* EXCEPT WHEN MAYBE THEY SHOULD
Trolling about on Facebook yesterday, I stumbled upon this terrific Gawker article by Cord Jefferson on writers who write for free and the far-reaching, unintended consequences of this ever-growing practice. The emphasis of Cord’s piece is on journalists who work gratis for online publications, as opposed to authors of fiction, but many of the questions he raises are universal in scope as they relate to anyone trying to live on what he writes these days. Boiled down to its bare essence, I think Cord’s main point could be stated thusly: If you don’t have a moneyed benefactor of some kind (mother, father, uncle, sibling, etc.) out there somewhere both willing and able to throw you a few dollars as the demands of mere survival arise, good luck kicking off that writing career by giving your stuff away for free.
In those ancient times before the Internet came along, when the market for fiction and non-fiction was dominated by publications you could actually hold in your hands, the editor who asked, let alone demanded, that a writer write something for free was the exception, not the rule. This was because a writer offended by such a request could just take his piece elsewhere and get paid. He had options.
This isn’t the case anymore. The vast majority of non-fiction work now resides with online publications, where money is generally — if not always — scarce, and editors in the online world have become perfectly comfortable using the start-up’s classic refrain of “we can’t pay you now, but later on down the road . . .” to offer writers nothing but exposure and a byline for their work. And who can eat on that?
As new as this cruel form of indentured servitude is to journalism, however, it’s been a staple of doing business in Hollywood for ages.
Much to the chagrin of the Writers Guild of America, the screenwriter who’s never written a word for free is either a film school grad fresh off the bus from Cleveland or a raging narcissist without a single credit to his name. Writing on spec (that is, “speculation”) is what a screenwriter does to prove his mettle; it keeps his skills sharp and fills out his portfolio. But it’s also the entry fee many producers expect a screenwriter to pay for the “privilege” of landing a real, honest-to-God writing assignment. Even producers with deep pockets ask for a free draft before offering a fee, reduced or otherwise.
If you’ve got a writing credit or two in your pocket, you can afford to be principled and pass. Maybe another, paying screenwriting opportunity will soon come along. But when you’re just starting out, wondering if the dream is ever going to happen for you — how do you say no?
The truth is, you shouldn’t. In some cases, anyway.
The key to knowing when you should or should not write a script for free is making an accurate assessment of who’s doing the asking. Is this “producer” a real pro or a poseur? Will he keep his word to adequately reward you for all your hard work at the back end or are all his promises likely to be a lie? Can he get a deal for his project made so that everyone involved gets paid, or is he just as likely to go nowhere with it as you would be on your own?
These are tough calls to make, and it’s all too easy to screw them up. I know, because I’ve done it. And oddly enough, it’s not the times I agreed to work for free that I regret most, but the times I didn’t. I have a considerable ego, in case you hadn’t noticed, so being asked to do something for free that others get paid to do has never sat well with me. Looking back at some of the chances I had to write on assignment sans fee, I can count one or two that, in retrospect, were probably golden. But I turned them down.
Moi, write for free? You must be joking.
The lesson I think I’ve learned — as late as I am in getting around to it — is that not every person (editor, producer, agent, etc.) asking you to write something for little or no compensation is a crook looking to exploit you. Sometimes, the risk of writing for free is one well worth taking.
When faced with the choice of writing on spec or not, let your head decide the matter for you, not your pride.