Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
Screenwriting is an art and a craft, but it is also a profession – one that takes newcomers a while to get the hang of. Fortunately, there are a lot of good folks out there willing to help and guide and mentor up-and-comers. Unfortunately, there are also some not-so-good folks out there looking to take advantage of aspirants’ naïveté and inexperience. To help you avoid falling victim to these exploiters, here is a list of eight screenwriting scams to avoid.
1. Working for free
Pros pay – it’s really that simple. Well-funded producers and production companies with solid track records (entities that actually have a chance to get a movie made) pay the people they hire. Anyone who asks you to write for free or for “the experience” or who asks you to invest “sweat equity” in a project (i.e. ask you to write for free in exchange for a share of any future profits from the film they hope to make from your script) is either an amateur or a hustler or both. There are only two reasons to write screenplays – to earn money or to get a movie made. If you throw in with one of these folks, you will accomplish neither. The only times you should write for free are when you are creating your own spec work. Otherwise, your mantra should always be “show me the money.”
2. Free options
When a producer or production company options your screenplay, they are granted the right to shop your script – to submit it to talent, studios, and investors in the hope of getting the project off the ground – for a specific period of time (usually six months, one year, or two years). Options are usually exclusive, which means that the person or company that optioned your script now controls it and you do not. During the option period you can’t do anything with your script – you can’t show it to other producers and studios and you cannot sell it to anyone, no matter how much is offered. None of this is a problem if you are being fairly compensated for the option, but it’s a problem if you’re not – you give up a lot when you agree to an option and you deserve to get paid for that. Established producers know this and don’t have a problem with it – they pay for options. But there are others who will ask you to option your work to them for nothing or next to nothing and if you agree that’s most likely what you will end up with. As with those who ask you to do free work, those that want a free option are usually amateurs, hustlers, or both and are to be avoided -- if a person wants to be a producer but cannot get the money together for a proper option, it seems unlikely they will able to assemble the financing for an entire movie either. The only producer you should ever even consider giving a free option to is one you are working closely with on a project in which you hold a considerable stake. Despite these warnings, some of you will grant free options (you’ll be afraid to turn down an offer if you get it, worried it might be the only one you ever get. It’s a common anxiety and one free-optioners count on). If you do, make sure it is non-exclusive so you will be able to benefit from your work should a better opportunity arise.
3. Paying for representation
Professional agents and managers work on commission – they sell your work and services in exchange for a fixed percentage of your income. Any agent or manager who asks you to pay in advance for representation (or charges you a “reading fee” to consider your work) is not legitimate and will do nothing for you but empty your bank account.
4. Script gurus who demand a cut
Most screenwriting teachers and script consultants are honorable people who deal with screenwriters in a very straightforward manner – you pay a set fee and they teach their class or assess your work and that’s it. However, there are a few scriptwriting gurus who require their students or clients to sign an agreement granting the teacher or the consultant a percentage of any sales of scripts worked on in their classes or that they provided rewrite notes for. The rationale for this is that, since your script benefitted from the teacher/consultant’s guidance and input, the teacher/consultant should benefit from any success your script enjoys. There’s nothing illegal about this practice, but in my opinion, it is sleazy as hell. I am a professional script consultant. If you hire me to assess your script, I will analyze it and offer you whatever suggestions I can think of to help you improve it and I will expect you to pay me for this service. But once you have paid me and I have turned over my notes, then my participation in your project is over. It’s up to you to implement my notes or not and it is your skill and talent in doing so that’s going to make the script better. Therefore, you and only you are the person who should profit from that script. For a teacher or consultant to demand a percentage implies that they have co-authored the script in some way, a notion that is either delusional or deceitful. Either way it is also wrong (in the moral sense of the word). If you encounter a teacher or consultant who insists you agree to a cut in exchange for their assistance, run the other way as fast as you can. There are plenty of good teachers and consultants out there who will be happy to help you without trying to leach off of your success.
5. Contests that ask you to keep paying
Most screenwriting competitions are legitimate, professional, and deliver what they promise, but there are a few dubious ones out there. These shady contests simply try to milk entrants for as much money as possible by constantly extending entry deadlines in order to collect more fees; by charging a reasonable premium to enter, but then urging entrants to buy high-priced tickets to the black-tie awards gala in case they turn out to be finalists (which – surprise, surprise -- just about every entrant turns out to be) and by hinting that you stand a better chance of winning if you utilize expensive coverage services from one of the competitions’ script consulting affiliates. More sinister tournaments try to wrangle control of your script by requiring you to sign an agreement (as part of your entry paperwork) that grants the sponsoring organization an option on the winning scripts for little or no money. Beware too of competitions that announce that the winning scripts will actually be made into movies. This sounds great until you realize that it’s usually just another way for the event sponsors to get a free option on your work while they look for financing that will allow them to attach themselves to the project as producers. Most of these films never actually get made and those that do are usually shot on extremely low budgets, turn out terribly, and are never released, which totally ruins the commercial value of your script. Red flags of suspicious contests: they’re not usually sponsored by a legitimate organization, but instead by producers with no credits, managers with no clients, screenwriting “institutes” with no classes, teachers, or students, etc. Also, the details are usually vague – these competitions promise prominent judges and intros to big-name producers or reps but fail to identify them or promise to bring your work to the attention of the industry, but fail to specify the method (and which often turns out to be nothing more than an e-mail blast, which is something you can just as easily do for yourself without having to spring for an entry fee).
6. Any deal that requires you to give up all your rights
When you sell a script to a production entity, that entity acquires most of the rights to that script. However, the WGA contract that all of the major studios and producers are signatory to does reserve some rights for the screenwriter beyond the sale – the right to be credited in some form on the final film, certain publication rights (including the right to approve publication of the script in book form and the right to approve a novelization of the story), residual payments, rights to payment for and credits on any future sequels, and the right to retrieve ownership the script after a certain period of time if the script is not produced. These are important and potentially valuable rights to have. However, there are a number of non-union production entities (including some very high profile ones) that insist a writer surrender all rights to the script – including the ones mentioned above -- as a condition for purchase (and in some cases, just for submission). Avoid such agreements like the plague.
7. Writing for non-writers
Last year I wrote a column about non-writers who seek to hire writers to pen scripts that the non-writers will then put their names on (taking either solo credit or first position in a split credit) with the intention of keeping all or at least the lion’s share of any proceeds the script might generate. This is not a scam per se – well, not on the writers. It is a scam on anyone the non-writer submits the script to claiming he is the principal author. But there is almost no upside for a writer to take on one of these assignments – there’s a slim chance you might get paid (very slim – most non-writers offer “percentage of a future sale” or “sweat equity” deals), but if you do, it won’t be much (non-writers tend to be skinflints and think $500 for two drafts and endless rewriters is a magnanimous offer) – and a lot of downside – earning either no credit or a shared credit, which means you can’t use the script as a writing sample or peddle it yourself, and being subject to the creative whims and endless inspirations of your employer, who I guarantee you will not know what he is doing (there is nothing more dangerous in the arts than a non-creative person who thinks he is creative).
8. Anything that promises success with little or no effort
The world of screenwriting education is filled with promises of shortcuts: from books that suggest you can write an award-caliber, million dollar screenplay in ten days or less or that contend you can sell an idea in pitch or treatment form without having to go through the pesky nuisance of actually writing a script; from gurus that insist they can teach you formulas, templates, and paradigms that, if followed slavishly, will guarantee a creatively perfect and commercially successful screenplay; from software peddles who insist that if you use their program your script will practically write itself. All of these promises are scams – nothing is going to get you where you want to go other than hard work and perseverance. There are no shortcuts or workarounds, no easy paths or surefire gimmicks -- you have to learn to write; you have to think and write and rewrite and rewrite again; you have to edit; and you have to hang in there to produce anything of worth. Any other track will only bring you disappointment and heartbreak.
Don’t let this list scare you – most of the people you will meet on your screenwriting journey will be honest and honorable people. But wherever an endeavor has the potential to earn great rewards, there are going to be those who seek to exploit the situation for their own gain and, as with everything, it pays to be careful.
Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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