We’ve very excited at MY BLANK PAGE to welcome our second guest blogger ever—the talented and successful screenwriter/director/producer Christine Conradt (@Cconradt).
“Your Value as a Screenwriter: How Much Are You Worth?”
If you’re ever inclined to check out my Facebook page, you’ll see that I have one quote prominently displayed: It all starts with a script. Without a script, there’d be nothing for a producer to produce; there’d be no lines for actors to say and no description for a director to direct. If you look at it from that perspective (which I assure you, no producer, director, or actor does), then the script is the most important element of the process and the screenwriter is the most valuable member of the team. Is she (or he, I’m an equal-opportunity pessimist) treated that way? Never. Well, sometimes. But pretty much never. The writer is seldom even allowed to visit the set of the movie and I’ve been left off the invite list for more than one wrap party and premiere. Most producers feel that writers are a dime a dozen and because so, the compensation they offer and the level of involvement they allow, reflects that.
My first tip (and I will make several in this article) is that if you want to get rich, don’t become a screenwriter. So the question becomes, how much do you deserve to get paid for your script? And how do you know when you’re being taken advantage of?
Here’s tip #2:
You will undeniably, absolutely, without a doubt, be taken advantage of if you are a screenwriter. The best way to handle that is to accept it, and get used to it. This is where I’m going to lose some of the readers (sorry, Mark). But it’s true. Does that mean you can’t make money or make a living as a movie or TV writer? Not at all. I make a fairly decent living and have for a while now. Have I been taken advantage of along the way? Hell yes. Did I know it was happening to me? Sometimes yes, sometimes I learned after the fact. But I went along with it anyway and eventually the money I gave up and the hours I spent writing for less than minimum wage—paid off. Not big time. Not in one crazy, amazing six-figure deal to pen a blockbuster. But over time, I built a career that allows me to pick the projects I want, turn down the ones I don’t, and live close enough to the beach that I open my windows each morning to the scent of cool, briny air. I could certainly have held out until someone paid me what I thought I was worth, but I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder. I wanted to write for a living.
That brings me to Tip #3:
You are not as good as you think you are. Writers are an odd bunch. We are incredibly sensitive, fragile people on one hand. That’s how we get to the core of human nature and tap into the emotion needed to make our characters come alive. On the other hand, we get stomped on more than anyone else in the industry. I’ve seen actors come up with the worst possible line change on the planet and everyone on set gushes about how brilliant they are. I’ve seen directors completely misinterpret a scene and everyone pats them on the back for their unparalleled vision. When a writer writes something amazing, it’s expected. When they don’t, even the set decorator feels obliged to tell them that it sucked. Because there is no reason for anyone to kiss our asses, we have to have thick skins.
So don yours right now and hear me out when I tell you that your script is probably not all that good. There are hundreds of thousands of screenplays floating around Hollywood and most of them aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. As a matter of fact, environmentalists would’ve been warranted in launching an all-out war against our kind had e-mail not become the accepted method of spreading our crappy ideas. Even if you are good (this is where you should all be nodding, lean in, and feel I’m now addressing you), there is someone just as good or better. So maybe producers are on to something when they view us as they annoying kid they got suckered into adopting.
As you write, you get better. And eventually, you will be good. Then you’ll be better than good. You’ll be in demand. But how do you go from point A to point W? I attribute a lot of my success to a lack of ego (I’m sure you’re hard pressed to believe it at this moment, but its true). I’ve never assigned a value to my time or services—ever. The idea of having a “quote” is ridiculous. There are projects that I would only half consider if someone paid me half a million dollars; there are other projects that I’d do for free. But the key lies in knowing which are which.
When you are first starting out, getting your first few credits are the most important thing. If a good (and I stress the word good), up-and-coming director wants to do your script, but can’t pay you, let her (or him) do it. If a great actor wants you to write something that will showcase her (or his) acting abilities, do it. Get your name on something that’s produced well. A few credits and a few excellent spec scripts will get you a place in the front of the line. In this town, without an IMDB page, you don’t exist.
When you do get that first credit, throw yourself an effing party. You deserve it. The first writing credit I ever received was on a rewrite I did for a TV movie that aired on USA Network called The Perfect Nanny. If you actually look at the IMDB page for that film, you’ll notice my name is in the middle. In short, that means I was fired off the project and another writer was brought on. I made $2,500 for two drafts which took countless hours of writing and multiple stressful meetings with the producer.
The second film I wrote that was produced, they bought from me for $2,000. I can assure you that the film brought in much, much more for the producers than I made. I was certainly not making it “rain on bitches,” but I did deliver the best script I could, on time. Those credits were invaluable. Repeat after me: Your first writing credit is invaluable. So is your second, third, fourth, and fifth. Credits give you a track record. They tell producers that you can write, and more importantly, other producers want to make the stuff you write. So in a nutshell, at the beginning, credits are more important than money.
Here’s the dilemma. There are a million self-proclaimed producers out there looking for free scripts. Some are up and coming and simply don’t have the money to pay for a script, but have the resources to make a pretty kick-ass project. Those are few and far between. The rest are either super cheap bastards who have no respect for writers whatsoever, or they’re one of many producers who can’t get crap made, don’t have the connections or resources necessary to produce, and mining for scripts from new writers gives them a sense of purpose and helps them get laid. Your job, if you’re going to follow my advice and toss out a few freebies, is to learn to tell the difference. Some producers/directors/actors are worthy of your time writing and others aren’t.
You should only do free work after a thorough and very frank conversation with the person who is asking you to do something for free. Keep in mind, if you’re not charging, you’re the one doing them a favor. Ask anything you want to ask—how they plan to finance the project, how many they’ve done before, who’s attached. Interview them as if you were hiring them for a job. Check out their resources, their IMDB page, talk to others they claim are attached to the project. Do your homework.
Everyone will offer you deferred compensation if the script sells or the movie makes money. Don’t fall for this. Deferred payment means you will not get paid most of the time. See those types of offers as free work. The only reasons you should ever do free work is: (1) you are pretty sure the film is going to get made and you will end up with a credit; and (2) it gives you the chance to work with someone you really want to work with.
The industry standard for writing compensation is 3% of total budget. On most paid projects, the producers will not offer more than this. Sometimes 3% is pretty decent money, other times it’s not—it depends on the budget. But 3% of budget of a movie that gets made is better than 50% of budget on a movie that doesn’t. Follow me? Spend your time on films you believe have a good chance of getting made and skip the ones that won’t. Every producer will try to convince you that they can get financing; most can’t.
Early in my career, I met a guy on a film set who wanted to produce his first short and needed a writer to adapt a stage play into a screenplay. After spending a few hours with him, I offered to do it. It took about 8 hours of my time and I was thrilled when he called and told me that he’d finished the project and it was screening at a local film festival. I never asked for any money, nor did he offer. But I knew the type of person he was by spending the time with him beforehand. He had integrity and he understood that I was doing him a big favor.
Based on that short, he got financing to turn it into a feature. I was the first one he called to offer the project. I said yes, and two years later, the film premiered at the same film festival and I was given a check for $25,000 and received sole writing credit. All of that because I was willing to work for free and I chose someone who was deserving of my generosity. The credit for that film helped me get more work later on.
So, back to the beginning. How much can you command as a screenwriter? The answer is, each project must be weighed individually in terms of the level of risk versus reward. As your career progresses, the credits may not be worth as much as the money. Or you may feel a credit in a genre that’s been difficult to break into is worth more than one in a genre you’re already established in. Never lose sight of your career as a whole. It will always be more important than any single project. Do favors for the people that will remember they owe you one, and wish the others good luck and move on. Look at each project as an opportunity for you to become a better writer, because you will. And that is also valuable. Don’t expect to be respected by anyone for what you contribute—just be thankful when you are. And like I said, accept that you will be taken advantage of. But it doesn’t matter. Because you are the strongest, most resilient member of the team—you’re the writer.
Christine Conradt, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, has been involved in production and development since 1996. She has earned writing and producing credits on more than 65 indie films and TV movies and directed three features: The Bride He Bought Online, Killer Mom, and 12 Days of Giving. Her other movies also have aired on Lifetime, LMN, USA, and Fox. She also offers script consultation services. Check out her website and follow her on Twitter @CConradt.