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For Film Writers, a Strike Over ‘Free Work’ Has Been Decades in Development

The 2023 writers strike has focused attention on recent developments like artificial intelligence and the transition to streaming.

But for film writers, the key issue in the strike has been a constant battle for more than a generation: How do you get paid for a script once it’s finished?

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Screenwriters have long been asked to do free revisions before turning in a “first draft” to the studio, which triggers payment. Typically they agree, even though the Writers Guild of America contract sets out minimum rates for revisions and polishes.

“I have boxes of scripts in my garage that are just draft after draft after draft,” said Emily Fox, a WGA strike captain who was walking the picket lines last week. “And it was all ‘first draft.’ But it was like First Draft A, First Draft B. But if they’re like, ‘You’re not ready to hand it in,’ then you don’t hand it in.”

The challenge of doing multiple drafts in order to get paid for a first draft has bedeviled newbie writers and screenwriting legends alike, including such icons as Robert Towne, William Goldman, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion.

“There can be no doubt that free rewrites have gone on in Hollywood for a long time, perhaps forever,” the WGA wrote during an arbitration case about the issue.

The WGA has been trying to combat “free work” in screenwriting since at least the early 1990s. But the a simple solution has been evasive.

The studios have argued that writers are free to submit their first draft at any time and collect their payment. But writers fear that if they refuse to make free revisions based on producers’ feedback, they could be branded “difficult” to work with, or get thrown off the project.

“You usually have to do at least 20 producer drafts in order to get paid,” said Mark Cullen, a veteran screenwriter and showrunner. “And if you do want it to turn into the first draft, you’re almost looked at as a pariah.”

If anything, guild leaders say, the problem has only gotten worse as producers have moved away from “multi-step” deals. Traditional screenplay contracts included a first draft and one or two more “steps” — a rewrite and/or a polish.

But in the late 1990s, the WGA noted the rise of “one-step” deals, where writers were hired to do only a first draft. Big-budget projects might go through several writers before getting a greenlight from a studio, and one-step deals gave producers the flexibility to change horses if it was clear that a writer wasn’t working out.

On the other hand, writers felt much greater pressure to nail the job on the “first draft,” so they would do revision after revision for free to stay on the project, writers say.

“Now with these one-step deals, free rewrites are the only way the writer can remain connected to their own screenplay,” said Daniel Petrie Jr., a screenwriter who was president of WGA West at the time. “It’s an outrageous abuse.”

Howard Rodman, who wrote “Joe Gould’s Secret” and is also a past WGA West president, called one-step deals a “snare and a delusion.”

“You do fully as much work for a one-step deal as for a two-step deal,” he said. “You just get paid a lot less. And as Karl Marx said, ‘Regardless fluctuations in the price of beef, the sacrifice remains constant for the ox.'”

Michele Mulroney, vice president of WGA West, called the one-step deal a “seismic” event that disrupted the traditional back-and-forth of the screenwriting process.

“It’s a way to save money, and it’s the most pernicious thing that’s happened,” she said. “The one-step deal kicked the door wide open to rampant free-work abuse.”

Now, just under half of screenplay deals have only one guaranteed step, according to the guild.

This shift is exacerbating the income divide between top-tier players and everyone else, writers say.

“If you’re coming in to be a screenwriter now, it’s a very, very difficult way to make a living,” Cullen says. “You’ll have a handful of [screenwriters] who will be on the studio list and they’ll get all the jobs. You won’t get to be a middle-class writer anymore. They won’t take a shot at them. They’re either gonna pay a writer lot of money, or they’re gonna pay them nothing.”

Film writers are a minority within the WGA, which is mostly made up of TV writers. Only about 2,000 people earn money from writing for film in a given year and of those, roughly 600 of whom make a decent living at it, Mulroney said.

The median one-step deal pays $250,000, according to WGA data. But for newer writers, the median fee for one draft is $100,000, just above guild minimum. Half the fee is typically paid up front, and the other half on completion. Delaying acceptance of the first draft means writers go longer without getting paid.

“You simply can’t live on that payment when it’s being stretched out,” Mulroney said.

Petrie, whose credits include “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Turner & Hooch,” said that when he started in the 1980s he would do a quick “potchke” draft for the producers — from the Yiddish term for “fuss” — before the script was submitted to the studio. But over time, he said, it became expected that every writer would do that for free.

“No favor goes unpunished,” he said.

The guild also had trouble fighting the practice because screenwriters have different habits and it was hard to form a consensus, he said.

“Some very prominent writers would say, ‘Oh I’ll do as many rewrites as they want if I like the notes. I’ll keep working. I’ll pass things back and forth,'” Petrie said. “Other writers would say, ‘Don’t put any restrictions that would allow a potchke. I don’t do potchkes. They get one draft. That’s it.'”

The WGA filed its arbitration case in 1999, arguing that “free work” violated the terms of the minimum basic agreement. But the studios pushed back and won, with the arbitrator ruling that it is standard industry practice to do multiple drafts before official submission.

“The evidence shows a clear, longstanding and well-known practice of collaboration in which writers give literary material to producers and make revisions based on the producers’ notes without exposing the studio to liability,” the arbitrator wrote.

Petrie said the ruling was “extremely unfortunate, and I think tremendously unfair.”

In recent rounds of negotiations, the WGA has been looking to fight back against “one-step” deals. The WGA wants a guaranteed second step for those making less than 250% of guild minimum, which would cover newer writers but not veterans.

The WGA also wants weekly pay for film writers. In that scenario, the writer would still receive 50% of their fee up front. But instead of getting the balance on completion, they would be paid in weekly installments over the next 10 or 12 weeks.

Mulroney argued that if studios have paid out the fee on a weekly basis, producers will have less leverage to demand free revisions. Still, she acknowledged, “There’s no silver bullet that eliminates free work.”

Studios do not give up leverage easily, however. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on their behalf, has rejected the demand for weekly pay.

But the most recent AMPTP offer does include a guaranteed second step, though only on “original” screenplays, and not for projects that are based on pre-existing IP.

A second step would mean more money for newer writers, but also more freedom to take creative risks, writers say.

“This is how the system used to run,” said Tyler Ruggeri, a WGA strike captain. “There was a development process where not only were writers being compensated, but there was a better product. The studios were our partners, and we were able to get things to the point where you could greenlight a movie based on on several drafts of development.”

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this story.

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