A screenwriter colleague recently vented her frustration with always getting paid late for her studio jobs. I didn’t have any particularly good advice for her — what she describes is hardly unique. In fact, the situation is so much the norm that I asked if she would write up a post about her experiences, since I’ve never really discussed it on the blog.

Some background info might help readers brand-new to the industry:

  • When a screenwriter is hired to write for a studio, the contract is negotiated between her lawyer/representatives and the studio’s. Even when the basic terms are figured out, it still takes a few rounds of back and forth to generate the actual paper contracts you sign.

  • Screenwriters are paid half up front. If a writer is being paid $100K for a rewrite, it’s delivered in two chunks: $50K at commencement, and $50K when the draft is delivered.

Much of what we’re talking about here relates only to features. Because of time pressures, TV works differently.

first personI’m honored to be asked to guest post for my favorite screenwriting blog, but have decided to do so anonymously for fear of studio retribution. I’d like to note, though, that it’s ridiculous we writers are scared to talk about what is a contractual right — being paid on time.

I have gotten paid late for every project I’ve written in my somewhat nascent career. Often I find myself holding a script hostage… for the commencement check. Not even for the delivery check. My agent and lawyer have said they are frustrated, but it is normal. I started to wonder — does it have to be?

I tried to read what the MBA1 says on the topic, but because it is 452 pages long and contains so much legal jargon, I almost went blind on the first page. So instead of losing my valuable eyesight, I thought it prudent to attend the Late Pay Seminar recently held at the WGA headquarters.

Some of what I learned was very, very obvious — and also surprisingly helpful.

Here’s what the MBA has to say about payment (in language we can all understand):

1) “Commencement” for a project begins when there is a signed and dated contract. When my agent says, “You’re commenced,” it doesn’t count. When my lawyer says, “It’s okay to start writing,” it doesn’t count. When the producer says, “The studio told us to get started!” it doesn’t count. It doesn’t even count when the studio exec in charge calls you herself to tell you.

A signed and dated contract is the only thing that means you’re commenced. This may seem obvious, but most writers are starting without a signed contract. I have. Every time. It almost burned me on two projects this year alone when, after I had already completed first drafts, there were contractual conditions that had not been met (underlying rights hadn’t been untangled, producer deals hadn’t been completed) and I couldn’t get paid until they were.

2) We the writers (and the signatory companies) are supposed to send signed copies of our contracts to the Guild’s “contracts” department as soon as they are signed. Almost nobody does this, either, but they should because–

3) The Company is then supposed to pay the writer within seven calendar days of contractual commencement. If they don’t, the writer should–

4) Call the WGA legal department, who will see to it that the Company not only pays the writer, but does so with interest: 1.5%/month or 18%/year as a late penalty. (That’s more than you can get on any savings account right now!)

5) When a writer submits a draft, he or she is supposed to submit it to the person named in the contract directly, not through the producers, and, if possible, invoice that person. Often a writer’s agent does this, and if they do, the writer should request to be CCd.

6) The Company is then supposed to pay the writer (again) within seven calendar days of receipt. And, if not, the same interest accrues.

Excuse me a second while I drag this little soap box out of my closet:

When writers don’t follow these steps, most especially when they start writing without a contract, they make it nearly impossible for the WGA to arbitrate and get them paid.

Now that I am armed with this information, I need to have a difficult conversation with my agent about refraining from starting a project until everything is signed.

In theory, agents and lawyers should be all for this. In fact, they should be encouraging writers not to get started until the contracts are signed and the check clears, because that’s when they get paid, too, right? Wrong.

Sympathy for agents

Agents and lawyers deal with the same executives all day long on various projects. If an executive they deal with frequently wants a writer to start on a project because the contract won’t be done for months, it makes the agents/lawyers lives easier to say “sure” so that their next phone call with that executive, about a new deal and a different client, goes smoothly.

That’s not a criticism of the excellent job agents and lawyers often do, it’s just the reality of the business (hell, if I was in their position, I’d probably do the same thing). What it means is that writers have to be the ones to firmly convey to our representatives that we cannot start work until those contracts are signed.

The MBA also apparently states that the Company must make a good faith effort to have a contract to the writer within 10 days of agreeing on the major deal points. In my experience, that has never come close to happening. So, adhering to this rule isn’t always feasible.

One writer at the seminar talked about landing a big project based on a well-known property and the studio demanded he start writing because there was a start date already scheduled for the movie. Had he waited for a signed contract, by the time they sorted out the underlying property rights, he would have been waiting nine months and the studio would have fired him, taken his best ideas, and hired someone else who was willing to start writing before the contracts were signed.

And frankly, I’ve always been so grateful to be working that I’ve been reluctant to say, “Sorry, I can’t write without a contract.” But I left the seminar thinking: If we all tried to adhere to the commencement rule a little more firmly, and actually followed the steps listed above per the MBA, would the companies miraculously be able to turn the contracts and checks around faster? At 1.5% interest/month, we’d make it much more expensive for the studios to pay us late, and would probably be able to at least decrease the frequency of the practice.

It’s not that I think the Companies, or the executives, or the producers are out to get us. They are simply doing their jobs in a bad economy — holding onto their money (which accrues interest for them!) as long as they can while getting projects turned around as fast as possible. This is a business and money is their bottom line.

But we writers are the presidents, secretaries, development executives and janitors of our own little businesses. And money has to be our bottom line too so that we can pay for things like rent and food and overpriced holiday egg nog lattes, and free our minds to be creative, which is what they are hiring us for in the first place.

If we don’t advocate for ourselves, nobody else is going to do it for us.

bradHere is where I’ll disagree with the writer a bit. While I understand WGA policy, I’m okay writing without signed contracts. Just pay me commencement.

Studios aren’t eager to do this, obviously. When I ask, I rarely succeed. But it’s a reasonable balance that leaves plenty of incentive for both sides to get contracts finished up (since I still need to deliver).

In doing weekly rewrites on movies going into production, I’ve always been amazed how quickly the checks come when the scene they’re shooting next week is on my laptop. Television has the same time pressure. Business affairs can move quickly when pushed.

  1. The MBA is the agreement between the WGA and the AMPTP. When we talk about “the contract” with the studios, this is what we mean.