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The Screening Room:
Turning a Short Story into an Animated Film; Paying a Writer for a Treatment

by Laura Brennan

Return to Screenwriting & Scriptwriting · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

I've written a short story that I would like to see made into an animated film. Where do I start? Any assistance you can provide would be appreciated.

The first place to start with your story is with rights. Has the story been published? If so, check your contract to make sure you own the media rights. If you don't, you'll have to talk to your publisher; you can't sell the idea to a movie producer because it's not yours to pitch anymore. On the other hand, a published story is much more likely to get the attention of a production company, so that can play in your favor.

If the story is unpublished and you have no produced credits, then the best thing to do is to write the script yourself. You can sell pitches (rather than completed scripts) in Hollywood -- in fact, it's done all the time -- but usually only by writers who already have feature credits. The best way to prove your story would make a great movie is to write a great script from it.

As for that, I think taking a screenwriting class is the best way to get a script written. It gives you a built-in support system, guidance, and deadlines, and it also provides you with that invaluable resource, fellow writers. Many local and community colleges now offer screenwriting courses. You and your classmates can become friends and start your own writers group that meets outside of class and can continue on once the class ends. You give each other critiques, encouragement, and deadlines -- it's a terrific way to grow as a writer, and to get feedback on your script. You can even read each other's work aloud to hear the character voices and make sure the dialogue runs smoothly. Writing groups are gold.

You say you want the story to be an animated film; that's something that you should completely ignore in your script. Animated features are generally written in the same format as live-action features (this isn't necessarily true of animated TV -- it depends on the show). Besides, it's up to the producers to figure out how they'll shoot it. If a producer reads your script and believes it would make a great ABC Family Channel movie of the week with a live-action bear, talking needlepoint, and flying dog, you still wouldn't turn it down.

Finally, another plug for classes and writing groups: you may discover, in your class, that you're not really interested in writing screenplays. Short stories may be your form, and the structure and visual aspects of feature films may not call to you. Or maybe you find you're terrific at dialogue but lacking in structure. If you're in a class and meeting other writers, you may discover the perfect person to partner with you on this and other projects. Writing partnerships should not be entered into lightly, but if you find someone you like and respect whose vision dovetails with yours, it can make the experience of writing a screenplay much more fun and less daunting than it might otherwise be.

I have a great writer in mind to write the treatment for my TV series - how much should I pay her?

You have several options -- the first being that you probably don't need a TV writer for a treatment. You have the vision, you could surely write three to five excellent pages. It's more of a marketing tool than anything else.

If you decide you really want an outside writer to do your treatment, there are many different ways to pay her, and they matter because they'll affect the rights to the show down the line:

  • Work-for-hire: this is the cleanest option. You pay her and contractually she gives up all rights to the material. Since you're only looking at 3-5 pages, you can ask her to do it for an hourly rate or a flat fee. She'll be able to quote you her fees, but if she's as experienced as you suggest, then I'd guess it would cost you a couple of hundred dollars, assuming there's no research on her part (ie: you've done all that for her). A lot depends on your relationship; the closer you are, the more likely she'll do it more as a favor than as a business deal. But you should still get the work-for-hire agreement in writing -- it's cleaner, and your friendship is more likely to survive if there's no chance of a misunderstanding.

  • Attachment to the project: she might be willing to write it for you for free in exchange for credit if and when the show is picked up. In other words, she's gambling on your success. This is a good option if her position and prior credits will make the project more legitimate in the eyes of others (particularly producers). You're not just buying her expertise, you're buying her name, her connections in the business, and her support. You only want to do this if she's enthusiastic -- and if she truly gets your vision. Otherwise you're attaching someone who won't help the project, no matter how plugged in she might be. Also, you want to be sure that credit is something you're willing to give up (and have it spelled out in writing exactly which credit you're giving up, and whether or not you can buy her out of the project for a fair but fairly large fee if it does get optioned.) If this is your vision and you don't want to share credit or power with anyone, that's fine; there are some projects that are meant to belong to one person. The key is to know that about yourself and not put yourself in a situation where at least partial credit belongs to someone else.

The truth of the matter is that writers, like everyone else, will work on other people's projects for one of three reasons: 1) money; 2) credit; or 3) friendship. Often, it's a combination of all three. If you decide you need a TV writer to make your project happen, then by all means approach this writer and see whether she wants to be involved and what she would want from the deal. If she's someone you really like and respect, a partnership might develop, if not on this project, then on your next one.

Copyright © 2004 Laura Brennan
This article is not available for reprint.

Laura Brennan has written for a number of television shows, including The Invisible Man for the Sci-Fi Channel. She also co-created the children's series, Queen Augusta's Heroes.


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