Monday, October 20, 2008

Writer Beware Part 1

It’s a sad reality of Hollywood that aspiring writers often seem to find themselves caught up in questionable deals, often with heartbreaking results. Years of time can be wasted on a passion project that is destroyed in the process. So I want to offer some advice on avoiding some pitfalls based on my years navigating this business.

There are two kinds of people you have to watch out for: scam artists and sincere people who are woefully naïve. Strangely it often seems like the latter category is more dangerous.

There’s an old joke in Hollywood that the only requirement to be a producer is the ability to buy business cards. There are thousands of aspiring producers out there operating out of their apartment or a coffee shop, with some borrowed money from mom and dad and a pocket full of credit cards. They may have some small achievements on their resume – an internship with a known producer or a few years as a script reader.

Five years from now most will be living in their parents’ basement and working a menial job to pay off their debts. I’m not knocking them…sadly many aspiring writers will share their fate. It’s the tough reality of the business that there are way more talented and hard working people than there are jobs. And big time producers had to start somewhere, so you ought to give these people some benefit of the doubt. But you do need to protect yourself.

Rule Number One: Get an Entertainment Attorney

If you can’t afford to have an attorney look over a deal, you can’t afford the deal. Entertainment industry contracts are complex and full of land mines designed to rob you of credit, money, time or all of the above. Before you agree to anything, get an attorney. Really, get an attorney. And whatever you do, do NOT negotiate the deal yourself.

Make sure you get an entertainment attorney – someone who has experience with film industry contracts. You may find another kind of attorney willing to look over your deal for a lower rate, but it will take them longer and you probably won’t save the money you thought you would. And they could miss something that will cost you dearly in the long run.

As to cost, entertainment attorneys who work for established writers typically work on a 5% commission. If you’re just starting out and all you have on the table is a one dollar option, the attorney will probably ask you to pay hourly rates – and who can blame them. Top level entertainment attorneys charge well over $500 an hour but you should be able to find someone suitable for $200 an hour or even less.

(Another tip: usually attorneys’ standard contracts specify that they break down work into quarter hour increments. So if he makes a one minute phone call, you pay for fifteen minutes of his time. But many will agree to sixths (10 minute increments) if you ask.)

It may be tough to write a check for $500 for an attorney to negotiate a one dollar option, but consider how much time you spent writing your script. Are you willing to throw all that away to save $499? If you can’t afford the attorney, you can’t afford the deal.

How do you find an attorney? Usually by asking another writer for a recommendation. You can also ask your agent assuming you have an agent. If you don’t know anybody who can refer you, you can try California Lawyers for the Arts. They will provide a referral to someone appropriate.

Rule Number Two: Get it in Writing

Before you do any work, get your agreement in writing. Even if you’re working with a friend. Especially if you’re working with a friend. I’ve seen too many friendships end over differing opinions about what had been agreed to in a business deal.

And don’t be so naïve as to do the work before reaching an agreement. I know of a case where a writer did a rewrite of another writer’s script for a producer and never bothered to even discuss how much they’d get paid. That’s not a recipe for a happy ending.

Also, be careful not to inadvertently agree to something. If someone sends you a letter or email that says you agreed to something you didn’t, and you don’t correct them, you could be in for a court battle. And whenever you send something to someone make a written record of it. Keep copies of cover letters and fax cover sheets and use the “return receipt” function on your email. Create a paper trail.

I keep a writing journal where I write down everything I worked on each day (mostly to guilt myself for not getting more done). I also log every conversation and meeting and what was discussed. That journal has saved me more times than you might imagine.

Next time I’ll tell you some of the things to watch out for when considering a non-union deal.

(Please Note: I am not an attorney and none of this should be considered legal advice. My advice, as I think I’ve made clear, is consult an attorney before agreeing to anything)

1 comment:

jonmannkrieger said...

I'm enjoying the site...

I just ran into this piece a few minutes ago... it's potentially not safe for work just because of the picture...:

See you tomorrow.