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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Writing Spec Scripts
March 15, 2001


Question:

What if an independent producer asks you to write a screenplay based on somebody's book -- but doesn't want to pay you until he sells the project?

-- Anonymous

OSC Replies:

Spec scripts -- everybody writes them because we have to, even though union rules forbid it. But heck, they won't let us into the union yet anyway, right?

But you're in a much trickier position, because you're doing an adaptation. You have to get proof from the producer that he has the rights and is hiring you to write the script. If he can't prove he has the rights, you can't adapt a book by someone else. It's that simple. So it could all go in the toilet then.

Furthermore, just because he can't pay you doesn't mean it has to be on spec. Quite the contrary. He is hiring you to write the script. But he can't pay you. So what? Do it for $1 in advance, and then set the fee as, say, $30,000 upon the beginning of principal photography plus an amount of, say, 1% of the budget of the film up to a total owed to you of $80,000 (if it has an 8 million dollar budget). Furthermore, if he decides he does not like your script and will not use it, he still owes you the $30,000 when the film on this subject, with him attached in any way, begins principal photography. Thus if he never makes the movie, he doesn't have to pay you. But if he ever makes it, even not using your script, you get a payday. This is very, very fair. And ... in addition, if he accepts your script (and acceptance = he shows it to anyone with an idea to casting, hiring, or soliciting investment), but does not make the film within X years (give him 3 or 4?), all rights to the script devolve on you (though you get no rights to the original on which it is based -- this is a normal separation of rights; it means that if anybody makes a film based on that book, they have to take your script into account and pay you something), and if you then succeed in selling it, the producer gets nothing except a refund of any amounts he actually paid you.

This is still writing on spec -- you don't know you'll get paid -- but it builds a body of protection of your rights so that if anybody gets paid for this, you definitely get paid. And that's fair. If he doesn't agree to that, then he's obviously planning to cheat you, and you shouldn't touch the project.

Also, if you don't care about the project, if it's just about career advancement, then you can't do a good job on it, so you should forget it anyway. You can only write projects you care about and believe in.

There you have it, Uncle Orson's Hollywood rip-off advice. You will get ripped off, but it doesn't have to be fun for the other guy <grin>.

-- 15 March 2001


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