Writers often reach out to script consultants wanting a freebie read and analysis of their work. Ray Morton explains why that's a tough ask, and what reading your script really entails.
Recently an aspiring screenwriter sent me a script he had written and asked me if I would read the piece, assess it, and provide feedback. There’s nothing unusual in that—I am a professional script consultant, so people send me their screenplays for coverage and notes all the time. I replied that I would be happy to work on the piece and indicated what I would charge to do the requested work.
I heard nothing for a few days and then received a very angry response—an email accusing me of being a selfish money-grubber who doesn’t care a whit about the art of screenwriting but only about exploiting wide-eyed novices for as much cash as I can squeeze from them and also of being an untalented never-was who is jealous of new talent and working actively to prevent newbies from breaking in. So, lots of invective, but no offer to pay my fee. Sadly, there’s nothing unusual in this either. I receive several requests to do free work every month. I don’t always get a hostile response if I asked to be paid, but even without the truculence, I find these requests to be really annoying.
“How dare they ask me to work for free?” I will grumble. “They would never ask a doctor or a lawyer or a plumber or a contractor to provide their services free of charge, so why are they asking me to? Don’t they realize what a big thing it is they are asking for?”
However, after receiving so many requests to work gratis over the years—and after hearing how often my friends and colleagues in the screenwriting support world receive similar requests—it has dawned on me that there are an awful lot of people out there looking for freebies and that no, they don’t realize what a big thing it is they are asking for.
So here’s why asking me to read and assess your work for free is a big deal:
- If you ask me to read your script and give you feedback, you are asking me to invest several hours of my time into reading and thinking critically about your work and several more hours formulating an intelligent and useful assessment. Those hours either come out of my work day or my free time. Either way, that’s a big chunk of a day (or days) you are requesting I dedicate to your material.
- It’s also a big chunk of money. I’m a professional script consultant. That means I earn part of my living reading and analyzing screenplays. There are only so many hours in a work day, so if you are asking me to assess your material for free, you’re asking me to give up the money I would otherwise be earning analyzing work for paying customers in order to do the same for your screenplay. So when you ask me to do work for you for free, you are not only asking me to take a financial hit, but you are in effect also asking me to make a financial donation to support your craft and your (potential) career.
That’s a really, really big ask.
Which is why I’d rather people not. But I also understand why they do: screenwriting is a really hard craft to master and a really tough game to break into. Heck, all of Hollywood is a tough game to break into. Newcomers need all the help they can get and many up-and-comers often don’t have a ton of money to pay for professional services.
So people are going to ask for favors. That’s okay. However, there are effective ways to do this and ineffective ways to do this.
So, if you are contemplating asking me or some other industry professional to do something for you free of charge, here are some things to keep in mind:
Every ask is a big ask
Whether you are asking me or another consultant, reader, or development person to read and assess your screenplay or you are asking someone to help you rewrite your work or to pass it along to an agent or a manager or a producer or if you are asking for an introduction or a recommendation or if you are asking someone with experience if you can “pick their brain,” all of these requests are significant ones—you are asking someone to give up their time or use their skills, expertise, connections, or experience to help you. That’s a big deal. Therefore, don’t downplay the size of the ask. People in search of a freebie or a favor will often tell the person they are approaching that what they’re asking for isn’t that a big deal or that it won’t take long to do or that it’s only a small favor or something similar. Don’t do this—when asking for a favor, it’s not for you to decide the value of that favor. That’s for person you’re asking to weigh. To do otherwise is beyond presumptuous and will likely result in an immediate no.
If you are asking for a favor, then ask for it.
It can be hard to ask for a favor, so people often don’t. Instead, they try to get around the ask.
In my own case, sometimes folks just send me their script cold, attached to an email or a note outlining the free work they want me to do. The idea behind this seems to be to not give me the chance to say no—that if I have the script in my possession and the demands are listed then I will have no choice but to carry out the requested task. If that’s the thought, then it’s guaranteed to backfire because it’s really rude and it puts me on the spot and when that’s the case there’s no way I’m going to want to help you. Similar tactics would be asking for the favor in front of a crowd of people at a party or industry event, taking out an ad in the trades hoping to get someone’s attention, and so on.
Other folks try to get around asking for a favor by pitching their desire for me to do free work for them as a great opportunity for me—by offering to cut me in on a percentage of the profits when they sell the script or some other “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” sort of scheme or by promising to spread my name around to other potential clients who might actually be able to pay me (the “do it for exposure” gambit). The make such a pitch is to insult the person you are seeking a favor from by assuming they are stupid enough to fall for such cheap, low-rent tactics. Something that it is absolutely vital for anyone asking for a favor or a freebie to understand is that there is absolutely no benefit for me or any other industry pro in helping you. Nada. Never. We know this and you need to know it too.
Still others will suggest I owe them my free labor—that it is somehow my moral responsibility to assist or mentor up-and-comers and that to refuse to do so would be proof that I am greedy and selfish, that I don’t care about nurturing the next generation of artists, and that I have a cold, black heart. So, another vital thing for an up and comer looking for a favor from an industry professional to understand is nobody owes you anything. Nobody asked you to attempt to enter this profession and nobody owes you a blessed thing to help make your career ambitions a reality so don’t ever suggest they do.
Some especially desperate people try to play the pity card—by claiming to be in dire financial and/or physical circumstances and that their only way out is to sell a screenplay and therefore insisting that I have to help them and that if I don’t I will be personally responsible for consigning them to eternal oblivion. In an attempt to persuade me to furnish free script coverage, a guy once sent me a picture of him and his five kids and the van they were allegedly living in and indicated that f.o.c. script coverage from me would allow this cherubic darlings to finally movie into a shiny, brand-new, non-wheeled home of their own. Another fellow sent me copies of the retina scans that allegedly showed how his vision was deteriorating exponentially by the day, along with a plea to cover his script gratis so that he would then be able to sell it and use the proceeds to pay for an operation to restore his sight.
If you want a favor, then ask for it—straight and upfront. Don’t put people on the spot or try to con them or shame them. And absolutely don’t play the pity card or you will find out how cold and black my heart really is.
Whatever response you get, accept it gracefully
Despite how this article may make it seem, I have agreed to help out a number of folks free of charge over the years—usually young people who are struggling to find their feet or others in very challenging situations—as have most of my friends and colleagues in the industry. I don’t think anyone is any position is obligated to help new talent, but it is always a pleasure to do so (when I am asked nicely). So, if you ask for a freebie and you get it, be grateful. Be sure to say thank you. And don’t spoil things by asking for more favors.
And if you get a no, also say thank you. Do not throw a fit, call the person who said no names, insist they have an obligation to help you, or try to guilt or shame or otherwise harass them. Just move on. Do this because it is the decent thing to do. But also do it because the entertainment industry is relatively small and the odds are good you will cross paths with the person you were rude to again and when that happens things probably aren’t going to go so well for you.
When seeking favor, it turns out that our grandmothers were right: humility, honesty, respect, and good manners are everything.
Copyright © 2019 by Ray Morton
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