Sunday, December 5, 2010

PJ versus Goliath

Not sure who in the screenwriting world hasn't heard about this development, but for some reason, it's not being picked up by Australian media.

I'll confess upfront that I know PJ and consider her a friend, but I also have publicly voiced ambivalence about the whole script sharing issue - see my countless posts on Done Deal for confirmation. Having said all that, what Fox is doing to PJ is absurd and outrageous.

But let me start at the beginning...

Screenwriter PJ McIlvaine, a Long Island grandmother, is being sued for approximately US$15 million by Murdoch-owned Twentieth Century Fox for posting movie scripts on the Internet. The first that PJ knew of the lawsuit was when two private detectives landed on her doorstep, only hours before her grandson’s baptism.

The court papers issued refer to a list of “roughly 100” scripts that McIlvaine is alleged to have collected in an online electronic database of film and TV scripts. Most of the scripts named in the writ are produced movies. Some go back to the 1980s and include titles like Aliens, Edward Scissorhands, and Wall Street (the first one). Others, however, are described as “in development” — not yet produced — including the X-men sequel Deadpool, which isn’t scheduled for release until 2012. Industry insiders believe the leaking of this script was the impetus for Fox’s actions.

According to the complaint, Fox is “seeking damages and injunctive relief for copyright infringement” for “distributing and displaying scripts owned by Fox, and contributing to these infringements of the copyright laws.” The claim is for US$150,000 for each script named to a total of US$15 million.

What makes this lawsuit noteworthy is the fact that all of these scripts are available at other better known and larger online script libraries — none of which have been named in the suit. In fact, unlike Ms McIlvaine’s Media Fire account, many of these unlicensed sites actually sell these same scripts for profit. McIlvaine, in contrast, provides access to her library free of charge, entirely for educational purposes.

When I teach screenwriting, the first instruction I give to budding screenwriters is to read scripts. Read lots of scripts. Good ones and bad ones. Read shooting scripts and “spec scripts” — scripts written for free in the dim hope that they might attract a sale or, even more unlikely, become a movie. One of the best teaching methods I’ve found is to read early drafts of produced films and compare them with what made it to the screen. The aim is to identify changes — whether for better or, so often the case, for worse — and to think about why those choices were made.

The point is, whatever stage the story, whatever draft available, reading scripts is the backbone of screenwriting. Without online databases like the one named in Ms McIlvaine’s suit, the screenwriting community would be lost.

Of course, the other side of this issue is that when a script is “in development” as Dead Pool was, it is effectively not finished. A point made by screenwriter John August of Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish and Go fame, when the issue of script trading first erupted in the screenwriting world some months ago. This was in response to another online site, ScriptShadow, which had made a name for itself reviewing scripts before they had been sold. Often the reviews were damaging. Other times they were known to generate Hollywood “heat” and “buzz” — those elusive and unquantifiable terms on the back of which multimillion dollar deals are sealed. Or, alternatively, come undone.

In his article, August argues that script trading is not a new thing: “Impromptu networks of assistants pass around their favourite screenplays in the process of picking the next generation of hot writers. Studios turn a blind eye to this because it helps the industry.” However, August adds, when a script has not sold, and the film has not yet been made, trading in these scripts directly threatens the writers themselves. If the “buzz” is killed early, there is little chance the script will ever become a film, which is the point of the process after all. A script, as any screenwriter will tell you, is nothing more than a blueprint for a movie. Until it takes that next step to production, it remains a “work-in-progress”.

On the other hand, the craft of screenwriting, perhaps unlike any of the other storytelling forms, is rigidly built on structure, method, and format. Rules about structure and timing are inscribed in the process, whether it be that one page of a formatted script equals one minute of screen time, or that the first act inciting incident should happen before page 25. True appreciation of how a script translates onto the screen can only come from studying the movies alongside the screenplays themselves.

PJ McIlvaine is not alone in Fox’s lawsuit. Next to her name appears the words “and Does 1-10”. As yet unnamed people who have had access to these scripts and are alleged to have distributed them to Ms McIlvaine, among others. That “Does 1-10” could be any number of the tens of thousands of people who have had reason to trade scripts has sent a shiver through the screenwriting community. The New York Post broke this story earlier in the week, while screenwriting hubs like Celluloid Blonde, Done Deal, and Hollywood Reporter have all posted commentary on this suit — whether to advocate on Ms McIlvaine’s behalf or to distance themselves completely. Others have gone so far as to set up an account to help McIlvaine pay for legal costs, even though the deep Fox pockets suggest no amount collected will put a dent in McIlvaine’s expenses. Since then, the story has spread across the world, including the UK’s Daily Mail, and MSNBC’s Today show.

Some believe that this lawsuit is merely a Fox bullying tactic — an attempt to scare off the studio insiders who leaked the scripts in the first place. Others are more cynical. The cyber outrage has turned a largely unknown comic book sequel into a test case for copyright law that could continue for years to come — perhaps long enough for the Deadpool script to take that giant leap from a screenwriter’s work-in-progress to that much exulted of screenwriting goals: a movie.

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