Should You Script Without a Deal?
January 13, 2021
As a writing hobbyist, you are doing the work; creating story premises, pitches, outlines and script drafts.
You have shared your drafts with friends, family, teachers and other writers. You got good feedback. You've become ready to do more writing and to pursue getting paid for it.
The question is, should you write a script without a deal?
If you are creating a portfolio of writing samples of existing shows or spec scripts to submit to writing fellowships, yes.
Your original writing work is yours; you own the title and all its proprietary rights. You may choose to sign a submission release to share it with an agent, manager, writing contest or paid review service.
But once you step into the professional realm where you desire to be paid for creating a teleplay or film script, the cautious answer is no. And that is coming from professional Writers Guild members who have multiple seasons of writing work on network air and streaming services.
Ideally, you want to create deliverables under contract. Your deal can be structured as work-for-hire or a partnership with deal points that define your attachment, fees, options, etc.
The key thing about finished scripts is that they can be optioned for relatively little money for three months to 18 months to years. During the option period, you can't do anything else with your project.
Contrast that with the smallest non-union or Writers Guild script fees you may earn for writing a script based on your pitch. Your employment for the contracted development period is not only validation as a professional but also real earnings and credit applicable to your writing career, IMDb and Guild membership application.
Furthermore, networks or production companies that develop programming may love to hear and read the stories you have to tell.
But the development process is challenging to enter and it definitely requires "baking in" the hiring entity's notes and brand identities. That takes hours of meeting and writing labor. Conventional wisdom says it's better for you as the writer to do the baking under a development deal rather than retrofit your optioned script for tiny fees.
After all, it's a challenge to position yourself and your writing to get a deal. Sometimes as a newbie writer it feels compelling to show what you can really do by handing over completed work. That is a risk, but a good one if you will be hired to write pitch documents and development deliverables. It pays off if all that work-for-hire leads to an opportunity to pitch and develop your own work. That does happen, but it's as rare as becoming a star actor; worth it but risky and inconsistent.
In the meantime, keep your day job while growing your side job as a writer.
Friends and family plan
Some folks you meet in person or online "just need a little help" to get their story ideas written and formatted correctly. Sometimes it's a boyfriend or cousin who desires writing labor to finesse their story concept. If you want to "help," that's fine — especially for shorter-format documents like treatments or outlines.
But treat it like lending out money: Is your labor a gift? Will you be disappointed if said contact or loved one doesn't treat you right if a business deal comes of your writing labor?
Hollywood and New York are filled with fake, self-titled "producers" whose projects go nowhere. You will meet them at festivals and screenings. You will meet them online.
And they will hype their body of work, flatter you, read your work and maybe even give you a WGA contract. You could even get paid for your first outline or drafts. But they may not actually complete all the steps to become a WGA signatory. And you will likely never see another dime for your hard work.
These paper-cutout producers could even be connected to a legitimate production company or television/streaming network. They may want to contract you as a producer and not as a writer to avoid tangling with WGA rules.
Deliverables without pay, without union protections and on spec is a dangerous game. You may learn from any collaborative writing process. But you are creating and your ideas are at stake. Remember: It's always your choice whether to play by bent rules.
If you are cool brainstorming and sharing, fair enough. But don't be surprised if your partners run off with your creative contribution, take your name off the pitch, script and budget and claim you did something wrong to end the collaboration.
These pitfalls are worth considering before writing for free or on a handshake agreement for your personal circle.
This is not hard and fast advice. This is just a matrix of ideas to consider if writing "on spec," lest your hard-wrought stories go nowhere with a muddled chain-of-title.
Try to take care to direct your writing work into professional channels that respect both your labor and intellectual property.
Written by: Tanya YoungTanya Young is an Afro-Indigenous filmmaker and VR/AR artist focused on comedy and harm reduction using narrative storytelling and 360° immersive experiences. Her teleplay won the 2001 George Foster Peabody Award and the 2002 Literacy in Media Award. She enjoyed eight years as a Development Executive at MTV Networks before becoming a Producer with Simmons-Lathan Media Group. Her Indigenous requiem for George Floyd will be featured in upcoming American arts festivals. Tanya currently works as Head Writer of an improv sitcom and Producer of a zombie film. She was appointed Director of Development for the California Men’s Group Film Festival in West Hollywood, Administrator of the Native American Casting Group, and Board Member of the HIV Writers Workshop at Cedars-Sinai. This socially-conscious dramaturge is a graduate of The Onion’s 2020 Diverse-As-F*ck Comedy Festival, the UCB Sunset stage, 2020 David Axelrad Screenwriting Fellowship, and Columbia University.