Behind the Lines with DR: Getting Paid to Write

The conversation is a common one. Agent and writer/client. The subject concerns the delivery of a script.

“The producer has some notes,” said the writer.

getting paid to write“You should do the notes before you deliver,” said the agent.

“But I think his notes are really the studio’s notes.”

“You think the producer slipped the script?”

“Pretty sure,” said the writer. “He said something like, ‘The studio’s gonna want it this way or that way.’”

“So now you have the studio’s notes,” said the agent. “You should probably do ‘em.”

“But the Writers Guild says I should deliver, get paid, then hear their notes.”

“That’s true,” said the agent. “But the studio is paying you. Not the Guild.”

“I’m a member of the Guild. And they say –“

“I know what they say. You need to get paid before you get notes. But between you and me, the studio needs to know if you’ll play ball.”

“If ‘playing ball’ means working for free, I don’t do that anymore,” the writer argued. “It’s in my contract. Draft. Delivery. Pay. Notes. New draft.”

“So what if they want a free draft?” said the agent. “You do them this solid and you’ll get to keep your job.”

“I need to get paid first.”

“You want the studio to think you’re a writer? Or a paycheck player?”

“I want them to honor my contract.”

“Okay,” the agent finally relented. “I’ll pass that information along. You’ll do the notes after you get paid. Is that what you want me to say?”

“Yes.”

The conversation ends. Maybe the agent dials the producer? Or the studio? Or both? He or she explains that the client expects to get paid for the work he’s already done. Just like the WGA says. No free drafts. Everybody quietly agrees. Meanwhile, both the agent and producer are already making lists of subsequent writers to suggest for the subsequent drafts of the script the studio is nearly sure to order.

It’s a difficult moment in any word-jockey’s career. A crossroads where it’s more than one’s own self-worth that is tested. There are other issues like loyalty to the union. You know those guys and gals you walked the picket line with over… well, it was over something important that hadn’t a thing to do with the old work-for-free-or-pay-me protocols.

But that’s not what I’m looking to examine here. It’s a chicken or the egg thing. What comes first? The will to write? Or the want to get paid for it.

I’m reminded of something which occurred during a home renovation. The War Department and I had finally pulled the trigger on the remodel of Casa de Die Hard. Phase 1 was expanding the kitchen by knocking down the wall to the utility room and pushing backward into the yard. And phase 2 was knocking down the old shed and erecting a guest house/office in its place which I’d long planned to make my writer’s lair. At the point where Phase 1 pushed into Phase 2, I’d pretty much lost count of all the construction workers who had daily access to the property. They would come and go with far too much ease, off-loading and carting equipment and materials hither and yon through a wrought iron side gate, which I’d often and disturbingly find propped open.

It would’ve been okay if we hadn’t an urgent need to keep the gate closed. At the time we had a pair precious mutts who had a habit of getting lost in traffic once they found themselves beyond our property. Time and time again I’d instructed the crew to please refrain from propping the gate open. Instead, have someone hold the spring-loaded gate open, then make sure it was shut after. Simple enough, yes? But hey. What should the construction crew care? It was neither their property nor did the dogs belong to their kids.

After yet another doggie jailbreak and the mad drill to corral the beasts before we found one or both pasted to the grill of an unsuspecting neighbor’s Cadillac, I whistled for the entire construction crew to stop, holster their hammers and unplug the circular saws, and gather around for a little come-to-Jesus-moment. For those whose English was poor, I had Jaime, the crew foreman, translate.

“I don’t understand,” I began, not even trying to mask my indignation. “How many times do I have to tell you to never, ever prop that side gate open?”

Rhetorical as the question might’ve been, there were no willing speakers. I received nothing but blank faces staring back at me.

“Jesus,” I said. “You’re all adults. Grown ups. How hard is it to follow such a simple instruction? If those were your dogs? Belonging to your kids? What kind of rules would you want to employ on your property?”

Yup. Crickets was what I got. So this is when it happened. My revelation. Which I uttered loudly the same instant the thought formed.

“Okay. I get it. This is the true circle of life,” I blasted. “I work hard to deliver above-average work, just so I can make enough money to pay you all to do a sub-average work.”

You can imagine the stares that were returned. They were down for neither intellectual awakenings nor spankings. The only pride they had in their work was whether it was good enough to get them to their Friday paycheck.

“Okay,” I relented, choosing to make things plain. “Next guy who props the gate open gets fired from the job. You get that?”

On cue, most nodded before returning to their respective menial tasks. And, to my knowledge, nobody propped the gate open again.

Over the next few days, I vexed and pondered on the nature of my own work ethic. I, too, was technically working for a paycheck. I had a hefty mortgage, two kids in private school, and another spring break planned at our favorite Hawaiian getaway. And that was after I paid for the six figure remodel. Yet none of my financial worries or responsibilities had ever made it to the front burner of my mental cooktop when I was hunched over my keyboard. Never once have I whipped myself to get it done for fear that I wouldn’t get paid. It’s always been something more along the lines of make it the best you can or you won’t forgive yourself for not making the ultimate effort.

I can honestly say I don’t nor have I once feared not making a check. I have, though, and still do, fear sucking at my craft.

Now, my attitude does not guarantee that I won’t suck. I have, indeed, stunk up a script or two or three or even more if you ask others. But that knowledge comes only through the wisdom of age and hindsight. And I’ve vowed not to make that mistake again.

Yet even that’s no guarantee.

Now, here’s the rub. I’m a serial rewriter. I like feedback. The perfection of my work is that I know it’s imperfect. As one producer recently said of my work, “it’s good that you recognize the blind spots in your writing.” The solve for which is the more feedback I get, the more it steels my resolve to move the work forward and to a better place.

And I don’t really care who that script feedback comes from. Be it the War Department, a fellow writer, a friend, or the movie studio which may or may not be paying me for the draft.

My ultimate goal has never changed. Get the picture made. Otherwise, what good are my words on paper? I don’t need another hundred and ten page writing sample. I need budget, cast, and cameras rolling.

Now, before you say working for free is a “slippery slope” for writers, know this. I’m not suggesting that I shouldn’t be paid for my work. I merely make the simple assumption that for every contractual pass at a script, I might write three or four. Always have, always will.

But that’s just me.

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