War of words

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A scene in the play Sam hoi (Penance), a box office top hit at Phu Nhuan Theater in 2009. The play's scriptwriter, Dieu Nhu Trang (below) is accused of plagiarism by a university student who claimed to have written 60 percent of the play but was not paid for it.

A director has a fledgling of an idea he believes he can turn into a blockbuster. He rushes to the industry's best screenwriter and pleads him to turn it into a story, complete with emotion, drama and dialogues. Of course, he'll write the screenplay, says the screenwriter, so what if he has six other projects in the pipeline.

Exit director. Enter ghostwriter.

The director would prefer to have the name of the famous screenwriter on his production, so the ghostwriter must sign non-disclosure agreement to remain anonymous and give up his rights to his writing. He gets paid sometimes, if his mentor deems his creation worthy.

"Since most relationships are still based on trust and word-of-mouth agreements, few ghostwriters sign contracts with their employers," said Yen Linh, a young screenwriter, part of a team of writers working for a production house. "Though nothing is on paper, we have to meet deadlines and produce quality work"

Exploitation is rife, and ghostwriters are left struggling to make ends meet. When she started out two years ago, a well-known screenwriter paid her VND800,000 while he pocketed VND3-3.5 million per episode (of a TV series). "Things aren't any better. Ghostwriters nowadays make VND1-1.5 million while screenwriters get VND5-10 million per episode," said Linh.

Life in the shadows

It is not a writer's world, it never has been, it never will be. Writers across the world be they journalists, copywriters, ghostwriters, or calligraphists get paid peanuts compared to the art they sell.

Among the most profitable writing jobs in modern times is that of screenwriters those who write screenplays for movies or television series. Even so, just a handful of screenwriters really make it big in the industry, with producers vying to get their mere names in the opening titles.

Well-paid screenwriters often delegate work to invisible shadow writers, who work as apprentices and end up doing the bulk of the work for little money and no recognition. They are like stuntmen who put their lives on the line, only in this case, the writers put their time (and the angst which turned them to writing in the first place) into the screenplay, with little reward.

Linh, 21, has been working as a ghostwriter for three years, and considers herself luckier than most of her contemporaries.

"At least I get paid most of the time. I know of someone who worked on a TV series for three months but wasn't paid a penny. The producers told her she shouldn't expect to get paid while she was on trial!"

Double jeopardy

Besides little monetary benefits, ghostwriters in the Vietnamese movie industry also struggle with plagiarism. "Weeks or months after your script is rejected, it might turn up on television under a new name," said Linh.

A student of the University of Theater and Cinema recently accused noted scriptwriter Dieu Nhu Trang of plagiarism. Known as N.K.D. on an online forum, the unidentified student complained that Trang had not paid him at all for the screenplay of Sam hoi (Penance), 60 percent of which was the student claims to have written. The play was a box office's top hit of Phu Nhuan Theater in 2009.

The student also says that Trang paid him just VND500,000 per episode for writing the screenplay of the television series Mau cua tinh yeu (Colors of love) though she got nine times that amount.

Trang said she is shocked, and is considering suing the student for slander. She also showed the copyright to her scripts to a local newspaper.

However, N.K.D. has effectively sown a seed of doubt in the minds of the Vietnamese audience. "I do not care who the real father of those scripts is"¦ Some noted directors and scriptwriters commission students to write screenplays, and then quickly register a copyright. That's the trick," commented a blogger called Tieu Thuy on an online public forum. 

Director Hoang Duan, who often commissions young writers to write screenplays for theater and television, said he gives ghostwriters the choice of mentioning their names in screenplays.

"I usually co-write with young screenwriters, and the producers are aware of it. They get credit for their work but I am responsible for the script's quality," said Duan. "In some cases, if the producer doesn't want any ghostwriters' names mentioned in the opening credits, the latter has to sign a legal contract with me," said Duan.

Duan said verbal agreements amount to little in this industry. Also, a lot of ghostwriters don't fight for their rights.

"Even when they are taken advantage of, most ghostwriters make little noise. Often, their benefactors bribe them into keeping their mouths shut," he said.

Film editor Nguyen Quynh, who started out in the industry as a ghostwriter, says scriptwriting is can be very frustrating for the writers.

"Signing a contract and selling your script may sound difficult but it is only the beginning of a long battle. Producers and directors keep pushing writers to alter the script until they are satisfied," said Quynh.

Also, the work produced by ghostwriters is often of very poor quality. "If a screenplay is badly written, the budget for ghostwriter is transferred to the editors, who have to spend more time and effort on saving the product. It's like a vicious cycle. Poor payment leads to a poor product," Quynh said.

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