Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » Beware of Online Scams

Swindles and come-ons remain a prominent Hollywood tradition.

In fact, they predate anything the entertainment industry. There must have been a promising young cave painter who tended his flock while dreaming of fame and fortune in the city of Ur. If only his work could reach the other tribes!

Along came a sly herdsman promising to get the man's paintings on thousands of caves across the countryside. All he asked in return was half his flock in advance -- for appetite and expenses.

These days, while the technology seems more advanced, the intent remains as base and primordial. The wolves prowl among the sheep looking for the naive and trusting ewe to consume.

If there's an artist desperate enough to take any available shot at the big time, there's a crook waiting in the wings to steal that artist's resources in return for empty promises.

Such artful dodgers are updating their cons these days in the face of new technology and quicker access to their unsuspecting victims.

For the last several decades, the Hollywood sharks relied exclusively on print and telephone to get their tempting bait out to the hungry little fish. Now, the Internet offers immediate dissemination of any amount of nonsense to an almost limitless audience. The potential results seem disastrous.

Originally conceived as a military computer network that would allow continued communication in the aftermath of nuclear attack, the Internet now heralds the arrival of a new age of human existence.

This Information Age saw that computer network grow as universities and computer experts expanded its capacity into a nationwide system. It allowed for text information to travel virtually immediately via phone-lines. Internet access for PCs with modems soon followed, allowing consumers to begin traveling an entirely new world -- the Technological Superhighway.

Now, the Internet encompasses the world, altering perceptions of business and human communication. Limits of time and location cease to hinder human interaction. Servers such as America On-Line, CompuServe, Prodigy or e-World exist to offer easy access to the Internet.

Now, services such as FTP (file transfer protocol) and the World Wide Web allow for immediate uploading and downloading of any documents or software. Many companies and other business have set up web sites to advertise their products or news.

Hollywood studios have their own web sites. They also set-up separate sites to pump a certain film. Recent releases such as The Net, Species and Congo actually advertised their web pages in their print and TV announcements.

Some statistics estimate that seven million people join the Internet every year. America On-Line use increased from one to 10 million in less than a year. With all the direct software packages allowing raw access to the Internet's bulletin boards, the trend shows no signs of reversing.

The upcoming Microsoft Network and other software packages charge down the superhighway's on-ramp, hoping to get on the gravy of a booming industry. The resulting crash of hardware, information and human intellect will leave more than its fair share of disasters.

Now, among all that technological flotsam and jetsam float writers. They still work more or less as they always did. Sure, Powerbooks replaced Royal typewriters to get the words out, but screenwriters still sit and sweat out their scripts as they always did.

However, many of those writers hook up modems to their computers and surf the Internet with what free time their writing allows. Perhaps they seek merely to read an on-line magazine. Perhaps they communicate with other writers or stay updated on Hollywood news and trends.

Eventually, the writers realize that the proliferation of personal and corporate Internet accounts means more direct access to agents, developers, producers and directors. When the Old World offered merely the slim chances of a returned telephone call or SASE when contacting such folk, an e-mail message could result in immediate response.

America On-Line and CompuServe both offer special areas exclusively for screenwriters. In fact, AOL provides two (The Writers' Club and Hollywood Online's Movie Talk).

These areas are full of folders entitled "Screenplays Available" or "Scripts Wanted." Writers desperate for attention from an industry seeming next to impossible to crack advertise their work. Independent producers or directors looking for new material might take a shot at finding the diamond in the rough.

Now, it gets murky.

Therefore, I take a moment to explain some important matters. First of all, the on-line services already mentioned are merely means of communicating information. They are not responsible for every bit of the massive information flow passing through their fiber optic cables.

The commercial on-line services take great pains to monitor the information in its libraries and discussion areas for obscenity or illegal activity. However, just as the Phone Company isn't responsible for an obscene telephone call, the Internet is not responsible for allowing a scam artist access to an unsuspecting writer.

Also, we all know the famous disclaimers: "The story you have just seen is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent."

Perhaps you prefer: "Any similarity to any persons living or dead is unintentional..."

Let me include my own. I took careful steps to make sure no one is directly named or otherwise identified in this article. While all the stories included are very real, I make no direct accusations and offer only advice. I suggest writers avoid these situations. However, that remains only my experienced opinion.

Finally, some of the people one encounters on the Internet are out for their own advantage. Healthy amounts of other folk out there remain legitimate and simply look to extend their business via the Internet.

Now, on to the dangers of Internet surfing for writers. Any writer with half a mind to do so can find the offers. Those without agents may turn to the bulletin boards as a major source of industry contact.

There are scores of writers offering their scripts to anyone who wants to give it a read. Just as many producers and directors post calls for scripts or treatments.

Immediately, your instincts should warn you to tread carefully. Nothing changes in business procedures whether or not the Internet is involved. If a production company or individual asks to see your material, you should check up on them.

If you've never heard of the company because it's a new tandem or small independent, look them up in the Creative Directory or Blu-Book. Call the Writer's Guild and see if any outstanding complaints against the company.

Some sharp companies put their profiles or credits listing on the Internet with their call for scripts. One way or another, get at least an idea of who wants your work.

Next, make certain the company uses some sort of a submission agreement. These simple documents protect both the writer and the producer. If an on-line contact says they don't use one, ask why. It's standard industry practice when a script is not coming from an agent or attorney. Make sure your attorney reviews the agreement before you sign and return it with your script.

Note that a call for an SASE if you want the script returned is industry standard and not a cause for suspension.

All the while, pay close attention to the quality and thoroughness of the material you read on the Internet. Is the call for scripts loaded with grammatical errors or misspellings? Does it read as if the company has a firm grasp of the technology they're using?

Remember, the same standards apply on the Internet as in the real world. A professional presentation does not guarantee a professional company. However, a sloppy message betrays an amateur almost every time.

Meanwhile, if you're pitching a non-copyrighted or Guild-registered script on the Internet, you're the amateur in the equation! It's easy enough for scripts to be stolen on the telephone or over lunch. Imagine the danger of sending an idea out where millions can read it and run away with the concept for their own use. You can't copyright an idea or a treatment, but make certain you protect your work before making a peep on-line.

If you've cleared the early hurtles and actually managed to submit your material to the company with a submission agreement, the most common fraud can surface.

You might receive a message via e-mail or regular post that praises you and your work. You could receive an option offer. I won't go into the details of options here as previous articles did that most thoroughly. Many independent companies will option a script for a year with an option to extend that term. Some smaller companies will option for a minimal fee with a guarantee of an acceptable sale price and a profit sharing package down the road.

However, you could also receive a more unusual offer. The producer may seek to gain the negotiating rights for the project by proposing a packaging arrangement.

For example, the deal might ask for anywhere from $100 to more than $1,000 to package and pitch your script to studio producers. This is different from a script evaluation service. Some of those are legit and can improve your work for a basic fee. The packaging deal essentially calls for you to pick up the tab of presenting your work to the industry.

Stop! Kill the deal. Demand return of your work and inform the packager making the deal that you will inform the lawyer of the incident. It's a come-on, pure and simple.

It's really very simple. No company worthy of professional consideration needs any of your money to sell your script. No production team capable of really getting your script noticed wants anything from you but a great screenplay.

An option demands that you are paid for the rights to package and pitch your script for a year or longer period. Nowhere in standard industry standards and practices is it considered commonplace or appropriate for you to pick up the tab of marketing your work unless it's you that's doing the footwork!

You'd be better suited to hold onto your material and await that real break in your future. It may be disappointing, but all the swindle artist wants is the money. The script will probably sit in a wastebasket somewhere while your funds are spent elsewhere.

In this worst case scenario, you sacrifice your money and your script for a couple years. You won't get the money back, and you've essentially paid the con artist to keep your script OUT of the Hollywood mainstream for the length of the option or packaging agreement.

One final and essential piece of advice: Believe that it CAN happen to you. People are waiting out there who will rip you off for laughs. They can and will take your material and use it to make money any number of ways without allowing you a subway token. Dishonesty like that is not a cinematic invention.

These folks occupy a special place in the annals of sleaze. They take the passionate, bright-eyed, yet naive artist and abuse his or her enthusiasm for profit.

They rationalize their act away with lines such as, "If the suckers allow themselves to be ripped-off, they've got it coming." They con you and behave as if you owe them a favor for the painful education.

Don't let them get to you or your work. Such frauds have existed since the early days of the business, and they can be avoided and overcome in this age of improved writer's rights. You simply need to take the same care and effort in protecting and marketing your work as you did in its creation.

Keep your internal senses sharp and trust your instincts. This obviously sounds like a cliché. Young writers get similar pointers from teachers, mentors and agents every day. The proverbs apply to a great deal more than just on-line business for an innocent screenwriter. However, no advice remains more sage when examining e-mail script fraud.

Through some bizarre psychological phenomena, some hungry writers sign-off their brain when they sign on their modem. Somehow, the magical aura of the computer and the massive Internet make everything seem legitimate, no matter how absolutely suspicious a deal might seem.

Perhaps the fact that the messages between the writer and prospective producer appear in print make them seem official and inexplicably legal. Writers buy snake oil on their computer screens that they would never stomach face-to-face or on the telephone.

Make certain to carry the same business instincts and creative smarts to Internet dealings as you would tote onto any studio lot. In the end, if you play the RAM and ROM right, your work can find more readers than you or your agent could hope to reach with shotgun phone-calls and networking.

Most of all, don't let your newfound digital wisdom influence all your behavior on-line. You can easily find a friend out there in all that fiber optic cable who could point your script to the right independent production company. Perhaps you will run into just the right experienced mentor or writing partner to make your script into that irresistible gold mine.

Yes, with so many people speeding down the technological superhighway these days, you have to watch out for a load of bad drivers.

Still, make sure to remember there are still a lot of good people out there. Cultivate those on-line relationships with all the sincere respect, support and interest you would to a flesh-and-blood writing peer standing before you. You simply cannot possibly know where it might lead.

Don't fear the internet or the professional opportunities it provides. Simply take the same precautions and employ the same common sense you would doing business in-person, by post or over the telephone.

On the technological superhighway, drive defensively. We're all alone outside the express lane. Whether talking through a keyboard or a telephone receiver, only you can look after you!

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