Scams are out there attacking members of all industries, and screenwriting is no exception. The Hollywood Reporter came out with an article today about how screenwriters are scammed. I wanted to share it with you, and point out how to protect yourself—and where I think the article didn’t do enough research.
Read on and don’t fall victim to a screenwriting scam.
Whether you read the THR article before or after you read my post, know this—it contains a lot of good advice; however, it only scratches the surface and it gets some things wrong.
I applaud THR for posting this article. It’s long overdue; however, it’s far from a comprehensive report and several of the facts are out-of-date. Not to mention, it sounds like the article’s author only talked to a couple of screenwriters. Not much of a sampling, and that’s why it misses the big picture, in my opinion. What the author points out as scams are a very different beast to what we should really be discussing, because actual scams do exist that troll screenwriters all the time. One is mentioned in the piece. It’s the one where a writer gets an email from a manager or an agent wanting to represent them, but then asks for a fee to properly market their script. IF THEY ASK FOR MONEY UPFRONT, that’s a real scam.
What the article is really talking about—and it’s something that should be a hot topic for all of us—is far worse than the kind of scam mentioned above. In fact, a whole cottage industry popped up around it in the 1990s and continues to feed on the hopes and dreams of aspiring screenwriters. Calling it a ‘scam’ is a misnomer. It’s a business, with the goal of earning a buck off of Hollywood hopefuls. While I believe the article is pointing this business model out for what it is, comparing it to a common scam is a bad comparison. It’s big business. Let’s not lessen it by saying it’s just a scam. It’s a business woven into the fiber of education and beating the gatekeepers of Hollywood with insider know-how. It’s insidiously marketed alongside real education, making it hard for unexperienced writers to easily spot the good from the bad.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It can also launch careers. (I’d have to raise my hand as someone that navigated the pitchfest waters to find actual working producers. Not that I didn’t stumble across a few duds. I was lucky that they didn’t con me out of any money, but they did take something more valuable—my time.)
First a few rules to protect yourself:
Rule #1: Research before purchasing. (And don’t purchase unless your script is 110% ready to sell.)
Buyer-beware has never been more true. Know what you are buying. If you are paying a fee to learn about the business, that should be easy to compare the benefit vs. the cost. If you are paying for access, you need to research who’s at the end of the line. Who are you getting access to? Is it a decision-making executive? Is it their assistant? As long as the company at the end of the line is actually making movies or television shows, that’s a worthwhile lead. But consider two things, we’ll call them addendums to the rule.
Addendum #1: It makes no sense to market your script if it isn’t ready for a working producer to put into production.
Selling a script that isn’t ready is the scam you play on yourself. How do you know it’s ready? You need to build a screenwriting community around you of writers you respect that can honestly judge your script. You shouldn’t pay for this kind of advice. You should be part of a group that reads each other’s scripts and helps each other prep their material into the best possible shape. I found a group like that by taking a screenwriting course, where I had the opportunity to improve my writing and judge other writers to find talented ones in my genre. Sure, it comes at a cost—time. And the course fee, but if you haven’t studied screenwriting, you might be missing the most important part.
Addendum #2: Query letters. It may be old-fashioned, but you can still send query letters, or emails, to producers and pitch your script. You just can’t send your script, that’s unsolicited. Sure, it helps if the producer or someone at the company is waiting for your email pitch, so find free ways to meet and mingle. Attend free lectures and go to hotel lobbies at big festivals and meet some people.
Rule #2: You can’t buy your way into a screenwriting career.
Talent and opportunity equals success as a working screenwriter. Anyone that doesn’t know their craft or is unable to take feedback and work with a roomful of personalities and input, will have a hard time building a screenwriting career. Unless you are willing to fund a film—and that still probably won’t workout in the long run—screenwriting must be developed, not only by working on your craft but doing all you can to understand the business and how it works.
Anyone that offers you Hollywood success, if you only pay their fee, is lying.
Rule #3: Never pay anyone to represent your script to buyers.
As the article stated, agents and managers CAN NOT charge you a fee. Anyone that asks for a fee to represent you as a writer, even if they call it something else, is breaking the law. And they are only after your money.
I’m not saying people won’t ask you to work for free, rewriting your script so they can pitch it to buyers, but if money should ever exchange hands it should be THEM sending YOU a check. Everyone in Hollywood works for a percentage of earnings. They need to sell your script, so everyone gets paid. After you get that first job and build a track record, you can get to the next level, where you should be paid upfront money.
Bottomline: It’s only legit if they are paying YOU in some way. Many producers and representatives pay you with their time, as they work for free until they setup a deal.
I don’t mean any disrespect to the article’s author, but I do want to act as a fact checker, as I take issue with two points made.
What the article gets wrong or misses entirely:
- GAPF or Scriptfest. The Great American Pitchfest has closed its doors. So, it’s confusing that it shows up on the list of bad pitchfests. While something new will surely pop up, the pitchfest is kinda dead, at the moment. The other pitchfests the article mentions are ones I would avoid, as they are not known for bringing in executives with healthy production opportunities.
The GAPF was the last of its kind, which did bring in some producers seriously looking for scripts. However, the mini pitchfest it had in June was a dim shadow of what it had once been. I attended it as an executive and found it poorly organized. I felt bad for the attendees and the executives. I also worked the room, meeting executives, because I wasn’t meeting many screenwriters. (Don’t get me started on why, but the lines for ten of the companies where on an upper, upper level and were hard to find.) Talking to the other executives, however, was a revelation. This was the first time that I was on the other side of the table, and I was a little shocked at what constituted an ‘executive’ at the very last Scriptfest.
A small percentage, like myself, were looking for very specific material. The rest of the executives, where looking for a needle-in-a-haystack, meaning they wanted that one-in-a-million script. A pitchfest is really a long shot for finding the next blockbuster franchise. Worst of all, a certain percentage of the executives weren’t executives at all, or even there to represent a production company—which no matter what the article says, is fine as long as the company is actually producing movies.
These other executives that weren’t executives where exactly what the article calls out. They were people offering services to screenwriters. I was surprised to see several of them there, taking up spots that should have been for production companies. I agree the 2018 GAPF should have been on the Avoid It List, but economics have taken care of the problem. It’s out of business. If it should resurface in some form, I’d properly vet the companies before attending.
- The Black List. The Black List is mentioned as a good example of a place for screenwriters to spend their money. I’d have to disagree.
While the Black List has a good reputation, I believe that’s because of the Original Black List, which is a list circulated by top Hollywood agents’ and managers’ assistants of the best screenplays they’ve seen all year that haven’t been optioned. We’re talking about scripts that are represented, written by some of the top A-List screenwriters, but for some reason no one picked up their scripts. Sure, a few almost A-Listers appear on the list, but it’s for scripts that are already going out to the industry.
The Black List open to you and me is not the same one. It’s a place where you pay to have your script reviewed by other screenwriters. (Heck, Zoetroppe and Project Greenlight set up something like that for free a long time ago.) Your script is reviewed by your peers, and you pay for every review. The better your reviews, the higher number your script gets, the more notice zooms your way on the site. But who’s noticing?
I know a writer that earned rave reviews for his script on the Black List. It made him feel good, but he never optioned it. Not that anything about the Black List says an option waits in the future of high ranking scripts. Thing is… my screenwriting friend paid a lot of money to keep his script on the site and to get the reviews. Could he use the Black List success while pitching his script? Sure. And I guess that would be a good benefit, if you think that kind of vetting matters to producers. My point: the Black List charges a fee for reviews from your peers. It is not related to the Original Black List. If the fees are worth what you get, then good. But you need to be aware of what you are paying for to decide if the cost is worth it to you.
I’d rather spend my money on knowing how to write a screenplay and taking trips to Los Angeles to meet working producers. Maybe that’s just me. Plus, I’ve taken the time to build up a community of screenwriters that I don’t have to pay for their amazing feedback.
Here are my final thoughts, since this is a topic that I could go on and on about.
- One of the best ways to protect yourself from scams is knowing who you are communicating with at all times. Many times screenwriters can’t get to the decision makers in a company, so it’s important to know who you’re talking with and the production company’s track record. Are they making movies? If the answer is yes, they are worth getting your foot into the door, even if the first person you speak to is the assistant. That assistant won’t be an assistant forever. Plus, most production companies only have a few employees. That means every one working for the decision maker has their ear, and listens to their advice. In my company, I’m the one that filters all scripts. I don’t make the final decision, but I make the first one.
- Research any offer that comes your way! You can find the scams online. Google is your friend.
- If it sounds too good, like you just found a shortcut to success… it’s probably a scam.
THE INSIDER TRUTH ABOUT SUCCESS AS A SCREENWRITER:
Whatever you do when it comes to your screenwriting career, stay the course. You need to write more than one script. You need to educate yourself on how to market your own material. Contests have only launched a few careers, don’t make them your only way to reach Hollywood. (And only a Nichols win impresses producers.) Get yourself to Hollywood, if you want to make real contacts. Like all businesses, the movie industry is a people business. It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know. Get to Hollywood so they can meet you. That doesn’t mean you have to live in Hollywood, you just have to get there often. Or any city with a filming community.
While there aren’t any shortcuts to making it as a screenwriter, there are several up and coming ways to get noticed. If I were starting out today, I’d try one of two ways to break into Hollywood, once I’d written a couple of high concept scripts. (1) I’d start a YouTube channel and make short films (3 minutes or under) to post, and (2) I’d write and produce audio dramas, which are like podcasts, but fictional stories told in serial format. Both of these avenues are places that working producers are looking to for finding new talent. And I only see these avenues getting bigger and bigger.
I guess my ultimate point is to get your work out there to the world. Let the market decide.