Hollywood Goes High-Tech for Script Security

Concern over the growing problem of script leaks leads studios and networks in new, innovative directions

If you’re Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for David Fincher’s upcoming “The Social Network,” or Diablo Cody, who wrote Jason Reitman’s next movie, “Young Adult,” you can’t be very happy with the internet lately.

“Social Network” and “Young Adult” are only two of the upcoming scripts that have been leaked recenlty and can be found on the web – where snap judgments can be rendered, surprises spoiled and secrets revealed.

The problem, of course, has existed for years; what’s new is how the internet has accelerated the spread of leaked material.

What’s also new is how high-tech solutions are becoming available to keep the work under wraps.

One security process that used to take days, in fact, now can be done in hours. The question is whether studios will be willing to adopt it.

“It’s become a huge concern, especially among the big shows,” says Carol Kravetz, the production coordinator of the AMC series “Breaking Bad,” of script security.

Twists in that show’s second-season finale almost leaked. But not so lucky in the past year were:

— “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” which stirred up enormous fun among the series’ rabid fans when it hit the web;Social Network screenplay

— Steven Zaillian’s initial screenplay for “Moneyball,” which leaked around the same time that Sony was opting not to go ahead with Steven Soderbergh’s proposed film, commissioning a new script instead;

— The pilot for HBO’s fantasy series “A Game of Thrones,” which isn’t set to premiere until next spring.

To prevent leaks like those, the first line of defense is simply to limit the number of eyes that can see a screenplay – in the process, often as not, ruffling the feathers of those who feel it’s their right to have a stack of scripts on their desks.

Last week, anonymous agents complained to Deadline.com about not being able to do their jobs if scripts were being kept under wraps. But what they were griping about has been business-as-usual for Woody Allen for most of his career (lead actors get two hours to read the script, supporting actors only get the pages on which their characters appear), just as it was for Stanley Kubrick (who wrote in the contract for one writer that she couldn’t even discuss the film with anybody but him).

And it's the same way today for Christopher Nolan, who let an insistent Heath Ledger read the “Dark Knight” script only once  before Ledger took the role of Joker.

Some lower-profile filmmakers have gone down a similar road: Rod Lurie, writer-director of “The Contender” and creator of the TV series “Commander in Chief,” told TheWrap that in the past he would “audition the masses with scenes from other films, so my scenes would not start floating around town.”

Only in the final callbacks, he said, would he use scenes from the project he was actually casting.

Once a film or television show goes into production, though, the cast and crew need to see what they’re working on, and that's where the problems begin.

To heighten security at this stage, more and more scripts are being watermarked — each script being distributed with a number or name so that leaks can be instantly traced.

“People are more conscious of the paper they have in their hands if it has their name on it,” said Darren Ehlers, the COO of Scenechronize, whose production services include watermarking and bank-level access restriction for scripts and production documents.  “Even if it’s not a super-secure script, nobody wants to be the one who leaves it in a coffee shop.”

And even on productions whose creators profess to be relatively unconcerned about leaks, those safeguards are being instituted. 

“Our series is based on an existing series of books, so a lot of the secrets are out there anyway,” says Alan Ball, producer and creator of HBO’s “True Blood.” “But I feel like there are enough secrets that we are able to keep that it all balances out.”

scenechronize menuStill, Ball admits that the show requires guest actors to sign forms pledging not to take photos on the set – “and all our scripts are numbered, so if anything leaks, we can trace it to who leaked it.

“We haven’t had a situation like that, but if we did, that person would be terminated. And everybody knows it, and everybody likes their job so much that I don’t think anyone would do it.”

Watermarking is hardly new. Scripts for the James Bond films, for instance, have been individually numbered for at least the last decade. But until recently it has been a labor-intensive, time-consuming process.

“It takes gazillions of hours,” said “Breaking Bad’s” Kravetz, which began watermarking after its near-leak. “You have to get another person, get another computer, get another copier … ”

“It’s about seven hours to watermark every script with names manually, and hours just to do it with numbers,” said Scenechronize producer Rhys Ryan.

But Scenechronize now offers a way to label scripts more easily — through an automated, server-based two-click system that prints out personalized scripts or PDF files that can’t be copied and pasted or altered in any way. (Menu detail above.)

The advent of high-tech watermarking promises to be a boon of sorts for script security, as producers and backers slowly learn that the process doesn’t have to take all day.

“Playtone was going to mark its scripts with numbers,” said Ryan of the production company behind “Larry Crowne,” the Tom Hanks-directed film that recently finished shooting. “They did the first set of watermarking, called us and said it was the most insane thing they’d ever done. They wasted the entire day watermarking numbers before we were brought in.”

“Larry Crowne” and an untitled Ivan Reitman project are among the features to have adopted Scenechronize, while “Breaking Bad” and several high-profile (but for now unidentified) network shows are among the TV projects to have gone with the process.

One seeming drawback, said Scenechronize’s COO Ehlers, is that his process requires placing the script on a server located in San Francisco.

“The studios and the networks are not used to this kind of cloud-based solution,” Ehlers told TheWrap. “If they don’t know what we do, they are like, Hold on, you’re going to put our scripts on the internet?”

Those scripts, he said, are protected with “bank-level” security in a building renovated to withstand a magnitude-9 earthquake. And with the company’s security services passing five separate security audits, including an extensive four-day one recently conducted by a TV network, they’re finding more clients willing to cautiously part with those valuable screenplays. 

“You can’t really secure a script unless you put it in the locker room and don’t let anybody see it, and they only do that on ‘Spider-Man’ movies,” said Ryan.

“This is all about protecting the information as best as you humanly can.”