Scribe Perk Predicament

Fledgling screenwriter Jodi Johnson recently put her spec script “Joyce’s Ashes” on the market, but she’s already surprised by the process.

If a sale is made, it does not automatically bring her health and retirement benefits.

“I just assumed it would be covered, ” she said.

While spec writers nab headlines, some WGAW members say it’s time that they also get their due when it comes to reaping the union’s rewards.

Because spec scripts are written on a freelance basis, the scribes are not considered employees, and studios are not required to pay into the writers’ health and pension plan, even though writers give up their copyright.

“We certainly have a mandate to do more for them, ” says WGAW President Brad Radnitz. “To be frank, there are more and more voices among writers of spec material, and there is a concern that the guild does not do enough for them.”

Attention on these writers not only has been boosted by their expanding ranks, but the recent IRS audit of the entertainment business, which targeted freelancers and independent contractors.

But it is tough for the guild to address workplace issues when many writers work out of their homes, a change from the days when screenwriters toiled before typewriters as studio staffers with bungalow offices.

One impediment to change is the sense among many guild members that there’s no need for sympathy for spec writers who might make seven-plus figures on a sale.

Says one longtime writer: “There has been an elitist attitude of, ‘Well, these people make a lot of money, big deal.’ Yes, someone gets more in a spec sale; then again, it is an effort that can take years of their time. They took a gamble, and should be rewarded for it.”

“We love reading about the million-dollar sales, but you also read about the low-six-figure sales against the low backend, ” says WGAW board member Jim Staahl. “It would be great to know, ‘I sold my dream, my baby script, and now I have my nest egg.’ But that’s not the case.”

With each sale of a spec script, or an option on a script, no money is contributed to the guild’s pension and health benefit plans, and then passed on to the writer.

Staahl championed the health and benefits situation as a campaign platform in the guild’s September elections; he got wind of it last year when he sold an option to a TV script and noticed no money was being contributed to his pension plan.

“There are writers who are surprised: ‘I sold that script, I’ll get vested,’ ” Staahl says. “But they look and they look and they look at their quarterly statements, and they found out there is a little crack that they fell into that is not covered.”

Many spec writers do rewrites of their scripts, earning staff spots and benefits. Producers are required to give writers first crack at rewriting their scripts, but the option is not always exercised, Staahl says.

“They become employees when they do a rewrite, but it’s a lot less than the overall amount made by the writers, ” Radnitz says.

While the situation may seem like minutia, some guild members worry that spec writers will come to see the guild as taking their dues, but giving little back.

They could bargain with producers, but it is federal law that classifies spec writers as freelancers.

‘The other approach is to go to Washington (and try and change work laws), ” Staahl says.

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