Number 26 in the LSF session: Another 50 ways to break into the Business was - No money, no work, no £1 options, no deferred fees.
Bernie Corbett, perhaps unsurprisingly given his position at the Writers Guild, was pretty dogmatic about it, stating don't do any work unless you're getting paid. However there was the caveat that there are some grey areas especially when you're starting out. But in general he believes we are talking about a multi million pound industry where people get paid for what they do. He suggests a £1 option shows no serious commitment to the project. Producers will be taking taxis to meet financiers and buying dinners so why can't they pay you? Very occasionally, he has known producers to take an option on a film to stop it getting made, because they have something similar in development. A lot of producers live a fantasy life, hoovering up projects, when they don't have the skills, contacts, or experience to do anything with it. A lot of small budget projects will work on deferments and that means later on, not non existent. Get something in writing what will come back to you if there is a profit. Partnerships are more common. If you trust the producer then fine - but get something on paper. It will save a lot of lawyers fees later on.
Chris Hill suggested that £500 shows a certain level of commitment. He's been in both positions, and the £1 option is often there at the beginning and can be tempting to get the ball rolling.
Martin Gooch asserted that he works for free for himself and his mates - and anyone else has got to pay. Or at least get them to buy you are really nice lunch.
Danny Stack added that producers come to him with no money, but with a one page agreement that if there is to be any development money or other money, you get a slice of it. So there is a bit of a carrot there - they're not just taking advantage.
This is a huge topic and it's important for writers to know their options, know what their strategy is, and how to react in certain situations. I've been on both sides of this coin and there are so many factors to take into consideration. First of all, who are you dealing with? If companies like the BBC, Film4, Working Title, Big Talk, Ruby Films etc, etc, etc were offering £1 options or even a few hundred quid, I would be shocked. For organisations like this, who I'm not saying are awash with money because no one is these days, but nevertheless have a certain size and stature about them, to offer something like this, I'd be amazed and insulted.
So let's leave them aside. I'm talking now about indie producers. Not even necessarily small companies. But just independent producers. Keep in mind that at the first LSWF Tim Bevan said this:
Script development was quite incidental. They just had to get the next film made and were never allowing the development process to take as long as it needs to. An Indie is in the terrible position of having all their money in development, but your income is dependent on getting a film made, because that is where you get your fees from. And because getting the thing on becomes the be all and end all, you forget a little bit about the quality of the thing. Bevan came to the conclusion that you need capital. Because you have to spend money on developing a script and at the end of that process, be able to take a long hard look at it, and if it's not good enough, to chuck it in the bin. And an Indie doesn't have the luxury.
I noted at the time that the vast majority of producers and companies in this country don't either, and I think that I heard from Phil Parker the belief that this was the single biggest reasons most British movies fail. Bevan also said that as a consequence of this, it's vital to have a slate. Because having all your eggs in one basket is dangerous and financially crippling, and you never know which project might be greenlit first. But it can cost thousands and thousands of pounds to develop and package a project, so what indie producers have the luxury of doing that for a slate of films without any going into production yet?
Like I say I've been on both sides. I've been paid a few hundred pounds for work and I also admit I've taken a quid (plus other luxuries like a few meals etc!) And do you know what, in terms of career investment and long term, the quid has been far more fruitful and indeed enjoyable than the short term benefit of the few hundred quid. The difference was one producer had no track record and the other one did. And I think for me this is the defining factor. I'm not belying the significance of a few hundred quid (and if you've seen my bank balance you'll know why.) But it's also not a huge, life changing amount of money. And if you tie yourself and project to a producer, that's it, for whatever the length of time the contract states.
So consider this. No one has any money. The world is broke. Many indie producers are as broke as screenwriters. We bring the script to the table. What do they bring? Do your research on who they are, what they've done, what their reputation is within the industry if you can, and whether you get on with them. If this all looks positive, think about where the - for example - £500 is best spent. If there is a finite amount of money in their account, they could stump it up to pay you, or they could use it, as Bernie says, to take key people out for dinner, or maybe fly to the Berlinale, or to Cannes, etc. (Okay to be fair they can certainly get the train or the bus rather than cabs!) But where is the money best being spent? If it's between a short term payment to you, or an investment into meetings and appointments that could help get your film financed, what's more valuable to your career?
I think a screenwriting career is always about the long game. Don't be exploited. Know your worth. Above all know who you are dealing with. But at the same time, getting on the ladder can be an important first step. And it might be that the quid you take now, can turn into something far greater later on.