THE OTHER KIND OF SPEC - Complications Ensue
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Friday, June 03, 2005

Occasionally producers and directors ask me to recommend young (i.e. cheap, non-union) writers to them.

I'll do it if there's money attached. Working with a producer type gives you experience in writing as a craft rather than personal expression. That's good experience both for working in the biz and learning other ways of thinking about writing, i.e. a new perspective.

But I won't recommend anyone unless there's enough money attached to pay for their time. The big drawback to working on someone else's project is that you get one shot with it. If you spec a script, you can take it to a hundred production companies. If you're writing "with" a producer or director, you can only "take it" to them. If they fail to set it up -- which can be for any number of reasons that are nothing to do with your effort or talent -- the project is dead, and you've lost all your time. If you've been paid for it, that's fine. If not, not so fine.

Producers will then say, "but we have a three picture deal and we can put this project in with it!"

But if a producer is serious about the project, they'll front some money. If they're not ready to front the money, how serious can they be? If they are so sure the project is going to go, then they can give you some money now. If they won't give you money now, it's probably because they're not so sure.

As I've mentioned in my book, the only deal I'd accept -- if the idea was so brilliant it's a surefire sale somewhere -- is for the producer to give (i.e. grant, quitclaim) the writer the idea, subject to a two year option. The producer has two years to buy the script. If they don't, the writer gets the idea, and the script, free and clear. But even there, I wouldn't go for it without at least an option fee comparable to what you'd get paid if you optioned your own spec script.

Thing is, it doesn't cost producers anything to say they can set a project up. It costs them nothing to say "this is a brilliant idea, and I can easily set this up as a Canadian/French/Ukrainian co-production." If all they need to do to get you to write is say stuff, they'll say it. You can only tell a producer is for real when there's money involved.

UPDATE: I agree with Patrick, sort of. First time writers sometimes do have to option their script for no money. But at least then it's their script. I'm talking about a situation in which the producer essentially owns the script because it's their idea. That kind of option never expires.

I disagree with Vince. A "real" production company will hire you for money if they're serious about the project. If they won't hire you, even for a couple thousand bucks, they're not serious enough about the project. If they're not serious enough about the project, then the likelihood goes way up of you, the novice writer, spending months writing a script that gets sent out a few times and then put on the shelf.

Putting an optioned script on your resume is irrelevant, I think. Not just because "option" often means "free option," and therefore it's not much of a feather in your cap. More because personally I ignore resumes. I just look at the sample. Either you can write or you can't. In a TV situation I'd look at staffing experience, but in features, I'd just look at the sample.

3 Comments:

This is an ok approach if you're living in Lotus Land (i.e L.A.). If it's the Canadian hinterland (i.e. Montreal or Moose Jaw) we're talking about, then it becomes a whole different plate of minestrone. Giving a screenwriting student or young filmmaker a shot at working for a REAL production company even if there is no up-front money is a million times better than trying to peddle a first time spec script long distance to some unknown entity who claims to be a producer on the other side of the continent. Money for an option up here gets you $1.00 (that's Canadian) unless you're an established writer and even then you still might just get that lousy buck but at least you'll get some hope that your script will go to the floor. That's the reality up here in Poutine Land. Putting an optioned script on your resume that you've developed for an established producer is miles ahead of just listing some spec scripts that you hope will land on some REAL producer's desk and MAYBE get READ.

By Anonymous VinceDC, at 3:49 PM  

but then the argument form the producer's side is this: no one wants to take a risk on a first time writer, so sometimes first-time writer's have to option their scripts for no money. Otherwise, it would just sit in a drawer.

realitically, there isn't much a first time writer in this situation can do

By Blogger Patrick, at 3:49 PM  

Of course I have to agree with what you're saying, Alex, if I was looking at it from a screenwriter's perspective. However, let's be realistic for just one sec. Yes, options/contracts most often benefit the producer. However, there is such a thing as negotiation. If the deal is not sweet enough for the writer, he/she just has to say no. In the meantime, the aspiring screenwriter, and I'm talking about a rookie here, gets exposure to the REAL world of filmmaking - not the fantasy land of candy red Ferraris and mansions looking over the Valley that his mind conjures up waiting for that 6 figure deal to get signed. Hey, don't get me wrong. This craft is a bitch and I sincerely wish that would happen to anybody who has tried to write a script - including ME.

By Anonymous VinceDC, at 11:43 PM  

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