In every screenwriter’s career, there’s the moment when you’re a good enough writer to have sold a screenplay, even good enough to be hired to write one on assignment, but…it just hasn’t happened yet. You’re caught in that wide chasm between being an amateur and being a professional. You’re Pro-Am.
And into this chasm flows a steady stream of producers and directors looking for a skilled screenwriter to write them a screenplay. For free. Or what they like to call, “deferred pay”, which means you get paid when the movie gets made. Which is a fancy way of saying, uh, free.
So here’s my thoughts on doing free work, take it or leave it.
Free work is doing work you should be paid for but receiving no pay. Here are some examples of what is NOT free work:
1) Finding a writer of your approximate skill level who’s excited in the same things you are and deciding to co-write a script together.
2) Collaborating with a group of friends to produce a short film or a web series or even a no-budget feature where no one’s getting paid.
3) Writing sketch comedy for a live show or doing improv or submitting a one-act play to a theater for possible inclusion in their upcoming show.
Those are just some examples, but you get the idea. If everyone involved is passionate about the project and not getting paid, then that is not free work. It’s still hard work but that’s okay, because it is your art, your training ground, the work you do as an amateur to build the chops that will turn you into a professional.
Here is what I consider free work: a producer or director has a great idea for a movie and wants you to write it for free and then when he or she sets the movie up with a studio or with financiers, you will then get paid and have profit participation in the movie. It’s the kind of work that the producer/director would PREFER to pay someone for but they just don’t have the money. But they still need a quality writer so they come to you, the Pro-Am writer. Maybe they loved that play your wrote or read your script on an online service or perhaps your short film won an award at a festival. But what it comes down to is they are asking you to put aside whatever projects you are working on and put your time and budding talent into their project. And for no money. Possibly ever.
Here’s the deal: sometimes this is okay. And sometimes it is a nightmare that you will regret. When you’re a professional, you have representatives (agents, managers) who help you decide whether or not a “free-work” opportunity is worth your time. But if you’re Pro-Am, then you have to figure it out on your own. So here’s some thoughts on how to do it.
In writing something for free, you are bringing a lot of value to the table. You are bringing both your unique writer’s voice and your knowledge of screenwriting craft that you’ve cultivated over years of taking classes, reading books, and scripts. Plus, you’re also giving your time.
So, what you have to do is decide what value the producer or director is bringing to the table. Usually, it’s the idea, the concept for the movie. “I’ve been dying to make a movie about a gang of thieves who blah blah.” In addition, they’re also bringing their passion.
Okay, fine. But so far, you’re bringing more. And here’s why: ideas really are a dime a dozen. Yes, I know that now more than ever, ideas are king in Hollywood. Having an amazing concept for a movie is the only way to get anything made. But listen, EVERYONE has ideas. You have ideas. If you’re working hard, putting in the time, writing script after script, and are truly Pro-Am, then your ideas are as good as anyone’s. And if your concepts are NOT any good…then you should practice at it, get better, because if you are beholden to a producer to bring you a good idea, then that path to being a professional is going to be a long, lonely one.
Then there’s passion. Whatever. If you’re not passionate about writing screenplays, then quit. Now. Do something else. Anything else. This business is way to hard to attack it with anything less than complete passion.
So assuming you have good ideas and you’re passionate about writing movies, then what is the person who wants you to work for free bringing to the table?
Generally, hopefully, it’s access. When you’re Pro-Am, you can’t get your scripts to the companies that finance movies or the movie stars who act in them or the agents who package them. Producers promise access to these people. A director may have access to these people, but needs a script to actually direct if she wants a movie to happen.
And herein is the problem. Because some people really have access and some people are full of shit. So what are you looking for?
In a producer, you’re looking for credits on real movies. Recent movies. You’re looking for offices in a nice part of Los Angeles. You’re looking for this producer to have lots of ideas of who to approach once the script is ready. Here’s what you DON’T want to hear:
“My brother-in-law’s cousin is an exec at Warner Brothers and I pitched him this idea at a wedding and he loves it but needs to see a script…”
Even if this is true, this is not producing. This is a possible lead. But it is not a lead worth gambling lots and lots of time on. You want a producer with real relationships at agencies and studios. Somebody who can get on the phone and talk to people who matter in this business. If a producer has only one “in” then he is not a producer. Not yet.
When it comes to a director, here’s what makes a real director: they direct. A lot. They have a body of work. Short films, web series, whatever. A vision. Charisma. There are plenty of people who say they are a director, have a fantastic idea, want you to write it for them (becuase they can’t write) and when it’s done, want to take it out with them attached, but they haven’t directed ANYTHING. This is not a director. This is a dreamer who wants you to do the hard work to make THEIR dream come true.
Here’s two examples from my own career where doing free work actually paid off:
The first script I ever optioned was an indie crime-drama that I optioned to a producer buddy of mine back in Orlando who had exactly one short film under his belt at the time. In hindsight, I was crazy to think that this guy had any value to bring to the table. But I took a chance. And wouldn’t you know it, what this guy lacked in experience, he more than made up for in perseverance. In less than a year, he had real indie actors attached to star in my little script. When the option expired, he found the money to pay me to keep the rights. He brought value to the table. We never did get to make that movie, but it was my first optioned script and my buddy has now produced (and directed) many projects.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I invited a director I met through the Florida Film Festival to come see my evening of one act plays. Jieho Lee had directed an award-winning Sundance short and several music videos and upon seeing my plays, he asked me to co-write his debut feature with him. I decided to take a chance. Two year later, we had a finished script that people really liked. But the moment of truth was when Jieho started sitting down with actors. if he hadn’t won them over, the hard work would’ve been in vain. But Jieho has vision and charisma to spare. He pitched his heart out and in the end, on a budget of $10 million, he directed Kevin Bacon, Forest Whitaker, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Andy Garcia, and Brendan Fraser in “The Air I Breathe”. I didn’t get paid until roughly four years after we started writing together. I worked for free for quite a while. But I believed Jieho was worth the investment of time and passion, and I was right.
Again, knowing who to bet on isn’t easy. I did free work for producers and directors that didn’t go anywhere, that was a waste of my time. But honestly, no writing is a waste of time, even if it’s just working on your craft, learning hard lessons that you’ll carry with you into the next opportunity.
So when a producer or director wants you to work for free, first of all: assume any deferred money will equal zero dollars and then you can be pleasantly surprised if anything comes from it. Then take a good hard look at the person asking for the free work and consider the value that she’s bringing to the table. If her value equals or exceeds what you’re bringing, then write like the wind. But if all they have is an idea and a friend of a friend of a friend who knows someone…then maybe think twice about offering up your talent and time to what is truly the lowest bidder.
And just remember: every professional writer started out as an amateur, which means every one of us has had to navigate what it means to be Pro-Am. It’s not easy, but it’s part of the journey. And trust me, getting past it is a fantastic feeling. Good luck.