The conversation is a common one. Agent and writer/client. The subject concerns the delivery of a script.

“The producer has some notes,” said the writer.

“You should do the notes before you deliver,” said the agent.

“But I think his notes are really the studio’s notes.”

“You think the producer slipped the script?”

“Pretty sure,” said the writer. “He said something like, ‘The studio’s gonna want it this way or that way.’”

“So now you have the studio’s notes,” said the agent. “You should probably do ‘em.”

“But the Writers Guild says I should deliver, get paid, then hear their notes.”

“That’s true,” said the agent. “But the studio is paying you. Not the Guild.”

“I’m a member of the Guild. And they say –“

“I know what they say. You need to get paid before you get notes. But between you and me, the studio needs to know if you’ll play ball.”

“If ‘playing ball’ means working for free, I don’t do that anymore,” the writer argued. “It’s in my contract. Draft. Delivery. Pay. Notes. New draft.”

“So what if they want a free draft?” said the agent. “You do them this solid and you’ll get to keep your job.”

“I need to get paid first.”

“You want the studio to think you’re a writer? Or a paycheck player?”

“I want them to honor my contract.”

“Okay,” the agent finally relented. “I’ll pass that information along. You’ll do the notes after you get paid. Is that what you want me to say?”

“Yes.”

The conversation ends. Maybe the agent dials the producer? Or the studio? Or both? He or she explains that the client expects to get paid for the work he’s already done. Just like the WGA says. No free drafts. Everybody quietly agrees. Meanwhile, both the agent and producer are already making lists of subsequent writers to suggest for the subsequent drafts of the script the studio is nearly sure to order.

It’s a difficult moment in any word-jockey’s career. A crossroads where it’s more than one’s own self-worth that is tested. There are other issues like loyalty to the union. You know those guys and gals you walked the picket line with over… well, it was over something important that hadn’t a thing to do with the old work-for-free-or-pay-me protocols.

But that’s not what I’m looking to examine here. It’s a chicken or the egg thing. What comes first? The will to write? Or the want to get paid for it.

I’m reminded of something which occurred during a home renovation. The War Department and I had finally pulled the trigger on the remodel of Casa de Die Hard. Phase 1 was expanding the kitchen by knocking down the wall to the utility room and pushing backward into the yard. And phase 2 was knocking down the old shed and erecting a guest house/office in its place where I’d long planned to make my writer’s lair. At the point where Phase 1 pushed into Phase 2, I’d pretty much lost count of all the construction workers who had daily access to the property. They would come and go with far too much ease, off-loading and carting equipment and materials hither and yon through a wrought iron side gate, which I’d often and disturbingly find propped open.

It would’ve been okay if we hadn’t an urgent need to keep the gate closed. At the time we had a pair precious mutts who had a habit of getting lost in traffic once they found themselves beyond our property. Time and time again I’d instructed the crew to please refrain from propping the gate open. Instead, have someone hold the spring-loaded gate open, then make sure it was shut after. Simple enough, yes? But hey. What should the construction crew care? It was neither their property nor did the dogs belong to their kids.

After yet another doggie jailbreak and the mad drill to corral the beasts before we found one or both pasted to the grill of an unsuspecting neighbor’s Cadillac, I whistled for the entire construction crew to stop, holster their hammers and unplug the circular saws, and gather around for a little come-to-Jesus-moment. For those whose English was poor, I had Jaime, the crew foreman, translate.

“I don’t understand,” I began, not even trying to mask my indignation. “How many times do I have to tell you to never, ever prop that side gate open?”

Rhetorical as the question might’ve been, there were no willing speakers. I received nothing but blank faces staring back at me.

“Jesus,” I said. “You’re all adults. Grown ups. How hard is it to follow such a simple instruction? If those were your dogs? Belonging to your kids? What kind of rules would you want to employ on your property?”

Yup. Crickets was what I got. So this is when it happened. My revelation. Which I uttered loudly the same instant the thought formed.

“Okay. I get it. This is the true circle of life,” I blasted. “I work hard to deliver above average work, just so I can make enough money to pay you all to do a sub-average work.”

You can imagine the stares that were returned. They were down for neither intellectual awakenings nor spankings. The only pride they had in their work was whether it was good enough to get them to their Friday paycheck.

“Okay,” I relented, choosing to make things plain. “Next guy who props the gate open gets fired from the job. You get that?”

On cue, most nodded before returning to their respective menial tasks. And, to my knowledge, nobody propped the gate open again.

Over the next few days, I vexed and pondered on the nature of my own work ethic. I, too, was technically working for a paycheck. I had a hefty mortgage, two kids in private school, and another spring break planned at our favorite Hawaiian getaway. And that was after I paid for the six figure remodel. Yet none of my financial worries or responsibilities had ever made it to the front burner of my mental cooktop when I was hunched over my keyboard. Never once have I whipped myself to get it done for fear that I wouldn’t get paid. It’s always been something more along the lines of make it the best you can or you won’t forgive yourself for not making the ultimate effort.

I can honestly say I don’t nor have I once feared not making a check. I have, though, and still do, fear sucking at my craft.

Now, my attitude does not guarantee that I won’t suck. I have, indeed, stunk up a script or two or three or even more if you ask others. But that knowledge comes only through the wisdom of age and hindsight. And I’ve vowed not to make that mistake again.

Yet even that’s no guarantee.

Now, here’s the rub. I’m a serial rewriter. I like feedback. The perfection of my work is that I know it’s imperfect. As one producer recently said of my work, “it’s good that you recognize the blind spots in your writing.” The solve for which is the more feedback I get, the more it steels my resolve to move the work forward and to a better place.

And I don’t really care who that feedback comes from. Be it the War Department, a fellow writer, a friend, or the movie studio which may or may not be paying me for the draft.

My ultimate goal has never changed. Get the picture made. Otherwise, what good are my words on paper? I don’t need another hundred and ten page writing sample. I need budget, cast, and cameras rolling.

Now, before you say working for free is a “slippery slope” for writers, know this. I’m not suggesting that I shouldn’t be paid for my work. I merely make the simple assumption that for every contractual pass at a script, I might write three or four. Always have, always will.

But that’s just me.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Kristine Smith

    Speaking as a novelist, I discussed the value of unionizing with friends, as well as the difficulties, the realities, and the fact that if we all walked off the job, the publishers could likely find replacements at a ratio of about 20:1, if not more. There are a lot of wannabe authors out there, and some of them are just as good, if not better, than the writers they would replace.

    Is it the same in screenwriting? If you struck over the scenario that you described, would the studios replace you? It sounds as though Fictional Studio knew it was breaking the rules, or they wouldn’t have worked through the producer.

    Does the solo nature of writing preclude unionizing?

    I totally get what you’re saying. I suspect I would do the same as you, but boy.

    • Doug Richardson

      A sticky subject, Kristine. The subject of thousands of meetings, arguments, and fracturing relationships. Screenwriters have a union that engages in collective bargaining with studios. But not everything is easy to enforce due to the variety of opinions by some many opinionated members.

  • Rick Barksdale

    Doug,

    Pardon my Zensanity, but is it too simplistic to suggest an exchange of a check for a rewrite from notes?

    It seems that a hearty “I’ll get right on that rewrite” would go a long way to facilitate a little quid pro quo.

    Rick

    • Doug Richardson

      Rick. You’re not Zensane. Your solution works in a vacuum and without so many other stakeholders.

  • Tim O’Connell

    Hey Doug – good read as always, and anxiety-stirring at the same time. I felt discomfort growing in my midsection at that dilemma.

    Be a team player and HOPE the studio and producer repay your loyalty, or stand your ground and insist on the honoring of your contract. I imagine a lot of newer writers would take the former path, deathly afraid to be replaced, maybe never to work again as a screenwriter. On the other hand, the contract is the contract. Its a professional agreement between adults, and it should be honored, and there is of course your fellow writers to think about.

    In my cubicle life I have been burned by trusting a company/boss to honor a word of mouth agreement, so even in a dream scenario of writing for a studio, I would want something in writing. Its not like studio exec’s and producers are untrustworthy is it? 🙂

    • Doug Richardson

      It’s a system of fear, Tim. Execs need the movie made and need it to be a hit. Every draft they pay for that goes nowhere is a strike against them. Producers need movies made or they don’t get paid. Writers, well, you can do the math.

      • Tim O’Connell

        well said Doug – system of fear. I guess new producers have to be pretty twitchy folks too.

        Is it odd that I’m attracted to that whole system of fear? 🙂

        • Doug Richardson

          Not at all. It means you may have the sand to make something happen.

  • Lisa Kothari

    I feel for you with the contractors and your pets – been down that path a few times myself – frustrating and scary! I like how you weaved the two incidents together.

    I am always looking to elevate the quality of my writing – and if I had the opportunity to work within a studio setting, I’m sure I would have 2-3 drafts done before the one I actually gave to the studio for review. It is important to me to be comfortable with the quality of the work I am handing in – that’s my name ultimately on the line and I would want it to show as much quality as possible.

    Do you have any thoughts on how you determine that your work is ready to be handed in. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    But, I also agree with you – writers should be paid – everyone has to earn a living and pay for it as well.

    • Doug Richardson

      When is a draft cooked? I’m sure Jeanne Bowerman has a Balls of Steel up at scriptmag.com that addresses that. And I just may be quoted. But for here, let’s say a draft is ready somewhere near the best you can do and the desperate need for feedback.

  • Jeff Richards

    I couldn’t agree more, Doug. The times I’ve done just the number of drafts in the contract were very rare, and always at the producer’s instigation rather than my own.

    • Doug Richardson

      There’s theory – aka the rules. And reality – aka the job. Thanks Jeff.

  • Phyllis K Twombly

    I’ve already passed on one career where I was expected to work for free. It made me realize that I didn’t particularly care for that kind of work. I’ll always write because it’s my first love. And I get to read awesome blogs like this one.

    • Doug Richardson

      Which I wasn’t paid for. Hmmm. Always making me think, Phyllis.

  • clive

    My suggestion would be a sign on the gate.Please do not prop open as pets can escape.And then if you got some feedback or notes on this you might add.Claims arising from three car pile ups from animals running across the highway will be passed to your insurers and will bankrupt you.You might also want to mention, maybe in a new draft that; This will be of little solace because i fully intend to nail gun the next person who does this to the new decking you are building.

    When you’ve gone this far you might as well lay the whole thing out–And no I do not want to read any script you may have written, listen those stories about Harrison Ford swinging a hammer and getting spotted for star wars are just that, stories, you are contractors, and boneheadIly stupid ones at that who can’t even shut gates.

    You think you guys are the only ones who hate your jobs? I got to hang out with the president one time and you should hear that guy bitch.

    Hope this helps (okay i made the last bit up).

    PS (almost forgot)
    If i see a sign on a neighbours gate where you happen to be working that resemble this one in any way or you try to pitch a movie using this as a logline basis then you guys will be in even more trouble.

    • Doug Richardson

      What’s it say about the staleness of my blog when one of the comments is funnier and pithier than the blog itself? It says “Clive, start a blog. You’re funny and worth reading!”

      • clive

        I want you to imagine that it’s four years
        from now and I have just written a blogg about the highest grossing film of
        2016. It’s an anecdote of how I believe the film first came to be made.
        Underneath in the comments this is your take on it.

        Thanks for your continued interest in my
        work Clive, but it didn’t happen like that or anything like it. I will agree
        it’s a bit puzzling that you seemed to know I would write it before I did .
        Perhaps the blogg was a bad idea, remind me not to give you any more encouragement.

        Offending Blogg AUGUST 2017

        He was on the phone and maybe wished he
        hadn’t taken it.

        “Someone just came in.” He says

        “Who’s that?”

        Cupping the phone . ”Doug the action guy.”

        “Give me that.” And she snatches the
        phone.” What part of retired don’t you understand .Now more scissors, pirates
        of the caribbean, or lone ranger. Retired. It’s been in all the trades,
        everybody knows.”

        A bit more is said, think the feisty one in
        taming of the shrew maybe, and a few pejorative words such as moron .The up shot
        is that the phone goes down.

        “Here.” She hands the phone back . ”The
        nerve of those guys . I’ve blocked the number and deleted the call.”

        “Thanks.” He say’s uncertainly .He shrugs and pulls one of his signature funny
        faces . ”Writers eh?”

        Later……

        “What’s the matter with you ? You’ve been
        muttering, pulling funny faces and jotting notes all day.”

        “I’m trying to write a poem, I’m thinking
        rapp.”

        “Your not making any sense, this is about
        that phone call isn’t it?”

        He was suddenly evasive.

        “He got an elevator pitch in didn’t he. You
        just tell me what he said word for word.”

        “Well he said it was about a couple ,set in modern day New York, she was
        serious, a journalist and political speech writer who’d won a Pulitzer and he
        was more lightweight a fashion photographer.”

        “That was it.”

        “It was more my characters name . Percy
        Blackney.”

        “Was there anymore?”

        “It opens with a long build up with
        Amercians about to be execututed. There is no way out their absolutely fate is
        certain.”

        “And then what?”

        “And then you snatched the phone.”

        She goes into the other room and starts
        tapping on google.

        “Holy Cow.”

        ‘What?”

        “I just put that name in, I didn’t know who
        he was.”

        “What’s it say?

        They seek him here, they seek him
        there

        Those Frenchies seek him everywhere

        Is he in heaven or is he in hell?

        That demned elusive Pimpernel”

        ― Emmuska Orczy,
        The Scarlet
        Pimpernel

        Several frantic phone calls later to find a
        deleted number.

        “Hi Doug” The voice is pure honey, think
        one of those sirens who call mariners onto the rocks.” Just ringing to
        apologize for that little mix up this morning. I got you confused with someone
        else. He’s here now, would you like a quick word, we were just wondering about
        the rights.”

        And the rest as they say is history.

    • Lisa Kothari

      Clive, You had me burst out in laughter! Great writing! Thanks, Doug, for calling this reply out on Twitter!

  • paul

    Hi Doug

    What are the main things writers should do to keep a good relationship with studios and producers…and sustain a long successful writing career? Or what do you think you did to keep such a Iong successful career? heard that many writers break in but then fail to make it at this stage.

    • Doug Richardson

      Paul. Maintaining is important. And, like any business, it’s good to keep up on relationships. But Hollywood is primarily a meritocracy. You might not think that based on the quality of movies. But all meritocracies are subject to the perceptions by those deciding what is meritorious. That said, it’s a game where people keep score and all artists and craftspeople must deliver or end up road kill. I’ve always tried to deliver.

      • paul

        Thanks Doug. The maintaining phase is probably the most mysterious phase to me. Your adventures seem like a lot of fun. Who wouldn’t want to talk shop with Tony Scott over a fine meal. You’re really living the life!