It’s a new decade, I think about the real world survival tools for all screenwriters and “protection” immediately comes to mind. I’ve experienced this early when I was taking my lumps in Hollywood’s trenches, allowing myself to be taken advantage of because a producer or company showed “interest” in my project. You have to be careful not to allow yourself to end up in a situation doing free work on the promises of production or good intentions. It will lead you down a long road to nowhere and it usually ends up with you having wasted your precious time.
If a producer, executive, or production company shows real interest in your project, they will act accordingly like professionals and offer you either an option agreement or a contract to purchase your screenplay. Remember this mantra, “No free work for producers. Make them put some skin in the game by paying you something for your material.” If you don’t draw a line, you’ll find yourself working without payment and hoping your project someday gets made so you can get paid.
If you decide to accept their requests of making changes to your screenplay for the chance they “might” move forward, you have to weigh the risks and benefits from your decision. Each situation is different, but make sure you protect yourself from being taken advantage of by someone who baits you into endless rewrites by showing “interest.” You will discover talk and “interest“ come free and cheap in Hollywood.
What I do see as acceptable spec work (besides you writing your own specs) is collaboration with a producer on a concept where you create a “one sheet” synopsis — exactly as it sounds, a one sheet of paper that pitches your idea for a proposed screenplay. It’s a pitch document and doesn’t take anywhere near the time it would take to actually write the screenplay. I’ve done this and I’m doing this now with producers and as they go out and pitch the concept to networks and studios. If they receive real interest and we move forward—then I’m the one who landed the assignment because it’s my idea. I couldn’t pitch at the levels my producers have access to, so it’s a terrific benefit to me and worth the risk of my time to spec. This spec work is what you do as you are pitching ideas with the hopes of selling them, but it’s much different than a producer asking you to write or re-write a screenplay and only getting paid when it’s made. That is a huge risk on your part and will tie up the material with only one producer. It may also leave you feeling like crap when it doesn’t reach production stage and they discard the project completely.
After signing twenty-six contracts, I have learned a screenwriter needs a good entertainment lawyer with all professional business interactions in Hollywood. This when you must have someone in your corner to fight for the best deal. Producers will respect you more and see you as a professional if you have a lawyer taking care of the negotiations instead of you. Any professional screenwriter who cares about being protected has a lawyer. Every deal is negotiable, and that’s where both sides give and take. You hear about the writer getting screwed? It only happens if you allow it.
You as the writer should always be the “good cop.” Every producer wants to know that his or her writer is a team player. So allow your lawyer to play “bad cop” and negotiate for your benefit every step of the way looking out for your best interests. In addition, your lawyer knows about the mysterious and unintelligible clauses in a contract that could end up hurting you down the line. Contracts are filled with requirements about what needs to happen on both sides, but also provisions if things go badly too.
Your lawyer can offer new deal points not originally offered in the original contract and these new changes can protect your overall deal. Maybe you never imagined the other side would agree to your terms? You’ll never know unless your lawyer asks and then it becomes how badly you want to push — and what you believe is deal breaker for you.
I signed with an entertainment law firm about ten years ago, so everything I do in my screenwriting career goes through my lawyer. Some entertainment lawyers charge by the hour and others charge a flat 5% of your income from your screenplay sale or writing assignment job. It’s worth the money, even at an hourly rate, to have someone looking out for your best interests. One missing clause in a contract or particular legal language might cost you a tremendous loss of money during the life of the project—or an added clause may hold you responsible for work you never expected to do. My lawyer recently negotiated provisions for me not offered in the original contract that would protect me if the film went on to do huge business at the box office. That’s worth any price to be legally protected.
During this New Year, I hope you find tremendous opportunities with your screenplays, but also find stand up to being asked to do free spec work from producers. If that happens, hold strong to your convictions and trust that saying “no” is a powerful tool to show them you are a professional who won’t be taken advantage of to do free work. If they want to move forward with a contract, you will need to find a good entertainment lawyer. You will thank yourself for allowing someone else to negotiate the deal because you may wake up one day and find that little film you wrote for peanuts just became a certified blockbuster. And—if you’re paying someone to protect you, that means you’re making money as a paid professional screenwriter! Isn’t that your dream anyway?
Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages on your road to success.
Copyright ©2019 by Mark Sanderson on My Blank Page blog.
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It’s a long haul journey to reach any level of screenwriting success. If your passion drives you to embark on this crazy adventure of a screenwriting career, you’ll need to prepare for survival in Hollywood’s trenches. Talent is important, but so is your professionalism and ability to endure criticism, rejection, and failure over the long haul. The odds may be stacked against you, but the way to standout in this very competitive business is to create a solid body of work and build a reputation as a team player and collaborator. The rest is just luck — a prepared screenwriter who meets with an opportunity and delivers the goods. “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” will help you prepare for your own journey with the necessary, tips, tricks and tactics that I’ve developed over the past twenty years of working in the film industry. It’s time to start living your dream as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
“Let every eye negotiate for itself
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth in blood.”—Shakespeare
“Hollywood is a showman’s paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made. The publisher and the play producer are showmen too; but they exploit what is already made. The showmen of Hollywood control the making — and thereby degrade it. For the basic art of motion pictures is the screenplay; it is fundamental, without it there is nothing. Everything derives from the screenplay, and most of that which derives is an applied skill which, however adept, is artistically not in the same class with the creation of a screenplay.” — Raymond Chandler
Check out actor/writer/showrunner John Lehr’s (the original Geico Cavemen!) podcast where he interviews me for the second time and we chat about the crazy journey working in Hollywood as writers. Click on the icon below for the link to the Sound Cloud podcast.