I started this site in 2003 to answer questions about screenwriting. Over the years, most of those questions have drifted over to Scriptnotes. The podcast format is ideal for short questions with long answers.
But sometimes, you get a long question that doesn’t work well for audio. This is one of those.
About 13 or so years ago, a friend of a friend approached me and my writing partner about an idea he had. Let’s call him Patrick.
Patrick had a premise for a series that was loosely based on classic characters from pop-culture, but his idea subverted them and gave them new life. He provided us with no written material, but he did have hand-drawn artwork representations of the characters and some clear story concepts that he wanted to explore. He asked us if we could shape these things into a television pilot. There were some casual meetings to talk about how he saw these characters and what the world was like, but they were minimal in scope, which was why he came to us.
We agreed to take it on and then Patrick went out of town to work an extended gig.
During that time, my writing partner and I spent a good six months developing a series bible, creating the characters beyond their sketched images and what we’d been told via conversation, shaping arcs for the first season (and some beyond that), and then we wrote a two-hour pilot.
After sending the first half of the pilot to Patrick, he kind of shrugged it off and stated it wasn’t really in line with his idea, that we’d taken a different direction and he wasn’t digging it. As I recall, he casually suggested we take our parts of the idea and do what we wanted with it for ourselves.
Here’s the important detail: No writer’s agreements were drafted up and signed during all of this.
We were all young idiots doing this in good faith of our friendship. We weren’t professional writers, we were just trying to break in. I recognized that we had zero chance of getting this pilot sold. But it was a good premise and a great exercise in world-building, if anything.
Meanwhile, a friend of mine who was (and still is) a working tv writer, took a look at the full pilot, just as a courtesy to give us general feedback. He was interested enough in it that he called to tell me he was willing to pass it along to a producer he knew — if we got some paperwork sorted out with Patrick.
But when we met with Patrick, he was suddenly very interested in our vision and wanted us to sign away 75% of our rights to the project, claiming he had a right to that 75% as “creator” of the piece (comparing himself to someone who had multiple series on the air at that time), leaving me and my partner to split the remaining 25%…if and when this thing ever sold. His logic was that the overall total (which I think is a number he looked up online, somewhere) would be “enough” that we would be happy with 25%.
I would have been willing to possibly try and negotiate, but my partner was not. Both of us felt that we’d put in the creative grunt work on a version of the project that Patrick wasn’t interested in until there was a barely possible potential sale on the table. The project’s momentum and our friendship with Patrick died that day and we’ve been sitting on it as a very extensive writing sample since then.
Cut to: Present Day
My partner and I are still proud of this work and very interested in independently producing the pilot. Current technology has made this very possible compared to what it would have cost in 2004, which is why it’s coming up now in 2017. But I want to make sure we’re not investing more time and energy into something that’s a pointless pursuit.
Are we (and have we always been) free and clear to continue developing this property for production? And just how off-base was Patrick in his request for 75%?
This is the part where I remind everyone that I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.
But I’m glad you recognize that a lot of this drama could have been prevented if you’d signed some sort of agreement with Patrick early on. The WGA has a sample collaboration agreement which would have probably done the job. If nothing else, it would have formalized your discussions, and might have warned you early on that Patrick was going to be trouble.
Yes: Patrick was way off base asking for 75%. That’s nuts. Considering he seems to have done nothing with his great idea in the 13 intervening years, I’m guessing either (a) he’s not really in the industry, or (b) he has had enough success he’s not even thinking about this early idea.
Either way, you can’t just pretend Patrick never existed.
Even though you never signed anything official, there’s probably some sort of paper trail. Emails and whatnot. You don’t want this guy suddenly resurfacing when you’re trying to sell your pilot to someone, or screen it at a festival.
So I think it’s worth re-approaching him. Find him on Facebook and tell him that you’re looking at making this as an indie pilot for no money. Offer him an executive producer credit, or shared story. If you can come to an agreement, put it in writing.
And if not, drop it. Move on. Spend your money and energy on something new and unencumbered.
Let’s forget about Patrick for the moment and focus on you.
You signed your full name on the email, so I looked you up on IMDb. You’ve written and directed a few shorts and microbudget films, which is great. It’s important to make things.
But 13 years is a long time. I wonder if part of the reason you’re considering resuscitating this dead idea is that it’s the closest you’ve come to heat. From reading the bio you wrote on IMDb, it seems like this was the one project that got real interest from a producer. So it’s natural to want to circle back to it.
Yet that’s almost certainly a mistake.
It’s time to put on our Analogy Hats.
Let’s say you’re an aspiring fashion designer. After years of trying to get people to pay attention to your work, an editor singles out a metallic cape you made. It gets featured on page 94 of the magazine.
Was that cape better than all your other work?
Probably not. It was just the piece that got noticed. It could have just as easily been that belt buckle or, heck, your Analogy Hat. Either way, nothing much comes of the attention. You’re still basically an aspiring fashion designer.
Thirteen years pass. You look at this shiny cape the editor liked and wonder if now is the right time. Maybe the world is finally ready for it. You could spent all your time and money trying to launch it…
…or you could look around and see that, honestly, tastes have changed. Your cape was great, but it was part of its time. You’d be much better off designing something for 2017 and beyond.
If you were to do the same honest assessment of the Patrick project, I wonder if you’d reach the same conclusion. Maybe it’s really your metallic cape. Maybe it’s best left in the closet.
I suspect you’re also encountering a bit of the sunk cost fallacy here. You spent a lot of time on this project, and you love it. It feels like a waste to let it go.
But that’s probably what you should do. Devote yourself to making the next great thing, not the last great thing.