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Writers differ on obeying strike rule

Special to The Times

To comply or not to comply: That is the question. One of the Writers Guild membership’s most contentious issues in the strike’s early going has been Strike Rule No. 8, or the Script Validation Program, which compels writers to submit copies to the Writers Guild of all their works in progress for struck companies.

The WGA policy is an effort to prevent scabbing, or continuing to write on projects for struck studios and networks during the strike, by having a record of where the writer was in the work when the strike began. But the studios threatened legal action against any writers who gave proprietary content to a third party, and many industry talent lawyers advised their writing clients not to abide by the rule. Writer message boards lighted up with concerns about how to bridge the impasse as the deadline to hand in material to the guild approached last Thursday.

The companies’ desire to keep the content of their scripts private is a natural corporate impulse, and many writer contracts include confidentiality clauses to this effect. The truth is that this kind of thing is generally forbidden even outside of a strike context, even as agents and writers slip completed but not-yet-produced scripts to potential new employers as writing samples.

Several of the studios -- like Fox and Warner Bros. -- try to police this pretty vigilantly, fearing that their high-profile in-development screenplays will fall into the hands of competing studios, and the talent agencies honor the rule to varying degrees. But as with all things in Hollywood, personal relationships, and whether discretion is a hallmark of those relationships, carry the day. So with screenplays there remains, as one Oscar-winning producer innovatively put it, “an active universe of trust-based slippage.”

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Anecdotally, some of the greener writers have indeed registered their materials with the guild in the last few weeks, but the more established and experienced writers concerned about committing to the Script Validation Program have thus far either ignored it out of their own paranoia about who sees their unfinished work or split the difference by filing materials with their own lawyers.

Compliance with Strike Rule No. 8, which has been applied in previous strike scenarios, is nearly impossible to enforce effectively anyway. “And God help you if you do try to enforce it,” says one writer, “because I think that’s when whatever solidarity we do have is gonna erupt.”

Other writers disagree that the guild leadership’s coercion on this issue will affect membership morale and doubt that the studios’ attempt to use it as a wedge issue will have any real effect.

“People are united,” says another feature writer who’s been tracking the chatter in WGA-membership Internet chat spaces. “There is a frustration with how bullying the guild can be. And most newbie writers or writers who aren’t super-educated will comply with all of those rules. When you’re talking about the A-list feature writers and the show runners, they’re not cowed. They just get irritated. It’s not going to divide the guild. It’s a losing strategy for the studios. If they think that it’s going to make members disenchanted with leadership, they’re absolutely wrong.”

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Helm keeps his manifesto at hand

Given the endless series of devil’s bargains that working screenwriters are forced to confront (even when not working -- see above), it’s baffling that more of them don’t keep something like Zach Helm’s personal writing manifesto handy.

“I keep a copy of the newest version in my desk to go back and look at when I’m in a moral quandary or I’m stuck artistically,” said the 32-year-old writer-director last week at the empty Bootleg Theater, where Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights he’ll perform a favorite Spalding Gray piece, “Interviewing the Audience.”

“It’s incredibly helpful for me,” he said. “Almost like a totem.”

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Helm’s ever-evolving four-page list of personal policies was greatly influenced by Lindsay Doran, who produced Helm’s screenplay “Stranger Than Fiction,” the Dogme 95 collective and a variety of contemporary and past masters such as Hal Ashby, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Woody Allen and Wes Anderson. It is composed of guidelines for both the business and creative aspects of his professional life, many of which have been amended considerably in the course of pulling together his directorial debut, “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” opening Friday.

“It’s all about control, and it’s all about inspiration,” Helm says of the document’s dual intent, shaped over 10 years of frustrating industry sloggery.

There are rules outlining the necessity of negotiating strong terms and a high level of involvement in any spec script he sells. But his most audacious self-regulation, enacted six years ago, is a blanket refusal to rewrite another screenwriter’s work, which is like a popular politician turning down paid speaking engagements.

Helm had his epiphany around seven years ago. Just as he was accepting another sure-to-go-nowhere rewrite assignment, he was informed that Fox 2000 was moving his most precious screenplay -- “Magorium,” the calling-card script that had jump-started his career--into the hands of another writer. After he played the good soldier and absolved them of any guilt for shucking him from the project, he received a ham in the mail as thanks.

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Additionally, despite now being offered tempting pre-existing material to rewrite and direct, Helm has made his participation contingent on the original writer being re-hired to do the work. In a system that often treats screenwriters like disposable contact lenses, this demand has been met with quizzical looks -- as has his preference for writing a complete script free rather than pitch his take on it like everyone else.

After “Magorium,” Helm hopes to direct “The DisAssociate,” which should truly test the limits of the manifesto’s workability. One of his earliest original scripts and “the best manifestation of the creative aspect of the manifesto,” Helm’s comedy about a corporate drone who receives visions from God, contains scenes with dialogue in made-up languages, scenes that repeat themselves and chaotic musical numbers.

While that should be something to see, for now Helm is keeping his own guiding vision private.

“The whole point was for me to say, my rules are not the same as the rules that they tell you in these [screenwriting] books,” he says. “So if I put my manifesto out there, all I’m doing is giving another writer another set of rules that they think they should follow. That doesn’t make any sense. They should make their own manifesto.”

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Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.


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