Always looking for the crooked angle, some unscrupulous film and TV companies have found a way to hire two writers for the price of one. Taking advantage of young, mostly inexperienced writers, these companies pair them up to form what’s called “paper teams” – two writers who are forced to work together for half the pay. Even some older experienced writers have caved to the companies’ demands that they work as a team. It’s a violation of the WGA’s contract, but so far nobody’s been caught doing it – not that the WGA West isn’t trying.
“That’s the scam — to get two writers for the price of one,” a guild source told Deadline. “It’s one of those areas that in hard times, writers, in economic self-interest, will say, ‘I need a job so bad, I’ll take it even if it’s half-scale.’ It’s been going on as long as unscrupulous producers have been taking advantage of hard-pressed writers.”
The practice has been a dirty little secret for a while, employed mostly in cable but also on some broadcast series, agents say. It could bring together strangers who might or might not be compatible as writing partners. “It’s a way for a show to get as many people in the writers room as possible (for the budget),” a TV lit agent said.
The guild believes that some really unscrupulous TV companies even might have staffed up their writers’ rooms with four pairs of paper teams, with each of the eight writers working for half-scale. Film producers also have gotten into the act, which has become an issue in the WGA’s ongoing board of directors election.
“We are seeing, in both TV and film, increased attempts to force two writers to work together in order to cut two salaries into one,” board candidate Shawn Ryan said in his official candidate’s statement. “This is a (contract) violation and must be stopped. We can take this fight to the companies but only if writers speak up and let the guild know this has occurred. Many writers are understandably concerned that their jobs might be at risk if they do so. We must find ways to uncover these violations and stop this practice without leaving the exploited writers exposed and out of work.”
The guild’s contract defines a team as two writers who have been assigned at about the same time to the same material and who work together for about the same length of time. On its website, the guild tells its members: “You should recognize that you have a choice in accepting work as part of a writing team. If you question the validity of the team collaboration, it is strongly recommended that you do so by contacting the guild’s credits department at the time the writing is being performed. The guild will not divulge your objection to the other person in the claimed team, or to the employer, without your consent.”
Most writers who enter such paper team agreements are in no position to object. “For a lot of younger writers, the alternative is being unemployed,” an agent said. “People groan about it because they are uncomfortable telling a client, ‘You have go to split a fee with someone.’ Resentment and frustration can rightfully build up.” There often is a carrot – in success, some of the paired writers could get new deals as individuals at full fee.
The guild has been investigating the low-budget industry’s widespread use of paper teams since 2012. Late last year, in preparation for filing a group claim against the most egregious offenders, the guild began interviewing writers suspected of having been forced to work as teams.
Bringing a case against the worst offenders, however, has proven difficult. The fear of being blackballed by the industry – every writer’s worst fear since the days of McCarthyism – has made it difficult for the guild to find many writers willing to take part in a legal action against their own employers. Two writers might team up voluntarily to work on a project, but it’s a violation of the guild’s contract for an employer to compel them to do so. Proving what’s voluntary and what’s not – which would be the crux of the case – is difficult, if not impossible, without the cooperation of the writers.
Even so, a WGA source says that the basic cable industry has been made aware of the guild’s investigation and has begun cutting back on the practice. In the meantime, the guild’s investigation continues.