When to Undo Writing Credits – A Ridiculous Journal of Eventual Success

Originally published in Script magazine May/June 2011

Aaron Ginsburg is a longtime TV/Film writer, producer and director. His television writing/producing credits include The 100 (CW), The Good Guys (Fox), The Finder (Fox), Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe (USA), and Intelligence (CBS), to name a few. Follow Aaron on Twitter: @DrLawyerCop.

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Illustration: Paul Pape

I didn’t recognize the title of the screenplay. In fact, flipping through the dense 120-page document, I didn’t recognize anything. The characters, the dialogue, the plot were all clearly written by somebody else. So, why on earth did the title page claim this script was written by me?

Coffee & Commission

A small production company wanted to commission us to write them a screenplay. At that point in our “professional” careers, Wade, my writing partner, and I had never been paid (you know, actual American currency) to write anything other than soul-sucking reality television. Naturally, we jumped at the invitation.

Our first meeting with the folks at Impetus Films took place, like 68 percent of all other vaguely legitimate Hollywood meetings, at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. The head producers, Robert Jacobson and Phil Strohm, were not, as I’d imagined, a pair of grizzled, cigar-chomping, old-Hollywood power players who drank their coffee with whiskey and called movies “pictures.” Instead, Robert and Phil were our age, young and eager. They’d recently formed a production company and wanted to hire us. However, rather than option one of our screenplays, Robert and Phil had dreamt up several of their own feature ideas and they wanted us to write one.

“Take your pick,” Robert said with a big smile as he handed us the Impetus Films development slate.

The document contained seven titles and loglines for screenplay concepts … or should I say seven titles and loglines for absolutely terrible screenplay concepts. Wade and I’d hoped we’d be leaving the meeting with an offer to write one of our own scripts, but it was clear that if we wanted this deal, we’d have to make some lemonade.

Prose & Concepts

Safely back at my apartment, Wade and I debated the pros and cons of working with Impetus Films. The guys seemed nice enough, but neither of us particularly responded to their truly questionable screenplay ideas. On the other hand, being paid—even a nominal fee—to write something might look good on the old résumé. Who were we to turn down our first paid screenwriting gig? So the question became could we take one of these lame concepts and transform it into a good script? Wade wasn’t so sure.

“It’s not that I don’t think we’re good writers … it’s just that their ideas are that bad.”

In the end, we decided to take the risk. We’d choose the least awful of Robert and Phil’s loglines and immediately branch off from there. Use the seed of their idea, but let the resulting screenplay reflect our own sensibilities, our own storytelling. I scanned the development slate again for inspiration and eventually pointed to a concept.

Wade sighed, “Attorney-At-Love?”

I winced, “I’m thinking the title will be the first thing we change.”

Red Flags

“Congratulations,” our lawyer said, sarcastically. “This is one seriously lowball offer with one weird pay structure.” We’d sent him the contract to review, and he wasn’t happy at all with the deal. “As their contract is drafted, you guys could be required to make endless revisions to each writing step before you get paid!”

I reminded our lawyer that we’d never been hired to write a screenplay before, and we were just trying to look at it as a positive foot-in-the-door experience. Our lawyer scoffed, “This is simply not how professional writers work in this business.” After a week of negotiations, the sticky contract issues had been—more or less—resolved, and writing on the soon-to-be retitled Attorney-At-Love could finally begin.

Sure, there were red flags. From the bad loglines to the unacceptable contract to the fact that Robert and Phil drank their coffee without whiskey and called movies “movies,” Wade and I should have seen trouble coming. Alas, we were too excited to be getting paid (barely any, you know, American currency) to write a screenplay.

After a few months, we handed in our first draft of a romantic comedy we had renamed Lawyer-In-Law. As to be expected, Impetus Films had notes. They didn’t seem disappointed that we’d taken their original concept in a new direction, and after a two-hour discussion, Wade and I set forth to tackle the first of two contractual rewrites.

Over the next month, things went smoothly. We turned in a rewrite, got notes, turned in the second rewrite, got a few more notes. When we turned in our one contractual polish, the script was in great shape and we were ready to send it out.

Unfortunately, Robert and Phil still had a few more notes. Not many. Just a handful. They’d just thought of them. Seeing as how the script was so close to completion, Impetus Films delicately asked if we’d do a “Producer’s Polish.” This occurs when producers ask for additional services that aren’t paid. Wade and I had come this far, we decided we might as well see the project through to the end.

Three days later, we turned in our free polish and Robert pitched us his plan, “We wanna send this sucker out wide. Get it onto every desk. Into every office. In front of as many eyes as possible. Build excitement and sell it! How’s that sound?” It sounded great to us. “There’s just one thing,” Robert added, tip-toeing. “After your last polish, a few things got murky, and … I could easily tweak them myself but … if you wouldn’t mind … ?”

More notes? We didn’t want any more notes, but the only thing worse than doing more free writing for Impetus Films was imagining Robert trying to incorporate the changes himself. We’d read his terrible writing in the painful development slate. So, against our better judgment, we agreed to provide a second free producer’s polish.

The notes were minor, and Wade and I hammered them out eagerly. We were anxious to get one of our scripts submitted to every studio in the city. “The thing is,” Phil explained this time, tip-toeing, “we had some coverage done on the script, to get a preview of the studio response, and they had a few great notes. I could easily tweak them myself, but … ”

Before we knew it, Wade and I were dismantling our structure, reconceiving the character journeys, replacing dialogue … all based on some studio coverage. We had worked so hard on the script, and we weren’t about to let two non-writers tinker with key elements at this stage in the game. Sure, the minuscule payments had stopped coming in three rewrites ago, but still we agreed to provide a third free producer’s polish.

After turning in this last draft to Robert and Phil, we heard nothing. For a week, we waited and wondered if Impetus Films had fallen into a volcano. Then, at last, we received a painfully “casual” e-mail asking for a Final Draft version of the script so that Robert and Phil could “try out some of their own ideas.”

We’d written and rewritten and polished and repolished for free in a seemingly Sisyphean endeavor, but at last, Impetus Films accepted that we’d fulfilled our contract and if they wanted to change anything else, they’d need to do it themselves.

Credit Crunch

A month later, a chipper e-mail arrived from Robert and Phil containing a script with their “current revisions” and a warm note that said, “Hey guys, what do you think of our tweaks? We’re planning on sending it out wide soon!”

I opened the file and my heart sank. Their revisions were a page-one rewrite, apparently spearheaded by Robert. The result was what one might expect from such a brilliant wordsmith: an unfunny, poorly conceived, charmless, structureless script; a complete and utter disaster. He’d even added a cute dog. The most shocking discovery was that, literally, not a single line from our original screenplay remained. In fact, the only thing they had kept of ours was the credit, which now read: Courting Marie – Written by Aaron Ginsburg & Wade McIntyre. Current Revisions by Robert Jacobson.

Why would they send us this piece of crap? Why would they think we’d want to see our names on someone else’s writing?! Wade and I knew, without speaking, that we needed to remove our names from the script as soon as humanly possibly. Within seconds, we were on the phone with our lawyer, whose tone dripped with an “I told you so” smugness. We discussed our options, from using a pseudonym to retaining “story by” credit in the unlikely event that Impetus Films actually sold the piece of crap. Wade even suggested “we wrap our flawed, yet far superior, script around a brick and throw it through the windshield of their car.”

In the end, after a year of writing, the highlight of our first paid screenwriting gig wasn’t getting due credit for our work, but rather the moment our lawyer called to say he’d successfully wrenched our names off the title page.

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