Working for free – Worth every penny

empty pockets

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.

Gigs for free

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.

dairy-cows-milking-machine

Is your Art valued or seen as a commodity?

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:

Writers Guild of Canada

Writers Guild of America – West

 

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)

SWYS-Facebook-Cover

Man vs Snake – a review

man-vs-snake-the-long-and-twisted-tale-of-nibbler

I like pinball. I played Pong when it first came out. And I can count on one hand the number of video games I have played in my life…including Pong (others involve Star Wars or strip poker).

Thus, when I was asked by a friend to review the documentary Man vs. Snake: A Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler—recently released on Netflix—I seriously questioned our friendship.

nibbler

If Centipede and Pac-Man had a child

For the uninitiated, like me, Nibbler looks like the bastard love-child of Centipede and Pac-Man, and essentially involves an ever-lengthening snake that courses around obstacles gobbling energy packets while trying not to bite its own tail. In short, a joy-sticker’s wet dream and yet a game from the heyday of arcades that few knew existed.

What set this game apart from the others, however, was that its scoreboard included nine digits, so a score of one billion was possible. Yeah, this set my spine tingling as well.

The man in question is actually four men.

Back in the early 80s, teenage Tim McVey—not the terrorist, the documentary points out—played two days on one quarter and broke the billion-point barrier, under the watchful eye of local oddball and arcade owner Walter Day. Woohoo!! And for years, that was the end of the story; McVey’s singular claim to fame.

Until an Italian man claimed to have broken McVey’s record as a boy, holding the unofficial record for 25 years. Day refused to acknowledge the record. McVey refused to acknowledge the record. But to clear the slate, McVey determined to break the Italian’s score and make the whole argument moot.

And this is where the meat of the documentary takes place…McVey’s desperate attempt to reclaim his title, and quickly coming to grips with the fact (and joy-stick) that his body is not what it was as a teenager.

Oh, and the fourth man is Canadian gamer Dwayne Richard, who kind of joins McVey’s journey as sparring partner.

As documentaries go, this one is pretty well constructed. It has a strong narrative stream in the redemption story and the sparring that becomes a bit more personal. It has strong personalities in the four men and their support networks.

Unfortunately, it was too reminiscent of my own late teens/early 20s watching friends play Mario Brothers, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, etc. Boring.

It was like the movie 127 Hours, but with your hand stuck on a joy-stick rather than under a boulder.

Intellectually, I get the various stories here…the archetypes. But I cared not a single whit as to whether these guys broke the records, and therefore never invested in the players emotionally. They were simply too abstract and surreal for me to care, and the stakes were meaningless.

Note: The documentarians did a very good job of highlighting these eccentricities while being respectful of the people.

then-v-now

Game competitions have changed in 20 years

I understand that the video game world has completely changed in the last decade to become very much an international spectator sport. Nibbler is very much NOT of that era.

But if you want to watch a handful of middle-aged men obsess over an arcade console for 90 minutes or so, this might just be a documentary for you.

An-anthem-a: A sporting nation sings

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics

Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

This past weekend, Toronto played host to the NBA All-Star Game and among the dozens of events, Canadian recording artist Nelly Furtado was asked to sing O’ Canada. In keeping with her musical stylings (I believe), Ms Furtado decided to sing an interpretation of the song that was slower in tempo and a bit more soul-searching than its typical performance, which annoyed a few people.

Now, I am a sing-it-straight person. I believe national anthems should be performed as intended (let’s not get into changing the lyrics). Thus, when someone opens up with a bit of musical show-boating, I get annoyed. (Call back to Roseanne Barr singing The Star Spangled Banner.)

But you know, that’s my problem.

The controversy, however, opened up another question for me:

Why do we play the national anthem(s) at sporting events?

I could understand an argument for truly international events like the Olympics (played when the winner is chosen) or World Cup (do they play anthems here?), where nationalistic fervor is part of the equation.

But what, for example, about a hockey game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks is particularly nationalistic?

This question is especially germane when you consider the many of the players that perform for these teams are from countries other than the United States and Canada (including Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, etc.), and play in mixed squads.

We don’t play the anthem(s) before live theatre. We don’t play the anthem(s) before sitting down to a meal.

We don’t play the anthem(s) before our hair or dental appointments. We don’t play the anthem(s) before a meeting of the UN Security Council.

So why do we play them before regional/local sporting events?

hockey-canada-national-anthem

(Photo by Jana Chytilova/NHLI via Getty Images)

I love my country. I like my national anthem. I really don’t care if we play it at sporting events.

When numbers fail (DDNews commentary)

Dutee Chand

Athletics bodies have questioned whether sprinter Dutee Chand has an unfair advantage.

What is normal?

The question may sound absurdly philosophical, particularly for the pages of DDNews, and yet healthcare directly or indirectly deals with this question on a daily basis. And the clinical response can be as life-altering as the societal and political responses that we see on the news every night.

An entire industry has been created to test and monitor health using various diagnostic assays, to the most recent of which DDNews dedicates an entire section. In some cases, the results of these assays are binary—the classic example is being a little bit pregnant. But in most cases, healthy (or normal) falls within a range of values—think LDL/HDL, blood glucose or body temperature.

In part, this is a recognition that results can vary within an individual throughout the day, and on the larger scale, because individuals are products of their genetics and environments. What might be a healthy level for me in Toronto may actually be limiting in Johannesburg.

But even with the recognition of variability, we must always be vigilant in questioning how the normal range was defined. Was it based on the combined results of 200 male Manitoba bush pilots (I have read such a study), or a sampling of tens of thousands of individuals from around the world? If only for economic reasons, the former is more likely to be the case.

In 2011, Boston University’s Shalinder Bhasin and colleagues examined this challenge by identifying reference ranges for testosterone in healthy men. Suggesting that these ranges “have been derived previously mostly from small convenience samples or from hospital or clinic-based patients,” they examined a much larger cohort from the Framingham Heart Study (Gen 3), publishing their results in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

Although most values were consistent with historic values, their lower limit of total testosterone was higher than that used historically but was “closer to the thresholds associated with sexual and physical symptoms in a recent investigation of older men.” Thus, when it comes to testosterone, it seems (sample) size matters.

But what about the outliers, the norms who don’t fit the norms and the unwell who do?

As a bit of a sidestep, just over a year ago, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) banned Indian sprinter Dutee Chand from competing in sanctioned competitions because her blood testosterone levels fell into the normal range of male athletes rather than that of her female competitors. Thus, the group decided, she would have an unfair advantage over her fellow runners.

What made this ruling particularly challenging, however, was that Chand’s testosterone levels were natural; they did not come about from doping. Her levels simply fell outside of the clinically accepted norm for women.

Closer to home for me are two friends who live with symptoms of hypothyroidism and have resorted to alternative medicine because they were dissatisfied with the medical establishment. In both cases, standard thyroid function tests suggest they fall within the normal range and therefore would not benefit from standard treatment. This may be true, but neither knows because it was never tried.

Admittedly, these are anecdotes. Three women struggle because they do not fit ascribed definitions, whether of health or pathology. And for every anecdote I can list, the healthcare establishment can rightly point to hundreds if not thousands of individuals who fit the defined ranges of normalcy.

It’s a conundrum I have discussed previously: healthcare is population-based while health is personal.

In our zeal to standardize healthcare and make medicine more scientific, we have to be careful not to ignore the natural variabilities of individuals within those populations. So-called normal ranges should suggest action, not dictate it.

Even as we pursue the precision medicine mandate, spending billions (and possibly trillions) of dollars on expanding our understanding of human biology and generating technologies to value every facet of it, we have to make sure that our knowledge doesn’t blind us to the patient’s truth. If that happens, if all we accomplish is a bigger monolith, then we have failed in the mission.

As to Chand’s racing career, the Court of Arbitration for Sport recently overturned the IAAF’s rule, giving them two years to prove that the higher testosterone levels truly give the runner an unfair advantage.

DDNews_0915
Originally published in DDNews in September 2015, this is one of a series of commentaries I write each year. If you’re interested in recent technological and business innovations in biotech, pharma and healthcare, you should check the publication out.

Creative trash talkin’

Canadians by and large are not particularly well known for their trash talking, even in sports. We’re more a smile to your face and mutter under our breath kinda people.

But I am no ordinary Canadian, and when it comes to my beloved Toronto Marlies, I won’t just defend my team, I’m happy to pick the fight. And it particularly nice when I can take a shot at my fellow Canadians.

John

Sometimes they kinda write themselves

Moose_AT-AT

With Star Wars night coming up, how could I resist drawing parallels between Hoth and Winterpeg?

Heart of Coppola

Zeotrope

Francis Ford Coppola likes me! He really likes me!

So, no sooner do I finally get around to posting my laurels from Nashville than I find out that my screenplay The Naughty List was selected as a semifinalist in the 12th Annual American Zeotrope Screenwriting Competition, an organization run by Francis Ford Coppola (I seem to recall he was a director of geopolitical documentaries).

I had started to wonder if the screenplay was going to see any love in the competitive world…this is good!

Coming to a theatre near you (please, please, please)

Coming to a theatre near you (please, please, please)

So, what is the story of The Naughty List?

What would you do if you learned decisions you make every year ruin the lives of millions of children?

Oh, and your name is Santa Claus.

After a brush with death just days before Christmas, Santa rescinds the Naughty List only to learn that for some kids, the lump of coal started a life-long downward spiral. In fact, two kids—now warlords—are about to unleash hell on each other and their people.

With a loving heart and snowy balls, child-like Santa dives into the fray. But his magical meddling only makes things worse.

He greases the wheels of war. More children suffer, including a girl desperate to save her family. As his magic fails, Santa knows he must face the oncoming storm as a mortal.

One man. Two armies. Can Santa stop the madness and save a crumbling Christmas?