A guy emailed me last night, looking for a cartoonist to create characters and storyboard some pilot episodes for a TV show that he wants to pitch to a network. I told him I had no interest in working in television and he suggested that I might pass along the info to The Center for Cartoon Studies alumni, via the CCS message board. Payment would be "a partnership percentage in the production company." I told him this was spec work and I could not post it, which he did not understand. Below is the email response which I sent him. I get offers like this every once in a while, and the school gets them all the time, so I thought I would publicly post my response, with the hopes of cutting down on these types of unwanted and insulting offers.
Hi [name removed],
Movies, TV and Mainstream Publishing are all "hit" based industries, meaning that about 1-10% of the content created is actually profitable. This means that as an artist, there is a 90-99% chance that projects in these industries will NOT be profitable. Therefore, work in these industries that does not pay up front is referred to as "spec" work (short for "speculation" or "speculate verb - invest in stocks, property, or other ventures in the hope of gain but with the risk of loss").
Why should a freelance artist absorb the risk for YOUR concept? Whether or not your idea is going to be successful is YOUR gamble, not ours. If you want talented people to develop good ideas (and increase your chances to be in the 1-10% of profitable content) you should pay your creators. Even if the contract is "work for hire" (meaning the creators do not retain any of copyrights for the characters they create), they need to be compensated for their time and the expertise which they are providing. You can find fair rates in the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook - Pricing and Ethical Guidelines.
In short, most freelancers (including all of our alumni) are highly trained individuals, who have bills to pay every month. We can not spend our time working for free, with the hope that someday our efforts will pay off, especially with those odds. If YOU are taking a chance to produce YOUR idea, then YOU need to raise money to pay talented people to generate great content. Then if YOUR idea is successful, YOU will reap the rewards.
I hope for your sake, that your idea is in the upper 1% and that you enjoy success with your endeavor. I would be very happy to look back on this email in ten years and say, "Darn! I could have worked on that great project!" But here, right now, with bills to pay and only 24 hours in each day with which to work, I can not afford to work on spec projects, and it is a CCS policy to not pass on such projects to our students.
Best of luck with your TV show,
If anyone is still confused, you can check out the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Artists) page on spec work.