I see people on job forums and bulletin boards like Craig’s List looking to hire a screenwriter to turn their life story or other “great” idea into a screenplay.
If you’re thinking about posting such an ad please reconsider. If you’re a writer thinking about responding to such a post you should do so with extreme caution. It’s usually a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.
If you’re looking to hire a screenwriter to write your “great” idea or life story think about what type of screenwriter you’re liable to attract. Whenever people hear I’m a screenwriter they always want to pitch me their “great” idea. I’ve heard dozens if not hundreds of people’s “great” ideas and “incredible” life stories. So far I’ve never heard a single one that was so compelling that I was even remotely interested in writing it for them. Now that’s not to say that they were all terrible ideas, far from it, many of the ideas people have pitched to me are great ideas and they would make a great movie. However, I have more than enough of my own “great” ideas, so many in fact that I’ll never get around to writing them all. So why would I write someone else’s great idea? I would say most writers probably feel the same way I do. People don’t become screenwriters because they love the craft of screenwriting but have no ideas. It’s the other way around. People have ideas they want to share so they learn the craft. In other words, I seriously doubt that there are many good writers out there just waiting for your great idea.
What’s even worse is that quite often when I see these ads the person who wants their life story or “great” idea turned into a screenplay is often offering nothing more than deferred pay. Again, think this through a little bit. How many good screenwriters are going to be willing to write your “great” idea or life story into a screenplay for no upfront money? There is exactly zero. And even if there are one or two quality writers out there who might be willing to write your story for you the chances that you’re going to find them through an ad on Craig’s List is virtually zero. Unless you’re really careful you’re quite likely to do your story more harm than good.
If you’re only offering deferred pay, once the script is written you’re officially tied to that writer pretty much forever. Since you’re not likely to find a good writer willing to help you the chances are very good that the screenplay that you end up with won’t come close to meeting your expectations. So now you’ve actually taken a step back. Your “great” idea is now encumbered by a writer who expects to get paid when the movie gets made but the screenplay is unsalable.
If you have some money to offer the screenwriter upfront at least you can cut your ties to the original screenwriter anytime you want if they end up producing a terrible draft of your story. While you’ll be out some money at least you’ll still have your “great” idea and can take it elsewhere.
If you’ve got the money and still want to pay someone to write your idea I would say you should contact the WGA and hire a reputable screenwriter and pay them WGA wages. For a feature film this is going to be in the neighborhood of $60K. If your budget is only around $5,000 (which many out of work writers might be willing to work for) you may or may not be able to find a quality writer. I’m doubtful you will. The bottom line is that the more you can afford to pay the choosier you can be. If you can prove that the movie will get made (i.e. you have the money to produce it) this might make a struggling writer be willing to work for less than normal since having a produced credit is worth more than just the money you’re paying them.
Even if you have the money to pay a reasonable writer’s fee I highly recommend that you save your money. Let’s assume you have some money to pay a writer and you get really lucky and find the perfect writer for your project and end up with a great script. Then what? What are the chances that you’ll actually get your script produced? The chances are pretty slim. If you have the money to actually produce the movie (at a minimum well over $100K), then maybe it’s worth doing – realizing of course that you will probably not recoup your investment as independent movies are a horrible investment. If you don’t have the money to produce your movie realize that getting your movie made is going to be a long hard struggle no matter how great your script and idea are so be prepared for it and don’t bother paying a writer if you’re not ready for a struggle that’s going to span years if not decades.
From the writer’s perspective it’s a horrible proposition, too.
I have no problem optioning one of my scripts (often for free) to a producer with no credits and little chance of actually turning the script into a movie because there’s very little downside to me as the writer. I have lots of script sitting on my shelf so if someone wants to go out and try and raise money to produce one of them that’s great for me. If the producer doesn’t end up making the movie I get my script back unencumbered by the producer. If you write someone else’s “great idea” or life story you’ve essentially written something that will always be tied to the other person. As a writer that’s a horrible position to be in. If you option your own scripts you can decide how much money to accept, you can decide what re-writes you’re willing to make for free – you’re in charge of the project. Suppose the person with the “great” idea doesn’t want a potential investor/producer to make changes? You’re stuck and so is your script. The original person who you write the script for can really throw a wedge into things and they’re won’t be much you can do about it. It’s not unlike any writing collaboration, except for the fact that when you collaborate with a friend you already know them and you have a certain level of trust with that person, but when you collaborate with someone you met through a Craig’s List ad you never know how your personalities are going to mesh down the road. Now if the person is willing to pay you some upfront fees to write that’s another story – then it’s just a matter of deciding if it’s worth your time to work on the project.
Here’s my recommendation if you have a “great” idea and want to get it turned into a screenplay but have no money to offer. Sit down and tell your story to a close friend and tape record your re-telling of the story. Take the recording and type it up into a Word Document. Edit it as best you can. Maybe get a friend to read it over and do some additional editing, too.
When you’re done you’ll have a screenplay treatment. It doesn’t matter how long it is as long as it tells your story with a beginning, middle and end. Then go out and either try and sell your treatment (using all methods found on this site about how to sell a screenplay) or go out and start trying to raise the money for your project, including some of the budget to hire a screenwriter. Neither of these options is going to be easy but I think they are better options then gambling on a writer and having your story idea possibly destroyed. No one in the World is going to have the passion for your project that you have and that passion will shine through even if all you have is a half-backed treatment. If your idea really is “great” I think you’re chances of finding a seasoned producer who’s willing to pony up some money so you guys can hire a quality writer are much better than you finding a writer yourself.