A Great Idea For A Screenplay!

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?

Creative Commons License photo credit: boltron-

11 thoughts on “A Great Idea For A Screenplay!”

  1. I see your predicament but, in the time it took to write the blog post on it could you, a writer, not have worked that into a direct reply to the poor suffering soul to A) get him off your back and B) disillusion him and thus do him some small service?

    • Makes perfect sense…. but I’ve done this one too many times in the past already.

      The added benefit of this blog post is that it informs newbies who are googling for advice on what to do when they have their [search string:] “great-idea-for-a-screenplay”.

      Sun’s out. Gotta get back to the pool now.

    • To be honest, I’m not sure a blog post and a response could be compared in relation to time. Sure, one reply to the “poor suffering soul” might ease him momentarily, but if the response was satisfying, I’m sure he would come back for another hit of Karel-caine. I know I would. And have. *looks down at vein

  2. You expect us to comment for free now?

    Oh OK, but only because you’re a mate.

    My reply when someone without a publisher asks me to do some “rough drawings” for their kids book idea is, (with a compassionate/charming smile), aw sorry mate but I don’t really have the time and it’s my job and so I can’t really do it for nothing, BUT, here’s a tip… (insert an awesome tip).

  3. The on-going price of commodifcation. How do we assign a price-tag to something that is deemed to be price-less? In this case, producing is something filmmakers ‘enjoy’, and thus should require no monetary incentive.

    How do I personally handle this on a practical level? I don’t have a “blanket response” and treat each case specifically on its merits. Of course, this takes time, and time is the great equaliser. When I am working on a project, I shut the door. Metaphorically and literally. I don’t answer emails. I don’t take phone calls (unless they are about set project) and I find that filters out the needy from the greedy. If there is someone who knows my work, and is quite keen to work with me, they will firstly sympathise with my situation. If not, they are probably not someone I really want to work with.

    I feel your pain, Karel, but it doesn’t seem like too high a price to pay to do what one loves. Keep up these types of posts, they generate the kind of arguments we need to be having.

  4. This is tricky, because we all ask – and get asked – to do things for free. It’s a permanent feature of the lower reaches of the movie industry worlwide, and will always be so. Might I suggest that an essential part of anyone’s success in this industry is their ability to get people to do things for free (or at least for less than they’d normally charge)?

    The question you have to ask yourself (or imagine the other person asking themselves if the request is coming from you) is – what’s in it for me? This may seem callous, but I believe an understanding of this is the key to negotiating the problem.

    For myself, I divide requests up into two – things I normally do for money, and things I don’t do for money. If someone asks me to speak at a meeting, or meet up for coffee for some career advice (such as I am able to give), then the anwser is usually yes. I’ve even occassionally read scripts and given comments for some people (and before you ask, only a small proportion of them were cute young women). What’s in it for me? A warm fuzzy glow, and the chance to get out of the house.

    Now if someone asks me to write a feature script on spec (and what Karel was being asked to do is of this order), the answer is always no. Why? Because – what’s in it for me? Years of unpaid work on a script that I don’t even control the rights to. If I’m working on spec, I’ll work on my own material, thanks.

    I’ve succesfully asked people to work on a short film for free. What was in it for them? For the actors and some of the crew, it was the chance for more experience. For the editor and DoP, who didn’t need the experience, it was a bit of fun. Importantly, it didn’t take up too much of their time, and no one missed out on paying work by being involved.

    It sounds like the person asking for Karel’s help has no idea of the amount of work involved in what they were requesting. We’re all trying to be professionals, but the request has the strong whiff of coming from an amatuer.

  5. If only I had a dollar for every time someone asked me for my professional (read, bread-making) nous… ;)

    Sadly, even with my European bluntness, I’m not great at saying, ‘No’.

    If s/he thinks this idea so so great, is it not not worth enough to back with their own effort, time and money instead of asking for someone else’s’ resources?

    Usually it is the people who have no idea what is involved in realising their request,who are driven to get you to accept. So, you’d be doing this person a big favour by spelling out exactly how it all works in the industry (back to my European bluntness) – A mini lesson, for FREE at that.

    I’d end it by saying that, since ideas/concepts cannot be copyrighted, they’d better be careful who they share it with ;D (Oooh! That’s beyond EU bluntness LOL).

    Seriously, invite them to your Story Series workshop so they can learn how to do it for themselves. Great value for money and when they finish, they might just have a sellable product.

    I know you offer industry discount but have you considered offering a discount for students, unemployed, pensioners? This person must be very poor.

  6. I would have to agree with Clive, talk to anyone in any profession and people always ask for free legal advice, or could you knock up a quick plan for my back deck, hey you know how to fix computers, could you do a quick edit for my great Tropfest film, etc etc etc.
    And yes sometimes we spend hours or days doing a favour, in the hope that it pays off with, a better friendship, a lead to other work or whatever.

    But you always know deep down when you are being used & you know that the person asking has absolutely no idea how long it will take.

    I had the opportunity to work with a very experienced business partner, who would always get asked these questions mainly because of his years in the business & his success. He would always face the question honestly & head on. It was an interesting proposition but he was way too busy, he didn’t feel it was for him or that he could do it justice.

    But this was the great part he always referred them on. He would get on the mobile right to another of his many contacts, say he’s got this great guy who they should meet and they might be able to work together on a project. Mobile numbers were exchanged, the meeting time was organised right there and then and hey sometimes it worked out & sometimes it didn’t.

    He never took offence to the question, it was just part of doing business. It was just that he found a polite & professional way of saying ‘bugger off’ without offending that person because you just never know when you might have to ask a favour.


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