Get It In Writing

We’ve all heard this and it’s a smart business practice we all know. But do we live by it? In the sometimes casual world of creativity it can be hard to see that line between friends playing in the creative sandbox together and a professional situation creating for pay. Working with friends could be the best or worst thing you ever do.

One of the biggest recent lessons for me (that I should have already known) is to get everything in writing. Having a clear set of expectations on both sides is key to getting good work done and preserving friendships.

We recently worked with a client and friend who had wonderfully grandiose ideas about a huge project with many different elements and aspects. This artist is ridiculously talented and endlessly creative. The project would stretch my partner and I creatively and that was exciting. It would be an epic undertaking and we were thrilled to be involved.

The first phase was an off-the-cuff “let’s see what we get” situation. Because we’re good at what we do, we got great footage, stunning visuals and some really special moments. Great, right? Well, yes. But now the client assumed that no prep was ever needed. Story boards and location scouting were superfluous expenses and we were being silly by adding them to our budgets.

Still, as this talented artist painted the picture of the larger project, we were infected by their enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to be involved. So we did all that prep off the books because we knew it was key to a great and client-pleasing outcome.

I also started researching agreements. This was beyond anything we’d done. With the help of a lawyer, I came up with a deal memo that clearly defined our scope of work, credits and pay schedule. The client just sort of never had time to look at it.

And that’s where my mistake was. We worked with them anyway. With no signed contract we had no safety net. When I casually mentioned how much I was enjoying directing the project, the client shut me down: “No, I’m the director, it was my idea.” I was actually dumbstruck but managed to stop myself from saying “that’s not how that works.” I finally did point out “we’re the ones who came up with the story from your idea, decided what visuals would best convey it, told the cameras what to capture and when to roll, told the actors what to do… that’s directing.” That didn’t matter.

As creative industries people hungry for opportunities, we want to say yes to any chance to do something interesting that will gain us credibility and credits. You have to hand it to our kind’s inherent willingness to jump in. But that can sometimes get us in trouble. In this case, some of our best work ended up un-credited and attributed to others. A painful lesson not only in getting it in writing, but also in standing your ground when you don’t.

So lesson learned. There will be clearly understood deal memos, agreed upon budgets, and signed contracts before any work in our future. Jumping in and sharing your creative spark is a good thing. So is protecting yourself and the integrity of your work.

About heidihornbacher

A graduate of UCLA’s screenwriting program, Heidi has written numerous features, treatments, and TV pilots for various independent producers. She’s judged for the Slamdance Film Festival screenwriting contest and co-founded the Slamdance Script Clinic. She and her husband founded PageCraft Writing in 2008 offering script coaching and writing retreats in LA and Italy. Her clients have gone on to find representation, win contests, and become working writers. Heidi has written, directed, and produced numerous commercials, music videos, and electronic press kits for various artists. She’s currently making a documentary film about British artist Paul Whitehead.
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