Perspectives: Opinions from our network of advisors, investors, operators and analysts on the risks and opportunities they see.
Open Screenplay, a new screenwriting platform, launched earlier this year with hopes to democratize the screenwriting process. The Toronto-based startup has already picked up backing from several Hollywood heavyweights, including producer Sandy Climan and Peabody Award-winning documentarian Julia Bacha.
In this interview, Karma Network’s Contributing Editor Michael Moran discusses the viability of Open Screenplay’s model with John Rhodes, the founder of ScreenCraft, a platform that provides online screenwriting courses, writing competitions, and conferences.
Rhodes has made a career of working with up-and-coming talent. He founded ScreenCraft in 2013 to help emerging writers find representation and professional connections, and he also works as an independent film producer with experience in acquisitions at Open Road Films and as a creative executive at Media Talent Group.
As today’s media landscape continues to evolve, there are more opportunities for talent than ever before, but representation requirements, big budgets, and a highly competitive landscape still make breaking into the industry incredibly difficult. Could a more democratic solution like Open Screenplay be a better model? Or will removing the gatekeepers ultimately result in chaos?
In his interview with Karma, Rhodes discusses provides his industry insight into current negotiations between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agencies over the rights of agencies to be financially involved in production — and why he thinks the Netflixes of the world should take some of the blame too.
Michael Moran: One of the things we’re trying to do is get a sense of what kind of legs Open Screenplay has. It’s a potentially disruptive approach to screenplays and to managing the talent that’s involved in there. What is it in terms of its model that’s interesting, and do you think it changes the game?
John Rhodes: From what I can tell, I think their model is very similar to WattPad and Inkshare. So WattPad is essentially a crowdsourced fiction platform, an audience platform that’s “liveable,” where someone can write a story, other people can comment on the story, and you can kind of respond to real time audience feedback as you’re writing the story.
And I think there’s an element of that with Open Screenplay. Their idea is that anyone can write a screenplay, other people can jump in and collaborate on it, and theoretically, it can be like a crowdsourced movie that not only gets input from lots of different creative minds but allows for a little bit of an audience around it as well.
And I don’t think it’s very viable for a couple of reasons. I’ve worked in Hollywood in screenplay development for about a decade now. I’ve worked with some big financiers in screenplays and developed projects from major filmmakers, and I’ve seen the process that goes into developing a Hollywood production. The amount of resources that go into developing a screenplay specifically, oftentimes with either a super-talented writer or multiple rounds of talented writers, is a pretty research intensive process.
The other side of experience that I have is at ScreenCraft. I founded ScreenCraft seven and half years ago. And what I’ve seen is there is that there’s a giant iceberg essentially of emerging talent. And only a very small, like less than 1% of the tip of people that actually have the intuitiveness and raw talent, actually write a good script.
What makes writing so much harder than a novel or a short story or a form of creative writing is that a screenplay is very format packed with a lot of convention and it’s a very fair and efficient mode of storytelling. Every single theme and piece of dialogue has to serve the story. The story has to serve a theme, and it has to also emotionally engage you. There has to be an arc to the protagonist’s journey.
Making all of those elements move together into something that feels natural and can actually keep an audience is an incredibly sophisticated endeavor. It takes a lot of practice. Most screenwriters work for decades at their craft before they start to write movies that make a lot of money and win awards.
I would say Open Screenplay’s approach of having a whole bunch of amateurs weigh in on the screenplay… It’s kind of a recipe for a really mediocre monster mash of a script.
I don’t know how to monetize it. If their goal is to monetize this by somehow having a stake in the screenplay itself and hoping that this will be made into a movie, they’re in for a pretty rude awakening for two reasons.
One is most movies don’t make money, and that’s kind of the nature of Hollywood. Most movies lose money.
Another harsh reality is most movies that get developed don’t get made. There are a lot of resources poured into developing projects that never end up getting the casting directors and financing or actually getting into production. And then of the ones that actually do go into production, most of them are never financially viable for the people that invest in them.
So with that said, I don’t know what their business model is. If they’re going to start charging subscription fees to people to be able to contribute, I don’t think that’s a successful model, because who’s going to pay for that?
One thing I’ve learned in building ScreenCraft is that there is a very passionate audience out there of aspiring creatives. Those people that have so much excitement about writing their idea for a movie or TV show because they’re fans of content that moves them so powerfully, but when they actually try and do it, they realize how hard it is. Writing well is really, really hard.
Michael Moran: We’ve done a series of stories on the mutation of the talent agency business from a commission-based revenue business into these global media monsters. That’s obviously a lot of what’s behind the current WGA/ATA talks. Where do you think those are going?
Rhodes: Yeah. I don’t know. I understand the problem, which is that if agencies are essentially in the business of packaging these shows, they’re incentivized to increase the margins on the shows and that means probably paying the showrunners and writers a little bit less. But if they are repping those showrunners and writers, then yeah. That’s a little conflict of interest there. They’re double dipping, and they’re making more money from their packaging fees then they are commissioning their writers, so they’re actually less incentivized to really help their showrunners and writers make a lot of money on the deals.
I think it’s kind of taking a 30,000 foot view. It’s just a product of a consolidating industry. And the consolidation happens when margins start getting lower. I think what’s driving all of this change is the Internet, and the Internet has made the value of an individual piece of programming like a movie or TV show a little bit lower because it makes it easier to get.
If margins are coming down on TV shows and movies, then agencies aren’t making as much money commissioning their filmmaker and talent clients so they’re having to move into more creative ways to make money, which is actually packaging this stuff. And it doesn’t directly hurt their clients because clients are still getting work. They’re just getting, you know, slightly lower paid work and they’re grumbling about it.
The WGA is a union, so there’s kind of a walled garden there to make sure that their members make as much money as possible. And in a way, they’re kind of incentivized to block out the up-and-coming talent that’s willing to work for less.
Meanwhile the Netflixes of the world are really happy to work with the emerging talent because they can get them for cheaper. And they’re also very filmmaker friendly. They kind of give the reins to the filmmakers to kind of do what they want. Netflix is such a voracious buyer of content that they don’t really have the bandwidth to be intimately involved in development and shepherding all these projects and they just kind of write checks and filmmakers make the content and then Netflix programs it. But Netflix also isn’t as tied to the success or failure of its content because it’s a subscription platform. It just needs to keep feeding the beast. So Netflix is driving a lot of this as well in paying writers less.
Michael Moran: This is a kind of watercooler conversation that’s going on all over Hollywood I would imagine, right?
Rhodes: It is to varying degrees, and of course everyone has pretty strong opinions on it.
My girlfriend is working in a writer’s room now, and the showrunners are bitching about it. They’re kind of afraid that they’re going to have to stand-up to their agents because they feel like their agents have been good to them over the years.
But they also know that the WGA has a really strong and fair position, which is, look, the agencies can’t be double dipping and essentially working on stuff that goes against the direct interests of clients.
So what they do? They have to kind of band together and stand up to the agents, which a lot of them have personal relationships with. They’ve been to each other every kids’ baptisms and barbecues and they’ve gone to each other’s bar mitzvahs. For a lot of them, it’s a decades long relationship, so standing up to them is more than just a business move. There’s a personal component to it too, and I think that’s making it hard for writers and showrunners, especially ones that have been at this for a long time.
Michael Moran: What’s happening to the studios in all of this? Where do they come down now?
Rhodes: They’re really just brands at this point with a lot of talent and agency relationships. They’re increasingly moving to the tentpole model. They control IP. That’s why you’re seeing a plethora of remakes and rebates and sequels because they own that IP and that’s kind of their competitive advantage. So making, you know, Pirates of the Caribbean 6 kind of has a certain guaranteed level of success, and it’s a much safer thing to do. And by the way no one else can do it because they own the IP, so that’s their competitive advantage.
I think we’re going to see the studios staying in that lane more and more. In the tentpole, remakes, reboots, and sequels space. And also just bigger budgets. Multi-million dollar budgets. And then you’re going to see all of the kind of cobbled together independent studios focusing on the mid-budget stuff. So the $10 to $30 million sets.
And what’s happening. We live in a weird spot right now.