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The 2023 Writers’ Strike focused attention on recent developments such as artificial intelligence and the move to live streaming.
But for film writers, the main issue in the strike has been the ongoing battle for more than a generation: How do you get money for a script once it’s done?
Screenwriters have long been required to do free revisions before handing a “first draft” to the studio, which leads to payment. Usually they will, although the Writers Guild of America contract sets minimum prices for revisions and improvements.
“I have boxes of scripts in my garage, and it’s just draft after draft after draft,” said Emily Fox, the WGA captain who was walking the picket lines last week. “And it was all ‘draft one.’ But it was like first draft A, first draft B. But if they say, ‘You’re not ready to turn it in,’ you don’t turn it in.”
The challenge of going through multiple drafts in order to get paid for a first draft has bedeviled novice writers and screenwriting legends alike, including icons like Robert Towne, William Goldman, John Gregory Dunn and Joan Didion.
“There is no doubt that free rewrites have been going on in Hollywood for a long time, perhaps forever,” the WGA wrote during an arbitration on the issue.
The WGA has been trying to combat “freelancing” in screenwriting since at least the early 1990s. But the simple solution was elusive.
The studios argued that the writers were free to submit their first draft at any time and collect their payment. But the writers fear that if they turn down free revisions based on producer feedback, they could be labeled “difficult” to work with, or removed from the project.
“Normally you have to write at least 20 product drafts to get paid,” said Mark Cullen, veteran screenwriter and series director. “And if you want to make it to the first draft, you’re almost seen as an outcast.”
Union leaders say the problem has gotten worse as producers move away from “multi-step” deals. Traditional script contracts involve a first draft and one or two additional “steps” – rewriting and/or polishing.
But in the late 1990s, the World Writers Association noted the emergence of “one-step” deals, where writers are contracted to do only the first draft. Big-budget projects may go through several writers before getting the go-ahead from a studio, and one-step deals give producers the flexibility to change horses if a writer is clearly not doing well.
On the other hand, writers felt much more pressure to get the job done in a “first draft,” so they were doing revision after revision for free to stay on the project, the writers say.
“Now with these one-step deals, free rewrites are the only way a writer can stay in touch with their script,” said Daniel Petrie Jr., a screenwriter who was president of WGA West at the time. “It is an outrageous abuse.”
Howard Rodman, who wrote “The Joe Gould Secret” and is also a former WGA West president, called one-step deals “a trap and an illusion”.
“You’re doing just as much work for a one-step deal as you are for a two-step deal,” he said. “You just get paid a lot less. As Karl Marx said, “No matter the fluctuations in the price of beef, the sacrifice remains constant for the bull.”
WGA West Vice President Michelle Mulroney described the one-step deal as a “seismic” event that disrupted the traditional back-and-forth screenwriting process.
“It’s a way to save money, and that’s the most damaging thing that’s happened,” she said. “The one-step deal opened the floodgates to rampant abuse of self-employment.”
now, Just under half of scenario deals You only have one foolproof move, according to the guild.
The book says this shift exacerbates the income gap between top-tier players and everyone else.
“If you’re going to be a screenwriter now, that’s a very difficult way to make a living,” says Cullen. “You’ll have a bunch [screenwriters] who will be on the studio list and will get all jobs. You won’t be able to be a middle class writer anymore. They won’t shoot them. Either they pay the writer a lot of money, or they don’t pay him anything.
Film writers represent a minority within the WGA, which consists mostly of television writers. Mulroney said only about 2,000 people make money writing for movies in a given year, and of those, about 600 live a decent life.
The average one-step deal pays $250,000, according to WGA data. But for new writers, the average fee for a single draft is $100,000, just above the union minimum. Usually half of the fee is paid upfront, and the other half upon completion. Delaying a first draft’s acceptance means that writers go longer without getting paid.
“You simply can’t live with that payment when it’s extended,” Mulroney said.
Petrie, whose credits include Beverly Hills Cop and Turner & Hooch, said that when he started out in the 1980s he would do a quick draft for the producers — from the Yiddish term for “buzz” — before the script. It was introduced to the studio. But over time, he said, every writer was expected to do so for free.
“No favor goes unpunished,” he said.
He said the union also had trouble combating the practice because screenwriters had different habits and it was difficult to come to a consensus.
Some eminent writers might say, ‘Oh, I’ll rewrite as much as they want if I like the notes. I will continue to work. “I’m going to pass things back and forth,” Petrie said. “Other writers might say, ‘Don’t make any strings that allow little.’ I don’t do butchics. They get one draft. That’s it.'”
loga She filed her own arbitration claim in 1999, arguing that “self-employment” violated the terms of the minimum basic agreement. But the studios backed out and won, with the arbitrator ruling that it’s standard industry practice to do multiple drafts before a formal submission.
“The evidence shows a clear, long-standing and well-known practice of collaboration, whereby writers provide literature to producers and make revisions based on producers’ feedback without exposing the studio to liability,” the adjudicator wrote.
Petrie said the ruling was “very unfortunate, and I think it’s very unfair”.
In recent rounds of negotiations, the WGA has been looking forward to responding to “one-step” deals. The WGA wants a guaranteed second step for those who make less than 250% of the union minimum, which would cover new writers but not veterans.
The WGA also wants film writers to receive weekly pay. In this scenario, the writer will still receive 50% of their fees up front. But instead of getting the credit when they’re finished, they’ll be paid in weekly installments over the next 10 or 12 weeks.
Mulroney said that if the studios paid the fees on a weekly basis, the producers would have less leverage to demand free revisions. However, she conceded that “there is no silver bullet for freelancing”.
However, the studios don’t give up clout easily. The Motion Picture and Television Producers Alliance, which is bargaining on their behalf, refused the request for weekly pay.
But the latest AMPTP offering includes a foolproof second step, although it only pertains to “native” scenarios, not projects that rely on a pre-existing IP address.
The book says Step Two will mean more money for new writers, but also more freedom to take creative risks.
“That’s how the system used to work,” said Tyler Ruggieri, WGA Team Leader. “There was a development process in which not only was the writer compensated, but there was a better product. The studios were our partners, and we were able to get things to the point where you could greenlight a movie based on several drafts for development.
Cynthia Littleton contributed to this story.
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