A Screenwriter’s Basic Guide to Analysing Early Offers

Okay that’s perhaps a bit of an overly convoluted title but this isn’t a full guide supposed to cover every aspect of every deal a screenwriter can be presented with during their career. This is some basics to cover those early offers you may be presented with and to help you determine if you should maybe get excited or consider politely walking away into the sunset.

As you raise your profile in the screenwriting world, you’ll start to see messages come in with potential offers of collaboration. You’ll also find that any fantasies you had of remaining stoic and unwavering until George Lucas himself offers you the highest sum ever presented to a screenwriter quickly go out the window as the possibility of earning so much as a dime for writing suddenly feels like a king’s ransom and that once in a lifetime opportunity.

It’s a tough emotional place to find yourself, especially the first time you’re presented with certain offers and, as your career grows, new types of deals come to your table. Excitement, fear, and confusion are the recipe of the day as you go from feeling honoured to insulted and back again while reframing and rethinking the deal at hand. After all, this might be your big break, right? Or that dice you roll that really pays off in the long-run?

As you get a little battle-hardened by experience, you start to develop an instinct and a process for analysing the situation and I’m going to share what I’ve learned thus far.

Please keep in mind that I am not an entertainment lawyer and I am giving the following information as best to my knowledge. This information does not constitute business, intellectual property, copyright, or financial advice. You should do your own research and consult other sources than this article before making any business decisions that may affect your career. While I have aimed to give accurate information at time of writing, fees such as quoted guild rates can always be changed, and will most likely increase, at a later date.

I pay my bills by screenwriting, I get to work with stars within the top 5,000 on IMDB, and I get flown out to Hollywood to watch what I’ve written get made by a team I’m now incredibly close to. I’m by no means living the dream and I’m not quite getting those regular cheques just yet, but I have made a lot of sound business decisions that have led to me finally breaking in.

The Approach

How someone gets in contact you will quickly determine their professionalism and aptitude. If your email is easy to find, they should have gone to the effort of obtaining it. If you keep it hidden, it’s not unusual for industry members to reach out via LinkedIn, Facebook, Stage 32, Twitter, or even Instagram. The message itself may be detailed and formal or short and informal. Neither suggests good or bad so don’t be put off by what seems curt or overly casual. Hopefully the writing will be coherent providing the writer is operating in an English speaking region. Some slack should certainly be given to anybody writing in a second language from a non-English speaking part of the world. The reason for this is simple. If you’re cringing at what you’re reading then so is every professional they’re approaching, including any funding sources.

Some industry members, mainly the more established, can be a little mysterious in their approach, perhaps wanting to establish a friendship before talking about work. They may even go as far as to initially ask something from you to see if you’re willing to do a favour for a stranger.

They should, at the very least, get your name right and demonstrate they either have some knowledge of your body of work or are following up a recommendation. You may find that they’ve been looking at you and your work for some time and have already set the wheels in motion in certain areas such as getting second opinions on aspects of commerciality. Otherwise what you may have received is a bulk email or from someone who doesn’t see you as an individual and is instead contacting anybody with screenwriter in their job title.

Don’t worry if they’re using a Gmail/Yahoo/AOL email address, writing in blue coloured 8pt courier, or have a nasty looking email signature. The film world is still struggling to move on from the fax machine. That said, if they have an email signature containing the words “script consultant”, “script doctor”, or “script services” then delete the message, format your machine, remove the drive, and bury it in cement within another timezone.

The Individual

First thing you need to do is visit IMDB and run a search on the person’s name to round down a potential profile. If their name is unique, you should easily find any listing they have. If their name is common, you may need to use clues in their email to determine who they are. Failing that, you have a shortlist of people to go through.

We are very lucky to have IMDB in this industry and it will most likely answer 99% of any important questions you have. Basically, if it transpires the person approaching you definitely doesn’t have any sort of IMDB presence, that’s a red flag so big it wouldn’t look out of place either side of the Korean Demilitarised Zone. Do not buy any claims that someone with any standing has removed their profile. IMDB isn’t perfect but everyone knows it’s the first place they’ll be looked up and scrutinised. There is nothing wrong with an individual only having a few small credits and there can be some deception behind impressive looking credit listings too. What’s important is that the information available on IMDB aligns with any claims they are making to you.

Now, it’s prudent to know industry members are accustomed to talking themselves and their projects up as much as possible. There is an acceptable level of preened grandeur tolerated and, in some cases, even admired when it comes to marketing oneself.

Know the differences between Executive Producer, Producer, Co-Producer, and Associate Producer. Know that having made a short film at school does not mean someone is capable of delivering a feature film tomorrow. Know that one producer credit on one feature film can mean very little in terms of actual capacity to produce. Don’t be put off if you’re being approached by a director-producer, or even a writer-director-producer. That’s fine.

Ideally, the person approaching you should have multiple credits in whatever discipline they profess to have expertise in via the kind of projects they want to work with you on and either have proven experience as a producer or a history of consistent collaboration with one. If they don’t, it’s highly unlikely they can get a new project off the ground without help from someone more experienced.

Your next port of call is probably going to be Google and your search should be for any serious red flags such as news articles suggesting criminal activity or consistent wide-spread gossip regarding poor business practices. You may also stumble upon blogs or social media posts made by the individual in question and these may give some clues as to their acumen and agreeability.

If you have an IMDB Pro account, you can dig a little deeper such as establishing any production companies they are associated with, the kind of budgets they’re used to working with and, if you have your own credits, any mutual associates you both share projects with. One of the most powerful advantages of IMDB Pro is being able to go through their projects to see if any of them have distributors listed, in which case you know these films at least sold. The other advantage is being able to see people’s STARmeter which gauges their popularity on IMDB currently, historically, and at its peak. It’s a little gimmicky but pretty much gives you an idea of someone’s influence and thus value. You’re going to be tempted to comb through ratings and box office but this data is often highly distorted at a small company level.

Gauging the quality of their work is far harder as pretty much any member of the crew can be carried on the talent of others. It works the other way too if an individual simply hasn’t had the resources to show their talent at its best. Arguably more important is an alignment in tone and personality between you and them. Try to remember where you are in your career and they are taking just as much a chance on you.

The Project

The scope of the project at hand can vary wildly. You may be being approached over a spec you have on the market with the interest to option/purchase it, to being asked to rewrite someone else’s work, to developing a basic concept into a full fleshed out draft. In every case, there is the potential for extensive writing work on your part.

What’s being asked of you should be very clear along with why you/your work is considered desirable and the history behind discovering you/your work. Some very shady producers, managers, agents, and (surprise surprise) script consultants mass mail writers with what looks like interest in a project using very ambiguous language. We’ll get to why later.

In all cases, unless you just want to sell a script and move on with zero involvement or concern over the production, it’s paramount that you look into the project funding and talent acquisition strategy. You need to establish if it’s likely the film will get funded adequately and secure the level of talent needed to do a good job of delivering it.

A good producer is likely going to be very forward about telling you the budget they are trying to raise, the type of entity they are approaching for funding, and who are reaching out to attach as talent. They should be expecting this from you certainly not defensive or even offended by your questions. It’s your job to establish how realistic this plan is. If they say they can’t make the film for less than $50m, want to crowd fund it, and plan to tweet Ryan Reynolds to ask if he’ll star in it, you know you’re dealing with a dreamer. If they have a min-budget, a max-budget, a relationship with a financier, and are planning to systematically approach agents with written offers, you know you’re dealing with a professional.

If a script draft already exists, there’s a chance there’s already a presentation deck of some sort that the producer can share with you showing any attachments to the project. Once again, it’s time to look those names up and establish their experience. The quality of that script will also give you a pretty clear idea of the level of experience you are dealing with and how much they need your expertise.

If this is a writing assignment from scratch based on a rough concept then some of the above applies, mainly on the side of producing history as it’s unlikely talent will be being approached and attached at this stage unless they themselves are a producer on the project. Be cautious if every previous writer the industry member has worked with has only been on a single project, this may suggest the relationship routinely breaks down.

The Offer

Okay, real talk, the reality for those getting on the screenwriting career ladder is that you’re going to keep getting approached with what are effectively highly speculative investments dressed up to look like money on the table.

Yes, I said investments. If you are being offered anything other than money or something of unquestionable monetary value up front then you are being approached as an investor and that’s why almost all of the above you just read in this article becomes highly relevant.

A zero dollar option is an investment on your part. A sale subject to funding is an investment on your part. An assignment with payment linked to funding is an investment on your part. Any deal involving backend points is an investment on your part.

The most common offer you are going to get in the early days is either “I’d love you write a script for me. I can’t afford to pay you but we can share the profits” or “We have no money to offer you on this project but the exposure will be valuable”. These are the Nigerian Princes of screenwriting offers. They come from directors who haven’t a clue how to get a film made, sold, and distributed. Some offers are simply elaborations on this theme with fancier wording and actual numbers. They are complete non-starters because, at some point, there will have to be funds attached to actually shoot the movie and, if there is a plan to cover the production, there should be a plan to pay you too. It’s also highly unlikely anybody making offers like this has the ability to produce and sell a movie and thus there will never be profits nor exposure. They just want you to work for free on the long-shot they’ll get rich.

It is forgivable that a small independent producer cannot afford to pay you WGA rates or even close to WGA rates to write a script out of their own pocket but does have a great concept and a fruitful relationship with an investor. In these cases, it might be an investment worth making on your part with a clear understanding you’ll get paid a set amount as soon as the funds are released. It’s still a huge risk but somewhat mitigated by who you’re dealing with and what position you’re in. If you’re aimlessly churning out spec scripts anyway, partnering with a competent producer may be a big step up. However, in this kind of working relationship, you have to be sure of two things; 1) the producer isn’t hiding the fact they can afford to pay you, 2) the producer is working as hard, if not harder, than you to do their part.

Ideally, you want a firm offer up front and this is really a no-brainer to evaluate. Are you happy the offer compensates for your time and are you happy the production will likely meet you expectations?

When it comes to figures, there’s absolutely no standard in the indie film world and it’s really down to how much you value your time. You’ll also often find that, while the workload writing a script is the same, your payment for doing so is subject to the production’s budget. No, it doesn’t make sense. Welcome to Hollywood.

In my opinion. the absolute basement should be a fair living wage for your time. For example, if you live in the UK and take three months to write a script then a fair absolute minimum would be the national living wage (£8.21 per hour ($10.24 USD)) multiplied by 480hrs which equals £3,941 ($4,917 USD). On the flip side, the Writers Guild of Great Britain, at this time, set the minimum fee for a feature script (2 drafts) with a budget less than £750,000 ($935,865.00 USD) at £18,900 ($23,584 USD), a budget between £750,000 and £2m ($2.5 USD) at £25,650 ($32,007 USD), and a budget over £2m at £42,120 ($52,558 USD).

If your head hurts right now, that’s normal. You are also well within your rights to see these numbers in context of your location, lifestyle, aspirations, and dignity. It is a highly personal choice as to what you feel you deserve. What one person may see as rewarding, another may see as insulting. I’ll say this though, there are a lot of writers who can’t get a single job who openly criticise those who take low paying work in their early days. My experience talking candidly with other working writers is that they are humble and feel we should all take what we can get when we can get it. I mean, even Tarantino had to do this when he was paid only $1,500 USD to write From Dusk Til Dawn as his first ever assignment. A producer offering you five grand when they only have two-hundred-and-fifty to work with isn’t necessarily insulting you or expecting you to quit you day job to write exclusively for them. They’re just trying to get the most production value with what little they’ve got and have 2% budgeted for you.

It’s important to note that there’s a chance, subject to where you are in your career and who’s approaching you, that you are actually seen as a valuable attachment to the project that exceeds that of the director and talent. Be aware of this and expect to be compensated accordingly.

I mentioned shady producers, managers, agents, and script consultants earlier on and you need to be aware of various scams. A common one is for a desperate producer to approach a screenwriter saying a script has huge potential but the writer must pay for their notes to get the script into shape before it can be shown to anyone. This is basically working as a script consultant but trading off the back of being a producer. Another scam is producers, managers, and agents getting writers to sign contracts with them that effectively allows them to claim any subsequent development gives them intellectual property ownership of all future drafts. Be cautious of any very generically sounding emails they could be sent to pretty much any writer, particularly emails that don’t mention your name or one of your scripts. They’re not offering, they’re soliciting.

The Contract

A very clear and concise contract should be provided stating what’s expected from you; i.e signing over your IP and or providing a certain number of script drafts within a particular page-count range, perhaps within a specified timeframe, and maybe with the understanding you’ll be coming along for the shoot with certain costs covered. This contract should also dictate the credit you are being offered (Story By, Written By, Screenplay By), any links between funding and payments, any payment schedule, ownership of the property, and any profit participation along with performance bonuses.

The definition of your credit is important as it can in-turn go on to dictate your profit participation. You want a Written By credit on a spec sale and at least a Screenplay By credit on an assignment where you’ll most likely share a Story By credit with the producer(s) who’ve significantly helped develop the story. This is all fair and common practice. There is a chance of being offered uncredited work where there’s no mention of your participation in the film’s credits because you are only providing a minor rewrite or script polish. Just check out the writer credits on the IMDB listing for a major blockbuster to see how common that can be. There is also the chance you lose or end up sharing your credit if another writer is brought in to do extensive rewrites.

Profit participation is a very murky area which speaks volumes about your relationship with your producer. It’s also where a lot of deal tweaking is made as people offset a lower upfront payment for more potential income on the backend — thus freeing up budget but taking a bigger share of the profit. This percentage (aka points) can be anything from completely worthless to potentially invaluable depending on how the contract is written. Sadly, this is an often abused area contractually with terminology deliberately written to be impenetrably complex and ultimately offer nothing of any value while sounding incredibly generous. Long story short, you ideally want net profit participation which is defined and calculated in the same manner as picture’s lead producer along with receiving regular profit statements attached to any royalties and the right to audit, which would be at the producer’s expense should any significant discrepancies be found in said audit. This section of the contract may be confusing but it’s a great litmus test. If you’re looking for signs your producer is secretly willing to screw you over, this is where to focus. There is the chance you are being offered “monkey points” which is a percentage you can never see because of the way profits are calculated. The only problem is determining conclusively if they are indeed monkey points is the job of an entertainment lawyer.

In addition to points, there may be bonuses defined as part of profit participation and these tend to be more simple since they are fixed payments triggered by certain levels takings; i.e you get an extra $5,000 USD every time the movie makes an additional $5m at the box office.

The Response

Saying yes is easy but you should try to keep your squeal worthy excitement under your hat for fear of looking like a total pushover until you’ve signed on the dotted line. That said, a decent producer will actually have your back and be looking after your long term interests even when you fail to. Good industry members want healthy lasting relationships with talented individuals. Decency is pretty easy to spot and very often demonstrated in how many treasured friendships a person has.

Saying no is a lot harder and there is a way to avoid it. The trick is to replace every “no” with a “not now” while being honest about why you can’t say yes. Things can always change and you might just be the first door someone wants to come knocking on when they are in a better position to make a better offer. It also serves as another great litmus test as those that ghost you just as suddenly as they appeared in your inbox never really wanted to work with you for the right reasons in the first place. In that case, you’ve dodged a bullet.

There’s also absolutely no reason why you can’t invest a little something into the relationship even if you can’t strike a deal right now. For example, offering a few friendly notes on the draft you read might just be the kind of favour that comes back to reward you in the future.

Always take pride in being professional and courteous in your communication but don’t be afraid to sprinkle in some humour and show your personality — you’re dealing in show business now.

To Conclude

The real danger is letting your naivety or paranoia get the better of you. Every potential business relationship that comes your way will benefit from being objectively analysed. Thankfully we work within an industry that contains a historical database of experience along with commonly accepted business practices that help identify the hucksters from the honourable.

It’s okay to be scared but we all owe it to ourselves to do our due diligence by using knowledge and various available tools to our advantage. Even you have to say not now, take every offer that comes to you as a proof you are becoming more well known and more desirable within the industry.