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How many times have you started out on a collaborative project totally upbeat, only to end up in a heap of pent up rage and a stinking carcass you thought was a great project at your feet? Too many times, you may answer…

The writing process is an intimate experience. So when it goes wrong it’s a bit like a marriage turning sour.

I’ve had my fair share of collaborative projects dying a death, sometimes prematurely, often just yards from the finishing line. It’s amazing how many people kid themselves that they did most of the work. They have it in their head that you would be nowhere and nothing but for their connection, or their nugget of an idea; you’re just lucky to have found them. Never mind that the script was originally yours, or that you took their mere idea and turned it into a commercial entity, no, they’re the ones with the power and that means you’re wrong and they’re right.

It would be comic if it weren’t happening to you.

And it can happen to you even when you have a contract in place.

Get a contract

Everyone says, Don’t do anything till you have a contract in place! And they’d be right. The irony is that sometimes that contract is the very thing you want to get out of, especially when you discover the producer you’re working with is ruining your work beyond recognition and hell to work with and all you can think of is, HOW DO I GET OUT OF THIS!

But yes, always sign a contract first, no matter what. Figure out who does what, put it down in the agreement and go for it. Don’t think that because you’re best mates everything will be fine. Writing is an emotional battle ground. It’s not just collaborative it’s competitive. You could easily lose your friendship and, chances are, you’ll end up with a weak and incomplete script.

How do you work out who gets what?

I’m just about to start a project with a woman who claims she has a riveting story to tell. She’s not a writer, but she wants to see her story come alive. She’d like me to write it. When she first ran the collaborative idea by me, she wanted me to be a ghost writer. When she told me a little more about the story, I suggested we went for a screenplay. One, I could write it quicker, two, I was not at all familiar with her story material, which would make it more difficult for me to get into the ‘interior world of characters’, essential for a novel, much less important in a screenplay.

So then we had to figure out who gets what as a share of the writer’s fee.

According to The Writers Guild of America the writing process breaks down loosely as:
– 25% for the story
-75% for the screenplay

If that seems a little unfair, consider the fact that:
– Screenwriting is a skill that takes years to craft
– There would nothing to show a producer if it were not already screenplay

You don’t have to stick to those guidelines of course. In any event you want to find some middle ground you are both happy with.

Keep alive the collaborative spirit

….Writer goes into a bar and the producer says, “What’re you drinking?” The writer says, “Oh, er, glass of wine?” Producer says, “You don’t seem sure. Time to grow up, you’re having what I’m having.”

Keeping the collaborative spirit alive is of itself hard work – but you should put some effort into it, or the other writer (or writers) will begin to think you’re in it for yourself.
You want to check you are agreed on every beat of the script, because if you don’t there’s bound to be accusations when the going gets tough – which it will do.

Keep ego out of it. If your co-writer can’t keep ego out of it, bring him or her back to your original goal: to write the best screenplay possible. If that fails to bring things back to an objective focus and your project is speculative or very low budget, walk away: life’s too short.

Don’t rewrite his or hers until you’ve got his or her go-ahead. I short don’t presume to know what’s best for the project or the script, always consult first.

Listen to your gut

The thought of money, success, the natural aversion to feeling you’ve failed – they can all persuade you to keep flogging a dead horse. Don’t be afraid to listen to your gut. I am listening more than I used to, but I still ignore it sometimes – and later I nearly always look back and say, My gut was right. If you’re already resenting the other person’s attitude and in spite of your best efforts the resentment is only spreading like cancer – get out before the resentment kills you and the project.

My son, Jay Penrake, made me this little pivot movie – more on the perils of the writer’s (self-deprecating) assumption that he’s kicking the door down with his latest work of art… Hope you Like.

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