Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Writing Spec Scripts
March 15, 2001
What if an independent producer asks you to write a screenplay based
on somebody's book -- but doesn't want to pay you until he sells the project?
Spec scripts -- everybody writes them because we have to, even though
union rules forbid it. But heck, they won't let us into the union yet anyway, right?
But you're in a much trickier position, because you're doing an adaptation. You
have to get proof from the producer that he has the rights and is hiring you to
write the script. If he can't prove he has the rights, you can't adapt a book by
someone else. It's that simple. So it could all go in the toilet then.
Furthermore, just because he can't pay you doesn't mean it has to be on spec.
Quite the contrary. He is hiring you to write the script. But he can't pay you. So
what? Do it for $1 in advance, and then set the fee as, say, $30,000 upon the
beginning of principal photography plus an amount of, say, 1% of the budget of
the film up to a total owed to you of $80,000 (if it has an 8 million dollar budget).
Furthermore, if he decides he does not like your script and will not use it, he still
owes you the $30,000 when the film on this subject, with him attached in any way,
begins principal photography. Thus if he never makes the movie, he doesn't have
to pay you. But if he ever makes it, even not using your script, you get a payday.
This is very, very fair. And ... in addition, if he accepts your script (and
acceptance = he shows it to anyone with an idea to casting, hiring, or soliciting
investment), but does not make the film within X years (give him 3 or 4?), all
rights to the script devolve on you (though you get no rights to the original on
which it is based -- this is a normal separation of rights; it means that if anybody
makes a film based on that book, they have to take your script into account and
pay you something), and if you then succeed in selling it, the producer gets
nothing except a refund of any amounts he actually paid you.
This is still writing on spec -- you don't know you'll get paid -- but it builds a
body of protection of your rights so that if anybody gets paid for this, you
definitely get paid. And that's fair. If he doesn't agree to that, then he's
obviously planning to cheat you, and you shouldn't touch the project.
Also, if you don't care about the project, if it's just about career advancement,
then you can't do a good job on it, so you should forget it anyway. You can only
write projects you care about and believe in.
There you have it, Uncle Orson's Hollywood rip-off advice. You will get ripped
off, but it doesn't have to be fun for the other guy <grin>.
-- 15 March 2001