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The free rewrite

by Jason Benoit, Esq.

Dear Aspiring Writer,

Most people who want to become screen and television writers believe that their path to stardom will fall via some version of the following:

– Write kick ass script. Add aliens, big guns, bikinis, and Electronic dance music. (I think I just advocated that you go write Spring Breakers . . . James Franco is the alien, obviously.)
– Super smart agent reads said kick ass script and signs you. (Note: they don’t actually make you sign anything . . . until you start making any amount of money, then they can’t get you to sign quick enough.)
– Script sells for strip club make it rain kind of money.
– I am set, people will hire me on the spot for the rest of my life and I will be a made man. Oh, yo, what’s up Clooney, sure I’ll do a completely hetero-with-sexual-undertones man-date with you. Odd. My fingers just typed that like they had a mind of their own.

No, but seriously, more or less, that’s kind of how most naive writers believe it’s going to be. But it’s not how it’s going to be. Far from it in fact. Unless your name is Shane Black. Because the reality is, you’re going to be writing a lot of scripts. Like a lot. Before anyone who matters ever reads them. And the people that do agree to read them for you early on will be so fucking worn out by your constant badgering that they’re likely to stop reading anything you send them, even text messages. Especially emoticons.

Reality: you will eventually write a great script. People will eventually read it. And everyone will have thoughts and notes. And it won’t sell. But you’ll take a slew of meetings. Meetings where they’ll powder your balls just enough to make you feel special, but then ask what else you have, at which point 95% of your ideas will be shot down as “having already been done” or you’ll be told “that will never get made.”

But, every once in a while, a producer will be piqued by something you bring up and they’ll want to “work on it with you.”

This is code for: free writing.

It’s kind of like the Ponzi scheme of screenwriting. They’ll promise you everything you could have ever imagined under the following guidelines:

– If you write this amazing idea into a script I will get A-level talent attached, I will get my rich friends to finance it, I will get such-and-such-Avatar director to make it.

Let me just do you all a favor and tell you that 99.99% of the time, it’s all bullshit.

I don’t mean to say that to dash hopes. In fact, I’m saying it for quite the contrary. I’m saying it so you understand why you are writing for free. You’re doing it to build the relationship but the harsh reality is that most of the time people are going to lie to you and promise you things they cannot achieve.

How do I know this?

Because I have been writing for free for quite a few years now. Be it developing television pitches or writing treatments or even actual spec scripts. This is the never-ending cycle that a writer faces in today’s climate. At least, an up and coming writer. After the last major strike, studios cut back their overhead. They cut producer deals. They shed development money. They made everything (in typical business first Hollywood fashion) leaner and prettier for the bottom line. And that trickle down effect ultimately will fall on you, the writer. It already has. Even if you don’t realize it.

I know this because I’ve written a spec for big time television producers only to have the script fade into oblivion. I’ve pitched ideas that were “sure fire slam dunks” only to have them forgotten about after a few weeks by producers. I’ve written specs that were “guaranteed to sell” but didn’t even make it to the marketplace because they lacked an attachment.

I’d love to say this story is a rally cry for writers to get out there and say, “Hell no, we won’t write your smut for free!!” . . . but it’s not. And if you say I told you to do as much, I will deny it grandly.

Instead, this is more like a cautionary sign, like one of those ones you see road side with prancing deer, it’s quite possible that you may see prancing deer but it’s very unlikely that you actually will. But if you keep driving this road enough times, eventually the sheer odds dictate that eventually you will see a prancing deer!

Who doesn’t love a prancing deer?

So, you keep slugging it out each development season with the different meetings with the different miniature bottles of water that wouldn’t even quench the thirst of a turtle, in hopes that eventually someone is going to Jerry Maguire-you (show you the money . . . I thought that one was obvious).

But, while you’re tolling away on the umpteenth free rewrite for whomever, just remember that while there may not be a rhyme to their madness, you are still cultivating relationships and there’s really nothing more important in Hollywood (and to your career as a writer . . . besides, you know, actually being able to write) than having good relationships.

So next time you want to sucker punch a producer who pulled the rug out from under you (or peaked up your skirt for free . . . I don’t know, analogies and stuff) just remember why you’re doing this in the first place . . . for the prancing deer.

I think.

Jason Benoit, Esq.

About Jason Benoit, Esq.

Jason Benoit is a young screenwriter based in Los Angeles, California. He has developed projects in both film and television with producers around town. He was reared on Cheetos and nightly doses of Tylenol PM and is adamant about attaching the suffix Esquire to his name. We've agreed to humor his request. Follow him on Twitter @jbenoitfilm

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