Like any change to a well-established model, the networks’ efforts to break away from the traditional development cycle is undergoing growing pains. There have been issues for studios who don’t have a pilot to show to international buyers at the May screenings because production has been shifted to off-season or because projects have received what Fox refers to “an off-cycle commitment for further investment towards series production,” meaning an order for backup scripts and a bible but no tape. Then there is the issue for writers hired on the projects that have no formal green light.
This is not a new phenomenon — Starz, for example, assembles a writers room and gets scripts ready as part of its development process because it only orders projects straight to series. But more and more broadcast networks are now embracing the off-cycle and straight to series models and, hedging their bets, invest in small writers rooms (an average of 3 people) working for 4-10 weeks to produce multiple scripts and a bible that network brass evaluate before making an episodic commitment. Fox and NBC have been the most active in the field, with the others also exploring the idea. The model has raised concerns for writers as it allows the studio to hire scribes at scale (minimum pay) per WGA article 14 (“writers in additional capacity”) and not adhere to writers’ “quotes,” which is the per-episode fee to which they are entitled based on experience. It also allows studios to ask for lengthy holds of up to 6-8 months on the writers after they finish work while the network makes a decision on the series.
Industry sources argue that, like in every free-market transaction, this is a case of supply and demand, with senior-level, in-demand writers able to command higher-than-scale fees for work on scripts in those pre-green-light writers rooms, and they can refuse the hold. But younger writers with no leverage are at a disadvantage and would likely take the scale pay and lengthy hold deals. The holds are particularly difficult on writers as they can take them out of commission during the April-June mad dash called “staffing season” when all new broadcast series for next season hire their writers. On the other hand, the proliferation of projects that set up writers room in lieu of pilot provide more employment opportunities for writers — often during periods when there are not that many alternative options. Like with anything new, the terms of the writers rooms employment will likely evolve if the direct-to-series model takes hold. It may get a nudge from the ongoing WGA negotiations with the studios. The lengthy writers holds have been a long-time peeve for those working in cable where series produce shorter seasons, leaving scribes idle for long periods of time between seasons (6-8 months) when they can’t write or produce a pilot or take another job. I hear the lack of regulations in cable, where scripted production has expanded tremendously since the writers strike of 2007-2008, would likely be a major issue at the negotiations.