Thursday, August 10, 2023

Media and AI: "A layman's guide to understanding writer deals, and why writers are on strike"

From George MF Washington at The Continental Congress substack, August 4:

And the Strike Dragged On...
There’s an old Hollywood saying that goes like this: Everyone has two businesses, Show Business and their own.

In that spirit, I note that lately there has been a lot of chatter on my social media feeds about the ongoing WGA Strike, all of which generally breaks down into two categories… the first category is comprised mostly of “a pox on both houses” posts. While the second category often features well-meaning posts that get basic facts wrong in an attempt to understand what’s going on.

So, I thought I would walk my readers through the basics of writer deals in hopes that we can all understand the issues behind the strike a little bit better. Perhaps these details will change your mind about the strike, and perhaps they won’t. But if nothing else, you’ll be able to sound smarter than all your friends at your next cocktail party.

So… why are the Writers striking?

Well to start with a very basic answer, they are striking over the WGA Minimum Basic Agreement, or the MBA. The MBA is a contract which outlines the bare minimum that WGA Guild Signatories (basically every studio and network in Hollywood) must pay WGA Writers for a variety of different types of contracted work. Each MBA remains in effect for three years and must be re-negotiated at the end of each term. Within every MBA, there are automatic rate hikes for each of the three covered years such that, by the end of the term, the minimum fees are all higher than they were when the term began.

Who is covered by the WGA?

Essentially, everyone who is paid to write for movies or TV is covered by the MBA. No Guild signatory may hire non-WGA writers. Any production entity who wishes to hire a WGA writer must first become a Guild signatory. Similarly, no WGA writer may write for a non-signatory. Any first-time writer who is hired to work for a signatory must immediately join the Guild, and the contracting signatory must pay them no less than Guild minimum. Also, in addition to the fees signatories pay writers, they are also required to pay into the WGA’s pension, health, and welfare fund as part of each writer’s deal.

As far as enforcement mechanisms go, the Guild keeps a black list of companies who have broken any of these rules and no WGA member may write for any of those blacklisted companies. Additionally WGA members who write for non-WGA affiliated or blacklisted companies can be black-balled from the Guild.

Now… let’s go through the components of a basic writer deal so we can understand how they work. I’m going to focus primarily on Feature Film Writer Deals here, because they tend to be a little simpler than TV deals (writers “produce” TV shows as well as write them, which complicates things). But just know that the underlying assumptions of the WGA MBA are essentially the same for both TV and Film writing, even if some of the terminology is different.

Writing Deals are made up of “steps.” Each “step” triggers a payment to the writer. The various Feature Films steps, as outlined in the MBA, are “Treatment” (sometimes referred to as “story” in the MBA), “Draft” (or First Draft), “Rewrite”, and “Polish.”

A treatment is basically a detailed outline. It can include prose, stage direction or sample dialogue, but it is essentially a beat-by-beat description of the movie that the writer will write. There’s no industry standard for length but I’ve seen 3-page feature film treatments and I’ve seen 60-page treatments. Longer treatments are sometimes called “scriptments".”

Here in 2023, the treatment step has almost completely vanished from writer deals. Why it has done so has been an ongoing WGA complaint for at least 20 years.

The crux of the problem is that there are so few studio writing jobs, and so many writers trying to get them, that writers are being asked to do a tremendous amount of free work just to put themselves in contention. For most writers this includes creating a detailed document… writers call these “pitch documents”, but they are often indistinguishable from treatments. A good lawyer or agent can sometimes get the studio to pay for this document after the fact, but not always....