Independent Films
The WGA’s new Low Budget Agreement for narrative films and Documentary Screenplay Contract for theatrical docs budgeted up to $1.2 million offer writers expanded payment options and Guild protections and benefits.  

(December 3, 2013) 

In recognition of the dramatic economic, technological and creative shifts in low-budget independent filmmaking in recent years, the Writers Guild is introducing a new Low Budget Agreement for theatrical narrative films and new Documentary Screenplay Contract terms for theatrical documentaries budgeted at $1.2 million and below. These revised agreements not only offer writers a number of options for reduced upfront payments or newly defined fee deferments – which oftentimes are needed to get low-budget indie films made - but cover works for hire as well as spec scripts.

“Many film budgets are lowering due to advances in technology and the changing nature of ‘entrepreneurial’ filmmaking,” says WGAW Independent Film Executive Kay Wolf, who helped draft the agreements. “The new agreements will offer writers hired to write a screenplay, or those selling one, increased opportunities to secure a Writers Guild deal in the theatrical market.”

The new narrative agreement comes eleven years after the WGA introduced the first Low Budget Agreement in 2002 to secure rights and benefits for writers selling screenplays for lower budget films. That agreement was followed by the Documentary Screenplay Contract in 2006.

The Guild began evaluating the need to revise the Low Budget Agreement in response to changes in the business, including a decline in the cost of making movies due to new technologies. Films that used to cost $2 million, for example, can now be made for below $200,000, while retaining their technical quality. The number of low-budget domestic releases has also risen dramatically, almost doubling between 2007 and 2011 in the $500,000 and below budget range, while the number of films made in the $2.5 - $5M range fell 49%.

With the new agreements, writers can experiment creatively with smaller films under the aegis of the Writers Guild while still keeping their credits up to date – important in a “what have you done lately?” industry. This, in turn, typically leads to other employment.

“We wanted to offer writers of indie films the same protections and coverage that Guild writers have, and we wanted writers who are already in the Guild to be able to do a project that they felt really passionate about,” says WGAW Vice President Howard A. Rodman, who is Chairman of the Guild’s Independent Film Writers Steering Committee. “We’re trying to get writers paid for work. We also want them to be able to defer that payment when everyone is working in a ‘let’s build a treehouse’ environment. And we want to provide protection to an increasing number of our members who are writing, filming with their own cell phones and editing on laptops.”

The most significant changes in the new narrative Low Budget Agreement are that it:

  • covers works-for-hire and spec screenplay sales. The former agreement covered only spec screenplays.
  • allows writers in the below $200,000 and $200,000 - $499,999 categories to choose between a lower work-for-hire or spec sale payment and no $5,000 script publication fee or a new deferred payment definition which includes the script publication fee. The $500,000 - $1.2 million category is unchanged but, similarly to the other budget levels, allows for a more flexible deferred payment for spec sales.
  • allows deferments to be paid on terms that are “most favored nations” with the person who performs directing services.
  • extends the requirement that the first writer must give permission for subsequent writers to be hired. This policy formerly had applied only to original spec sales.
  • gives members a way to experiment creatively within the low-budget filmmaking arena and keep their work history current.

For theatrical documentaries, the Documentary Screenplay Contract continues to allow employment and screenplay sales at various budget levels with a change to the deferred payments now being “most favored nations” with the person who performs directing services.

The budget levels in both new WGA agreements are also designed to align more closely to SAG/AFTRA and DGA’s provisions in low-budget films. “Ideally, what we would like is for those people making independent films to utilize all union talent,” says Rodman.

The agreements will remain in place for two years, at which time they will be evaluated for possible revision or extension.

Learn more about the WGA’s Low Budget Agreement and Documentary Screenplay Contract; if you have questions call the WGAW Independent Film line: 323-782-4731 or email Indie.