Picketers face uphill battle even after strike ends

Although scribes are poised to make breakthrough new-media gains in the new WGA contract agreement, they have endured setbacks in virtually every area except new media in the past decade.

In terms of respect, money and power, writers of feature films feel exploited in ways that were unthinkable 10 years ago. Residuals in new technology have been a sore point for decades, so that was the rallying cry in these negotiations (“Don’t let them screw us on new media like they did on homevideo!”) and the companies’ concessions were a significant step.

But while these gains were made, the top priorities of previous contract talks, like creative rights, have slowly been undercut. Writers Guild of America leaders clearly made a decision to pick their battles this time around — and for sure, squeezing coin out of the majors for Internet exploitation of movies and TV shows proved a doozy of a fight — but given the limited profit potential of paid downloads and Web streaming during the next three years, it’s fair to ask the question if the WGA picked the right battle for the moment.

Among the oft-heard writer laments:

  •  Studios frequently stage “bake-offs,” calling in up to 10 writers for a single rewrite job. Each writer offers his or her take on the property, meaning extensive fleshing out of the material — for free.

  •  It takes longer than ever to land a studio writing assignment. One scribe noted that it took nine months from the studio’s initial call offering the project until the job came through.

  •  There is now an unwritten rule that writers will provide free rewrites and polishes on their own material, particularly what is known as a “producer’s pass.” That flies in the face of the WGA’s 2004 basic agreement, which pegs the rewrite minimum at $18,538 and the polish minimum at $9,274.

  •  Pitching has become more arduous than ever. Studios increasingly require more detailed information on plot twists, leaving writers feeling suspicious that their ideas are being stolen.

Veteran TV/film scribe Jim Kouf likens the treatment of writers to that of “migrant workers” and finds that times have changed dramatically over the past few years.

“There are very few businesses that treat the people who provide their product as migrant workers,” says Kouf, whose recent credits include the box office hit “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” “We come in when they need us, and then they want us to go away.”

Kouf notes that as recently as the early 1990s, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg maintained a stable of staff writers at Disney. Nowadays, contract writers are expected to get it right on the first draft or be replaced by someone else.

“There (once) was a camaraderie and an environment where you could just walk down the hall and talk to other creative people,” adds Kouf, who had an overall deal with Disney for more than a decade and worked with Eisner and Katzenberg at Paramount before that.

“Those days are gone. … Creative executives also seem to have forgotten how to work with writers. You used to work back and forth with them on a story, and then you’d work back and forth on the script, and when you were done you’d really have something good.”

Bruce Feirstein, a screenwriter and contributing editor at Vanity Fair, says Hollywood’s new paradigm means providing a great deal of free work. Those most at risk are midlevel writers, who have little recourse.

“You have to be realistic. If there are only seven places to sell, and if an exec asks you for free rewrites, you’re going to do it,” says Feirstein, whose credits include “The World Is Not Enough” and “Tomorrow Never Dies.” “You can’t afford to get frozen out by one (of the seven buyers).”

Since penning three James Bond films in the mid- to late-1990s, Feirstein has toiled in the often frustrating world of studio rewrites. In recent years, he has witnessed the increasing hardships that writers are subjected to.

“I gladly did four free rewrites on a recent studio project,” he says. “At one point, the executive disappeared for a month and personally rewrote it. This breaks every WGA working rule. My agent agreed that there was nothing we could do. The dynamic here was that we both knew I had to play along. My agent wasn’t going to risk his own relationship with the studio or any of his other clients’ relationships by complaining. Going to the WGA wasn’t even in the equation. You play nice.”

Playing nice, according to the unwritten code of conduct, includes a producer’s pass, which is an expected courtesy, and a week’s worth of tweaks, performed gratis.

Lit reps contend that the new writer-studio dynamic has left most of their clients in a precarious position, especially when vying for studio assignments that they have little chance of landing.

“What’s really hard for the writers is they are really digging deep and coming up with some great stuff,” says an Endeavor agent, who estimates there are 10-20 writers auditioning for the same gig. “And they just have to serve it up. Then you get the call from the writer two years later when the movie comes out, and he or she says, ‘That was my idea.’ So the studio gets to hear all the great ideas, collect them and then process them through their favorite writer.”

To counter that, reps tend to protect their scribes by concentrating on the spec sale or package the great pitch with talent attached.

“(We) focus on something we can control because we have so little control when it comes to pitching out on assignment,” the Endeavor agent says.

Otherwise, writers chasing what is known as OWA work — open writing assignments — face stiffer competition and inevitably prepare extensively for a gig they won’t likely land. Writers complain that securing a book adaptation gig, a once-straightforward prospect, now requires a near-finished draft.

Even top-grossing scripters are feeling the changes. In the past few years, three groups of scribes have created co-ops, with the goal of making them first-dollar gross participants, while avoiding the usual overhead and pressure to generate projects.

An ironic byproduct of the strike is that it halted the momentum of the co-ops, whose rosters include numerous scribes who were very vocal during the walkout.

The town’s top writers can still earn big money in rewrites, with studios shelling out $300,000 a week for a star scribe, especially when a film is nearing its production date. But rewriting commands zero compensation for the vast majority of writers. Manager-producer JC Spink says freebie rewrites are commonplace for most scribes, but it represents the lesser of two evils.

“It’s done a lot. It’s frustrating, but I think some alternatives are worse,” he says, citing the prospect of losing writer credit as even less palatable. “If you’re a writer and you know that if you don’t play ball, you’ll be replaced, a lot of people will play ball. Unfortunately that system is in place.”

(Cynthia Littleton, Dave McNary and Anne Thompson contributed to this report.)

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