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Working With a New-to-You Producer? Look Out for These Red Flags

John Whittington identifies early signs indicating you may need to exercise caution.

Photo by J.W. Hendricks

It’s not always easy to work through issues that arise in a professional situation. In addition to the advice below, the WGAW has resources that members can use to address some of the issues raised in this column. Following the Agency campaign, the Guild implemented a program of individual outreach to screenwriters around free work issues. We’ve counseled writers about the best way to resist producer passes based on their individual circumstances and launched the Project Page to assist writers in making informed decisions about the projects they pitch on.

Because there may not always be an enforcement option under the MBA, the surest way to avoid being taken advantage of is to say NO to free work.

The Guild is here to support you to resist demands for free work.  Please reach out to Enforcement Specialist contact Shelagh Wagener in the Guild’s Agency Department if you are dealing with a free work issue, or would like to learn more about the Guild’s efforts in this area.

If you are facing issues seeking payment for a draft, please contact the Guild’s Legal Department at (323) 782-4521 for assistance

Question: What are some red flags to watch out for when starting a new working relationship with a producer?

John Whittington: Navigating new relationships with producers can be tricky, and like any kind of relationship, there are plenty of red flags to watch out for along the way. Here are a handful I’ve picked up:

They put you on a development “merry-go-round.”

Sometimes working with a producer feels like watching my mom rearrange living room furniture in the mid-'90s: stuff gets moved around for no clear reason, mostly just to “see what it looks like.” This is usually because the producers don’t know what they want, but they’ll gladly send you round and round in circles to find it for them. Get off this merry-go-round as soon as you can!

They don’t have the rights to their own projects.

When being approached by a producer for a take on an existing IP, have your reps make 100% sure the producer actually has the rights to it. It’s amazing that this even needs to be said, but it’s happening more and more often. A producer who can keep a straight face while asking you to come up with a full take for IP they don’t even control is definitely someone to avoid.

They drop bombs and walk away.

Have you ever had a notes meeting with someone who basically strolls in, says something vague and nonsensical (like, “Does it have to be a disaster movie? What if it was a road trip musical?”), and then leaves you to deal with the ensuing story explosion? This will not be the last grenade they pull the pin on and toss onto your laptop. Run for cover from this red flag!

Navigating new relationships with producers can be tricky, and like any kind of relationship, there are plenty of red flags to watch out for along the way.

They ghost you.

Another nauseating trend that’s becoming more and more commonplace: You work on a project with a producer, take all their notes, do draft after draft, and then…they disappear. Instead of finding new (and demeaning) ways to say “just checking in!,” add this to your red flag collection and move on.

They trash other writers.

This red flag might actually feel good at first, but it shouldn’t. A producer disses another writer (usually some version of: “they whiffed”) and pumps you up as the talented genius who is saving the day.

Don’t take the bait.

A producer who trashes other writers is usually one who can’t take accountability for their own failings in the development process, so they blame it all on the last writer. And they’ll do the same to you. See this kind of trash talk for the big red flag it is.

Now, like any sensitive, emotionally vulnerable writer, I’m focusing on the negative. So to balance things out, let’s end with a few “green flags” that make producers worth holding onto:

They acknowledge and respect your boundaries.

Almost every producer will ask for (or more likely, expect) additional work from you throughout the process. The good ones understand and respect when you voice your boundaries on free work. When a producer does this, it means they see you as an actual person—not just a human typewriter.

They care if you’ve been paid.

I remember every producer who has ever asked me: “Have you been paid yet?” This always means something to me. They recognize I’m doing my job, not just helping them do theirs. Of course, if you are working under a services agreement with a signatory, it’s technically your call when the script is ready to deliver. If you’re getting a script ready for sale with a non-signatory producer in anticipation of a sale, you can only hope you’re working with a producer who recognizes your limits.

They make your work better.

This should be an easy one, but it gets lost in the noise sometimes. Think about the scripts you consider your best work. Chances are, you worked on those scripts with someone who helped you get them there. When you find people who elevate you and your writing, keep them close. In the end, all that matters is doing the best work we can. And most of us can’t do it alone.

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