Sunday, May 09, 2010

How scriptwriters get paid

Patroclus is in the process of moving our mortgage, which led to a phone call from the new bank, after they received a copy of my accounts for the past three years.

BANK: Hi, we'd just like to know what exactly your employment is? And why it is your income seems sort of... erratic.
ME: I'm a scriptwriter. Which also explains the second part.
BANK: So is that a full-time occupation, or...

I decide that if you add two full hours a day sighing to another two hours staring out windows (rather than counting them as the same activity) that counts towards a full days work.

ME: Yes.
BANK: But you seem to get weird amounts at weird times.
ME: Yes. What happens is, when you get commissioned to write a script, you get paid half the amount up front, then the other half when you've finished.
BANK: Oh. So does it take different amounts of time to write scripts then?
ME: Well, usually a half hour script takes two weeks to write, an hour long script takes a month to write.
BANK: So you get half the money first, then two weeks, or a month later, you get the other half of the money?
ME: Ah, it's not up to me to say it's finished - it's up to the producer, and even then, they usually have to get the say so from the commissioner, the person above them. So I might spend a month writing it, then the commissioner decides it needs some changes, which often takes a week or so.
BANK: And then you get paid.
ME: And then they usually decide some more changes are needed. Then, if they're happy with it, they pass it to the person above them, which usually takes another month or so for them to read, and they usually want some changes. So you do the changes, then you wait for the commissioner to read it, then often they want some more changes.
BANK: Oh. So it can take quite a lot of time.
ME: Indeed it can. Which is why it's best to have a lot of projects on the go at any one time.
BANK: Your job is strange.
ME: Well, at least I didn't nearly bring about THE END OF THE WORLD.

I didn't say that bit. But paymentwise it is strange. And the big gaps while you wait for people to read things can be frustrating, and can make it really hard to keep momentum going with scripts, remember what the main characters are called, and so on. This can be more of an issue with the BBC, where there's a huge inverted pyramid of writers and producers, all working up to the two or three people who have the power to get your series made. On the other hand, Channel 4, whose comedy department seemed to consist at one point of two temps and a man who worked in Jimmy Carr's suit shop once, seemed to have a habit of nodding enthusiastically at one's script then wandering off never to be seen again. So at least with the Beeb, there's a system.

In fact, having projects hang around for ages can have advantages as well. A bit of a distance from a project often means you stop hanging onto that scene that isn't really working, but you've always been attached to for some reason. Or, just when your crime drama was about to go to big BBC Drama commissioning man, it can come back for a (quite minor) rewrite, and you think aaaargh - only to discover big BBC Drama commissioning man had just read five other crime dramas that week, so was probably a bit crimed out, to be honest, in which case you think phew.

On the plus side, having to ask my agent for an advance always makes me feel like a character from an Edwardian play, so that's nice.


Swinefever said...

How come you didn't, at some point, tell the bank "Sod off you nosy gits, it's none of your business!"

Just saying...

Tim F said...

The funny thing is, this sort of payment pattern is fairly standard for anybody working on a project basis: architects, composers, many headhunters and management consultants. Does this mean that you were the first person this banky being had encountered who didn't work a 9-to-5? Or that freelancers have simply given up trying to get a mortgage?

James Henry said...

Rob: because the new monthly payments would be exactly half the current ones.

Tim: Yeah, Patroclus gets paid on sort-of similar deal (she's a copywriter), without the help of an agent to chase things on her behalf, be asked for money and so on).

Actually I think it was the agenty payments that were confusing the bank person.

Jared said...

Spot on post. :)

And I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise for being one of those, er, sort of temps working with Jimmy Carr's ex-suit shop assistant in a department that somehow managed to get stuff done. Kind of. Occasionally.


James Henry said...

Ha, sorry, I always sound terribly petulant about C4, despite everyone I've ever encountered there being absolutely lovely. One day I'll let go of my nearly-happened Comedy Lab thing, it's just difficult because I hearted it so very much.

Also, erm, my entire career rests on my contributions to Smack The Pony and Green Wing, which I'm fairly sure were commissioned by a channel with a '4' on the end.

Jared said...

I feel your pain. My peerlessly brilliant sitcom was struck down by friendly fire following an Andy Duncan inspired cabinet reshuffle. Personally, I feel the subsequent restraining order was a bit overkill, but, hey, I don't make the rules, I just wear the electronic tag.

Stephen Nelson said...

You get paid?! I thought scriptwriting was just community service... That what my parole officer at PBJ told me anyway.