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Magazine Feature Assignment

Once you gets some prestige under your belt as a writer, opportunities occur that aren’t available to the neophyte scribbler. But just because you could be invited doesn’t mean you will, unless you learn the ins and outs of the practice of being a professional writer. One of these semi-secretive, pro-writers’ clubs is in the realm of the Open Writing Assignment or OWA. Like all such clubs, you need to know the initiation rituals, the do’s and don’ts, and the consequences involved at each step. (You do realize that I’m making an analogy here and that there isn’t a professional writers’ secret society with convoluted handshakes and strange rites, don’t you? I know. I’m a little disappointed too.)

What is an OWA?

An Open Writing Assignment (OWA) is a limited open invitation call for pitches for specific projects from a producer or studio. Usually the production entity has a significant property investment already (e.g. a novel), and are looking for a professional writer to express how they would approach converting the property or idea into a workable screenplay. If the production entity likes the writer’s ideas and approaches, the writer is usually hired as the screenwriter for the project.

Where an OWA differs from other writing gigs is that multiple writers may be invited to pitch their takes and no commitment is made to any writer at this idea stage. Also the main story and property from which the screenplay is to be derived are originated and controlled by the producers. The writers are potential hired guns to execute the target work to the production team’s satisfaction.

For those familiar with television writing it is somewhat analogous to the TV writer’s room throwing around ideas for an episode. All the staff writers contribute their ideas, the showrunner deciding which she likes and which need more development. Once a general consensus on the best idea is found, the showrunner selects one of the staff writers to go and write the episode. It could be the writer who contributed the most ideas to the pot, the person who pitched the best idea, or just whomever’s turn it is to write the next episode.

Significantly different than spec pitches, where the writer not only has to write well but also sell the producer on the idea being told, in an OWA the writer is given the building blocks of a pre-approved story and product that the producers already love. All the writer has to do is craft that story into a movie form.

Sounds great! Let me in

Not so fast. The “open” part of the OWA is not as open as you might think. It really only means that there isn’t, as yet, a writer assigned to the project and therefore “open.” Getting to be one of the writers in line to take a meeting and make their pitch is the hard part. You need to first know about the OWA, and then have some acceptable means of getting the production team’s attention that you are a qualified and interested writer, available at the right time and ahead of anyone else who has pitched an acceptable take. These windows are narrow, only open for a short period of time and only fit a select few through them.

But if you hear about an OWA early enough, have the right connections and can come up with a pitch the producers like, it’s a great way to get a high paying gig.

Who can help

As far as the “right connections,” here’s where it gets tricky. If your reputation is well enough known by the producer, you could get the invitation yourself. As for others working on your behalf, technically this is prospective employment and therefore only a properly licensed employment assistant (we call them “agents” – remember, that’s short for employment agent) can get you an official invite. This rules out managers, lawyers, and pretty much everyone else who are prohibited by law from seeking future employment opportunities for you.

But there is a very large grey area in practice. If, let’s say, a manager finds out about an OWA from a personal connection with the producers, that manager might suggest that one of her writer’s would be perfect for the job and should be offered an invitation. If the producer trusts the manager’s instincts, an invitation might be extended to the writer. Has the manager “procured” employment, which is forbidden, or has that manager merely increased the producer’s awareness of the writer’s reputation and by doing so helped the writer indirectly, which is allowed? As long as the letter of the law is obeyed and/or no one complains these tight ropes are walked every day. Awareness of the lines not to cross is a necessity and knowing what you can and can’t ask a “helper” to do for you will be of great advantage.

Batter up! Here’s the pitch

So you’ve scored a meeting for an OWA. What should you expect? It depends. (You didn’t think I’d go a whole column without using my trademark, did you?)

Some OWAs are open about the property they’re seeking a writer for, others are cagey. The amount of information you’ll have before you go into the first meeting varies with each. The amount of time between opening an OWA and needing to sign a writer also varies, but, is usually quite short. You’ll need to be flexible, able to evaluate things on scant information and be able to think on your toes.

Typically an OWA starts with an initial meeting that lays out more details about the project and makes sure you’re still interested. It also is an initial personality test, to see if the writer and producers like each other. You may get general direction of where they’re looking to go, what they don’t want to see, or be given carte blanche to take a swing at. Usually there’s no real pitching of concrete ideas and, importantly, no commitments from either side.

The first meeting usually ends with a time period set until a second meeting where the writer is expected to pitch an approach to the project. At that second meeting the writer pitches very much like they would pitch a spec script. If the producers love what they hear you’re set for contract discussions to begin. If they warmly like it, they might have some suggestions and the writer can consider altering the pitch to include these ideas. If they’re luke-warm, the producers might not let the writer know either way. They probably have other writers they still need to hear from before they decide on who to hire.

Who owns what, why it matters

At this stage it is keen to remember where everyone stands. Because the source ideas are originating from the producers and the writer hasn’t been contracted to write anything yet, the ownership issues lie significantly in the hands of the producers. Anything created by the writer at this stage is subject to this conceit. Even if the writer created a treatment for the pitch– something not likely to be asked for– the ownership of that treatment is not clear. It’s a derivative work, if the project already has some copyrighted underpinnings (e.g. based on a novel) and, since the treatment cannot stand on its own, created with the intent of eventually merging into an integrated, whole work (the motion picture), the treatment could be considered a joint-work for copyright purposes. That goes for anything created for the pitch.

If the pitch is, as it usually is, an orally communicated raft of ideas, there is very little that could hold copyrightability in it alone. Therefore the writer should consider that anything they say in these meetings is up for grabs. If this makes you uncomfortable, then be less forthcoming, but, realize this might hurt your chances of getting the job.

Remember that the producers invite the writers. They’re looking for someone to work with them to get to a common goal. There is a sense of ownership and stewardship that goes with that position, real and imagined. They’ll expect to be able to use what is offered.

But isn’t this trolling for ideas?

In a sense, yes, but the open writing assignment is much more as well. Remember the meeting is essentially a job interview, but, with the built in facility for you to show just how good you’d be at the specific job you’d be doing. You, as a writer, have already jumped a hurdle to have enough reputation to be invited to pitch for an OWA. Here is your chance to show that you can play the game by the rules as they stand. You can show your professionalism as well as your talent.

There have been OWAs that were used to milk ideas for a project out of many different writers and those ideas were taken and combined and given to a considerably less expensive writer to execute. It happens. But remember, reputations go both ways. Eventually those tactics catch up to the producers and their future OWAs get less response by the writing elite. Since OWAs are only open to a small group of established writers, when writers are treated badly, word gets around. Do your research.

Technically, contracts required

Eventually the producers find a writer whose ideas they like and they want to hire to write their movie. At this point everyone’s eager. Don’t be too eager. For both the writer’s and the producers’ best interests it is key to get the writing agreement set in all its detail before the writer sets out to begin the script. Technically, the writer can’t adapt a screenplay from a previous work without the authority to create a derivative work, which can only be granted in a written document per statute. Also, if this script is going to be a work made for hire, traditionally how its done in Hollywood, that arrangement too needs to be in a written document with specific language. If these steps are overlooked or ignored, lots of trouble and land mines could cause havoc later on.

Reputational issues to consider

First, if you get invited to pitch to an open writing assignment, congratulations. Your reputation has reached a professional level to which all serious writers aspire. But having reached so high, be careful to maintain it within expectations. As with the trolling issue discussed above, there are issues that could crop up where your rights and reputation might conflict. You’ll need to decide for yourself whether to “take one for the team” or “stand on principle” is the right attitude. Each will effect your reputation. Now that your talent has gotten you there, there’s even more to protect. As always, it depends.

More Legally Speaking, It Depends articles by Christopher Schiller

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Ask Script Q&A, Legally Speaking, It Depends by Christopher Schiller, Screenwriting Assignments, Screenwriting How-To Articles

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About Christopher Schiller

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. He has an extensive personal history in production and screenwriting experience which benefits him in translating between “legalese” and the language of the creatives. The material he provides here is extremely general in application and therefore should never be taken as legal advice for a specific need. Always consult a knowledgeable attorney for your own legal issues. Because, legally speaking, it depends... always on the particular specifics in each case. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller, his website, and Google+.

View all posts by Christopher Schiller →

Can you land a freelance magazine assignment without any clips?

If you’re new to freelancing and don’t have a lot of writing experience, it’s easy to think you can’t.

But it’s just not true.

About a year ago, I started at ground zero. I was pitching local newspapers and charity organizations. And I wasn’t getting anywhere. Not even low-paying gigs or pro bono work.

How was I ever going to land a magazine assignment without any clips?

Fortunately, Carol set me straight. “You need to learn how to pitch successfully,” she said.

Instead of chasing dead-end clients, I decided to go big and pitch a major magazine — the kind of magazine that has a massive readership, millions in ad revenue, and a freelance budget that pays pro rates.

And it worked. Pitch accepted.

Want to know how I did it? Here’s how you can land a major magazine assignment without any clips or experience.

Magazine markets for newbies

I stumbled across a few nuggets of information about magazine writing while I was reading Writer’s Marketabout how to develop story ideas and write query letters.

Some major magazines work with new writers. For example, I found out that The Atlantic works with new writers and assigns 50 percent of its content to freelancers.

Want to write for a popular magazine? Start here:

  • Study Writer’s Market. If you want to write for a major magazine, this is the best place to find information on what editors are looking for, guidelines, pay rates, and where freelancers fit in.
  • Hint: Save yourself some time, and use the online version that makes it easy to search for magazines in your niche that pay the best rates.

Was I convinced I could land a magazine assignment with The Atlantic, after reading the guidelines? No.

Finding a paying market was just the beginning of the process.

Do your homework

There was one other interesting fact I discovered about The Atlantic. This magazine likes to feature articles about Donald Trump. Just about every magazine has recurring topics and themes they like to cover, and you can find out what they are by doing your homework.

I studied the magazine. I read a ton of back issues and looked for articles on Donald Trump. I even studied The Atlantic’s website and FAQs, to understand it’s style, voice, and audience.

And a story idea with a fresh angle on the POTUS, and his success in business and real estate started to emerge.

  • Got an article idea for a magazine? Before you start writing your pitch, take the time to really get to know the magazine. Look at things like sentence structure, word count, sources, style, voice, graphics, and photos. This step will help you get into the mind of the editor, think like a reader, and refine your idea.

Dig into research

Before I could send a query letter to the editor of The Atlantic, I needed to do some research on my topic. So I mapped out a timeline of Donald Trump’s successes and failures and identified key sources who influenced his decisions.

  • You don’t need to know everything on a topic to write a pitch and land a magazine assignment. But it’s a mistake a lot of new writers make, including myself. You just need to know enough to convince an editor you have a good idea. Do your research, find expert sources, and move on to writing your pitch.

Write a query letter

With enough research on my topic, I sat down to write a query letter for The Atlantic. But I kept getting stuck on a problem that stops a lot of newbie freelancers from moving forward.

Editors receive dozens of queries and pitches each day. Hundreds each week. And for a magazine like The Atlantic, there might be just 100 magazine assignments for freelancers commissioned in a year.

  • How do you make your query letter stand out? There’s more than one way to do this. As a newbie writer, I didn’t have any successful query letters of my own that I could model, so I:
    • Combed through advice on writing queries in Writer’s Market
    • Read a book called How to Sell Every Magazine Article You Write
    • Studied resources in the Freelance Writers Den

And after a lot of self-doubt, editing, and rewriting, I submitted the following pitch to News Desk Editor Scott Stossel at The Atlantic:

Dear Mr. Stossel:

Would you be interested in an article on how President Trump reinvented himself at the age of 44 and how this critical period in his life led to his decision to ultimately seek the presidency?

The article will also cover the development of many of his highly personalized approaches to issues as well as his distinctive mannerisms.

This juicy article will be a great fit for your readers especially because of the wild, sometimes funny, sometimes sad but totally unique journey the author entails.

In December 1990 Trump was living a lavish life in Atlantic City. He was just starting to feel like he was making money with his casinos and many businesses when things turned sour and life threw him headfirst into a huge crisis. Having done what his father and family had expected of him for 30 years, and still ending up bankrupt, Trump decided to do his own thing.

The article covers meaningful aspects of his life during this eventful period, which are both sad and humorous.

Among the many episodes covered are:

– Trump reinvents himself after massive infusion of loans to keep his New York real estate business from failing

– Other influences from family members and associates including Ed Koch, Fred Trump and Roy Cohn

– How he developed a conviction he could become president based on his business success

– Early plans to develop his political background from his father and Roy Cohn

This article will comprehensively explain the reasons behind his business decision to reinvent his apartment lease policies and how this major change from his father’s business practices affected his plans for the rest of his life, including his drive to run for the presidency.

Comments and quotes from his peers, including Ed Koch, will spice the article. A photo section will add a pictorial dimension.

My background includes freelance journalist and patent paralegal.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Douglas Fitzpatrick

Your first magazine assignment

A few days later, I heard back from Scott. My query seemed to come at the perfect time. And I scored my first paid assignment for a major magazine. Kind of crazy.

Here’s what I learned. You don’t need a pile of clips or years of experience to land your first magazine assignment. You just need to get started.

Work through the process to identify a market, study the magazine, research a topic for a story idea, and write a query letter. That’s what pro writers do, and it’s not really any different if you’re just beginning.

The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be signing your first contract.

Need help landing your first magazine assignment?Let’s discuss on Facebook.

Douglas Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer based in Dallas, Texas.



Tagged with: guest post, magazine writing, markets that pay, query letter, writer's guidelines

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