BPS 075: Top 10 Screenwriting Scams to Avoid

On today’s show, I’m going to discuss screenwriting scams that ALL screenwriters should be aware of and avoid at all costs. It never surprises me how predatory people can be with screenwriters and filmmakers in this business.

I did an episode exposing ways screenwriters can get screwed on writing assignments. Listen to that one here


I do a deep dive into each of the following scams in the show.

  1. The Free Option – Optioning your screenplay for free
  2. Agent Reading Fees
  3. Script Consults That Ask for a Backend Cut
  4. Screenwriting Marketing Services
  5. Screenwriting Contests – Promises
  6. Screenwriting Contests – Milking Technique
  7. Ghost Writing Screenplays
  8. Any Deal That Gives Your Rights Away
  9. Representation Retainer Fee
  10. Screenwriting Contests Warning Signs

Stay safe out there guys. Sharks are everywhere. Enjoy!

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Alex Ferrari 0:00
Well, we are here guys. Number 75. I can't believe that we've done 75 episodes of the bulletproof screenwriting podcast thank you guys so much for spreading the word about this podcast, it has grown beyond what I ever thought it could. So thank you for that amazing support. And I wanted this episode to be a little bit special in wanting to kind of stand out from the crowd. So today we're going to talk about the top 10 screenwriting scams to avoid. Now on the indie film hustle podcast, I've talked at nauseum about scams in the distribution space in the production space. But I've never spoken about the scams in the screenwriting space. And my God, there are a lot of them. I was talking to a professional Screenwriter The other day, and he mentioned one of these scams that we're going to talk about. And it kind of got me got me thinking, I was like, I can't First of all, I can't believe that that's a thing. And he's like, Oh, yeah, it's a thing. All right, and I got taken by it. When I first started out. I was like, holy cow. So I started doing research, and found so many scams that you can avoid as a screenwriter. So let's start off with number one, the free option. That's when you option your screenplay to a producer, when I'm going to use that term, quote, producer for free. You're basically just giving your your rights to your screenplay for 12 months or so if you have to do that. Generally speaking, if they can't afford to pay you some sort of option, a fee upfront, then they probably can't produce your film. That's a general statement. Now with that said, though, we're going to be having a guest coming on in the next few weeks, who tells a story. He's a professional screenwriter, and he tells a story of how he did give a free option, but it was to a very reputable producer who had big, big credits, and had you know, worked with big stars. And it wasn't a free option. It was a development deal. So they would not pay him for the idea of the screenplay. But they would develop the screenplay together. And if they didn't produce it, the screenwriter had all the rights. Back to them, and you can go and shop it around else. So for him, that story worked out very well, because he got a masterclass on how to work at a much higher level than he had been working with his professional producer and producer teams dealing with notes, working out characters, dealing with production costs, and like, you know, just because you write, the man gets thrown out the building out the window, you don't understand what that cost is, and things like that, that he learned during that process. So in that case, it made a lot of sense. But generally speaking, if you give away a free option to your screenplay, that is not something that you should be doing. Next number two, Agent reading fees. This is where an agent and or manager charges you to read your script. Now, I want to make this very clear, there is no reputable agent or manager that will ever ask you for money to read a script. It is not something that is done in the business in the professional side of the business. It is also illegal for agents to charge upfront fees and the state of California. So be very, very careful. A lot of new screenwriters will not know the difference. And they'll say, Oh, well, you know, I'm really busy. But if you want me to read it, I charge $50 just to read your screenplay. And and that's it, but you don't even have a guarantee that you're going to even read it or do anything with it. So please avoid that at all costs as well. Number three, script consultants that demand a back end cut. Now, there's a lot of script consultants out there, some of them are very scammy. Many of them are very good. I recommend a bunch on my site that are very reputable and are actually there to help. screenwriters work through their their process, their script, their story, scripts, consultants and script. Doctors I feel are an excellent resource if you find the right ones. But some of these scammers will ask for back end participation on on a script. So it means that if I am a script consultant and you hire me to consult on your script that I demand is part of our agreement that I get back in participation on that script if it's ever sold and or produced. And even some of them go farther, to ask for partial credit, if they work on the script with you to be a co writer with you on it. If anything like this happens when you're dealing with a script consultant, please run away. Number four screenwriting marketing services. There's a lot of these little companies and guys who have popped up in this kind of cottage industry, of marketing services for screenwriters. And when I say that script like marketing services for screenwriters, I'm not talking about branding yourself as a screenwriter or anything like that. But talking about selling your screenplay, marketing your screenplay to the industry. So some of the things that they do is the the last payment to send log lines to hundreds of producers on their email list. And then very might well send these log lines to the 100 producers but there's no guarantee that anyone will ever look at that log line and or act upon that logline meaning request anything, there are no guarantees. There's also no need for storyboards for your unproduced screenplay. If you're trying to sell a screenplay to a production company or get a director attached. Do not spend money or marketing services for storyboard creation for this project. It is a useless and waste of time. It is unless you are the director involved with that screenplay. And you're trying to build out a package that sell the whole the whole film. That's a different story all together. But if you're just a screenwriter, and trying to get your screenplay noticed, do not spend money on storyboards. It does not make any sense whatsoever. Next, a screenplay does not need a website. Do not create or pay anyone to create a website to promote your screenplay. That is not done. And it's kind of ridiculous. So please don't do that. And also do not produce or pay anyone to produce a trailer for your screenplay. Again, if you're the director, it's a different conversation. But if you're a screenwriter trying to get your screenplay seen, or optioned by a producer, production company and or director do not have any do not pay Anyone to produce a trailer for that screenplay, it does not make any sense. Number five, screenwriting contest promises. Now, screenwriting contests in general have a kind of checkered past. Because it all depends on the screenwriting contest you're submitting to. Some are extremely reputable, some are absolute scams and money grabs. So you need to do your homework. A couple of things you need to look out for to kind of give you an idea that the screenwriting contest might not be on the up and up is when they say that want to be producers may be looking for financing for the winner of this film. That means nothing, it means absolutely nothing. Possible interest from a quote unquote producer means nothing. It is a promise, it is an empty promise. There is nothing tangible behind it. When they say a producer says that they'll read your screenplay. Again, no guarantee means nothing at the end of the day. And also pre production. Oh, any script that we get is going to go directly into pre production. Pre production is a very, very big word. That can mean 1000 if not a million things to different people. When you think pre production means Oh, it's a greenlight were going and that's what a lot of people think. But pre production, and other people's definition could be development. It could be in pre production for 510 years, and it can never go anywhere. These are empty promises. So look out for these kinds of empty promises in screenwriting contests. Number six, the milking technique that screenwriting contests use, or at least scam or predatory screenwriting contests use. Now this is any request for money after the initial submission fee to the contest. Things like, Oh, you won an award and now I'm gonna have to charge you for that award. That means that they have a physical award, and now you want it so we're gonna charge you for it, they're gonna make money off that. And they're gonna probably make a ton of money off of that because screenwriters like filmmakers won awards on their shelves, because it makes them feel good. Trust me. I've probably paid for an award or two in my day. So just be careful of things like that. Also, another part of the milking technique is when a contest asks for options on winning screenplays, this is such an insane thing, when it comes to like this is the extreme milking technique where they're just like keep asking and getting and getting. So let's say you submit to your screenplay to this contest, you win, you win top prize. Now they've option your screenplay for free. They own the IP of that screenplay for and depending on the kind of deal you you signed, when you submitted and you agreed to, they can have that for five years, they can have that for 10 years, they can have it in perpetuity. Now, I'm gonna tell you a horror story that I know of, of a screenwriter submitting their, their script, their IP to a contest, and that contest, blocking them from being able to make a feature of their film. Now, they they submitted this short film, short film script to this contest. And the contest, part of the contest rules was that they optioned the screenplay that they own that, that that right and they had they were gonna give you all sorts of exposure, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Well, it ended up being that the short film that this this filmmaker slash screenwriter wrote and produced was excellent. It did really well in the festival circuit. So good, in fact, that producers came calling. And they wanted to produce a feature version of this short. The problem was that the contest locked up those rights, and they attach themselves as producers to this project. And these poor poor filmmakers and screenwriters, who finally got a shot to take their career to the next level was blocked by these predatory film contest organizers that locked up their story. And because they were attaching themselves as producers, the legitimate producers didn't want to deal with that, and they walked away from the project. And unfortunately, that movie was never made. And those rights to my understanding are never returned to the filmmakers. It is a cautionary tale please be very, very careful. Number seven, Ghost writing screenplays. Now there is a lot of people out there who say oh, I'm gonna just go on a ghost write a screenplay or you get kind of suckered into ghost writing a screenplay. Well, they're going to pay you for 100 bucks 1000 bucks for you to write an entire screenplay, where you're going to ghost write an entire screenplay where you get no credit.

And they get all the credit, you can't attach yourself on the screenplay, you can't use it as a writing sample. And again, you get very little money. If at all upfront, a lot of these deals are sweat equity or back end deals, where they're like, well, if something happens, you'll get paid on the back end. But it's kind of a losing proposition. Let's say that that script does do well and gets produced, do you actually think you're going to get paid, you can't even say that you wrote it, it's so it's not a good place to be as a screenwriter, you should always get some sort of credit for the work that you do. In my opinion, I did a whole episode on the film enterpreneur podcast about a filmmaker who a ghost wrote short films, but he knew exactly what he was doing. He was trying to generate revenue for to make his movie. And he did he generated $10,000 ghost writing short films. Now those are little one offs. And the chances of a short film blowing up or doing something like that is nil to none. So you got to weigh the risk versus reward on that on a short film, if you can do something like that. And it makes sense for you to do that. It's kind of like selling short stories. Sure, that might make a little bit more sense. But full blown screenplays, I would absolutely not do that at all. Number eight, avoid any deal that gives your rights away. Now, make sure when you have a deal on the table, that you are going to get a credit for the screenplay. And if you're w GA, you have certain protections for that. But these a lot of these non union deals are very scamming. You've got to protect yourself as a screenwriter. So make sure that in the contract and the agreement that you will get credit for the screenplay. And if they do a bunch of rewrites, and it's at a point where you don't want it to be part of your, you don't want to have your name on it anymore. Make sure you have that option as well. Make sure you have the rights, the publication rights of your screenplay, you have to make sure that they don't have the right to publish your screenplay and sell it without your approval and or residual payments or anything like that. Which brings me to the next one, future residuals, a lot of times you give away the right to future residuals, a buyout or something along those lines. Those do happen. Be very, very careful and understand what you're getting into when it comes to future residuals. If you're non union, and they're paying you 50 Grand 100 grand for your screenplay. And it's a non union deal. That might be what you need to do. But you're getting a substantial amount of money upfront plus credit. But just understand that. And non union companies might insist on all rights, just for you to submit to them. And you've got to be very, very careful. A lot of these companies will in the in the agreement that you sign. When you submit a screenplay, you're giving them the rights to that screenplay, and that just some rights, all the rights just to submit, you need to run away you need to avoid this at all cost Be very, very careful. Number nine representation retainer fee. This is when a agent manager, someone along those lines say that they will rip your screenplay in town for a monthly retainer in addition to an upfront retainer. So that means that I go to an agent or manager and I have a screenplay. They're like, Look, we're going to represent this screenplay. But we're going to need you to pay $2,000 upfront and a $500 a month retainer and we're going to shop this around the town for you. That is not the way business is done. That is a scam. You need to run away and be very, very careful when you see something like that. Nobody in town is going to ask you for a monthly retainer to represent a screenplay. They are paid on commission. So be very careful. And last but not least, how to avoid scammy predatory screenwriting contests. Like I said earlier, not all screenwriting contests are created equal. A couple key things you need to look for is no transparency on who the organizers are. If you can't tell who's organizing, like the people that literally people behind the contest, and if they have some sort of reputation, some sort of industry juice something and there's they're hiding, runaway. Check the credits of the judges that they're going to put up like they're going to go look Joe Blow is going to read this for you. Well, what is Joe Blow done? And does he have any credits in the industry as a judge?

So be very, very careful with that. And also check what this contest has done for writers in the past. Have they helped writers? What are they offering? are they offering a cash prize is that the deal? Like if you win, you win 1000 bucks, you went 5000 bucks, you get all sorts of other prizes is that the deal they're giving, are they giving are they promising you access meaning a deal with a manager or an agent, an actual deal with a real manager or real agent that will then bring you on as a client. If you win this contest, do your homework, check out what they are offering, and what they're offering currently, and what they've done for writers in the past. So just be very careful. When you're dealing with screenwriting contest. There's a lot of sharks out there. And a final note, guys, at the end of the day, you cannot buy your way into the film business. When it comes to screenwriting. You can't pay someone to buy your screenplay. You can't pay someone to pay someone to force them to do anything to give you a shot, to do anything. The only thing you can buy is produce your own screenplay. If you've got the money to make the movie, that's the only way you're gonna buy your way in. But you cannot buy representation. You cannot buy access. It's It doesn't work that way. It has to happen organically. Anything. That sounds too good to be true. It probably is. So be very, very careful out there. And I sense that this is going to get worse as the economy continues to kind of wobble in the coming months and years following COVID. When things when the pressure is applied to people. More and more scams more and more people trying to take advantage of other people, they become more desperate. So I need you to be vigilant with what you do with your property and with your cash. I hope this episode has been of help to you guys. If you want to get links to anything we spoke about in this episode, please head over to the show notes at bulletproofscreenwriting.tv/075. Thank you so much for listening, guys. As always, keep on writing no matter what. Stay safe, and I'll talk to you soon.

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