London grapevine is abuzz with gossip

Far from the WGA picket lines, there’s a place where top-tier screenwriters are, in theory, still free to work on movies backed by the U.S. studios.

It’s called the United Kingdom.

The WGA has no jurisdiction here. But the question worrying producers, agents and studio execs in London is whether local writers can (or should) work on projects involving U.S. partners.

The subject is so delicate that no one will discuss it on the record. Indeed, some would prefer that the subject not be raised publicly at all for fear of drawing the WGA’s attention to the gray area in which the U.K. biz operates.

The Writers Guild of Great Britain has pitched in with its own opinion. “We are contacting the major U.K. broadcasters and producers, and the U.K. Film Council, asking them not to dump U.K. material into the U.S. market and not to dress up American projects to look as though they are British,” said general secretary Bernie Corbett. “Strike-breaking would at best be a short-term payday but would have a devastating long-term effect on a writer’s U.S. career.”

That depends, of course, on the attitude of WGA. As one London-based studio exec said, “It’s still legitimate for us to be working on non-WGA contracts if the writer is rendering services in the U.K. But some people are freaking out that if you cross a picket line, and you are not WGA already, it may affect your ability to join the union in future.”

Brit-based productions are almost always non-WGA — even the biggest ones developed by the U.K. arms of the studios or produced by companies with studio relationships such as Working Title (Universal), DNA Films (Fox), Marv Films (Sony) and Heyday Films (Warner). None is a WGA signatory, and some have their own independent local financing, so technically they shouldn’t be directly affected by the strike, even if they are working on projects written by British members of the WGA.

The London grapevine is abuzz with gossip that marquee American producers have been scouting for non-WGA writers for film or TV projects they would funnel through British production companies. Hollywood’s majors have lodged discreet inquiries with agents and lawyers about the availability of their clients.

“It could be an extraordinary opportunity for British writers to get a shot at big studio projects that they otherwise would never get a shot at,” confided one U.K.-based studio exec.

British agents, however, are counseling caution. “To do nothing, and to be seen to do nothing, is the thing to do,” declared one agent to some of the highest-profile British screenwriters.

In the U.S., it’s clear that WGA members shouldn’t take non-union work. In the U.K., it’s far from clear where to draw the line. A British writer, whether a WGA member or not, is surely free to write a local TV drama for the BBC or Channel 4. But what if that drama is sold to a U.S. network to fill a gap left by strike action? Or what if it’s co-produced by HBO?

Most would think it’s OK to write a British movie for BBC Films or Film4 — but what if the movie is co-financed by Focus or Paramount Vantage, or pre-sold to Buena Vista for U.K. distribution?

Writers currently contracted to a non-union project from a local producer affiliated to a U.S. studio would be in breach if they put their pencils down. But agents are advising clients to be wary about entering any deal, or even taking a meeting, with such companies, even though the projects are legitimately British and non-union.

According to one British agent, the rules are clear that “any non-U.S. citizen can render services on non-WGA projects, as long as those services are provided outside the U.S., even if they are provided to a WGA signatory company.”

But another agent from the same company added, “If it seems that supporting a strike means you have integrity, I don’t know that any writer would want to be seen as a scab.”

It’s unclear how much power the WGA has to punish non-American writers. The guild can refuse to grant full membership with voting rights but can’t deny “financial core” membership status to anyone. Do British writers care if they can’t attend union meetings, so long as they get the financial benefit?

In the end, it’s a matter of conscience for each individual.

As one British agent said, “Maybe English writers haven’t quite got hold of how important this is in Los Angeles. I don’t know if anyone here has quite woken up to what it all means.”

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