Should you rewrite for free?


Sometimes it’s not good to cross a screenwriter. The Player (1992) photo courtesy of Fine Line Features.

Sometimes it’s not good to cross a screenwriter. The Player (1992) photo courtesy of Fine Line Features.

5 Rules for Writers With Attachments: To Free or Not to Free…?

Okay, so we’ll start with the bad news: the math. There are roughly fifty thousand scripts registered at the WGA each year. Not everyone registers their script though so this number is on the low side. Spec scripts go in and out of fashion, but each year the studios buy around fifty. That’s a very small percentage of the number of scripts written. Sounds depressing, and for most writers it probably is.

However, there are things you can do to increase your odds. First, educate yourself. At least forty-five thousand of those scripts are written by people who think writing a movie is only marginally more difficult than watching one. Educating yourself puts you in the top ten right away. After that, there are all sorts of things to try: contests, finding a manager, working in the industry in another capacity, networking your butt off, or… finding an attachment.

Years ago, producers paid to option scripts. That was back in the days when studios handed out housekeeping deals like candy on Halloween. When the studio money dried up, so did the options. In order to stay in business, producers began to ask writers to accept entrée to the studios and the best agencies in lieu of paying options. Now, if it stops there, it’s not really a bad deal. But it seldom does…

Very often in exchange for their contacts, a producer will ask for changes to your script. Suddenly, you’re re-writing your script for free. And, if they bring on a director or an actor you’re doing it again. This can go very well…or it can go badly. Should you do it? Maybe. Here are five rules to help you decide.

No. 1 — Know Who You’re Dealing With

I had a script that was a semi-finalist in the Nicholl. When something like that happens you get a ton of emails from producers. Some of them are actually producers and many of them want to be producers. You have to figure who’s who. Get a solid bio from the producer and then check it out. Google. Ask for the names of other writers they’ve worked with. Make phone calls.

If all a producer can offer you is the ability to get your script to the studios, make sure he or she can actually do that. A good way to gauge his or her ability is to go on and see if this person has had a film produced in the past 18-36 months. If they have, chances are they still have those contacts and can make the calls. If the producer has credits, even a big production, but hasn’t released anything in a while, like in the last five or ten years, chances are many of his or her contacts could have moved on or gotten out of the business. That means, he or she might have a tougher time getting your script around Hollywood.

You might be asking why would someone attach themselves to your script if they don’t have the right contacts to get it made? Well, sometimes a really good script can get them in the door. A good script will set them up so they can submit other scripts. The thing is, you want them opening doors for you, not vice versa.

Some producers are more difficult than others. Swimming With Sharks (1994) photo courtesy of Trimark Pictures

Some producers are more difficult than others. Swimming With Sharks (1994) photo courtesy of Trimark Pictures

No. 2 — Play the Long Game

Occasionally, a new producer, director or even an actor is so impressive that you may want to go with him or her even if they can’t yet open doors. If you’re convinced that the person you’re dealing with is the next Joel Silver or George Lucas then by all means ignore everything you learned in step one and go for it. Even if they don’t get your script purchased, it could pay off down the road.

No. 3 — Don’t Sign Anything

You probably will not be asked to sign a contract. Typically, contracts don’t come out until there’s money on the table. Attachments are verbal contracts that are very easy for both parties to get in and out of.

I have heard of at least one instance where a producer wanted partial ownership of a script in exchange for notes. No. Do not ever do this. Ideas are easy to have. Screenplays are hard to write. No one gets ownership of your work for simply having an idea. And, if they try it… walk away.

No. 4 — Set Limits

I had an attachment on a script and wrote five drafts in six months. Don’t be afraid to tell a producer up front that you’re only willing to do one draft, or possibly two. They may ask you for more down the road, but setting limits up front makes it harder for them to do that.

No. 5 — You Are An Equal Partner

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when attaching a producer to your script is to act like a writer-for-hire. And I know this because I made that mistake. No one has paid you. You’re an independent businessperson, just like they are—which by the way is how they can ask you to work without getting paid and not run afoul of labor laws. You don’t have to do everything you’re asked to do. You can say no.

And…if a producer asks for changes you don’t agree with, it is better to say no. If your script goes into the studios and gets rejected, it should be on work you believe in and not on changes you made to please a producer.

Everyone’s path to success as a screenwriter is different. An attachment on your script might be a great decision. It’s worked out for other writers. But it is something to think long and hard about and make sure you understand what you’re getting into before you say yes.

We’d love to hear your attachment stories. Let us know how you did it and what you learned from the process.


Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

21 Replies to "Should you rewrite for free?"

  • comment-avatar
    William Sowles September 8, 2016 (9:49 am)

    What about the WGA rule on re-writes?

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton September 8, 2016 (9:52 am)

      Once you’re in the WGA no one asks for free re-writes (though they often try to get as much for their money as they can) … This applies to screenwriters trying to break in.

  • comment-avatar
    Frank Tuscany September 8, 2016 (11:06 am)

    Rewriting for free? It’s got to depend upon many things. Ralph and I have done many rewrites on our and I’ve now decided to lock it after Stephen Fry read it and asked to be in it. Three potential investors are now looking so yes, I will rewrite as many times as it takes provided there are indications of real money on the table but to date I and others who have read it are more than happy with the present version. The only major change could be a serious investor who would rather it as a TV mini series. After much research on this true story that is very possible with so much material available.

  • comment-avatar
    Charles Rule September 8, 2016 (11:32 am)

    Thank you for sharing this valuable information- Charles Rule

  • comment-avatar
    Leticia Nelson September 8, 2016 (2:52 pm)

    I hope someday someone will read my script,so far, not even a nibble not even out of courtesy.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton September 8, 2016 (5:12 pm)

      Keep putting it out there. And start a new one. 🙂

    • comment-avatar
      Tony September 9, 2016 (12:39 am)

      What type of scripts are you writing, if I may ask.

    • comment-avatar
      Edwin September 9, 2016 (6:46 am)

      Same here too, dear. But, never lose hope. We will succeed one golden day and until then, we will carry on with our efforts, our searches and write on more new stories and scripts. We do not know which of our story gets selected first, don’t we?

  • comment-avatar
    Patricia Poulos September 8, 2016 (3:00 pm)

    Dear Marshall thank you. I’m sure there are many writers who will benefit from this.

  • comment-avatar
    Michael September 9, 2016 (5:47 am)

    Great info. Thank you.
    I have a different situation, I have a high concept script and a director attached, he half functioning available…but be tells me the money cold won’t look at it without a script breakdown and budget analysis. I have no contacts to find a Line Producer who cam do this.

    Any help out there would be greatly appreciated.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton September 9, 2016 (6:10 am)

      That’s an interesting situation. I would take a good hard look at No. 1. A director with representation should be able to connect you to line producers, possibly with the same agency. If your director doesn’t have representation then think about No. 2 and if you really believe in this director there is software available (some of it free apparently)… you could do a script breakdown and budget yourself. And credit yourself as a producer.

  • comment-avatar
    Charlie Frazier September 19, 2016 (5:57 am)

    I have a director/actor, who gave me a verbal commitment over a year ago and has a couple of his high profile actor/friends reading my script. He says he’s sent the script to a producer, but won’t tell me who it is. He as already had me do one rewrite and I’m still polishing the script on my own. It’s a Sports/Drama and 2 major sports equipment companies have already contacted me and asked if they could sign on if/when this project goes forward. I know it isn’t kosher to keep contacting these people and asking questions, but I’d like to know what’s going on with my project which is now in the hands of so many people. Any advice?

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton September 19, 2016 (11:17 am)

      Why isn’t it kosher to keep contacting these people and asking questions? I know it feels that way – but that’s why I wrote #5. If you own the script then you’re an equal partner. More than equal partner actually. You’re really the one in charge here. It serves everyone in Hollywood to make writers feel like they have no power. But there’s no reason for a writer to buy into that–until you’re actually getting paid. Look, the worst thing that will happen if you ask questions is that the director/actor will back out. But, if he’s going to back out because you’re asking questions then he’s probably someone you don’t want to be working with. If he has a problem with questions what else will he have a problem with? And… since you have two sports equipment companies interested in product placement deals you could shop the script to producers yourself.

  • comment-avatar
    Mary Winborn September 29, 2016 (11:50 pm)

    This is great and so educational. I want to get paid something for what I write. Until that happens, one is not a professional writer and cant even deduct training you have done or your work room off your income taxes. I have heard of ridiculously tiny options offered to writers off Ink Tip. Since I will be in the November magazine, I hope for the best. I don’t want to just be a wannabe, as some of the professionals on Stage 32 have made reference to those who haven’t sold yet. Thanks.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton September 30, 2016 (6:17 am)

      Thanks for commenting! You know, screenwriting is something you have to have a real passion for. If you want to succeed you have to have the courage to call yourself a screenwriter right from the start. Worrying about who’s professional and who’s not doesn’t get you anywhere. I know several screenwriters who’ve sold a script and found themselves right back at square one writing specs.

      The attachment or free option is very common these days and reputable managers and agencies will set them up for talented new writers. (once you’re in the guild you don’t have this option) You could find yourself in the room with very powerful people this way. And it can work out very well. Compared to a tiny option from a struggling producer that would allow you to call yourself professional, it might the right choice. Each situation is different.

      You’re right about the IRS – but I certainly would never let them define the way I think about myself.

  • comment-avatar
    Buck December 13, 2016 (10:45 am)

    Hi, just read this article. Quick question. I did one of those free options for my script. Now, the producer (who has a few direct to dvd credits to his name) who holds the option has gotten a director whose father is a huge name director, but who has not done much himself. I don’t feel this person is a good fit for an adventure/comedy, and he wants a free rewrite based on his notes, but I would certainly do it if there’s a good chance it would get made. The option is up in a few months and there is another producer that says he would love to pick it up if and when it’s available. That producer has about the same amount of credits as the one that holds the option now, but we both are on the same page as to the direction of the script (unlike the producer and director who are currently involved).
    If I refuse the rewrite, my producer has agreed to release me from the option early, and I would take it to the other guy. So, my question is, should I bother doing the rewrite for a director who wants to dramatically change the direction of my script, on the chance that his fathers’ name may help get it made, or try my luck with the producer who seems passionate about my script and agrees with my vision?

    Would appreciate any advice here, thanks.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 13, 2016 (11:08 am)

      At the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live with your decision. That means I can’t tell you the ‘right’ answer, I can help you figure out what the right answer is for you, though. The first thing I’d say is that you seem to be leaning toward going with the producer who shares your vision and are looking for logical reasons to do that. You’re mainly concerned that you might miss a possibility for a sale. I think you need think through what selling a script that is not your vision really means. If you’re not onboard with the dramatic changes the director wants and the script sells there are a couple of pitfalls you’ll need to be prepared for a) you’re right, the changes were a bad idea and the eventual movie isn’t very good and you get blamed, b) you’re wrong and the eventual movie is good but now people want you to write movies like that–a movie you didn’t like very much. Neither of those are very appealing, but you might still want to choose them just to get the sale if you think you can deal with the potential pitfalls.

      A couple things that might help. Since you have two producers interested in might be a great time to hustle and try to get a manager and/or agent who could help you with this decision. The fact that you have some interest will make you attractive. Also, do you have any trusted beta readers? Are you in a writing group? A writing group could certainly help you compare the directors ideas with your ideas so that you can decide how much you’re risking by implementing them.

  • comment-avatar
    Buck December 13, 2016 (11:25 am)

    Thank you so much for the advice! Yeah, I’d be more inclined to “Sell out” if there was some actual money involved (as selling out implies getting paid, lol), or more of a guarantee that this director (who has a very famous director father) can actually get the script made. The idea of losing out on another opportunity (with a different producer who still might not be able to secure the financing, but at least is on the same page), and putting in months of work on a rewrite, for it to maybe go nowhere, is not appealing.

    I did have a manager at one point but the guy was a bit shady. He represented a few TV newsmen and kept trying to push his own ideas to producers. I would love to hook up with a writing group but have no idea where to look.

    Anyway, I have some thinking to do. Thank you again soooo much!

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton December 13, 2016 (11:55 am)

      The upside of writing for free is that it’s your script and it remains your script. You did mention there being a time limit on the option. If you signed something make sure it doesn’t say anything about ownership of ideas. (i.e. if the current producer owns changes to the script during the option don’t start any new changes until the option is over.) Typically though, if you’re not paid to write, whatever changes you make (even those at the suggestion of producers and directors) are yours.

      The writing groups I’ve been in have come out of writing classes and workshops. I’m sure there are opportunities online to meet other writers, and obviously in person wherever you are. You seem to be relatively advanced, but don’t let that stop you from taking a workshop, either locally or online. Look for one in which you will write a full script, in which the other writers are likely to be at or near your level, and one in which the instructor is skilled enough to deal with advanced writers. A workshop can be valuable simply to keep you working and meeting people.

  • comment-avatar
    Buck December 13, 2016 (12:08 pm)

    Damn, I have to check the contract now! Thank you, yet again, as that is something I would not have thought of. I think I’m going to speak with the director a few more times and try to get an idea of how committed he is to actually seeing things through and getting my script filmed, before jumping in knee deep in rewrites. I’m on the fence here because I feel that the other producer is simply a better fit for my story, and I don’t want to waste my time with someone that wants a different movie than the one I wrote. Again, he may have the connections to get the job done (or not, lol), so it’s a ton to think about.

    Thanks again!

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