When I’m not lying by the pool, enjoying the Hollywood lifestyle in sunny Sydney, I make a living teaching and consulting to screenwriters and aspiring filmmakers.
Yet occasionally I am being asked to help out for free, in return for a credit or a profit share.
Let me tell you upfront that the answer is always NO.
by Karel Segers
This time I received an email from an aspiring filmmaker who wanted me to help, not with a script but with a great idea for a script. The idea revolves around a public person, related to a globally known historical figure.
As a matter of fact, there is no movie idea yet.
There is just the aspiring screenwriter’s intention do write something about this character, because he was so unique, inspiring and had a major impact on the globally known historical figure.
Let’s sit back and review what is expected from me.
First, I would have to help this person come up with a workable movie concept. Next, I would help turn the idea into a script. Finally, I would need to help getting the script sold, or perhaps even produce it myself. That last bit wasn’t mentioned in the email but I have enough experience to know that this will come up at some point, most likely long before I would deem the script marketable. All for the love…
What do I do? How to respond?
Help this person for free for as much as I can justify? Just blow him off? Or present a hefty quote for my services? Those last two options would both come at the risk of being called a money-grabbing bastard, because what this person wants wouldn’t be easy.
Of course I would have to do all the heavy lifting as this person has no experience. I would have to accept that my share of the back end would be minimal, because this other person ‘came up with the idea’ and brought it to me. I should be grateful to be part of it and shut up, waiting for my big royalty pay cheque.
So the answer is ‘no’.
Even my best friends know that I don’t even read their scripts for free in my spare time. The ‘lying by the pool’ bit is grossly overstated and I don’t quite know what a Hollywood lifestyle entails. What I do know: my margins are small, I don’t have much spare time and if I’m not watching a movie, I’d like to spend time with my son, which I don’t do enough. So accepting to read anything for free would not be fair to him.
Irrespective of my personal situation though, the truth is that anyone dropping real work in order to develop a project like this one on spec, for no money, is insanity – or a hobby.
Why insane? Wouldn’t it just be kind to help someone get a movie up? No.
Not only is it impossible to copyright-protect an idea (even if this person had one), the fact that we’re dealing with a story around a public figure increases the chances that a similar project is being developed elsewhere, possibly by a major studio. And unless you are an other major studio, you don’t compete with them.
Can you understand that I find it difficult to tell this person with his idea the truth and give a polite answer?
The problem is that even the polite answer is going to take an inordinate amount of time. I would have to educate this person as to how the industry works…
What would your answer be?
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.