S-E-X Tips for Screenwriters: The Free Rewrite

Dr. Paige TurnerDear Paige,

I couldn’t be more excited!

I’m finally working with a real, Hollywood professional!

At first, they told me they LOVED my script. What a rush!

But now they want me to make all these changes. For free. I thought that once I was a real, working writer, I’d be getting paid to write.

I swallowed my pride and did a free rewrite. I held my breath waiting for them to read it and get back to me.

Only to find that they had more notes. More writing for free!

I feel used. And confused. Why would they say they loved my script if they didn’t love my script?

Should I give in and do another freebie, or stand firm and insist on getting paid like a professional?

Yours,

Slave Laborer

 

Dear Slave,

Congrats S.L.! This is a great opportunity that clearly took plenty of hard work on your part – both in writing and marketing your material.

The best way I can help is by shattering some of your illusions about how the industry really works.

Your First Mistake: Thinking that just because someone said they “loved” your script they thought it was perfect.

Has such a script ever existed? In the history of writing, I doubt that a script was ever produced which was then pronounced “perfect” by someone who meant it.

There’s always room for improvement. That means a rewrite.

Next Reality Check: You are in a business where being overly enthusiastic is the norm.

“Love,” as you know, is a strong word, not to be used lightly in real life where you could wind up meeting a girl’s parents and registering for silver patters before you know it.

In this universe, casual acquaintances quickly turn to best buddies. No one says “no” because no one wants to offend. The person you offend today may be someone you need to be your best buddy tomorrow. Following that painfully bad film screening, you’re likely to hear, “Wow, that was… more than a movie!” when someone is speaking to the creators.

Free RewritesSuperlatives are the rule, not the exception in a land where a standard, post-meeting ta-ta is, “Love you! Mean it!”

Think of it as the heat of the moment. After searching for a needle in the haystack – we’re finally getting lucky, baby!

We’re exhilarated to have discovered a script with potential.

We’re eager to meet a promising new writer who could lead us to more projects.

“We love your script!”

That isn’t a marriage proposal. Translation: That’s not a banana in our pocket, we’re just happy to see you.

Third Major Misconception: “Real writers” don’t write for free. Tsk, tsk. All the time, bud. All the time.

And rarely, if ever, do you hear them complain. Pro writers want their work to be the best it can be. In fact, they are eager for smart, insightful notes.

Is our desire for a rewrite an evil plot to exploit and torture you? Hell no.

Our goal is to keep that damn boulder of a project moving uphill. That often means a new draft:

  • We need a rewrite because we bringing a fresh perspective to the piece and can see the flaws that you are too close to perceive.
  • We need a rewrite before we can take it out to the town. You only get one chance to make a first impression. If word gets out that your script isn’t worth reading, it’s dead in the water. See The Tortoise and The Hare to learn about the tragic tale of a writer not willing to accept smart, professional advice and take another much needed pass.
  • We need a rewrite to make it more appealing to the marketplace.
  • We need a rewrite because if we turn this one in to the studio, they will lose their hard-on for the project, and could kill it.
  • We need a rewrite because once the notes and rewriting process starts, the next draft is almost inevitably a step backward. It is not as polished. Changes need to be fully incorporated. Some of our notes (Gasp!) may not even be as good an idea as they seemed at the time.

As a producer, I’ve gone to the mat with an agent to convince her to persuade her client to take another pass before turning the latest draft into the studio. This was a fairly typical “step deal.” Each time the writer turned in a draft, he got paid another percentage of the whole purchase price. Of course, the writer wanted to get paid. And a significant part of an agent’s job is getting their writers paid. But I knew that the draft was bound to disappoint the studio.

Part of my job is to keep the studio execs hot and bothered about the project. I can’t risk having them lose their enthusiasm. I urged the agent to consider this a “Producer’s Draft.” That’s an extra draft not specified in the studio deal that the producer sees and gives notes on, but the studio never lays eyes on. Far from a well-kept secret, this is standard operating procedure.

I made a convincing case, and the agent got on board. The writer agreed, and the project was better for it.

Exploitation of an innocent writer, or me doing my level best to get the project made?

So my put upon pal, it’s your first time out of the gate. Suck it up. Remain enthusiastic. Be good to work with. Give the rewrite your best. Acknowledge all notes, but do not execute them unthinkingly. Part of your job is to protect the story and not let the note-giver lose sight of what they fell in love with in the first place.

Remember the wisdom of Hungarian born playwright and novelist whose work was often adapted for well-known American films and musicals, Ferenc Molnár:

“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it to please yourself, then you do it to please others, and then you do it for the money.”

All this bubble bursting, my friend, is today’s freebie.

Love you! Mean it!

Dr. Paige Turner

 

 

 

 

Got a question for the Good Doctor? Leave it in the comments below and Paige will get back to you.

 

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