Wednesday, September 2, 2009

They Are What You Write: Marvel's Secret Sharecroppers

PLANET GRIFFIN returns to broadcasting depth to bring up something that I've been following since March of this year... With the sale of MARVEL yesterday, one of the Marvel programs that went up for sale was one of their latest experiments, a screenwriting program whose guidelines are loosely based on their 'New Parent's' Fellowship program ( The Disney Fellowship pays out a $50,000 a year salary to develop new programming for ABC Family/Disney Channel. Disney Fellowship Programs are considered among one of three of the best programs for a newcomer to make it. ). The Marvel Screenwriters Program places half a dozen neophyte writers exclusively on staff, salaried up to $100,000 a year ( speculated by Variety Entertainment) to produce works based on specific writing assignments by Producers--- assignments ranging from adapting new characters from Marvel's library, assisting script re-writes for adaptations already in production or aiding other hired writers to develop sequels for pre-existing franchises. Marvel Comic writers are not excluded from this program, either.

Now, with all of that said, here's where the true ignorance begins.

Before any prospective writer are allowed in to meet, they must sign a non-disclosure agreement and a 70 page, non-negotiable contract--- a contract that also gives Marvel complete ownership over everything the writers create during the 1 year term PLUS first look/last refusal to any and all projects the writers have previously written for at least 2 years in the future.

Allow me to be among the first to speak openly on this one... To those who feel this type of fellowship, that literally gives M.U. that kind of power ( 2 years BEFORE and 2 years AFTER your first day of work ) over you and your works, is worth selling your soul over, than I say you're a far better fool than I.

If you need a little clarification over 'First Look' and 'Last Refusal', allow PLANET GRIFFIN to break it down (Bear with this folks, I KNOW what I'm talking about.) --- Say you write a script that's considered 'High Concept' enough to reach various levels of multimedia at once (y'know, movies, TV, video games, etc.). Your agent is constantly on the phone, fielding million dollar bidding wars over your material. Because you're under contract with Marvel, they can simply say, "Buy it cheap... He works for us..." Marvel pays Writer's Guild minimum for the material, and then bury it until your contract is up... Once that happens, they can blow the dust off and fast track it into production, secure in the knowledge that that ironclad contract you signed keeps you from filing any claim against them. Moreover, you're locked in for 2 more years AFTER your term expires (or is terminated), making all your networking INERT and on hold if you should get a job offer with another studio.

And I thought carrying original work into the Marvel Bullpens area was a joke.

I'm pretty sure even a Megalith corporation like Disney can see what kind of crap Marvel's Screenwriting Program is, and under the future hierarchy, change it to be more like their fellowship program... Which is like, as stated by a close source, "From slave labor to temporary sharecropping." Of course, after Disney's last run-in with Pixar (a contract fallout which almost cost the Mouse House to lose their golden goose, so to speak), they may ultimately decide to leave well enough alone and let them 'do what they do'. Considering the fact that Marvel's box office emergence is still in its infancy, Marvel's scripting deal is a ballsy move... DC Comics stock in the film business has a far better track record than M.U.'s, so it's easy to see why Marvel's so anxious to get that 'Dark Knight' money.

As a suggestion from an underground independent, I will say this... I'm not so far removed from sanity to not see that business IS business--- big or otherwise--- and that such a deal is still really mindblowing an' all, but if you're really wound up so tight that your 'exclusive people' are nothing more than idea generators that they can't even lay claim to what's in their OWN head, than you should remember what Frank Miller said about 'not giving thanks, because he didn't believe in rewarding thievery'.

Wake up, young bucks... Your young comic life is NOT your own... It's now part of the new $4 Billion Dollar Mouseketeers Club. This IS PLANET GRIFFIN... Keeping your knees clean and your back straight. No bowing down. No bending over.


Jay Potts said...

"Secret sharecropper" is about the funniest damn phrase I've read in a long time! Is that a subliminal shout-out to Joseph Conrad's short story "The Secret Sharer?"

Great column with some very wise words.

samax said...

as a kid who dreamed of working there, these kind of contracts make me think twice about working for Marvel. i'm sure if you make a name on your own you can get a better contract, but i would actually refuse to sign a contract like that.

i understand why a business would write contracts like that (why not?), but even with what for me would be a big payout, give away ownership of ideas i made before i worked there?

no thanks...

Rodney Blackwell a.k.a. The Infamous Rod Mackie! said...

Thanks Jay.

I found those stipulations to be so utterly ridiculous, it boggled my head! It's like I said before: Keeping up and coming talent blinded to their own potential, Marvel has no competition. If they wanna walk into that type of steel trap, no one should ever complain that their neck hurts! As for the Conrad reference, I see where you're coming from (Lol)
I'm telling you, the new indentured servitude comes in many, MANY forms, my friend.
Marvel's desperate for that Dark Knight money, I'm telling you! lol

Rodney Blackwell a.k.a. The Infamous Rod Mackie! said...

Samax! You chimed in right over top of my response! What timing! The independents are becoming more vital to the industry than ever before! These young cats don't see that their minds are nothing more than company collectives with NO say so!
Amazing what our dreams seem like once we wake up from them... Call the obvious B.S. for what it is... Marvel as Sentinel as Indy's are mutants... Either we fit, or we're added to the wall of the dead! Stay Wolvie and fight to the end, my friend!
Thanks for chiming in on this one, Samax!

samax said...


Matthew Warlick said...

Damn straight. Just remember, they need your ideas more than you need their money.

RodBuddah said...

Nice to have you on the PLANET, Matthew! If this is the extent of Marvel's Screenwriting arm, I can only IMAGINE what's to become of the BULLPEN artists until Disney walks in!
No more! Creators need to smarten up and pay attention! Stay plugged in to PLANET GRIFFIN, cuz the world WILL turn!!!

Mdoubble said...

I agree with Matthew Warlick(nice work btw).

I know the argument from creators would be that,their high-concept ideas, "aren't making them money anyway, may as well sell it for money they can use now." I think in the long run, that's the loser's game. I can't think of many creators that don't get insnared by this kind of thinking, “the working joe,” “I’m doing what I love for a living” thinking. Look how many writers and artists leave and comeback to the “Big Two.” I see this same thinking with designer’s finding clients for work on bidding sites.

I can’t help but believe this comics to movie boom won’t last too much longer. At least with classic superheroes. If the public was that into them in the first place, there’d be more comics in bookstores instead of specialty shops. Fanboys can’t sustain this entire genre, especially with so many other forms of entertainment begging for attention.

I hope that as it wanes, there is more interest in other forms of comic literature and more independent creators will get more chances to shine.

RodBuddah said...

Tell me about it! I know that "It's only an idea... You'll have more." speech. Designers make more in a one sheet design than most comic artists getting paid for a 22 page comic... And lets not get started on 'those who leave a Big Two, talk trash about them, and THEN go back'... If you're REALLY gonna be about it, then BE about it--- maybe they're holding out for a bigger check.

As far as the comic/movie trend, I see the trend moving in cycles. Hollywood's only mining another part of the same vein. When the vein's empty, they'll pull back and wait... Once it's full again, they'll jump back on it quick.

Money only recognizes money. The only time money recognizes YOU, it's only because they want your moneymaker. Thank you for the major input, MDouble!!

John Aston said...

Okay, the non-disclosure agreement, I get. What is discussed in the meeting, stays in the meeting.

Complete ownership of everything during the one-year period?

1. How would they know?

2. I would imagine one would be working for the company fairly solid to bother branching out during the year period.

Is the first look/last refusal clause that nefarious? I mean, they aren't claiming ownership of anything prior or after the one-year contract, but want dibs on anything the writer has produced until two years after the one-year period ends.

Without seeing the remaining contract, I'm interpreting the refusal clause. If Marvel would want Rod Buddah's super secret project that was written prior to the one-year contract, Marvel would want to see the project first before you shop it around.

Now, should they want to pick up your super secret project, thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat would be negotiable. $$$$$

RodBuddah said...

Actually, YES, they can, under that contract, lay claim to previous works by 2 years AND any work 2 years AFTER your one year term. That's foul, I don't care how you slice it! The first look means that Marvel must see it first. Last Refusal means that even if another press/film studio/network wanted that project, Marvel can step in and, by right, legally say 'No, it belongs to us, under contract.'

If Marvel REALLY wanted to be the hard ass, they could sue you for breach of contract... FOR YOUR OWN CREATION, even if it's NOT using an established Marvel character... That, my friend, is nefarious.