If you’re an aspiring screenwriter and cursed/blessed with a vivid imagination, you might get a bit carried away when fantasising about that first ever professional payment. Would it be for a life-changing sum of money? A million dollar deal that meant you could finally say sayonara to the day job and pursue your dream full time? Or would it be for about £82.73 (less tax) and take forever to arrive? Guess which one happened to me!
My script Waiting For Eddie had been optioned by a producer back in November 2005. The producer paid promptly, but whenever I asked my agent about the money I only ever got vague replies. Things were complicated by the fact that I had two agents: one for film and a literary agent. The film agent did the deal, but all the money went through the lit agent. I found a handful of mentions of it in my 2006 diaries, and I’m clearly getting a bit fed-up at this point…
Tuesday 18th April, 2006
Script agent emailed me to day and told me that the Literary Agent has had my Waiting For Eddie option money since November… It’s only £85, but it doesn’t instil me with much confidence.
Then, over a month later…
Tuesday 23rd May, 2006
I got another rejection today… Oh, and they (Literary Agent) found my cheque. It was at the bottom of an in-tray… I should get it tomorrow.
Thursday 25th May, 2006
The cheque arrived today. My first money earned from writing. I suppose I can call myself a writer now… £82.73. I don’t think I’ll be quitting the day job just yet.
Nearly six months from option to pay! Believe me, that would not happen now. I’d be on the phone with an earful of righteous indignation for someone in less than 48 hours. When you’re starting out, it’s not uncommon to be coy about getting paid, but never forget that what you do as a writer has a value. No one would be on that set if not for you and your ideas. Forget any bullshit about getting exposure, or publicity value, or an opportunity to “get on the ladder”. You have worked your butt off producing a work, and if they want to make it, they have to pay you, and pay you the going rate. If they can’t afford to pay you, then they shouldn’t be in business. No other industry puts up with this crap – try asking a baker to make you some bread for free – and yet it still goes on today: see the recent scandal over Sainsbury’s attempt to get an artist to work for free.
And just put yourself in the producer’s shoes for a minute. They have a slate of projects, including your script, which they optioned for free, and another script which they paid money for. Which one do you think will be their priority? They have to make a return on their investment, and producers hate losing money, so your little freebie won’t be getting to the top of their pile anytime soon. It’s all about being valued. Make sure you are.
I’ll leave the last word to the wonderful Harlan Ellison. This video has been doing the rounds for a few years now and it’s one of my favourites (and yes, I’m aware of the irony that, this being YouTube, Mr. Ellison probably doesn’t see a penny from this), but he sums it up better than I ever could…
By the way, I still have a day job, so clearly need to work harder at this payment malarkey myself.