No Pay, No Gain
At my first Pitch Fest many years ago, one particularly helpful production company rep, who sensed I was new to the game, gave me this advice:
“Never work for free.”
As I was processing what he was saying, he reiterated: “No, seriously, never work for free.”
I’ve never forgotten that.
Oh, not because I heeded his sage advice. Rather, I remember it because shortly thereafter, I fell victim to a rapacious director who prayed upon my naivete and got me to write a script for him for free.
And no, that movie, despite all his assurances, previous track record of success, pre-production talk, etc., never came to fruition. What’s worse is that I was locked into a contract and had to wait three years to get the rights to the script back.
It’s Still Happening Today
I recently stumbled across a post on a popular website for filmmakers that was seeking screenwriters for “deferred pay.” That’s a fancy way of saying, “You take all the risk, do all the work for free, and hope to get paid later if the movie gets funded.”
What’s worse is these guys were grooming screenwriters in a way that would feel like progress. They have you submit a logline and synopsis for your related spec script first. If you are selected, they’ll have you submit that spec to assess your writing. If they like your writing, they’ll have the you submit a two-page pitch of how you’d approach writing the producer’s script idea.
At this point, you will have jumped through their hoops and put in a fair amount of free work, including original idea generation, so when they come back to you and say, “Congratulations, we’ve selected you for this opportunity!” you’re supposed to feel privileged. Your reward is that you get to write a script for them for free (with the hope that they’ll get funded to make the movie and only then be able to pay you). Yippee!
Note: They could also just as easily incorporate some of your ideas into the script they eventually write with someone else. There’s no recourse in this instance as they’ve already made you sign an agreement that says something to the effect of “The writer recognizes that the producers may coincidentally have already developed similar story ideas to ones you have pitched.”
I know, I know… you’re so close you can taste it. And you write spec scripts for free anyway, so why not take the chance?
Well, after the smoke clears, the film probably won’t get funded, and you probably won’t own the script. You’re better off writing something wholly original that you have total control over. And despite assurances and feeling like you’re hobnobbing with real movie people, there are no guarantees in this business, especially from those who currently have zero budget for screenwriting.
So don’t do it.
I can still hear that friendly production rep’s voice: “Never work for free. No, seriously, never work for free.” Be smarter than I was during that era.
Do you have any horror stories about getting hoodwinked into the “privilege” of writing for free? Please share them below.