Good luck seeing this anytime soon!
One of the blogs we love to frequent is run by acclaimed screenwriter John August. I met John once, although I’m sure he won’t remember. I was an assistant on the Paramount Lot and he was one of the nicest, most down-to-earth writers coming through our offices.
The other day John posted an anonymous blog from a fellow writer ranting about the fact that, in our industry, companies don’t pay until there are “executed” agreements. They will not write the check…but we ARE expected to start delivering work right away.
Whether you’re a writer, director, producer or production company, the process of getting to a signed contract is basically the same. Most deals get beat out verbally, deal points are agreed upon by email, and then the deal is “closed.”
Once the artist/agent/lawyer/studio all agree and a deal is “closed” (verbally) we as artists are usually expected to start work right away.
However, the deal isn’t “executed” until a proper “long-form” agreement is written up and signed.
This document has all the little details in it. Many little details. More details than you’ll care to count. As lawyers love to tell you, the devil is in those details.
So this part of the process is not just a formality and it always ends up taking way longer than expected. Which means we’re working, delivering product, before we ever get paid–before the deal is “executed.”
How long can this take? We’ve delivered entire TV Pilots and Presentations without receiving a check until very late in the process (and by “very late” I mean after the whole thing is done and delivered.)
So When Do You Get Paid?
Most payment terms are as follows: A chunk upon signing the long-form agreement, and the rest either broken up over the length of time it will take to finish the job, or one last big chunk upon completion of the work.
John August observes that’s the unfortunate way of our business. It’s up to each artist and each scenario to decide whether or not to live with this fact. Will you accept the deal? If you refuse, John points out, you do so knowing you may not get the job.
And John’s Right.
It’s no one’s fault in particular, it’s just the hurry up and wait of our industry. Unless your funding a project 100% on your own (like our feature-length documentary Dying to do Letterman) you just can’t control when the checks are written.
To keep momentum and excitement in the project going, we can’t always wait for the lawyers to tidy up. Do you really want to wait months to see your project come to life while guys in suits fiddle with paperwork? All the while, letting every bit of creative juice you had for the project evaporate? Or do you want to make your movie or TV Show?
You know what you want to do…what you love. Paperwork be damned. Of course, passion alone won’t pay your bills.
Writers aren’t the only ones facing this dilema. In fact, many production companies have it far worse.
Surprise. You’re the Bank.
If you’re a writer, you want to get paid, of course, but your costs can be more manageable: maybe your car, house payment, perhaps a small office, etc. If you’ve budgeted right, you can probably wait for the paycheck. It’s not fun and not “fair,” but it is what it is.
As a production company our costs are everyone else’s salaries, equipment rentals, etc. Which means we are in fact floating the production and are acting as a bank to the network.
We Get It
Please know, we don’t blame any individuals at the networks or studios. In fact, our creative execs are often our biggest partners in trying to get us paid every time.
Even our production management people at the network or studio (who approve budgets, etc.) work hard so we are not put in those positions.
Each lawyer I’ve talked to understands our position and tries to keep this from happening.
But the cumulative bureaucracy combined with the fact that all of these well-meaning people have to get “okays” from a bucketful of departments, one of which can’t move without approval from other, is what absolutely kills the process.
Thanks to this process, we are not the first company to max out our credit cards while waiting for the network check. (Once so early in our career we couldn’t sleep for a month. We were days away from being totally broke…but we were shooting!)
So What Do You Do?
As a production company you do everything you can to prevent this. You push back every time they tell you they can’t write the check. You beg and plead with your lawyers to expedite the paper work. Finally, you do what producer Thom Beers (Deadliest Catch) recommends: You build a really good relationship with your bank and a line of credit, because you’re going to need it.
How does this process sound to you? Questions? Concerns? Let us know in the comments below.