In the entertainment industry, there’s a lot of talk about project attachments. So-and-so is attached to direct. Attached to star. Attached to produce. Attached to finance, distribute, represent as a sales agent, etc.
This post is a look at what those attachments are and what they mean for your project.
Simply put, an attachment is a person or entity that has agreed to be involved with your project. At its most basic, that’s all there is to it.
And while that may seem pretty simple, it’s important to note the particulars of an attachment. Not all attachments are created equal, and some may hurt your project more than they help.
Far and away, the most important element of an attachment is the value it adds to your project.
Value added is an odd combination of subjective opinion combined with objective data like recent box office performance and/or awards, social media popularity, international appeal, etc. In other words, what size and type of audience will this person draw to the project?
For example, let’s say an actor wants to attach to your project. What’s the added value of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson versus, say, Steven Seagal?
Johnson currently has 11 million+ Twitter followers, 81 million+ Instagram followers, and 2017 is likely to be his third consecutive year starring in at least two films to break $100 million in domestic box office receipts.
Seagal, on the other hand, currently has 101,000 Twitter followers, 22,000 Instagram followers, and the last time he had a theatrically-released film top $100 million in domestic box office receipts (adjusted for inflation) was 1996.
Dwayne Johnson is clearly a more enticing attachment right now than Steven Seagal, at least by most metrics. The inverse would be true if this was 1996 and Seagal were coming off a string of hits while Johnson was making his WWF debut as Rocky Maivia… and Seagal would probably be a better attachment for a DTV action movie or if you’re working with someone who has previously worked with and likes Seagal… which is why it’s important to keep in mind that perceived value is fluid. An actor, director, or producer that’s at the top of everybody’s list today might not have the same cache tomorrow.
When you’re considering agreeing to an attachment, carefully consider the value that attachment will add to your project. With actors, directors, and companies the name recognition makes this assessment a little easier. It can be a lot harder with producers, which I’ll get into more below.
CONDITIONS OF ATTACHMENT
If value added is the most important element of an attachment, the conditions are a close second. Here’s a short list of things to consider about an attachment:
- Does this attachment cost anything? This is a big one. A lot of in-demand talent requires a legitimate money offer on the table before they’ll consider attaching. Since they’re in demand, they can afford to bypass projects that are still a long way from getting off the ground in favor of real offers that can be locked down immediately.
- Are there any other triggers before the attachment takes effect? Make sure you understand what criteria needs to be in effect before the attachment is official. Some talent will require other conditions be met (financing or a distribution deal in place, approval over the script or other key talent, etc.) in exchange for their attachment.
- Is the attachment official or exclusive? Look at the other projects this talent has signed onto and make sure you understand their level of commitment. There’s a difference between an “I absolutely want this to be my next project” attachment and a, “Yeah, sure, if everything comes together I might be interested” attachment. You should also make sure everyone is on the same page about how the attachment will be presented. Some talent have a real issue with being used as name-bait to attract other talent or financing.
- What are the terms of separation? This is a tough town. Projects go through an ever-changing set of priorities among many stakeholders. Make sure you know how un-attaching someone will work. If you get Actor A attached as the lead but then your financier comes along and says they don’t like Actor A and would rather try to make a deal with Actor B, that could be an expensive problem if Actor A was was pay-or-play or negotiated some other level of continued involvement in exchange for their attachment.
Just like any deal, you need to understand the particulars of the business arrangement before you agree to anything, so the relationship (and the project) isn’t hurt by any misunderstandings down the road.
The attachment of producers gets its own special section here because the nature of a writer’s relationship with a producer is a little more involved than it is with an actor, especially at the outset. This is particularly true because producers are often involved in the development of the script material, so writers should seriously consider the value added and conditions of the attachment before signing up to work with a producer (or director or creative exec or other person that will develop the material while acting as an intermediary between the writer and the person that can authorize a greenlight… I’ll refer to all of these roles collectively as “producer” throughout).
The upside to having a producer attached is that they ideally have a relationship with a studio that has the ability to greenlight, produce, and distribute a film. Best case scenario, they’re either trusted enough by the studio or know the players at the studio well enough to guide the project through development, production, and release.
The downside to having a producer attached is that it’s one more opinion telling you how to develop the script. Worst case scenario, you do a lot of (potentially free) work for the producer and it doesn’t get you any closer to production or gain you any ground with the studio since you’re not even on their radar while you’re working for the producer.
With so much gray area between those two extremes, it’s really important to assess a producer’s added value and the cost and conditions of the attachment before you sign up to work with one. It’s particularly important because not every successful or well-known producer is a good one, and not every lesser-known producer is a bad one. Additionally, not every producer is always one way or the other; some of them work differently with different people under different circumstances.
By far, the two biggest issues with producers are:
- Control of the material
- Perpetual attachment
Let’s get into those two issues now.
CONTROL OF THE MATERIAL
A producer often gives creative notes on a script, ideally where their relationship with a studio gives them insight into what kinds of things the studio is looking for in a project.
Regardless of why the notes are given, the fact that a producer is shaping the script gives many of them the impression that they have some degree of control or ownership over the material.
Let me state two things clearly for the record:
First, barring any assignment of rights to the contrary, the writer owns all material they write. The act of providing feedback or suggesting ideas does not confer intellectual property rights.
Second, just because that first part is true doesn’t mean that someone can’t file a claim or otherwise make your life difficult if they think they’re entitled to something.
Those two things said, this is why it’s incredibly important that you understand what the attachment of a producer does for your project, and what the particulars of that relationship look like.
If a producer is prepared to pay you to do the writing necessary to implement their changes, or willing to pay you to option the material, that consideration is worth something (and in that case, you should read my post on sterile scripts).
On the other hand, if a producer expects you to implement their changes for free, or wants an unpaid period of time to develop the script, you should seriously consider establishing very clearly that you will own the results and proceeds of any writing, and/or possibly even that the producer’s claim on the material is non-exclusive unless they pay for the privilege of an exclusive window of control.
Make sure that you understand who controls the material in all situations, and what happens with the work you do while the producer is involved. A writer should be able to walk away from a relationship with money, material, or both.
The other pitfall with a lot of producers is the feeling of perpetual attachment. This happens when a producer works on a project, then it languishes for a while before finding new life in some other way (a new studio, new financing, etc.), and the old producer comes back and claims that they’re still attached as a producer.
This is why the terms of separation are so important to understand in an attachment. You need to have a mechanism by which you can absolutely establish whether an attachment is still in effect or not and, ideally, a way to sever attachments that are no longer benefitting the project.
Don’t let your attachments with producers (or any other talent) linger around a project if there’s a legitimate chance of you setting this up independent of their involvement. Unless you make a deal with the full knowledge that continued participation is expected and part of the deal, you should avoid baggage attachments and ghosts of the past weighing down any new opportunities.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
All of this said, let’s take a look at a potential worst case attachment scenario:
- Producer X likes your script and wants to attach as a producer.
- You rewrite the script multiple times to reflect Producer X’s notes.
- Nothing happens with the project and you and Producer X drift apart.
- A while later, you find new life for your script with Producer Y.
- Producer Y moves the project forward and it looks like the project will get made.
- Producer X contacts you out of nowhere and claims to still be attached to the project.
- Producer Y decides that Producer X’s claims are too detrimental to the project and no longer wants to move forward.
This kind of thing happens a lot. Producer X sometimes has a legitimate reason to believe they should still be involved, and is sometimes just trying to ride someone else’s coattails to credit or a payday. Regardless of motive, an old attachment coming back and trying to insinuate themselves into a new deal can be the kiss of death for a project, especially if the consideration they’re asking for risks putting the current incarnation over budget.
It’s a real bummer when a project can’t get made because a person who isn’t even really involved in the production is siphoning off a huge chunk of the budget that would otherwise go to hiring the best people willing to actually do the job.
How do you avoid that worst case scenario? By adding two steps:
Step 1.5: You and Producer X codify your working arrangement with a written agreement that clearly outlines what Producer X is entitled to and in exchange for what.
Step 3.5: When things have cooled off, you send notice to Producer X (hopefully citing a point in your written agreement!) informing them that their attachment has concluded and you will be moving forward independently.
Even if Producer X fires back after that, it’s better to deal with it at Step 3.5 than at step 4.5 or 5.5 when there’s real opportunity on the line.
Here’s one last thing to keep in mind… a lot of companies and high-level talent (directors, producers, etc.) have their own ideas about what talent would be ideal for a project. So while coming to them with a few key attachments can be extremely helpful and enticing, there’s also something to be said about leaving a little wiggle room for, say, a director who wants to choose their own editor and DP and production designer, or an executive who wants to round out the supporting cast with actors who have significant relationships with the studio.
Fantasy casting the fun part of the process. Everyone in town wants to play, and I’ve seen a lot of projects never gain traction with a studio or distributor because those entities are being asked to spend money on an assembled team that they had no say in putting together.
Finally, as I’ve mentioned in other posts (non-guild deals and options, in particular), negotiations are a key part of any relationship between a writer and other talent or companies. Not all attachments are created equal, and the last thing you want is to have an undesirable attachment, or an old attachment from a prior incarnation of the project, derail a new opportunity.
While it’s always exciting to have someone show interest in being involved with a story you’ve created, you can avoid a lot of future confusion and unpleasantness if you take the time to make sure both parties are one hundred percent clear on how the relationship will work, in both success and failure.
Attachments are important… but so is protecting your work and ensuring its best chances of moving forward without the burden of inactive baggage.