Friday, October 24, 2008

Writer Beware Part II

Last time I started discussing questionable deals writers often get involved with in Hollywood. Please note, I am not an attorney and this should not be considered legal advice. I strongly recommend you consult an experience entertainment attorney to negotiate any contract you are considering entering into.

Here are some of the things writers need to watch out for when considering deals in Hollywood. Your attorney should be able to steer you clear of most of these.


If the movie is made or distributed by a WGA signatory company, the WGA has sole right to determine writing credits. This means that no producer can guarantee you screenplay by, written by or story by credit unless it is certain the movie will be made and distributed through independent, non-union companies. Many less experienced producers don’t even know this.

Moreover, just because you wrote an original script doesn’t mean that you’ll be eligible to get credit in a WGA arbitration if you didn’t work under a WGA contract. In fact, if your contract isn’t worded properly, you could be EXCLUDED from credit. That’s because your screenplay could be considered “underlying material” instead of a draft of a script. The surest way to combat that is to only work for WGA signatory companies under a union contract. But if you’re just starting out that may not be possible. Make sure your attorney puts language in your contract to make your deal retroactively union should any union writer be hired or should a signatory company get involved.

Credits Part Two

The other place I often see deals go south is when another writer, producer or director says they love your script and want to take it somewhere they know will buy it, but they want to do a little polish themselves first. Beware! I would always recommend against this, but if you really want to accept this sort of deal make sure you spell out everything in writing. Invariably when they finish their draft they’ll become convinced they deserve a bigger share of the money or credit than they thought they did when they started. I’ve even seen a producer claim he deserved writing credit because of the “brilliant notes” he gave. Worst, you could find yourself in an argument over who even owns the script at that point.

How Much Will You Do

Watch out for open ended commitments. Free rewrites is a problem even for established writers. If you don’t spell out how many rewrites you’ll do, you’re begging for someone to abuse you. Also, if you’re optioning your script, make sure the option expires at some reasonable point in the future. The reality is if they can’t do something with your script in three years they probably never will.

Professional Means You Get Paid

I realize you may have to option material for little or no money to get a break. I’ve done it. But be sure if the movie becomes a huge hit you get your share. They may tell you that it’s just going to be a little, independent, low budget film. But what if they turn around and sell the script to Warner Brothers and it becomes next summer’s smash hit starring Will Smith? Will you still be happy with the pittance they’re offering?

The key is often to tie your compensation to the budget of the movie. That allows the producers to pay a reasonable amount if they indeed work low budget, but protects you if the project takes off.

And just so you know, residuals are tied to credit (see above). There have been writers who made less than $50,000 for writing a movie that grossed over $100 million. Don’t be one of them.

Be aware that the producer may moan and cry that they can’t afford what you want. They’ll suggest “just keeping the attorneys out of it for now” so things don’t get bogged down. They’ll tell you your attorney is jeopardizing your deal and thus your entire writing career.

Don’t fall for it.

If they are willing to be fair, these deals do not have to take long to negotiate. Anybody who tries to convince you to ignore your attorney’s advice is your enemy. You will be much happier in the long run if you get the details worked out in advance even if it slows things down a little.

And as I think I’ve mentioned, get an attorney.

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