It’s a simple question really. What value do you place on your skills as a screenwriter?

This question arose for me recently when I was asked about helping an aspiring writer with a script. The submitted draft was extremely poor. Scene headers were missing, the writing was almost exclusively ‘tell’ and the story lacked coherence.

Frankly the only positive was the basic concept.

I fed back to them and was willing to help with a redraft in any way that I could, but they quickly began to discuss just having someone else fix the script for them. This in and of itself isn’t a major issue. I’ve done rewrites and I’ve handed redrafts off to others. It’s a legitimate form of work for many writers.

I confess I was disappointed, as I am every time a writer would rather just hand off the rough work to someone else to fix instead of learning the craft and fixing it themselves. Still, the story had promise so I discussed possible routes.

For brevity we’ll put aside the obvious steps such as the screenwriting courses and the Fast Track Mentoring at Raindance itself. I outlined options related to having someone else write the script with some guidance from the original author as this seemed to be what they were most interested in. The options I outlined included an idea of fair costs based on experience of my own or writers I know.

Their response was what prompted this missive and my central question of: what are you worth?

They had no intention of paying the writer for their work. Not a single solitary penny. What the person in question wanted was a writer to give up several months of their life to adapting a memoir using the original author as a sounding board, with not even the remotest certainty of any benefit from it. Sure they hoped it would get green lit and they were willing to profit share*, but they hadn’t the faintest idea whether the project would get picked up, and had no way of being sure the writer responsible for the adaptation would be kept on even if it was. All they had in their favour was unsubstantiated name dropping that anyone can do.

Watch:

I can get access to James Gunn, who wrote and directed Guardians of the Galaxy.
Now prove whether I’m lying.

When anyone starts out in this business they do so with the hope of achieving a career. Their discipline doesn’t matter, we all still want to be seen as being good enough to earn money from what we do.

No matter how little that might be.

To have someone who cared so little for the craft to be seeking to make use of a writer’s skills for free was, to put it mildly, disappointing. At the same time I fear it’s a culture that we’re fostering ourselves.

So often people just starting out are desperate enough to make inroads in the industry that they’re willing to work for free. This fact has now become so widespread it’s known of outside the industry and is beginning to prompt people with a lack of skills to try and take advantage of eager and skilled filmmakers just looking to get noticed.

It’s bad practice, and it risks setting a dangerous precedent of people being used and cast aside once they’ve outlived their usefulness.

So we return to the central question: what are you worth?

Ask yourself this each time an opportunity comes your way, regardless of the discipline you work in within the industry. It is fine to work for free if you’re sure that there’s at least a reasonable possibility of some legitimate, tangible benefit to you as a filmmaker or as a person. If people didn’t bite the bullet occasionally and take the risk then the industry wouldn’t be what it is today. Just take a moment to ask yourself what you’re worth, and whether the gig you’re being asked to take part in is worth the same.

*As a side point: those at the beginning of their careers often agree to a profit share. This usually occurs when the project is all but guaranteed to go in front of a camera: case in point would be a dear friend who takes a minimal payment up front in exchange for developing a script because the person he works with has a track record of getting scripts into production.

Profit sharing is perhaps more suitable for those with more active production roles – cinematographers, editors, actors – wherein even if the film never gets released, they can at least come away with something for their showreel. A few clipped scenes make it a little more difficult for a screenwriter to make use of unfinished footage.