“Writing Partner vs. Ghostwriter” – Written by Barb Doyon

Have you ever considered working with a writing partner? Did you know ghostwriters are used daily in the industry by directors, producers, actors and writers? Did you know that using a writing partner can sink your career as a screenwriter? Did you know a ghostwriter cost less than a writing partner?

Have I ever had a writing partner? Yes. Would I do it again? No. There are successful writing partners in town, like the Cohen brothers, but they’re related. First, writers collaborate with a partner for a number of reasons; share time/work to get a screenplay finished faster, the other writer is good at dialogue, characters, plot or scenes or maybe the writer just likes working with someone rather than writing alone. This sounds good and the writing part usually goes smooth. It’s what I like to call the ‘honeymoon period’. The problem arises when it comes time to market and sell the script. I’ll get right to the point; stick $100K or more in your writing partner’s face and watch the down-to-earth writing partner you’ve known for years turn into a green-eyed monster. Case in point: I know a female writer who collaborated with a male writer and completed an ace script. An A-list actor, who has his own production company, called the writing team in for a meeting. This wasn’t just a meet-n-greet meeting, the actor made an offer of $180K for the script, which he planned to film as a low-medium budget movie. The female writer was thrilled and accepted the offer, but her male partner realized he’d have to split the $180K with her and he wanted more money. In fact, he wanted $1million for the script. No, I’m not kidding! The actor (who in this case is technically the producer since he’s buying the script for his company to produce and for him to star in) refused the counter offer of $1mil. The male writer said, “Okay, then I’ll take $180K, but I want to direct”. This guy’s directing experience involved shooting home videos of his kid’s birthday parties. Did he seriously think he was qualified to direct an A-list actor? Anyhow, the deal fell through and to this day the female writer can’t sell the script because of the male writer’s unrealistic expectations. The partner was a guy she previously considered to be a nice, level-headed fellow. And, her reputation suffered for it because word got around that she was difficult to work with. She wasn’t, but when you’re working with a partner, the two of you are seen as one entity. 

I don’t care how nice or level-headed your writing partner might seem or how many years you’ve known this person, MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING! Even if you have it in writing that you make the marketing decisions, the WGA won’t recognize this agreement because it falls outside union regs and you’ll still have to get the other writer to agree to everything. Plus, let’s face it; you have to split half of everything with this person. At $180K, that’s $90K you lost, plus half the profits. Is there another option? Yes, use a ghostwriter.

If you think ghostwriters are only for books, then you don’t know how the biz works. A few weeks ago, a director called me to touch-up dialogue on a sequence before he started filming. He paid handsomely for my work, but I was hired as a ghostwriter. This means no credit, just the money. Why do industry folks do this? Often, producers or directors don’t want to step on the toes of established writers, so they’ll call in a ghostwriter to fix the script to their liking. Why do ghostwriters take a non-credit gig? It’s because they’re paid lots of money to keep quiet and they get to do what they love; write. Actors often have a favorite writer who’ll come in and rewrite sections of a script for their type of character – I can name a least a dozen A-list actors who routinely use ghostwriters. Same goes for producers, etc. Even A-list writers do it! Ironically, even writing partners do it – remember “Good Will Hunting” that was written by Ben Affleck and Matt Hamon (plus a ghostwriter). 

Why would a writer use a ghostwriter? If they can’t write it themselves, should they even be in this biz? Writers use ghostwriters for a number of reasons; the writer’s stuck on plot/execution and needs a fresh perspective, dialogue needs beefed up, writer doesn’t have time to finish the project or writer wants the script polished, maybe the writer is weak in a specific genre or the script’s been sitting in a drawer unfinished for years. And the biggest reason is simple; it’s cheaper than using a writing partner and there’s no risk of ruining your reputation in the biz because you’re the only writer credited. 

What is the cost comparison? As noted above, a writer would split $180K with a writing partner at $90K each, plus 50/50 on the profits. Let’s say the writer hires a ghostwriter instead. The average cost for a ghostwriter is between $500-$5K. Let’s say the writer pays $3K for the ghostwriter. When the screenplay sells the writer gets to keep $180K! Would you rather pay out $90K or $3K? I won’t even discuss what you’d lose on profits. 

Working with a writing partner might seem like a good idea that doesn’t cost you anything up front, but in the long run it can cost the writer hundreds of thousands of dollars and even the writer’s reputation if the partner goes rogue. My advice is simple; hire a ghostwriter! Then you’ll know you have an ace, polished script and you’ll retain sole credit, sale monies and all profits!