At some point, if not several points, in their career, every writer is faced with a familiar dilemma.
Someone has a great idea for a story and is looking for the perfect writer to bring it to life. As with any job situation, you bring samples of your work, you highlight previous projects and you develop a rapport with the excited creatives across a boardroom table or in a coffee shop.
You see their vision for the story. You’ve added exciting elements off the top of your head. They clearly like the way you think. This is going brilliantly.
And then you get to the crux of the matter: compensation.
“Well, you see…” the creatives start inauspiciously. “We’re still lining up financing, but once we sell the story or the final project, then we all reap the benefits. Besides, this is a passion project.”
Ummm…the word “dollars” never appeared once in that monologue.
“If it helps, we’re not making any money out of this either.”
They seem sincere. This doesn’t feel like a scam. So, do you take the gig (or non-gig, as it were)?
It really depends to some extent on who is sitting across the table from you.
Martin Scorsese. George Clooney. Kathryn Bigelow. Ed Catmull. Alison Brie.
Yeah, maybe you take a flyer with them. Although, I would be suspicious as to why any of these people were experiencing financing delays.
More likely, you’re meeting with lesser known, less accomplished filmmakers who simply don’t have the contact lists of the big names and for whom financing is as much about family and friends as it is about Hollywood’s biggest backers.
Doesn’t make them bad people, although I would hope you had Googled them before the meeting to see what you could learn about them. But they are putting a lot of the risk onto you as the writer, risk that could leave you penniless after a lot of hard work.
Truthfully, if they haven’t got the financing in place already, then they have no business asking someone to develop a story for a promissory note or I.O.U.
You’ll hear/read phrases like:
Future compensation: Fine if the money ever arrives. But the brutal reality is that if the project is even completed, almost none of these small projects ever makes enough money to cover costs…and you are one of those costs.
Great exposure: You had to Google these guys, so how much exposure do you expect to receive? And the only exposure you are guaranteed is as someone who will work for free.
Passion project: If the passion (or idea) isn’t yours, then that is pretty meaningless.
And as I realized first hand a couple of years ago, working for free can really complicate ownership of intellectual property.
I wrote a short screenplay based roughly on an idea shared by two young filmmakers, a story that to the best of my knowledge was never made. My bad: we had no written agreement. I have no idea if the screenplay is mine or if they would have a legal case to come after me should I place it into competition or try to make it myself.
Fortunately, it was a short, so I only lost days rather than months or years. But I still lost days that could have been spent earning money.
At best, you should really only work for free for your own projects—particularly germane to writer-directors, writer-actors, and the dreaded triple threat writer-director-actor—but I’m not even sure that this is a good idea.
Unless you’re still in college, you should really have your financial ducks in a row if you ever hope to be taken seriously.
At the very least, payment for services rendered can be bartered, if cash is an issue.
You’re a filmmaker with an idea in search of a writer? Well, I’m a writer with an idea in search of a filmmaker. Let’s barter services.
I know it is flattering when someone is so enthused by your storytelling capabilities that they want you to bring their vision to life.
Truthfully, though, it is only flattering when they value the skills you bring to the table, and that value deserves compensation in some tangible form.
Try convincing your landlord, the electric or cable companies, or the grocery store to accept “future compensation” or “invaluable exposure”.
Know your value. Be familiar with the regularly updated Writers Guild rate sheets:
Learn more about effective storytelling and the benefits of story analysis and story coaching at:
So, What’s Your Story? (web site)
So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)