If you are a writer and you’re about to send your script out for the first time, whether to producers, agents, or contests, here are the six things that you need to do before you send out your script.
1) Register your script with the U.S. Copyright Office. I’ve written previously about the importance of copyright registration and the benefits registration brings the writer. Even though you may have been told that copyright protection exists at creation, the reality is that the registration is extremely important. It is fairly easy to register your script on line (and if you don’t know how, I have a post with step-by-step instructions here.
2) Give the Film a Good Title: The title on your script will probably not be the same title when it gets made into a film. So keep in mind that the person viewing that title is not a filmgoer deciding what movie to see, it’s a producer or agent deciding which of the scripts on the pile on his desk he’s going to take home to read on the weekend. Be creative. There are no set rules. The Natalie Portman/Ashton Kutcher movie No Strings Attached was famously called “Fuckbuddies” when it first made the rounds. I’m sure that Liz Meriwether knew that title had no chance of remaining on the film but the title got the script a lot of attention. Similarly, when American Pie made the rounds it was called “Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love.” The Weitz Brothers understood that the script title is a great place to show your creativity. Be just as creative.
3) Sign A Written Agreement With Your Cowriter(s): How is the money going to be split? Whose name is going first in the credits? Who is going to pay any expenses (like postage and copies)? Now is the time to get all that in writing. Everyone is very agreeable when selling the script is still just a dream. But once money is on the table people get all sorts of crazy. Sign something now. If you don’t have the money for a lawyer, that’s okay. Just put something on paper that lays out all the issues that you can think of and both of you sign it. If there is a problem down the road it’s a whole lot better to have something that you both signed then just your word against your now ex-partner.
4) Make Sure You Haven’t Defamed Anyone: For some writers, scripts are an opportunity to even an old score. So they use the names of real people (usually ex-girlfriends and boyfriends) and give them horrible qualities. While this may be cathartic for the writer, it just opens up a can of worms that doesn’t need to be opened. Change their names to something more generic. If you are writing about well-known events then maybe that’s not possible. But for that coming-of-age story based on your own past, you don’t need to use anyone’s real name.
5) Email a Copy of the Script to Yourself: If you don’t have one already, get a Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail account and then email a copy of the script to that account. In the subject line, put the name of the script and something like “This is the version that was registered with the Copyright Office on [Date]” Why? Because at some point the hard drive on your computer will crash and using a service like Gmail ensures that you will always have a backup of the registered version of the script that is easy to get to and free to store. Yes the Copyright Office has a copy. But retrieving that copy is neither easy nor cheap, so do yourself this favor.
6) Open up a Folder to Save Copies of Submission (and Rejection) Letters): In the event that you think that someone has stolen your script, you need to prove not only that the scripts are substantially similar, but that the person who stole it had access to your script. The best way to do this is to keep careful records of who you submit the script to. Every time you send out the script, put a copy of the cover letter in the folder. And if you get a rejection letter, put that in the folder as well. It’s easy to do and that way it will be much easier to show how the infringing studio got a hold of your masterpiece.
That’s it for now. If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments.