[Editor's Note: The names and certain quotes in this article have been altered slightly to protect the privacy of those involved.]
Over the past few years, the screenwriting community has been a beacon of positivity and support for me as a writer. A place where, even though drama occurs every once in a while, people set aside their differences to cheerfully swap screenplays for feedback, share helpful advice, congratulate one another on accomplishments, and repost job listings, no matter if they’re an industry veteran or a newcomer. It’s an incredible, supportive community to be a part of!
But behind the positive tweets and writer networking events, there is a dark, predatory side writers should be aware of.
My Experience With a Grifter
This predatory side reared its ugly head in September when I stumbled across a UTA job listing. The listing called for a diverse female co-writer for an already sold project that needed the lead to be rewritten into a diverse woman. Seeing as it was paid and sounded interesting, I threw my hat in the ring. I sent over my resume, and the “professional” screenwriter at hand introduced himself (let’s call him “Bob”), and listed his incredible accomplishments. I was wowed.
When Bob asked for my bio and a writing sample, I sent it over as soon as possible and refreshed my inbox nonstop until I got a reply a day or two later. He let me know, “I read the beginning of your script and I’m confident you have a future in writing.” He continued to say, “The script that you sent looks like it is wonderful, but it has some issues on the first few pages that might keep a professional reader (like an agent or a manager) from signing you based on it. I’d like to talk about how I can help you punch it up. (For free, I just want to mentor and discuss it).”
This was an enormous red flag for me, as I had worked on my pilot with industry professionals and mentors and knew my opening pages were pretty darn solid. I also hadn’t mentioned I needed an agent or manager, so that also set another alarm off in my head. The rest of his email was him trying to get me to join his “brain trust session,” workshops he hosts to mentor writers while developing his showrunning skills, and “providing mentees guidance they can’t get elsewhere.” In other words, having a group of people who aren’t good enough to write alongside him, but somehow ARE good enough to help him work on his projects for free… right.
I laughed and pushed this encounter out of sight and out of mind for a few days until I stumbled across a Twitter thread by Cassia Jones (@AwkwardGirlLA) where she wrote about an experience she had that sounded eerily similar to the one I had. We connected, did research, and quickly realized that Bob was not only taking advantage of newer writers (women of color in this specific case) by getting them to work for him for free but also a number of his credentials were outdated or exaggerated.
Cassia and I realized we had to spread the word, so I made a thread detailing the experience I described above. What we weren’t expecting were countless DMs with stories spanning over a decade from people who had been “mentees” of Bob’s. Not only would Bob get his own “writers’ room” in which to make his work better, but he would also get mentees on a schedule to do non-writing-related tasks. These tasks involved doing chores around his house, such as cleaning up after his dogs and picking up his dry-cleaning in hopes of receiving professional guidance from him.
Writers. What I’m going to say next is extremely important: SITUATIONS LIKE THIS ARE NOT NORMAL OR ACCEPTABLE!
Writers are inundated with opportunities left and right. These opportunities often take the form of jobs, screenplay competitions, mentorships, paid consultations, or workshops. If you run into a job listing or opportunity that sounds like it might be someone looking to take advantage of your skills, time, or what’s in your wallet, please try to remember the following:
Don’t Work for Free
Professionals and/or companies in the industry will pay you for your time if you join them as an assistant or coordinator. If you’re in college and it’s a temporary internship, this may vary, but overall, you shouldn’t be cutting someone’s grass for free to potentially get them to read your work.
Beware of Paying “Professionals” With an Unverifiable Work History
If the company or the person you’re going to be paying a hefty sum for a workshop, mentorship, or a pitch, doesn’t have any of the credits listed in their bio on IMDb/IMDbPro or hasn’t added anything new in a decade, take note. Just because someone has written a book on screenwriting, doesn’t automatically mean they’re an expert.
Never Pay Fees for Representation or Options
If an agent or manager wants you to pay them for representation or to option your script, run. The same goes if you’re querying and the person you reached out to asks you to pay them to read your script because they *might* represent you if your work is good… run even faster.
Look at Screenplay Competition Prizes Through a Microscope
When it comes to screenplay contests, it’s important to look at whether or not it’s reputable. If the prizes don’t include meetings, a significant monetary award, a fellowship, or something else you’re specifically looking for, it’s best to avoid it. Although a printable certificate or trophy looks pretty, odds are, it’s not going to help you get where you want to be.
Talk About Your Experiences
If you run into a situation that’s sketchy, let others know. If you aren’t sure if it’s a slimy practice or not, talk to your friends or your connections because someone might know more or have had a similar experience. There’s strength in numbers.
Always Listen to Your Gut
If something sounds too good to be true or feels off, it probably is. It’s that simple.
I know this piece is a bit of a bummer, but there are a handful of different types of people and groups in the industry looking to take advantage of aspiring writers. The good thing is they are few and far between, and there are far more fair and kind professionals in the industry who don’t spend their time grifting newer writers. Hopefully, this article will give you additional insight on how to better navigate these waters, and help you avoid some of the more common predatory practices in the industry.
Ariel Relaford is a screenwriter, podcaster, and digital marketer based in Orange County, California. Prior to her current role in automotive technology, she developed strategic marketing campaigns for clients including Netflix, Lionsgate, Disney, ABC, HBO Max, and STX Entertainment.
Follow Ariel on Twitter @ArielRelaford