I got this question recently:
“If you have no street credit in writing, much less Hollywood, but you think you got a great movie that can be made on the cheap and strike a nerve like Juno, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Little Miss Sunshine, etc., is it likely that a producer will accept paying you nothing and give you an option to take a few points out of the profits if you think you got something?
Or are writers too easily disposable to get that much of the cream unless you are a Seth Rogan level writer? If they are ready to option it, I’m assuming they like it enough to move forward and raise capital and pander to agents for actors? Would producers find that bravado intriguing or would it just turn them off because you are clueless to the reality of the industry?”
I can’t emphasize this enough: Take the money and run!
One thing that people outside of the industry fail to understand is that it doesn’t matter how great your script is, it’s highly unlikely that it will “hit a nerve” like Juno, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, or Little Miss Sunshine. There are so many moving parts when making a film that it’s impossible to predict how successful it will eventually turn out. Yes, a good script is a key ingredient to making a good film, but many good scripts have ended up terrible films. The producer or director might make changes to the script that, in your opinion, destroy it. The actors might not give the performances that you think they should. The budget can force the producer to rip entire sections of your script out. The weather can force changes to your story. The marketing of the film can miss completely and there won’t be anything you can do about it.
But the main problem with taking only backend pay is that you’ll probably never see a dime no matter how successful your movie is. Film accounting is a black box and costs for other films can be piled onto your film so that your film doesn’t actually show a profit. Some of the most “successful” movies of all time never made any money on paper. Forrest Gump was one such film. I think it was the writer, had some backend points on the film and the production company wouldn’t pay him because they claimed the movie didn’t actually make any money. He had to sue them.
Forrest Gump is an extreme example. Suppose your film is a modest hit and is made on a budget of $5 million and grosses $20 million at the box office. That’s a big hit but the production company and distributer will pile in all sorts of costs, some legit and some not so legit, and they’ll make sure the film never shows a profit on paper.
So unless you want a percent of nothing, make sure you get paid up front.
Also, a career in screenwriting isn’t about one film or one script. As the screenwriter of a successful film many doors will open up for you and your career will soar so don’t worry too much about how much money you’re going to make on your first script sale. Think long term.
Mainly, though, when you’re pitching your script either over the phone, in person, or in a query letter you don’t want to mention anything about payment – either backend or upfront. All you’re trying to do is get the producer to read your script. Once they like it, then you can begin to negotiate the terms of your payment.