April 27, 2023
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The Graceful Guide to Parting Ways with a Screenwriter

Anna Keizer
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As much as you may love collaborating with talented writers, sometimes circumstances arise that require a change in creative direction. Whether it's due to creative differences, budget constraints, or scheduling conflicts, parting ways with a screenwriter can be a challenging situation. However, it's best to handle it with grace and professionalism to maintain a positive relationship and preserve the integrity of your project. 

In this post, we'll provide you with practical tips and strategies to terminate a screenwriter and navigate this delicate process smoothly, ensuring a respectful separation.

Why producers may need to terminate a screenwriter

The reasons are varied. Let’s discuss some of the most common ones.

1. Budget constraints

We’re starting with one of the more cut-and-dry reasons: lack of money. Film projects come and go all the time, and often it comes down to a budget shortfall. In this case, not only may the writer be let go, but also the entire production might get shuttered.

This can happen when the producers or financiers find themselves overextended. One notorious example of this is the abandoned film The Dancer. The producer on the project, Harry Saltzman, was said to be unhappy with screenwriter Albert Albee’s work. However, director Tony Richardson claimed that the real reason was no money for the project. 

2. Changes in a project’s direction

Maybe the production company or studio puts your project on the back burner temporarily to make room for another production. Or the scope of the project changes because an executive or studio head would rather the story be more sci-fi than horror or drama than comedy.

All to say, film projects are mercurial in nature. A change in the direction of a production may mean the screenwriter isn’t currently needed because the project is no longer in active development. Alternatively, they may simply not be the best candidate for the job anymore.

3. Creative differences

Now we’re moving into more subjective albeit still valid reasons for firing a writer. Creative differences can mean any number of reasons.

For instance, the screenwriter refuses to drop a subplot they feel is necessary to the overall story, but you feel is extraneous to it. Or they are not giving enough page space to a character whom you want to feature more prominently.

The bottom line is that you and the screenwriter are not in agreement about what the story should be, and they refuse to implement your instruction or feedback.

4. Poor quality work & missed deadlines

Circumstances could arise where you and the writer are completely in sync when it comes to how you both envision the story. But the pages they’re giving you simply aren’t reflecting your discussions and notes or they’re not the caliber of writing you expected.

Alternately, you and the screenwriter are of one mind when it comes to the story. Of what they’ve shown you, their work is excellent.

The Graceful Guide to Parting Ways With a Screenwriter - Wrapbook - Screenwriting
If your screenwriter isn’t providing the pages you need in a timely manner, it may be grounds for termination. SOURCE

However, they’re not working at the pace you need for principal photography to commence or continue on the timeline you need to hit scheduling and budgetary needs. Missed deadlines can cripple a project, which is why termination of a writer might be necessary.

5. Poor communication 

In some cases, the screenwriter simply becomes unreliable. They don’t respond to emails. They forget about meetings. They otherwise do not communicate as you need them to in order for the production to continue moving forward.

6. Breach of contract

Many cast and crew members are required to sign non-disclosure agreements to ensure the confidentiality of a project. This breach of an NDA or other contract can be grounds for firing.

Best practices for letting go a screenwriter

Okay, you’ve considered all your options and have decided that moving forward with firing your screenwriter is necessary. Now what?

1. Evaluate all contractual obligations and termination provisions

First, look at their contract. Better yet, have your lawyer look at their contract. Are there any contractual obligations or termination provisions you must abide by?

Some of the more common ones include:

Number of rewrites

Did you and your writer agree that they would have a predetermined number of rewrites? Have they hit that number? Is there a kill fee that goes into effect should you let them go before those rewrites have been completed?

Official warning/notice prior to termination

Does the contract include language that prior to termination, there must be documentation of attempts on your part to discuss your dissatisfaction with the screenwriter’s work? Have you done so?

Days required for termination notice

Does the contract include language that the writer is to receive notice of termination a predetermined number of days before their time on the project ends? Are you honoring that clause?

Nature of termination notice

Can you just sit down with the screenwriter and tell them they’ve been fired? Must it be done via email or through another mode of communication? Do you need to inform the screenwriter’s agent or union rep of the firing beforehand or in addition to your discussion with them?

Unless you are told otherwise by your lawyer, you must abide by any contractual obligations or termination provisions prior to the actual termination.

2. Get clear on your reason(s) for termination

You could have one reason for letting go of a screenwriter or several. No matter how many factors went into your decision to terminate, you must be crystal clear on them.

As we’re about to discuss, you will likely need to defend your position prior to speaking to the writer.

3. Make sure all necessary parties are in agreement

The firing of a screenwriter should be done discreetly. However, you should also discuss with any pertinent parties your decision to terminate and confirm that they support that decision.

The Graceful Guide to Parting Ways With a Screenwriter - Wrapbook - Producer Meeting
Don’t go rogue when the possibility of terminating your screenwriter comes up. Talk to all pertinent parties and make sure they agree with your decision. SOURCE

Some individuals you should confer with ahead of terminating your screenwriter include:

Human resources

Unlikely, but If you have an HR department through a production company or studio, they will certainly want to be part of the termination process.

Other producers

Are you the only producer on a project? Do you need to discuss the matter with others of equal title or seniority? 

Production company or studio

Are you an independent producer on a project? Or hired by a production company or studio for a job? Do you need to discuss your potential termination with anyone from that production company or studio?

4. Conduct yourself professionally during the firing

You’ve thoroughly evaluated any pertinent contractual obligations and received the green light to move forward with the termination from those who must be in the know about it.

Now is undoubtedly the most challenging part of the task… The termination itself.

Have another person in attendance as witness

If you’re working on a studio project, you should have access to an HR rep. In the absence of any HR presence, bring in another figure such as a second producer, executive, or other trusted person to bear witness to the termination process.

Be direct

Don’t chat for 10 minutes about their day or weekend plans. Get to the point and concisely tell your screenwriter that they have been fired from the project. Provide a sentence or two explaining your reasons for it.

Listen

The writer may have nothing to say in response. But more likely, they’ll want on record their side of the story so to speak. Allow them to say what they need to say.

Provide all required documentation and final details

If your screenwriter is owed any final compensation, make sure you have processed it and can show proof for them and/or they can view their final payment in their account. If they had a clause in their contract regarding a termination notice, explain how their final days on the project will proceed. If any exit paperwork needs to be signed, have them do so before they leave.

End the meeting with respect and kindness

You cannot anticipate how the writer may act during the termination process. They may handle it with little emotion or response. They may cry, yell, or speak combatively. Be prepared for both ends of the spectrum. And remember that no matter their behavior, now is not the time to retaliate or let your own emotion lead. 

5. Prepare for potential conflicts and emotions that may arise during the termination process

You should already have another person with you when firing a screenwriter to bear witness to your words and behavior. However, if you anticipate that the writer may conduct themselves outside of professional boundaries, consider having security on hand for such a situation.

Transitioning to a new screenwriter

Is it time to onboard a new screenwriter for your project?

The Graceful Guide to Parting Ways With a Screenwriter - Wrapbook - New Writer
Clear communication with your new screenwriter can pave the way to a successful collaboration together. SOURCE

The following guidelines can help to facilitate the transition process:

Do not disparage the fired screenwriter

It’s okay to discuss aspects of the script that don’t work for the project. It’s never okay to personally belittle the screenwriter who wrote that script.

Be clear with your script needs

If you are bringing on board a new writer, plainly outline what fixes you want them to make to your script. Explain thoroughly what is already working for the script and what needs tweaking to avoid future confusion or frustration as the rewrite process occurs.

Accept that you may not get assistance from the fired screenwriter

Your new writer might want to “pick the brain” of the previous one to better understand the material they’re fixing. But it’s important to recognize that the terminated screenwriter may no longer want anything to do with the project. 

Further, any communication or “notes” from the terminated screenwriter may be construed as unpaid work, which can have dire implications should they be union members. 

It’s important to advise the new screenwriter not to reach out to the terminated writer unless you have explicit, written consent to do so that’s been approved by any pertinent parties including the screenwriter, their agent and/or union.

Wrapping up

The termination of a screenwriter may not be a pleasant process, but it’s important to be well-versed on how to do it both legally and professionally should the day come.

As a production payroll provider, Wrapbook offers support when it comes to creative collaborations with both employees and contractors. We can help you get up to speed on crew paperwork or provide resources about what running payroll entails

We’re here to answer your questions and simplify the hiring and payment processes with our comprehensive services. You can always reach out to a team member with any and all questions.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Anna Keizer

Anna Keizer originally hails from the Chicagoland area. After receiving her B.A. in Film/Video from Columbia College Chicago, she moved to California and finished her M.A. in Film Studies from Chapman University. She has also graduated from UCLA’s Writing for Television Professional Program and is currently in post-production on the short She Had It Coming, which she wrote and is executive producing.

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