IT DEPENDS: The Joys (and Dangers) of Workshopping

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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There is strength in numbers, it is often said. What’s seldom said is that that strength can be for or against you, depending. John Heywood may have opined that many hands make light work (The Proverbs and Epigrams of John Heywood (A. D. 1562)), but, when all those hands are done, he was mute on who’s supposed to get the credit.

The concept of getting several people to help out with creative work is still in vogue today. A popular way of getting ideas to coalesce into a new creative endeavor is workshopping. Workshopping can be defined as purposefully allowing the creative input of others to help flesh out and test ideas as a new work is forming. It can be a useful tool for screenwriting as well as other parts of filmmaking where “throwing it against the wall to see what sticks” before committing time and money towards a finished product might be beneficial.

Workshopping outside of writing

Workshopping is not exclusive to film. Theatre folk sometimes stage public readings or do test runs of plays in development to get a sense of how the work is progressing. Feedback from test audiences can hone the work before the big costs of mounting a Broadway or West End production.

Computer programmers have their own form of workshopping referred to as “over the transom” development cycles where very early and barely functioning programs are quickly released to a select group of testers/users to get immediate feedback as to what’s working already, what needs to be added and what directions of development are most desired. This feedback is quickly incorporated into a new version that goes through the same, rapid development process until a solid functioning and well received version evolves. Many other industry use similar feedback loops to advance their output toward a finished product.

Workshopping of a sort can even be done once a film gets made. Showings of a nearly finished edit of a film can lead filmmakers to discover where problems may exist, leading to recuts or reshoots (or scrapping the film altogether). Beware of relying on the veracity of test screenings though. Where the screening are done and who’s actually in the audience may not give you the best indications of what the general audience would actually think of the film.

So if the process is so broadly used, it should be safe for writers to use, right? (What do you think my answer is going to be?)

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Workshopping and the allure of feedback

Who wants to put the work into something difficult to create when there’s a chance that no one wants the end product once all is said and done? Feedback is something that keeps the creator on track, aligning their efforts to the desires of the intended audience so that the reception of the final draft has some hope of pleasing someone. Writers use feedback all the time. There are script consultants, producers’ notes, readers comments, etc. any of which might trigger a better approach or idea that the writer might not have discovered on her own.

Since feedback is SO useful, and the end result can be potentially so much better, why should you hesitate a bit when considering workshopping?

Workshopping creative output and its special problems

Writing has a benefit that is also a curse. The mechanics are simplistic and easy to master. A two year old can write. Someone who only has access to a pencil and scrap paper, can write. You don’t need an engineering degree or specialized tools to produce your end product when you are a writer. Anyone can attempt to do it. All you need are the ideas (and talent of expressing those ideas in a proper form, of course.)

But that same easy access to the process is one of the main reasons that workshopping can be problematic. Lots of people think that coming up with the ideas is the really difficult part of writing. They dismiss the actual expression part of the task as mere busy work, putting it in the right format and such. You’ve all heard someone say the infamous phrase about an idea so good, “it’ll write itself!” I immediately want to throw a pad of paper and pencil on the table in front of that person and say, “THAT’S something I’ve got to see!” then sit and stare at the blank page.

Too often that dismissal of the most difficult part of writing – taking ideas and melding them into a cohesive, coherent and commercial end product – leads those who participate in a workshopping format to think that their two-cents added in the idea discussions is quite valuable, maybe to the point of being worth their own share of the writing purse.

Copyright – co-authorship/ownership issues

The problem comes from the fact that collaborative creation is a thing. The US Copyright system allows there to be co-authors of a copyrightable “joint work” where each has an equal and indivisible share of the control and ownership of the finished piece. Of course, there are complex details involved in a proper co-authorship that make it actually much harder to establish than most consider. As stated in previous columns and as defined by U.S. Copyright law:

a joint work is “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.”

Each part of that definition is an important, necessary component to a joint work. Within that definition lies the key issues and answers to whether a workshopping event would lead to creation of a joint work with multiple authors or not. Specifically the intentions (or, importantly, perceived intentions) of the participants and whether the contributed parts are used. Note, the contributions do NOT have to be significant, nor do they need to end up recognizably evident in the finished product. They just have to have been intended to be used in the process of getting to a finished piece.

You can see why the slippery slope of not being crystal clear with the intentions and expectations of all participants and not clearly stating the goals of the project could lead to misunderstandings among the contributors. The creator must be clear about who will own the work and that none of the workshop contributors are going to be co-writers based on their participation, preferably before asking for comments. If someone felt like they were asked to collaborate and they were not dissuaded of that notion by clear communication prior to their participation, there might be reason to have to defend your work in court against their claims. And depending on the circumstances, you may lose.

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You can’t own an idea

Workshopping invariably deals with the expression and exchange of ideas and therein lies more problems. To get people to help with the story you are workshopping you need to share at least the ideas behind the concept. And ideas are not protectable outside of a specific, properly prepared agreement to the contrary. So there is a risk of someone at that meeting taking your idea and running faster than you with it to create a separate work of their own. Remember, ideas are the easy part. Writing is hard and some write faster than others.

And if someone else has your same idea regardless of where they got it from, there’s rarely anything you can do about it. I have a saying, “Ideas are a dime a dozen which makes each idea worth $0.0083 cents and Hollywood accountants round down.” (i.e. Idea = Bupki$$). My wife and I have a running joke whenever I get a great idea for an invention or new product, just wait 6-months and someone will have released it into the marketplace. And I don’t get the royalties.

So you have to be careful with whom you share your ideas if you desire to workshop them into a finished product. But you probably are already vetting those you’d like to get feedback from anyway so that everyone’s time is not wasted in the workshopping process, right? For all workshopping participants, think before you speak and speak carefully to a select and informed audience and you should be golden.

But sometimes workshopping isn’t called that and might be disguised as something else.

Workshopping in disguise

There is a trend in the business for a variation of the Open Writing Assignment model that ends up being very much like workshopping. Instead of the studio or producer who is putting out the call for writers taking one writer at a time into consideration for writing the story for them, the OWA may end up being a cattle call of writers to pitch ideas on how they would approach the script for the project. The producers gather all these ideas from the eager writers-to-be and boil them down to the best ideas for the project. Then they turn around and give all those great ideas to a cheaper writer to do the “drudge work”, leaving the more creative (and expensive) writers off the page. Because ideas are not protectable, but, expressing ideas is the way writers get hired, it can make writing a difficult career to sustain. These attitudes have lead to the sad demise of the traditional script doctor’s role, those writers who made a living coming in at the end of a project to fix scripts with significant problems. To get those jobs they’d often be asked how they’d go about fixing things. Now those ideas are used against them, so some of the greatest script doctors decide not to play anymore.

Workshopping benefits

With all that said, if you take the proper precautions and approaches there is still great value in workshopping scripts. There is a benefit of a realistic, quick reality check to relieve that “out of your own head”-ness. If you workshop with those who are interested in how the story develops you get those participants as cheerleaders and champions for the future end product’s success. I still have an actor who participated in an early staged reading of one of my feature scripts years ago who asks me every time he sees me, “How’s that script I loved going?” It keeps the fires burning to know that someone likes what you’ve created and is rooting for you.

But you also have to keep the development cycle in mind – the length of time you take between workshopping and reaching a final version can wane interest or make people wonder if there every will be a final product. I know several writers who are always looking for feedback on the exact same script. Eventually, it feels like they’re stuck in a hole and can’t write their way out of it no matter how many drafts they go through. And you feel like you can no longer help them.

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In the end, trust your instincts.

Workshopping can help out if you are unsure of things and honestly would like to consider what others think. But if you are comfortable that you have told the story that was within you to the best of your ability, then maybe workshopping won’t be a help at all. If you then doubt yourself, make changes according to what the consensus indicated even if you don’t think it makes improvements to your story, because you would be stuck if the end product still doesn’t work. Was it that your idea would never have caught on or was it the feedback you got that was off kilter and your original version, if you stuck to it, would’ve had merit? Even if your workshopped final product is a success you can never really tell whether your original ideas were the valuable parts or whether the workshopped changes really saved the day.

As with most topics in these columns, your individual results will depend. I’d still love to hear your feedback, though.

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