt a career in entertainment – especially as a screenwriter.

Learning the fundamentals of story development, screenwriting, and navigating the industry is a lot of pressure and that probably will break your cubby-officemate relationship and get you fired because you are too distracted to work, or you suddenly hate your co-worker / ex-writing-partner.

You’re looking at an absolute disaster waiting to happen. Don’t quit yet – there’s a long road ahead – especially if you’re sharing a creative vision with someone before opening it up to decision makers, also known as the people in charge of writing the checks.

The Breakup – If things fall apart, there’s a very good chance that you’ve lost your friendship, a lot of time and energy, and unfortunately most likely the project you’ve invested months or even years crafting now can never be used. Financiers, producers, directors and directors stand clear from these creative calamities.

Best-case scenario is you hold a great writing sample, but now you have a non-fiction story of how your partnership fell apart and you can’t work together – that’s rather embarrassing to explain to folks interested in your work.

The Good News From The Bad Experience – You lost a friendship and will have drained everything except the knowledge that you’ll walk away much more creatively intelligent, and “never do that again.”

I’m not a complete Debby Downer, because it is possible with a solid writing plan and schedule. Some writers like to sit in the same room and collaborate. Others like to disappear and immerse into the world that’s evolving around the story lines, and regroup to weave the story threads together.

Come up with an organized way of saving files. Yes, this is elementary, but I’ve seen it over and over when a Type A+ personality starts a file and the disorganized writing partner doesn’t keep track and starts edits in a document without using the “revisions mode” in Final Draft.

If you don’t like working this way you can still parse out pieces of the script.  If one of you is better at writing dialogue, and the other action, go for it.  If one is better at certain character voices and the other at other character voices, by all means, split it up. But remember, you still need a coherent and consistent STORY.  Cutting and pasting can seriously impact that story.

Solid Writing Plan – Ultimately, if you and your writing partner have a set plan and stick to it, things will workout wonderfully. Once the script is completed that’s when the fun begins as you both take pitch or general meetings to sell yourself as a writing team that has a great script.

How will you parse out the writing?  Who will do what and – and this is important – when?  If you do decide to collaborate, split the story up into pieces, and have each collaborator write the pieces.  Beginning, middle and end.  Have clear direction on what each expects to happen in each “chunk” and how you will progress from A to B to C.   Make the work roughly equal, and set reasonable time limits.  Then double them.

In most occasions the writing partnership works out well. There are numerous successful writing teams – look at the Matt Damon / Ben Affleck bromance of writing partnerships. The Academy Award Winning film Good Will Hunting got them on the map.

If something doesn’t work in the story, then be prepared to ditch the character, scene, or subplot. You can always save elements and use in another screenplay – think of it this way, you’re still keeping that idea/concept, just not for the current screenplay you’re crafting.

Respect Required – A writing partnership is a relationship. Work hard. Be honest as a writing partner and walk the razor’s edge of staying true to you as an artist and screenwriter. GROW as a person and encourage your writing partner to grow by accepting the story suggestions. The Business of Show is about relationships, just as much as it is about the projects. Without the business relationships, the projects are nothing.

It’s the relationships that move the projects forward. If you are not someone who can work with others as a writing partner that is fine, but remember once you finish the script there will be dozens of people who chime in about the script you just wrote – they will want their development notes incorporated, and you’re back to square-one writing – rewriting and reworking your script to get it just right.

If you have a writing partner – pick up the phone, plan a face-to-face meeting and have a good conversation to move your screenplay forward.

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