If you have the slightest creative talent, you are probably being hustled constantly to create for little or no money.
Now, please note: I am not talking about forming partnerships with other creative folks and working up something you will go out and
try to sell. I'm not talking about coming up with something on your own and trying to sell it. I'm not even talking about working on that
special project that you do with no prospect of remuneration, just because you are passionate to see it done.
Those are your projects. Nothing wrong with investing in yourself.
No, I'm talking about doing free writing or drawing for what I call Unfinanced Entrepreneurs. These are people who are attempting
to put together a movie/TV show/comic book/strip/video game (pick one) — but not in the way that real producers or publishers do this.
Real producers and publishers have money or access to money. That's what they bring to the table.
Unfinanced entrepreneurs don't have any money — or, if they do, they're not dumb enough to risk it on their own projects.
They want you to assume the risk.
They want you to take their little idea — their project, not yours — and flesh it out, jazz it up, draw it out, or
otherwise turn it into something that they can go out and sell. (They also have few — usually, no — credits in the field they're
looking to get into. You're going to help them do that, too.)
What they usually have is, at most, an idea. Sometimes, it's not much of an idea. I have an acquaintance who calls me every
so often to pitch me on his brilliant concept for a TV comedy series. It's like Cheers but it's set in a bowling alley. The guy
who runs it is a real hothead and there's this dumb-but-gorgeous girl who works there as a waitress, and a bunch of really funny bowlers who hang
around the place.
That's all my acquaintance has. He figures I'll fill in the rest and then somehow, he'll sell it and we'll both get rich.
He's even willing to cut me in for half, he says.
What is amazing about an Unfinanced Entrepreneur is his amazing gift for self-deception. I can understand how these people feel
the necessity to convince you that that their idea is certain to sell...but the ones I've met also seem to have convinced themselves.
Your average Unfinanced Entrepreneur is not asking you to write or draw for free. His project is definitely going to go forward
and it will make everyone affiliated with it, wealthy beyond measure — him, especially. Any day now, he will be using all denominations
of money lower than a fifty for Handi-Wipes.
He is going to produce a movie that is absolutely certain to dwarf the combined grosses of Spielberg, Lucas and Cameron.
Or he is going to produce a TV show that already has CBS, ABC, NBC and, yes, even Fox and UPN mud-wrestling to see which of them will
get to shovel Seinfeld-sized money his way for the broadcast rights.
Or he is going to open a comic book line so successful that, within a week, DC and Marvel will both be converted into a chain of
one-hour photo processing booths.
Or he has a new comic strip or cartoon character that everyone agrees is a Mickey Mouse for the next few centuries.
As sure as there is tea in China, pasta in Italy and sushi in Brentwood, he is on the verge of a billion-dollar bonanza. He has
everything he needs to make this happen except —
— except he just needs a few pages from you (if you're a writer) or a few quick sketches (if you're an artist) so "his people"
can check things out, sign off on things, get things moving on to the next step. "You have time to knock out a few pages by Monday?"
If you are new to this scam or deficient in I.Q. points, you say, "Sure." But, having just heard of the acres of cash that are
positively/absolutely looming out there — guaranteed! — you make a feeble suggestion that maybe you might possibly (just a
thought) be...uh, paid —?
"Paid!!??" At the mention of the "p" word, Mr. Almost Billionaire invariably turns the color of ricotta cheese. Two minutes
ago, he was claiming you'd both be wading in coinage, a la Scrooge McDuck, before Arbor Day. He has brought you this wonderful,
lucrative opportunity because he believes in you and your talents...but you have shown Bad Faith, a complete naïvete about the business...and
Your True Colors by trying to bleed him for a few dimes.
Well, you don't want to be mercenary about this. You say, "Okay, I'll do it without money up front. But I think we ought to
have a contract or a letter of agreement." With bushel baskets of dollars en route, it makes perfect sense to arrange now, before the
work is done, what share of that will be yours, right?
Again, the U.E. begins stammering like Mel Tillis doing a Jimmy Stewart impression in sub-zero weather. He says, "Oh, we don't
need to bring lawyers into this..." or "There's no time for that." One time, a person I'd never met before in my life told me, "Hey, we're all
friends here...we have a relationship..."
General rule of thumb: When you encounter someone who has the slightest hesitation about paying you for your labors and/or committing a
deal to paper, you are going to get screwed...if not immediately, then soon.
That's not how it works in the Real World. In the Real World — the world of people who actually produce movies, sell TV
shows, publish comic books, etc. — there is no hustle, no con job, no need to sweet-talk you into working "on spec."
Oh, once in a while, you find some sleazy underling at a Real Company who'll try a U.E.-style scam. He figures he'll be a big
hero to his bosses by getting some development work done without spending the company money. But those projects never materialize. The
mere fact that they won't put cash up for them usually indicates they're not that serious.
No, the undertakings that actually get produced or published almost always start with someone laying out funds. They may try to
get you cheap but there is a certain level of Lowball beneath which a real producer or real publisher generally does not descend. Not on
anything that really happens.
Unfinanced Entrepreneurs exist because of a fiction about creative people, so widely believed that even some of us writers and artists
accept it. The fiction is that writing and drawing are not assets...they are things we whip up out of thin air and which cost nothing to
create. If someone steals your work from you, you can always bat out another for nothing.
If you believe this, it's your right, but you do our profession a grave disservice. Every time someone tramples on our work
— ruins it, changes it, mauls it, damages it — it's because they have no respect for it. And, generally speaking, they have no
respect for that which cost them nothing.
They think writers and artists "just knock it out" but we don't...not really. And even when it seems like we do, it's because of
a lifetime of developing whatever skills we bring to each project. My best pal, Sergio Aragonés, once was selling some sketches he'd
done. A browser was interested in one but blanched at the hundred-buck price tag.
"How long did it take you to draw that?" he asked.
"About a half-hour," Sergio answered.
The man was horrified: "You expect me to pay you a hundred dollars for a half-hour's work?"
Sergio showed uncommon restraint — at least for Sergio. He calmly said, "You're not paying for the half-hour it took me to
do the drawing. You're paying for the forty-one years it took me to learn how to do that."
It appalls me that, somewhere, someplace, there are writers and artists who fall for these scams. And it appalls me even more
that, once upon a time, I did, too.
We have to stop buying this manure, people — all of us, me included. And if we're not going to stop out of
self-preservation and a desire to not be ripped off, we ought to stop for this reason: It's usually leads to nothing.
Unfinanced Entrepreneurs almost never get the project sold, the movie made, the magazine published. Their success rate is
Sometimes, they even lose interest. A writer friend of mine was approached by a U.E. who held the rights to the life story of a
noted personality in the news. Dustin Hoffman was, the U.E. claimed, eager to star in a movie based on this person's experiences. So,
allegedly, was Al Pacino. "I need a screenplay," the Unfinanced Entrepreneur said. "Dustin promised me he'd read it right away and so did
Al. If either one of them likes it, we can write our own ticket at any studio in town."
My friend fell for it. He figured, "Hey, even if the movie doesn't get made, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino will be reading my
work. Maybe they'll hire me for some other film." The U.E. was even willing to draw up a Letter of Agreement covering the matter.
(This is rare for Unfinanced Entrepreneurs but, of course, this one didn't obligate him to my friend in any way; it merely said that, if the script
was placed with a studio, the writer would receive at least Writers Guild scale — which he'd have gotten anyway.)
So the starry-eyed screenwriter spent the next five months, night and day, researching and writing a 125-page script. He was very
proud of his handiwork and, in idle moments, even fantasized about Dustin and Al both loving it and fighting over the lead.
When the script was done, he sent it over to the U.E., who called to say he had moved on to other things and allowed his (unpaid)
option on the person's life story to lapse. It's very easy to drop a project when you don't have any money tied up in it.
The writer scurried around, trying to acquire the rights to the story he'd just spent five months turning into a screenplay.
Turned out, the subject had already sold his story to Universal for megabucks and they have a top screenwriter adapting it. So my friend is
stuck with a script that consumed five months of his life and guts, and which he can't sell anywhere. He can't even get Dustin or Al to read
Only on rare occasions do Unfinanced Entrepreneurs actually cause a project to reach fruition. When that happens, they somehow
arrange for most of the money to flow their way, little or none your way.
In my career as a professional writer — 1969 to date — I think I've written things on these terms about twenty times.
Being a slow learner, it took me about seventeen instances to realize that it was consenting to my own burglary...and even offering to hold the gun
on myself. (The other three times, the U.E. was so pushy, so unrelenting, that I decided that it was easier to write the thing than to listen
to more of his hype — a very bad reason.)
Nineteen of those times, I wrote something, sans compensation, for someone who was absolutely, unquestionably,
no-two-ways-about-it certain that, with just "a few pages" from Evanier, he could make the movie happen, make the TV show exist, make the magazine
roll off the presses.
And nineteen of those times, they got the pages, told me how brilliant and perfect they were...and I never heard another word from
No, I take that back. Once or twice, they came back to ask me to knock out a batch of free pages for another project that was
absolutely, unquestionably, etc., about to happen. I guess that, when you find someone that stupid, you can't resist trying it again.
One time — and only once — the U.E. took the pages, went off and, years later, got the project made. He claimed he
owed me neither cash nor credit, as he'd done a full rewrite on what I'd given him. This was true, insofar as the line on the front that said,
"Written by Mark Evanier" was concerned.
He replaced my name with his and didn't even retype what followed. He sold the thing and, by the time I got my cut, it was
drastically diminished by thousands of dollars I paid to my lawyer.
Not the happiest experience of my career...and I had to wonder what I would have done if I hadn't been able to afford a good
attorney. (I know what I would have done: I would have gotten nothing.)
I wish this weren't a business. I wish I didn't have to get paid at all for what I do. I wish I could just write what I
want and pass it around, never having to worry about deals or contracts or getting the check.
But then I also wish that Home Savings and Loan didn't hold a mortgage on my house, I wish restaurants fed you for nothing, I wish all
the necessities of life were available to all in ample supply and for free. Until this happens, we have to get paid.
No matter what anyone thinks, writers and artists are human beings. They need to pay rent and buy food and appease the folks at
MasterCard. Even if they don't care about money, they need money. It's hard to write a great novel or do a great painting when your electricity
is being turned off.
Most of all, they need to not waste their time, and I think that's what I resent most about Unfinanced Entrepreneurs. They waste
Since I started doing this column, I've gotten a lot of requests for career advice from budding creators. The most important
admonition I can offer is to steer clear of those who want to exploit you. Even when you think you have no better prospect, avoid the
Unfinanced Entrepreneur. They not only steal your work...they embezzle a little bit of your soul.
You have a limited amount of creative energy. Even when it feels like a bottomless supply, it isn't. It's finite, if only
because there are only so many hours in a day.
Value that creative energy. Because if you don't, no one else will.
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