Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Monday, February 8, 2010

Writer Tip #3: Don't Work For Free

Out in Hollywood, a script is only worth as much as someone pays for it.  If they pay nothing for it, it is worth nothing.

If you work for people for free, the scripts you write are worthless.

So just don't do it, right?

I wish it was that easy.

Trust me, there are plenty of producers out there who will be happy to "hire" you to work on one of their pet ideas for free.  This applies to both local producers who make $2000 zombie films and to Hollywood producers who actually make films you've seen in the theaters.  I remember early in my career I was given an opportunity to write a screenplay built around a charity admired by the Director of Production of a large, well-known motion picture production company.  Like any starving, boy screenwriter, I jumped at the opportunity and ended up writing a fine screenplay that was never produced.  Still, I was rewarded.  I was given the opportunity to write, once again on spec, an episode of a proposed series at Showtime.  The series never happened.  However, an omnibus feature was produced which did not include my tale.

Did I gain anything from that experience?  Yes.  It gave me my first taste of commissioned work.  It allowed me to prove to myself that I could write a story that I didn't originate.  That I could emotionally invest myself into someone else's idea.  And I got some bragging rights by "almost" being a writer on a Showtime series.  Did I lose anything?  Sure.  A little time, but that was more than balanced by the experience.  What I really lost was my work.  I believe the original script I wrote for the producer was terrific, but I can't do anything with it.  It doesn't belong to me.

Therefore, let me add a caveat to my rule:  Don't work for free unless you end up owning the material.

Some friends had an even greater dilemma.  They had moved to Hollywood and got some interest in an original script.  Somehow they got the attention of a "real" producer.   The guy had produced films starring Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Kurt Russell, Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis.  You get the picture.  Well, he took a liking to these young fellows and offered them the opportunity to adapt a book he once had an option on.  On spec.

They called me and asked what they should do.  Of course, if you're trying to break into the business your first instinct is to jump right on an opportunity like this.  But then you have to think.  This guy makes real movies.  He's used to spending money for scripts.  Why should he expect you to work for him for free?  Especially adapting a book his option has already lapsed on?  What did I advise?  I advised them to do it.  It was too good an opportunity.  But, as one would expect, it led to nothing.  Their script cost nothing, so it was worth nothing.  It didn't bring the project back to life, and the producer never offered them any pay work.

Nowadays, I wouldn't have given them the same advice.  I would at least ask for a nominal fee.  In this case, I would asked for at least $5,000-$10,000.  Pocket change in Big Hollywood, but enough money that he would probably actually read the script himself when it was done, as opposed to letting its fate rest with one of his overworked assistants.

And, by working for money, I mean more than one dollar.

Back when I was on the festival circuit, I would research the other films we were up against.  One time, I noticed we up against a film made by a production company that made tons of genre-films that ended up as filler on cable channels.  At the festival I sought out the director of the film and asked him how I could get in with the company.  He said not to bother.  They paid the writers one dollar per script.  They also paid the directors one dollar per film as well.  People were so desperate to get that first credit that writers and directors were lined up to work for them.  Homey don't play that.  Not no more.

One of the distributors who was interested in my film "21 Eyes" offered me an opportunity to write some low budget horror scripts for them.  It's offer was soooo Roger Corman that I couldn't resist.  Here's how the company worked:  They'd come up with a poster and tagline and then build films around them.  The producer sent me a link to a webpage with the posters and taglines and invited me to write a treatment on any idea that interested me.  I was supposed to write the treatments on spec.  They would pay me to write script if they liked the treatment.  The first thing I did was verify that the treatments, which were to be two-or-three paragraphs long, would not be works for hire.  That I would own them.  He agreed.  So I wrote two treatments that weekend and they loved them both.  I liked them too.  In fact, on my own authority, I would write one of the scripts on spec the next week.  The producer loved it.  Sadly, the company lost its funding and neither of my films were made.  However, I ended up with a terrific script that almost won me a very competitive screenplay competition at Slamdance.

It was good experience.

But I don't think I would do it again.

Ultimately, it doesn't pay to work for free.

(Unless you end up owning it.)

Other Tips:

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.

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