Here's how it works:
I get a call from my representation. They say "Todd! Big Producer has a project, Massive Pop Behemoth, and he's only talking to a very few writers, and you're one of them! He wants to hear your ideas!"
So I'm "in the game." I'm not some poor schmuck with his nose pressed up against the glass, I have an invitation to play at the big table. I am grateful for this chance. I used to write experimental plays to be performed in 60-seat theaters with seven-foot ceilings on the Lower East Side, I probably shouldn't even be here.
Big Producer calls, or, more likely, Big Producer has Enthusiastic Minion call. Enthusiastic Minion tells me a little bit about Massive Pop Behemoth and how it's going to be a big big hit and make everyone a ton of money with toys and video games and spinoffs and all I have to do is come up with a compelling story that will appeal to absolutely everyone, offend absolutely no one, and make the movie a smash four-quadrant $500 million hit, a beachhead for MPB's life-long juggernaut upon popular culture.
So I spend a week or so watching other $500 million four-quadrant hits and figure out a broad-strokes story that I think stands a good chance of becoming a movie. This week or so is spent preparing for the "pitch" instead of actually writing something that could ever be actually something other than a soul-destroying "product."
Because I am not paid to prepare for the pitch, I must have, literally, ten or fifteen of these projects going on in the hopes that one of them turns into an actual paying gig.
So I have the pitch meeting. I tell my broad-strokes ideas to Enthusiastic Minion. Enthusiastic Minion invariably is ecstatic about my ideas and suggests that, with just a teeny-tiny bit more work, a weensy bit more detail filled in, I might have a real shot at selling this concept to Big Producer. I call my representation to see if this project is on the level. They bubble with glee and tell me that if Enthusiastic Minion likes my ideas, I'm as good as gold and will undoubtedly get a shot at pitching to Big Producer. And once Big Producer is on board, then it's just a hop, skip and jump to Studio Executive, who will pay me to write a screenplay, which will be a fait accompli at that point because Big Producer is very very big indeed and has that weak-willed Studio wrapped around his little Big Producer finger. They say, in effect, "the job is yours, if you want it."
Well, okay. So I do a little bit more work on the project. I fill out the plot, I round out the characters, I create reveals and reversals and unexpected twists and suspense beats and action sequences, and I pitch it again to Enthusiastic Minion. Enthusiastic Minion says "Wow! That's better than I could have possibly imagined! This is going to make a terrific movie! Do you, mmm, do you have something on paper that I could show Big Producer?"
Well, what am I going to say? Because the fact is, I do have "something on paper." I'm a writer, I tend to write things down when I think of them. With just a teeny bit more effort, I could organize my notes and outlines into a treatment, which is what Enthusiastic Minion is really asking for.
Here's the thing. Enthusiastic Minion is not allowed to ask for a treatment, because according to WGA rules I have to be paid a substantial amount of money for it. Because, as any screenwriter will tell you, a treatment is the whole job -- it's the whole story, worked out in prose form, every scene, every plot point, every twist, all "sold" in a pleasing, easy-to-read way. So instead of asking for a treatment, EM asks me if I have "something on paper" that he can read. And the implication is that the other writers competing against me are all submitting "something on paper," so if I really want the job, I had better write that treatment, and it had better be good, because otherwise all the time I've spent on the project so far has been a waste of time.
So I write the treatment and make it as good as I possibly can. And Enthusiastic Minion loves it, but needs more detail, wants to know more about the characters, wants just a little eeny-weeny bit more work done. And before you know it, I've written a forty-page treatment, every character beat, every nuance of every scene, every beat of every action sequence.
And sometimes the next thing I hear from EM is "Todd, you're a brilliant writer and I really have to thank you for really helping us figure out exactly what this project is -- we're now going to go in another direction but we really want to work with you in the future." And that's usually the last time I ever hear from EM.
But sometimes I actually make it to the point where I get into a room with BP. And maybe BP has read the treatment and maybe he hasn't, maybe he hasn't even discussed the months of work I've done with EM. But I've made it past the major hurdles and now I'm in the room with BP. But BP has his own ideas about what this project is, and he needs more work done on the treatment before he can take it to The Studio.
And my representation is ecstatic about all this, because, after all, What BP Wants, BP Gets. Have no fear, they say, I am in like Flynn, I can start looking for a bigger house right now.
And so I do more work on the treatment with BP and a whole team of EMs. And by now weeks and months and, at times, years, have gone by, weeks and months and years when I could have been working on spec scripts but instead am chasing after this Sure Thing at the Big Table.
And finally comes the big day when we take Massive Pop Behemoth to The Studio. And there's me and Big Producer and what has grown into a squadron of Enthusiastic Minions, and we go to The Studio and we get into a room with the Studio Executive, and Big Producer makes a few introductory remarks and then gestures to me and it's time for me to talk. And I tell the story of the movie to the Studio Executive and the Studio Executive says "Wow! This is a great idea for a movie! With just a little more work, I think we can take this to the Studio Head and have a real shot at making a movie out of this!"
And so, yes, I do a little more work on the treatment with the squadron of EMs. And at this point the project has been going on so long that some of the EMs have actually moved on to other jobs and now I'm working with a whole different team of EMs. But finally the day arrives when I sit before The Studio Head, with Big Producer to my left and an army of Enthusiastic Minions to my right, and I tell The Studio Head the movie.
And the Studio Head says "Congratulations, and well-told. Unfortunately, another studio has a TV property in development right now with a similar theme so, unless you can turn this project into a completely different idea, we're going to have to pass."
Or: "That sounds great. Unfortunately, through an unexpected contractual loophole, we no longer control the rights to this project."
Or: "Wow! What a story! Unfortunately, it has a female protagonist."
Or: "I would buy this thing in a second, if only a completely different movie that came out last week with a similar plot-point in it hadn't just lost another studio $100 million."
Or: "This sounds great. Get an A-list director and two A-list stars attached and you've got a deal."
Up 'til now, writers put up with all this nonsense because, at the end of the line, a movie got made, with their name on it, and they would receive a big paycheck and, if the movie was a hit, a stream of smaller paychecks for the lifetime of that movie.
What the studios would prefer is for writers to write the movie for free, then pay them maybe a little bit if the movie gets made, then pay them nothing at all if the movie becomes a hit.
The fact is, the WGA has to strike now, or else there will be no WGA. Writers will suffer because of the strike, but the alternative would be far worse. The studios have suggested that writers should only be paid residuals if the movie turns a profit, as defined by the studio. And even the greenest, wide-eyed young screenwriter knows that, according to studio accounting, movies never go into profit.
(My favorite story on this topic: Winston Groom, author of the novel Forrest Gump, was promised a percentage of the movie's profits -- after it had recouped its costs. He watched the movie become an improbable runaway hit and waited patiently for his percentage checks. They didn't arrive. One day he picked up a copy of Variety: Paramount had taken out a two-page advertisement proudly announcing that Forrest Gump was the highest-grossing movie in the studio's history. Groom called up the studio to ask about his money and was told, with a straight face, that the movie had not yet recouped its costs.)
If the WGA does not get a better contract regarding DVD and internet residuals now, thousands of writers whose ideas have made untold billions for the studios will simply not be able to make a living. This does not bother the studios, since there's an unending stream of young faces who want to be in show business.