Screenwriters dancing the one-step

Producers, studios get a pass on script rewrite fees

Rewrite gigs are a gold mine for the top tier of scribes, but for many other writers, a twist on an old motto rings true: Will work for free.

For writers who have sold a script or landed an assignment, studios have gone from making deals that included a traditional first draft, two sets of revisions and a polish to what are called “one-step” deals. It’s essentially payment for that first draft, with fees for additional work left to be determined.

In a landscape of waning producing deals and fewer pictures in the pipeline, writers say it’s become especially difficult to insist on getting paid for rewrites — even if they end up doing more than a dozen drafts. Their fear: not getting a next assignment.

“Jobs have become so few and far between that writers are willing to keep on writing until they’ve gotten it to the finish line,” says one manager, who, like many, declined to be identified for fear of antagonizing studio execs. “When a writer really wants to be the writer on a project, they’re willing to take a lot of abuse. One of mine did 70 different rewrites on a franchise film.”

One veteran writer says it’s commonly accepted that scibes do seven drafts but get paid for two or three.

“The way you know is when they say something like, ‘As you can see, we want a lot done,’?” he notes. “They know that you wind up making the equivalent of your fees in residuals, so it’s in your interest to get it done.

“If you’re like most of us, you don’t know when your next check is coming.”

The problem is nothing new. The Writers Guild of America tried to address the issue in the 1990s, when times were more robust, but it couldn’t curb the practice.

While there has always been some leeway for a certain level of free rewriting and polishing, Daniel Petrie Jr., former president of the Writers Guild of America West, believes the problem has worsened.

“When I came up in the business, there was an understanding of what producers would feel was appropriate to ask of writers in terms of a courtesy pass that would take a reasonable amount of time. But that’s all gone out the window,” says Petrie, whose credits include “Beverly Hills Cop” and “The Big Easy.”

Younger and less experienced writers are more susceptible, particularly on projects with multiple producers.

One scribe, who’s been on the staff of two TV series and has a feature going into production this month, said she felt like a “rented mule” on her first gig. “There were 13 rewrites because the producers didn’t know what they wanted,” she recalls. “I was killing myself, and my agent finally demanded that I stop.”

The bottom line is that with studios making fewer movies and cutting back on producing deals, even writers with a proven track record are having to work on spec and generate their own work.

“What used to happen is that once you sold a script to a studio, you’d then have enough heat to be able to book open writing assignments for a year,” one manager recalls. “Those gigs are much less available, and they tend to be for material that they’ve already invested in rather than new development.”

Guild leaders don’t have much to say nowadays about free rewrites. The issue is not mentioned on the WGA’s website, other than a cursory general instruction in its contract enforcement section to contact the guild’s legal department if a signatory pays late or fails to pay; WGA West president John Wells cited the approaching contract negotiations with the congloms as a reason for not commenting.

But free rewrites were once a huge issue. Leaders complained loudly about members being victimized by what they described as the widespread practice of delivering multiple drafts at no fee before their official “first” drafts were submitted to the studio.

During the 1990s, the WGA included contract proposals spelling out compensation and rules for “producer passes,” but got nowhere as Nick Counter, the late president of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, responded that there didn’t need to be written rules; writers should “just say no” to free rewrites.

In 1994, the WGA persuaded the companies to identify in a scribe’s deal memo the person authorized to request rewrites, but that didn’t solve the problem in the guild’s eyes. In a 1997 survey, the WGA found that two-thirds of respondents had been asked to perform free rewrites; 85% said it was a priority issue.

While Petrie was WGA West president in 1999, he said in a member newsletter that free rewrites had evolved from members doing a “favor” for producers into a scenario in which writers became expected to work for free.

So the WGA filed arbitration claims in 1999 on behalf of writers, covering 42 projects, alleging that the studios had violated the basic agreement on such scripts as “Practical Magic,” “Heart N Soul,” “Varsity Blues” and “Black Dog.” The idea was to make the WGA, rather than individual writers, the “bad guy” in the dispute.

But the arbitrator rejected the grievance after 35 days of hearings, noting that studios were not liable for the behavior of producers, who are usually a writer’s point of contact yet aren’t signatories to the minimum basic agreement. The studios are. Arbitrator Anita Christine Knowlton issued a ruling in March 2004 that sided entirely with the studios, noting that the process is highly individualized and echoing the admonishment from Counter at the bargaining table: Writers can “just say no.”

Six years later, Petrie still believes Knowlton erred in her ruling and made the situation worse — particularly given the combination of tightened development spending and individual writers not wanting to get bad reputations by refusing to do more work for free.

“I think she misunderstood how the business works,” he says. “It’s a very difficult issue because everyone’s work process is different, so it’s very hard to find a bright line rule and have an enforcement mechanism.”

Marshall Herskovitz, president of the Producers Guild of America, laments the prevalence of studios opting to pay writers via “one-step” deals rather than multistep arrangements.

“It’s a reflection of the studios feeling like they aren’t getting enough for what they paid for,” he says. “The studios tend to view that money as wasted development rather than the price that they have to pay for getting the really amazing stories into production. There’s so little development going on that I’d rather see someone at least get hired, even if it is for only one step, because the whole process forces writers to work on spec, which is what the studios want.”

Another reason writers keep writing for free stems from the sheer volume of competition: There are more than 80,000 submissions annually to the WGA West’s intellectual property registry.

And one veteran scribe says the notion that a writer will “just say no” to a free rewrite is naive at best.

“If you’ve worked with a particular producer three or four times, you’re going to figure out a way to do it because you want to keep working,” he says. “Ultimately, it gets down to an argument over what’s a polish and what’s a rewrite and how many producers passes are there, so if you’re not concerned with getting rehired, you say, ‘Talk to my agent.’

“I’ve never done that. I’ve prided myself as a guy who gets it to the finish line.”

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