questionmarkWhy is it mandatory that you have to join the WGA when you sell a script? Why can’t you just go on about doing your own thing?

— Ethan Gentzsch

Because if it weren’t mandatory, studios would pressure writers not to join.

That seems like too simple of an answer, but it makes sense if you think it through. Let’s say a studio reads a script it wants to buy. The writer isn’t a member of the WGA. If the writer weren’t required to join the union, the studio could save a lot of money and hassle.

  • It could pay less than minimums.
  • It wouldn’t have to pay into the health plan.
  • It wouldn’t have to pay into the pension plan.
  • It wouldn’t have to pay residuals.
  • It could decide which name would be listed for “written by.”

Given these advantages, a studio would certainly prefer if the writer weren’t WGA, and could make purchase of the script contingent on the writer agreeing not to join the WGA.1

If it were optional, the studio would make sure you didn’t take that option. So making it mandatory protects incoming writers as much as established writers.

Ted Elliott and Craig Mazin are always the guys with the most thorough answers regarding anything involving entertainment guild law, so I won’t be surprised if they answer this same question better over at Artful Writer. But I’m here and handy, so I can least talk you through the exceptions.

There are some studios and production companies that are not signatories to the WGA. They can only hire non-WGA writers. I know some fledgling writers who’ve written entire scripts for $5,000 — which might be okay given their needs and goals. Likewise, feature animation is not typically covered by the guild, including the animated projects I’ve written (Titan A.E. and Corpse Bride). As a WGA writer, I’m allowed to work on them, but I don’t get any of the benefits of the guild, such as residuals.

While you can’t choose whether to join the WGA, a screenwriter can choose to effectively quit the guild by going fi-core. “Financial Core” status means you’re freed of most of the obligations of membership, but also lose your vote, and frankly the goodwill of many fellow writers. It’s very rare someone chooses to go fi-core, and usually involves hyphenates (writer-directors, writer-producers) who chafe against rules or decisions.

As far as “doing your own thing,” it’s important to understand that writers can choose to work completely outside the system. Many of the films at Sundance are written by writers with no connection to Hollywood or the WGA. The Guild has indie contracts that can offer some protections, but they’re optional. Likewise, international productions are largely outside the auspices of guilds and unions. But in my experience, when I meet international screenwriters they’re always wishing they could have an organization with the clout of the WGA. It’s very hard for a single screenwriter to achieve meaningful leverage with employers.

  1. I’m certain this is illegal under labor law, but we’re playing hypotheticals here.