Back in the era of Dinosaurs, when I was a fresh-faced, new writer and eager (meaning: desperate) to get myself out there and become a working screenwriter, and thinking that you accomplished that by pleasing other people (meaning: producers) and doing whatever they needed (meaning: for free), for however long they wanted, for as many rewrites as it took, and in doing so I was making myself indispensable.
Yes, I was naïve. Yes, I didn’t think clearly enough to realize I was setting my rate at zero.
I’m happy to offer up my own horror story as an example of what is still going on out there with and to new writers.
I wrote an original spec script. It was kind of a kid’s action adventure. The script was the first script I ever wrote … and before this story I’m going to tell you happened, it was optioned by a studio through what can only be described as a miraculous series of events that put it in the hands of major producers in L.A. and on Polygram’s slate. To say I was excited and my ego was inflated is a massive understatement. And then … through another series of nightmarish events, not only was my script not made, but Polygram went out of business, being bought by Universal, who cancelled their slate. I got the script back, because they never bought it, just optioned it. I still have the script, by the way.
After this experience, I discovered no one in Hollywood cared who I was or what I wrote, and that I was going to have to start at square one like everyone else. No more miracles. Except I had no idea how to do that. Therefore, the desperation that kills a LOT of new screenwriters set in big time.
Then I met a “producer” on one of the sets I was working on as an actor and let him read my previously studio-optioned script. By the way, I was paid very well for that studio option. This producer, however, had other ideas, and we started out on a two-year journey without a contract where I rewrote the script probably 20 times for FREE. Each time it was to please somebody else he wanted to show it to. A star. A studio. A director. Another producer. Endless changes and “ideas.” I spent weeks, each time making all these changes in the desperate hope that one of these “artists” he was pitching it to would buy it.
Yes, by that 20th rewrite it didn’t resemble what I had originally written, what Polygram had optioned, at all. It wasn’t my work. It was a Frankenstein’s monster, pieced together with unmatched parts, and I hated it.
Enter a seasoned screenwriter who I met at a mixer in L.A. When the conversation got to “what I was working on,” and I told him about the producer who had me jumping through free hoops on this script, he laughed. And laughed. And laughed. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “We’ve all been there.”
“What you have there is a producer who runs what I call a script farm.” He went on to tell me that these producers have anywhere from ten to twenty naïve screenwriters constantly working on scripts for free that he throws out there to see what sticks and as soon as the writers figure out what he’s doing and ask for a contract or money, he calls them ungrateful and drops them.
I knew what he said was true and I felt … well … stupid.
I was soon to learn that almost every screenwriter there, all more experienced than I, had written unsuccessfully for free for some producer or director who promised them the moon.
I think it needs to be said that now that I have 18 produced films under my belt, most producers are amazing at what they do. They offer contracts, written options, or in some cases—where the writer trusts the producer who has been straight with them—targeted, limited shopping agreements.
The one thing these producers also did was pay me. In some cases when I was first starting, it wasn’t a lot. I think one of the first options was a hundred dollars, but the sale price we negotiated was very fair. But I got a hundred dollars for the option. That producer had skin in the game. An investment in the script. It’s easy for a producer who has nothing at all invested in a project to not care what happens with it.
I told that producer I wanted a contract, and that he should option the script and pay me. Never heard from him again. Lesson learned.
You’ll hear stories of writers who did this and were discovered or worked on “deferred payment” (meaning: free), and it paid off. I’ve met and talked to hundreds of writers—some top tier writers—and not a single one of them ever got paid on a deferred deal. No writer ever got anything out of an “exposure and credit” deal. They never sold a script from one of these script farm deals. It’s kind of like the old “script in a pizza box” urban legend. Sounds good, but NO ONE has ever sold a script that way either. You’ll hear stories, but they’ll never be from writers it actually happened to. Just thirdhand from writers who hope it's true.
Take it from me, it’s not.
You know how hard you work on your scripts. The craft that goes into making them special. The time and sweat expended. Why would you give your work away?
The producers who want to make your film intend to make money from it. They make more when they don’t have to pay you. You need to get paid. It doesn’t have to be a lot to begin with, a hundred to five hundred dollars for a 12-month option on a low-budget film (which is all that’s being optioned now, but that’s another article). And you need a contract. One that, if it’s non-union, secures you a guaranteed writing credit.
If you want to be a screenwriter, you need to treat it like the business it is. You need to ask to be paid for your work.
If they love your work as much as they say they do, then they’ll pay you something to option it and settle with you on a price if they make it. That’s standard.
No more free writing. It leads to more free writing. And more wasted time. The only free writing you should be doing is on your original spec scripts.
Your work is worth an investment in your creativity.
That producer who wants your work for free is trying to profit from your creativity. You need for that producer to pay you for that. They can’t ignore a script they’ve invested money in.
Even a hundred dollars. Honest.
*Feature image by Cristina Bernazzani (Adobe)