Last week, a writer friend and I had a lively debate about what had happened to our writer acquaintance. I’ll call him Kevin. Basically, years ago, Kevin was a new writer who wrote an excellent script that won awards. The script was so well-written that even the most cynical colleagues had to say, “Yeah, it wasn’t that bad.” The script started to circulate, and it caught the attention of two ambitious agency assistants. Over tea lattes at Coffee Bean, the assistants pitched Kevin a win-win proposal: they would guide Kevin on a rewrite, and Kevin would allow them to sell it for him. They told him that they were hungry to rise up the agency ladder, like pimply Ari Golds, and it appeared like this could be the start of a long-term collaboration.
Flash-forward, a year goes by, and the script doesn’t sell. Kevin and the two assistants part ways, not out of ill-will but just because the project seems to be dead. Although Kevin tries to have them sell his other work, they aren’t the least bit interested. As CBS would say, Kevin Can Wait.
Flash-forward again, years later, and unbeknownst to Kevin, an industry script list includes his script. EXCEPT, it’s now “written by” the two assistants, and he is given an “inspired by a story by” credit. His reaction was understandably Hulk-level rage. He confronted the assistants-now-plagiarists and yelled that he would sue them if they continued passing off his work as theirs. Additionally, swole Kevin served in the military and these two scrawny sleazebags were state school frat boys, so that was the end of that.
Flash-forward to last week, and the dispute between my friend and I was whether or not Kevin took the right action. I was hoping he would’ve gone for The Cask of Amontillado-level revenge, and my friend thought it’d be best for his soul to have just said nothing. The assistants couldn’t have sold that script legally without his cooperation, so why waste the energy on a fight? And while this particular case was like a Rorschach test into the soul of three creatives, there was at least one other collective through line—be very, very careful of who you collaborate with.
Why It’s Important to Choose Good Collaborators
Collaboration is one of the most important components of being a professional artist. No matter what kind of creator you are, you are eventually going to work with other people. Observant fans who scour IMDb may notice that A-listers often work with the same folks from project to project. Leigh Whannell and James Wan co-created Saw, and later collaborated on the Insidious movies. Martin Scorsese directed multiple scripts by screenwriter Paul Schrader and has famously worked with the same editor Thelma Schoonmaker for 50 years. SNL creator Lorne Michaels has produced numerous projects with SNL alumni like Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, and Mike Meyers.
For non-moneymaking projects, the payment to the artists is the joy that the endeavor brings. Without the fun, why do it? As a standup comic in Los Angeles, I perform constantly for free at indie shows, and I do it because I want the stage time, and I enjoy the people I meet. But the minute a booker makes an unreasonable request, like bring 10 paying customers while I get paid nothing; or the lineup is full of creeps; or I’m asked to drive 50 miles for an audience of eight disinterested drunks, I’ll bail. The free or low-stakes projects are a great tool I use to weed out the good and bad people before the stakes rise.
How to Find Good Collaborators and Avoid the Bad
I’ve freelanced for years, and I have longstanding relationships with certain companies. My point of contact at those organizations and I work together well because they set clear expectations of what they want, and I give them that. It’s a smooth transaction. We speak to each other respectfully. We have similar values. And more importantly, I provide the work on time. They provide the payment on time.
Finding these good professional relationships wasn’t easy. Like Kevin, I, too, have worked with goons. I remember once working at a new media company, and several videos I pitched went viral. As a “promotion,” I wasn’t offered more salary, or even a better title. Instead, management presented me the opportunity to pitch TV show ideas where I wouldn’t get more money, royalties, or credit. In fact, my bosses would get the credit for my ideas, and they actually said to me: “Well, Teresa. You’re not really creating the TV shows. Like, we asked you to come up with ideas, so you’re more of an assistant to us and we’re already paying you for that.”
I quit immediately.
The thought of making the next American Idol and giving that intellectual property away to those boneheads made me want to vomit the beef pho I ate for lunch. And leading up to that fateful “promotion,” that company already exhibited several red flags: The environment was catty, the public persona of women’s empowerment was fake because the president of the studio was a sexist man; and the company misclassified me and many others as independent contractors instead of employees to avoid giving us insurance or unemployment benefits. I stuck around at this enterprise for about a year because I needed the money, and I didn’t care about the red flags because I just did my job and went home. But when the stakes increased—where I could actually create something of high value—I left.
They did not want to collaborate with me. They wanted to use me. And thankfully, I was smart enough to see the difference.
On the flip side, I have met numerous hardworking, honest, and talented people at random jobs or volunteer gigs, and we were so mutually impressed with each other that we ended up working together again in the future. And that’s the best way to meet collaborators—is to watch them work. When I produce a standup show, and the comic sneaks out after their set, I take note. They’re not good at communicating their needs or they don’t have an interest in supporting their coworkers. When I’m in an office environment and my colleague shows up late but fudges their time on the timecard, I remember not to ever refer them in the future. They’ll probably do the same thing elsewhere, but I’ll tarnish my reputation for vouching for them.
I meet people all the time, and sometimes at bars or parties, strangers will ask me to introduce them to my contacts or endorse them for an opportunity. Although I respect the hustle, if I have no idea what they’re like to work with, I politely decline.
After all, a great collaborator could be a fun party friend, but that doesn’t mean a fun party friend is also a great collaborator.
Professional and talented people seek out other professional and talented people. I’ve realized that those who do good work will develop a reputation that will open the door to more work and more good people. And those who scheme, fight, or leech will eventually show their true characters sooner rather than later.
Their red flags become bullfighting capes. And it’s up to us to see them.
*Feature photo by antonio filigno (Pexels)