Can Avoid a Scam
By Mark Heidelberger
One downside to being a producer in Hollywood is that all the bad producers, the shady ones, the guys masquerading as professionals when they’ve never made so much as a YouTube video, give the rest of us a bad name. I don’t know how many times a screenwriter has told me of their reticence to do a past script deal because the producer seemed untrustworthy. Unfortunately, quite often, they were right. There are more than a few wannabes out there willing to spend 20 bucks on classy-looking business cards in hopes of bilking writers out of fees, credit and other rights they deserve as creators of the material. However, there are a few things you can do to make sure you’re not a victim of one of these silver screen scammers.
Check Their Background
If a producer requests your material, do a little digging on them. The internet makes it easy to see what they’ve produced and how long they’ve been doing it. Places like IMDb and Wikipedia are fairly comprehensive media databanks, and anyone with even the smallest track record should have some footprint in a Google search. Moreover, viable producers have no problem providing references of other writers with whom they’ve had productive working relationships. Don’t be afraid to ask for them.
Arrange a Phone Call
A lot of phonies avoid the phone. Why? Because it’s much easier to spot red flags in a one-on-one conversation where they not only have to nimbly field a barrage of questions, but also provide sensible answers. Therefore, many of the more dubious types prefer email where they can concoct believable presentations and take additional time to navigate pointed inquiries. Always insist on a phone call to generate a rapport, discuss terms and address questions.
Hire an Agent or Lawyer
The old thinking went that agents got 10% of the fee because they did 10% of the work. While you’ll have to give up a small commish, it might be worth it to avoid some bamboozling from a questionable character, especially if you’re concerned about your inability to spot warning signs. An entertainment attorney or agent is much better equipped to negotiate key deal points anyhow and will be more likely to assume the task when they know it’s a paying gig.
Don’t Work for Free
Unless, of course, it’s not a paying gig. It’s one thing for an indie producer to give you some notes to address before he takes the script out, but asking you to write an entire script for free is something altogether different. Many promise pie-in-the-sky results in exchange for your sweat equity, like a juicy deferment or back-end. Don’t do it. Any producer capable of getting the film launched is capable of paying you a few bucks for your time and skill. Similarly, don’t sell or option spec material for free.
Don’t Pay Them
There’s a flip side to that coin. Don’t sign your material over to someone who says he’ll get it made if you just slide him some green. You shouldn’t have to pay a producer to get your material produced; he should be paying you. There are viable producers-for-hire who perform production and development services for clients (heck, I’m one of them), but the difference is the payer’s the boss, retaining ownership and control of the material while getting some specific, guaranteed result in exchange.
Insist on a Contract
If someone says they don’t do contracts, be afraid. Be very afraid. Contracts mitigate the risk of some future dispute by ensuring both parties know exactly what they’re getting and when. Just as important, they provide legal protection in case there is a dispute. Make sure the contract specifies your payment terms, residuals, the details of your credit, any reserved rights, and options for retrieving the material if it’s not produced in a given time frame. Never forego these rights just to get your script made!