I’m in a sour mood this month, and it all started with my damn taxes. As I gathered up all my payments and receipts I was struck with a sudden realization: I did a shit load of work for free last year. Of course I got paid for some of it, otherwise this article would not only be lacking comedy advice, but it would also be written in crayon from the refrigerator box I’d be calling my office. But seeing how much work I’d done, and how much I’d actually been paid, was a sobering moment. Up to this point, I'd spent so much time mastering my craft and trying to get a foot in the door that I never deeply considered the realities a new writer must face.
In my travels, I’ve found producers and executives can spot a new writer from a mile away, and will often use the new writer’s excitement at being treated seriously to convince her to do more and more drafts for free and on spec. I call this need to do whatever it takes to make the professionals happy and keep the work coming: new writer syndrome. I haven't met a single new writer that has avoided this syndrome. If you avoid this stage in your career, please let the rest of us know your cure.
If this were a perfect world, I would say writers should never work for free… but this is not a perfect world. The post-2007 strike and global financial crisis landscape has greatly altered the entertainment industry and what new writers can expect. Now more than ever, screenwriters are expected to do more and more work on spec (i.e. free), but it’s not as horrible as I’m making it sound. There are some advantages to working for free. Working for free can earn a new writer a lot of goodwill, and those executives/producers will know you can go the distance, and want to work with you again (God-willing).
But when do the advantages of doing a little work for free become disadvantages? And when does new writer syndrome become a terminal illness?
I thought about calling the WGA for some answers, but decided to just Google, “How much should a new screenwriter be paid?” The top three results stated, “a screenwriter should be paid anywhere from one million to millions of dollars for their script.” Keep dreaming, Google results. A million dollar payday might be a reality for an A-list screenwriter with blockbuster film credits, but I’m not even sure that’s true as more and more A-list talent turns to television writing to pay the bills.
Since Google was no help, I surveyed agents, managers and producers on what a new writer can expect to earn. To sum up their answers: A WGA signatory company will pay guild minimum for a newbie’s work, and for anything else… who the fuck knows? Considering there are a lot of independent and new media companies hiring screenwriters, that makes for a whole lot of work with "who the fuck knows" writing work.
Screenwriters have always been treated like bastard children, but after my soul searching this month, I’m starting to think we might be part of the problem. As the industry morphs and more work is demanded for little or no pay, I believe it’s important for writers to determine their own standards to avoid being exploited. I've determined that my own spec writing must meet one of these requirements in order to have value:
1. The project exposes my work to a new audience or helps me build an audience.
2. The guidance and insight I would gain from the professional people involved is worth its weight in gold.
3. It helps establish a track record with a good producer or company, and it stands a good chance of leading to more work.
Screenwriting isn’t a mystical privilege. Screenwriting is a job and without words on the page there would be no movies, no TV series, no web series, and so on. Writing is a valuable skill, and it’s important to determine your worth (money and otherwise) before it becomes tax time and you’re left saying, “What the fuck?”
- More Spit Takes articles by Stephany Folsom
- Michele Wallerstein’s Business of Screenwriting Column
- Alt Script: You Are Not Tarantino or Kevin Smith
- Screenwriters Ryan Belenzon and Jeffrey Gelber Sell ‘Endangered’ to Lionsgate
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