Wednesday, March 05, 2014


You're offered your first feature commission. You're super excited. Then the producer tells you it will be on a deferred payment basis. Do you panic, throw your dummy out of the pram and demand payment up front? No... and here's why.

I've seen plenty of new writers on the web tell other new writers they should never work for free and they should always ask for payment upfront. Absolute nonsense! They are probably still wondering why they have yet to land a commission themselves.

As a new writer it would be almost impossible to get paid upfront for your first commission. Your writing might be awesome and the best they've ever seen, but you're untried and you don't have any box office figures to back up your talent. Therefore you're considered a risk and no one is going to pay you upfront because of this.

Most features are paid on a deferred payment basis, especially low budget features. The producer doesn't want to pay out his own money if the project never makes it to production. And why should he? Doing this for even just one project could lead to that producer being bankrupt.

So for a writer it's a gamble to write a screenplay for a deferred payment. If it doesn't get funding or go into production you'll never see a penny. It's also a risk for the producer, relying on the strength of your talent to provide the funding to get your words shot. But it's a risk worth taking.

Writing that first commission on a deferred payment gets you off the ground. It gets you a credit. It launches your career. You can put it on your CV. So what if it doesn't get funding and never gets made, producers know projects fail to get funding, or get made, all the time. You were commissioned to write something, that says something about you. Fingers crossed your screenplay gets funded and goes into production within a couple of years and you get paid. Happy days if it does!

Sometimes though it won't get funding and you won't get paid, but at least you'll still have the experience of writing to a brief and a deadline to fall back on for your next commission. You could always ask the producer for a small payment up front, a couple of thousand maybe, just to help with your living expenses while you write the screenplay. Most producers will understand and won't mind you asking. You might even get lucky and find they do pay you an advance.

Remember it's easier for the producer to get funding if he has a script ready to go and a lot more difficult if he doesn't. Would you part with your money for just an idea? Then why should they?


Freebooter said...

The reason he should be offering something is that he'll probably carry on making money while you write and you won't. If there is no money up front you should negotiate for a meaningful participation in the budget, some guarantee that you retain your copyright until payment i.e. that the chain of title does not lie with the producer until he honours a contract for payment, then you retain the copyright and if he proves to be useless at raising finance you can use the script as what it actually is, an unfettered spec.

Unless you respect this persons ability to share equally in the process where there is no money, or he has such good credits that his development skills are going to enhance your script by some considerable margin, do not let the rights go until you have payment, or legally contracted rights in respect of the budget to be honoured at first day of principle.

The worst case is that you get nothing and someone rewrites your script further down the process, signing away the chain will ultimately make this more possible, especially where a third party finance or co-pro enters the scene and wants his useless mate to rewrite your script for ownership.

A script that is not paid for is not commissioned, some payment and a mutual contract should be in place where collaboration is sought and protection in place for the writer.

If the 'producer' refuses to act well in this regard, walk away and concentrate on writing something stronger that you control.

Dominic Carver said...

Larger, more established production companies might offer some form of payment up front, but a small production company that produces one picture a year isn't going to have the capital to pay the writer up front. If he's working on twenty ideas at once, hoping to produce one that year, he can't be expected to pay all twenty writers up front, even if it is a token payment to help with cost of living expenses. The money will be coming directly out of his own pocket after all. The producer has to eat too.

If the company has a good track record in getting stuff made you at least have a guide to your chances of getting paid.

As a writer you don't have to accept a deferred payment contract, but your career is a lot less likely to go anywhere if you don't. Do your research before you sign and go with your gut instinct.

Dominic Carver said...

A really great idea is to go and book yourself on to a production course like the Guerilla Filmmakers' Course run by Chris Jones and learn what it is to be a producer and the problems that can exist. Once you understand the process it'll help you as a writer.

Freebooter said...

I'm sorry, you seem to be under the impression I'm not a working and commissioned screenwriter, I am. I think you're just likely to be taken for a ride unless you have a strong personal bond with this person, I'm quite aware of the pressures of production also working as part of a production company and am also aware of the minimum guarantee's any reputable producer should be offering if no payment is offered for the commission.

I understand that you wish to advance your career - if any such thing is really possible in this country for film writers not in the film 4 charmed circle - but don't thrown away your hard work in the direction of baseless offers.

Finally if this person has 20 projects on the go at one time he's not serving any of those projects well, those numbers can only be slated by large scale funded companies.

Freebooter said...

I'm sorry, looking again at your comments I realise that your response is a general advice add on and not a personal response.

If no payment if offered - usually this means no payment will be received - there is no good reason to sign away the chain of title before there is a real chance of the project becoming real.

A 'deferred' contract is just a way of acquiring chain with no cost to the producer, leaving the writer with no control over the script.

In this instance there is no reason for the writer to sign any contract, simply write the script as a spec for 'hire' and negotiate terms down the line.

When the producer needs to truly confirm the chain of title it will be because the is a realistic potential of finance. If the attempt is to acquire chain before this you are simply hoping that agreements will be honoured and have no muscle in the game.

Producers might appear to be the writers friend, finance, distribution, and co-production are not...

Dominic Carver said...

Good advice, Freebooter, good advice indeed.