Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fewer, Bigger = Hungrier, Poorer?

Turns out you really should be careful what you write on Twitter, if for no other reason that after whingeing about the perilous financial implications of being a self-employed scriptwriter, I've now been asked to write a short piece for Broadcast Magazine, which just goes to show.

Here's the thing though, after moving back home to Cornwall after a brief excursion to Canterbury and then Shepherd's Bush via the estate of @Patroclus, my portfolio seems to have drifted from multiple, small commissions in the arena of comedy and kids' telly, to larger, but fewer development commissions along more drama-ish lines. So the former = writing lots of little scripts for already-established shows that have a good chance of making it onto the telly, while the latter = fewer but longer scripts that may never see the light of day, but are at least about characters and settings I devised myself.

Now on paper, the latter move should be making me slightly more money, which is to say about two and a half grand per year more than I was making behind the counter at a bookshop, with about the same proportion of staring into the distance and sighing.

But it's not working out that way, mainly because of the huge lag between handing a finished script in, and it being accepted/greenlit for production (for the non-scriptwriters, script payments are broadly broken down into two stages: first half when you accept the job, second half when the final draft of the script is accepted by the person who commissioned it). And the lag is getting longer and longer, which leads to situations like my being owed approximately eleven grand for a script I handed over in March, but with no sign of any cash on the horizon. And although I have plenty of other projects on the go, most are spending a lot of time stalled at similar stages. Sadly, and I've checked this, there are no charities specifically set up to pay writers' overdraft charges while they wait for cheques to come in, so although I might be owed enough money to cover three months, say, of writing outlines, concepts and even entire scripts on spec, I actually seem to be losing money, which is almost entirely the opposite of my business plan.

Traditionally, writers like to blame EVIL PRODUCERS for this sort of thing, or LAZY AGENTS, but I don't think this is the case. It seems more like a case of broadcasters being very careful with their budgets, with a lot of production companies chasing fewer and fewer slots. So.... dunno, any other writers having the same problems? Or producers or agents who'd like to give a bit more context? All comments gratefully received, and may help me write a better short article without looking like a tit.

Right, I'm taking the chiddlers out for a walk now. I expect your answers ON MY DESK.


TV hack said...

When it's something that's been signed & agreed, and gone through official channels, it really is bad form not to pay a writer what he's owed, or to keep him waiting for MONTHS. I'm in a similar position myself, where the producer was adamant I'd be paid but he really needed the script. I ended up doing the work and, predictably enough, there's now no sign of payment, just producer platitudes.

I started out writing feature scripts, and got some options/excitement but the money is low and soon fizzles out, so I turned to TV, which has more of a warm embrace but can still leave you frustrated (and baffled) with situations like you describe. If an indie producer is struggling to get a project off the ground and paying you out of their own pockets, you expect a slow money train but when it's a proper broadcaster, and the money still hasn't been released (with no effort to do so), it's just more evidence of the disrespect and dismissive attitude towards writers. Frustrating and baffling, indeed.

Salvadore Vincent said...

For anyone having trouble extracting money they are owed I have found that the Small Claims Court does the trick. I've successfully used it twice to get full payment. It's very easy and you do it online.

The first time, a company had promised me money for a script they needed quickly. As is often the case, the legal department had done nothing about a contract even by the time I'd finished the script (which they were very happy with). Luckily I kept the emails saying things like "We'll negotiate with your agent about the fee" and "We'd pay you around £X". When they then tried to claim I'd been working on spec, my then agent could do little more than send angry letters, so I put in a claim via the Small Claims Court even though I had no contract. There was a nailbiting stand-off when the company brought in their parent company's (one of the country's largest media companies) lawyers, who denied everything, which meant it would actually go to court. I didn't want to see the money disappear in legal fees, so I was doing this all on my own, which made it quite a stressful time. Then, just before the court date, we got to disclosure and I showed their lawyers these emails. They immediately backed down, ticked off the original company and paid me with a very satisfying apology.

The second time I heard a rumour that another company I was working for was having trouble paying its staff. They'd already gone into administration once before (owing me money, which I eventually got that time), so I quickly put in a claim as they had been dragging their feet paying me this time as well, and immediately got paid in full (including interest and my court fees). I told the other writers on the series to do the same, but they didn't. By the time the administrator stepped in a second time, they were all treated as unsecured creditors and got nothing.

Needless to say, I had the last laugh etc...

Stuart said...

I used to have this problem all the time, with the BBC especially. I joined The Writer's Guild because I was told they could intervene and push for payment should the need arise. I made my agent and employers aware I was now packing heat and sat back waiting for battle to commence.
From then on I was paid promptly and found that some companies that had always paid a pittance, suddenly started giving me a decent rate. It might have been coincidence, but I don't care. My blood pressure is almost back to normal and my death list has halved.

Salvadore Vincent said...

I also tried the Writers' Guild, who did nothing more than also write a letter. I wanted legal advice from them about the first company as to whether I should try the Small Claims Court or not, but all they would say was "You might have a case - you'd need to consult a lawyer". And for this I pay 1.2% of my earnings a year.

And for anyone saying "But aren't you burning your bridges? What if you want to work for those companies again?" I would say "What - to not get paid a second time?" And the chances are it is the nasty people in suits not paying you, and if the nice producer who liked your script wants to hire you again at some point, he/she will (hopefully when they have moved on to a proper company).

Companies will always plead poverty, that they are "this close" (holding up finger and thumb a couple of centimetres apart) to getting the money from a broadcaster for the show they are developing, but I have heard this too many times now.

Keep all your emails - you don't need to have signed a contract to be owed money. And if everyone takes this approach it will be better for us all in the long run.

Nathaniel Tapley said...

When we're discussing the family finances, my wife gives a derisive snort when I mention what I am owed by various prodcos. In her mind, it is money that may arrive so far into the distant future that it may as well not exist.

James Henry said...

Great comments so far, thanks all. And I think we've all learned not to mess with Salvadore Vincent.

Jared said...

BECTU have helped me in the past with friendly advice, legal representation and negotiation (all as part of basic subs) with contract and payment issues I had with a rather large and particular cunty organisation.

Boz said...

I am dubious about the existence of your desk.

James Henry said...

All right, fine, you've seen through the attempt at sophistication. It's more of a 'bed'.

Anonymous said...

Re Salvadore Vincent's comments, I've also had various woolly promises about money being just round the corner. "Oh yes, unlike SOME COMPANIES we do have a development budget you know! We're really excited about the idea. Really excited. So, if you can make those changes we discussed to the treatment- nothing much- we'll talk to the money people and I'm sure we can get you some development funding to go to script. Really excited!"
Changes are made. More changes are requested and duly made. Months pass. "Good news! We've spoken to the broadcaster and they're very happy to look at the treatment, so fingers crossed!"
But, but- you said there was money for a script! You've completely moved the goalposts- they were previously on the pitch but now you've sawn them up into bits and rearranged them so they spell "WE ARE LIARS."

".....Really excited about the idea. Really excited."

Anonymous said...

you should receive 25% of script fee on delivery of 1st draft script or, if it's for BBC, if you're still working on alterations to the script 10 wks after first draft delivery then you're entitled to request 25% of script fee. I'm sure your Agent will know this.