Several past, present and future writer, producer or business partners have all been vying for my commitment lately, at a time when my own projects need commitment too. Here’s my personal guide to choosing the perfect partner…
Everything mentioned here has been learned from personal experience. A little of it bitter, but an enormous amount of it quite indeterminate or exasperating, and plenty of it costly in one form or another (time is money, after all; any time you spend unpaid on someone else’s project is time you’re neither earning nor advancing your own projects). If you want to avoid having a huge amount of your time, energy, goodwill, creativity and financial resources wasted, then you should give these some thought. And if you’ve worked with me in the past on creative projects, or would like to in the future, have a look and see how well you would score on my Perfect Partner Index! I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been very open and generous to people’s approaches and goodwill down the years, which has given me lots of interesting experience for the CV but little tangible product, and it’s also left me prey to some serial timewasters. If this article comes across as negative at any points, bear in mind that it’s advice from hindsight, not a guide to what I’d be like to work with!
First of all, it goes without saying (so I’d better say out loud) that whatever project they’re approaching you about should be a knockout, something that you personally believe in and which matches your creative aspirations for the coming phase of your career, and which either the client or you both jointly have the means and the track record to turn into a creatively and commercially successful finished product.
Now, anyone who passes that high bar would probably be hiring you rather than partnering you anyway, so more realistically the acid test is:
Does this project have a better chance of success than what I would have been doing otherwise? Is it something that I can pursue while also fully committing to my own work? Is it adding something to my repertoire that I wouldn’t have achieved anyway?
So with that in mind, here’s my definition of the Perfect Partner, and the Nightmare Partner, to work with:
The Perfect Partner…
- Behaves like a generally rational human being.
- Always delivers some kind of meaningful product (a Proposal document is fine), which gives you some kind of meaningful credit.
- Wants to know where you’re coming from, goes to the trouble of finding out, and respects it even if they disagree or think you don’t know enough about it.
- Values your judgment, your skills and your time – and respects that both of those cost you money one way or another.
- Would never ask for an open-ended commitment, and would always commit to paying you a meaningful amount of money (or a meaningful stake in the project) in return for your contribution.
- Is right, but has the humility not to assume it or demand you simply accept it in spite of your instincts or the (lack of) information they’ve provided.
- Keeps their promises wherever they can, and explains themselves fully whenever they can’t.
- Keeps you informed, whether there’s good news, bad news or (most of all) no news.
- Isn’t afraid to defer to your opinion or give you control over parts of the project.
- Gives you all of the materials, resources and time to do your job properly.
- Still recognises that they’ve got a lot to learn.
The Nightmare Partner…
- Demands 100%, open-ended commitment, to something you don’t even understand and which you have no control over.
- Expects you to know what they mean and take their word for things.
- Doesn’t want to listen to caution, concern, criticism or advice.
- Ignores large parts of what you’ve contributed, without ever properly explaining why.
- Is too effusive in their goodwill, optimism and keenness to have you on board, and probably takes an idealised view of who you are and what you’ll bring to the project. Don’t be flattered, don’t get carried away, and don’t let anyone else’s self-delusions become yours!
- Doesn’t listen to your cautious advice and rushes ahead with things before they’re ready.
- Gets grouchy and aggressive whenever you question them or challenge something, or enthusiastically reassures you that “everything will be fine” without giving any substantiation.
- Leaves lengthy unexplained silences in correspondence, then suddenly gets in touch expecting you to drop everything, with no explanation of the silence or the gaps in your information.
- Would never contact you or anyone else on business or creative matters while drunk, depressed or stoned.
- Asks for money from you to help the project forward.
- Just – doesn’t – get – it.
In this would-be industry everyone expects (or pretends to expect) you to work for free, so set your ground rules immediately. Mine are simple enough:
- Nothing in this industry ever happens as fast as it should (more on this here). Don’t panic about that, embrace it, and always have a fallback. Unless you’ve got at least £3k of savings to fall back on, you really can’t afford to put all our eggs in any one basket without any safety net.
- Only ever be cautiously positive, and always make sure you’re expressing that your goodwill and time are contingent on results and on the partner keeping their promises, such as to keep you informed of how they’re getting on.
- Follow your instincts. Invest your ‘development time’ (ideally 10% of your working hours) in being well-informed and honing those instincts, NOT on doing things for other people.
- I provide an initial consultation for free (for example a phone call or meeting), which is largely unavoidable anyway and gives me enough grounds to decide if I can or want to help this project, and to state how much I would expect to charge. It also gives me a natural cut-off for anything that’s not using my time productively.
- Have a system for giving people feedback on their project for money, so that you establish a viable client relationship from the start and the would-be partner will always go away with some tangible benefit from working with you. I’ve had a lot of strong praise from the many script readings I’ve done, and sometimes that leads to me getting a bigger role on things that are genuinely exciting and right up my street.
- If I’m expected to work for free on someone else’s project, and I’m happy to do so for this project, then I allow a maximum of 20 hours of my time per project or partner or client, per calendar year. Trust me – if they haven’t delivered the goods after using up that much of your time, they’re not going to, however long you give away. I demand joint ownership and decisionmaking power if anything more is to be expected of me – because I can guarantee that if I don’t get to decide for myself how to contribute, a lot of my time (and therefore money) is going to be wasted on an open-ended commitment.
- If you’re offered a “profit share” agreement, it’s unlikely that the project ever will turn a profit – in film, as I once heard writing authority Julian Friedmann say, there never are any profits because the accountants are too good. So a profit share normally isn’t worth the hot air it’s spoken on. So, I insist on a contract – written by me and based on standard industry contracts (available from the relevant unions or Shooting People, for example). If you’re giving away your right to be paid upfront, then in return you should demand right of veto over all executive or financial decisions, and the right to see all of the financial records every year. Make sure those are written into the contract, and that everyone signs up to it. And if you’re the one asking others to give their time and skills for free, write into their contract that even a very modest revenue on the project (say £5,000) obliges you to pay them, regardless of whether that’s ‘profit’ or not. Trust me – no project can claim to have made a ‘profit’ until everyone who contributed professionally to it has already been paid, and contracts claiming the opposite are a con.