by Fin Wheeler
[Editor’s note: This is the second part of an article about writing on speculation for a third party, which essentially means writing someone else’s idea for them without any guarantee of pay or credit. Check out the first part here.]
Working on speculation could get me a reputation as a good, reliable screenwriter, right?
No. This is a high-risk, multi-billion dollar industry. Each person and each thing on every project is insured and insurable. That means everything has an assigned price tag. If you agree to work for zero, in the mind of that producer you get the zero price tag.
If a producer sees value in your work, they will pay for it. They then turn around to their investors and say, “Look, I paid for this. I put my own money into seeding this because I believe in it so much.” The investor then adds to that fiscal confidence. If you’re not paid from the start, you’re often overlooked if and when the money does come. An established writer is hired, not you.
What are the other pitfalls of writing on speculation?
You have no protection. When someone puts a call out and says they’re a producer who wants a screenwriter to write up their idea into a screenplay, several people will respond. Without a binding exclusive contract, you’ve got no way of knowing how many other screenwriters have been “commissioned” for exactly the same job. What’s the point in slaving away for zero money and just the vague promise of a “written by” credit somewhere down the line, when in actual fact the “producer” has made the exact same promise to all ten unpaid screenwriters who responded to the ad?
Another pitfall is that you can’t show the finished script to anyone without the written consent of the person who holds the rights. (Unless you bought it, the concept remains theirs.) So you’ll have put all that time and effort into something that you can’t even use as a writing sample.
The biggest long-term pitfall of writing for free on zero-budget productions is that you never learn the correct way of writing and rewriting. The bad habits you pick up on non-professional productions are the things that will get you fired from your first (and only) professional gig.
But what if I really believe in the concept?
I would question why you want to be a writer if you believe in someone else’s ideas more than your own. But, if someone floats an idea that sparks something in you, there are two options:
First, you can buy the rights to the underlying idea. For example, you can get them to write a treatment/short story. You can then buy the rights to the unpublished short story for a nominal fee and write the screen adaptation. If they like your script, they can option your screenplay and try to get it made. If they haven’t managed to get investor interested after 6-12 months, you can renew your option on the underlying material (the short story that your screenplay is based on) and you can take your spec and pitch it yourself to producers.
You don’t make much money this way, but there’s no risk either. The contract gives you exclusivity, meaning the producer can’t let anyone else write the idea up as a screenplay. In a roundabout way, the producer is putting all their eggs in one basket, and saying you’re the best and only person to write the screenplay. And further along in your career, professional producers will respect the way you went about things.
The other option when you hear an idea you like is to just ask yourself what it is about their concept you’re drawn to. It’s possible you don’t like the actual idea; it’s just that the theme has really struck a chord with you. In that case, come up with an entirely different premise, story, protagonist and genre, but explore the same key theme in an original spec that you fully own and will be free to sell.
What’s the difference between writing on speculation and “deferred payment”?
Deferred payment is an old term from the pre-digital days. Independent filmmakers, who have worked on many paid productions together, will often help each other out on their passion projects.
Typically, an independent filmmaker will have built a body of work and a solid reputation. They would approach their investors and distributor with their potential new project and ask for capital, sometimes the amount would be just enough for equipment hire, film purchase, and processing costs. In cases like that, everyone on the project would take a deferred payment (which they knew was actually going to happen), to get the film in the can. (If you weren’t around prior to YouTube, it’s possible you can’t understand the importance, and currency, distribution deals once had.)
These days distribution is never a certainty, and it doesn’t bring the big payday it used to. There are also not the massive celluloid film costs now that everything’s shot on digital, so the term “deferred payment” doesn’t really apply anymore.
If a non-professional producer is using the term, it might be their way of edging around the fact that there’ll be no income, or profit, on the project.
So, is it ever a good idea to write on speculation?
If the only way you learn is from making your own mistakes, perhaps there’s value in it for you.
But remember, no writer ever became famous writing someone else’s ideas. And a ghostwriter never gets rich writing someone else’s ideas for free.
What should an early-career screenwriter do instead?
Leave the pretend producers to the pretend screenwriters. They’ll no doubt be very happy together.
Write your own specs and pilots. Those you can freely sell, and see made into films. Pretty much every professional screenwriter gets their big break because of an original screenplay they wrote.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.