Wednesday, December 9, 2009

John August vs. Scriptshadow

In this corner... blogger and screenwriter of such films as Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish.... Jooooooooooooohn August!

And in this corner... a blogger who - in the words of Wired Magazine - "says he wanted to celebrate the writer, promote talented unknowns, and acquaint newbie scribes with the art of the craft".... Carsoooooon Reeeeeeves!

The issue: Does blogger Carson Reeves actually hurt working screenwriters with his review site ScriptShadow? If you want background on John's position, check out this post and then his follow-up. Read what he says in his own words, so that there can be no complaint that I am slanting the arguments.

John claims that because ScriptShadow has made studio screenplays far more available to the non-professionals, this has resulted in studios taking stronger measures to protect their intellectual property. He describes how the studio cracked down after ScriptShadow published an early draft of an upcoming project earlier this year:

"I was suddenly given extraordinary restrictions on exactly who could read the script. I couldn’t send it to the director, the producers or anyone other than one executive at the studio. These were by far the most restrictive terms of any film I’ve written at any studio.

[...] "The more often sites like ScriptShadow poke that hornet’s nest, the bigger the reaction is going to be. The revised terms — I couldn’t even send the draft to my agent — may become the norm. Assistants will get fired for sharing scripts. In the long run, it will be crippling for the industry, and screenwriters will suffer most."

As he details, the "suffering" will come in the form of writers not being able to send out scripts of their aborted projects as writing samples, with is a fairly common way for writers to get assignment work. That's pretty serious.

Carson tweeted yesterday that he doesn't intend to comment further on the matter, which is his right and his prerogative. However, he has a loyal mob of defenders who have been commenting on John's post and - with a few exceptions - I feel it's not unfair to characterize them as a group of entitled, aspiring screenwriters whose legal knowledge seems to have been derived from a marathon viewing of the worst Law & Order spinoff (SVU, if you're keeping score).

Many of these commenters are saying that Carson shouldn't get blamed for a bunch of executives acting like assholes, because it's always easier to throw stones at a few rich fat cats and say it's their fault for making us want their unproduced scripts so much.

The fact is:

1) The studio owns the scripts.

2) They have every right to fight copyright infringement.

3) Recognizing that getting something off the internet is like getting pee out of a swimming pool, they realize the only way to keep this material private is to raise the security measures surrounding it and applying further punitive measures. That's their right. And that is the situation that John August says is happening.

Let's say I rent an apartment in a complex that is in a nice enough area that no one even has locks on their doors. It's a crime-free paradise. There is no crime and thus, no one misses their locks. Then one night, some people down the block realize that they can enter the complex and any apartment at will, plundering each unit of its goodies. The owner, realizing the situation has changed, now has to pay to install locks and pay for security, which results in a rent hike. This naturally pissess off the tenants, who feel they're being inconvenienced.

Now imagine if when those tenants tried to seek redress against the thieves for both the theft and the resulting expenses, the intruders blamed the owner for overreacting and trying to keep these trespassers off his property. That they bore no responsibility for the consequences of their theft and that their real beef is with the asshole owner.

THAT is essentially the position of the mob defending ScriptShadow against John's charges.

One commenter, Synthian (comment 37), offered a better and even more succinct defense of John's position:

"Nabisco does not owe you the recipe to the next cookie they’re building in development. (Even if you ARE an aspiring bake chef. And it would be terribly educational for you.)"

If it was meant to be released, it would have been. Do attorneys publish their inter-office memos and first drafts of their closing arguments before a case gets to court? Does John Grisham post his first draft of his latest novel online “just so readers can see the process?” Do painters release the early sketches of their work before applying pigment to the canvas?

Let's not forget that these sorts of leaks have killed major films before. Back in 2002, AICN's Moriarty got a copy of J.J. Abrams first draft of SUPERMAN and write a long, spoiler-filled review decrying every bad choice made in the script. This stirred up a lot of controversy on the net and Abrams later said that the blacklash was a major factor in the project being killed at Warners.

Full disclosure: At the time, I cheered the death of Abrams' SUPERMAN because the draft was terrible (read it for yourself - it's only a Google search away) and at the time I was exceptionally grateful to Moriarty for getting an incredibly stupid comic book movie killed. Am I a hypocrite now, or do I just have greater perspective? You decide.

As I said in comments yesterday, I'm an avid reader of Carson’s site, and I'd never actually looked at it from John's perspective. I think Carson has only the best of intentions – to educate and to help aspiring screenwriters develop their craft. He’s also run several contests aimed at helping non-repped writers get representation. So in that sense, I separate him from some of the guys at AICN who write articles with insider “scoops” just so they can bring themselves more publicity.

Just making it clear, I am NOT trying to pick a fight with Carson.

I never thought about the unintended consequences that John August says are happening, and if it’s actively making things difficult for working writers, then perhaps some restraint is necessary
I was really disappointed to see so many people dismiss John simply because they're sticking up for their buddy. I think the “Fuck you, rich boy!” and “We have a right to everything on the internet” attitudes are deplorable. Why should John’s right to privacy on his private intellectual property expire simply because he’s famous and successful? Or to take the tone of another argument, because the commenter in question feels that John's movies were sub-par? (Do bad writers get fewer rights than good ones? How come no one told me?)

Beyond that John himself proposed a few ways that Carson could carry out his stated mission without contributing to the problems listed above, and as he noted in his update post, "So far, few of them have addressed my two proposed changes:

"1.Review screenplays of movies once they’ve come out.
"2.Ask the writers before posting reviews of unproduced scripts."

This is something of a timely controversy for me. It's always been my policy not to spoil scripts which come into possession via my work. For this reason, I have long avoided doing script reviews of upcoming projects because I don't want to have to deal with repercussions from my bosses. However, through means outside of work, I recently came into possession of a first draft of GREEN LANTERN, and in fact, was in the middle of writing a review for Thursday, using it to point out some lessons that could benefit screenwriters. The draft is almost two years out of date, so I assumed it wouldn’t contain too many spoilers. In light of John's post, I have decided to hold off on this and other reviews until after the film is in theatres.

Carson seems like a good guy and I genuinely believe he has the best of intentions. He's educating many newbies about the art of screenwriting and of script criticism, and I truly hope that his site doesn't go away. Having said that (Curb Your Enthusiasm ref), I don't see why he couldn't continue to do the same work under the terms that John proposes.

Surely Carson never envisioned he'd be the catalyst for these problems, but now that he is aware, why shouldn't he work with professionals to hammer out a compromise that leaves everyone happy?

I'd be interested in hearing what everyone else thinks of this, if they're not already burned out on the subject.


  1. From the arguments I've read so far today, it seems like the people on John's side know what they are talking about and the people on Carson's side have reverted back to their Napsteresque entitlement days. It seems John has made a Lars Ulrich of himself.

    I've been a long time reader of Script Shadow... and I've downloaded a lot of mp3's. But I won't pretend either one didn't hurt somebody, directly or indirectly.

  2. It's thorny. Fact is, most of these scripts are available elsewhere online if you know where to look. Will the DDP forums be cracked down on? I think the problem is that Carson has coalesced the supply of scripts and the analysis (however deep, or not, that might be).

    It's not cool if the site has led to loss of work (as alleged on DDP), but I wonder why the execs would put so much weight on the opinion of a relative nobody? (No offence, Carson). It could very feasibly be a ready-made excuse for doing something they were going to do anyway.

    I can see both sides, and John's suggestions seem fair enough. I'd be interested to know the thoughts of anyone who's crossed that line from wannabe to pro in the last six months or so. Has their opinion of the site changed?

  3. I already have tons of scripts to read and learn from, and in fact, when I need a refresher I just re-read one of the classics already out there (Die Hard, The Apartment, Rocky etc...)so if the entire underground secret spec industry would suddenly be shut down or curtailed, I wouldn't miss it because there is so many scripts out in the open now to learn the craft from. Scott over at Go Into The Story has built a decent rep doing in depth script reviews of older films which proves you can learn from the classics just as well as from the "new" ones

  4. People keep saying there's no educational value to reading these scripts, but there most definitely is. I have learned a ton from reading a script that hasn't been turned into a film. And don't we have an Oscar category for Best Screenplay? The scripts are supposedly judged independent of the film.

    I do agree that Carson should at least notify writers of his latest review to give them an opportunity to object.

    I don't think he should only review produced films, but he should be more vigilant about what scripts he chooses to review.

    And I don't think there's a gray are on posting of screenplay links. That's blatant copyright violation.

  5. What difference does it make to the educational value if it's been made into a movie or not?

    If the issue is not being able to separate the two, why not just read scripts for movies you haven't seen?

    If ScriptShadow hurts screenwriters, and it does, then it fails in its mission to "help screenwriters."

    I know it's fun to read scripts to movies that haven't been made, but it's also fun to steal cars... or so I've heard...

  6. Yes, because reviewing a screenplay that someone sent you is exactly like stealing cars.

  7. Yeah, Carson's site would be a big deal if it were not for the simple fact that the "Black List," hits in few days and everyone and their grandmother is going to be "pirating" scripts like crazy and talking about the scripts on just about every tracking board on the internet.

    What in the hell is the difference between some anonymous douche on a message board posting, "I'm a temp in the mail room at WB, and I read the Superman script, and it sucked," and Carson giving an in depth critique?

    The hypocrisy and aloofness about this is nauseating. If you've ever downloaded ANY script, you've committed copyright infringement. There is no difference in downloading the script for "Blade Runner" and the script for "Iron man 2."

  8. I suspect I'll be writing a follow-up for tomorrow, but I have to respond to Purpletrex's comments.

    First, are you actually arguing that since "everyone else is doing it" that it becomes okay? Seriously? That's like saying just because you can't prosecute one car thief that every other thief should be let go on principle. If I rob a bank and don't wear a mask, should I complain that I should go free because the guy who wore a mask and gloves evaded the law?

    Second, you're right... there is no difference between Carson and that anonymous douche. In fact, that temp is probably even in more hot water because when he got hired, he signed a ton of paperwork swearing not to disseminate copywritten material. Then he was dumb enough to write about it on a public message board. The only real difference is that Carson is a lot higher profile and as such, the bad buzz is more visible. This means not only is the potential damage from such a review greater, but that it's also easier for the studio to find and shut down.

    And make no mistake, studios HAVE killed these kinds of reviews before. Anyone who reads AICN for any length of time will see that. Thus, Carson isn't the first one they'll go after and they have every right to do so.

    On your final point, I can find no logic. You're alleging that the misdeeds of others somehow absolves Carson. There's no hypocrisy in the reaction to Carson.

  9. I'm sorry if my car theft anology was a bit of a hyperbole. I just meant, that just because something is fun and possible doesn't make it okay.

    There is no good reason why a produced script is not an acceptable substitue for an unproduced one, except that it's less exciting.

  10. The car theft analogy is great. What does a car thief say when he gets busted? He says something like, "I got the car from some guy named Carson." Then the cop asks if the thief knows Carson's last name or where he lives. Of course, the car thief doesn't know the true identity of Carson, no matter who stole the car. In the case of car thieves and ScriptShadow, there is no Carson (Reeves).

    Hopefully this makes sense, because I've got to go fix my stupid snowblower.

  11. The Nabisco analogy doesnt ring true to me. It is more like "Nabisco does not owe you the next recipe to the cooking they are making. Even though many people in the industry see it and pass it around. And we allow the recipe to be traded around. And even the chefs who are the most vehemently opposed to sharing recipes read other in development recipes. But you cant review them."

    I think Carson should just review the scripts and not post them. If he wants to post a script, yep get permission from the author.

  12. Scott - there is a VAST difference between people "in the industry" seeing something in the course of doing their jobs and some outsider seeing and passing along the recipie.

    I've seen this argument elsewhere and I remain astounded by the entitlement of wannabe writers when it comes to this matter. No matter how big a fan I am of the Pittsburgh Steelers, no matter how much I think I know about coaching, no matter how BADLY I want to be an athletic coach I don't assert it as my right to have access to inter-office memos and other documents that are shared by people in that industry.

    It doesn't matter if I could learn anything from those papers. I have no right to them and I have no legal leg to stand on if I get called out by someone in authority for distributing them. Period.

    And if all you care about is reading professional scripts, go to your local Barnes & Noble and ask the clerk there to direct you to the screenplay section. There are plenty of legally published screenplays there in all genres.

  13. "in the course of doing their jobs"

    Right there is where I have the issue. I am not saying at all that people should have access to these scripts. In fact, the only people who should are the ones who need it to do their jobs.

    But what we know from practice is that scripts in production or development are widley disseminated. August even says thats how he got one of his first assignments because his script was passed around.

    Now did he specifically authorise for his script to be passed around? I doubt it. Did the studio? Again, probably not. But it was, and that is accepted. So if it is accepted for someone employed by another studio to read a script that was sold to a competitor, why can I not see it? To continue the Nabisco analogy, would they let their bitter enemy to see the recipe? Would the Pittsburgh Steelers let the Green Bay Mermen see their inter-office memos? You either say no one outside the project can see it (which is the legal way I presume) or everyone can see it.

    I was being a touch facetious with my last post. My last paragraph was my real point. I honestly believe he should either post a script but no review, or review it but not post the script. if he wants to do both, he should get the copyright holders permissions.

    Plus, I am really sick of all these analogies. I dont know whether someone is stealing a script or a football.

  14. Holy crap, Bitter! So it's your fault we lost four in a row! If we lose tomorrow, I'm tracking you down!

    Seriously though, the pro-ScriptShadow people try to make everything black-white, yes-no, one-zero. I was going with the music sharing anology. There's a big difference between making a mix-tape or mix-cd (or mix-mp3 or whatever the kids are doing) and starting the pirate bay. It's a little foolish to say that anyone who's ever made a mixtape can't complain about mass piracy. What's next? Anyone who's ever spead while driving can't complain about drunk driving, because they're both moving violations? Or they can't complain about murder, because speeding is a crime too and they're criminals? There's obviously gray areas in the real world.

    I'm also surprised how many people are pulling the hollywood elitism card. Even outside of hollywood, and without scriptshadow, you can network and get passed some good scripts. And many of the pro writers complaining about scriptshadow have said that basically they don't mind if some seriously aspiring screenwriter manages to score a copy of their work. They have no problem paying it back. But once again, that's passing a cool mixtape to a friend, which is entirely different than running the Pirate Bay. And at that level, even with some grey-market technically illegal trading going on, the system still benefitted everyone.

    On the review side of things, I disagree with people who think the reviews are cool, but don't consider their opinion automatically invalid. My problem is that they're reviewing unpublished (and often unfinished) items. It's not the same as reviewing a book or a movie or a new CD. It's more like reviewing my diary from the tenth grade. Not exactly sure if it's legal, but pretty sure that it ain't cool.

  15. There is a difference between people in Hollywood seeing a script before it's made and the general public seeing a script before it's made. That difference is the issue at hand.

  16. Grant, thanks for the well thought-out post. I couldn't have said it better myself.

    Patrick - Bravo as well, but good luck getting the anti-John August mob to hear you on that.

  17. People have been too quick to characterize scriptshadow supporters as "wannabe" writers who feel entitled. It's not only a gross generalization, but it makes you look pompous, and I know that's not anyone's intentions.

    I believe Carson is wrong for providing links to these scripts, but he is not wrong for reviewing them. Giving his opinions on anything even if the material he is commenting on is questionably obtained is his right.

    Studios look to control the flow of information as much as possible, but it's called freedom of speech. As long as Carson states before his review that he obtained this script from certain sources and he can't vouch for what draft it is and all that jazz, I don't care what he says. It's just a guy talking, and anyone reading it can take it or leave it. I do agree the download links should be taken down.

  18. Let's not forget that the way copyright law is written in the U.S., if the owner of a copyright is made aware of a violation of that copyright, they must do everything in their power to stop that violation or they lose the copyright forever.

    That's why Disney comes down so hard on day care centers that paint a lame verison of Mickey Mouse on their wall. Once Disney knows about it, they have to get the day care center to paint over it or they lose their ownership of Mickey Mouse to EVERYONE for ALL TIME.

    In the same way, by making his piracy of screenplays so public, Carson Reeves has forced studios to lock down their scripts or risk losing their rights to the screenplays.