Working without compensation is one of those issues that a lot of people have really strong feelings about, regardless of what side of the spectrum those feelings fall.
In general, support for the idea of working for free is something along the lines of, “You never know what opportunities will pan out, so you should take chances, even if there’s no money involved.”
Conversely, opposition to the idea of working for free is usually based on the argument that working for free establishes no value for your work, and can very quickly lead to getting taken advantage of.
So which one of these positions is correct?
The short answer? Both are correct.
FREE WORK IS BAD
Agreeing to work for free at every turn definitely devalues your writing and often leads to getting taken advantage of. If you’re quick to agree to every little thing a creative executive, rep, or producer asks of you, many will absolutely take advantage of that willingness and will exploit it. (It’s not always malicious when they do it, but exploitation is exploitation regardless of motive.) Worse, with every free bit of work you do, it becomes increasingly harder to put your foot down and say, “I know I did those last nine drafts for free, but I really think you should pay me for this one.”
You’d think working for free would be a good way to get your foot in the door. That way, when you do ask to actually be compensated, they’ll readily agree because you’re such a great team player who’s paid your dues. In most cases, you’d be wrong.
Take it from someone who spent years working in development; a lot of executives’ and/or producers’ interest in a project is directly tied to how little they’re paying for it. Free drafts are no risk for them. Sure, they spend their time reading and providing notes, but they don’t actually have put any skin in the game by going to their boss or the finance guys or their business partners and asking for approval to spend money. Once they do that, they’re signaling that they believe enough in a project to make a financial commitment to it.
And it is remarkable how often interest in a project dissipates when faced with the prospect of actually spending real money on it. That project they were so enthusiastic about just a few weeks ago while they encouraged you to write draft after draft suddenly becomes something they don’t know if they can sell to their boss, studio, etc. right now.
When that’s the case, it is infinitely better to know how they really feel before you’ve invested months or even years of your life doing nine drafts.
FREE WORK IS GOOD
Now, at the other end of the spectrum, writers who refuse to do any work at all without money attached can quickly find themselves cut out of the development process. The mercurial nature of the business means there are actually times when a little work can make a big difference, and money just isn’t feasible at that time.
- Smaller production companies don’t always have the development budgets to spend on multiple steps across dozens of projects. With the changes in industry revenue models over the last few years, precious few companies can still afford to actually spend hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars a year on a whole slate of projects hoping that the volume development game pays off sooner or later. Most of them have to very judiciously choose where to allocate their resources.
- Producers, managers, junior executives, and others whom rely on someone else to give them a greenlight (this also includes smaller production companies without a distribution deal, by the way) genuinely want to put their best foot forward with their business partners. Since scripts are a creative, subjective product, it’s not unusual that they have thoughts and suggestions about what could be improved to make it more appealing to their colleagues.
- In certain circumstances, small amounts of work are needed to meet certain business requirements. Maybe a couple lines have to be tweaked to get approval from the Chinese censors. Maybe a location fell through at the last minute and they need to figure out how to change the scene in the museum to a scene in a library. Maybe they have a great actor attachment, but the actor wants a cameo for his buddy who always wanted to be a cowboy and now you have to figure out how to add a scene with a cowboy in it to your gritty cop drama so this actor will sign on.
Some of that stuff may seem ridiculous, but it happens all the time. And if you’re the kind of writer who says, “Well technically that revised scene would constitute a change to the narrative and that makes it a rewrite not a polish according to the definitions in the WGA‘s Minimum Basic Agreement so I won’t make that change for a penny less than $36,346!” there’s a pretty good chance that your project won’t move forward if it’s still in the development stages, or that they’ll get someone else who’s willing to play ball and do the work as a polish if they’re already down the road on it.
In all my years in the industry, very few people I’ve met are genuine scumbags who are out to maliciously take advantage of writers. Most managers, execs, producers, and everyone else are just doing what they think they need to do to get a movie made. And if that means asking the writer to make a few changes to the script to improve its chances with whatever issue they’re grappling with? Well…
The trick is figuring out when it’s appropriate to be a team player, and when it’s appropriate to stand up for the value of your work and your time.
THE MIDDLE GROUND
It’d be nice if there were a hard and fast rule I could point you to, or if I could show you a clear line in the sand where you always knew when you’re going too far to one side or the other. But the truth of the matter is that this is a judgment call all writers have to make at some point. You have to look at the particulars of the situation and decide whether the free work you’re being asked to do is reasonable and feasible.
There are some cases where even a handful of small notes that would take a couple hours to implement might be a bridge too far. Conversely, there are times when doing a page one rewrite on spec might be appealing for some reason. For me with my own writing, it largely depends on four things:
- The amount of work I’m being asked to do
- The time it will take to do the work
- How much I think these changes will make a difference
- Whether I have any other opportunities this would take time away from
You always need to look at the amount of work and the time it’ll take to complete. It’s one thing if someone’s asking you to do them a solid by freely implementing a set of notes that takes you a couple of afternoons. It’s another thing if someone’s set of notes will require weeks and weeks of work on your part.
More importantly, though, you also have to decide whether the changes will make a difference and/or improve the work. There are a lot of times where that might not be the case and, for me, the only free work I’m willing to do is that which I think is a net positive for the project.
You also have to consider your other opportunities. Don’t do free work if it’s taking time and energy away from your other endeavors. Whether it’s another writing project or a day job or even time with your family, weigh the time and effort you’d be expending on this free work and make sure you’re not losing out on something more valuable by doing free work for someone else.
And writers, keep in mind that the time you spend writing another spec has value. This is a writing industry built on output, so don’t mistakenly think that doing a free rewrite for an exec is automatically a better use of your time than working on a new spec. The value of bringing a new product to market should not be discounted, especially if the alternative is doing a set of notes for free on an existing project that has you feeling like you’re just spinning your wheels.
Finally, keep in mind that free work is a bit of a misnomer. Unpaid work might be a better term because, truly, you should think very carefully before doing work for someone else for which you derive absolutely zero benefit.
Get something for your work.
If you’re being asked to do work on your script without pay, consider other things you can get in trade. In particular, ownership of the work. Whenever I consider unpaid work, I make sure that the other party and I are 100% clear that I will own the results and proceeds of that material. As I mentioned in my post about sterile scripts, if you’re under a work for hire contract, the company owns the writing you do at their instruction. But if the company wants you to write for no pay, make sure the work for hire clause doesn’t apply to that writing. If they aren’t paying for it, they shouldn’t own it. Plus, if things go south, at the very least you’ll walk away with additional writing material available for your use in the future.
Writing for free (or at least unpaid writing) can be a tricky situation under the best of circumstances. It’s not always easy to figure out when you’re being a good team player and when you’re letting someone take advantage of you. The best thing you can do for yourself is always question the nature of the unpaid work that’s asked of you, and to honestly assess whether you feel good about doing it. If you don’t, there’s literally nothing to lose by walking away and focusing on your other endeavors.