Should a screenwriter work for “FREE” or hand over a script for “FREE” with “JUST” the promise of exposure?

This is a question that has many screenwriting circles (and forums all over the web) talking. It’s also a touchy subject, with a plethora of different viewpoints, but all being seemingly valid.

I wanted to talk briefly about my own personal experiences and opinions. These opinions don’t necessarily represent Screenwriting Staffing, as my team and I approach this topic in an objective view.

My first screenwriting job ever was a small commercial about postpartum depression. I was young, just out of film school, and never had a kid. So the topic was a little out of my league, but I wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity.

Allow me to rewind for a short moment. During film school and a few years after, I worked on many sets, in all departments. I was always advised that when starting out it’s OK to work for FREE. It’s about the experience, networking, and credits. But it never felt right. It never seemed worth while working irregular hours, eating stale pizza from a box, and sitting for 3 hours in LA traffic just for the “experience”. But I still did it… and in some ways it paid off, and in some ways it did NOT.

So I’m approached with this writing job, and I made a personal promise to myself that I would NEVER work for free again, especially as a screenwriter. So when the woman offered me $30 bucks to write the script, I took it! Yes, $30 bucks. By the time I drove to meet her for 3 meetings from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles at a Starbucks, buying coffee and gas, I actually went in the hole – not to mention all the time I wasted doing research. But it my mind, it didn’t matter. Why? Because once you get paid to write, you are now considered a professional. It’s no longer a hobby you do for FUN, it’s what you do for a LIVING.

But was it the $30 that launched my career? No way! Remember, I lost money off this job. What launched my career was the project being produced. The producer brought on a director who won an award at Cannes. The project was shot in HD, with a marvelous cast. The sound was crisp, and the project was a hit. That, my friends, is what got my foot in the door.

So what’s the lesson here? That it’s about the art and not the money? Yes, maybe. But what if you can have both?

Since that project, I have NEVER worked for free, or GAVE a script away for FREE. That’s not to say I’m a millionaire. I’m VERY far from it. I sold a short script a few years back for a measly $25, and in return spent 6 days editing it for the producer. But, when it was all said and done, it was about the principal – a writer should get paid for their work, regardless of how much they are getting paid.

I set a precedent at the beginning of my career. I’m not fishing for big bucks here, I’m just asking for a little compensation for my work and skills.

I have been praised and criticized in many screenwriting communities on the rate I charge for my services and scripts. Some say I charge too little, and it lessens the image and importance of the working screenwriter. Some praise me, saying by doing this I keep steady jobs as well as steadily selling work that gets produced. But regardless of their stance, I tell them the same thing: Yes, one day I’m looking to sell that screenplay for 6 FIGURES. But in the meantime, while I’m still making a name for myself, I’m making a small impact, landing a small agent, having my movies premier worldwide in small theaters, and winning a select amount of awards nationally. I feel, and it’s only my opinion, this will all pay off long term when it’s time to negotiate that BIG sale with that BIG studio. But only time will tell.

For the writer who charges extremely high rates to write but can’t find work:

I imagine you have set these rates because at one time or another you were paid that rate (or even higher). And I highly believe your experience qualifies you and even entitles you to that rate. But when do you finally say, “I want to continue making money as a screenwriter as well as see my name listed on the “big” screen?” Since running Screenwriting Staffing, I see a lot of projects come across my desk, and many of the companies have a budget to PAY the screenwriter (a fair price) but it’s still less than what some writers will work for. Usually, the experienced writer declines the project, and an up-and-coming writer takes the project, gets paid, and then sees the wonderful script produced to screen. So my question is, who is the real winner in this situation?

To the writer who works for far less than they should:

I think it’s great you are keeping steady work. But are the scripts being produced? If so, that’s great. If not, what’s the point of working for chump change when you can’t reap the benefits of having a film to your name? Do you peddle these scripts out so fast that you forget the true art of scriptwriting? If you fall into this category (which I have before), ask yourself these two simple questions: When you work for a less than fair price, does your work get made? And if so, does it help your career? If the answer is “yes”, then by all means continue. If the answer is NO, it brings me to my next question. Do you believe that taking projects that NEVER get made for some chump change ultimately hurts other screenwriters, since these indie producers think they can rope a screenwriter into working for bare minimum, or nothing at all? Think about it.

I promise, I’m about to wrap up. But I do want to touch on selling the script (especially a short script).

Short scripts, while short, are not easy to write. But they can be fun. And I have written plenty of shorts that have been produced – and they can be VERY rewarding. But should a screenwriter give a script away for FREE with the hope of seeing it produced? Yes and No. No, because at the end of the day a producer is exploiting your talent in order to advance his/her own career. Couldn’t the producer just write their own script? Why can’t the producer just throw you a few bucks? Or even promise back-end points? But, I do realize every screenwriter has to start somewhere, and every situation is different. So here is my advice if you are giving away a script (especially a short script) for FREE.

– Does the producer have a web-site and/or IMDb? If they do, check and see if this producer has successfully produced any scripts before. This will tell you the chances of your script being produced.
– Does the production team have a goal, an outline on what they are looking to accomplish? i.e., festivals, local TV, VOD, maybe even Netflix?
– Does the company have distribution already lined up? If not, do they have a list of distribution companies that accept/review their genre/style?
– Does the producer have a large network? i.e., directors, actors, investors, and crew?
– Does the company have their own equipment, and if not, will they have the finances to rent it?
– Lastly, and most importantly, will you be CREDITED as the sole writer? At the end of the day, if you can’t even take away main writing credit, what’s the point?

So, screenwriters, be smart, be wise, and don’t be afraid of taking a little less pay in order to see your art come to life.

You will notice at Screenwriting Staffing we offer a PREMIUM MEMBERSHIP and a FREE membership. All of the LEADS under PREMIUM are paid, no exception: VIEW SOME OF OUR SCREENWRITING LEADS!

Our FREE membership has a combination of low pay, back-end points, collaboration/partnership, and FREE leads. We advise ALL of our members, regardless of their experience level, to NEVER take a FREE job unless you KNOW without a doubt that the project will only advance your career, not destroy it.

About the Author:

Jacob N. Stuart  is an award-winning, produced, and represented screenwriter. He has OVER 10 scripts produced to screen, airing in OVER 7 different countries. Jacob has been hired as a screenwriter on OVER 25 PAID assignments (features, shorts, & commercials) He is also the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, http://www.screenwritingstaffing.com, which has produced  OVER 125 screenwriting ‘success stories’ (script sales, representation, paid writing jobs). He also holds a degree from The Los Angeles Film School in Screenwriting & Film Production.

Jacob’s Official Website

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