How writers can make sure they get paid, even on a small film

I’ve written five features that have gotten made into films, and have been compensated as a screenwriter on all of them, even if it was just a small amount of cash, or even just a net points deal (a percentage of the revenue after the film makes its money back).

I know too many screenwriters that just simply get boned when it comes to receiving any sort of compensation for their screenwriting as the indie film they’re on picks up steam, launches into pre-production, then steamrolls through production and post.

Somehow, the money gets found for all of that – for gas, for lights, for cameras, for SAG actors, but not for the very blueprint of the film itself – the script – and the author of that blueprint – the screenwriter.

Here’s how you can protect yourself as a screenwriter and get paid, even if you’re writing a script for a small, no-budget film, and even if you’re also a producer or director or other crew member on that film.

Don’t sign away your script rights on day one

This is the first rule of getting paid as an indie screenwriter. As tempting as it may be to have a film company want to produce your film, you don’t have to jump into bed with them and sign your script away as soon as they show interest.

Play coy. Make it known that you have another interested party, whether you do or you don’t. Or let them know that another producer’s option on your script isn’t up yet, but is about to be.

Put simply, if you act desperate, you’re more likely to be taken advantage of.  If you frame the script in a light where the interested party see it as the scarce commodity it actually is, then you’ll have more leverage.

Make sure you’re a writer who stays in the loop

One of the best tactics you have in your arsenal to make sure you get paid as a screenwriter on a low-budget film is to make sure you’re in the loop. Too often, screenwriters get thrown to the curb as soon as film starts gearing up for pre-production.

If you’re outside of the loop, you’re easier to lie to, easier to hide money and big expenditures from, and as a result, easier to convince that the production “has no money, so it can’t afford to pay you.”

Staying in the loop requires social engineering. That is, make friends. With everybody. As soon as possible.

Don’t let the producers guilt trip you about the budget

Indie filmmakers are notorious bastards. They often paint themselves as suffering artists who have been given “this one, single chance” to “finally realize my dream” of making this feature film, and then put that on you as a way of deflecting your inquiries regarding compensation.

Catch phrases to look out for:

“How can you do this to me? You know we can’t afford that!”

Your reply should be: “You’re paying the Director of Photography $150 per day, and the editor $200, and the actors their SAG Low-Budget rate.  Is not the writer of the film worth a similar amount of compensation?”

“I’m not getting paid either.”

Your reply should be: “You’re the producer (or director). You’re receiving a higher net deal than I, (if applicable, which it usually is), and your career will be the one most helped, because you’ll be receiving the larger credit and the larger share of the limelight at festivals, screenings, and in press notices.”

Try to get the same points as the film’s investors

If the producers offer you NET POINTS, ask them instead for INVESTOR POINTS, or whatever type of points they’d like to call them. Bottom line is, net points are paid, if they’re paid at all, long, long down the road, after the investors have been paid, the film vendors have been paid, and the primary creatives at the top of the film’s food chain have been paid.

Investors usually start getting paid back right away when the first revenues start coming in.  Be in that food line. Not the net points food line.

Producers, especially inexperienced ones, are far more likely to acquiesce to this earlier on in the production, while they’re still scrambling for investors, and see points of any kind as just Monopoly money to throw around to make people happy.

Be one of the people they need to make happy.

Agree to do a maximum amount of script revisions

Whatever you end up taking in compensation, make sure you get in writing how many revisions of the script you’re obligated to do.

If the production hits you up for draft after draft after draft, your working hours go UP and therefore your compensation per hour goes down.

You become a less-paid screenwriter the more drafts you do for the same amount of money.

You determine what’s a reasonable amount of drafts for the money/compensation you’re receiving. Don’t be a pushover.

Be ready to take a cash-out deal for your screenwriting

First off, I shouldn’t need to say that your script should be copyrighted with the US Copyright Office and also registered with the Writer’s Guild for a bit of extra paper trail protection. But there, I said it again for screenwriters who missed Screenwriting 101.

If you’re working with a company for the first time and you don’t get that fuzzy warm feeling working with them, or they don’t appear to have their act together, you of course want to make sure you get some sort of compensation in writing as soon as possible.

But, working with those types of productions, it’s not always possible.

In those cases, see if you can at least get a quick deal memo or an email from the producers agreeing to your compensation. A full contract is always better, legally speaking, but we’re talking about shaky/flaky producers here, so anything in writing is better than nothing.

And if possible, hang on to your copyright as long as possible.

That is, hold out on signing away, to the producers, one particular form specifically:

The Copyright Assignment form. (It’s known by other names as well.)

Basically, when you sign the Copyright Assignment form, you’re signing away your copyright protection to your script; giving all copyright protection to the production company or producer.

If you can hold out on transferring copyright over to your inept or otherwise flaky producer team, you at least have the ability to threaten to litigate on the basis of copyright violation should they make your film without compensating you.

Litigation is expensive, and you probably can’t afford it, but the producer team doesn’t need to know that.

So if worse comes to worst and you’ve made enemies of the entire producer team, and you’re out of the loop and they’re not paying you or returning your phone calls, drop the A-Bomb: threaten to litigate based on copyright violation.

All of this boils down to one specific mantra you need to keep in your arsenal when dealing with a production that’s dragging their feet paying you or signing a deal that you can get behind:

“Write a check and I’ll go away.”

If they’re forcing your hand by being unprofessional, be the squeaky wheel.  Get paid, screenwriter.  Get paid.

The rest of us are counting on you.

6 thoughts on “How writers can make sure they get paid, even on a small film”

  1. Can you be under 18 and help direct a screenplay? I’m asking because I have a screenplay in the works hoping to help direct it, but I fear I’m under age to get it out there.

    • There’s no age requirement for directing a film, nor for writing one or helping write one. As far as “getting it out there” — sending to festivals, agents, producers, etc. — there’s no age requirement for that either, at least none that I’ve ever heard of.


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