Interview: Anne Marie Murphy, President of Eastern Script Inc.

Anne Marie Murphy is the president and founder of Eastern Script Inc., an Ontario-based company that has been active in the business of script clearance and research for 20 years. She’s also a graduate of UCLA’s master’s program in critical studies (now known as cinema and media studies). She first contacted me in November 2012 after she read my initial Mediascape post introducing what remains an ongoing research project of mine into the world of script clearance and research. In the months since, we have corresponded frequently, and she has graciously allowed me to present her answers to my emails here. —Michael Kmet

Michael Kmet: Your biography indicates you held a number of positions in the film industry before getting involved in script clearance. You managed theaters, worked as a film booker, and were the office manager at a production company. In addition to that work, you earned a master’s degree in cinema and media studies at UCLA. Given that diverse background, how did you get involved in script clearance?

Anne Marie Murphy: I had finished my Master’s degree at UCLA in the Critical Studies program in September 1990 and looked at and applied for various jobs that popped up. The first one that seemed a perfect match for my skills was at Marshall/Plumb Research in Burbank which was, at that time, one of only three script clearance companies that existed. The job combined reading, writing, and research—three of my strengths and interests. It also involved tight deadlines (which I like) and constantly changing project work (which I like—no routines, no getting stale from boredom). There is also a certain amount of creativity involved in coming up with names of items as varied as you can imagine—not just character names, but fictional project names for items as varied as breakfast cereals, browser software, lipsticks…you name it, I have probably had to come up with a fictional name for it that “cleared” through a long gauntlet of sources.

MK: You mentioned that in 1990 there were only three script clearance firms in the industry. Today it seems as if there are dozens. What caused that proliferation?

AMM: Cable television. When [Kellam] de Forest reigned alone, there were only three U.S. broadcast networks. Now it’s more like “infinity”—tons and tons and tons of programming needing clearance work done.

MK: Out of curiosity, what were the other two script clearance companies that were in business when you were at Marshall/Plumb? I assume one of them was de Forest Research?

AMM: I am only aware of three companies that were in business in 1990: de Forest, Marshall/Plumb, and Joan Pearce Research. The latter two are still in business.

MK: My research has suggested that script clearance (at least from the ’50s to the ’80s) has been a rather male-dominated sector of the film industry. Was this your experience when you entered this sector of Hollywood in 1990? Outside of Eastern Script, which employs a number of women, do you think this has changed much?

AMM: My observation is the opposite. Script clearance is and has been heavily female dominated. Aside from de Forest, the companies with which I am and have been familiar with over the years are almost completely female. In Canada, there are four companies now that provide clearance reports and every one of them is owned by a woman and predominately staffed by women.

MK: For Kellam de Forest, who was active in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the mechanisms of script clearance never really changed. He ran a research library, and if more expertise was needed than could be found in his books, experts were consulted over the phone. You, on the other hand, have been in the business through a variety of technological changes. How have they changed script clearance?

AMM: The internet ultimately removed the need for most phone calls. We can find the majority of our answers on the web now (physical licensing, call sign availability, license plate assignments, etc.). Email ultimately removed the need for printed scripts to be sent by courier or fax; that was still happening when I started this gig in 1990. Scripts come as email attachments now—less paper waste. Software enhancements removed the need to use paper. We don’t even print the scripts we receive. We copy and paste elements of concern directly into a separate electronic document, which we call our “e-notes”—again, less paper waste. Reports are sent by email and stored electronically on our server. Boxes of scripts—such as those you are probably working with that were “gifted” to UCLA by de Forest—no longer need to be stored since they are never printed in the first place; client files are electronic. Client requests are delivered 24/7 via email. If you leave a clean “desk” (email inbox) at day’s end it will be full by the time your next day begins.

MK: The three clearance companies you listed from the beginning of your career were all based in the Los Angeles area. What led you to decide to start your own clearance firm, and what led you to establishing it in Canada and Massachusetts?

AMM: I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1988 to get a master’s degree at UCLA. I did not make much of a plan beyond that accomplishment. I found work in Los Angeles doing script clearance after finishing my degree in September 1990. I stayed in Los Angeles for a few years but had never intended to stay in Southern California forever. My entire family was then and still is in in the Boston area, so after two and a half years working in Burbank I had had enough of the big city and the distances I seemed to be travelling throughout the year to keep up with family events (weddings, funerals, etc.). I moved back to New England in 1993 and decided to fill the significant void that existed because there were no clearance companies outside of Southern California. Productions that are three time zones away had been negotiating the time difference for years. Operating in the eastern time zone would offer a significant advantage. There was also an attitude difference: the L.A. clearance companies very much had a “kiss my ring” attitude, I thought. I observed very little visiting of clients and looking for input on client needs. I made that a priority when I started Eastern Script and I still do a lot of it. It improves our product.

MK: Since everything is done digitally, I’m curious what kind of archival policy you have at Eastern Script. Do you store past “e-notes” in perpetuity or do you delete them after a certain period of time? Have you thought about donating this material to a university or film studies library? Would legal agreements with your clients prevent this?

AMM: We keep our reports electronically and have them on our server back to 2001, I believe. We started taking electronic/paperless notes a few years ago and have those back to that time. I haven’t considered archival donation, no. There would for sure be legal considerations there since the reports technically “belong” to the client who paid for them and I’d think at the least I’d have to contact them for permission.

MK: Of course, I hope this becomes a possibility in the future, but I can understand the legal considerations making it unrealistic. To change gears a bit, I’m curious about the division of labor at Eastern Script. Are you and your employees responsible for your own projects or is the note process more collaborative?

AMM: For feature films, one person does the whole thing: reading, note-taking, research, and composing the report. For television series, whoever is next available takes the next installment in the series as it arrives, but only that person who signs up for the script does the work. We do not collaborate on reports other than to ask for occasional advice from each other throughout the day and to ask for peer review of research notes and the completed report once it is ready for scrutiny.

MK: Before the 1990s, script clearance and research was typically uncredited. Since that time, however, that practice seems to have changed. Do you have any insight into the process of getting screen credit? Have you ever had to fight for it?

AMM: We typically don’t get a screen credit unless we negotiate for one as part of a price break. If a filmmaker tells us they are low-budget or whatever the song-and-dance is, there are instances when we might give them a significant price break in exchange for screen credit. There are occasional clients who just give us one without our asking, but that is unusual.

MK: Which players in the production chain usually work with you directly (producers, writers, directors, or others)? Does this vary between film and television production?

AMM: We never hear from the directors or writers. Our contact people are any of the following: story department coordinator, clearance coordinator (on bigger budget shows), line producer, production counsel, or producer. Every movie and television show has its own way of handling clearances, and it is impossible to predict who will be in charge.

MK: You’re an associate faculty member at the National Screen Institute and have spoken to production classes at Queen’s University. How did you get involved with film education and what do you typically tell film students about your work in the industry? (As an aside, drawing from my own experiences—as a cinema production student at Ithaca College and a cinema and media studies student at UCLA—many people in film education don’t even know what script clearance and research is, so I’m glad to see it being represented.)

AMM: I get involved by being asked, typically. A professor at Queen’s asked if I’d come talk to their production students, and the Canadian Film Centre asked if I could come to speak with their new filmmakers. Usually it starts with an invitation. I have a few main points I like to drive home in these sessions, such as plan ahead, assume that everything will take much longer than you think, and have backup plans in place in case you get answers you don’t want at the last minute.

MK: What’s the most fulfilling project you’ve worked on during your 23 years in the film industry?

AMM: Impossible to name a single project. I think our ongoing work on a lot of children’s programming is probably the most rewarding—they often turn into something very fun, creative, and helpful.

Author bio:

Michael Kmet received a B.S. in Cinema and Photography and a B.A. in Politics at Ithaca College, and an M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA.

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