A writer who has no agent, or an ineffective agent, meets with a producer. The producer is a fan of the writer's work and the pair get along. Before long, they're tossing out ideas, pitching each other ideas for movies. Soon they've settled on something that began with the producer. Maybe it was a concept, maybe just a character or a situation that the producer came up with in the shower that morning. The producer asks the writer -- Wanna work on it with me? Naturally, the hungry writer says Yes. Twenty minutes later, the writer leaves the producer's office with dialogue and story beats bubbling through his or her head, determined to walk back into the producer's office in a few weeks with the basic outline for a story based on the producer's idea.
And when the writer returns, the producer loves it. Notes are given, encouragement is given, the producer regales the writer with a list of all the places he can take once it is written. Of course the writer, if he or she has representation, is thinking – The producer's gonna call my agent, right? He knows he needs to pay me to actually do the writing, right?
Wrong. The producer calls nobody. When pressed, he tells the writer this project needs to be kept under wraps. Or he tells the writer he has no money. Or he gives the writer vague answers to all the writer's questions and then, if the writer gets ahold of someone willing to represent him – say, a lawyer like myself – the producer fesses up: We're not gonna pay your client anything up front. Reason – We don't have to. After all, in the current climate, there's plenty of desperate screenwriters willing to work for free on the chance that, when the script is completed, the producer will take it out and sell it to a studio for big money.
Over the years, I've watched more screenwriters' careers die from this insipient malady than I care to recall. Now you might be saying to yourself – if you're a struggling writer – that working for a producer, albeit without pay, is a lot better than working for nobody. But hold on, think about it; once you're done, that script is effectively the producer's property. I'm not saying that the script is legally the property of the producer; that's another issue entirely. I'm saying that is effectively the property of the producer. Here's how it works, more often than not ...
The writer agrees to write the script on spec. Six months later, he or she hands it to the producer. The producer reads it and, for whatever reason, doesn't like it. Maybe it's not what he expected. Maybe he's moved on emotionally and doesn't love the concept anymore. The reason doesn't really matter; after all, there's a million reasons to dislike a script. And if any of those reasons exist, the producer will just forget the whole thing and let it blow away. When the writer calls, the producer may just sit there and let the phone ring. And if he does answer, he may say he likes it and he's given it to some big-name director/star/financier/studio executive to read. And he hasn't heard back. And that's it. The writer got nothing.
And not only did the writer get nothing for his or her work, the writer didn't even come away with a usable sample to show other producers, or agents, or whoever else. That's because if the writer tries to show that script around town the producer will either: (a) tell people it's no good, (b) tell people it was his idea and you're a jerk for not putting his name on it, or (c) tell the writer he's committing copyright infringement by trying to sell it without giving the producer proper credit or money from a potential sale.
Which effectively kills the baby before it's ever born and leaves the writer with a tainted script, as opposed to the totally original, amazingly-written spec you might have written during that time when you were slaving away for the producer who now dodges your calls.
If you think this scenario is uncommon, think again. Producers love free work and "developing a spec" with a writer is as free as it gets. It's a demeaning substitute for actual employment and it occurs whenever producers meet writers who lack leverage, either because they have weak (or no) representation or because they don't have a great spec to show that gives them leverage. In most cases, the antidote to this pernicious malady is to say Thanks-but-no to the producer, make a hot pot of coffee and convene a development meeting with yourself. Once you come out with idea you'd like to write, get working. Whatever you come away with will be all yours.
Are you a writer seeking representation? Call (973) 376-8585 or email Greg DePaul at firstname.lastname@example.org.