Let me state right up front that these are my OPINIONS. They are based on my experience, but they remain my opinions. I will also be up front and say I have in the past written for free at times (not for a long long time and not ever again) and if I had to do it over again...
I wouldn’t do it.
So... let’s talk turkey about writing for free or optioning your work for free (or a dollar).
It’s not fair to you.
Let’s talk about script options first.
A guy walks into a shoe store and says to the owner, “I want your best shoes, but I’m only going to pay you a dollar or maybe take them for free and rent them for a year and in that time I’m going to let other people wear them for a day or two to see if they like them and if one of them does and wants them permanently in that year, I’ll pay you your regular price for them and give you credit for renting them to me. If no one buys them, then you get them back and you can keep the dollar, unless you agreed to let me take them for free, and then you can try to sell them again, but not to me. And by the way, we return 99% of the shoes we rent.”
Sound like a good deal to you?
If you’ve invested exactly NOTHING in something, how easy would it be to give up on it? Pretty damn easy. If you invest actual money in something that you will lose if you fail? You’re going to try a lot harder. If you really believe in something and value what it took for the person you’re getting it from to create it, you’re going to reward them for their effort. Even if it’s minimally.
When you option your script for zero, what you’re telling the person optioning it, is that you are placing your worth at zero. You’re setting your quote.
Believe me, if a legitimate production company balks (and legitimate ones don't) at giving you (if you are new and not WGA) $500 to $1000 dollars for a 12 month option they aren’t that crazy about your script anyway. Plus now they have skin in the game. They invested money. It’s not as much the amount as it is the psychology of it.
And this doesn’t take into account the “Producer” who may be offering you $100 to $1000 dollars to BUY your script if the project is super low budget. NEVER accept, even if it’s a super low budget film, just “Screen Credit” as pay. That producer or director offering that is using YOUR script to make a film that they want to advance THEIR career. Not yours. Don’t let someone make their bones on your back. Even if the budget is 10K, you need to get your 2 ½% ($250). Fair is fair and your work is the BASIS for the film. Get paid every time.
I know I’m making it sound like there’s an adversarial relationship between writer and producer. If the producer is a legit producer, it’s not. Any producer, and I mean ANY producer, who can get work for free is going to try. Hey. I had one try with me a couple of months ago. Right after they did it and I laughed and said no way, we got serious about fees and it was a quick negotiation. It wasn’t a problem. There were zero hard feelings. It’s business. Would I have passed on the job if there was no pay, but just promises? Yes. My personal view is no pay, no work. Promises don’t pay bills. If I’m going to work for free, I’ll write a spec script that’s all mine, not owned by someone else when I’m done.
They aren’t going to get pushed out of shape or hold it against you if you stand up for yourself as a business person and ask to get paid for your hard work and imagination. It doesn’t have to be a lot when you’re first starting, but it should be something. If someone wants your work, then you have worth. They’re telling you that by wanting it.
Now... let’s talk about writing a script for a producer for free.
Mr. Producer has a great idea and he needs a writer to write it. He likes your work and comes to you and says, “There’s no pay upfront, but if we make it you’ll get paid and get credit.” Uh huh. Again, he has ZERO invested in this besides thinking it’s a great idea. ZERO. How easy is it for him to give up on it? Pretty damn easy. Yes, sometimes a one in a million shot happens and the film gets made. But I’ve heard from countless writers who spent months of their time on other people’s projects for free and got paid exactly what was promised. Nothing. And they didn’t have any ownership of the script either. Less than nothing.
The vast vast majority of these projects go nowhere, just like the vast majority of most projects go nowhere. But if you get paid for your work, you still have something to show from it. Even if it’s a minimal amount like $500 to $1000 dollars (depending on budget) for a new writer.
Plus, you’re going to work harder on it and do a better job, knowing you’re being treated as a professional.
Yes... You’re going to hear people say, “But writing for free is paying your dues.” No, it’s not. It’s setting your worth at nothing. What other business would take something that you spent a lot of time to create from you for free? I can’t think of a lot of them. Hell, I can’t think of any.
How hard do you have to work to finish a great script? A script someone might want. A script that’s a good enough sample to get you write for hire offers? Why would you give it away? Even for 12 months.
I have worked with some amazing producers and directors in my short career. Some smart wonderful fair people. I’m working with some now. This business is filled with real business people who are fair when you ask to be treated fairly. Will some of them lowball you? You bet. It’s in their interest to try. Are they upset when you don’t agree? Nope. It’s business. And I have to tell you, a lot of the time you will get fair offers to begin with. I'm just talking about the times when you don't. And when you get a manager and agent and a lawyer, they’ll handle it anyway. But even if they handle it, YOU still have to agree. You are the one who signs the contract. You still have to look after yourself and ask the questions you need to ask and be satisfied with the outcome. It’s YOUR career.
Someone offers you nothing for your script or nothing to write for them? Your choice. I always say no. I’m worth more than that.