Why should I buy the cow, when I can get the milk for free? – Ancient Idiom
There’s a little saying that is implanted into the minds of those wishing to work in film production, and the saying is “Never work for free.” Each and every year, graduates of film school, in different disciplines, enter the marketplace all bright and shiny, reels or scripts in hands, flocking to Los Angeles like moths to a flame. They submit their portfolios, their reels, their scripts, to every paying job advertised, and sit, dumbfounded, when they are not chosen for the job. Why are they not chosen?
Simple. Because they lack experience.
But I worked in film school! they cry, and while that is all well and good, school is school, and the world of entertainment is far from that. In school, you have access to equipment – cameras, foley rooms, editing bays, sound stages, lighting… in short, tens of thousands of dollars worth of production materials for free. And then, you enter the marketplace – as an intern. This is what we call paying your dues.
I recently spoke to a new to market writer. She had been offered a gig – the acquisition of her script by a recent film school graduate for production. She refused the gig. Why? Because they wanted her short script for free.
Every single thinking filmmaker knows that, in the beginning, they are going to work for free. Regardless of what one wants to do to shape their career, one needs to get on set, and one needs credits. And the way to get these credits is to work for free.
Screenwriters are the absolute worst when it comes to this subject. They are brainwashed by stories placed in Variety by PR firms about the “overnight wonder” screenwriter, who just scored a mid against high six figures for their feature. What they don’t tell you is that this screenwriter has been struggling for seven to ten years, collecting rejection letter after rejection letter, taking odd jobs when they might, struggling for survival, while networking madly. And, it’s most likely, that they do have some credits in the writing department – short films, some of which generated nary a dime for the writer.
There is one good reason for writing for no – or very low – pay, and that reason is not simply to get a credit (although that does help); instead the reason is a bit less practical (or so it seems). The reason is the desire to work on a certain project.
A filmmaker approaches you with an idea for a short. You love the idea; you cannot stop thinking about it. You look at the director’s work, and what you see, you like. But the director has little to no money for production, and offers you credit only, or they have a tiny amount, and offer it to you as a stipend. And there is the writer’s dilemma – should I take this deal? Should I work for free?
Actors know the answer to this question. They know that they are only as good as their last project, and for an actor to be considered for plum roles, they have to keep their resumes current; therefore, they work for free. Name actors do this; last year, Liam Neeson lent his voice to an indie project for free, simply because he liked the material, and wanted to support the project.
Writing for free is usually limited to the short world; in the feature world, the conundrum that you face is writing for low pay. Most new writers, when given an offer of, say $2500 for a feature, turn immediately to the WGAw website, and go to the schedule of minimums. They see the minimum set at $60 grand change, and become enraged. They refer to the producers as “scam artists”, or, even better, counter the offer with the WGA minimum. The thing they forget is that this minimum is set for members of the WGA – which they are not. How do you become a member of the WGA?
Simple. Pay your dues. For some, that’s a decade of work, often for free, before finally making that leap.
I had a friend of mine tell me about a script he was writing for hire; we were both commiserating about the small amount of money we were both working for on our individual projects. He said, “Well, they paid me 1500. So, I gave the a 1500 dollar script.”
I’m no sure I would advise that. Your work is what represents you, and if you write a bunch of gobbledegook because you agreed to work for low pay, you may very well end up hurting yourself, unless you can have a contractual clause which allows you to remove your name from credits after seeing the final cut. Me? I try to make it the best that I can, given the time constraints – that’s part 2 of working for low-pay, your producers expect a feature to be written in a month. Can it be done? Of course. Will the quality suffer? Most certainly. My advice is to write like hell, rewrite like there is no tomorrow, and do your best to make the script as good as it can possibly be.
Are there times when you should turn down no/low pay jobs? Certainly. The number 1 reason is that you don’t like the job. You don’t like the pitch; perhaps it is for a frat boy comedy, and you write East Coast intellectual relationship angst. Or, you don’t like the director’s work. You don’t have to like the director, but you do need to be able to respect his/her work, for your script will be in his/her hands, to craft and to mold into a movie. Last – listen to your gut. If it tells you that you are about to jump onto a train destined to wreck, then politely pass on the offer, and go your own way.
There are a few things to do, when approached with a no/low paying job, that will help to protect you, and to ensure that the writing process is a smooth one:
- Protect your work. That means that you must not only register your script with the WGA, but you must also file for copyright protection. These are associated costs with the field of work that you have chosen, and to not do so is amateurish.
- Provide your production team with your contract, as opposed to signing one of theirs. The WGAw makes these contracts available for download, and you have the ability to edit where you need. Your edits should be minute, mainly for budget, milestone payments, and, of course the option to “credit out.” If the production team refuses to sign this document, then walk away. This is a clean, pristine document intended to protect the writer, and if they do not want to do that, then the job is never going to be worth it for you. If, for example, this is a script purchase, and they bring another writer in for the development process, you still will, most likely, want to maintain a writing credit. For another writer to be given your credit, they have to be able to prove that they have written at least 51% of the script, and, if you have registered with the WGA, arbitration will sit down and compare, word by word, your draft against the new, and, if you still maintain the ownership of majority of the words, then the credit is solely yours, whether you are a WGA member or not. I cannot say this enough – protect your work and your credit.
- Excessive time. If production wants to option an existing script, but cannot give you a general time of when production shall commence, then limit the option to 6 months. That is a reasonable amount of time for them to get their ducks in a row, and if they want your script, then, chances are, someone else probably does, too. What you do not want to do is to give them 2 or 3 years time on an option, for by the time the script goes into turnaround, whatever piqued their particular interest is probably already gone from the filmmaking zeitgeist.
- Reception. If your script has won major awards – Nicholls, Austin Film Festival, Sundance – then you have property that studios will see of value, and that’s when the milk isn’t free. it’s damned heavy cream, and it’s worth some money. Of course, if your script has won any or all of the above, then you probably stopped reading this column after the first few sentences, because you’re too busy fielding calls from CAA.
The decision to work for low or no pay is an individual choice, and certainly, no one is forcing you to do so. That being said, if you are new to the market, then you can save your career a great deal of time, as well as blood, sweat and tears, by accepting low/no terms for your early works.
Next time a filmmaker expresses a desire to make your short, but doesn’t have the money to pay you for the script, consider this: THE PHONE CALL, which won the 2015 Academy Award for Best Short Film, was made completely for free. Cast, crew, post, all involved, worked for craft service and meals only. The cast included Academy-Award winner Jim Broadbent, and, as director Mat Kirkby said, “Short films are made not with money. They’re made with tenacity and lots of favors.”
They are indeed.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
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Some excellent suggestions. I’ve recently completed and revised my first feature screenplay (a romantic comedy with a retro sci-fi feel), and I’m beginning to make the rounds of potential producers, noting one of my dream leads has produced several of her own films — but I know it’s going to take more than that. Keep your fingers crossed.
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