Tell me if this sounds familiar to you. You go to a general meeting and sit with someone who has a great idea for a movie or TV show. They think you have the perfect voice to capture it. They tell you while there’s no money up front, if you write it for them on spec they’ll package it and help you take it out.
Or maybe this has happened to you: You have a producer or company excited by your pitch, but they’re not a decision maker, and swear they can get the idea up the ladder to a buyer. All they need from you is a treatment, or an outline, or some sort of document that they can rush to the top.
This all sounds promising. Like “call your mom” promising.
But Hollywood is built, and broken, on free work. It’s how Hollywood takes advantage of writers at every level, and the WGA is fighting back.
No Writing Left Behind
Recently, the WGA West launched a “No Writing Left Behind” campaign to let members know that no one should leave documents, such as treatments or outlines, behind after pitching a project.
These items, frequently called “leave-behinds,” are pages and pages of unpaid writing. While they may not seem problematic up front, they devalue you and devalue the work done by your compatriots across an industry.
WGA Board member and screenwriter Michele Mulroney had this to say:
“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...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.”
I know the “just say no” approach hasn’t worked in the past, but the WGA hopes that if writers band together, they can force the industry to respect the craft and pay for work.
As someone constantly trying to get hired, I get the frustration of amateur writers. Your name and hard-working mentality are usually what help break you into Hollywood. I was raised to “go the extra mile,” and for my work to show true value.
So when we get into “no free work” as a policy, I have a hard time contemplating how I can show my value. But screenwriter John August assuaged that fears:
“Everyone wants to be a pal, to be obliging. But this is a situation where helping out is hurting yourself and other writers...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.”
John went on to expand upon these ideas with Craig Mazin on their ScriptNotes podcast.
I’ve been reading the comments on a lot of the posts on this subject, and it seems like there’s a common theme among some people: "It’s easy for famous screenwriters to talk like this because their careers have already started.”
So I’m going to talk to you about the free writing that almost ruined my career. Strap in.
Free Writing Ends More Careers Than It Starts
Back in 2014 I was coming off Shovel Buddies being on The Black List. I had taken general meetings all over town, but I had one meeting at a company I was dying to work with. They had money, prestige, and it was an honor to even be able to step through the doors to speak with the execs.
The initial conversation went so well that the general went into lunch, and they took me with them! I pitched them an idea that they really liked, but they had a few notes and an article that they owned that they thought aligned with my story.
We began trading emails. And when the idea of my developing it with them came up, I jumped at the chance. After all, they were prestigious, they could get things done.
I was a baby writer looking for a big break. This was it.
Sure, it wasn’t 100% my idea, I had to take some of their story beats, and elements from the article they liked, but it was a sexy company that had proven results.
I wrote a treatment, and then I was chomping at the bit to get started on the script. When my reps broached the subject about payment, I remember the conversation going “Why try to sell a treatment or a pitch for 40k now, when you can sell a fully packaged script later for a million dollars?”
Safe to say I no longer have those reps, but at the time the logic seemed sound to me. I am a fast writer. I was crushing the pages. We were weeks away from a first draft.
And at that moment I had the time to polish it while Shovel Buddies was being packaged and was going into production.
Plus, I got to tell people I was working with this huge company.
It was currency… but not the currency that could pay my rent or buy me groceries.
But maybe it would lead somewhere. And for a kid from West Chester, Pennsylvania, who dreamed of working in film and television, it felt cool.
I was almost somebody.
I finished the script, did more drafts with a director, did even more drafts when we got notes from the president of the company.
And then one day...the company dropped the project. They decided to go in a different direction. And so did the director. And all I had left was a sample. This was 1.5 YEARS after the initial general and I had nothing to show for all my hard work. I had worked for thousands of hours and I made $0.
I was depressed.
But I was lucky that I was friends with some screenwriters who bought me lunch. Bought me coffee. Bought me toys for my dog. And consoled me with stories of their free-work fiascos and helped me through a time that really jarred me as a writer.
It was nice to know everyone had been there. But it was also infuriating.
And the worst part? We could have tried to sell the spec other places, but the production company had some qualms and protested. Since they had given me an article they owned, they felt like they owned a portion of the idea. This was, of course, ludicrous. And it all got sussed out. But that took time.
In the end, I couldn’t even open the script anymore. Especially not when other people thought it was “Only a few more passes away from being great...then we can sell it.”
I was fortunate that Shovel Buddies was made during that time and I had some money to live on.
You would think I’d learned my lesson after all that, but free work can be sneaky. It took me a lot of time, energy, and a genuine piece of my soul to realize that free work was terrible for the industry. And not a viable way to break into Hollywood.
Where Else Does Free Work Come From?
I don’t tell that story to get pity, I tell it so no one else gets caught up in a similar situation. The truth is, free work ends more careers than it starts in Hollywood.
If I didn’t have the Shovel sale to fall back on, I probably would have left Los Angeles.
Free work doesn’t always come on the grand scale like speccing someone else’s idea. It comes in secret ways. Like if you get brought in to pitch on an idea, and they start asking for treatments to get your ideas passed up the ladder.
As you know from our treatments article - working on a free treatment can mean 10+ pages of writing. And rewriting. It can mean weeks of work. As a writer breaking into Hollywood, you’re almost expected to submit treatments, outlines, and leave-behinds for free.
No one is telling you how to work. If treatments are part of your project, do it. But don’t give it to them afterward. If they like your idea, they can pay for it, or have you come back in to pitch again.
This causes a ton of copywriting problems. Because if someone uses your stuff, whether it was scenes or whole snippets of ideas, you can sue them for not paying you.
It can also come from producers who already have purchased your screenplay asking you to do one last polish, or just a week on it to cover a few additional notes.
Again, the balance and need to get stuff into production is paramount, but you need to have a long career. And careers demand repeated paychecks.
I know what it feels like to be in a room with powerful people. You want to be like them, and you wanted to be liked by them. But I can assure you that they’re not moving forward for free. So neither should you.
So What Did We Learn About Free Work?
The Film and TV industry talks so much about “inclusion” now. But they forget that the way to get diverse voices and new ideas is to pay the people at the bottom trying to break through.
This is exceedingly frustrating because you also don’t want to be known as someone who is challenging to work with. Someone producers gossip about as being “money-obsessed.”
There’s a fine line to walk, but if everyone starts turning down the free work portion than we’ll all be in it together. And there's a Union is backing even those who are not in the WGA yet, to continue the fight for fair pay.
It’s not you alone, it’s thousands of writers also making the stand with you.
So be brave.
Los Angeles is an exceedingly expensive place to live and work. You can’t pay for groceries on free work. You can’t even tell your landlord you’re living on spec. Though I'm sure some have tried.
If you have additional questions, I urge you to listen to the John August and Craig Mazin - they are in the WGA and have lots of answers to FAQs and resources.
Every writer has been there.
Let’s make sure we stop this before the next generation has to face this as well.