Business Musings: Control, Control, Control

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I had a frustrating week a while back. I spent hours negotiating several projects with different filmmakers, working on everything from making sure a director’s comments about a script get proper consideration to negotiating an option to handling queries with someone I’d never done business with before.

I am fully aware of the fact that the problems I’m having are problems I would have traded up for thirty years ago. I’m also fully aware that these problems aren’t really problems at all.

They’re opportunities.

I’m hardwired to jump at opportunities. One of my biggest complaints about my agents, back in the days when I had agents, was how many opportunities those folks failed to jump at. Or screwed up. Or ignored completely.

And yet…

I’m a writer first, and as a writer first, anything that puts me behind on getting to my fictional worlds irritates the hell out of me. Three times last week, I didn’t start my words until after dinner, which is usually the time I reserve for reading.

Guess what didn’t get done last week. You got it. Reading.

And I needed to be reading, because I had 1.1 million words of fiction to consider before the end of the month. We were doing our annual anthology workshop, with over 40 professional writers in attendance. We spend days discussing fiction, and I do mean days. I also mean discussing.

So I couldn’t punt on the reading.

Yeah, unplanned but important work gets under my skin.

And then I have to step back and remember why I have that work.

Every single project that I’ve sold to film or TV in the past nine years, I’ve sold because I negotiated the deals. I worked with the people who approached me. I didn’t dismiss anyone because I’d “never heard of them” (like Agent #2 had) or because “the book’s not material for that studio” (like Agent #1 had) or because I gave a freakin’ free option like that stupid dump idiotic agent #…oh, never mind.

The blood still boils.

At some point, on a few of these projects, my lawyer will take over. But the projects have to get to the point where I can justify paying the lawyer. Some of these are still in the vaporware stage. They might turn into money; they might be a total waste of my time.

I’ve been thinking about this from a variety of angles lately, in part because of what we call “The Hollywood Projects,” even though only three of the projects I’m working on originated in Hollywood proper. One originated in Spain. Another in Mexico. A third will shoot in Canada, if all the ducks continue to line up in their pretty little rows.

The projects have moved in fits and starts. Sometimes they demand constant attention. Sometimes there’s months of silence.

What irritates me about Hollywood projects is that I might spend 40 hours negotiating something only to have the deal collapse before the paperwork is signed. Or I might spend weeks going back and forth with someone only to have them disappear when something shiny happens on their end.

It’s all vaporware until the check is cashed. Sometimes, by then, the project is long dead. I had an option with Disney on a short story that took more than a year to negotiate. (I was still working with an agent at that point.) By the time the option got signed and the check cashed, the producer who wanted to work on the project had moved to another studio. I got great money, with no hope of a project.

Looking back on it now, I also had no contact with a producer who liked my work. That’s a big loss. One of the projects I’m working on right now is the third attempt by a producer whom I know and like to work with me on something. We’ve been trying to work together for six years now—and this one looks like it actually might fly.

On another project that a different producer and I have been working on for nine years—nine years—is finally moving very fast. We’ve had the financing and the entire creative team together for years now, but we couldn’t get A-list actors to read the scripts. It’s not like the team lacks credentials. These folks have pedigrees that run for pages on projects you’ve heard of, movies I know you love.

But the lead role needs a very specific kind of actor, and we can’t do the project without that kind of actor. Every actor approached had a bevy of agents who refused to show their client the finished script. (This is a script that has some of the biggest production companies in the industry salivating.)

The agents, all seeking to rise in their A-list client’s estimation, refuse to bring something to the client that they haven’t discovered or generated themselves.

We’ve spent years trying to find ways around these agents. It’s been rather astounding to be on the other side of this closed wall, because from this angle, the agents’ behavior seems actively harmful to the client.

We’ve had actors on board before, actors who loved the script and even had a set date to start filming, only to have their agents refuse to negotiate any deal. These agents wouldn’t turn down an existing deal. They refused to come to the table. Period. The agents would then talk the actor out of doing the job.

One actor who was tied to the film for a while saw this project as his big break. Then his agents got involved. They generated something else for him, something that he wasn’t suited for, and his career went sideways. Now, he is no longer on the B-list, let alone the A-list.

I honestly don’t think he would have been right for our part either, but at least we were offering a starring role. The role that went sideways on him was a small role in a big film that tanked.

I’ve been thinking about control a lot because of one actor who is perfect for the role. We approached his agents in 2010, and got nowhere. We approached them again in 2011. Nowhere. We thought we had gone around the agents and got the script to him in 2012. Nope. And finally, finally, because of some heavy hitters who’ve recently come on board, he’s read the script, loves it, and is willing to talk.

Seven years of no.

Because of a bevy—and I do mean bevy—of agents.

The other projects are easier, in that pretty much anyone of the right gender can play the lead role. The actor won’t be the problem here. Who knows what problems those projects will have—if they get far enough to have people problems. (There are often other problems.)

I have to admit, after this week, I’m sympathetic to the actor with his bevy of agents. I’m nowhere near as famous as this A-lister is, and I’m sure I don’t get offered one-one-thousandth the work he gets offered, and I’ve been annoyed at the necessary distraction.

I would love to focus on my craft only, to deal with story problems all day every day, and let someone else take care of me.

But I know where that leads—and so do those of you who’ve been reading this blog regularly.

Like any insecure writer—and at heart, we’re all insecure—I berate myself for my foibles. This week, I’ve been berating myself for being a “control freak.”

I wasn’t going to change, mind you. I was just thinking that I’d have more writing time if I was a little less control-minded.

And then I got slapped hard in the face with the cold fish of reality.

I was reading an article in an Entertainment Weekly from last year. (As people who read my Recommended Reading List know, I’m chronically behind on my magazines, and I’m constantly striving to catch up.) The article was about the crossover in what the CW calls the Arrowverse—the four DC superhero shows that, in 2016, aired on four consecutive nights.

All four are produced by Greg Berlanti, along with Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg. Berlanti has a long history in television, and right now, he’s working on more shows than I can quite imagine.

In addition to shepherding Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow, he also oversees Blindspot and Riverdale. He’s supposed to be working on Black Lightning, which the CW just ordered a pilot for, and at least two other shows, according to IMDb.

The man is busy. He makes me look like I spend all day sleeping.

Anyway, in this EW article titled, “Arrow, Flash, Supergirl stars on the CW superhero crossover,” writer Jeff Jensen says, somewhat dramatically, that “The rise of the Arrowverse lies in the ruin of another superhero dream.”

Jensen then outlines the experience that Berlanti, Guggenheim, and Michael Green had with the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie. Berlanti was slated to direct, but didn’t end up as the director. (I’m sure there’s a long saga here). The script was rewritten, and according to these guys, the movie’s vision was lost. (I saw the film. To say that it had a vision in the final form is, um, charitable. I’m inclined to think they were right.)

Jensen then writes:

After collecting more learning experiences on TV projects including the short-lived ABC show No Ordinary Family, Berlanti and Guggenheim pitched Arrow to Warner Bros. Their previous flameout taught them to insist on three things: “Control, control, and control,” says Guggenheim.

And there it is. The fish slap.

Because, you see, in TV and movies, the person who has the control is the person who has contractual control. Just because someone is a producer or a screenwriter or even a director doesn’t mean that person has control.

A person has to fight tooth and nail to keep a firm grip on exactly what is happening to the project at all times.

That person has to be…a control freak.

Giant Fish Slap!

Yes, you can have trusted lieutenants. At some point you have to. But there’s a difference between lieutenants who can think for themselves, and remoras, who have no interest in thinking. They just want to suck the successful dry.

And believe me, remoras are easier to find than trusted lieutenants.

It’s clear just from that article that Berlanti has a great team around him. I’ve been putting together a team as well. Not a Hollywood team or a New York team, filled with agents and people I’ve never worked with before.

But a team of people who do their best to work with me, people I’ve either trained or vetted, who have a vested interest in getting the project—whatever it is—right.

I’ve also learned that if I’m going to relinquish control over something, it has to be something that won’t have lasting implications. I oversee the quality of the writing products, although I’m loosening the reins on some of the visual elements of my books. I’ve got a team who does the visual stuff — covers, interior design— so much better than I ever could.

But when it comes to what happens in the writing of the stories, I remain in charge.

And in order to control the stories, I have to control the rights and the contracts.

This means that I handle contract negotiations. I do the initial negotiations on everything, to see if the deal is even worth paying an attorney for.

Once I decide the deal is worthwhile, I work with an attorney to make sure I get what I want. The attorney does not have permission to make decisions for me. I need to be consulted about every small detail of that agreement, because the small details can suddenly turn into big problems if a writer isn’t careful.

In other words, relinquishing control on negotiations on Hollywood projects could result in losing my writing properties. I have a friend who let his agent negotiate his book project, which went (unexpectedly) to the silver screen. And now, other people are writing in his universe without his permission because, stupidly, he signed away all rights to his characters.

I’ve seen too many things just like that to allow it on my work. And the agents named above–#1, #2, #3, and so forth—made so many mistakes regarding listening to (or failing to listen to) the people who approached with an offer that I can’t imagine what kind of damage those highly respected, reputable agents would have done to my writing properties.

If I’m going to make a mistake, I’m going to make the mistake. I’ll own it, I’ll learn from it, and I won’t do it again.

But to entrust someone else with something that important without managing them in any way is a mistake I will never make again.

I have no idea what kind of damage was done, how many opportunities passed me by because of those people. I do know that I dodged a bullet: the deals they negotiated expired more than a decade ago. I’m actually scared to look in the files to see what I agreed to.

So, yeah. I had one of those trade-up-for-problems weeks. I’m currently writing this blog about an hour past the start of reading time, because I’m still not caught up from all that I was supposed to do last week. I’ll be doing a lot of it next week as well.

But it’s a price that I have chosen to pay, because I learned the same lesson as Greg Berlanti, albeit on a different path.

A writer needs three things to protect her work:

  1. Control
  2. Control

and…you guessed it

  1. Control

Remembering that in the middle of a week like the one I just had is difficult.

Which is why I wrote this blog—for me.

Because—fish slap!—I nearly forgot it.

Lots of interesting things are happening in the publishing world right now. As soon as I finish listening to a few podcasts and get to all those articles I saved to Pocket last week, I’ll write about some of them. I promise.

In the meantime, please feel free to share this blog with your writer friends.

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“Business Musings: Control, Control, Control,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2017 by Can Stock Photo / SergeyNivens.


7 thoughts on “Business Musings: Control, Control, Control

  1. Thank you! In my writing life, I’m taking control back by learning how to format and how to create covers, and thus gaining complete control over my books. It feels great!

    In addition, I believe that being aware and taking the amount of control you describe in this post is very necessary for indie authors. It’s just not always easy because we authors have to develop the mindset that allows this kind of firm stance. That’s possibly the bigger learning curve than formatting and covers.

    At least we can start doing it step by step, and have you to give us reminders and nudges. Thanks again.

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