Monday 3 January 2011

The Business of Not Getting Paid

Earlier today, I retweeted a link to an extract of a film about Harlan Ellison - in which he talks about many things, but in the clip he talks about how writers are often treated.

In America, writers seem to be held in far higher esteem than over here in the UK. In America, writers don't just write, but produce and cast and everything and make a ton of money. And yet American writers still have stories of injustice and being cheated out of money. They even go on strike. The extraordinary thing is that they're often legitimate complaints, and their money is being creamed off by people who have done nothing to make the hit in question such a success.

We have a long way to go over here. If it's not bad form to quote oneself, here's something I've said in a previous post:
The fact is that if you're a writer, you will write. No-one will be able to stop you. And nothing else will matter to you. Getting paid is great. And is essential every now and then. But the money is always secondary to the project - or at least it should be. If you're a writer, money is something you need to help you write.

There is no doubt that this desire to write is regularly abused by our paymasters. Here is my greatest frustration, which I will paint as a generic and regular scenario.

I'm sitting in a small conference room talking about a new idea for a sitcom with a producer, their boss, the executive producer - and maybe an assistant. Maybe I'm at the BBC. Or an indie. It rarely makes any difference, sadly. This is the fourth meeting I've had now. At the first, I pitched the initial idea, which they cautiously said they might like if they could see more of it. At the second we talked about the treatment that I worked up over a few days. I was told I'd need to come up with some more storylines. At the third meeting, having spent two or three more days on storylines, we talked about which channel this show would be suitable for, who could be in it, how to sell it. And all that.

And here I am at the fourth meeting, and it's being suggested that we'd need script samples and that kind of thing. There's talk of a 'taster' tape. And that more work will be needed in order to bring a channel on board. And I can't help noticing that so far, the only one coming up with any ideas, fleshing them out and doing all the work is the only one who has not been paid a penny. Everyone else in that room - who's livelihood depends on writers coming in and pitching ideas that they will go off and be paid to make - is on a salary, gets paid holidays, sick leave and pension contributions. Their office expenses are covered and it doesn't really matter if they bunk of early now and then. And then there's me.

How is that right? No money is ever available for scripts from indies until they've managed to get the money off a potential broadcaster. Even multi-million pound companies that have six or seven different series in production, swanky offices in Central London and several layers of management. Trying to pin down the company for an option is barely worth the bother since it's only a few hundred pounds and is a pretty poor deal anyway.

Why more money isn't made up available up front for writers is baffling to me, since it is they who generate the ideas. The current business model for most indies and producers is akin to a pharmaceutical company who are rather hoping a scientist will wander in and tell them all about their cure for cancer. But that is the insane world we work in.

Anyway, if you've ever had the feeling that I've had in scenario painted above, you'll feel better after watching this clip in which an angry, wealthy, talented writer swears a lot and sticks it to the man. Enjoy.


I'm running an all-day webinar, Write a Sitcom In A Day. Which you obviously can’t do. But the idea behind the day is help you understand the process and make a plan so you can get a script written. Polished. And done. Wanna join me?
It’ll be with me, via Zoom, going through the whole process and with loads of time for questions. Find out details, and book here.


  1. Very good blog. Matches my experience exactly. Fortunately I have enough paid work to keep me going and don't have time to spend on spec scripts.

    A few of my own blogs which might be of interest.

  2. Yes, good blog. It is such a shame that simply telling the unadorned truth about how the industry works vis-a-vis paying writers reads like an indictment. No hyperbole necessary.

    What's more, this happens to you despite your very good track record in the industry.

    Writers will always want to write just as actors will always want to perform - yet they're protected by Equity. Isn't it time we all banded together? Properly. "Sorry. I'm a member of the Writers' Union. You'll have to option it / pay me for development."

    Perhaps those at the top of the comedy writing world could set an example and get the ball rolling with an incipient union. They can afford to knock the odd nose out of joint for the greater good.

    Writers of the United Kingdom unite, you have nothing to lose but your... but your... you have nothing to lose!

  3. Hmm, I think the treatment is perhaps where you have to draw the line. Or just get on and do a spec script, which you can then take anywhere you want...

  4. Great post, and thank you - it's always reassuring to be reminded it's not me personally that they feel is not worthy of payment, but writers in general they hold in such contempt... which is just great.

  5. Re. Anonymous: heard of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain? Can't solve all problems but have done a huge amount for writers. And of course the more writers who join, the stronger the Guild is.

  6. Thanks James-great post.
    My hubby wrote a script on the request of a very well known exec producer. That was two years ago- no money and not even the decency to reply to various e-mails regarding the script. Even though she'd asked for it and they'd worked together before. Can't decide which i'm more pissed at- lack of contact or lack of money.

  7. Hi James.

    Excellent post which got my blood up too. I am not a writer. I run a dance business and every day people expect dancers to do gigs and make their events successful "cos they love it". I have to laugh lightly on the phone and say, "Yes, we love it, but here are the costs to make it happen". When they pull the "but its great marketing for you; we're doing you the favour" line, I say we don't rely on these events for our marketing and we have a budget for that. It's taken years and years and the culture change has been slow but it HAS happened.

    Banding together and gradually doing it through the writers union with a list of recommended fees for each stage of the process might be a starting point. If more of you take up the opportunity to use that process then gradually the expectations and thoughts of your employers will change. Yes, its hard and it takes a long time. But its worth it.

    We now have a two tiered system. If there is no budget then A. If there is a budget, then B. No budget doesn't mean we CAN'T do the gig but if you chose B, you get student dancers and its more loosy goosy. If there is a budget then the performance troupes are employed with costumes, full routines etc. No contracts. Just an understanding. For some gigs we're now being paid for rehearsals leading up to the event. Not often, but sometimes. UNHEARD OF 5 years ago. Still chipping away. Culture change is very hard and always a long-burn.

  8. Even though content is important I still don't think its the most important factor, if your site has 0 inbound links it still wont perform well
    My web site - small business

  9. Well said. In USA writers get paid for development work. It should be the same over here. With regard to the Writers Guild of GB, I'm not 100% sure what they do, that an agent doesn't do already. Plus I already pay 10% of my income to my agent, 30% to government. If I paid another 15% to WG there's not an awful lot left.