To Free or Not to Free

To Free or Not to Free

I once dated a guy who used to buy all my dinners. Every time he’d plunk down his credit card at a restaurant, he’d say, “I feel like I have to take care of you since all you get paid is in exposure.” It was a running joke—not him being a dick (or a total dick)—and it spurned from my tales of constantly being asked to write or do standup for free.

The most recent egregious example? Before the pandemic, I was asked to fly from Los Angeles to the Midwest to perform standup. The booker did not offer me any compensation or even to cover my expenses.

“We’d love to have you and could probably get a good turnout!” they promised, but when I asked about money, it was … “We don’t have the budget to pay. Sorry!”

When the world went into lockdown in 2020, comedy shifted from live performances to Zoom, and I invited this booker to watch an online show … with a comp ticket. And guess what that booker did?

Absolutely nothing!

They had no qualms about asking me to pay my own way and perform for free, but when I actually offered an easy way for them to watch me perform for free, they didn’t.

Lesson learned: people pay for things they value. If someone is unwilling to pay for your work, then they don’t value it. Don’t go out of your way for someone who doesn’t value you.

As an artist, that’s a principle I’ve been living by for years, and it’s one that keeps getting tested because the requests for unpaid work never end.

But just to clarify, I do things unpaid all the time. I’ll perform at a free bar show if the booker isn’t creepy. I’ll speak on panels. I’ll guest on podcasts with only three listeners, especially if one of those three is the host’s mom. But what I won’t do are things that require me to put in more effort than what is convenient.

And an inconvenience, to me, is dealing with toxic people, or putting in all the work to make money without a cut of the sales, or traveling a long distance, or basically anything that is beyond a pleasant professional experience.  

A hater may say, “Oh, that’s a luxury for you, but some of us have to grind until we make it big.” And I will respond, “Being treated with dignity is not a luxury, even if you are a low-level artist. Who hurt you?”

But seriously, I do firmly believe that people who ask for too much, but are unwilling to pay, tend to have an entitlement that can verge on dangerous.

Case in point—

I optioned a book to a major studio, and they paid for the one-year rights to my work. The contract they gave me was standard, and working with them was straightforward and transparent. Now, I want to contrast that with my disastrous experience years before when I optioned my book, The Sugar Baby Club, to producers that didn't want to pay me anything.

I was at a party and met one of the producers, let’s call her "Smelly." She and her husband had a production company together, and they needed a ride home, so I drove them back to their mansion in Beverly Hills. That night, I told them about my book, and they agreed to read it. Shortly after, they told me that they loved the book and passed it on to another producer, who had a separate company. This producer met Smelly’s friend on Seeking Arrangement, so he had a personal interest in the topic of sugar babies.

At this point, I now had two companies, and Smelly’s random sugar baby friend, wanting to attach themselves to my book, which they all said I would adapt. This seemed like a great opportunity, but my initial excitement ended after Smelly sent me an option/shopping agreement. Before this contract, I had seen and signed boilerplate agreements with indie producers, but what I was sent was a wordy mess that essentially gave the producing team all the rights to my work for years with no money.

I had my lawyer look over the contract, and he was like, “What the hell is this, T.Lo?” We confronted Smelly, who tried to play dumb and basically said on the phone, “Oh, oops! My lawyer sent over the wrong contract. We’ll get you another one later.” The updated contract was not much better, but they did offer me a literal dollar. After much negotiation between my lawyer and agent and this herd of producers, we all agreed upon a one-year option where I would write a TV pilot that the producers would attach themselves to.  

As you can probably guess, the weird “oops, I sent the wrong contract” situation was the beginning of a terrible working relationship. After I signed the new agreement, I wrote a pilot and submitted it to the producers. Smelly said she loved it, but then the second producer, Mr. Sugar Daddy himself, didn’t. He suggested they hire another writer (that they were willing to pay, by the way).

When I said I still wanted to write the pilot and do it solo, Mr. Sugar Daddy said that they were the producers, and they had the right to do what they thought was best for the project.

At this point, I was furious that they wanted to hire another writer when we agreed it would be me. I was furious that I was given no money but they magically had money for someone else. And most of all, I was furious that I had agreed to work with vulturous rich people and was now trapped.  

So I did what I always do when confronted with assholes. I quit. I told them I didn’t agree to how they were behaving, and then I ghosted them all.

My option agreement ended after a year, and I got the rights back to my book. But whenever I recall that experience, I think about how unnecessary it was and how so much of my trouble would’ve been avoided if I had stuck by my rule:

Don’t go out of your way for someone who doesn’t value you.

If these producers simply shopped my work and sold it, they could’ve gotten a percentage. It would’ve been simple and easy. But instead, they wanted to bait-and-switch me and take my intellectual property. They created an unnecessary mess, while not inconveniencing themselves in any way, and all I got out of it was $1.

Which somehow feels even lamer than if this had happened for free.

*Feature photo by Karolina Grabowska (Pexels)

Writer-comedian and Script Pipeline Winner, Teresa Lo's books were optioned by 20th Century Fox, and her work appears in Yahoo, Hustler, and more. She performs standup across the US.
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