As low-budget indie filmmaking thrives, writers find they can put their creative vision on the screen with the protection and coverage of the WGA.
(July 8, 2014)
Howard A. Rodman
It's a robust time for independent filmmaking. Driven by artistic expression, new technologies that permit higher-quality productions and, in some cases, the desire to increase their name recognition within the industry, screenwriters are finding an outlet for their work in low-budget independent films at a time when studios are drawn to tent-pole franchises.
"There's more opportunity than ever for indie filmmakers," says screenwriter and WGAW Vice President Howard A. Rodman, a longtime advocate for independent film and an artistic director for the Sundance Institute Screenwriting Labs. "You can get equipment for one tenth of what it cost 30 years ago and shoot on your phone and edit on your laptop. And the network for supporting independent filmmaking has never been better."
As independent filmmaking has evolved, so have the WGA's protections for covering these films. Prior to 2002, screenwriters who worked on independent films were often greatly challenged when it came to getting their writing deals in line with standard MBA terms. Today, independent films can more easily be WGA covered, and under the Guild’s recently revised Low Budget Agreement for theatrical narrative films and Documentary Screenplay Contract for theatrical documentaries budgeted at or below $1.2 million, writers have additional options for reduced upfront payments or newly defined fee deferments, which are often needed to get a low-budget film made. The revised agreements now also cover works-for-hire as well as spec scripts. (see related story on the benefits of WGA coverage).
Over the past few years, an increasing number of critically acclaimed independent films have been released that reflect an uncompromised artistic vision and have also been made with WGA benefits and protections. And while some indie filmmakers eschew the idea of bringing any outside organization into their production, more screenwriters today regard WGA coverage as essential to ensure that they have sustainable writing careers. Observes Los Angeles Film Festival director Stephanie Allain of today's independent filmmakers. "Everyone wants to be in the Guild."
“Without the Guild, my situation could have devolved into a lawsuit,” says screenwriter Roberto Patino, who hit a snag over an unfounded claim for a "Story by" credit on his film, Cut Bank, which premiered last month at the Los Angeles Film Festival. "The Guild's provisions protected me... Going about writing independent films without any sort of coverage exposes you to a whole world of potential pain."
Because independent filmmaking is still regarded somewhat as a frontier where producers often attempt to low-ball writers, the WGA's presence is tantamount to having the sheriff on your side to watch your back, not only while the screenplay is being drafted but also in the distribution phase. Screenwriter/actor/director Todd Berger says he went union across the board (WGA, DGA, SAG-AFTRA and IATSE) in making both The Scenesters and It’s a Disaster because he felt it would guarantee “the best people working for me.”
"When I did my first feature, my producers and line producer said “Look, if you go union you will have a lot better chance of your movie being made and finished because you’re dealing with professionals,’” says Berger. “The Guild checked in on me to make sure everything was going as it should and that I was paid what I was supposed to be paid later for the script publication fee. They look after you even after the movie is made, whenever it's released and distributed."
Five Reasons to Make Sure Your Low-Budget Indie is WGA-Covered