Before we get to today's question, a couple quick, (hopefully) fun announcements…
I'll be speaking at The TV/Film Summit in L.A., June 25-26. This should be a great weekend delving into the nuts and bolts of writing—and breaking into—TV and film! Other seminars will be presented by excellent writers and teachers like Ellen Sandler, Jen Grisanti, Christopher Vogler, Linda Seger, and Dov Simens. Click HERE to learn more… I'd love to see you all there!
Secondly, a few weeks ago, I posted a piece, "Why You Shouldn't Use a Script Coverage Service," that got a lot of heated attention. One of the first to disagree was Ray Morton, a script-reader for ScriptXpert. Ray also writes for Script Magazine, and recently posted a response to my original post. While Ray says nothing to change my mind, he has put up an extensive, well-written post… so I wanted to link to it. Plus, I always think it's valuable to consider opposing perspectives… as long as you remember: mine is always right. :)
So… moving on…
Today's question comes from Arvie, who emailed me a while ago, and I let his email slip through the cracks. Sorry, Arvie! (I try to answer everyone's questions in a timely matter, but sometimes things get backed up or lost.)
I'm a writer with a few treatment ideas that are (in my own opinion) awesome. Apparently, another producer thinks so too and would like to pitch the ideas to network. However, I have other irons in the fire with other folks that might want to pitch as well.
My question is: If a person just GETS YOU IN THE ROOM at a network… and this network picks up the idea… what [compensation] is that producer entitled to, percentage-wise?
Well, Arvie, the simple answer is...
Your producer is entitled to NOTHING.
Or rather, when a producer is paid for selling or working on a TV show, he's not paid by you—the writer—he's paid by the studio, which funds the project's budget.
(If you pitch and sell your project directly to a network, they will "lay it off" at their studio. For instance, if you sell your project to NBC, NBC won't buy your project directly; they'll send you to Universal Media Studios, their in-house production entity, which will pay you and fund the project.)
Having said that, there are several factors at play here, so let's explore them.
Is this producer someone the network and studio are eager to be in business with?
Ideally, the producer you've partnered with has an overall or first-look deal with the studio, which means the studio is already paying them to find or create television content.
However, not every producer has a studio deal… so if you're partnering with someone independent, you want to be 110 percent sure they're an experienced producer that networks and studios want to do business with. If the producer is NOT someone the networks/studios are excited about, the studio may offer to buy your project… without the producer's attachment.
So before partnering with someone, do your research. Is this producer someone who brings definite value or cachet to the project? In these financially uncertain times, networks and studios aren't keen on throwing money at worthless attachments, so attaching the wrong person—even if he's able to get you a pitch meeting—can be a huge liability. (When a project has too many expensive producers, we say it's "top-heavy.")
Before partnering, ask professionals you know—execs, producers, writers, agents, etc.—about his or her reputation. If you partner with someone who's ultimately unattractive to studios, you could find yourself in a sticky situation, having to choose between booting your partner or not selling your show.
Also, if a producer is suggesting the two of you work out some kind of financial arrangement before pitching the show… RUN. This is not someone you want to be in business with.
In fact, there are only two reasons you should be sharing your income with someone:
1) They represent you.
Agents, managers, and lawyers make money by commissioning a portion of clients' income. Agents and managers take 10 percent; lawyers take 5 percent.
Now, as you may know, many managers do get producer credits on their clients' work. When this happens, however, they usually collect producer fees, which come out of the project's budget, instead of a commission. They do NOT take 10 percent commission and collect producer fees. If you have a manager who wants producer fees and commission… again—RUN. This is not a good manager.
2) They're your writing partner.
When writers work as a team, they split their paychecks, usually 50/50.
How much writers, or writing teams, are paid for a piece of work is regulated by the Writers Guild of America, the labor union representing TV and film writers. Every three years, Hollywood and the WGA renegotiate the WGA's Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), which specifies the minimum amount of money a writer must be paid for a piece of work.
(In fact, the WGA ratified a new MBA just a month ago, putting into effect a new "schedule of minimums." You can click HERE to learn more about the WGA's 2011 MBA; the entire text isn't yet available, but you can download the 2008 MBA, along with a Memorandum outlining the major updates.)
Last year, for instance, the minimum paycheck for creating a story and writing a 30-minute teleplay for a primetime broadcast TV episode was $22,900. A 30-minute story idea, with no teleplay, cost $7,634. A bible cost $49,175 (although I've never heard of anyone selling, or being asked to write, a bible.) Many experienced writers are able to negotiate higher fees, but these numbers are the minimum they must be paid.
So if the current minimum for an hour-long TV episode is $33,681, two members of a writing team don't each receive $33,681… they split it, each taking home $16,840.50.
So, Arvie—if your producer plans to write this project alongside you, you are, in effect, a writing team… and you can get a general sense of the minimum you'll be paid by looking at the WGA's MBA.
Or… perhaps you plan on writing the script yourself, but your producing partner has significantly helped create or develop the story idea. He may wish to share your "story by" credit, but let you take sole "written by," or teleplay, credit. This year, WGA minimum for creating a 60-minute primetime story idea was $13,439… which the two of you could split; you would then receive the entire teleplay fee yourself—$22,158. (FYI—the WGA also arbitrates these things, determining who genuinely receives "story" credit and who doesn't.)
This, however, doesn't sound like your situation.
If your producer is promising only to "get you in the room" at a network or studio, he's doing so on the hope that the project will sell and he'll collect a producer fee from the studio. Which means, again, you must be 110 percent sure this producer is someone attractive to networks and studios. If he's not, it doesn't matter how many meetings he sets up… he'll be a liability to your project, jeopardizing its odds of selling or putting you in a potentially uncomfortable situation.
I hope this helps, Arvie… and best of luck with the pitch! Lemme know when I can see it—on TV!
Lastly, since all the new fall/midseason shows have been announced, here's another trailer for a show that looks super-cool… NBC's Awake, by Kyle Killen. (And below that, a weird video of Chewbacca and some Ewoks dancing to Guns N Roses… which has nothing to do with anything, except it's the weirdest thing you'll see all day.)