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Friday, August 15, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Know Your Worth (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

Yes kiddies, and STS Brethren: P.J. McNeill is BACK. 

(We know you’ve been in mourning, and rightly so…)  🙂 

Without further ado or yammering, please tuck into his next article – a rather vital piece entitled….


Know Your Worth

The first script I ever optioned was for one dollar.

The story behind that option is an entire blog post itself, but in a short summary: the company held onto the script (a feature) for three years, and didn’t do a single thing with it. When the three years was up, I had next to nothing to show for it; just a lot of fake promises and a single dollar. I remember taking the check for the dollar to my bank, and actually feeling like a big shot in front of the teller as I plopped it down on the counter. “Yeah, you see that production company logo in the upper right corner of the check? That means I’ve made it. No, don’t look at how much it’s for, that’s not important.

But, you see, it is important. Several years after moving out to LA, I was sitting in a coffee shop with a professional writer, feeling pretty down. Fed up, I told him “I’m not going to work for free anymore.” He smiled and congratulated me, as if I had achieved some kind of goal/milestone. But, looking back, I think I had. A lot of writers are so eager to get their work produced that they’ll take anything that’s offered and sell themselves short. “Wait a minute, you’ll give me 85% on the backend?!? I’d be stupid not to sign this contract giving away all my rights!” (Ok, now take out a piece of paper and a pen and multiple 85 times zero. That’s what you’ll end up with in the end.)

You have to remember: they want your script. They see value in your writing. And because of this, you should see value in your writing. You need to know your worth as a writer. Know what your time and talent is worth. It’s a question that comes up ALL THE TIME: “A production company/filmmaker/student has contacted me asking to make my script. How much do I ask?” There is no one answer. You personally need to sit down and figure that out for yourself. How much are my shorts worth? How much are my features worth?

The main problem is that people are scared to talk figures. People hate talking about money. So, I’m going to share my figures. Whenever I sell a short, I always ask for a couple hundred dollars. My last short sold for $200. I’m comfortable with that. It was a 10 page short, and $200 (give or take) is reasonable to me for giving up the rights to the script. My last feature that I optioned was for $1500 every year. In the end, the script was given back to me, but I had nearly $5000 to show for it. Not only was it nice to get a check every once in a while, but it constantly re-assured me that they felt serious about the project.

Now, here’s where it gets a little tricky. Remember, many blog posts ago, when I said I hate people who speak in absolutes? That’s why I’m not going to say “NEVER accept a dollar option.” or “NEVER take less than you think you deserve.” You know why? Every situation you approach is going to be different. For example: the last script I optioned was for a dollar up-front. But, I did my research. I looked into the company and saw they were a company with a proven track record of multi-million dollar films (with theatrical releases) dating back over a decade. They were serious about their projects, but because they were in another country, could not offer me money on the initial option (as most of their money came from government grants/funding). However, when you’re taking the dollar option, you can use this as your leverage to negotiate certain terms. For example, I got them to agree to some money if the option was renewed (it was).

Be wary of the people with “credits”. I put that in quotation marks, because they’re credits that can’t really be verified. The first company I took the dollar option from? Their website (which had NO completed films on it) boasted their involvement on Harry Potter, as well as many other multi-million dollar films. The problem was, I couldn’t verify this involvement on IMDB (or anywhere else, for that matter). I’ve seen this a lot since then: producers who talk up all the films they’ve been on/helped on, but have no concrete proof as to their involvement. If you’re going to take the plunge and take the dollar option, really do your research, confirm that it’s someone you want to be working with, and feel good about yourself when you sign that dotted line.

But whatever you do, don’t work for free. At the very least, get the dollar. Then cash it, take it all out in pennies, go home, and roll in it on your bed. Because you’ve made it.

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!


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