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Back to the Chalkboard: Screenwriting Polygamy

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It’s a Sin!

No manager or agent will represent you. No studio or producer will buy your script. You must build your brand and be consistent! You must not confuse the very smart, often Ivy League-educated people who run production companies, studios, and networks! You must either write alone or with a writing partner, but you should never, ever write with more than one partner! It’s illegal. It’s a sin. It’s screenwriting polygamy!

Screenwriting Polygamy

Big Love (HBO)

Birds Do It, JJ Abrams Did It

They used to say you can’t write for both television and film. Enter JJ Abrams. Before that, they said no one would stay home to watch TV over seeing a movie. And even before that they said talkies would never work. Who cares what they say? Right now, in the age of Superhero Movies and little else, it’s time to Do-It-Yourself and burn convention to the ground. Diversification is good. Versatility is good. Increasing your opportunities for exposure is good. So, if you like writing with partners and want to get more work done along several, diversified fronts, write with multiple partners on multiple projects.

Open Relationships

At the moment, I’m writing a dramedy yoga project with comedy writer and yoga teacher, Sandy Sternshein for the lesbian web series hub, Tello Films. I’m also doing an action road trip, Travel Nanny, with my former USC professor, Mark Shepherd, who has worked in action for a long time. Preschooled, is an adult comedy I’m writing with one of my former students, Rebekah Reaves, who continues to win screenwriting contests for her incredible structure and strong female characters. Sam Zalutsky and I are currently shopping around BiT, a trailer park horror movie we optioned for him to direct, and I’m co-directing a short film in January with filmmaker/professor John Fitch.

I believe it’s crucial for screenwriters to think like a producers and move multiple projects along different stages of development at all times. Too often, writers spin their wheels on just one thing and never get anywhere. I’ve always juggled this way, and advocate that my students do the same, but my recent realization was this:

  • More projects mean more chances for success
  • Writing with a partner is way more fun
  • Writing with a partner speeds a script along and generates better first drafts
  • Writing with a partner who is better than you at certain stuff -- genre, gender, yoga – makes a ton of sense, because the script will be better faster
  • And what do I care about sharing sales money and residuals? My goal is to get lots of stuff done and put posters on the wall.

Love the One You’re With

There are several ways to go about scheduling time for each project and sharing the workload. That’s for another column. But truly, neither is a problem. This is not Big Love. My partners have other stuff they are working on, too. We’re all in open relationships! I’m not suggesting you go write horror scripts with three different partners. That would be icky and could lead to decapitation on a dark and stormy night. What I am saying, though, is that if you want to cross platforms or genres and go in a totally new direction than your typical fare – why not? Love the one you’re with, man.

But what if one of these projects gets set up? Am I not worried about my “brand?” Consistency of voice?

No. I’m not.

Because getting something sold is a good freaking problem to have. And, if I sell something with one partner, that doesn’t make the script I wrote with someone else inherently less good. If it’s good, it’s good, and if they want it, they’ll buy it. I just don’t see anyone saying, “Wow, I really love that amazing spec, but man, he just sold something with someone else, too, and I’m just too confused and weirded out to buy it now despite how awesome it is.” Obviously, you’d be a very busy person working on two sold scripts at once with two different partners. Complicated? Yes. Bad? Hell no. And I’m pretty sure all ships still rise in the tide. So what’s good for one partnership may be good for the other.

This Isn’t Marriage, It’s Business

Assignment writing, staff writing, that’s a whole other thing, obviously – where getting gigs is based on what you’ve done together already. So, if your project sells or gets you representation, you’re likely locked to that person for a while as you deliver. So make sure you get along with each other. But does that mean you have to completely shut down other distinctly different projects written with other partners? Of course not. Again – if it’s good, it’s good. Brad and Mark scripts are not at all like Brad and Rebekah scripts. So what’s the problem?

Bottom line – when writing specs, it doesn’t matter how many people you’re writing with as long as you're having fun, being productive, and everybody is open about what they’re doing. This is not the time to limit yourself, be old fashioned, or listen to “them.” This is the time to create options and opportunity for yourself any way you can. Businesses, governments, and universities work with multiple partners all the time. So do studios, networks, and producers. So why can’t you diversify? This isn’t marriage, it’s business. And screenwriting is a volume business, which means four minds and four projects are better than one.

Need help finding a writing partner? Get Jeanne Veillette Bowerman's advice in her webinar,
Writing Partnerships: The Essentials to Finding Your Match