Well, it’s certainly okay to work for free when you are working on your own specs, but do your best to avoid any free work for a producer or production company. Some will dangle a carrot at every step and try to entice you to work for no pay. They’ll offer you a possible option or grandiose promises of actors they can attach or a distant production date. Forget it. If they are truly serious, they will offer a contract and pay you for your writing services. It’s the only way a professional works. Hollywood’s feeder fish live at the bottom of the food chain and look to prey on hungry screenwriters who are eager to work for anyone who shows interest in their work. Avoid these scumbags at all costs. Don’t be afraid to walk away.
My actor friends constantly spec when they prepare for auditions. Many times a great deal of work goes into preparing for the part and the five minutes they’ll get in front of the casting director. This might also include some research and rehearsal. Sometimes they’re asked to submit the audition by video and spend hours filming it and getting it just right. The entire process is unpaid, but the necessary spec work an actor must do to nail an audition and get the part. If they get the part, that’s when the free spec work ends.
Screenwriters go through the same process when we spec out our ideas. The key is to know just how much work you are willing to do for free on any given idea, especially if it isn’t yours. I recently had a great meeting with a known TV actress who was looking for a writer to develop ideas with her for a show. There were no specifics, but once we met and bounced ideas around, I had a better understanding of what she was looking to develop and I also was able to get a read on her personality. I came up with an idea that I thought would be perfect for her and I wrote it up in a two page synopsis. I was doing this on spec and not getting paid, but took into account of who she is in the business and the doors she could open if she liked my idea. It was a total of about ten hours of my time including our lunch meeting.
She loved my idea and presented my synopsis to her manager and her potential co-star and they both loved it too. Surprisingly, I was able to leap over three major hurdles with the trio—any one of them could have disliked my idea and it would have died on the vine. Now the stakes became raised as my idea moved into new territory by their combined interest. I reevaluated this new scenario and had to consider just how much more work I was willing to do for free. Luckily, the synopsis was enough. I was not asked to do any more spec work as they are professionals who play at a certain level of the business. They also know I am a professional who gets paid to write. As a nice extra, I was able to generate some new heat on myself as I was now “developing” an original idea with a known actress.
Eventually the idea did not go into development as the actress had a prior commitment with a company where she has a deal. She did ask me if I would be willing to revisit my idea sometime in the future and I agreed. As a result of this opportunity, I made a fantastic connection with her and showcased my ability to tailor an idea to a specific actor—all for just ten hours of my time. I genuinely feel the spec work I did was worth my time and it may payoff sometime in the future.
Always consider the players involved if asked to spec an idea for a producer, actor, director or executive. If they ask you to write a detailed treatment, a full episode, or screenplay—politely refuse and remind them that you don’t work for free. If you easily rollover and start working for free, they will lose respect for you and like a blackmailer—it never ends. Each time you work for free, you end up paying them with your most precious commodity—time. Professional writers get paid when they write. If someone shows interest in your project, they should pay you something to move forward. It’s the test of a true professional.
Early in my career, I dealt with a producer who loved my screenplay and I thought his interest meant that he was serious. Then came the notes and his expectation of free work. He began to string me along and told me, “if you do another draft with our notes, we just might option your script.” I told him that I don’t work for free and quickly found out that his interest was just interest. It’s the cheapest commodity around Hollywood having someone being “interested” in your screenplay. The real test is when they buy your script or pay you to write—that’s real interest. If you are going to spec an idea and work for free, consider the players and how much of your time you will spend. If you agree to move forward with the work, spend enough time to make it great, but not too much time so you feel used. Remember, never be afraid to say “no.” They’ll respect you more when you act as a professional screenwriter by not working for free.
“Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money”—Jules Renard
“God sells us all things at the price of the labor”—Leonardo da Vinci
“… The payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”