9 Things Screenwriters Should Consider Before Signing Contracts

By February 16, 2016 No Comments

So congratulations to your present or future self. You've defied all odds and have someone interested and they've made an offer.

Before you sign that contract though, please stop and ask yourself these nine questions.

1. What Can They Do For You?

Whether it's an offer for representation, to option or purchase your script, or for a writing assignment, you need to remember that despite all of the talk about your writing and what the powers that be can do with it, in the end, this is about you. What can these people do for you?

Screenwriters too often take the first deal that comes along. They're desperate for any type of success after the constant rejection. The worst mistake that you can make is to jump into any deal out of desperation. This opening question opens the doors for the rest, but always remember that any contract you sign isn't just about how you can help their business. It's about how they can help you achieve your dreams.

2. What Contacts Do They Have?

Do they really know anyone? There are so many wannabe producers and managers in Hollywood and beyond. They may have interned at a prestigious company and may have worked briefly for this or that name talent or perhaps they were part of the crew of some notable film. They may even have some IMDB credits for some indie films and shorts.

But who do they really know? What connections do they really have? If there's any question, it's not worth it to sign away your script or the right to represent your work. Do your research and ask those tough questions in that first meeting. Be respectful, but inquisitive. And be sure to keep your head out of the clouds because, yes, it's great to be wanted, but you never want to make a decision based on emotions. Calculate everything.

3. Who Do They Represent and What Credits Do They Have?

If you're considering signing with a manager or agent, pay particular attention to their client base. This is usually just a click or two away with a visit to IMDBPro. Their client base — or lack thereof — will be the most telling aspect of whether or not they are worth signing with. Unless they're hot off their internship or assistant position at a major agency or management company — or you see that they're working at one of the majors — no client base usually means that they're unproven and untested. It can be a gamble. Sure, it's exciting to have representation, but it's even more exciting to be signed with someone that is representing writers that are getting legitimate work in the film or television industry.

If you're being offered an option or purchase price by a producer, check and see what credits they have to their name. If there aren't any, you may want to reconsider signing on the dotted line, especially if they're only offering a $1 option or "paid upon film packaging" deals. Which leads us to our next question...

4. What Are the Guarantees?

Again, it's about you and what you really get out of all of this? We all know that it's great to go out and tell your friends and family that you just signed with a manager, agent, or producer. Writers are always hoping for any validation in the eyes of their peers, however, such validation is empty unless they're actually going to benefit from it.

Many "producers" these days offer $1 options. They'll preach about how this is a common practice. They'll mention how Stephen King has offered $1 options on his lesser known stories. Such anecdotes back up their sales pitch, but in all actuality, it just gives them an excuse to be cheap.

What do you get out of a $1 option? What do you get out of a promise that you'll be paid when a deal is made and financing is secured? Usually nothing, as you take your script and your writing off the open market because you signed a contract based on the emotion that you just want to say that you signed a deal. A hard truth in this day and age, but everyone needs a little tough love now and then.

For representation, what will they be doing for you? Will they go the extra mile? Will they push hard until your script is sold or they've secured an assignment for you? These are necessary questions you need to ask yourself.

Even for legitimate contracts, you need to know that the end contract dollar amount isn't always guaranteed money. You're usually paid per draft, but the catch is, after that first draft, the contracts usually state (in the fine print) that you can be replaced at any time. So if you sign a contract for eighty thousand dollars, that amount is actually divided into three or four drafts, and if you write that first draft, sure, you'll get paid a good chunk, but if they don't like what they see they can replace you while still retaining the rights to your story.

Learn more with ScreenCraft's How Much Do Screenwriters REALLY Make?

5. What Are They Asking For?

If any representation asks you for money upfront, run like the wind. You don't pay someone to represent you. They get paid when you get paid.

If producers are asking you for a free rewrite before you see one single dime, you need to decide whether you think that is right for you or not.

Again, don't just sign the contract because you're excited to say that you have. Make sure that you know exactly what they are asking for and exactly what they expect of you.

6. How Long Will That Option Last?

A producer comes to you and says that they want to option that script. Regardless of what money is or isn't offered, you have to pay attention to how long that option will last.

Amazon Studios made writers think twice about signing with them after seeing that the option time was 18 months with a contracted option for them to renew for another 18 months. That's a long time to have your script off the market and you're only making $10,000 per option and per renewal. Sure, that's $20,000 — take away taxes and other variables and it will be gone before you know it — however, that's 3 years of having your script off the market, and for what? $20,000? Less than $7,000 per year when you could possibly be taking that script out to make WGA scale at the very least, which is upwards of nearly four times that amount?

What could happen in that time span of that option? What deals could you be missing and how could those possible deals lead to others?

Be aware of the big picture. Even if you're given a little money these days — after the 2008 economic collapse, options are pretty scarce and cheap — ask yourself if it's worth it.

7. Do They Want to Manage Your Career or Just Sell That One Script?

When you are considering signing with a manager, this will be the most important question you ask yourself. Some managers look at you and see a writer with a promising career ahead. Others are just looking at your hot script.

Know that you want the manager that is in it for the long haul. You don't want them to be so focused on that hot script to the point when things don't pan out for it, they've forgotten about you, the writer, and stop returning your calls, stop reading your scripts, and eventually drop you all together, either officially or unofficially as your contract time expires. It can be heartbreaking.

Sometimes you have to take what you can get, sure. It's a tough business, we know that. But know that you want the manager that wants to manage your career, not just sell that hot script. You want the manager that wants to get you assignments, that wants to guide you as you choose your next spec, that truly wants to manage your career and is willing to stick with you through the dry spells.

8. Money or Longevity?

Should you take the money and run or should you wait to sign with someone that is actually going to get it made?

Who wouldn't want to be put in this position? It's a good question to have to struggle with. Damon and Affleck were offered big money to hand over Good Will Hunting. Sylvester Stallone was offered big money to hand over Rocky. Imagine if any of them had taken the money and run. Where would their careers be today?

It's easy to be swayed by dollar signs. Writers struggle. Not just with rejection and emotional duress, but with poverty or having to work a day job that they hate. So naturally, being offered a great deal of money is tempting. But remember that this is Hollywood, the land where studios can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars securing a script that will never see the big or small screen. There are hundreds upon hundreds of purchased scripts sitting on the shelf collecting dust. How does that help the writer in the long run?

So ask yourself, "Do I want a quick paycheck or do I want to see this film get made, which could lead to a career of doing what I love?"

It's a choice you have to make. So choose, but choose wisely.

9. Are You Ready?

Opportunities can sneak up on you when you least expect it. Are you ready for a little success? Do you have the experience to take on a major writing assignment that will require your full attention? Are you ready to have your script taken out by someone and are you ready to answer that first question from the powers that be when you get into those meetings: "What else do you have?"

Are you ready? This is the first question you, as a screenwriter, should ask yourself before you ever market that first screenplay because all-too-often you only have one first impression to make and one big opportunity to take advantage of, and you don't want to burn those bridges too quickly.

If the answer is no, you're not ready, be patient. Know that it takes time to be ready. It often takes 3-5 scripts to be ready. It takes a couple of years or more to make those mistakes you need to make and to learn from them in order to be ready.

Sometimes it's worth it to wait. It's worth it to take the time to become the best writer you can be for when those opportunities do arrive.

If there's anything that an up-and-coming screenwriter hopes for most, it's to attain representation or sign that first option, sale, or assignment deal. To do so would be to hurdle over that annoying catch-22 scenario that is so omnipresent in Hollywood — in order to get your scripts read by the powers that be, you have to have representation, but in order to attain representation, you have to have the powers that be interested in your script.

But don't let that desire cloud your reason, and know that these nine things you should consider before signing on the dotted line are not words of hyperbole passed down through six degrees or more of separation through endless screenwriting books and guru declarations. And these are not based in the context of the screenwriting boom era of the 1980s and 1990s, as is the case in so many books and websites. They've been learned the hard way and apply to today's world as a screenwriter waiting for that dream to come true.