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 sometimes asked to do a free outline before they agree to a commission. 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. Ask yourself these four key questions:
First: do you like this project? This is the most important. Forget money. Forget fame. Forget your Oscar speech. Do you dig the story? Does it grab your attention and get you excited? Or, perhaps, simply, can you make it work and enjoy yourself in the process even though it’s not something that overtly thrills or moves you? 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 you like this producer? Can you work with this guy/gal? Do you know his/her credits? What’s her experience? If he’s new and ambitious, do you 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? If you’re doing this work for free now, so what do you get later when it gets funding or goes into production? Can the producer agree a basic contract before you proceed because otherwise they get what they want but if it falls through, you get 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 (or if the email trail holds up). 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 (and agents can live with it) but can be difficult to obtain.
If you’re feeling uncertain, ask yourself: do I trust this person? If you don’t know her at all, and have no prior relationship with him, then do you 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 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.
Read one of my own early writing experiences here, as a Storified Twitter thread.