Too many screenwriters focus on selling their spec scripts. The real money and screenwriting careers can be found in screenwriting assignments.
- That is what drives the screenwriting trade.
- That is what puts food on the table for the non-one-percenters.
- That is what encompasses a screenwriting career for most.
With that in mind, we’re going to share a sample of a feature screenwriting assignment contract. This sample represents the basic elements you’ll see within assignment contracts. It was created as a hybrid of many varying contracts, all of which utilize the same basic contractual breakdowns that you’ll find in most screenwriting assignment contracts in and out of the United States and Canada.
We’ll offer simple explanations for most (but not all) of the sections with the hope that you’ll have a better understanding of what to expect.
What Are Feature Screenwriting Assignments?
Writing on assignment means that a production company, network, or studio has hired you to develop and write a feature-length screenplay based on an original concept they have, or any type of intellectual property that they want to turn into a movie.
It could be:
- An idea a producer had.
- An adaptation of a book or series.
- An idea inspired by a true story or article.
- A rewrite of an acquired script.
When you write on assignment, you should be getting paid.
Read ScreenCraft’s 10 Steps Screenwriters Can Take to Avoid Writing for Free!
And you should have a general idea of what to expect:
- 5 Ways Undiscovered Screenwriters Can Get Writing Assignments
- 5 Things to Expect During Paid Screenwriting Assignments
- 7 Ways Screenwriters Can Survive and Conquer the Writing Assignment
And while it’s nice to have representation, screenwriters need to understand that sometimes the stars align. Paid writing gigs like this come quickly, and you may not have time to get representation if an opportunity comes. What most novice screenwriters don’t know is that a good majority of paid screenwriting assignments are non-union contracts with production companies that are not guild signatories. They pitch concepts to distributors and networks, make deals for production costs, produce the features, and then essentially sell those features to the distributors and networks. This presents opportunities for hundreds of non-union screenwriters trying to make a living as a screenwriter.
So it’s good to know your way around a contract. Yes, it’s preferable to have an agent, manager, and entertainment attorney. But many of you may be surprised to hear that many professional screenwriters make a good living without any of them. I’ve had five major cable network contracts within the last year and a half, and I don’t currently have an agent, manager, or entertainment lawyer.
Read ScreenCraft’s How to Negotiate a Screenwriting Contract Without Representation!
Here’s a general breakdown of the major elements of most paid assignment contracts.
Professional Feature Screenwriting Assignment Contract Sample and Breakdown
Let’s start with the sample contract. Click on the below link to open another window that contains a PDF file of the sample contract. You’ll want to go back and forth for reference.
Now let’s walk you through the most important parts of the contract.
Feature Screenwriting Assignment Contract Breakdown
The beginning of the contract is a summary of what the document is and to whom it pertains (Production Company and Writer).
1. Conditions Precedent
This section briefly states the overall conditions and any additional conditions that may apply — namely tax forms that are primarily the responsibility of the writer for their own tax filings.
When a production company offers the contract and the writer (or writers) accepts the contract, the two parties are agreeing to the terms — namely the literary materials that are to be requested and delivered by the writer. This section will tell you what you need to do on your end as part of the agreement. In the case of this sample, the writer needs to provide:
- an outline based on the Concept
- a first draft screenplay based on the final approved outline
- one or more rewrites of the screenplay
- one or more polish drafts
Furthermore, the production company agrees to provide notes while the writer agrees to address those notes in further drafts.
Read ScreenCraft’s How Do Screenwriters Know When to Embrace or Reject Notes and Feedback?
This is where you find out how much you’ll be paid, and how payments are made to you. Specific dollar amounts should be listed, partnered with details on what is asked of you to earn those dollar amounts. Needless to say, this is a very important section for the writer.
Many screenwriters will have a question about the production bonus. So, unless you’re a well-established screenwriter working with major studios, networks, and production companies, you’ll often see the Production Bonus worked into contracts. Basically what this means is that you’ll get paid the stipulated amounts for the stipulated literary materials you are asked to provide (outline, first draft, rewrites, polish rewrites). The amounts are taken away from the overall possible dollar amount of the whole contract. Anything left over is given to you after principal shooting begins.
In short, you don’t get paid the full amount of the contract until the script is produced. Whether or not a Production Bonus is part of your contract will depend on the situation at hand, and the companies you’re dealing with. But don’t fret. You’re not being ripped off. This is how most non-union contracts work.
This is lawyer-speak saying that other parties (additional production companies, financiers, etc.) may be involved with the project at hand. You may be writing under guidance of one company while being actually paid by another entity.
More lawyer-speak noting that you have had full opportunity to negotiate the terms — or have declined to do so and accept the terms as is.
This section is basically saying that communication about the details of the assignment can and will be distributed through the noted channels. It’s 100% through email, by the way.
Lawyer-speak saying that if there are any issues that come about that either party would like to address, it will be done by way of the agreed-upon province, state, or country. It goes on to detail that any legal matters will be handled by an agreed-upon arbitrator.
Schedule A Standard Terms and Conditions
This is where the details really come into play. You’re basically going to learn the expectations for both parties.
This section details what is expected of you. It also details that the production company has fully control and final say over everything. Lastly, it details the expectations of what you are writing (it has to be a feature-length script) and sometimes details the expected page number limits.
This is where you learn how much time you have to write the requested literary materials.
For outlines, most contracts give you just two weeks to complete them.
Read ScreenCraft’s To Outline, Or Not to Outline, That Is the Screenwriting Question!
For first drafts, you will have anywhere from four weeks to twelve weeks. But be ready. Most non-union contracts will give you just a month to complete the first draft.
Check Out ScreenCraft’s The 10-Day Screenplay Solution: Learn How to Write Lightning Fast – A ScreenCraft eBook!
The section also details that the production company has full power to terminate you and the contract whenever they would like. If you write a terrible outline and you are not implementing their notes right, they can stop the contract and pay you only for the work you’ve done thus far. So, be a good collaborator.
3. Conditions Relating to Payment
Your breakdown of how and when you will be paid, as well as stipulations that you are responsible for tax forms.
4. Credit, Name, and Likeness
The contract details how you will get onscreen credit, and by signing the agreement you agree to let them use your name and likeness for any reason related to the project.
5. Grant of Rights
By signing the document, you are granting the production company and its affiliates all rights related to what you write under the contract stipulations. Basically, it’s theirs, not yours.
6. Representations and Warranties
This section is detailing:
- You are free of any prior contracts and issues that would not allow you to do the work.
- What you write for them is original work and not taken from other intellectual property or works.
- What you write is not copyrighted by anyone else.
- Covers other legalities
7. Commitments to Others
Again, you have no commitment to others during the time of the contract, and you will not hire others to do any of the work for you. Basically, no ghostwriters. They are hiring you to write it. Not someone else.
Because most contracts for otherwise unestablished screenwriters are non-union, this section stipulates that the production company is not a union signatory and, therefore, is not obligated to abide by guild contract elements. It also ensures that you are not a union member. If you are, you can’t work on this project. Again, this section will depend on the situation.
While under contract with them, you agree to portray yourself with morality and ethics. In short, if you do or say bad things, they have the right to cancel the contract. And you also can’t publicly bad-mouth the company while under contract.
10. No Obligation to Proceed
This section is saying that the production company isn’t obligated to use any of your literary material. If they don’t like it, they can move on to another writer. If they decide not to produce it, that’s their right.
11. Suspension/Termination/Force Majeure
Lots of lawyer-speak saying that the writer won’t be in breach of contract in certain situations, and the production company can terminate the contract under certain circumstances as well.
12. CN’s Remedies
CN, in this sample, stands for Company Name. This section is major lawyer-speak that can be summed up as saying that if the writer breaches the contract, the production company could be affected in ways not reflected within the verbiage of the contract. So, if you delay your deadlines, that could affect other aspects of the company, allowing them to seek additional equitable relief during any legal breach of contract proceedings. I know, my explanation was just as bad. Don’t worry about it. I’ve never had to deal with that section in my fifteen years of writing underpaid contracts.
13. Writer’s Remedies
On the flip side of the previous section, the writer cannot sue for additional funds beyond what is stipulated within the monetary sections of the contract.
In short, you can be paid by others. And the work you write can be produced by other companies as well.
You can’t publicly share the details of your contract without proper permission from the production company.
You can’t do any type of product placement or plugs for companies in your work while you are getting paid to do so by them. So, you can’t go to Lexus and say that you’ll plug their product in exchange for a car. Wouldn’t that be nice though?
Lots of lawyer-speak that you should read through but will likely instantly forget.
That is the basic breakdown of this sample screenwriting assignment contract. Again, this sample is a hybrid containing most of the contract content that you will find in feature assignment contracts. With this knowledge, you will have a better understanding of what should and shouldn’t be within a contract presented to you for consideration.
This is all just information that all screenwriters need to read and hear.
- Yes, spec script sales still happen.
- Yes, they are bought and produced every year.
- Yes, screenwriters can still make six to seven figures on a spec sale.
It’s the hard truth is that selling script on spec is the anomaly. It’s the lottery ticket story of a nobody from Whereversville winning the jackpot. Or, to be honest, it’s the story of a screenwriter that’s been grinding away for a decade and finally seeing the stars align. Even the top-tier screenwriters earning big money, getting nominated for the Oscars, and enjoying box office or streaming hits are usually writing under assignment.
- You need to use your spec scripts as calling cards for writing assignments.
- You need to shift your expectations and goals from selling them to using them to nab writing assignments.
- You need to focus less on the quick sale (which likely won’t come) and more on the big picture of a screenwriting career.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t hope to see your spec script sell and be produced as an original film or series pilot. We’re just saying that any sale and produced script should be viewed not as the number one goal and expectation — but as icing on the cake.
Hope for it to sell, yes. But don’t expect it. Instead, strive to create a career by selling yourself as a screenwriter for potential screenwriting assignments.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies
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Author: Ken Miyamoto