How Much Do You Pay the Writer for a Short?

Discussing short films with a few different friends recently, we kick around ideas and talk about how much we’d like to work together, and before you know it we enter that nebulous zone regarding pay. Either we make some joking acknowledgement that we don’t have the money to pay ourselves, or someone whispers that there actually is some money in it. Here’s how I wish every “up and coming” writer would start answering that question of how much to pay the writer for a short:

“Can you pay me at least as much as you pay your sound guy?”

Take it as a rhetorical game-winner in some contexts, or take it as an honest question. It moves the conversation in the right direction. Under some circumstances, producers really might want to ask for a freebie and aren’t trying to rip anyone off. A writer likewise (like a D.P. or an actor) might want to do a freebie out of their own self-interest. If you’re not getting paid, however, then this question is still the springboard to discussing why you’re doing it, and what you want to get out of it.

Usually a short film germinates like this. A producer and/or director think they have a great idea for one. It would be a needed credit, and a showcase for someone’s talent. It might provide festival exposure, or it may just be fun, a noble ends unto itself. They have friends with technical skills willing to help for free or reduced rates, and they have a little money. So they write a synopsis or maybe even a rough draft of a script.

The producer: What do you think of this story?

The writer: It’s okay. Personally, I’d make the following changes.

Producer: Good idea. Can you rewrite it for me?

“I’d like to,” says the writer, and then you enter that zone. If it’s a terrible idea, you say you’re too busy, which is how we say “No” in our culture. If you love the idea, and it’s your best friend who you know is paying for it with money she’s saved copy-editing, then you’re inclined to say, “Don’t pay me, spend it on the film.”

Most often it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s an okay idea, not your favorite. The work they’re asking you to do is fixing deficiencies, not really going all out creatively. You realize that the whole premise is based on a free location, or a relationship that’s not going to pay any dividends, and you’re not that desperate, so you hedge. “Is there any money in this?” you wonder. You want to bring good vibes all the time, and you don’t want your pay to get in the way of your friends’ project, but you’re also human and tend to do work that is about as good as you’re getting paid for.

That’s where you pop the question. “Can you pay me at least as much as you pay your sound guy?”

The entertainment world runs on three currencies: dollars, credits, and favors. It’s astonishing how high up the food chain of independent projects you go before work gets paid in dollars. It’s more likely that you negotiate some kind of additional credit, and/or a promise to help you back when you get your own pet project going. This is why so many of us inflate our own rates. “We charge a thousand dollars a day,” a post-production audio engineer once told me, “but what do you have?”

That phrase, “but what do you have?” essentially means, “Let’s make a deal for a reduced rate and some combination of the other currencies,” and these other currencies are the capital that short films get made with. That’s why I often say it is harder to make a 90-minute feature than nine ten-minute shorts. At five minutes per day, a producer can shoot a ten-minute film in a weekend, and talented people will spend a whole weekend doing a favor, or trying out some new relationships. Shooting for eighteen days is another matter. Then they’re taking themselves off the job market, and landlords generally don’t take favors or short film credits for rent.

Which brings me to the sound guy. Every competent producer knows that viewers have a higher tolerance for a hit-and-miss video image than they do for poor audio. Getting clean sound is that important. Furthermore, no one has ever put “from the sound recording engineer who brought you Little Miss Sunshine” or “from Werner Herzog’s boom operator” on a poster. Nor have I met many sound recordists who are secretly writing screenplays on weekends: they are more likely to be in bands. So the sound recordist is relatively impervious to the other kinds of currency, and on indie projects he is sometimes the highest paid person on the set.

Fair enough, but what about you? Are you so desperate for a credit that you’ll work for someone who expects you to write for nothing? What kind of lines of dialogue is that sound guy going to record if you wrote them on the subway on your way to your bartending job? Writing is work, like auto repair or putting up sheetrock. It’s easy to do it badly. It takes time and experience to do it well.

The counter-argument says, unlike the sound guy, the writer’s credit does have some currency, and you can work in your spare time, so you don’t have to be compensated for the days you’re off the job market. This holds true if the producer is flexible about when you hand in the writing. You can always find a day to rewrite ten pages sometime in the next month, if you love the story. If they need it by tomorrow, though, unless it’s the greatest project ever, loaded with the other two currencies, then they’d better offer you a number.

There is no one way to resolve this, but it’s in everyone’s interest if the understanding becomes explicit. Some producers read in a book that they should give everyone a written contract, and that’s fine I guess, but what really has to happen is the conversation: What are you expected to do, and to get back, and why are you really doing it. You can start that negotiation by saying the magic words: “Can you pay me at least as much as you pay your sound guy?”

Comments

  1. Sound advice.

    The writer is going to put in more work on a good short than anyone else, aside from the director and the producer. Most likely, the director and producer are using the film to make a name for themselves (or him/herself, since it’s probably the same person).. However, shorts do zero to advance the careers of writers. Zero. So unless you already owe the guy a favor, you should definitely be getting paid. I also really like the idea of asking to be paid at least as much as the sound guy. That’s a great place to start.

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  1. […] said before that the best answer a writer can give when asked to work on a friend’s film is, “Pay me as […]

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