WGA Screenwriters
In meetings with studio chiefs and executives, the Guild presents data from the 2011 Screenwriter Survey to take aim at prewrites, rewrites, late pay and other flagrant practices.   

(June 6, 2013) 

The WGA’s 2011 Screenwriter Survey, based on feedback from almost 800 writers, quantitatively confirmed what screenwriters have been anecdotally reporting for several years: increased pressure on them by Hollywood studios to produce more for less with free rewrites and prewrites, one-step deals, sweepstakes pitching and late pay.

In an effort to curtail these practices, Guild officers, Board members and prominent screenwriters have been meeting in more casual settings with studio chiefs and top executives over the last six months to let them know how their studios rated on the survey and to talk about working together to address some of these issues.

“Labor-management negotiations can be weighty and cumbersome with everyone bringing lawyers and preconditions to the table,” explains WGAW Vice President Howard A. Rodman. “The CPSW conversations are more intimate, giving us an opportunity to find common ground without the obligatory head-butting. Our hope was that if the setting were informal and the discussions candid, we could help bring studios to the understanding that their practices aren’t just writer-unfriendly, they are also profoundly movie-unfriendly.”

Under the aegis of the Guild’s auspiciously-named Committee on the Professional Status of Writers (CPSW), the meetings have yielded some interesting results. “The response has been much more open minded than I expected,” says Damon Lindelof (World War Z). “I thought this was going to be a bunch of writers sitting across from executives, that we would scream and they would nod and smile and give us free coffee. But in both meetings I attended we engaged in real conversation lasting a couple of hours.”

Although studio chiefs and screenwriters typically disagree on a number of issues, it is, in part, the shared love of movies that the Guild is hoping will lead to détente on some of the practices that are taking a serious toll on screenwriters. The 2011 survey, which was released last year, documented an egregious pattern of professional abuse that varied among studios in severity and frequency. The main offense on the part of some studios was late payment. At other studios, screenwriters reported as many as 12 to 15 writers being brought in, two or three times each, for meetings for the same job without ever being told if they had a serious shot. “Writers put in sweat equity for no good reason, and sometimes no one ends up getting the job,” says Board member Billy Ray (Hunger Games).

The economic toll on screenwriters can be severe. As Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part III), pointed out to one studio chief, a screenwriting team may be hired to split $200,000 to deliver a one-step screenplay, but each writer’s $100,000 quickly turns to less than $50,000 after representatives and taxes are figured in. When the producer demands additional drafts, sometimes stretching that single step to multiple steps written over the course of a year or longer, the effective salary for those screenwriters is far below what the market value ought to be.” At those prices, says Mazin, the profession is endangered. “Will bright young creative people commit to screenwriting when they have other options available? This should be of great concern to studios.”

But these practices also have a deleterious effect on the movies that are made. Films that have been cobbled together from the collective ideas of many writers lack a singular creative vision. “It’s also potentially dangerous to the studio because at some point they are going to want to produce a movie using an idea they didn’t pay for and will get sued,” says Ray.

Overall, the get-togethers with studio executives seek common ground that will improve moviemaking in general. “We try to talk to them about what will make everyone’s job better, not just ours,” Ray continues. “We tell them that we apply a simple litmus test to each issue - that the issue is bad for writers and also bad for movies and something we need to work on together.” As screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) says, having the survey data on hand gives the Guild an opportunity to address these issues in a more “surgical way,” singling out studios for their particular offenses rather than vague across-the-board allegations. “We have so much information to work with, and information is power.”

The Guild is hoping that these meetings address areas of particular concern at each studio and encourage change. The 2013 Screenwriter Survey, to be released next year, will be a follow-up report card of sorts for studios, which is why participation by screenwriters is so important. “Last year we had a very good response rate and we’d like to do even better next year,” says WGAW President Chris Keyser. “The more writers respond, the more accurate a picture we get of what is really going on. Only in the details can we see where the studios are falling short and how they compare. When you go to a studio executive with statistically significant data from enough writers that have responded we can give them a clear picture.”

 

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