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

Screw the cat

First Draft

So, you want to write a screenplay.

Maybe you’ve read some books on screenplay writing—names like Cowgill, McKee and Field dot your bookshelf. Perhaps you’ve taken some screenwriting classes whether at a local university or community centre. You may have even—saints be praised—read some screenplays.

Great. Good on you. Way to go.

Now, before you type your first letter onto a page, do yourself a huge favour and forget all of it.

Okay, don’t forget it, but definitely shelve it. Put it aside, because almost none of it is useful to you yet.

In short, you can’t handle the truth…and that’s okay.

Leave the lessons for Draft Two and onward

Leave the lessons for Draft Two and onward

You’re about to write your first first draft (no accidental duplication there) and your only purpose right now is to tell a story.

Should my inciting incident happen around page 10? Doesn’t matter.

How much detail is okay in my narrative? As much as you need.

When is it okay to use voiceovers? Whenever you want.

None of what you learned really matters at this stage and is more likely to make your job harder than easier. It will become useful, later, when you’re doing rewrites—and you will do a lot of those.

But for right now, all of that information—much of which can appear and may be conflicting—is just a barrier between the blank page before you and the story you want to tell. Or perhaps more importantly, between you and the best story you can tell.

In my experience, it is a 1000X easier to fix bad structure than it is to fix a bad story. (This is not to say that any story cannot be improved.)

If you need three pages of narrative to get you to the first line of dialogue, then write three pages of narrative.

If it takes you 347 pages to tell your story, then that’s what it takes.

If you read yesterday’s pages and they sound like shit, stop reading yesterday’s pages. Keep writing until you’ve told your story.

Contrary to the name of the software package—thanks for the pressure, Final Draft—this is your first draft and it’s going to have a lot of shitty bits and pieces; they all do. I don’t know that in the history of screenwriting, anyone has ever filmed the first draft.

So write like no one is watching; because other than you, no one is. And tell the story you want to tell.

When you finally write “FADE TO BLACK” or “END” or “FIN” (pretentious move, btw), those books, blogs and lessons will still be there to help you get to drafts two, eight and fifteen.

(Please note: When I say ignore everything, I’m also including this blog post. If it is easier for you to tell your story by considering any or all structural and formatting elements, then do so.)

Blaze the trail that works for you, regardless of whether anyone has been down that trail before.

Let the cat write his or her own damned story

Let the cat write his or her own damned story

Giving Feedback – The Reviewer Strikes Back

Okay. So, now that we’ve discussed asking for and receiving feedback, is there anything we should consider before giving feedback.

We’ve all been on the other side, awaiting a kind word or a withering criticism from a respected compatriot or senior, so we should all be aware of the power of the right word at the right time. You have been given an honour by the recipient and should give him or her and the work the respect they deserve.

Below, I offer some thoughts on how to approach the feedback process when asked, but (sorry for the broken record) I want to hear what you think too.

Feedback is personal. It reflects who you are, what you believe and how you feel. Don’t try to make it otherwise, lest you lose any value it provides. The writer asked you for very specific reasons. To give them anything less than you is a disservice.

Make sure, however, that your feedback is more than just opinion, even though that forms the basis of it. There is a world of difference between superficial criticism and thoughtful critique. Criticism is about saying what you feel. Critique is about asking yourself why you feel that way and discussing what it means with the writer.

Ask questions. Be sure to ask questions both before and after you’ve completed your analysis. What kind of feedback are you looking for? Is there anything you specifically want me to keep an eye out for? What was your thinking behind this scene or character?

Without knowing the answers to these kinds of questions, I don’t think you can offer the most effective feedback. Likewise, the answers may provide you with a framework on which to build your feedback or tell if you’ve misunderstood something significant.

Be honest. Never be afraid to tell the truth, no matter how brutal. You’re the best judge of what you think the writer can handle, but by the same token, they’ve asked for your help and holding back may be counterproductive. It’s possible to be honest without crushing someone, and I don’t mean making a shit sandwich (good news-bad news-good news). Rather, walk them through your thinking as you read their stuff and, even if they don’t beat you to the conclusion, at least they understand your reasoning.

And wherever possible, don’t leave them hanging. Offer suggestions as to how the work could be improved or fixed. If you have no ideas pre-emptively, brainstorm it with them. If nothing else, it will show the writer that you’ve invested in his or her work.

DON’T COPYEDIT. That’s not feedback, it’s copyediting. Unless the spelling of a word or the punctuation of a sentence significantly impacts the meaning of a sentence, leave it alone. It ends up being a distraction from the important conversations. If their climax sucks (you’ll want to be more specific), who cares that they should have used a semi-colon or incorrectly used “its” instead of “it’s”?

Put it in writing. Even the most seasoned writer will miss important tidbits of information while scrambling to take notes on your feedback. By writing your feedback out, preferably within the manuscript itself, you give the writer the chance to follow what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, rather than focusing on the details of the feedback, which they can do at their leisure.

Look for the bigger picture. As you compile your feedback, look for trends or commonalities. As with receiving feedback, ask yourself if any groups of notes refer to the same issue; e.g., a lot of scenes take too long to get started or could be started later without losing the story. Be ready to provide examples, of course, as the bigger picture is typically less obvious, but try to avoid getting stuck in the weeds.

Besides, if there are fundamental issues with the story or its presentation, then all of the nitpicky stuff is unimportant and you’ll be wasting your and the writer’s time.

Your feedback; the writer’s work. Even if you inscribe your comments on stone (see “burning bush”), the writer does not have to agree with you. It is important as you analyze someone’s work that you remember it is their work. Although you can help them develop their voice and style, it is not your task to change their voice or style. Likewise, and more importantly, it is not your job to convert their work to your voice.

Me acting like I could ever teach anything about comedy to the very funny ladies Nicole Rubacha and Megan Mack

Me acting like I could ever teach anything about comedy to the very funny ladies Nicole Rubacha and Megan Mack