As talks are about to resume Monday on the final elements that many hope will lead to a new deal for the Writers Guild Of America, we wanted to lend some perspective and give voice to the TV and feature writers whose fortunes will be tied directly to the deal their union makes. This is the second in a quick succession of five questions we asked a panel of 10 writers. Here are their responses, and hopefully other writers will be moved to comment about the issues that worry them most as their work is monetized in this fast-changing digital age.
DEADLINE: As a working writer, what is the biggest hardship right now facing you (i.e., one-step deals for feature writers, exclusivity clauses for TV writers), the one that gives you the greatest amount of worry for you and your WGA brethren?
WRITER #1: I think the biggest setback from the strike was one-step deals. One-step deals were a direct result of the strike — a punishment that said “you think you’re in control, we’ll show you how control works.” It’s also a real mistake for studios that has resulted in crash rewrites deep in production and some god-awful movies. The great irony is that the scripts studios routinely praise like Gravity or Inception or Chinatown or Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid all took YEARS and MANY revisions to become the classic films they are today. Some of the biggest blockbusters of all time including Star Wars and Avatar (to name just two) had five- and even 10-year writing periods. The process allowed those films to go through a critical process of treatments and rough drafts to evolve to the great films they are today. The heavy lifting work was done at the writing stage.
But studios think bottom line numbers — they see one-step deals as providing them with the ability to cut bait when first-draft scripts don’t come in as home runs — but first drafts aren’t going to come in great except in a few rare cases. The scripts that become great films come in good or maybe even very good but not great. Almost all scripts need several drafts to reach the level where they become actually ready to film. The evil secret of one-step deals is that you sell your idea to a studio, you write it, and if a competing project at another studio comes along or a director or star falls out, the studios have a free out. As a result, good movies are dying before they are even really born. The other problem is now studios hire inexpensive writers, get a first draft, confirm that “there is a movie there” and then pay seven figures to someone like me to come in and actually write it and then often someone else during production. The result is that the voice of the original writer — the creator — is severely diluted.
The vast majority of studio screenplay contracts set strict delivery at 90 days. It doesn’t take a NASA scientist to realize that you can’t have that kind of deadline for every script — world creations like Star Wars takes longer than a 90-day romantic comedy? A complex piece like Inception cannot be done in 90 days — no matter who you are — that’s why in the published version of Inception, Chris Nolan talks about the 10 years he spent writing it. The writing process is a complete mystery to studios and executives — they all think they can do it but none of them ever do. This lack of understanding has haunted the film business and the writer-executive relationship since the first days of the film business. I read an interview with a very old screenwriter and he was talking about how things were in the 1940s and what he was saying then is exactly what writers are saying today. Nothing has really changed.
Personally, I simply refuse to make one-step deals. I won’t do it. You teach people how to treat you in life AND particularly in the film business and when you roll back your quotes or steps those slimy, filthy scumbags that work in studio business affairs make a little note of your compromise in their screwing talent ledger. That note is there when they go to make the next deal with you and they share it with their fellow slimy, filthy, scumbag colleagues at other studios. I simply don’t do it and my representatives say right up front, we will not accept a one-step deal.
WRITER #2: The one-‐step feature deal, something I hadn’t run into prior to the strike, can become a short-sighted self-fulﬁlling prophecy of failure. From the studios’ point of view, they want to cut their losses if a script is heading in the wrong direction. But what the one-step deal does is increase the odds of creative failure. Rare if the screenplay that is nailed in one draft. A great, layered screenplay can take a year and multiple drafts to craft. It’s one thing for a writer to drag and deliver late and weak. But the bulk of the eﬀort — cracking the story, doing the research — is front-loaded. He will also deliver without the beneﬁt of studio notes. It can be one big expensive shot in the dark.
WRITER #3: Definitely free pre-writing work to get assignments or just to get selected by a producer to pitch for an assignment or to set up an assignment is the worst thing for me these days. One-step deals and free rewrites suck, but at least you’re getting paid for those.
WRITER #4: From what I hear, feature writers are facing hardships. As are a lot of great, LA-based crew members who are facing tough choices because of runaway production. As a working TV writer, I’d feel like an a**hole claiming I’m facing “hardships.” I’m really lucky to be paid well to do what I love (most of the time).
Having said that, the biggest overall imbalance I see is when it comes to cable residuals. The studios’ and networks’ profits have skyrocketed over the last decade in part because they can run their shows constantly and not have to worry about paying real residuals. Their argument seems to be the same argument they used to sell the guilds on the horrible DVD rate that stood for decades: “Look at our poor, little, fragile medium. It can’t survive without your help.” So, we agreed to take lower pay and residuals because it meant some more jobs for us and some more opportunities. Great. Everybody took a risk and everybody won. But then when that little fragile medium grew up to be stronger and more popular than anything else out there (hi, Walking Dead!), the AMPTP has refused to share the wealth. It seems like it’s hard to get the AMPTP to give up what they’ve already gotten, especially when it’s a huge profit center like DVDs or cable pay and residuals. It sounds like (at least from what I’ve read on Deadline) this was a sticking point for the WGA during this negotiation but it’s been resolved. I hope it’s more fair than in the past.
I haven’t personally experienced problems with exclusivity, but I think that’s the fastest-growing problem among TV writers right now. A couple years ago I’d never heard about it, last year it was a rarity, and in the last couple months I’ve heard of three shows where the writers are all facing this problem.
WRITER #5: I work mostly in features, so I’m not hampered by exclusivity…although I think it’s very unfair and hear many of my TV colleagues complaining loudly — and justly. As stated above, I think one-step deals are awful… for many reasons. There’s the obvious creative one: This is a collaborative process, and one-step deals mean there’s no opportunity to really collaborate and incorporate feedback…without resorting to “producer’s passes”, which then become inevitable and infinite. I think the even bigger issue is that one-step deals contribute to a culture (longstanding but always getting worse) of treating writers as replaceable cogs in the machinery. It’s another conversation, but I think this is a huge factor in why feature writers see TV, for all its faults, as a kind of Promised Land. At least there, we’re “king.” This culture in turn results in more writers working on every project, which makes credit determinations fractious and complicated (and OFTEN unjust). That’s bad financially. It’s bad for the finished product…and it’s bad for writers’ reputations, because it becomes harder and harder to claim credit (even “in the community”) for work done on a movie, be it a hit or a flop, when a hundred others contributed as well. Again, this is nothing new…but I believe it’s gotten worse.
WRITER #6: One-step deals effectively mean you write more drafts for less money. That’s what a one-step deal is. The lower number of movies being made means the likelihood of triggering production bonuses has shrunk. The time it takes to get paid has grown. Payment seems more like an afterthought than a contractual obligation. The WGA is detested by EVERY producer. It has ZERO power. Independent producers are obliged to employ SAG actors and DGA directors but will try any means they can to make it a non-WGA agreement. But writers can moan all day about what used to be. It’s now what is. There are other ways, other places, to sell words and ideas. You have to find them, and exploit them.
WRITER #7: The biggest problem is not being JJ Abrams or Orci/Kurtzman, who seem to have about 200 clones each. I don’t know how these guys are able to do that much work. This is not to discount the work of writers who write franchise movies, but let’s face it: it’s not working off a blank canvas. I grew up watching Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock — and other writers have spent decades refining these characters — so there’s not much invention necessary.
So, basically, I worry that that I’ve grown up — and I don’t mean that from an age point of view. I mean it psychologically. The business has regressed — it’s no longer interested in saying anything about the world we live in. It’s reverted back to exploring adolescent fantasies…and I’ve spent too much money in psychoanalysis to go back and be a teenager again. I want to write about things that are happening in the real world…and it’s why more and more I’m spending my time thinking about television…
WRITER #8: Honestly, my life as a working writer has never been better. The upside of a one-step deal is that the studios still will give you a premium for accepting one (in lieu of two-steps). I’ve raised my quote on one-step deals consistently in the last two years. My greatest professional fear is the same as it’s always been: falling out of favor with my steady clients. What I REALLY worry about is the emergence of the algorithmically driven green light. When Netflix can just pull up some numbers to determine which ideas, milieus, directors and actors they are interested in based on what viewers currently watch, we’re facing the death of originality via a new era of decision-making driven by Big Data. Similarly, I fear the ultimate migration of all content to streaming services that will severely diminish residuals and limit the outlets for all the content currently being bought.
WRITER #9: I think one-step deals are very frustrating and I often walk away from the deal when they won’t give me a second step. My goal is to write something special, which can’t be done in one step. If that’s all the studio wants from me, then I know they don’t care about me writing a great movie for them, they just want to get what they can from me and move on. It makes me feel like they are not on my side or invested in my success. They are hiring me to create a piece of art for them, but don’t want to give me the time to deliver at the highest level I can. It’s very shortsighted and undermines how successful the project can truly be.
WRITER #10: One-step deals are problematic for a number of reasons. They make me a far more cautious writer than I want to be. I find myself taking less risks in my writing because I’m constantly worrying about whether the script will become a movie the studio is interested in proceeding with. Essentially, you have one shot to get the studio interested in proceeding with the project and that’s a very difficult spot to be in. Writers know that it often takes numerous drafts before you feel comfortable with a script. One-step deals make me more risk-adverse in my storytelling. I’m always trying for mainstream, for something that will please as many people as possible. If additional writing steps are guaranteed, I’m far more open to experimenting with a story, far more willing to take chances and push the boundaries because I know there’s a safety net in place.
In addition, in my one-step deals, I will often do two to three “producer passes” before I ever submit to the script to a studio. These “passes” are a direct result of being afraid a studio won’t proceed with a project if they don’t like a first draft. I find myself paranoid the draft won’t hit a sweet spot with the studio executive and that money I’ve counted on from the next step won’t be given. So the first draft you submit to a studio is more like the fifth draft. The margin for error is so small in a one-step deal situation. As a writer, working in a climate of fear never produces optimum results.
Assignments that don’t exist are another problem I’ve encountered. Over the last few years, I’ve pitched on three projects where the studio ultimately decided they weren’t interested in making the film any longer. This decision came after the studio heard dozens of pitches from different writers. All that time is wasted. Two months developing a take, meeting with producers time and time again, pitching a studio, revising a pitch based on producers’ notes, etc.. only to hear that no one at all was hired. It’s one thing if you get beaten out by another writer. That’s fair. We all understand the risk in open writing assignments. But it’s crushing when you find out that everyone has wasted their time and creative energy on a project that didn’t exist.