WGA Issues: April 2005 Archives
Our union has its share of evergreen problems…you know, the ones that never seem to go away. The pernicious practice of “free rewrites” is certainly one of them.
Here’s the way it works. The WGA requires that its members be paid for the work they do (duh). However, there’s a longstanding practice in the industry called “the producer’s draft”. You are commenced to write a draft, you turn in the draft, and the producer says, “Great. I have some notes. Do another draft, and then we’ll turn that in as the first draft to the studio.”
This is wrong. First off, it’s against WGA working rules. Secondly, every time a writer agrees to work for free, they are essentially undercutting every other writer in the union. Our minimums are in place as much to protect us from each other as they are from the Companies.
So why do writers acquiesce? Typically, it’s because they’re scared they will get fired or be labelled “difficult”. Unfortunately, the more you acquiesce, the more you are exploited. That’s the nature of the beast. There are cases where writers have literally done seven “free” drafts before getting paid…and when they do get paid, it’s for one draft.
By the way, I put “free” in quotes because nothing’s free. “Free” drafts actually cost us all money. They deprive the union of dues, they deprive the Health & Pension Fund of contributions, and they hurt every other writer who is now expected to conform to this practice.
The problem is…what the hell do we do about this?
The Guild arbitrated against the Companies, and they failed. Why? Well, it turns out that the Companies have very cleverly put distance between themselves and the producers they contract with. Technically speaking, there is one “delivery agent” for every script, and it’s often someone completely unrealistic (e.g. the chairperson of the studio). As such, the producers aren’t officially the employers of the writer, and so their requests can’t be seen as official or binding in any way. The Companies’ answer to the Guild’s demand that they do something about their producers was rather telling.
Basically, they said, “How about you tell your writers to simply refuse to do the free work, per your own freaking rules.”
Okay, fair point.
So, one might simply say, “Hey, let’s enforce our rules! If we catch you doing free work, we’ll fine you!”
Well, for starters, we don’t have any way of sussing out who’s doing the free work. Writers are notoriously fearful of complaining to the Guild because they think it will negatively impact their career. And then there’s other big humongo problem.
We have writers in our union who get paid millions for a screenplay. Those writers aren’t particularly interested in holding the Companies’ feet to the fire on every small revision or tweak. There’s a gentlemen’s agreement (pardon the sexism) that when you get paid millions of dollars, you may choose to work in a flexible manner.
Those writers are fiercely opposed to the Guild interfering in their lucrative work, particularly when it is lucrative for the union as well.
While some disagree, I’ve always thought of this problem as one primarily caused by and impacting the same subset of writers: screenwriters making low six-figures per script. They’re the ones who feel they have the most to lose if they refuse to do the free work (because they can’t walk into another studio the next day and get a million-dollar assignment), and they’re the ones who are being exploited by the free rewrite practice (because, well, they’re not making crazy money…although I know lots of people would argue that anything in six figures is crazy money).
Jacob Weinstein, our intrepid Man In London, once compared the problem to an interesting bit of Game Theory known as “the tragedy of the commons”. If you don’t feel like slogging through it, I’ll offer Jacob’s elegant summary:
People are more likely to do the wrong thing if they think everybody else is doing the wrong thing.
Once a writer becomes convinced that everyone else is doing free rewrites, he begins to feel like a self-crucifying schmuck for not doing them. Likewise, if a writer became convinced that very few writers were doing free rewrites, he’d begin to feel like a doormat (and schmuck) for agreeing to them.
Jacob’s idea is to publicize a long and impressive list of writers who simply do not do free work. However, it’s hard to say where “gentlemen’s tweaks” end and “free work” begins.
Does anyone out there have any suggestions?