Thursday, April 03, 2014

Should writers write for free?

Don't kid yourself.  The real Golden Age of Television was the 1980’s – and by that I mean writers got rich. As an example: multi-camera sitcom staffs would routinely add a punch-up writer or two to come in once a week for rewrites. The best of those could command five figures for one night. A few worked more than one series at a time. Do the math. Ka-ching!

This was especially true on pilots. Writer/creators had no staffs to support them since it was just a one-shot. So money was allotted to bring in established hired guns. If my writing partner, David, and I didn’t have a pilot ourselves one season we would bounce from show to show raking in the dough. There was one year where we lost money by doing a pilot instead of helping out on everyone else’s. Life was good.

Then came the ‘90s and studios starting tightening belts. Punch-up people for pilots was a luxury they determined wasn’t necessary. But still the writer/creators needed help. So we all began to work on each other’s pilots as a favor. We received lovely gifts from the writer/creator and when we had our own pilots we were able to surround ourselves with an all-star team. Life was not as good but still pretty good.

We are currently in the middle of pilot season again. Established writers are still helping each other out reciprocally. But a new trend has been making its way into the scene. Writers looking for work are essentially auditioning and helping out pilots for free. They’re hoping to dazzle and maybe get on staff should the show get picked up.

I certainly understand the logic in that. And for young writers it’s a chance to be noticed. But at what point is the writer/creator and studio taking advantage? The creator gets paid a lot of money (and is maybe on a seven-figure overall deal with a studio) to write the pilot and now young writers who have trouble making their monthly rent are contributing and making nothing. Exposure aside, this doesn’t seem fair to me.

And in most cases it’s unproductive. I’ve been in pilot rewrites where there are no less than twenty people. Way too many. And usually it’s only four or five who really contribute… and those are usually the seasoned pros. It’s hard for young writers to just come in cold and make an impression.

Personally, I would rather have a small room of people I trust. Three to five max. The best pilots are the ones with a clear voice. That voice gets muddled when twenty people, all with different sensibilities and levels of experience, are lobbing in jokes and suggestions.

Good luck to everyone currently filming pilots. Every showrunner has his own style and preferred method of working. Whether you use three additional writers or twenty-three, veteran or newbie, people you know well or have never met, I would just suggest you give nice gifts to all. It’s the right thing to do. (Paying is really the right thing but those days are sadly gone.)

17 comments:

Hamid said...

On this subject, were you being serious that time you said the producers of Mannequin 1 wanted to pay you and David in TVs or were you just kidding?!

Pat Reeder said...

A quote from a speech that Mel Blanc made once, in relation to his commercial voice/production work:

"Spec is when you do work for no pay in hopes that you will someday be rewarded for it. Speck is also a small piece of dirt."

Dave Creek said...

This is just another example of the writer's work being devalued. Magazines that want to pay in "exposure" are another example. Never mind that if they don't have a big enough audience to generate money that the exposure can't be worth much, either.

Jon J said...

I once knew a fellow named Mike Price who now lives in Reno who claimed he was a "punchup writer" for M*A*S*H, Cheers and a couple of other shows. He seems to have been blowing great clouds of smoke since I can find no record of him. Would these writers have received any credit...other than a big check?

AJS said...

It is not just writers work being devalued. It is what is happening across the spectrum. We have a winner takes all economy.

Working for free for billion dollar companies should be criminal.

Ken is correct. The proper thing is always to pay people.

Americans need to wake up. When the makers of circo part the panem et circenses aren't even getting the pane the system is totally f'd

Bill Prady said...

The incredible exploitation of young writers by the studios has always baffled me.

Imagine if the studio told the lead actor that, because it's a pilot, he should get some of his actor friends to play the smaller parts for free.

Carol said...

There was a comic going around Facebook with the title 'what if other professions were treated like artists' or some such thing, and the upshot was, you don't see doctors performing surgery for free so they can 'get exposure'.

And then there's this: http://www.tdpri.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-306672.html

Cap'n Bob said...

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Samuel Johnson.

Tom Parker said...

Caution: People die of exposure.

Steve Pepoon said...

A great line I read somewhere "The only thing I ever got from doing free work was the opportunity to do more free work."

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the "Winner-Take-All" economy.

Oh the irony said...

Wait a minute... the same industry that is telling us how insensitive we as Americans are, how the poor deserve free health insurance, that carbon dioxide is killing the planet as they go from premiere to premiere across the world in a private jet, that we all should be paying more taxes (except when Harvey Weinstein is begging California to give Hollywood tax breaks) is not willing to pay even a fair share for wages for the originators of it all (the writers)? That cannot be right! I am going to have to do some fact checking about this post because I do not believe there has ever been a case where Hollywood was a do as I say, not as I do place. Have I been duped into believing everything I have seen on TV all these years? Is "Yes We Can" really "Yes We Can Work for Free?" I may need years of therapy for this one.

Anonymous said...

Harlan Ellison gives his considered opinion on lowlife whore piece-of-shit scumbag hack wannabe writer's working for free:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

Hamid said...

Well, it was always just a matter of time. David Letterman has announced he'll retire in 2015.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Indexing. That's where the real prestige is.

"Let me hear no more of him, Sir. That is the fellow who made the Index to my RAMBLERS and set down the name of Milton thus: Milton, Mr. John.”
Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)

Terry said...

Re: David Letterman's retirement:
Good. I used to like his show a lot. Now? Well, if I want to see a sour old crank who makes occasional amusing remarks, I'll visit my dad. At least he's putting me in his will.

DrBOP said...

Up here in Ontario, Canada, the Province has just passed legislation which outlaws most forms of unpaid internships.....including for magazine writers. Not sure about script writers.
Not at all bragging.....I'm as shocked as anyone that it seems that a form of government got something right!