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Price Point 027: The Writers Guild's Demands
Obviously I have worked a lot as a studio exec and I ran a studio and a network. At the same time, my father is, and my grandfather was, a member of the WGA, and a lot of my friends are too, so I hope I can try to see both sides of the WGA strike dispute.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) articulated their “Pattern of Demands” yesterday, seeking the approval of members. Herewith, my response to the WGA negotiating points, along with some additional thoughts.
My starting place is that writers used to be compensated at a certain level and now they are less well compensated. This negotiation is therefore not about seeking more, it is about partially recovering prospects that writers in Hollywood used to enjoy. It’s not too much to say that the WGA rules, as written, have been taken advantage of to get the most out of writers while paying the least. The point of all this is to correct that. Whatever may have changed in the overall industry business model, that is not the responsibility of the writers. They don’t get the upside of a shift to SVOD. They shouldn’t get the downside.
The agglomeration of writers in Hollywood is what makes Hollywood, Hollywood. I’m developing content in many countries around the world right now. The main issue in most countries is that if your show is an international spy show and you need ten people in the writers room with espionage expertise, each of them having at least three seasons on good shows, I guarantee you will not get that. But the WGA, uniquely in the world, can provide that on a platter. You want a writer with experience in espionage and Hong Kong who has worked two seasons on a comedy? No problem, here are five to choose from.
This is evolving but in all other countries, each show is written, for the most part, by one person. There just isn’t this industrial scale talent supply. That’s what the WGA delivers.
The reason the WGA can supply this level of talent is that it offers a lifestyle that is competitive with all of the alternatives that professional writers have. What do professional writers tend to be? They tend to be very smart. They could be lawyers, senators, convincing insurance salesmen, fashion models — ok, maybe not models — but they could have gone to Wall Street in some slightly non mathematical role that relies on cleverness and charm! The point is that it is in everyone’s interest that we keep attracting world class, brilliant people into the WGA.
It used to be that if you created a very successful show, you would get a lot of money. You could move to Montecito. Now, by and large, you don’t. You could do eight eps at $40K an ep as EP and work all year on it and you’ve just made $320,000 in the peak year of your career. And you don’t even know if you have created a successful show in any case!
After manager, agent, lawyer and taxes, $320,000 is about $144,000.
A home in Sherman Oaks costs $2MM to $3MM. The mortgage on a $3 million dollar home is about $180K per year.
Houston, we have a problem because we haven’t even gotten to schools. The tuition at Harvard Westlake is $46,900 per kid. Times three that’s $140,700.
So right now this writer at the peak of his or her career is $144K - $180K - $140K = -$176K in the hole. Maybe this can be somewhat better because this theoretical showrunner could also write a few of the scripts for the season, but you get the idea.
To be clear, in the past, this theoretical show would be more likely to go for 22 episodes per year, would be more likely to be on the air for more than a couple seasons, would generate greater residuals payments from previous seasons, and would have a greater prospect for a substantial payout upon syndication after five seasons or so.
Shorter seasons, fewer shows going past season three, smaller residual checks and a much reduced shot at the occasional profit windfall in the event of syndication have changed the economic prospect for writers for the worse.
Below, in italics, are the issues that the WGA has said are important to them. And below I give what my responses would be as the head of a network/studio assessing whether I think on the whole this is a fair request in light of circumstances. And then a few additional thoughts at the end.
COMPENSATION AND RESIDUALS
* Increase minimum compensation significantly to address the devaluation of writing in all areas of television, new media and features
* Standardize compensation and residual terms for features whether released theatrically or on streaming
Ok. What this means is – I want the same amount of money whether you send the film to theaters or not. Studios are struggling to define their film theatrical strategies. But writer compensation (actors have the same issue) should not depend on the arbitrary decision of whether the studio decides to go theatrical or not. Reasonable.
* Address the abuses of mini-rooms
Sometimes when a network is not sure whether it wants to do a show, they will put together a mini-room to break stories and write some scripts, to further develop the show and increase the network’s confidence in its prospects. Because the show hasn’t been greenlit yet, the network wants to do this cheaply. So they will propose that everyone should work at scale but give the network an exclusive window where they can be ordered to commit to the season if it is ordered. Sometimes these mini-rooms can go on for a while. Writers will sometimes do this because they are eager for the show to happen.
Obviously, writers should be compensated at their full, normal rate for the work they do in mini-rooms. There is no difference between work in a mini-room and re-writing a feature screenplay that doesn’t yet have a greenlight. The general principle is that work is work.
The only downside to this provision is that instead of paying full freight for a mini-room, networks might just decide not to do the room, which might reduce the probability of the show getting an order. But so long as all shows are competing on the same footing, this is acceptable. On the whole, the key principle in any development scenario should be that work is work and should be compensated normally.
* Ensure appropriate television series writing compensation throughout entire process of pre-production, production and post-production
Absolutely. This is a big issue as you often, today, have people working all year on ten eps getting $40K an ep based on the old system where $40K made more sense.
* Expand span protections to cover all television writers
Yes. See previous point. Also, if I’m only working on a six episode season for you, I have to be free to work two shows a year given that I will be first priority to the first show.
* Apply MBA minimums to comedy-variety programs made for new media
I might not insist on this. This is still an entrepreneurial area defining itself and we should wait to see what it becomes and then establish MBA minimums.
* Increase residuals for under-compensated reuse markets
* Restrict uncompensated use of excerpts
Pass. This benefits everyone and if the comp can be improved in other areas then this becomes unimportant.
PENSION PLAN AND HEALTH FUND
* Increase contributions to Pension Plan and Health Fund
To be discussed. Obviously tradeoffs here versus basic comp.
PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS AND PROTECTION IN THE EMPLOYMENT OF WRITERS
* For feature contracts in which compensation falls below a specified threshold, require weekly payment of compensation and a minimum of two steps
Generally agree. It’s a bad experience to have one step writing agreements.
* Strengthen regulation of options and exclusivity in television writer employment contracts
Agreed I think?
* Regulate use of material produced using artificial intelligence or similar technologies
I think it is too early to specify rules in this area. Don’t worry. I have tried it. AI isn’t replacing writers any time soon. If anything I think it may save writers time occasionally.
* Enact measures to combat discrimination and harassment and to promote pay equity
* Revise and expand all arbitrator lists
I would consider adding the following, in order of increasing boldness.
End free pitch docs
Young writers — well, all sorts of writers, I guess — are used by producers and managers to churn out free pitch docs for ideas and books that the managers want to produce. If the pitch doc is great, the manager has a hot project, if not, nothing is lost.
This is uncompensated work. Work is work
If you want a writer to read a 300 page book and produce a 20 page treatment for a show, you must pay a minimum
I think this is a big issue. Happens all the time. Technically, I think this is against the rules but it is so routinely done that some mechanism needs to exist to enforce this.
All development deals are temporary licenses — free the imprisoned projects!
Too often, a great project is picked up by a studio and it doesn’t work out and the project is stuck at that studio dead in the water basically forever. The studio has invested a lot in various drafts of the script, so much in fact that no one will subsequently be willing to take on the project.
This could be your life masterpiece and it’s just stuck because some exec got fired or for whatever reason. This happens to major writers and authors.
Today the turnaround process can be ambiguous and technical
Propose that all buys are licenses. If development has been discontinued after three years or if the project has not been produced in any case within four years, all rights revert to the writer with an email from the studio disclaiming any interest and free of liens.
(A similar concept could even be applied to films that have been produced. Should reboot rights always and forever stick with the producer of a film or should they under some circumstances revert to the person who created the idea?)
Streamers must publish internal metrics
People need to be able to demonstrate the success of their work. Publish internal data in a standardized form.
Views of all shows
New subscribers attributed to shows
All series orders have just three seasons of reorder rights and a second window will be made available to FAST or other services
Currently, if you have a huge hit, there is very limited upside because the network has infinite reorder rights and they own all syndication and derivative rights
If the network only had reorder rights for three seasons and then had to negotiate for further seasons, creators could capture some of the surplus of the shows
If the network was obligated to license a second window to Tubi or whoever, it would generate more revenue against the show and make profit participation more realistic
The Return of Finsyn: Networks must buy all shows from studios
Let’s be clear. If all the best writers in Hollywood went to a1.tv tomorrow, then a1 would be the biggest media brand on Earth and Netflix would be Radio Shack
Let’s agree to go fully finsyn and put vertical integration behind us. We aren’t workers at some village owned by the Hershey corporation pumping out chocolate while paying rent to Hershey and getting docked for our pay if we commit wrongdoings against the company.
In a finsyn model, the SVOD networks would be renting shows from third party studio providers. The surplus generated by a show would be more visible and more available to studios and talent.
When an SVOD orders a show in this case, they would be ordering it from a third party and they would not have reorder rights after season three. So if it’s a yuge hit that upside would be captured by the studio and presumably in turn by talent.
In reality, what writers should be hoping for is a global decentralized financing and distribution system that would transfer power to creators and take things back to the time when writer producers commonly had valuable prodcos. I wrote about that here. But let’s call that step two.
Good luck everyone! I’m sure there is a deal to be made.