MY FIRST TIME (BE GENTLE)
by William C. Martell
PRODUCER SEEKS SCRIPTSHogtied Ent., an established independent production company, is in search of an experienced feature film writer interested in rewriting an international psychological thriller presently in development, compensation upon beginning of production in fall 2002.
You might think that because your script is copyrighted and/or registered, there is no real risk involved in answering these ads, but thinking that you are dealing with a real production company who will buy your script when you are really dealing with a broke wanna-be producer is a waste of your time and emotions. Unfortunately, I know this from experience.
Now that we live in the computer age, it seems like every couple of weeks someone pops up to ask for scripts. I've seen solicitations from directors I know, producers I've heard of, and lots of companies who aren't in Hollywood Creative Directory and might either be actual new production companies or film students with PO Boxes hoping to convince mom and dad to invest in their first film. How can we tell the players from the playground set?
YOUR RESUME PLEASE
Ask the producer what they have done in the past. Don't be antagonistic about this, just say you'd like to go down to Blockbuster and rent one of their previous films to get an idea what kind of stories interest them. Legit producers are happy to tell you what they've done. Walk into any producer's office, and you'll find posters from their films on the walls. Roger Corman's front desk has the poster for CARNOSAUR on the wall. Producing films is a tough business, and every producer is proud of his work. Proud enough to hang the poster on the wall, and proud enough to share his company's filmography. Don't be afraid to ask!
Apply for any job in the world and the person interviewing you tells you a little bit about the company. Sure, they focus on the positive, but they won't be evasive about the company's accomplishments. Why should they be?
If you ask what the producer has done, and they are evasive... take it as a clue. Someone who doesn't want to be honest with you before they buy your script may not be the best person to get into business with.
When they give you their previous credits, go down and rent a couple of their films. It's good to know what you're getting into. Look at the cast and general production value to get an idea of the film's budget (which will determine what you'll be paid). It may not be a good film, but does it look like a PROFESSIONAL film? Marc Singer isn't a big star, but he's a direct to video star... They had to pay him real money to be in the film, plus pay the rest of the cast SAG minimum. A recognizable name in the cast is a good sign. The more names you recognize the better!
I call this "Blockbuster research" - going down to your local video store and looking at video boxes. But many legit producers will actually send you a screener video in the mail. When I was up for a job writing a Showtime pilot film for a TV series based on Prism Entertainment's popular NIGHT EYES films several years ago, they sent me tapes of all the previous films. Recently a director who was interested in one of my scripts mailed me tapes of his last two films. Many producers will send you a screener video if you ask. But don't press too hard - most producers would rather you rent their films at your local video shop.
The key is to know who you are getting into business with. Make sure they are real producers with real credits. People who actually have the ability to get a film made and get you paid. That's what it's all about, isn't it?
If they are first time film makers, proceed with caution. They may not have any money to buy your script. You may still be interested in submitting a script to them, but know that they may never make a film, and you may never see any money. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter frequently have ads from film school graduates looking to make their first film... all they need is a script. (Which is like saying you could make butter, all you need is some cream). More on first time producers in part two.
I once submitted a script to a line producer looking to produce her first film. She had all the connections, but didn't have a script. Even though she had never produced a movie, she gave me a half dozen films to rent with her name on them. I thought she was worth a gamble. She never got the film off the ground but she turned into a good connection on later projects.
Lately I've had a bunch of online producers tell me to visit their websites... where all of my questions about them will be answered. These folks have elaborate websites with great graphics and lots of company information... but it's all vapor. The deeper you dig into the site, the more vague it becomes. On one site I visited recently, after going through a maze of pages dealing with their off-shore holding companies and professional looking bios of the principals, I finally discovered the page of past credits: a dozen local used car lot commercials and a couple of old student films. Another site had great logos for all of their movies... but when I went to the pages I found amateurish snap shots of college kids pretending to be adults in a shot on DV horror movie. The sites were impressive and professional, but there were no real films underneath!
What's wrong with a bunch of college kids making a horror movie on digital video? Nothing! But this isn't a company with the ability to pay you for your script. If you want to work for free, that's fine with me, but we'll cover that in part two. If you think picking who you want to sell your script to takes thought and research, consider who you'd be willing to GIVE your script to! At least if you sell the script, you have something to show for it.
Websites have become the modern equivalent of the $19.95 business cards that say you are a producer. If a producer gives you his website address, check it out. Make sure you look beneath the surface, though. Just because the website looks professional doesn't mean the producer is a professional. Flash animation and cool graphics and great layout just means the owner knows about WEBSITES... they may have no idea how to put together a movie and have no money to buy your screenplay. Producers produce MOVIES.
BACK TO OUR AD...
Hogtied Ent., an established independent production company, is in search of an experienced feature film writer interested in rewriting an international psychological thriller presently in development, compensation upon beginning of production in fall 2002.
The solicitation above poses a few questions, though. If they really are an "established independent production company" they should not only have previous credits, they should have EARNINGS from those previous credits... and be able to pay the writer some money up front. Instead the post says "compensation upon beginning of production". This leads me to believe they are NOT an established company, but first time producers.
I have worked for producers with offices in their garage, and they have always paid (at least) enough to cover the time it takes to do the work in advance. This is only fair. You are the writer, not the producer. When you are working for others, you shouldn't be taking any of the risk. That's the producer's responsibility. The problem with a "back end deal" is that the writer always takes it in the back end!
Another suspicious portion of the solicitation is that they are "in search of an experienced feature film writer" to work for free. Again, this leads me to question whether they really are an established production company. I don't know of any experienced feature film writers who will work for free. Even the starving amateurs I know want to be paid for the time it takes them to do the job.
Also, if they ARE an established production company, don't they already know some experienced feature film writers? The ones who wrote their previous films! Why won't they take the job? The guy I know who produces films from his garage knows a dozen writers, and receives tons of spec scripts in the mail. Am I to believe this established producer doesn't know a single writer?
THEIR BRILLIANT IDEA
The most odious part of this solicitation is that they aren't looking for spec scripts, but for a writer to rewrite their existing material for no money up front. No one in their right mind would do this. If you put in a month rewriting their script, and the film is never made; not only did you not get paid, you can't even get the script back... It wasn't yours in the first place!
Anytime a producer wants you to work from their material, you must be paid a significant amount of money up front, because you have no rights to the material. You are working on THEIR property, improving THEIR property. If the property doesn't sell, you have no recourse to recover your time and expenses. You have just wasted your time, and you don't even have a script to show for it! The script belongs to the producer, and you may be barred from even showing it to other producers as a sample!
No matter HOW many connections the producer has, working on their project for free will NEVER be a good deal. Remember there are 40,000 scripts registered with Writers Guild of America, west every year... and only about 200-250 theatrical films made. Even if we include direct to video and MOWs, the odds of one script selling still aren't very good. As they say in BLOOD SIMPLE, "Nothing in life comes with a guarantee." There is no guarantee that this producer's great connections can get the script sold. Oscar winning screenwriter Oliver Stone took ten years trying to get PLATOON made. Clint Eastwood spent a decade trying to get UNFORGIVEN off the ground. It's one thing to gamble on a producer who is trying to get YOUR script that you are PASSIONATE about off the ground... another if you're gambling on some idea the PRODUCER is passionate about that doesn't mean anything to you. It's all a gamble, why not bet on yourself?
If you ever do any writing for free, do your own script. Write a spec script. The same amount of time it takes you to write a producer's idea into a screenplay can be spent scripting your own idea... And your idea is probably better than whatever a producer (either so new or so unsuccessful that he can't pay a writer) has come up with. If the producer had such a great idea, he probably wouldn't be broke!
The most important thing to know when you are contemplating your first sale - who are you selling your script to? Our scripts are our children - you want to make sure they end up in a good home.
Next week: Part Two
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copyright 2006 by William C. Martell