I’m beginning my first script and I plan to market it next year. But I wonder about the writer’s strike–what’s the protocol? I think that writers fighting for my chosen profession can only be a good thing and I don’t want to undermine, nor be a "scab." On the other hand, the entire Hollywood sphere is detached from a newbie like myself. Where do the unsigned, unrepped, first timers fit in?

–Dan Bentley

Note: This letter came a few months before the great writer’s strike of 2001–which never in fact happened, although there was a de facto production gap since studios rushed to get movies finished.

This is the kind of question where a dedicated journalist would call up representatives at the WGA and get a detailed answer to your question, complete with properly attributed quotes.

Unfortunately, I’m just a screenwriter cranking out my column at the last moment. As it happens, I think I can give you some good advice anyway. First, some general background info. With few exceptions, every screenwriter working for the studios is a member of the Writers Guild, an organization that enforces minimum standards and fees, collects residual payments, and awards "written by" credit on films, among other duties.

Every few years, the WGA negotiates a contract with the studios, deciding exactly what fees and percentages will be paid to writers. The current contract is set to expire at the end of May (of 2002), and there are several issues where studios and writers are at odds, which will make coming up with a new contract difficult.

Several of the issues are creative (such as the "a film by" credit), while others are purely financial, such as the calculation of residuals on foreign broadcast television sales (really, I’m not making that up) and how to account for distribution over the Internet. Particularly when it comes to the numbers, the differences may seem trivial — a half of a percentage point here or there — but for many working writers, it can mean the difference between writing full-time or waiting tables.

The writer’s strike is not a foregone conclusion. Many things could happen between now and May 31 which would cancel or postpone a strike, and the possibility of an actor’s strike at the end of the summer (over many of the same issues) might expedite a settlement.

So what does this mean for you, Dan, a newbie writer working on a script? Not a whole lot.

Finish your script, and don’t worry about the larger labor issues of Hollywood. Once it’s done and perfect, stick your head out the door and see if there are writers marching down Melrose with picket signs. If so, the strike is happening, and the whole town has probably gone crazy. Without writers, literary agents won’t have a lot to do, so they may be unusually happy to read your script and possibly sign you on as a client. There’s nothing scab-like about getting an agent.

Where it gets weird is if your agent tries to sell your script during the strike. My instinct is that this is a bad thing. Even though you aren’t currently a member of the WGA, the assumption is that you would have to join immediately after the strike, and they wouldn’t look kindly on your actions. Fortunately, you have a resource beyond my random speculation. Check out the WGA website. It’s chock full of informational goodness, and as the strike comes closer, I’m certain they’ll have a FAQ with answers to your specific questions.

Of course, this is all moot if you don’t finish your script. So write.