I came across this advert last week.
"Apply to: XXXXXXXXXXXXX
Location: London Duration:
Starts shooting in September, starts ASAP
Salary: Expenses Paid: This is a unpaid job
I would like you to write and edit the 500 page teleplay, treatment and synopsis of the limited feel good young adult friendly ensemble drama series 'In Between the Lines' It's a very special project and it's expected to shoot on location in London. The plot goes like this: A group of eight friends – Charlie, Stuart, Derek, Raymond, Frances, Jane, Amanda and Lesley are trying to navigate through life while maintaining their friendships in their young adult lives.
Title will appear in the beginning and credits will appear in the end of each episode. The film's overall target budget will be medium. 9.00 pm would be suitable for this programme. You have got 8 weeks to write the 500 page television script, treatment and synopsis and this will be done.
I still need to secure financing for this programme. I'm a writer of story ideas. I didn't produce anything in the past so I'm not a producer. When the script is done you'll send the script to me so that I can read it. Then I'll send it to the producers once I read the script. I haven't got a plot to follow just stay as it is.
What do you think?
The expenses will be covered for screenwriter. This is a unpaid job. The expenses cover credits, travel expenses and food. The shooting will take place on 10th September-20th November 2016 in London in the UK.
Contact me if you are interested."
When you're a new writer without a credit it's very tempting to snatch up the first writing gig offered to you. I'm not saying you should never work for free when you're starting out as a writer, but there's a difference between progressing your career and being taken advantage of. The above is a very clear example of the type of project you should avoid. The reasons..? The clues are in the ad - the publisher admits he has no experience as a producer, there's a large amount of work required by the writer, the time frame for the work is unrealistic, he hasn't raised a single penny towards the production and there's a distinct lack of any offer of deferred remuneration. In other words... AVOID AT ALL COSTS! Sometimes however, things may not be so black and white.
WHEN TO WORK FOR FREE.
Finding directors willing to make short films is easy, identifying the ones that will actually get them made and to a professional enough standard is a little harder. Here are two examples of times I was asked to work for free.
My first short film AGN was written specifically for a group of young filmmakers, who I knew all worked for their local television station. They had access to the equipment they needed and they also informed me the film would be broadcast on TV once it was made. It was the exposure I was looking for and after the film was aired, I was able to use it as proof of a broadcast credit when I came across competitions, courses or schemes that required one to participate in. The film makers benefited too, ending up with a project professional enough to showcase their talents to their bosses and any future employer.
Another director, a student, approached me via email asking me if I would write him a short film screenplay, which he would pay me for. I wrote the screenplay to the brief he gave and emailed it to him. He was delighted. I then invoiced him for my time only to receive a reply informing me he wasn't going to use my screenplay and therefore wasn't going to pay me. I Googled his name and after five minutes of research I discovered he had placed adverts on several websites in the previous week offering to pay other writers under similar circumstances. It was quite clear he never intended to pay all of the writers that applied, maybe not even the one he whose project he eventually used. He was simply trying to get as many screenplays as possible about the subject he wanted to film, so he could choose the best one for his project. I should have checked him out first and never got involved with. Lesson learnt.
It's a good idea before agreeing to any unpaid work to ask yourself, 'what are they aiming to do with the finished screenplay and what, if anything, will they gain from the finished film?' If it's obvious they are going to gain monetarily from the film, or that's their aim, and they insist you'll get a credit and rave on about how it will be great exposure for you without offering you a penny, then alarm bells should already be ringing.
If you're unsure about whether you should work for free or not, it's always wise to do an Internet search on the person asking (beforehand), or politely email a friendly, more established writer you know on the interwebs, and ask for their opinion on what is being proposed. You will make mistakes, as I have, and you will learn from them, to the point where you will be better at differentiating between the con artists and those who are genuinely offering you an opportunity.
Always have a contract... ALWAYS! And if you're not sure about the contract get it checked out. The Writers' Guild of Great Britain offer a contract vetting service
MONEY UP FRONT
Every writer, regardless of experience, should be to be paid for their work. Always ask if there is development money. If there is some available try to get most of it up front when you sign your agreement and the rest when you hand in the finished work. If you're told there isn't any ask them if they would be willing to pay you a small amount up front to cover your cost of living expenses while you're writing the screenplay. This is a reasonable request and one most people won't object to. If they do you have to ask yourself why that is?
Deferred payment is an acceptable solution, but only if the project has an excellent chance of being made. It's no good having a deferred payment if the film is never going to go into production. In this case ask the following questions of the project - Is this project commercial? Does the producer/director have the connections to get this made? Are they experienced? Do they have a track record? Do they have a distribution deal in place? Are they planning to enter the finished project into festivals and competitions? If the answer to all of these questions is no it's a good bet the offer of deferred payment is not worth the paper it's printed on. Politely turn them down and get on with your next spec.
SHARE OF PRODUCER'S PROFITS
This one is also dependent on how commercial your project is, the distribution deal and how likely the film is to make money, if any. This share will be in addition to your deferred payment, so be wary of people offering you this as your only form of payment. Remember if the film doesn't recoup its costs you won't see a penny. It's better for a writer to agree a deferred payment, the bigger the better, with a share of the producer's profits as an additional payment, especially if the film's budget is low, as your deferred payment will usually be a percentage of this and therefore won't be very much.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO SAY NO
If you're not sure about an offer you've been made don't be afraid to say no. I know you may think if you turn this opportunity down you may never get another, but I can assure you, if your writing is good and you network enough, you will. Don't take on an unpaid job just because you are desperate to kickstart your career and it's the only opportunity that has been offered to you. Only take the offer if you are 100% sure it's the right one for you.
If in doubt... ask. There are plenty of writers out there on the interwebs making a living from their words, who would be more than happy to give advice born of their experiences. But again if you are going to follow their advice make sure you check their credentials first.
The simplest way to check if it's a good project to work on is to politely email an agent from a smaller agency (not a large one, because if you're not being paid mega bucks they won't be interested) and ask them if they wouldn't mind checking over the contract with a mind to representing you on a one off basis. If they agree to and turn you down after they have read the contract, it's a good bet the project isn't one worth getting involved with. After all if they think you're not going to earn any money then they aren't either.