Free rewrites, late payments make screenwriters unhappy

Hollywood screenwriters are feeling less affection from the studios, according to a survey of Writers Guild of America screenwriter members.

“Screenwriters believe their status in the industry has significantly deteriorated over the past several years,” the WGA West said in a letter recently sent to members with the survey results.

“The most flagrant studio practices contributing to this decline, ranked in order of frequency, are free rewrites, sweepstakes pitching, late payment, free prewrites and idea theft,” the letter said.

WGA West president Christopher Keyser told members in October that the guild’s board had authorized a Screenwriters Survey/Report Card to provide members with a “detailed picture” of the working conditions of screenwriters, including issues of free rewrites, sweepstakes pitching and late pay, as they vary from studio to studio. The confidential survey was sent Feb. 13 to members who had actively pitched on feature film projects or have been hired to write for features during 2011. Research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz conducted the survey.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers had no comment Tuesday about the survey.

“The guild has become increasingly concerned based on anecdotal evidence from our members about deteriorating conditions in screen employment and the rise of certain practices that harm both screenwriters and the overall quality of films produced,” the WGA West letter said.

The WGA West disclosed earlier this month in its annual report to members that feature film earnings declined 12.6% to $349.1 million in 2011, with an 8.1% fall in the number of writers employed to 1,562.

The report came with the six major studios focusing more of their resources on tentpoles while making fewer mid-budget features. In addition, scripts for independently financed projects are often written outside WGA jurisdiction; four of the 10 Oscar-nommed screenplays this year were produced outside WGA jurisdiction — “The Artist,” “Margin Call,” “A Separation” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” — and thus were ineligible for WGA Awards.

Last year’s feature-film earnings represented a 34% plunge from 2007, when studio stockpiling prior to the 100-day strike (which started Nov. 5, 2007) pumped up guild-covered payments to a record $526.6 million. Total number of writers employed in 2007 was 2,041, 23% higher than the 2011 figure.

A total of 675 members of the WGA West took part in the survey, conducted between Feb. 13 and March 5, along with 68 members of the WGA East.

A total of 72% of respondents said that their experience with major studios had worsened in recent years while 18% said it had stayed the same and 7% said it had improved.

Of the scribes, 70% reported that they had been asked “frequently” for free rewrites by the majors during 2011. The survey also revealed that 48% were frequently asked by the majors to participate in “sweepstakes” pitching or bake-offs.

Additionally, late payments were a frequent problem for 39% of respondents. Pre-writes and idea theft were both identified as frequent problems by 37% of the writers surveyed.

The survey also showed that 54% of respondents were asked by the majors to work before being paid for commencement of writing while that figure was 45% for work for the smaller studios.

And 47% reported that they were asked to do uncompensated rewrites while working for the majors

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