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Writers Guild Takes Aim at Screenwriting Abuses in Contract Campaign

Amping up its campaign for a strike authorization from members, leaders of the Writers Guild of America have blasted Hollywood studios for short-changing screenwriters.

In a missive posted Monday on the WGA websites, the guild lashed out at employers for instituting unfair practices amid shrinking development funding in an essay titled “What Happened to the Screen Business?”

“Employment of screenwriters has been at lower levels in recent years than in previous periods,” the essay began. “Tight spending policies adopted by the studios have driven some of the worst abuses to high levels. Free rewrites, pre-writes, roundtables, sweepstakes pitching and late payments are all symptoms of the studios starving the film industry of development funding.”

The essay came three days after the guild agreed to restart contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on April 10. Tension has been rising between the sides since they ended two weeks of talks on March 23 and the guild initiated a strike authorization vote among members. The current Minimum Basic Agreement expires May 1.

“Our objective continues to be to reach an agreement with the WGA at the bargaining table,” the AMPTP said in response. “We hope the Guild will engage with us on the issues in that forum when negotiations resume on April 10th.”

When talks broke down, the WGA told members that the AMPTP’s contract offer was insufficient to address the strains on working writers and the shortfall of its health plan. Most of the guild’s efforts toward rallying its 12,000 members — and swaying public opinion — has focused on the perceived inequities in TV writing, where a contraction from the traditional 22-episode season, has put the squeeze on writers amid $51 billion in annual profits generated by the six major entertainment conglomerates.

Monday’s missive made the case that studios are also squeezing screenwriters.

“Among the several evils spawned by the contraction of development is the one-step deal,” the guild said. “Traditionally, script deals include a first draft, rewrite and polish. To spread a smaller development budget across more projects, the practice has emerged to give writers only one shot at getting a script right. This is, of course, antithetical to the task of uniting the imagined films of writer and studio into one concrete script; that task takes several drafts, at least. It is also antithetical to a writer’s development as a writer. Writing, the aphorism goes, is rewriting.”

The essay said that pay for screenwriters, as calculated by the guild based on pension and health contributions, declined between 2000 when pay was $392.7 million, compared with $383.8 million in 2015. It cited the decline in DVD revenues, the rise of tent pole and franchise films and the choice by the studios to release fewer films — and asserted that screen employment continues to exist as a two-tier industry – those writing big studio films and those writing everything else.

“The worst offenses – pre-writes, free rewrites, sweepstakes pitching, screen writing rooms, and, one-step deals – are often exploitative at all income levels, but they are especially pernicious at lower levels of compensation,” the WGA said. “Many of these are enforcement issues, as free writing is already outlawed by the guild’s MBA. One-step deals are currently permitted by our contract. Curtailing these is a goal in the current negotiation.”

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