Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Writer Tip #15: The Shark and The Dreamer

"I've already got the money in place!"

Those words can come to you in many ways: in an email, on the phone or even face-to-face as the budding producer or director assures you that the film financing is already in place. All he needs is a script.

If you haven't met that guy yet, you might have met his equally-dangerous brother who knows someone who is ready to green-light the project as soon as he gets the script.

They call Hollywood the Dream Factory. Sadly, too many people in Hollywood are willing to profit from your dreams. There is no shortage of producers and directors who will gladly steal your time and talent by letting you work for free for them. Some of these folks are simply naive. They might actually believe that the production company executive they cornered in a restaurant restroom was completely sincere when he said he liked their idea and wanted to read the script. However, some of these folks are just sharks who want to exploit your talent.  Let me give you two examples of people who recently wanted me to work for free and why I refused.


The Shark

I got a phone call from a Hollywood producer who wanted to work with me. I was in a restaurant with my wife and I couldn't talk to him at the moment. I got his number and said I would call him back.  Before I did, I researched him on the internet. He had no produced credits. However, he had numerous six-figures sales recorded on Done Deal. Needless to say, I decided to call him back.

He found me on InkTip. He liked one of my posted scripts and my resume. He told me he wasn't interested in any of my scripts. He liked to partner with writers to develop his own ideas. He said he had a pile of B+ scripts he needed to turn into A+ scripts. I was cool with that. I am always happy to work on assignment. 

I asked him about the scripts. He rattled off about ten log lines. Three of them sounded intriguing. He emailed me the scripts. I read them overnight and called him back the next day. I told him I would be happy to work on one of them. He said good. Then he said there would be no upfront money. Instead, we would split the money fifty/fifty after the sale. Realizing I wasn't the first writer on the project, I asked what the original writer would get. He said, "Don't worry, he'll take whatever I give him."

In other words, not only was this guy not willing to pay me any money upfront for my labor, he was also probably going to cheat the original writer. I'm sure that writer originally had a fifty/fifty contract as well. Despite the fact that this guy had made some serious sales, I walked away. If there's one thing Hollywood has taught me, it's that a producer who is willing to cheat someone else will eventually cheat you, too. You're either honest or you're not. He wasn't, and I didn't want to be in business with him.


The Dreamer

I was contacted by another producer who read some of my work on InkTip. He was a former photojournalist who spent time in Iraq, Russia and China. He said he had Chinese money in place to produce a film. He already had a first draft of a script he had written himself but he knew it wasn't good enough. I asked him to send it to me.

I read it, and he was right: It wasn't good enough. However, it was a good story. I gave him my analysis about what was right and what was wrong with it. He agreed completely and asked if I could re-write it. I said sure and started discussing compensation. That's when he said he didn't actually have the money in hand now. The Chinese production company was going to give it to him when he gave them the script. I suggested that if they liked the story that much, he could sell them an option on it and use that amount as seed money to pay me.  He said they wouldn't do it.

That means, despite his wishful thinking, the money really wasn't in place. Plus, if the production company wasn't willing to option the story, they weren't really in love with it. So I asked him if he could pay me some upfront seed money to work on the project out of his pocket. He said he didn't have it.

Now think about that: If you knew you could invest five or ten thousand dollars now and get twenty million dollars in return a couple of months later, wouldn't you do it? I know I would. If I didn't have the cash I would sell my car or house to get it. He wouldn't do it. Obviously, his head was telling him something different than his heart.

I liked the guy. I really did. I don't think he was trying to deceive me. I believe he thought he had a real deal. He was caught up in the same dream as so many people in the film business. As it was, I gave him periodic script advice as he worked through the re-write himself. I haven't heard from him in a while. I don't think the film has been made.

It's Really Not About The Money

I know I continually hit the theme that you shouldn't work for free in this blog. However, it's really not about the money at all. Payment is simply a way of sorting out who is real and who isn't. To me, time is more important than money. It should be your most treasured commodity, and I wasted a lot time on other people's vain dreams. People like this nearly derailed my career.

Back in the nineties, I was on a winning streak. I left my job at an advertising agency to pursue my career as a screenwriter, while working as a freelance editor to pay the bills. I took the leap because I knew I was producing good work. Creative Artists Agency was interested in repping my horror script Then The Judgement. Stu Robinson, of Robinson Weintraub and Gross (later Paradigm) wanted to rep my dramedy The Long Drive. I really liked Stu. I had read interviews with him in screenwriting books. He had a reputation for nurturing and developing new writers. So I put Then The Judgement on the shelf and let him handle The Long Drive.

He didn't sell The Long Drive, but it proved an excellent calling card. I got great reviews and people seemed anxious to read my next script. That script was another dramedy called The Fourth Mrs. Jones. It did even better. More great reviews. More importantly, it came really close to being sold for a then life-changing amount of money.

I immediately hurried out a drama about the reunion of a rock band called The Stray Characters. Stu didn't like it. He felt it needed more work, and he was right. I had sent him something that was essentially a first draft. But I never sent him the rewrite. In fact, I didn't send him another script for nearly four years. Why? Because I got hooked into one project after another that supposedly already had the money in place.

All of these scripts were for people I knew and liked, but none of the projects were as a real as the producers imagined. During those years, I wrote five scripts on assignment: House of Sadism, The Delicate Dependency, Roses In June, Jenny and Time. None of the films got made, although one of them did actually get me out to Hollywood for a meeting. What did I end up with in return for those lost years? Nothing. All of the work was based on other people's ideas so I didn't even end up owning the fruit of my labor. The worst part, however, was the fact that I had destroyed the forward momentum of my career in the process.

Did I mention any of these projects to my agent Stu? No, of course not. I knew he would have advised me against them. Now I am advising you against getting entangled in projects like that. If you must work for free, work on a spec script that you love and believe in that will make YOUR dreams come true.

Remember, there are thousands of people in Hollywood and elsewhere who believe they have funding in place or a solid green light. The easiest way to figure who really does and who really doesn't is to ask for upfront money.

It's that simple.

Other Writing 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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