Should Screenwriters Write For Free?

Michele Wallerstein (script, novel and career consultant) has discussed navigating your way through Hollywood. Deep down, we all know the answer, no matter how enticing the circumstances. Would you undertake a structured unpaid internship writing coverage over summer at a film studio to learn the ropes? Ultimately, it boils down to self-respect and what you gain.

A few months ago I was offered a poorly paid adaptation gig at around one fifth of WGA scale. The producer claimed budgetary reasons and a nasty economic climate for the “slightly under par” offer. I turned it down, but wrote a a paragraph of coverage instead for no pay. The producer was impressed with my compelling “insight” of the story (mainly due to this blog) and understood why my conscience wouldn’t allow me to accept the offer. I told the producer to contact me once the finance was raised. I’m still waiting…. Imagine if I had spent weeks (or months) writing a script?

On another spec script, a producer asked me for a free rewrite, but I could co-produce with him and retain ownership of the project. I’m yet to answer.

Somewhere along the line, someone will ask you to write something for free.  The decision whether to do this, or not, is not as simple as it seems.

For members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) it is strictly forbidden.  Do it and you will be fined heavily, or even expelled. I’ve heard an unsubstantiated case of a writer being fined 120% of their fee for writing during the strike of 2007/8. The WGA means business. So should you.

For new writers, writing for free (or close to it)  is a real temptation. After all, what’s the harm? Maybe it will sell and you’ll get paid then. Or better still, get paid a share of the net profits (nearly always nothing). It’s a great experience. This producer will “owe you” and will come good when the money flows. Many consider producers to be hustlers and sharks. There’s some truth in that. It’s a jungle out there, not populated with cuddly animals. There are so many thoughts running around in your head telling you that you should do this favor which might turn into a real bonanza for you.

It is not a good idea for the following reasons:

1.  You will not own your own work.  If there is a reversion clause in the deal with this producer, it will come after everyone in town has already looked at the script. You are no better off than a would be bride (or groom) looking for a suitor after you’ve slept with every single person in the village.

2.  The producer has the right to bring in any number of other writers to change your script. You will rarely have any control or even a say.

3.  Invariably the producer will want re-writes and polishes.  Perhaps many of each (also for no money).

4.  You will be spending a lot more time then you originally expected on this project and at the end you will not have the right to show it to anyone.

5.  Your time is much better spent writing original material, going to writers’ conferences, online writers’ groups, film festivals, reading books on screenwriting, going to Starbucks to network with other writers (this really works) and getting yourself known.

6.  The producer will not feel that he/she owes you anything. Business is business.

7.  If the producer wants a script for free, it usually means that he/she is not a professional and will try to use your work to get in to the industry.

8.  In the unlikely event that this project does sell, you will not be in the position to get much (if anything) out of it, unless you have a hard and fast contract upfront. After all, you’re just the hired help.

Michele is the author of “MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide To Your Writing Career” (pub. date: July 1, 2010)


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