questionmarkMy writing partner and I are young “nobodies” trying to write for film and television. While we’ve worked in the industry for years and have written a lot of work, we’re still fighting to get represented or to make a sale. Here’s where the question comes in:

About a year ago we got hooked up with a producer from a major studio who was willing to read our work and develop scripts with us. He’d read some work of ours and said that he liked the writing. That’s great! After bouncing around some of our ideas we began working on an original idea of his.

We spent hours upon hours putting together draft after draft and adjusting to an onslaught of notes that we would get back. Every time would be, “this is good but…” and then he would ask us to change the whole story. We would oblige (because we’re nobodies and he’s a working producer) and then start from scratch, re-build the story and write another draft. Most of the notes we were applying were things that we didn’t agree with and felt that they took the script in a direction we didn’t like. This was an endless cycle. But we dealt with it — in hopes that it would matter.

Eventually we finally got a story that he “liked” (because he apparently no longer liked the story he pitched us originally) and we thought we were ready for him to show it around to other producers or to agents/managers but instead he’s asked that we sit with him and go through the script line by line so that he can correct it. Line. By. Line.

We know that notes are part of the process and we’re very receptive to constructive criticism but seeing as how we’re not getting paid for this work and he’s basically asking us to transcribe his every thought into Final Draft (thoughts we don’t even see eye to eye on) — at what point are we just being abused and wasting our time?

Seeing as this is the biggest connection that we have and the best chance we’ve seen so far to have any sort of “break-in” we’re desperately holding on to it but it keeps feeling more and more demeaning and pointless. Thoughts?

– Brandon and Gabriel
Los Angeles, CA

answer iconYour suspicions are correct: this won’t stop until you make it stop.

You’re essentially doing spec work — writing without getting paid. While you own the words you’ve written, the producer can (reasonably) claim some ownership of the story. He’ll be attached to whatever screenplay you end up with.

But take comfort: you’re not alone.

This is a very common situation for screenwriters at the beginning of their careers. In fact, I’d guess that most working screenwriters have an anecdote similar to yours.

I spent six months rewriting a draft of my first screenplay with a former development executive who I later realized had few connections and zero ability to actually get a movie made. She pinned all my hopes on getting one agent at CAA to read my script. We waited two months to get a perfunctory pass.

As aggravating as the experience was, I can also look at it from her perspective: she invested many hours reading and meeting with me. She truly believed in my script, and wanted to make it better. The worst I can fault her for is over-estimating her abilities as a producer.

I suspect the situation is similar with your producer. He sees himself as a Good Guy, and doesn’t hear your groans of annoyance.

Your challenge now is to find a way out of this bad situation while maintaining a good relationship. Before starting on any new work, you need to have a conversation with him about exactly what the next steps will be.

For starters, you need an agent or a manager. Conveniently, he deals with agents and managers all the time, so he needs to pick up the phone and call a few on your behalf.

He may balk at first, not wanting to send out the script you’re writing for him. That’s fine. You have other writing samples. Agents and managers should be reading them.

You also need to set some mutual deadlines. “So, we’ll get you these changes on Tuesday. Then we’re going to send it to (appropriate director) to read for the weekend, right?”

Just so you know, these situations never really end. Producer notes will always grow to fill the amount of time you have — and then bleed past the edges. Even with an agent or manager to play bad cop, screenwriters are constantly balancing the need to keep producers happy and keep the process moving along. That’s part of the job.