At this point in my TV writing career I feel fortunate to have an attorney on my “team”. He deals with contracts for me. Most recently those contracts are for my work the new drama for TNT. I’ve also had my lawyer create collaboration agreements for projects I’m starting with other writers.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with creatives – both clients and friends – about contracts. Many people think they’re unnecessary, inconvenient and cumbersome. Over and over again a writer will come to me with some difficulty in the middle of a project: They’ll complain that they might not get credit or pay for their work, or that the other writer(s) they’re working with aren’t treating them like an equal partner in the project. When I ask what their contract says, most of the time, I hear that there’s nothing in writing. No wonder there’s confusion.
Contracts are hugely important for writers. It makes no difference if you’re working with your best friend or your family or with a TV network – without an agreement there’s no way to be sure what’s happening with your piece. If you’re willing to put a script on paper and you’re not willing to sketch out what the terms of your collaboration is, it’s likely to cause a problem later.
I’m familiar with all the excuses, because I had them myself: There’s fear that if you ask for an agreement, the other people involved won’t like you. There’s the notion that you should simply figure it out later and that “there will be time” to do that. There’s also the idea that contracts are for BIG projects and famous, fancy people and what you’re doing is small and intimate. There’s the notion that anything so legalistic will get in the way of the free expression that might otherwise take place. There’s also the idea that contracts are too much for you to grasp, the way physics or geometry stumped you in high school.
Whatever the excuse is, avoiding a written agreement is a BAD idea.
Imagine this: You’re working on something you love with two friends. There’s nothing written in place. You finish it and have a reading and you really dig what’s on the page. But nothing happens with the piece. You go back to your life. Two years go by. You hear from one friend who tells you her cousin works for a production company and wants to buy your script. How much money will you get? How much will she get? What about the other collaborator? Will you split the fee three ways? Does it depend on who did what writing wise? What if your friend with the cousin wants more money because she made the connection to the production company? Now that there’s cash on the table, will it be easier or harder to work out a deal? Does it matter that you started out as friends? Or will it be complicated no matter what? Chances are, when you’re in a negotiation it’s stressful. That’s not the best time to hammer out an agreement with anybody.
For every project I work on: from my own web series to collaborations that have no money in them, to my work on TV, I have an agreement. For simpler projects, I use a deal memo I got from a filmmaker friend. For larger projects I turn to my attorney. If the piece involves union work, there are agreements that the union has and minimum requirements that they insist upon. The deal points can be tricky, but everything seems complicated before you know how it works.
I’m not an attorney, but I’ve learned the hard way that having some agreement is better than having no agreement. If I don’t know how to proceed and a contract is needed, I can ask for help. Unions are always happy to advise members. Knowledgeable friends can give advice. And in most cities, you can find an attorney for free by seeking out an organization called Volunteer Lawyers For the Arts.
When you first decided you wanted to write you likely imagined the joy of turning ideas into reality. Perhaps you envisioned days of joyful brainstorming, and the comforting dance of your fingers on the keyboard. Maybe you dreamed of production – and directors, actors and technicians turning your words into fully realized scenes. You made a pact in your soul to do what it takes to create written material.
Contracts are part of what it takes. Because once that deal is done you’ll inevitably feel freer to do the work you were born to do. The writing, the discipline, and the agreement are all part of the pact you made when you stepped into this life. You agreed to this – all of it.
As you create material and the contracts that support that material, I believe you’ll sink more firmly into the professional writing world. As that happens, drop me a note and let me know how it feels.