The Back End

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The Back End

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

Last week, someone came up to me and said, "Hey, I really like your stuff on the radio. I listen to it every week. It's really made me want to be a screenwriter."

"You're not listening hard enough," I said to him.

Let me put it this way. There's an old joke --a Polish joke, okay? So if you're squeamish about that kind of ethnic joke thing --or, more likely, if you pretend to be squeamish about that sort of ethnic joke thing --just bleep out the word "Polish" and put in the name of your preferred target ethnic group. And don't try telling me you don't have a preferred target ethnic group. I mean, come on. It's just you and me here. Anyway. On with the joke:

Did you hear about the Polish actress who came to Hollywood? She slept with a writer.

Get it? The idea being that anyone who sleeps with a Hollywood writer in the hopes of advancing her (or his) career has gravely, gravely misapprehended the situation.

For the most part, of course, this is an accurate assumption. Being a writer is a little bit like being a shepherd: it's quaint, people envy the solitude, but everyone knows the real money is in synthetic fibers.

In the television business, though, it doesn't quite apply. Though the feature film writer is cut off from and powerless during the process of casting, shooting, scoring, and editing, he is usually too busy relaxing in Hawaii to care. The television writer, though, is in charge of the entire production. He's something called a writer-producer. He's "in charge," which means he must simper and beg and bootlick throughout the process.

The money trail, as always, tells the true story. A writer allies with a studio and together they approach a network with a proposed television show. They need to assemble five years' worth of a series (usually 100 episodes or so) in order to license them in bulk to the hundreds of affiliate and independent television stations all over the country who need programming for the off-hours, and non-prime-time spots on their schedules. The goal, then, is to get on the air at all costs. If the network puts your show on their schedule, and the show lasts five years (or 100 episodes, whichever comes first) then the future is written on a million check stubs. A thousand roses bloom on your ranch in Montecito. This is called "the back end." As in, "Why did you agree to cast that insane actress who keeps a loaded gun in her trailer?" "Well, I have a big piece of the back end."

The writer's part in getting to the "back end" is crucial: he has to do all the work. He has to think up the show and sell the pilot and cast the episode and re-write the script and edit the picture and, if lucky, produce the series, that airs on the network that some mogul just bought. And worse, he has to do this while surrounded by people -- studio guys, agent guys, network guys -- whose job, essentially, is to watch him do his job.

Of course, all of that input and supervision is awful and debilitating and it results, more often than not, in a terrible show. But every once in a while, something wonderful slips through. Something that runs a hundred or so episodes. Something with a back end.

So when the time comes for a writer to draw up a contract with a studio, there's more to fight over than episode fees and parking. There's the percentage of the back end --the "back end definition" --that the writer is supposed to get, if lightning strikes and everyone shuts up long enough to make a hit TV show. The two schools of thought among writers are, one: "No matter what, don't let the studio nail you in the back end" and two: "Hey, you may not have a back end at all, so tell the studio -- if you pay me a lot of money now, I'll let you nail me in the back end."

Do you still want to be a writer?

That's all for this week. Next week, we'll hold auditions.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long