Collaborating with a screenwriter

Screenwriter collaboration

If you frequent forums, reddit or places where a screenwriter may go, eventually you will find someone asking, “who wants to collaborate with me”?  Sometimes they tell you their idea, sometimes they think they are a once in a century genius and wont talk without an NDA. I know I sound dismissive.  But if you want to work with a screenwriter, you should read on.  If you are a screenwriter, you should read on to get an idea of your value in a collaboration.

What relationships are we talking about?

I am not talking about a writing partnership. Or if you are working with an author to adapt a previous work (this can be sketchy as well).  I am talking about the person that has no work in place.  These people are not interested in becoming a writing partner on an equal footing with their collaborator.  The people I am talking about have an idea and they want you to write their screenplay.

Why is this a bad idea?

Firstly and idea has no value, I have a post on that here.  Let’s say they have spent years researching the topic.  It is a historic epic and they are the world’s best authority on it. Great, public domain, you don’t need them.  Plus there could be a hundred others with the same research. So they still bring nothing unique to the relationship.

A balanced relationship.

If you have a screenwriter partner, which is a true form of collaboration, you have equal power and equal effort.  You have the same amount to lose.  This is a true collaboration.

Here is a bad version of the relationship and one that is all to common.

Harry: I have a great idea, I want a collaborator.

Sue: I am willing to work with you.

Harry: Great.  Here is my idea.

Sue being a reasonable person does some work. A treatment perhaps. This gets sent to Harry.  Harry makes some suggestions. We are beginning to see the power shift. Sue is beginning to become an unpaid intern.  Why because everyone (not just Harry) values their own time at a premium over the time and effort of others.

Sue pushes on.  She writes a first draft. Because Sue knows how to write a screenplay and knows what will work as a film, she makes adjustments. She adds a character and combines two for the sake of the story.  Harry isn’t happy.  His work is sacred. The power is shifting again.

The third act breakdown.

This goes one of two ways.  One thing for sure, Sue has spent well over a year working with nothing to show for it.

Scenario 1: Sue writes her drafts. Harry is never happy. They part company. Harry believes that he owns the work because he “collaborated” with Sue. Doesn’t matter that Sue did all the work. Harry still had the idea and people value their own contribution over everything.  However, that isn’t true.  He didn’t pay Sue, so Sue retains copyright.  The problem is, the facts are just murky enough to make it painful and expensive to defend in court.  The work is used by no one.

Scenario 2: The work is finished. Harry by all miracles is happy.  Okay. Sue get some small amount.  Anywhere between 10% to 50% of something that would have never existed without her skills, effort and talent.

No matter what happens Sue is seen as an employee in the eyes of the Harrys of the world.  For them collaborator may was well mean servant.  If they valued you as a writer they would say “How much for you to write my story for me”?  They would pay you for your effort.  By asking you to collaborate, they are in fact asking you to spend your life to fulfil their dream.  Then if your skills, effort and talent makes their dream come true, they may share some of it with you.

Yes I am beating up on people that want to collaborate. Because they are not valuing screenwriters. They want to give you part of the success you are solely responsible for creating.  Since they can’t write, what they should bring to the table is money, or something of equal value to your effort.  If they own something that is unique and has the same value as the effort you are going to put in, great.  That is your call.  But the standard offer of collaboration should be avoided.

Value yourself, because no one else will.