Something Smells Funky! Why Bake-Offs May Not Be Great for Screenwriters

bake off sweepstakes pitching
It's a very hard time to be a writer in Hollywood, especially over the last decade. 

The studios have been making fewer and fewer movies since the early 2000s. As soon as they found out tentpoles would give them a larger return, they began to phase out the mid-budget movies that dominated the 80s and 90s and took shots directed at intellectual property and sequels. 

Fewer movies meant less work. 

If you were a writer breaking into Hollywood, the idea was you'd write a spec that might sell and be made, then get hired for a few studio projects and make a name for yourself with your hard work. 

But that quickly changed. Now people were writing great specs that would become samples. You write a few of them in hopes of one being made, or one would be so good that you get hired to write or rewrite something based on someone else's intellectual property. 

Do enough of those, hopefully for WGA signatories, and you might get into the WGA or get a shot at a studio gig. 

That's where the sweepstakes or bake-off pitch comes in. 

What are they? 

Sweepstakes pitching (also know as a “bake-off” within the writing community) is when a studio or producer brings in many different screenwriters to pitch on the same project before deciding which one to hire. These writers do a lot of free work. 

They are asked to pitch, sometimes do beat sheets, outlines, or even treatments. 

All for no money. 

The WGA 'No Writing Left Behind' campaign aims to end unpaid work. Credit: WGA

In almost all cases, sweepstakes pitching occurs when the studio owns a property they think could be incredibly valuable or become a tentpole, such as a mythical character, board game, or even a book that needs to be adapted. 

They get an array of screenwriters to come up with a wide range of ideas. They try to go out to a lot of people, usually between five and 20. In fact, from my own experience, I once met three people who all pitched on the same project as me. None of us got it. 

Studios love this because they get a dozen distinct ideas for the movie as a whole. 

In fact, there are times when a studio is beta testing if they even should make a movie out of this project. 

This has been going on for a while. There's a great Los Angeles Times article talking about it from 2010 and a Hollywood Reporter article this week talking about how a studio did the same thing for the property, Hot Wheels

Perhaps you're saying, "So what is the problem with sending your idea out to multiple people to pick the best version?" 

Well, the answer is complicated. Screenwriters will often spend days or weeks of preparation on a project. I have participated in a few of these situations and I can tell you there are even months of prep work involved. Jobs become scarce and people get desperate.  

These weeks or months are all unpaid. and when you're done, you've likely created a three act story with deep characters and a distinct vision. One you may not own. Also, your odds of getting the job, or even the movie going forward, are slim. 

This has led a lot of writers and the WGA to take a stand. How can you treat them as unpaid research-and-development? 

Also, maybe even a bigger concern is the idea of theft. Because studios or producers end up hearing multiple takes, they may end up using elements from a pitch without hiring the writer who created them. They could do this accidentally or knowingly, but either way, you got nothing for your ideas. 

The WGA launched a "No writing left behind" campaign to combat this situation. 

“All writers need jobs, and especially when it’s early in their careers it can feel like they have to do whatever it takes to get hired,” said screenwriter and WGAW Board member Michele Mulroney. “But leaving behind a treatment for a producer or executive is the “equivalent of writing for free. It opens the door to what can often be months of more free work like getting notes on the treatment and revising it multiple times. Guild rules do not allow for uncompensated work and members need to know that they simply don't have to give in to these requests.”

“Everyone wants to be a pal, to be obliging. But this is a situation where helping out is hurting yourself and other writers,” said screenwriter and WGAW Board Member John August. "If you hand in your pages, you make it harder for every other screenwriter to say no when they’re asked. Things don’t change unless we all say no.”

This is an all-hands-on-deck situation. The problem is, it would require every writer to refuse to leave things in writing to get jobs. And when producers or studios ask them for that stuff, they would have to refuse. They can agree to pitch but they shouldn't hand in treatments. 

This is all easier said than done. 

There have been many times where I have wanted to work so badly that I would have done anything to be given the opportunity. I took this job at No Film School to make sure I didn't have to zero out my bank account to get there, but most people are not afforded that luxury. 

I'm unsure how to fix the system. Outside of asking for writers to be paid for their pitches, which studios might balk at, we're operating on the honor system. One where the writers are incredibly disadvantaged. They have to look like team players who are easy to get along with, while also setting limits on how much they are willing to do for nothing. 

Your agent or manager should set some precedent, but they want you to do whatever it takes so they can get their 10%. Still, if your team won't stand up for you, maybe they shouldn't be on your team. 

Nothing is easy here. I think the best thing to happen to writers is the rise in streamers. With more movies being made hopefully these bake-offs become a thing of the past. When it comes to breaking in as a writer now, I don't have much advice. There are times when I think I'm still trying to figure it out. 

All I can say is that writing a good script got me reps, that script turned into a movie and that got me work. Now, I work sporadically. I guess I am waiting to win a bake-off, but I hope that the work I do builds me enough of a reputation to get into those rooms. 

I guess time will tell. and I have no idea if I am the typical case either.

What do you think of this situation in Hollywood? 

Got any fixes? 

Let us know in the comments.       

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