Say you’re a screenwriter, and in-between typing and downing chai lattes at your local coffee joint, you happen to connect with the person sitting next to you. As you chat the morning away, you find out that the person is producing an indie film, and needs some work on the script! And they’d like to hire you! Boom—a match made in screenwriting heaven. (Just let me have my little fantasy here.)
Two problems, though: you’re pre-WGA, and don’t yet have an agent. What to do?
Luckily, there are resources available online to help you with these legal matters, even if you’re non-union and yet-to-be represented.
First, the WGA website has a standard writing contract (as a Word doc) that you can download to get a solid sample of what a screenwriting contract should look like. You can edit it to fit your exact circumstance, so it’s a great place to start. (Obviously, take out the union language if it's a non-union job.) Use what’s useful for your situation, and remove what doesn’t apply to you. Remember, only Guild members have the protection of the Guild itself; these contracts are available just for reference.
To protect both the writer and the person hiring the writer (often a producer), this is a “step” contract, where the writer is paid in steps that are completed along the way, such as the treatment, outline, first half of script, second half of script, completed script, etc. That way, the writer isn’t working for months or years, waiting until the very end of the project to get paid (very bad idea).
At the same time, if the hiring party isn’t pleased with the work or wants to go in a different direction, that person can just pay for the steps that have been completed and not have to shell out for an entire script that won’t be written.
NOTE: Any contract, whether it’s a contract a producer presents to you or an edited WGA one that you type up yourself, should be reviewed by an entertainment attorney to make sure it protects you. If you’re low on funds, not to worry. Many states have non-profit organizations with free or low-cost legal aid available for artists, where you can be connected with an attorney who can assist you.
In California, contact California Lawyers for the Arts – calawyersforthearts.org
In New York, contact Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts – vlany.org
In Georgia, contact Georgia Lawyers for the Arts – glarts.org
In Illinois, contact Lawyers for the Creative Arts – law-arts.org
In Florida, contact Florida Lawyers for the Arts – artslawfl.org
In Texas, contact Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts - talarts.org
If you’re outside of these states, simply Google your area and search for “legal aid for artists.”
Many of these organizations also offer workshops to help educate artists on legal matters for artists as well.
Now, in our interconnected world, it’s entirely possible you could be hired to do screenwriting work for someone who lives overseas or will be producing the project internationally. If that’s the case, you should hire a lawyer in that country who can understand that country’s contract. Having an American lawyer who’s only familiar with U.S. entertainment law review your, say, British or Australian or Chinese contract won’t do you any favors. It could result in some important things falling through the cracks, and you could find yourself unprotected in the event of a contract dispute. There are many differences in the law from country to country. Thanks to the interwebs, you can easily connect with entertainment lawyers in other countries before starting work.
So, in the end, why do you need a contract? To spell out exactly how much you’re getting paid and when, and what’s expected of both you and the person who’s hired you. (Yes, that person has responsibilities to live up to as well.) For instance, notice that the WGA sample contract has a space to write in not only your delivery dates for writing work, but reading periods for the person who hired you, so that there’s a requirement to turn around notes in a timely manner. You can’t stay on schedule if the producer takes weeks on end to return feedback on your work, so it’s important that their expectations are written out, as well as yours.
Contracts also spell out what avenues you’ll take in the event of a dispute or breach of contract, and who would arbitrate that dispute.
Now, in an alternate scenario, what if that person sitting next to you at the coffee shop is another writer? And you guys bond over your love of action-comedies and decide to write the next summer blockbuster together? Then what?
You’ll need a writer’s collaboration agreement.
Yes, you'll need one even if you’re both on the same wavelength. Even if you trust each other implicitly. Even if your co-writer is your best childhood friend that you’ve known since the second grade. It doesn’t matter. Nothing can tear even the closest friendship apart faster than creative differences or disputes over money.
Luckily, the WGA website has you covered there once again with this sample Writer’s Collaboration Agreement.
What does a collaboration agreement do? It not only plans out who will get what in the event that the project makes money, it also lays out deadlines to turn in work, expectations and responsibilities for each writer on the project, and what happens if those commitments aren’t fulfilled. It’s a fantastic way to plan out a partnership and to make sure that all writers are protected and know what’s expected of them going in.
The key is to write out this collaboration agreement before you start working, and have everyone sign it and keep a copy. If a dispute ever does arise (and they DO arise) you’ll have this document to refer back to in order to help resolve it. And, if, for whatever reason, your collaboration needs to end, you’ll have steps in place in order to end it as amicably as possible.
On the more positive side, if your project sells and makes a killing, you’ll have already decided in advance how to divide up those funds so that you don’t find yourself knee-deep in screaming matches or messy lawsuits down the line. Win-win.
Getting a writing job or collaborating on a script is exciting! Just make sure you’re protected along the way.