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Notes and Negotiation, a Screenwriter’s Guide

Award-winning scriptwriter Greg Bernstein applies negotiation theory to the emotionally-charged business of responding to notes on your script.

Last movie I wrote was about Okies in the Dust Bowl. You’d never know because when it reached the screen, the whole thing played on a torpedo boat. ~ Joe Gillis from Sunset Blvd., written by Charles Brackett, D.M. Marshman, Jr., and Billy Wilder.

We screenwriters complete a draft, turn ourselves inside out to get it right, and hand it in. Then we get script notes. When we’re in synch with the producer or production executives, all is fine; however, when there’s disagreement, script notes can generate anything from mild confusion to crazed fury to outright fear.

It’s hard not to look at notes as both an affront and a threat. After months of working on a project, I’ve felt that my project, my job, and my career were headed down the drain after receiving notes. It’s a lousy feeling, if for no other reason than it could all be true.

Nonetheless, with this emotional roiling going on, writers still have to address the notes and negotiate the future of their projects.

I use the word “negotiate” intentionally. But when you discuss script notes with a producer or studio executive, are you really negotiating? A negotiation theorist would say absolutely you are. That’s because you and your counterpart share an important interest – getting a movie made – but may differ on what script changes will lead to the best movie possible. Therefore, a negotiation must take place to settle your differences.

Still, can you have a real negotiation when one side (generally not the writer) has all of the power? Again, absolutely yes. Just because a producer holds most of the cards doesn’t mean you’re not negotiating. You are, you just can’t use brute force to get what you want. Other methods must be employed.

So, given a notes meeting is most definitely a negotiation, does negotiation theory have something to say that can help us? I think so. Don’t get me wrong — negotiation theorists have not divined strategies that you can use to magically change executives’ minds and bend their will to yours. Still, there are strategies skilled negotiators use, and which you can use, to reach the best possible outcome when you discuss your script’s future.

The truth is, our projects do hang in the balance at a notes meeting, so it’s important to use whatever tools that can help.

              Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom in The Producers (1967)

Prisms and Viewpoints

Let’s start with a fundamental premise about screenplays: Give a script to five film professionals and you’re likely to get five different opinions. If you accept this premise, you’ve accepted a fundamental tenant of negotiation, which is:

Negotiators always look at the topic for negotiation through the prism of their own experience, needs, values, likes and dislikes.

Because peoples’ prisms are so different, you can bet negotiators will look at precisely the same thing, whether it’s a union contract, a used car, or a screenplay, and draw very different conclusions, or seek different negotiation outcomes. For every writer whose experience and values suggest a character should do “X” given a certain set of facts, there’s a studio executive whose experience and values suggest the character should do “Y.”

Prisms not only cause negotiators to understand things differently, but to value them differently. For example, you may care most about the theme that binds your story together or the integrity of your characters’ motivations; the executive may care most about budget, marketing or casting. You may know that San Tropez is the best place to set a scene, but surely there’s an executive out there who will want San Dimas for budgetary reasons.

So, at the outset, there will always be differences of opinion, different interests, different priorities, different viewpoints, all the product of legitimate differences in experience, worldview, and immediate needs. The question is, given this, how do you reach the best result possible?

St Tropez: A Costly Setting

               San Tropez: A Costly Setting

Positions vs. Interests

To give yourself the best chance to reach what you think is a good result, here’s a fundamental negotiation rule to live by:

Never begin your discussion by haggling over positions.

What are “positions”? Positions are what negotiators say they want. A negotiator tells her counterpart she wants this or demands that. In a script notes discussion, a studio executive tells you to change this character’s motivation or that scene’s location.

Positions are, therefore, a negotiator’s solution to a perceived problem and inevitably reflect a negotiator’s underlying needs, interests, values, or beliefs. For example, if a studio executive’s position is to change a character’s motivation, this undoubtedly reflects an underlying belief about how the character would behave. If the executive wants to change a scene’s location, the underlying need may well be financial.

Instead of haggling over these positions and possibly creating unnecessary tension from the get-go, always begin by discussing the underlying reasons for positions. Indeed, at the beginning of any script notes discussion, it is valuable to surface all of your counterpart’s underlying needs, interests, and beliefs regarding all of their notes before discussing specific solutions.

Why? First, negotiators know that often there’s a disconnect between stated positions and the underlying reasons for them. Writers certainly understand this. If we’re told to change a scene in a certain way, we tend to look carefully beneath this position and examine what actually has motivated it. Once we surface the real issue hidden beneath the note, we can then devise the best solution possible, which often may be different from the one originally suggested.

              Kevin Spacey as Chris Sabian in The Negotiator

We can often create better solutions because, the truth is, most of the time we know the script’s meanings, textures and subtleties far better than our counterpart. After all, the writer has lived with the script for hundreds and hundreds of hours; a studio executive or producer will likely have worked with the script for just a small fraction of this time. Your counterpart may therefore not be totally aware of the interconnectedness of beats, or the interplay of motivations, or even how to clearly express his specific concerns.

Not surprisingly, then, I have been in many meetings where a studio executive, who has read a script once or twice, has asked for a specific change. By not immediately haggling over this specific suggestion, but instead by exploring all of the executive’s underlying concerns, my wife and I (we write together) have had the chance to create a better solution based on our deeper understanding of the story. Additionally, these sorts of discussions give us the opportunity to grasp good ideas that our counterpart may not yet be able to fully articulate.

In short, good negotiators educate each other before trying to craft solutions; it makes no sense to do otherwise. So, flesh out and discuss all underlying needs and interests before moving on to solutions.

While you’re doing this, you also need to discover something else:

You need to discover how your counterpart values and prioritizes his concerns. You also need to know how you value these concerns.

It’s amazing how often negotiators fight over positions that really aren’t very important to one of the parties. When I worked as a studio business affairs executive I found that my counterparts, who often came into a negotiation primed for a fight, were often prepared to go to the mat over admittedly unsubstantial issues. Since this wastes time and diminishes goodwill, it becomes extremely important to determine what issues don’t truly concern your negotiating partner, or which issues don’t truly concern you. Hopefully, both of you will “give” on those issues that don’t really matter.

Since people are anthropologically wired to reciprocate gestures of goodwill, if you give on something your counterpart values, your counterpart is more likely to give on something that you value. I’m not so naïve as to think studio executives with leverage will always reciprocate your nice gesture or horse-trade; I am saying studies demonstrate there is a somewhat greater likelihood of this happening when you give your counterpart something he wants.

The bottom line is, haggling over positions early in the game is a common way for negative emotions to build, communication to break down, and negotiations to fail. So, if your counterpart wants to talk specific script changes from the get-go, resist. Instead, ask a ton of questions designed to surface all of your counterpart’s underlying interests, concerns, and priorities. Where an answer is unclear, be polite, but keep asking.

               Not Giving In: Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street

The Importance of Asking Questions

Some writers may be reluctant, but asking question after question is extremely important. Information is the coin of the realm in any negotiation, and so asking questions is imperative. So is listening. Only by listening carefully can you pick up nuance and potentially learn whether you or your counterpart is mistaken about something, or what is really motivating one of their positions, or what your counterpart does or doesn’t truly value.

But asking questions and listening carefully have another beneficial effect: Both demonstrate respect, and demonstrations of respect are helpful. I have been in negotiating sessions where simply keeping eye contact with my counterpart, and engaging in repeated “active listening,” has greatly improved the mood and thus the conversation. Active listening is a way of asking questions that demonstrate you are hearing and understanding what your counterpart is saying. Sentences that start with, “So, if I heard you correctly, what you’re saying is…..,” and which then summarize your counterpart’s comments, exemplify acting listening.

Will active listening necessarily lead to the result you want? Of course not. But, when skillfully done, it ensures you’re hearing things correctly and does signal respect, which can be disarming and lead to better discussions.

              Asking the Right Question:s Michael Sheen as David Frost, and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon

Emotion and Anger

But what about when you don’t respect your counterpart — when feelings of anger or frustration lie a razor thin distance beneath the surface?

Fight it.

As Harvard professors Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton point out in their seminal book, Getting to Yes, it’s critical for negotiators to resist personalizing negotiations and making their counterpart part of the problem.

The truth is, most of our negotiating partners are intelligent and rational. Remember your partner inevitably views the negotiation through her own prism and rationally attempts to serve her own needs and interests. Indeed, your partner is every bit the hero of her negotiation story as you are of yours.

It’s appropriate to mention this because researchers say we subconsciously treat negotiations like an unfolding story. In this story, there is a good guy and a bad guy, and we’re the good guy. We know we’re good – we’re decent, kind, intelligent, and hard-working. Our friends know this and they all love our work. So, when your negotiating partner sees your work differently, it’s only natural to think he’s obstinate, stupid, really stupid, or trying to get you off the project. And once we start telling ourselves this story, it tends to stick – research shows we start to selectively seek out and interpret information in ways that bolster our opinion and may miss information that cuts against it.

The ultimate problem is, though you may (or may not) try to disguise your feelings, people invariably give off clues about their attitude, suspicion silently grows, and lines of communication shrink. As should come as no surprise, studies demonstrate that anger diminishes creative thinking and narrows communication so vital to any negotiation.

So, rather than allow yourself to think your partner is stupid, just remember her interests, her experiences – her prism – is different than yours. Ask repeated questions to discover her underlying reasons for changes. Correct any misconceptions. Educate each other. Where it makes sense, try to trade issues based on differing priorities. Where legitimate differences of opinion exist, do your best to resolve them as unemotionally as possible. In this way, you have a chance to reach the best outcome possible given you probably can’t wield raw power.

If ultimately your partner has no rational reasons for a note, he just may discover this for himself during your conversation. If he doesn’t discover it, then you can think less of him. But not until.

              Don’t Get Angry: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

In Conclusion

When you don’t have leverage, all you have is the power to persuade. When it comes to us, this means that people who spend all day writing suddenly have to rely on talking. An understanding of negotiation theory can definitely help. Perhaps saturated fats can, too. I know of one researcher who claimed that bringing donuts to negotiations created a happier mood and led to better results. Maybe it’s worth a try.


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