Yes, screenwriters there is a free lunch…

January 28, 2012 § 2 Comments

Ah, I think back to my early days just out of film school when I was busy trying to get anyone to “read me.”  My college filmmaking group and I had just graduated from one of the top film schools in the country and we were eager and ready to work.  Our three picture deals were surely handed out to us with our diplomas, right?  Wrong.  College was a fantastic start, but now it was either starting at the bottom as a P.A. or keeping away from production jobs and focusing on the craft of screenwriting.  I choose the latter.  Early on I did P.A. jobs a few times and I always believed that Hollywood sees you as the image you project to them.  If you come into a meeting as a writer… you are a writer.  They don’t know that you wait tables to pay your bills.  If you are a P.A. on the set, it’s understood that you’re probably writing a script (who isn’t?  Hell, the producer’s gardener has a script), but you are still doing the job of the P.A. and looked upon daily as everyone’s assistant.

Back in the day, the thought of actually having anything produced seemed like winning the lottery, but my peers were coming up through the ranks so it didn’t seem completely impossible.  During my adventures bouncing projects around Hollywood, I learned vital lessons and making mistakes allowed me to return as a smarter contender the next time out.  Even meeting the wrong people was a learning experience to recognize who to avoid in the future.

I remember a young producer was considering me as the writer of his next classic contribution to cinema.  He laced his captivating spiel with dropped names and fantastic stories to inflate his experience.  He obviously bought into his own hype and wanted me to invest as well — hype that a hungry young writer desperately wanted to believe.  I certainly was hungry, so for our first meeting he took me out to lunch… to El Pollo Loco.  I should have seen that coming.  I didn’t expect The Palm, but a fast food joint?  Seriously?  I don’t remember him allowing me to super size either!  The way he was selling himself, I thought he was producing for a major studio and he actually had the budget in place.  He ended up being all talk and style over substance.  In addition, he wanted me to work on the script for free — surprise!  I should have seen that coming.  Another important lesson learned on this never-ending journey in this nutty business called show.

The business is full of these types and the sooner you and recognize them the better.  If you can root them out quickly, you haven’t wasted your precious hours and days with someone who all smoke and mirrors.  Our time is precious and burning it up with a dead-end lead will only make you angry and frustrated.  Producers and production companies can string writers along with lofty promises as the writer continues to slog through draft after draft.  Another draft, another crumb of good news and production is just around the corner.  Once you’re in deep enough, they hope you won’t just walk away.

I saw a fellow writer go through this same nonsense with a production company.  They promised him a producer credit with all the trimmings and even sent a limousine — and bought dinner!  They strung him along for years, draft after draft, and when he would continually ask about production the response was always, “we’re waiting on the Saudi money.” It was like waiting for Godot.  Again, a colossal waste of time and all for free.

I’m not saying don’t take chances with a project or company, just view any opportunity with the proper B.S. filter.  I recently worked co-writing a project with a director and I knew going in there would be no money upfront for me.  I understood there is no development money at this moment, but I believed in the project so much that I was willing to take my free time to work with him.  We had worked together before and this recent project was another wonderful experience.  The project is out to investors.  You can work for free on your specs, but truly consider the requirements when a producer wants you to work for free.  Your risk is your precious time and who actually owns the project, so tread those waters lightly.  Get everything in writing before you start writing.  Until the ink is dry on the contract and the check clears your bank, ANYTHING can happen.  A perfect reason to have a good entertainment lawyer to thwart any producer’s shenanigans.  Read my article about the importance of having a good entertainment lawyer.

Always remember this mantra, “the writer never pays.”  If you find yourself meeting with an agent, manager or producer and paying for their meal — it’s foreshadowing to a larger problem in the future.  What was the quote from playwright, A-list screenwriter David Mamet?  “If they try to f*ck me, what do you think they’ll do to you?”

And yes, they can afford to buy you lunch.  It’s the least they can do.

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