Monday, December 14, 2009

Writers Beware!!!

This is the first time I’ve opened the site to a guest poster, so I figured I’d make it a good one.

Deborah Nathan is a well known Canadian screenwriter, story consultant and producer whose writing credits include most of the significant series that have been produced in this country.

We first met when she took over the story department helm on “War of the Worlds” for Paramount and not long after, she was the first story editor I brought on to “Top Cops”. Since then she’s gone on to write and story edit several seasons of “Road to Avonlea” as well as produce “Twice in a Lifetime” and “The City”.

Deb has also been a passionate advocate for Writers and got in touch a couple of weeks ago looking for a forum to express her thoughts on the most recent Independent Producer Agreement ratified by the Writers Guild of Canada. She had voted against the pact for reasons both practical and historical.

I said she could use this soapbox and she put together her thoughts. I hope you read them not as a “rant” but as food for thought from somebody who truly cares about her fellow writers and the problems that face them.

All comments will be moderated by Deborah and not yours truly. Please weigh in. These are important issues because they impact all of us.

broken typewriter


The film and television industries are like the Wild West. Dog eat dog; every man/woman/child for him/her self. Never trust a promise or a handshake. Beware of the many con artists and gunslingers. Don’t sit with your back to the door. Carry a big gun. In the case of writers, that big gun should probably be the best lawyer you can afford because as I read the latest negotiated WGC IPA sent out for ratification, I was disappointed, again.

The following are cause for concern:

“Created By” credit: I could write about writers being kicked to the curb off their own shows and now in the position of paying legal fees to try to attain credit and monies on shows they created. Or writers trying to negotiate deals where no other party is interested in negotiation.

Where other jurisdictions have clear guidelines regarding such a credit, the IPA has none. No definition; no criteria for determination; no arbitration process. The onus is on the writer to consult an agent or hire a lawyer to draft special clauses in any contract or deal memo to protect the writer’s creative rights.

Under the Writers Guild of America, there are clauses in the Minimum Basic Agreement and a separate credit handbook that address all credit issues that affects writers. There are definitions, criteria for determination, and an arbitration process. Wouldn’t that be nice. Unfortunately, the WGC complains that “the producers would have to agree that the IPA should govern any creator credits”. Ummm, I would think so, since they are our bargaining partners. But, I guess it’s just one of those areas where the Guild will turn to the writers and say “we tried”.

Without any protection under the IPA, there is nothing to negotiate. It is in the interests of producers to have no attachments on their projects when they go to try to sell them in the U.S. It is also a useful tool if you subscribe to the idea of the revolving door of writers.

Face it, we’re a cheap date.

Bibles: I have recently read Ron Moore’s bible for Battlestar Galactica (54 pages of terrific reading). Also took a look at the bible for The Wire (straightforward with lots of story material) and at Carnivale (one of the coolest bibles ever). Under the WGA, these tomes have a minimum price tag of $50,000 which includes six stories. For each story beyond the initial six, there is a $7300 fee.

Not so under the IPA, where all that is there is a definition of a bible that includes everything, even the kitchen sink. But there are no minimums, no criteria.

So, everyone wants more and more upfront material which should translate into more and more money for writers. Not so much.

Wouldn’t minimums go a long way towards compensating writers in a real way for the amount of work in conceptualizing a series?

This brings me to one of my pet peeves: Script fees versus production fees.

Script Fee vs. Production Fee: The Script Fee is not, really. It is a portion of the Production Fee. The current script fee is $14,572, but the production fee is based on a percentage of the budget. Production Fees are currently at $29,170 on a budget of $1 million per hour. Most one-hour dramas in Canada are budgeted above that level. So why are writers being penalized in this way?

Production Fee (minus Script Fee) is paid on the first day of principal photography. However, this production fee is also a bank against residuals. Until profits on the show reach that magic number, the writer never sees another dime. And, for the most part, accounting on the shows never reach the magic number. Somehow, hundreds of shows that air all over Canada and the world are never profitable. So, this one-time fee is the only fee writers ever receive. And the contracting network may air the program ad nauseum , ad infinitum without further payment to the author.

The Writer has completed all the work that is required, as in, the development and delivery of story, outline, drafts and polish, prior to photography, yet that is not deemed worthy of the full fee.

I have never noticed that a Director or anyone else on crew was so penalized. Perhaps the Director should be paid only one-half or one-third of the fee while prepping and shooting the show and only receive the full fee if and when the program goes to air.

Be aware that this payment schedule has never been changed although it has been studied and placed before committee many times in the past. So, until such time as this onerous formula is overthrown, I would always recommend that writers ask for as much money as possible up front.

By paying the full fee for work done, all levels of the fee would increase and benefit writers’ bottom lines. Currently, a story for a one-hour drama is worth $2,430, not even 20% of the current script fee. Under the WGA, the minimum story fee is over 30% of the script fee.

And I don’t want to hear about economies of scale, or the UK system. We live in North America. We have a standard of living comparable to the US, not the UK. And, we pay more taxes than Americans. We are entitled to a real fee for work delivered. But year after negotiating year we fall farther and farther behind.

New Writers: This clause (A233) states that new writers can be paid at 50% of scale. So, on a one-hour drama, the new writer would receive about $7,300 for their work. Why? This is outrageous and I can’t fathom how this was allowed. But what a boon to producers and networks. Perhaps there should be such a clause for New Directors. Or maybe writers should earn double the minimum when working for New Producers.

Writers with Other Responsibilities: This is what the WGA calls writers who also undertake producing responsibilities. All producing monies are negotiable. Writers should be cognizant of the many aspects of producing and the going rates for these responsibilities. These are not writing credits. Payment can include a weekly or episodic fee plus a percentage of the budget or of profits. Perhaps Mr. Henshaw will oblige us with a column about these various producer hats.

I once delivered the shooting draft of an episode to a lead actor with all his lines removed, as he had rewritten all his dialogue in the previous episode which caused me no end of work in ADR. I wrote on the title page of his script, “Fill it in yourself”. And what would happen if the producer, director, crew and cast arrived on the floor and there were blank pages?

Nothing would happen.

Everything begins with the script.

Remember that.

And don’t get me started on caps for Showrunner fees…

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