Filmmaking, like any other career in the arts, requires you to do a lot of favors, but you have to do so with your eyes wide open. You have to be okay with the fact that most favors disappear into the ether, never to be seen again. That’s okay. The purpose of doing favors is not to get someone to say “this person did something for me, so now I owe them an opportunity in return.” Few people will have that response.
Realistically, you’re hoping that, at some point in the future, they will say, “Shit, my plans fell through, I’m in a bad jam, and I need to call in someone who I can depend on to do an amazing job at the last minute for almost nothing. Who have I been able to depend on in the past?” That day may never come, but if it does, you want to be on their list of dependable people. You get on that list by doing amazing favors.
This brings us to the horrifying truth about favors: If you agree to do a favor, even if it’s a huge, unreasonable, last-minute favor for the biggest screw-up in town, you have to do amazing work, better than if you were getting paid.
“What?? Why is that?? They’re not even paying me! Can’t I just phone it in? At least I showed up!” Don’t believe it. No matter much they beg and plead and promise you that they just need a quickie job or a warm body, you still have to say no if you can’t do an amazing job for them.
Agreeing to do a favor, any favor, is a dangerous opportunity. If you do a half-ass favor for someone, even if they promised you that you wouldn’t have to work hard, they will resent it, and they will bad-mouth you. Even worse, other people working on the project won’t know that they’re getting paid and you’re not. All they’ll know is that you did a half-ass job, and they don’t ever want to work with you again.
So you have to be willing to say no to a favor. The truth is that, if you do say no, no matter how hurt they pretend to be, they’ll just shrug and call somebody else and give that person the same song and dance they gave you. It won’t really hurt their feelings.
It’s vital to do as many favors as possible, but only agree to contribute if you’re prepared to act as if you’re the highest paid person on that project. After all, this is your chance to audition for everybody involved in this project, all at once. That’s why you do a favor, not because anybody will owe you anything in return. In fact, in screenwriting as in life, nobody ever really owes anybody anything. More on that tomorrow…
Can you describe what kind of favors you're talking about in regards to screenwriting? Or are you just talking about help that low-budget filmmakers need in general?
For the most part, I'm thinking of film-making favors, such as crewing on sets or helping with post-production, since most screenwriters aren't just screenwriters. In this business everybody's always shooting something, even if they're not a director.
But screenwriters do plenty of other favors for each other as well, including script consulting (sometimes on a tight deadline), outright script doctoring or full collaboration, pitching in as a writers' room assistant, agreeing to consider people for jobs based on a friend's recommendation, etc.
I can see how it helps for crew and actors to do favors for each other. Most projects have many crew members, many actors.
But are not screenwriters in competition with each other?
How are favors between screenwriters given or repaid?
Will any screenwriter, learning of a producer seeking scripts, say to that producer, "Never mind me. Here's this other writer you should hire."
YES! Absolutely, that happens all the time. I've gotten jobs that way and I've passed jobs on to other writers.
This is sometimes done because of subject matter: "That's a great idea, though it's not something I would know how to write, but I know a great screenwriter who would love that subject matter, can I give you his number?"
Or it's because of pay: "I'd be happy to develop that idea for you, but I'm only taking work right now that's paid up front. If you need someone who's willing to work with you on a future-payment basis, I could give you some names of some hungry up-and-coming writers."
I've even heard rumors that there was once a time in which people turned down appealing, paid work because they had too much work to do!
I edited a documentary about the great Percy Sutton, one of the grand old men of Harlem, whose theory was that if someone owed him a favor, and he cashed it in himself, then that favor was gone, but if he introduced that person to somebody else and had them help each other out, then he'd have two favors. Before long, he was the most loved man in Harlem.
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