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

Authenticity

who-is-this

This election is about authenticity.

Michelle Obama’s speech resonated with so many people because she was the most authentic person on stage.

There seems to be a great need in the world for people to be authentic, to be honest about their needs and desires, hopes and dreams.

His word is his bond.

What you see is what you get.

I work every day to be an honest practitioner of me, and yet, it continues to be a struggle if only because I do not yet know who I am.

In my defense, however, I never had a fighting chance, because from our earliest days, Western society impels us to fit into molds.

In school, we are taught to behave in a specific manner; to sit in regimented rows and speak only when spoken to. Our excellence is constantly measured against that of our peers on a scale that doesn’t really seem to prepare us for anything except more of same.

When we find employment, we are slotted into roles beyond which it is counterproductive to stray. We are hemmed in by job descriptions and told not to get above our station. To strive for something bigger is to earn the threatened enmity of our “superiors”, as well as our supposed equals.

set-de-moules-pour-personnages-pme

More often than not, to break from our confines and achieve improvement let alone greatness is to go it alone; to be ostracized from our fellows. And even in achieving something, there is a vast pool of people waiting for you to fail, snapping at your heels, if only to validate their decisions not to strive.

And while I find that sad—and admit to having wallowed in that group myself—I cannot blame these people for feeling, thinking and behaving in this manner. They, like I, bought the lie that if we behaved ourselves, if we followed the rules, if we lay our souls down to society, to industry, to community, we would be taken care of, we would be protected.

The lie is crumbling, however. It is becoming more difficult to not see beyond the façade. To remain blind is becoming increasingly difficult even for the most determined.

Children are graduating from school to find nothing awaiting them. Get your high school diploma; get your Bachelor’s degree; get a graduate degree. The bar keeps moving if only to delay arrival at the precipice, an abyss that grows deeper with every tuition payment.

Middle-aged and older employees who remained bound to a company, addicted to seniority, pensions and steady salary, are suddenly finding themselves cut loose after 15, 20, 25 years and staring back at a ravenous pack of un- and underemployed juniors—local and international—willing to work for lower wages.

In many ways, these poor souls are the victims of the very investment portfolios and pension funds they fought so hard to build, stakeholder groups that demand increasing returns with little concern for how companies achieve those returns.

lockedgate

And so the cry goes up for politicians and administrators and executives to be more authentic, to be more honest with those they oversee, to live up to their promises.

We point vehemently to the walls of the molds into which we poured our lives as though they were legally, morally and ethically binding contracts, and implore others to save our lives.

And as has happened in every decade that preceded this one, we will fail and we will fall as institutions redefine and reconstruct themselves on the old models.

The same hue and cry that triggered the Reformation and the Renaissance also triggered the Inquisition and Fascist Europe.

What I have come to believe is that I cannot change the world. Rather, I can only change me or perhaps more correctly, stop changing me. The person who needs to be authentic, to be honest, to live up to promises is the one I see in the mirror; he is me.

Rather than distort myself to fit boxes constructed by society and its micro-collectives in the mistaken belief that this will keep me safe, I need to risk all and not only discover who I am, but also express that person to the world.

My first steps to do just this have been awkward and timorous. It is uncharted territory and demands a certain amount of trial-and-error.

But as I continue to move toward authenticity, I am finding the footing firmer. Dirt-grasping shuffles are becoming steps, and will hopefully one day be strides.

And whereas society is not always welcoming of my decision, I have been lucky enough to find that the people in my life have been almost universally supportive.

It is unlikely that I will change the world, but it is a certainty that I will change my world.

And if I am authentic, that is enough.

authentic

In search of fairness

What if:

Companies gave each employee personal leave of say 6 or 12 months with guaranteed income and the promise that their job would await them at the end of that time period. 

And let’s say the employee could have one of these personal leave periods for every 3 years of employment at the company.

The employee could use that time for travel, to write a novel, to teach monkeys to sing or to raise a newborn child, all without the worry of money or job-security.

That seems fair, doesn’t it?

Guarantee

…but I know what I like

Congratulations! You’ve landed a paid writing gig. Finally, all of that hard work and practice is going to pay off.

Mind you, unless the person paying you to develop a screenplay, marketing campaign, novel, whatever, is simply giving away his or her money out of some form of altruistic zealotry gone mad, the benefactor is likely to want to participate in the project, to take some degree of ownership, and therefore to weigh in…with notes.

So, you’ve just received your first batch of notes.

And amazingly, they are relatively minor and/or completely in sync with concerns you had about the work and so give you further impetus to make the changes you kind of knew needed to be made.

But seriously, folks. These notes don’t make any sense. The note-giver clearly didn’t understand the nature of the project he or she assigned you. To make most or any of these changes would be to seriously weaken or outright destroy the project.

Now, what the hell do you do?

shock

Step 1: Curse.

Yes, feel free to curse the gods for this tedious torture of your creative soul. How dare these mere mortals give you notes? The audacity to think they could contribute to this work of Art, when the very notes they provide merely highlight their ignorance.

I don’t have a problem with hosting a pity party of one (or a few close friends). The key is keeping the party short, particularly when working to deadline.

You are an Artist, and Art requires Ego and a degree of Hubris. Without hubris, how would any of us ever have the cahones to show our work to others?

The reality, however, is that we have chosen to work for others, so…

unimpressed

Step 2: Set aside your ego and re-read.

Put a tea-cosy on your vision for a moment and really try to understand the notes you have been given. I’ve heard it said often: What is the note within the notes?

I have found that people often can’t identify or vocalize what they specifically find troubling in a piece of Art. But rather than simply give you no notes, they try to identify things that may have some bearing on their issues…the operative word there being “may”.

If you stand back a little further and ignore the specific requests, can you see something in common between the notes, a greater theme or need from the note-givers?

Do your best to step out of your shoes and into his or hers. A change in perspective may give you a greater insight as to the real challenge the note-giver is facing with your work. You’re the writer; you have one need. A director or a marketing manager will have different needs and perspectives. Respect that.

It is possible, however, that you will still be uncertain (or clueless) as to what to do next. In that case…

what

Step 3: Ask questions/seek clarity.

Acknowledging the note-giver’s concerns or comments is not the same as accepting them. It does, however, give him or her a sense that you respect them and are trying to maintain a collaborative relationship. I cannot begin tell you how much this means to people and pays off in the long run.

Offer your interpretation of the issues to confirm you see things the same way as the note-giver. If you do, brilliant. You can now offer alternatives to the less palatable requests that may satisfy the note-giver’s misgivings.

If you don’t, brilliant. Now, you have the opportunity to gain insights into the note-giver’s perspectives. This will allow you to brainstorm new approaches that will satisfy both parties.

You may also find that many of the requested changes are not a high priority for the note-giver or were merely suggestions of things you could do. For all the opinions people offer throughout their lives, most individuals are incapable of giving effective notes and thus, demands, suggestions and brain farts all look alike to the person receiving them. This holds for the Artist, as well. Don’t allow your and their ignorance to drive you crazy.

So, now that you either have an understanding with the note-giver or realize you are working with a control-obsessed ego-maniacal asshole (it happens)…

gotcha

Step 4: Make your changes or rollover.

What you now do with these notes hinges on a cost-benefit analysis.

Are there ways you can bring greater clarity to the story you have written that will address the needs without either incorporating the specific requests or significantly altering your vision of the story?

If yes, then you have not only improved the work, but you’ve established a wonderful rapport with the note-giver that will likely lead to future opportunities for collaboration.

If not, you need to ask what your goal is for this particular project.

If it is your magnum opus, then feel free to stick your heels in and refuse to make the requested changes, but in the knowledge that you may very well be fired and find it difficult to get work in the future. The note-giver and community may respect your stance and in the final analysis, acknowledge you were correct in your refusal, but it doesn’t happen a lot.

If, however, this project is the first step toward a longer term relationship with the note-giver and/or the hiring community, then go back to Step 2 and think harder as to how to make this work to everyone’s advantage. The onus is on you to do your best work within the framework you are given.

In this latter situation, of course, another alternative is simply to rollover and acquiesce to the requested changes. It is completely possible that the note-giver is right and you simply could not see the problems because your ego was in the way (aka you were too close to the project).

On the flipside, of course, if the note-giver was wrong, you may carry the burden of his or her errors and so find future work with that individual unlikely but then why would you want to work with that asshole again. Or, he or she could step up and take ownership of the error, in which case, you may have found a partner who will trust your instincts more the next time.

Getting notes is never easy, but it’s going to happen whenever you leave your Artistic cave. How you deal with them will have a significant impact on how often you get paid to do your thing.

Thinking outside the balks

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If you’re reading this blog post, then you’re probably something like me—that wasn’t meant as an insult—and you’re looking for opportunities to express your true creative self.

Unfortunately, whenever you visit the Want Ads looking for employment, you are met with hundreds of ads all touting their desire for an outside-of-the-box thinker and yet doing so in the most boring way. Talk about making a bad first impression.

So here is my call to all companies: If you want outside-of-the-box thinkers, don’t approach them from inside the box.

Boxes scare creatives because boxes are scary. In hockey, it’s the penalty box. In mythology, it was Pandora’s box—okay, technically jar, but let’s not dwell on semantics. The Boxer rebellion. Boxing Day shopping. Johann Sebastian Box. You get the idea.

To some extent, I blame Human Resource departments, whose job it is to protect the company from legal repercussions rather than actually identify resourceful humans. But senior managers are also to blame, as the majority of them hold their jobs by propping up the walls of their box—often with the corpses of the peons below them.

Several years ago, as Creative Director of a medical advertising agency, I had the opportunity to hire a medical writer.

Now, I am nuts. And the job of medical copywriter in Canada is nuts, because the regulations in Canada are nuts. And working for me is nuts. So when I wanted to hire someone, I needed candidates who were…well…nuts.

Below is an excerpt from the ad I posted on a variety of web-based job sites to get just the right candidate:

We have needs (many of them in fact). But today our biggest need is for a full-time Scientific and Medical Writer to help us create amazingly compelling advertising for our healthcare clients…. 

What type of person are you?

You’ve always been smart—annoyingly so, if we talk to your siblings. You’re just as comfortable talking to a doctor, as you are an artist. You’re always looking for new ways to do things—especially mundane things. You not only dream up big ideas, you can also figure out how to execute them. You are able to convince others to buy into your ideas. You find yesterday’s successes to be today’s challenges. You don’t like taking “no” for an answer. You really want to re-write this ad and send it back to us. And you’ve never met an acronym you didn’t like, including PAAB, RRR, CME, ASC, BID, PM, PI, and ASAP.
Here are some must-haves:
Science degree (BSc. minimum, but dazzle us if you don’t)
Ability to distill clinical data into amazing copy (other distillation expertise will be considered)
Knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry (aside from your medicine cabinet)
A sense of humour in stressful situations.
Nice-to-haves: Did we mention the sense of humour?

Think your skills meet our needs? Then startle us with your creativity. Forward your resume (boring), 3 writing samples (better), and anything else we may find entertaining (don’t worry, we’re easily entertained) to:

I got some amazingly milquetoast applicants, but I also got some incredibly creative applicants and eventually hired an amazingly brilliant writer—who may be reading this and the Canadian market is too small not to constantly ass-kiss.

Like attracts like. So if it looks like you wrote your job ad with a pencil shoved firmly up your backside, you’re not likely to attract the kinds of candidates who think outside of the box. They’re more likely to be outside of your league.

You need to show that creative thinking already flourishes within your company because damned few creatives are willing to be the first and possibly only person who thinks creatively. Without the right amount and type of bullshit, we wither and die in such environments.

Spare the box, hire the creative genius.

 

PS The job boards to which I posted included:

 

(Image is property of Robert Mann Packaging and is used her without permission.)