Understanding Writers Guilds

Discovering a screenplay or literary/audiovisual material that can be successfully made for the screen is the single most difficult aspect of filmmaking. Upon the merits of the screenplay lie the appeal to actors and financiers; its words will define the challenges the director and crew will face, and the amount of money those words, translated into pictures and sounds, will cost.

Few screenplays are born completely developed, springing from the writer’s head like Aphrodite, a fully formed adult from the moment she exits the foamy sea. In addition to finding the right material, the producer must seek out the proper writer, who must be both proprietary over his/her creation, yet collaborative enough to see it altered in the process of visualization.

The attitude of the writer in this inherently collaborative process is as critical as the quality of what they create. A writer who regards his words as holy writ, not fit to be altered by mere mortals and certainly never for the mercenary purposes of reaching a wider audience, has chosen the wrong type of work. This writer should be a playwright, or a literary author (novelist, nonfiction writer, poet) where contractual and guild protections assure that the writer’s word is the final word.

In the filmed entertainment industries, the writer’s word is just the starting point. Remember, all screenplays are works for hire, owned by the individual or corporate entity putting up the money to buy the screenplay and produce the content. The screenwriter’s rights end, to put it bluntly, the minute he or she sells the script.

There are, of course, many protections afforded screenwriters through the Writers Guild of America, East and West branches (they are separate and different and defined by where the writer lives) and legally precedential court decisions. These include minimum payments, the first right to rewrite an original screenplay and do subsequent re-rewrites, and complex formulas for residual payments when filmed content is shown on various media, from local TV stations to DVD and digital downloads.

The Writers Guild has its agreement with the major film and television production entities available online. They will also gladly send out a copy of their agreement, and then urge the recipient to become a signatory.

A financial transaction should always accompany an option on a screenplay or literary work, for both the protection of producer and screenwriter, but that amount is very negotiable, depending on intent and circumstance.

Most producers will make a writer’s list of potential screenwriters to do either re-writes, polishes or adapt other material. Internet sites such as IMDB now make it much easier to compile databases of potential writers, whose previous work qualifies them for consideration on an appropriate project.

Understanding the guild agreements also teaches the producer about the formal considerations for rewrites and polishes, and the time periods required for those. Writers are no longer expected to do a rewrite in a couple of days or weeks, and have the right to be compensated for all the work they do.

Luckily, the producer has no serious role in determining final screen credit, a crucially important distinction for a writer’s final payment, and a process thankfully undertaken by the Writers Guild members themselves. It leads to nothing but heartache and bad feelings, but it’s a necessary obligation, given the numerous writers that end up being hired on many studio productions.

Seeking out new talent brings new voices into the marketplace, as unknown screenwriter like Diablo Cody demonstrated with her wildly successful independent feature script, Juno. New voices are desperately needed in an industry that relies on the sameness of product and familiarity of sequels and remakes to attract a mass commercial audience. But often it is the experienced and specialized writer, who understands the creative processes involved and knows how to deliver specific results within genre conventions– a comedy punch-up, a writer brought in to pen one great romantic love scene– who can be counted upon to deliver the goods under pressure.

The Bottom Line

The Writers Guild is as powerful as it is for a reason. Writers have traditionally been treated as the lowest form of life in Hollywood. Their words are excised, trampled over, mangled, dumbed down, mispronounced or, most cruelly of all, simply ignored. Yet no movie exists without their work, and for anyone who watched TV during a writers’ strike and saw late night comedians try to be funny without their writing staffs, the status of the lowly writers has inestimably risen. When in doubt, go with an experienced, professional writer.

Unless the latest screenwriter who’s been “discovered” has the wherewithal to deal with the rolling insanity of getting a movie made, the chances of their surviving to write a second produced movie are slim indeed.