How can screenwriters tell if supposed Hollywood insiders interested in their scripts are legitimate or not?
First and foremost, screenwriters need to know that Hollywood is not looking to rip you off. Too many screenwriters fear the worst when trying to market their work through email queries, submission sites, contests, competitions, or fellowships.
Learn everything you need to know about screenwriting contests, competitions and fellowships with this free guide.
Yes, there are bad apples out there, but you can’t live in a world of fear when it comes to your screenplays.
The truth is, legitimate studios, producers, managers, agents, and development executives would rather option, purchase, or sign your screenplay than steal it and face a troublesome and embarrassing lawsuit.
What screenwriters need to worry about most are those empty offers and promises brought forth by small-time wannabe producers, agents, managers, and filmmakers.
Screenwriters are bombarded by rejection from Hollywood left and right. Even the most successful screenwriters experience more rejection than success in their careers. So it’s easy to understand why screenwriters get so excited when someone shows interest in their screenplays.
But all too often, some gestures are just a waste of time and effort on your end.
Here we feature some of the most common phrases and offers that are clear signs of, for lack of a better word, bullshit. Screenwriters can use these as a general BS Detector as they navigate through their screenwriting journeys. Utilizing this information can save you time, effort, and heartache.
You’ve likely heard this before in screenwriting job boards and list sites that post potential screenwriting jobs.
“Screenwriter and producer will have a 50/50 share of any script acquisition amount.”
This, or any variation of it offering you 50% of the script sale price, is a clear red flag. No screenwriter should be excited by any such offer. While these types of deals do happen in the indie world when screenwriters partner with indie producers or directors, no legitimate film industry or television producer offers these types of contracts.
If they are legit, they will offer you one of three opportunities:
- A shopping agreement where they have the right to shop your script to potential buyers. These days, this is a free option.
- An option agreement where they will pay you a fee to option the rights of your script for a certain amount of time to shop it to potential buyers. Back in the 90s, option fees could be as high as $10,000 or more. These days, options don’t happen too often. The shopping agreement is the better alternative in this risk-averse Hollywood after the 2007-2008 WGA Strike and economic collapse. You may be able to secure $500-$2000 for a six-month or year-long option, but a majority of the time, it’ll be a shopping agreement.
- An outright purchase agreement where they pay you anywhere from Guild Minimums to six or seven-figure deals. If the company is non-signatory (not signed with the Writers Guild of America), the payment amounts can be less than Guild Minimums.
If an “agent” or “manager” has approached you and they offer a 50/50 deal, that’s another red flag as well.
Representation takes 10-15% of any script sale or writing assignment that they package for their client. There is no such thing as a 50/50 split deal for agents and managers.
So if you are offered such a deal, or are reading it on some screenwriting job board site, your BS Detector should be going off loudly.
“PAID” Writing Gigs Listed on Screenwriting Job Board Sites
“Selected scripts will be considered for an option agreement with a payment based on the budget and payable upon production.”
This is a typical listing on screenwriting “job” sites.
This type of offer is a glorified free option agreement. The individual or company will ask you to sign over the exclusive right to shop your script — meaning that you can’t shop the script anywhere else while under contract with them — and there will be no payment until they’ve gone through the process of selling your screenplay.
This process, on their end, entails doing almost exactly what you would be doing while marketing your script. They’ll network and work their contact list. They’ll query certain bigger production companies and studios. They’ll try to package the script with a director, star, and producer.
This is a complicated process and chances are that it’s not going to happen.
In the indie world, yes, this is a deal that happens often. But too many screenwriters don’t look deeper into the details. All they see is the initial purchase offer of $40,000 to $250,000 (or whatever equivalent) mentioned in the job description, which is listed as a PAID writing gig. It’s very misleading for novice screenwriters.
You’re essentially in the same boat as you are trying to market the script yourself. They may have some more contacts than you do, but the odds of selling a script are virtually the same. You’re better offer marketing the script to agents and managers with an excellent clientele base or submitting the script to some of the better contests, competitions, and fellowships that can attach you to a great agency, management company, or get you into the rooms of development executives and major producers.
If you see a post for a “paid” writing gig or are offered a similar deal like this, it should be a clear red flag for your BS Detector.
Writer Will Receive a Piece of the Backend When Sold/A.K.A. “Share of Profits”
“Paid” writing gig offers like those mentioned above are often paired with this statement. The idea is that the writer will receive a piece of the backend from the sale price of the eventual film.
Anyone that knows film finance will be chuckling at this notion. Hollywood accounting is notorious for deeming a film unprofitable with creative accounting measures, to avoid paying contracted backend percentages offered to producers, co-producers, and yes, even lowly screenwriters.
Net points, which is another term used for backend shares, are those only given after the studio, distributors, investors, and above-the-line talent (directors, executive producers, and stars) recoup their invested money.
Without getting too long-winded about Hollywood accounting, let’s just say that studios make sure that they don’t have to share those net points. They do so by creative accounting that has a studio charging itself a huge percentage of profits for their own distribution of the film.
Let’s put it this way. Return of the Jedi is still deemed unprofitable according to Hollywood account records, even though it was a huge earner. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is often listed as a net loser despite earning nearly $3 billion at the box office. The original Batman, to this day, shows a deficit of $36 million despite making $411 million.
So if those major films are listed as non-moneymakers (they made a lot of profits for the above-the-line mind you), the idea of a screenwriter like yourself earning any money on the backend is doubtful.
Thus, this is a clear red flag and your BS Detector should be on high alert.
These Apply to Screenwriting Assignments As Well
Yes, these clear BS Detector red alerts are applicable for writing assignment gigs as well.
Most legit writing assignments will pay you according to the Guild Minimums or a variation of them. When you’re hired by a true Hollywood player — studio, producer, or production company — you’ll get paid for your work, partly upfront with the rest upon delivery of your various drafts.
If you’re offered a writing gig that pays upon sale of the script, sale of the movie, or with net points, your BD Detector should be ringing loud.
Exceptions to These Red Flags
Yes, there is a time and place that you, the screenwriter, may still want to pursue these types of deals. It’s nice to get something produced. The indie market doesn’t have the money that Hollywood does, so sometimes these types of contracts will be offered.
When you’re working with indie producers and filmmakers, sacrifice is felt at the top of the totem pole to the bottom. Actors — even major stars — take reduced fees. Lower budget filmmakers work for free.
But even with indie projects, you should exercise due diligence to get paid.
Read ScreenCraft’s How to Negotiate a Screenwriting Contract Without Representation!
And Don’t Forget About Agents and Managers
If anyone charges you any upfront money for them to represent you, no matter how big or small that amount is, run like the wind. It’s bullshit.
The grind of the screenwriting journey is not an easy one to take. You face endless rejection, and you struggle to even get into the conversation at all. So it’s essential for every screenwriter to make sure that their time and efforts are well spent.
For that to happen, every screenwriter needs a great BS Detector.
Yes, it’s nice to hear someone say that they love your script or your writing and want to “pay” you for it. But it’s a waste to seek out that false hope and false sense of security and acceptance. You’re better than that. You deserve more. And as long as you’ve taken the time to hone your craft, your writing deserves better as well.
It’s best to deal with the power players in Hollywood. There are many of them, beyond the major studios and producers we read about all of the time.
When someone approaches you, research them. Look them up on IMDBPro and see what their credits are. If no credits are attached to their name or company name, you know that you’re dealing with either an indie producer that has yet to get anything made or a wannabe producer that is struggling to do the same.
Anyone can call themselves a producer, manager, or agent. Just because they have a website or list such a credit on their LinkedIn profile doesn’t mean that they are what they are presenting themselves to be.
Build yourself a good BS Detector — starting with all of the red flags mentioned above.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies