If you sell a script to a studio, what are your rights regarding the first re-write? Do you have to be a member of the WGA to demand this?
Simply on the basis of morality, ethics and artistic vision, the original writer should always have the first crack at rewriting his script. Unfortunately, morality, ethics and artistic vision are sometimes in short supply when it comes to making movies. That’s why it’s good the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has its “creative rights” provisions, which cover situations like this. You can find a full list of them here.
If you’re not a WGA member and you sell a script to a studio, are you still covered? Almost certainly yes. The major studios have agreements with the WGA which basically state that any writer they employ has to be a WGA member — so if you’re not a member when you sell the script, you have to join right away. And it’s certainly worth it. Not only does the WGA offer screenwriters these up-front protections, but it also offers health insurance and collects residuals for writers’ work.
So are you, Paul, absolutely guaranteed the first rewrite on your spec script? No. There are at least two scenarios where this wouldn’t happen. First, you might sell your script to a company that is not a WGA-signatory. Even relatively big studios (like Miramax/Dimension) have divisions that aren’t WGA. In that case, you wouldn’t be guaranteed the WGA creative rights. A second scenario might have you waiving your right to the first rewrite as a condition of the script sale. I’ve never heard of this happening — it feels morally, ethically and artistically wrong — but it’s conceivable, so I’m sure it has happened to some writer at some point.
Finally, I like that you use the word “demand” in your question. No studio will be inclined to give you anything just because you ask politely. If having the opportunity to rewrite your script is a priority for you — and it should be — don’t accept a deal that would shut you out.
(While you’re at the WGA site, you should also check out the “Independent Film Program,” which can offer some helpful protection even for non-WGA members.)