Jeff Stockwell explains what’s wrong with one-step deals and suggests what writers can do about them.
For a number of reasons, screenwriters consider one-step deals to be problematic. But what should you do if you’re offered one? Jeff Stockwell (A Wrinkle in Time, Bridge to Terabithia) breaks down why one-steps aren’t good for writers or executives and offers some advice on how to deal with them.
Send your questions about the craft, job hunting, your career, or Guild service to Connect (under 100 words, please) with the subject “Mentor,” and we’ll send them to an established screen or TV writer to answer. Questions might be edited for space or clarity and will be published anonymously.
Question: “I have just been offered a one-step deal in which I am only guaranteed one pass at a non-original project. How, Curmudgeonly-But-Experienced Mentor, do you feel about this?”
Jeff Stockwell: I hate one-step deals. They are one of the biggest psychic thorns in my side when I start out on a project in which such limitations on the future are in place. And who wants to start out on anything with a psychic thorn in their side?
My problem with one-steps is partly related to less guaranteed pay—never a small thing in the piecemeal life of feature writing—but it’s mostly about how they mess with my creative power to explore, take risks, push at the boundaries of what’s expected, dig into my own unfolding mojo. In other words, one-step deals fuck with a lot of what I like about writing.
The writing process is so essentially about drafts that going into something knowing that you might only get to do one before it’s all snatched away tends to keep you coloring carefully inside the lines. And that’s not generally where interesting discoveries take place—the sort that might give a story that extra whatever-you-want-to-call-it (special voice? invigoratingly fresh rhythm? perspective-expanding flavor boost? umami?).
I want to think anyone who has spent their career working with writers and trying to build great film stories would know this. Why would an exec, even one in the shadow of a masterful business affairs VP, ever hire a writer for just one draft, when so much discovery and progress is going to happen in the act of moving from a first pass to a second? Plus, it’s between drafts that the execs themselves get to prove their story chops, drawing on their budding relationship with the writer, on their experience, and on their insights to help reshape the ongoing process.
(Yeah, ok, all you Biz Affairs folks reading WGAW Connect, I know it’s about the $$—but in my experience, that second pass is waaaaay cheaper than the first. And it’s the draft that has the best shot of getting everything up and on its way.)
So, what can we as writers do about those one-step deals that, somehow over the last decade, have proliferated? (I’m 30 years in. I hardly heard of them in the first 15 years of my career…)
We can all resist—and, as we’re learning in all kinds of ways these days, resistance isn’t always futile.
I say no to one-steps every time they are offered—and point out everything mentioned above to the parties concerned. Here and there, there can be some movement. They have to want you, and you have to be willing to let the job go. The usual poker game. (I suck at poker, by the way, and though I’ve rejected several one-steps, and “won” guaranteed steps here and there, I have also signed the lame deal dotted line.)
So, make noise. Many, if not most, of the projects you pursue will technically be called rewrites—because there’s an existing draft that everyone has moved on from (sorry early writers!) and doesn’t want to use anymore—but really aren’t rewrites at all. “Rewrite” almost sounds amenable to one-stepping it, right? But you must remind your employers that you need even more leeway to explore because you’re out to do everything that the existing draft doesn’t. You are, essentially, starting from scratch.
Make noise. Single-step deals are your pernicious enemy because, in effect, they propel everyone you’re working with to pressure you for unofficial free drafts—all hoping to get the chance to give you the kind of feedback and redirection they could otherwise openly and profusely share with you if you had a healthy, creativity-enhancing multi-step deal.
Make noise. Your reps will tell you that one-steps are just how it is these days, but chew on your reps’ ears and insist that they chew on the producers’ and executives’ ears. There needs to be a lot of ear chewing. There needs to be a lot of guilt.
Missed a previous “Ask a Mentor”? Read answers to these questions.
“What's a reasonable number of general meetings per year for a feature writer at the studio level? Perhaps not someone with a major produced credit, but someone who lands assignments and works regularly.” Answer
“When do you know your script is ready to go out into the world?” Answer
“Should a new staff member in an established writers’ room worry about talking too much, or too little?” Answer
“As an aspiring TV writer, should I skip over staffing and go straight to selling my own show?” Answer
“Most managers/agents say they want you to stick to one genre, because otherwise the execs will get ‘confused’ as to what you write. Do you have any recommendations about how to get repped and/or put yourself out there, when you write in more than one discrete genre?” Answer
“I was looking for some advice regarding manager/client relationships and the general management of your representation when you feel as though you have no street cred and/or are in the weaker position.” Answer