Friday, March 09, 2007

Pro Bono

Much as it angers and frustrates writers, agents and the Writers’ Guild, there simply is no getting around the fact that, at some stage, you’re going to have to work for free. This especially applies if you’re starting out as a screenwriter but even if you’re a seasoned scribe, sometimes you just have to pucker up and do some pro bono work to help get a project off the ground.

It’s not ideal, it’s not fair, it’s not perfect…but it’s a fact. It’s the reality of the business. And you know what, sometimes it’s okay. Sometimes it’s just simply necessary. Even in television, you’ll be asked to do a free outline before they agree to commission your ass. This is usually two/three pages, but sometimes it’s a treatment between 6-10 pages. A treatment is a lot of work, especially for free, but if you want the commissioned gig, you’re not going to walk away, right?

I can hear the indignant howls of writers and agents echo throughout the land as I type but most agents know that this is the norm, and sometimes projects get off the ground on the accepted notion of ‘good faith’ between the writer and producer. This post is not for one second endorsing the idea that an eager writers agrees to a wily producer’s demands to write for free but there is a way to agreeing to do this unpaid work without feeling manipulated, used or taken for granted.

First ask yourself: do I like this project? This is the most important. Forget money. Forget fame. Forget your Oscar speech. Do I dig the story? Does it grab my attention and get me excited? Or, perhaps, simply, can I make it work and enjoy myself in the process even though it’s not something that overtly thrills or moves me? If you like the story, if the subject matter can generate sufficient passion and interest, then it might be worthwhile taking on the work because it’s something you believe in, and something that you think could eventually pay off.

Next, do I like this producer? Can I work with this guy/gal? Do I know his/her credits? What’s her experience? If he’s new and ambitious, do I believe in his zeal and conviction? Does the game plan for funding and development sound reasonable and promising? Agreeing to do unpaid work for a producer is enticing when you’re an unknown screenwriter (hey, gotta get the CV going, right?) but if you’re just doing it for the sake of it, then it’s probably not going to work out.

Now, what’s the deal? I’m doing this work for free now, so what do I get later when it gets funding? Can we agree a basic contract before I proceed because otherwise the producer gets what he wants, the writer works hard but if it falls through, the writer gets nothing at all. This is the tricky part. Producers won’t want to involve your agent or get into contract talks until they get funding in place. Until then, you’re acting on ‘good faith’ and a verbal agreement, which may or may not be binding, depending on who witnessed the conversation. Still, some producers will agree to a basic one-letter contract which can protects your and her rights, and keep everything kosher. This is peace of mind but can be difficult to obtain.

If you’re feeling uncertain, ask yourself: do I trust this person? If I don’t know her at all, and have no prior relationship with him, then do I believe all the puffed up talk about agreements once funding is in place? If you don’t feel right, then it’s best not to get involved in the project. When starting a new script, every producer, every producer, will tell you there’s no money; that they can’t pay you now but they’ll pay you later. Yet, if they are a reputable producer with some credit or clout, then they should be able to pay you something, even if it’s just a token few hundred. Don’t be afraid to ask.

It’s a tough situation. They need you, the writer, but if you don’t want to play ball, then they can easily find someone else to fill your shoes. They’re in the powerful position of negotiation, to bend you into doing some unpaid writing, but while it’s not the ideal situation for any writer, it is a common feature of every day business. Don’t say ‘yes’ because you're desperate for any kind of break or exposure. Say ‘yes’ when you feel happy that the project is interesting or could lead to something down the line or if the producer is genuine and professional, and it could be the start of a good relationship. Take it into consideration. Try to understand their situation. It’s tough for them, too. Then do the work, and polish that Oscar speech.


Anonymous said...

A good post. I'm certainly prepared to work for free, even to the point of getting it made and being paid a percentage of the gross, or even free - FREE. I'm so in love with film that money doesn't come into the equation for me, but I need the money.

If anything, it'd be good experience.

Monahan Fan

Phill Barron said...

Most writers start off working for free, writing spec scripts. I've no idea why people rail against it, especially new writers who do need the exposure.

It's a bit like a furniture maker refusing to make any stock for his shop until someone pays him. Pays him for what? An empty shop?

If a script it your product, then a treatment is the blurb in your brochure - why would anyone refuse to write that without payment?

Again, if you're an established writer with a track record, then maybe you have a leg to stand on, but first timers?

Anonymous said...

The whole working for free culture is not confined to writing. 'Internships' are commonplace in all kinds of industries now.
I wonder where all of this sits with the law re: minimum wage etc.

Alex Epstein said...

I've specced things here and there. Right now two of the things I've specced have gone into development recently.

On the other hand I wouldn't recommend speccing something that you don't own and control.

Remember also that if you write something for free, and the producer sets it up, you should get paid MORE than you would if you'd written something for pay. Your risk should be rewarded.

Mystery Man said...

Great post. It's complicated, you know, because there are plenty of sharks in these waters - producers that will screw writers and writers who will screw producers.

Billy Mernit has a post recently about how some writers will get paid to fix a script, type a few commas, and turn it in.

So there's reluctance to trust on both sides of the aisle. It's a magical thing, though, when a good writer hooks up with a good producer and while there's no money yet, they somehow realize that they actually want the same things and the same kind of good movie and there's trust. If that's working, then you just hope that everything else will fall into place, including money, because not only will they want to work again, they'll likely be inseparable the rest of their careers.


d f mamea said...

as always, a great post, Mr Stack.

"good faith" only goes so far. a contract - even a memorandum of understanding - should be in place regardless of when (if) payment'll take place. it's called "good business".

producers are business people first and foremost - they want a return on their investment. writers - reluctantly business-minded as we may be - should also be able to expect a return (cash, points) on their investment (time/effort/creativity).

's only fair.

May Miles Thomas said...

Ain't that the truth, Danny?

Try getting dev funding out of the Film Council without a free draft. Or getting your average cash-strapped UK producer to pay upfront for a script. Or persuading telly tarts to cough up for a treatment - or even your tube fare for that matter.

My own agent recently asked me to give my spec script a 'once over' - after six months of unpaid slog and three revisions - and this one is based on a brilliantly-reviewed novel, so it wasn't like I didn't have a place to start from. Like, I'd let him read it if I thought it was shite?

But we love it, don't we?

Stephen Gallagher said...

The upside of working on your stuff for nothing is that if it falls through, you still own it. And I don't know about anyone else, but sometimes I need the push of somebody's interest to get me to spend time on an idea. That time's never wasted.

And if the whole thing falls through then it's probably to your advantage to be pick up your material and walk away with no strings.

When they want you to put time in on something they own... that's another matter.