Rewriting the rules

WGA battling studios over unpaid rewrites

With little fanfare, the Writers Guild of America has launched an attack on major studios and producers to stop making writers work for free on script rewrites.

With the development process already short-shrifted through rampant cost-cutting, writers — particularly those whose fees have risen to the mid-six figures range but who don’t yet have a proven track record — have increasingly been pressured to deliver drafts at no fee before their official “first” drafts are submitted to the studio.

The guild — and some agents — say that besides depriving scribes of fees to which they’re entitled, the practice constricts creativity as writers strive to produce something that meets shopworn expectations rather than taking creative risks.

Studio execs and producers lay the blame for the problem at each other’s doorsteps, but the guild is pursuing arbitration against both.

Indeed, the union believes the problem has gotten so out of hand that it has taken the unprecedented step of filing arbitration claims on behalf of dozens of writers, often over objections by the scribes themselves.

Process evolves

Move comes amid the spreading industry practice of signing writers to contracts that call for just one draft — a change from decades of industry tradition.

Unlike the usual agreement for a guaranteed treatment, draft and two revisions, with the writer getting paid in increments at each step, the so-called one-step deals promise the writer payment for only the first draft.

Whether the script continues in the development process is entirely up to the studio — increasing the pressure to do rewrites before going to the studio with an official draft.

The WGA, which says it’s positioned itself as “the bad guy,” has made it clear during arbitration hearings that the guild, rather than the individuals, initiated the claims.

“Some of the writers named in the cases are very upset and do not want to be involved,” said Cynthia Saffir, director of legal services for the WGA West. “They don’t want to be exposed. They want us to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish but they don’t want to be at the forefront of the effort.”

The guild typically has over 500 active cases, but the arbitrations rep a significant departure for the WGA in that the guild hasn’t waited for individuals to notify it of potential contract violations.

“The feeling of the board and membership is that the practice of asking a writer to do uncompensated extra work has grown and grown and grown to such an extent that the guild really needs to clamp down,” Saffir said. “We’re finding instances where the writer is paid to do four steps — a first draft, a final draft and two revisions — but delivers more like 10.”

Agents agree that writers they represent — particularly those not on the A-list — find themselves pressured by producers for free rewrites. The typical scenario often involves the writer delivering a draft and being told, “Let me give you a few of my ideas before we actually deliver it to the studio.”

Economic pressure

Why are writers willing to put up with free rewrites?

Grace Reiner, WGA’s director of contract administration, said they often feel they have no choice. “It’s hard to turn down work in this town because it’s such a closed area,” she said. “There are only so many places to sell your material or get work. It’s often enough money where the writer will say, ‘I’ll do the first one and hopefully move to the next level where I don’t have to do this any more.’ ”

What’s driving the practice? Agents contend writers are squeezed by soaring A-list actors’ fees and tightened funding for development.

The spread of the “one-step” deals over the past year makes for a lot of pressure on writers to deliver a bang with the first draft.

“Sometimes the writer needs to experiment and try different angles on a story,” said one agent, who — like other agents contacted, didn’t want to be named for fear of angering the studios.

“With the one-step deal, the writer’s goal is purely to please the studio so that he can get paid for the next draft. Doing something fresh becomes much more frightening. It results in formulaic writing.”

“It’s a bad thing,” Said another agent. “The writing process is just that. It’s a process. It’s not fair to these guys. The circus they go through to get these jobs is bad enough.”

Said the WGA’s Reiner, “There’s more pressure for the producer to say ‘Let’s work on it some more before we hand in our first official draft to the company.’ ”

Development realities

Studio execs, for their part, say the one-step deals simply reflect a recognition that the vast majority of development projects never make it to the screen. “Why should the studio pay for another draft when we can tell from the first draft that it’s simply not going to work?” said one studio development exec.

“Frankly, the less we spend on rewrites of bad scripts, the more we can spend on that little script that seems marginal but has a shot,” the exec said.

The WGA is not disclosing the names of writers, studios or producers named in the claims. None of the cases, each of which typically has been filed on behalf of 10-15 writers, is expected to be completed soon.

“What we’re basically trying to convey to the arbitrator,” Saffir said, “is that there is unequal bargaining power between the two sides. The writer doesn’t feel as if he or she can say no because their career is at risk if they do.”

The WGA launched its investigation last spring with then-president Daniel Petrie Jr. describing the free rewrite problem as “completely out of hand.” Petrie also recalled that the practice dated back several decades.

The arbitrations seek compensation for the free rewrites plus interest. “If you have someone who’s done 12 or 15 unpaid drafts, we’re talking about a substantial amount of money,” Saffir notes.

A matter of stature

Ironically, the WGA began its investigation a few months after writers gained a significant measure of respect with Sony’s stunning agreement to give gross participation deals to 31 top writers. But it’s clearly not that group that’s been affected by the demand for free rewrites.

“The free rewrite problem has become pervasive at the studios at the level of mid-high range,” Reiner said. “The high-range people are still going to get high-range money, but the writers in the $300,000 to $700,000 range — that’s where they’ve been hit. Writers will be hard-pressed to say no because they don’t even know if they have the security of another draft.”

Reiner said the WGA is also concerned about the long-term impact of one-step deals.

“The idea that a system has been put into place to prevent creative interaction is a problem,” she asserted. “A director is hired for the life of the project. The writers being told ‘You get one draft and then we can fire you’ is not really the collaborative medium we’re looking for. A system where you can be dropped at the end of every draft isn’t a system where the best creative product is made.”

The WGA’s efforts may have started to pay off. “What we’re hearing is that the companies are starting to be more careful,” Saffir said.

For the WGA, the bottom line is broader than simply extracting money for the writers. “What we want to accomplish is to change the culture — the expectation that writers can continue to be asked to do uncompensated work,” Saffir said. “You’ve got to pay for what you get.”

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