Legally Speaking, It Depends: Open Writing Assignment

Once you gets some prestige under your belt as a writer, opportunities occur that aren’t available to the neophyte scribbler. But just because you could be invited doesn’t mean you will, unless you learn the ins and outs of the practice of being a professional writer. One of these semi-secretive, pro-writers’ clubs is in the realm of the Open Writing Assignment or OWA. Like all such clubs, you need to know the initiation rituals, the do’s and don’ts, and the consequences involved at each step. (You do realize that I’m making an analogy here and that there isn’t a professional writers’ secret society with convoluted handshakes and strange rites, don’t you? I know. I’m a little disappointed too.)

What is an OWA?

writing assignmentAn Open Writing Assignment (OWA) is a limited open invitation call for pitches for specific projects from a producer or studio. Usually the production entity has a significant property investment already (e.g. a novel), and are looking for a professional writer to express how they would approach converting the property or idea into a workable screenplay. If the production entity likes the writer’s ideas and approaches, the writer is usually hired as the screenwriter for the project.

Where an OWA differs from other writing gigs is that multiple writers may be invited to pitch their takes and no commitment is made to any writer at this idea stage. Also the main story and property from which the screenplay is to be derived are originated and controlled by the producers. The writers are potential hired guns to execute the target work to the production team’s satisfaction.

For those familiar with television writing it is somewhat analogous to the TV writer’s room throwing around ideas for an episode. All the staff writers contribute their ideas, the showrunner deciding which she likes and which need more development. Once a general consensus on the best idea is found, the showrunner selects one of the staff writers to go and write the episode. It could be the writer who contributed the most ideas to the pot, the person who pitched the best idea, or just whomever’s turn it is to write the next episode.

Significantly different than spec pitches, where the writer not only has to write well but also sell the producer on the idea being told, in an OWA the writer is given the building blocks of a pre-approved story and product that the producers already love. All the writer has to do is craft that story into a movie form.

Sounds great! Let me in

Not so fast. The “open” part of the OWA is not as open as you might think. It really only means that there isn’t, as yet, a writer assigned to the project and therefore “open.” Getting to be one of the writers in line to take a meeting and make their pitch is the hard part. You need to first know about the OWA, and then have some acceptable means of getting the production team’s attention that you are a qualified and interested writer, available at the right time and ahead of anyone else who has pitched an acceptable take. These windows are narrow, only open for a short period of time and only fit a select few through them.

But if you hear about an OWA early enough, have the right connections and can come up with a pitch the producers like, it’s a great way to get a high paying gig.

Who can help

As far as the “right connections,” here’s where it gets tricky. If your reputation is well enough known by the producer, you could get the invitation yourself. As for others working on your behalf, technically this is prospective employment and therefore only a properly licensed employment assistant (we call them “agents” – remember, that’s short for employment agent) can get you an official invite. This rules out managers, lawyers, and pretty much everyone else who are prohibited by law from seeking future employment opportunities for you.

But there is a very large grey area in practice. If, let’s say, a manager finds out about an OWA from a personal connection with the producers, that manager might suggest that one of her writer’s would be perfect for the job and should be offered an invitation. If the producer trusts the manager’s instincts, an invitation might be extended to the writer. Has the manager “procured” employment, which is forbidden, or has that manager merely increased the producer’s awareness of the writer’s reputation and by doing so helped the writer indirectly, which is allowed? As long as the letter of the law is obeyed and/or no one complains these tight ropes are walked every day. Awareness of the lines not to cross is a necessity and knowing what you can and can’t ask a “helper” to do for you will be of great advantage.

Batter up! Here’s the pitch

So you’ve scored a meeting for an OWA. What should you expect? It depends. (You didn’t think I’d go a whole column without using my trademark, did you?)

Some OWAs are open about the property they’re seeking a writer for, others are cagey. The amount of information you’ll have before you go into the first meeting varies with each. The amount of time between opening an OWA and needing to sign a writer also varies, but, is usually quite short. You’ll need to be flexible, able to evaluate things on scant information and be able to think on your toes.

Typically an OWA starts with an initial meeting that lays out more details about the project and makes sure you’re still interested. It also is an initial personality test, to see if the writer and producers like each other. You may get general direction of where they’re looking to go, what they don’t want to see, or be given carte blanche to take a swing at. Usually there’s no real pitching of concrete ideas and, importantly, no commitments from either side.

The first meeting usually ends with a time period set until a second meeting where the writer is expected to pitch an approach to the project. At that second meeting the writer pitches very much like they would pitch a spec script. If the producers love what they hear you’re set for contract discussions to begin. If they warmly like it, they might have some suggestions and the writer can consider altering the pitch to include these ideas. If they’re luke-warm, the producers might not let the writer know either way. They probably have other writers they still need to hear from before they decide on who to hire.

Who owns what, why it matters

At this stage it is keen to remember where everyone stands. Because the source ideas are originating from the producers and the writer hasn’t been contracted to write anything yet, the ownership issues lie significantly in the hands of the producers. Anything created by the writer at this stage is subject to this conceit. Even if the writer created a treatment for the pitch– something not likely to be asked for– the ownership of that treatment is not clear. It’s a derivative work, if the project already has some copyrighted underpinnings (e.g. based on a novel) and, since the treatment cannot stand on its own, created with the intent of eventually merging into an integrated, whole work (the motion picture), the treatment could be considered a joint-work for copyright purposes. That goes for anything created for the pitch.

If the pitch is, as it usually is, an orally communicated raft of ideas, there is very little that could hold copyrightability in it alone. Therefore the writer should consider that anything they say in these meetings is up for grabs. If this makes you uncomfortable, then be less forthcoming, but, realize this might hurt your chances of getting the job.

Remember that the producers invite the writers. They’re looking for someone to work with them to get to a common goal. There is a sense of ownership and stewardship that goes with that position, real and imagined. They’ll expect to be able to use what is offered.

But isn’t this trolling for ideas?

In a sense, yes, but the open writing assignment is much more as well. Remember the meeting is essentially a job interview, but, with the built in facility for you to show just how good you’d be at the specific job you’d be doing. You, as a writer, have already jumped a hurdle to have enough reputation to be invited to pitch for an OWA. Here is your chance to show that you can play the game by the rules as they stand. You can show your professionalism as well as your talent.

There have been OWAs that were used to milk ideas for a project out of many different writers and those ideas were taken and combined and given to a considerably less expensive writer to execute. It happens. But remember, reputations go both ways. Eventually those tactics catch up to the producers and their future OWAs get less response by the writing elite. Since OWAs are only open to a small group of established writers, when writers are treated badly, word gets around. Do your research.

Technically, contracts required

Eventually the producers find a writer whose ideas they like and they want to hire to write their movie. At this point everyone’s eager. Don’t be too eager. For both the writer’s and the producers’ best interests it is key to get the writing agreement set in all its detail before the writer sets out to begin the script. Technically, the writer can’t adapt a screenplay from a previous work without the authority to create a derivative work, which can only be granted in a written document per statute. Also, if this script is going to be a work made for hire, traditionally how its done in Hollywood, that arrangement too needs to be in a written document with specific language. If these steps are overlooked or ignored, lots of trouble and land mines could cause havoc later on.

Reputational issues to consider

First, if you get invited to pitch to an open writing assignment, congratulations. Your reputation has reached a professional level to which all serious writers aspire. But having reached so high, be careful to maintain it within expectations. As with the trolling issue discussed above, there are issues that could crop up where your rights and reputation might conflict. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether to “take one for the team” or “stand on principle” is the right attitude. Each will effect your reputation. Now that your talent has gotten you there, there’s even more to protect. As always, it depends.

More Legally Speaking, It Depends articles by Christopher Schiller

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