Let’s talk about free spec work, unreputable and predatory contests! Thinking about paying a premium to submit to that screenplay contest? Or maybe a studio has offered you an incredible opportunity to enter your short film into a contest. Perhaps someone just offered you a chance to pitch to them or write for them — for free. Regardless what situation you find yourself in it’s important to consider whether it’s really just too good to be true. That maybe, just maybe you’re actually harming versus helping yourself.
This August Warner Bros. released the latest in the popular conjuring universe, ANNABELLE CREATION. Directed by the helmer of horror feature LIGHTS OUT (originally a two minute short on YouTube), the studio wanted to capture the sentiment of the YouTube to Hollywood fantasy. So WB created a contest to encourage aspiring filmmakers a chance to enter their own two minute short for a chance to get optioned and fly to LA to meet the director and WB execs.
Sounds great, right? Not so fast. Upon further inspection a few glaring sentences are evident in the fine print. First of all- the winner isn’t even guaranteed to meet with the director or execs. More disturbingly, the option is only $50. Most disturbingly, the cost to exercise that option in the three year period is only an additional $50 all the while you obtain no ancillary rights and the studio can do whatever they want with your creation without additional compensation or credit. Additionally, you’re not guaranteed screen credit or story by credit which could get you into the WGA. So basically you’re a free spec hire to a multinational corporation that just used your hope to further its bottom line. Oh and if you want to sue- even if you win the studio also has in this contract that you’re only entitled to $10 in damages. Woohoo $110 and fifteen minutes of fame!
So why time after time do young aspiring filmmakers enter into these contests? Simple- they’re desperate and think it’s their ticket to success. The winner has already been approached by managers- and brings this up when criticized for participating in a scheme which undervalues the creative process. However if he is still contacted by those same reps in six months I’d be shocked. It’s normal to be contacted by reps after winning a contest. To maintain that interest requires exceptionalism.
Surely someone who won a contest of this magnitude is exceptional, you may say. Regardless that’s irrelevant because simple business suggests that this person valued their talent at $50. Like so many young filmmakers, they figured entering into this contest would pull them right out of bartending and into Hollywood royalty. It doesn’t work that way, and it never will. Even if he does get in the room with others, that he valued himself at $50 makes negotiations for future pay very hard. If he was willing to lowball himself once, why not again? If you’re this person’s manager or agent, you’re not going to eat very well on the commission earned. Therefore if he is still contacted by reps in six months, I’d be surprised. Which is ultimately why undervaluing yourself for a foot in the door is a very bad initial career move.
There’s more to why this is not only bad for the creator but also for everyone else making movies and writing. It allows studios to continue marketing these predatory contests because aspiring filmmakers desperate for a shot will keep submitting material. Even if 98% is garbage, that 2% could yield fruit. Even this winner of the ANNABELLE contest was quite derivative. It was a clone of almost every James Wan film before it. So if studios can acquire content for $50, and they can keep going to that well- it’s that same studio which in turn will be less likely to shell out money for a traditional option. So essentially, by selling your self out for $50, you’re working as a scab. You lower the going rate for everyone else because studios know they can get away with it.
Without over-focusing on this contest, I also wanted to say the same of many script contests that equally prey on writers and creatives hopes. Screenwriter John Gary calls it the “hope machine.” That’s exactly what that WB contest was doing- preying on the hopes and dreams of desperate young creators. So too do many snake oil salesmen that charge for notes or “access.” Same of minor screenwriting contests that few reps monitor. Unless it’s the Nichol or on the Blacklist – it’s up to the individual rep whether they even care. Most don’t. And they also only care about winners, not second place.
This may all seem disheartening but the reason I write this is to underline that there is no short cut to success. All sorts of money-interested folks will try and take advantage of you by suggesting some secret path or access if you just sign away all your rights or pay up “right here.” The sooner you accept that and stick up for yourself the less likely you are to be conned. The moment you stop undervaluing yourself means that down the road you’ll have a better shot at sustainable financial compensation. The moment you stop doing free spec work is the moment other writers and creators like yourself will be paid properly. While not all contests are bad, it’s important you understand the fine print. Stop shilling for a predatory system thinking that despite ALL THE EVIDENCE you will be the exception and learn to do things properly. Get in line and work hard like everyone else.