As a film producer and a screenwriter I wear two hats, both buyer and seller. As a writer, I want my agent to get me top dollar and match those mega-dollar sales we all read about with envy in the trades, but that strategy has kept a lot of very talented writers sitting on the sidelines, unsold and unproduced. Let me offer an alternative point of view.
I know the scenario well. You’ve barely finished typing Fade Out on your first screenplay and already a young, hungry, would-be producer wants to option it. He’s offering a whole ten dollars and a promise of $10,000 more if he ever gets the movie made. Or maybe he just liked your writing so much that he wants to hire you to write a script based on an idea he has had kicking around for some time. For this he’s offering $2,000 hard cash and another ten if he ever gets the movie made. You don’t have an agent and you don’t know or can’t afford an entertainment attorney so you turn to the Writer’s Guild for guidance. On their website you read that the WGA minimum for selling or writing an original screenplay is in the neighborhood of . . . what? $100,000! You feel insulted, cheated, taken advantage of. You want to tell that producer where to shove it. But, who else is chomping at the bit to buy your screenplay or hire you as a writer? And you do want someone to carry your screenplay under their arm and tout its virtues to Hollywood, don’t you? You write for nothing anyway, just for the fun of it, because that’s who you are, so isn’t getting paid for doing what you so clearly love a gift?
Some moons ago, I shared a sun-kissed weekend in Cannes, France with my dear friend, actress Liv Ullman. She vocally evidenced an intense aversion to our little bubble world out here in L.A., particularly for the ever-present smell of desperation, the preoccupation with waist and frown lines and the loneliness of those drafty mansions on a Sunday afternoon. She feared she would vegetate there and end her career sifting through scripts for parts in movies she would never care to see, much less enliven. But she also had some good stories about a few forgettable roles she did accept early on. “You may long for steak,” I remember her saying, “but when you have nothing and you are a mere guest at the table, and the host offers you soup, you say thank you and take the soup.”
That’s advice I would pass on today to new writers looking to break the bank on their first script. Don’t sell yourself short if you can help it, seek professional advice where you can find it, but don’t turn your nose down at what may be a valid opportunity to get your foot in that door. Make the best deal the market will bear, maybe ask for production bonuses, a share of net profits, deferments – all the things they will probably give you since they never intend on paying it anyway – but write that first deal up yourself if you have to, put it in plain English on a single sheet of paper titled Deal Memo, get it signed, cash the check and get in the game. You can break the bank on your next one.
- Behind the Lines with DR: Screenwriting Success – The Best Revenge
- Script Angel: On the Road to Screenwriting Success
- Writers on the Verge: Know Thy Screenwriting Career Path
Get more valuable and practical advice in Ron Suppa’s book
Real Screenwriting: Strategies and Stories from the Trenches