The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 310 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast, we’ll be talking with one of the co-chairs of the WGA Negotiating Committee to learn what’s in the new deal and what work is left ahead. We’ll also be tackling some listener questions.
Craig: That sounds pretty good. I mean, I will say, not to give it away, but it’s Chris Keyser. That’s who is with us. Chris is not just the co-chair of the last WGA Negotiating Committee, the one that went through the whole big crazy thing. But he is also a former two-term president of the Writers Guild and you remember that show Party of Five?
John: He did that show Party of Five.
Craig: I think he made it. I think he created it.
John: With Amy Lippman, if I’m correct.
Craig: You’re allowed to talk.
Chris Keyser: Oh, I’m allowed. I didn’t know. I thought it was just you guys.
John: Welcome Chris Keyser.
Craig: Chris, would you shut up.
John: Chris Keyser, welcome to the program. Again. You actually called in on a previous episode a zillion years ago.
Chris: Oh yeah, I remember.
John: Yeah, you remember that. But your audio sounds better this time because you’re actually here in front of us. And Craig and I are in the same room for the first time in a year.
Chris: It’s good to see both of you.
Craig: I know. It’s good to see you, too. We want to go through this whole thing because, look, we have a wide listenership. And to be honest with you, I think probably a large percentage of them are not directly dialed in to the sort of things that went on in the Writers Guild negotiations. But I think all of them, or a great majority of them, aspire to be. And we do have, of course, a lot of people that listen here in town, not only writers, but also a lot of executives and assistants and people. So we have people on both sides. And we like talking to both of them.
And this was a very complicated negotiation, not only from an issue point of view, but it was complicated procedurally, the way it went down. I think we should talk hopefully about everything. We can talk about what this deal was. What the problems were that were identified early on. How we went in there. As much as we can hear from you, we’d love to hear how it went. We obviously want to talk about what we got.
And then we want to talk about the future. Just a lot.
John: Absolutely. And to take a little burden off your shoulders, back in Episode 289 we did a full hour episode where we talked through the 101 of WGA negotiations.
Chris: I know. I read it. I read the transcript.
John: So you can assume our listenership has some sense of what the negotiation is like and that it’s two parties meeting in Glendale and they’re occasionally coming together.
Chris: You guys know what you’re talking about. You’ve been there.
John: We’ve both been there. But let’s talk about sort of what the issues were going in. And I thought we might start with sort of what the outcome was. So on May 2 there was the announcement that a deal had been reached. And there was a press release put out that said like these are the major deal points. And if you can just clarify a little bit sort of what they actually — what it means.
So, in it we made gains for minimums across the board, as well as a contribution to our health plan that should ensure solvency for years to come. So talk to us about the health plan, because that was sort of the spotlight issue six months ahead of going into this negotiation.
Chris: Right. The employee contribution percentage, it increases from 9.5% to 10.5% at the start of the agreement, and then goes up to 11% in the second year. And 11.5% in the third year.
Craig: That’s for health.
Chris: That’s for health. Right. Not pension. It’s specifically for health. Health is where our issues were most acute. Our pension plan is doing well. But the health plan is at risk, as all health plans are, in large part because health costs are rising at a faster rate than we’re actually making money back from we’re putting money in, either through earning money on our money, which you can only do a limited amount because you need that money to be available. You know, it’s not invested — the pension plan — more specifically the amount of — the percentage increase of employer contributions.
So this should help. This is a pretty large influx of money into the health plan. And based on all the projections, and we have projections done by our advisers constantly. They’re revising that. This should put us in good shape for a good long time. It’s hard to say exactly how long, because we’re at the mercy of–
Craig: The market.
Chris: The market, the inflation rate on healthcare. Although that has been going in the right direction at least.
Craig: So, people at home listening to this, the idea of this percentage is that we get paid a certain amount of money and then the companies take a percentage of that, over that amount, and send it to the plan. But that is only applied against the first, what is it, 250, is that still the number?
Chris: Yes. 250 — the only increase in caps is an increase in caps for writers who are on overall deals. 14E writers. And that went to 275 from 250 in that they make.
John: I love how Craig tried to make things simpler and then just like more jargon got spat out here.
Craig: Well, you won’t jargon us. But, listen, we’re the wonks, man.
Chris: Look, the real important thing to remember. First of all, yes, they fringed that. But they only fringed minimum, remember. And so it gets awfully complicated. So if you’re a television writer who is making a certain amount of money per week, some of that is applied to your writing services. That is your minimum. And they fringe only that. It is a little bit of a fiction. That’s one of the reasons why–
Craig: For television writers.
Chris: For television writers.
Craig: For us, it’s not. Yeah, for feature writers it’s not.
Chris: And that’s, in fact, one of the reasons why we’ve been talking about increasing minimums because — and outside increase in minimums when we went in, the thing that didn’t end up happening, in order to essentially balance the burden a little bit.
Craig: John, explain to everybody what the hell we’re talking about.
Craig: No, it’s good. We can have this conversation and then he’s going to tell people what we said.
John: So there’s a whole meme out there of explain it like I’m five, which is like really simplification. I’m going to try to explain it like you’re an 11th grader. The basic kind of things —
Chris: If I’m an 11th grader, I don’t care.
John: You don’t care. It all sucks anyway. Who even cares?
Chris: Rolling my eyes.
John: So let’s say you are a writer working in features, for example. You are hired by Sony Pictures to adapt a project. You come in and you write your screenplay. If they are paying you $100,000, a little extra money on top of that, which is called fringe, is being used to pay for your pension and your health. And so that is money on top of what you’re being paid, which is sent to the Writers Guild for these funds. You pension fund and for your health fun. That is what keeps the fund solvent. It keeps the money in there so we can actually pay for people’s health insurance.
The issue was that the overall fund was being depleted, or the fund wasn’t as strong as it needed to be, so we needed to make sure —
Chris: We had enough money to cover our costs, but the projections in the future were that the increasing health costs each year would diminish how much we had in reserve until we went to a point —
Craig: Belly up.
Chris: Where we had too few months in reserve.
John: Yeah. So when we talk about the cap, there’s a certain top limit to how much you’re being paid by one employer which they don’t have to keep paying the fringes on top of those things. And so that cap was at $250,000. And so making sure that they don’t have to keep paying beyond that point, but we want to make sure that we keep getting paid.
Craig: Yeah. You get paid $2 million, they don’t have to pay an additional 10.5 or 11% on all $2 million, just up to the $250,000 and then it stops.
John: And the other crucial point that was discussed there is that television writers are paid both for their writing services and for their producing services, but only the writing services kick those fringe monies in. And so a writer who is being paid a good amount on a TV show may still only be getting paid a minimum for the scripts he or she is writing. Is that fair to say?
Chris: No, it’s not about scripts. It’s about weekly salaries. So that your writing services are the minimum that we negotiate. So, in other words, the minimum if you were working for a normal year up until this contract was around $6,500 a week. You could earn more than that. That would be your above scale income. It was applied to your producing services. But $6,500 a week is the amount of money that fringe was calculated based upon.
Craig: That’s an important concept for people to understand. So much of what this negotiation was about and the reason why the Writers Guild was rattling its sword, its collective sword so loudly, is because in television there is two ways to pay people. And what the companies understood inherently was that one way cost them more than another, because of these fringes. It’s not like saying, “Look, I’m going to pay you $100. And I’m going to pay you $20 because I like your shirt and $80 because I like your pants.”
No. Because when you pay somebody as a writer you also have to then pay on top of it, this health fringe and this pension fringe. That costs them more money. So it’s in their best interest to pay the television writers as little as possible as writers and then all the rest, whatever the writers can negotiate for themselves, as producers. Because you don’t have to fringe the producing money.
In features, this is not a problem because they don’t want us to be producers of the movies. See, their desire to keep screenwriters out of the process of feature-making is so strong, they’re OK with paying us more for pension and health. This causes some strange inequities between feature writers and television writers, which we’ll talk about in a bit. But in television, so much of what this was about was handling this problem. That writers who are making a lot, or sometimes not that much, but more than the minimum were only putting into the system the minimum amount of health and pension. And qualifying to receive health. And so we were getting squeezed. It’s a tricky problem and I think you guys came up with a good solution. So.
Chris: I’ll say a couple other things about that. One is the money that was put into the health fund is necessary, but it is in some sense our own money, because it came out of minimums. In other words, although we’re not guaranteed a minimum increase contract by contract. Our minimums have been over the last couple of contracts in and around 3%. And, in fact, had we had no health fund increase, I think you might have assumed that we would have gotten a 3% bump in our minimums.
Instead, as I think you can tell, we took money out of the minimums and transferred them — instead of you getting a bump in your minimum salary, you get that money applied to your health fund. Now, that’s a good thing, by the way, because on the one hand not everyone receives the benefit of minimum increases. Because if for example I make $10,000 a week as a television writer, if the minimum goes from $6,500 to $6,800, I don’t see an additional penny, and the companies aren’t spending anything. But everybody has fringe on top of his or her salary. So they’re actually contributing more by contributing into the health fund then contributing into minimums.
But a lot of that is coming out of our own pockets. And part of the argument that was going back and forth is should they be actually paying some fresh new money. We didn’t end up getting that, but we did get a fair amount of money out of minimums into the health fund, and so that was on balance a good thing. But as in all things with these negotiations, it’s a compromise.
Craig: It’s great that you actually mention that, because I think a lot of people who follow along get a narrative that is remarkably boiled down. And reduced to very simple things. And when you are — and John knows this and I know this — when you’re on a negotiating committee or you’re on the board and you’re getting reports on it, it’s not just that the devil is in the details. The devil is the details. It’s all details. There is nothing but details. And everything that can go right or wrong happens in the details. We saw it coming out of the 2007 strike. There was a detail problem. And it was a disaster for us.
So, it’s great that you have the command of those details and we need people like you, particularly writers like you. I love staff, but we need writers who understand it. You do have–
John: A law degree from Harvard Law.
Craig: Harvard, right? Or business, MBA?
Chris: No, it’s a law degree from Harvard.
Craig: Yeah, I guess that’s better than a business degree.
Chris: I’m not going to get into that.
Craig: But you went to Haverford or Harvard?
Chris: I went to Harvard.
John: He went to school in Boston.
Craig: I love making that joke. That’s my favorite joke. I do that to David Kwong all the time. I’m like, oh, did you like Haverford? How was Haverford? I’m sorry–
Chris: I had a friend and somebody from her hometown saying Harvey University. She called him a Harvey Man.
John: He had a giant invisible rabbit who followed him around.
Chris: Yeah, we are very concerned with the details. Chip Johannessen who is — Billy Ray and Chip Johannessen were my co-chairs. And Chip is fantastic on the details. He understands it really well. And the writers in the room and the staff are extremely detail-oriented. And, look, we try, I think, as much as possible. One the one hand, to make writers understand what the gains are, but also to be pretty honest about the fact that these negotiations are always both successes and disappointments. And even though this one was talked about as bring ground-breaking in a number of ways, it’s also a disappointment. And we can talk about those things.
Craig: Well, I mean, they pretty much usually are. I think the only way to get to yes is if both sides walk away a bit disappointed.
Chris: That’s right. But, let’s be honest, in a world in which the money and the business is expanding exponentially and these have been incredible years for the companies, and our contract is valued at somewhat either $100 million over three years or some small multiple of that. We’re always falling a little bit behind as the years go on. So, there’s always a little bit of that frustration that we can’t keep up.
Craig: Granted, they would like to pay us nothing. So they–
Craig: So they feel like they keep falling behind by not reducing us to nothing.
Chris: You know, and when you’re in the room and you know this, that’s a genuine feeling on their part.
Chris: Because that’s the world they live in. They don’t step outside of it and like let’s be fair.
Chris: No question. I mean, like we joke about it, but if they could replace us with machinery, they would.
Chris: And the reason why, by the way, that we do reasonably well in an era where labor unions are not is because we’re not replaceable. We’re not fungible.
Craig: That’s right.
Chris: So, that gives us some power.
John: Let’s go back to the press release and talk about this next gain. And so it says, “We made unprecedented gains on the issue of short seasons in television, winning a definition, which has never existed before in our MBA, of 2.4 weeks of work for each episodic fee. Any work beyond that span will now require additional payment for hundreds of writer-producers.”
Talk me through the 2.4 weeks. What is all those?
Chris: I’ll go way back to the beginning, although anyone who has been part of the negotiation knows about this. This was maybe the central issue that we were facing when we talked to writers over the last few years, which is the change in the way in which television was being produced, from the traditional long season model, 22, 24 episodes on network television to a time that now which two-thirds of all shows are produced in shorter seasons, 8, or 10, or 12 episodes.
It was giving writers unprecedented creative opportunities but also presenting some real economic challenges. So here’s the reason why. In the old days, if you had a deal, you were on a television show that made 22 episodes, because the season was more or less set, there was a calendar. You know, you went to upfronts at the end of May. They made the decision what shows were being picked up. In June everyone went into a writing room and started writing. You needed to get your shows on the air by September, approximately. And by May those shows were done being aired. You were probably done writing sometime in April or so and then the whole thing started again with new pilots.
Well, that meant that you were working for 22 episodes, approximately 44 weeks. That’s not exact but more or less 44 weeks. And it couldn’t vary very much because you couldn’t start before the shows were picked up and you couldn’t end after the shows were done airing. That was a kind of protection because it meant that if your agent negotiated for you an episodic fee, and by the way, our fees were not always negotiated as episodic fees. They used to be weekly fees, but that was changed to episodic fees in an era in which by definition episodic fee meant two weeks.
If your agent negotiated an episodic fee, it meant that was being divided over two weeks of work. And so in those days whatever salary you were making, not necessarily whatever salary — that probably goes too far — but if you made a reasonable salary it was divided by two weeks and you did fine. You had 22 episodic fees a year. That’s awfully good.
Now, what happens if you only have episodic fees? And what happens if as if often the case, now there is no set calendar and so a studio asks you to spend a lot of months before the show is in production writing all the scripts before they’re ready.
Craig: You may spend the same amount of time you were spending getting 22 episodic fees, but you’re only get eight.
Chris: Exactly. So, your eight episode fees are now amortized over the same number of weeks. Which meant that what we were finding was that although our Writers Guild minimums were increasing, so that when we recorded Writers Guild earnings, which could only be done over minimums, our earnings were going up. In fact, once we asked writers to respond to a survey that said what’s your actual income, what’s your above-scale income–
Craig: Including producing.
Chris: Including producing fees. We found that writers were being diminished more or less toward minimum. In other words, what the studios were able to do was say let’s take — particularly for mid-level writers. What’s your salary, your episodic salary? Divide that by more or less by the minimum guarantee. That’s the number of weeks you work per episode. So if you made $19,000, you divided that by three and which was around $6,500 in 1995, that’s what you worked. And so writers were being driven down back toward minimum and that was really a problem because first of all there were only eight fees. They couldn’t take second shows, both because of options and exclusivity restrictions, and because schedules often didn’t permit it because they were working all year long. Writers’ salaries were plummeting. We needed to do something about that.
So the question was could we limit the number of weeks over which an episodic fee could be charged. That hadn’t been contemplated in the MBA. And the compromise we ended up with was 2.4 weeks. And so your episodic fee can now only be amortized over 2.4 weeks. So, if you have ten episodes, your contract for ten episodic fees can employ you for 24 weeks. If you work more than 24 weeks, every additional 2.4 weeks–
Craig: They got to pay you.
Chris: You’ve got to get paid another episodic fee. There are restrictions. We should talk about that. The restrictions matter a lot. In fact, if there’s anything I really want to talk about it’s why we failed in some ways to do everything we should have done and where that leaves the burden from here on out.
Craig: Well, we’ll get to those restrictions. But I want to talk about a couple things that I really liked about this. Aside from the obvious, which is that people are getting paid more. First, the suppression of television writer salaries down towards the minimum had this other dragon’s tail effect on our health plan.
Our health plan works in such a way that people qualify for a year of health care if they hit a qualifying number of income. And I think that’s something like $39,000 in a year. However, the actual cost of providing healthcare to any individual on the health plan on average is closer to like $100,000 a year, or something like that. So, how does that work? In part it works because a lot of people are making much more than the qualifying income, and so they are essentially helping offset the health costs of people who are making right at that minimum amount.
The more we had writers earning down toward that minimum and still qualifying for healthcare, the more strain on the system.
Chris: OK, so I hate to disagree with you.
Craig: All right. Let’s hear it.
John: I love when someone disagrees with Craig. I live for this.
Craig: Because you know where I’m going with this.
Chris: It sounds so good, but the problem is you only get paid for your healthcare on your minimum. So, in fact, not a single penny in the healthcare plan is lost by writers being reduced toward minimum.
Craig: Oh, in television. So that only works that way in features.
Chris: That’s right. So nothing is lost. Now, the truth is, one thing that might end up happening is writers will actually end up working more weeks because they’ll be employed for 24 weeks in a ten-episode order, and either they’ll be employed more or people — the show will say you’re gone. Now you can go off and get a second show. And if writers get employed more, it will help us. But week by week, we didn’t succeed in helping the health plan that way. It’s the reason why, by the way, one of the things that we had going in and we talked about this in the outreach meetings was the idea that we wanted to have a meaningful bump in minimums. Outsized as the companies would say bump in minimums.
I mean, one of the reasons why that was going to be good is exactly what you were talking about. So we actually didn’t succeed in getting that. Was one of the things that we left on the table.
Craig: OK, so that’s a fair and accurate correction. Interestingly, the thing that you look at as a failure I look at as a great success. As you know, we had discussions. I’m a vocal constituent. I never thought for a second that we were ever going to somehow break the pattern that was established of what the minimums increases actually were. But, what I thought was brilliant and creative and smart was the way that you guys said, OK, the minimums will increase as they have. We’re going to get them more frequently. That’s brilliant. And that is exactly the kind of thinking that we need and the kind of decision-making we need.
And, listen, we can disagree or agree on the probability of how pattern bargaining works in this town. But, regardless, I was really happy to see that we found this brilliant relief valve that allowed everybody to save face and got us — at least it was a sufficient amount. Right? We got a sufficient amount. It wasn’t great. But it was sufficient. So I thought that was wonderful.
John: Chris, can you talk through the practical ramifications of this 2.4 week clause? So, if I’m on the show and so it’s ten episodes, so that should be 24 weeks of employment, it goes into week 25, what actually happens? Is my agent submitting a bill saying like, hey, you’re employing him for another week, so therefore he needs to be paid another minimum? How does that actually kick in?
Chris: Well, it kicks in automatically. Yes, I suppose your agent can submit a bill, but the studios actually know that. It’s the same as how do they know when your next fee is due. It’s built into the schedule.
John: Because they’re cutting checks that has to happen.
Chris: That’s right. But each week would be one episode of a fee divided by 2.4. In other words, if you only work one extra week–
Craig: They don’t prorate it?
Chris: Yeah, they prorate it. So as many weeks as they need you for, they just pay you–
Craig: Can they prorate it by the day?
Chris: There is language about how to do that. I don’t remember exactly what it is. But as I said, one of the things that goes on now in negotiations is we don’t leave those rooms within a day of leaving the room where everything isn’t memorialized. So, nothing is left to chance anymore.
Craig: Thank you.
John: Good. So question, so you’re also a showrunner. You have a show on Amazon called The Last Tycoon, and we had Billy Ray sitting right where you’re sitting a year ago talking through that. So as you’re doing something like The Last Tycoon, you have to make decisions about which writers you’re going to keep on past a certain point. Which writers you’re going to keep on for the equivalent of the week 25. So that is a decision you’re making along with the studio and the other sort of money crunchers to figure out who you can keep going.
I guess what’s different now under this deal is you can’t just hold on to people because you kind of want to hold on to them. There’s really a cost to holding on to them.
Chris: That’s right. That’s a really good thing, I think. Yeah. I mean, first of all, as a showrunner, it’s my feeling, and certainly on our show, too little of our budget is spent on writing. You know, that arbitrary number that they claim is the writer budget is about 2% of the cost of the show. That’s really low. It could be higher than that.
It seems to me that one of the problems we’ve been having is companies are willing to spend on things and not on people. So, your VFX budget can go through the roof and you get extra days of production. They do all kinds of things. We build incredible sets. But if somebody says it would be good to have our writers paid reasonably for the number of weeks they’re there, that’s an impossibility.
Craig: It’s hard for them. They can’t quantify what we do. So they know, when the VFX guy says I need more money, it’s because I need this many more shots. And the people building the sets need that much more lumber and hours to construct things. And the costume people need glitter. And bangles. And cloth.
When they pay a writer, sometimes nothing seems to happen. Sometimes things get worse. It’s part of the nature of creativity. It’s not our fault. It’s how it works. And it’s very hard for them to wrap their minds around it. It’s not an excuse. It’s just something that I think — I always think that if we understand how they fail in their thinking, sometimes it might help us get what we want.
Chris: Right. And I think one of the things they’ve come to think about writers — and this is not good for writers in the way they develop as writers on television. And, Craig, you and I have certainly been in meetings in the committee on the professional status of writers where we talk about the same issue in features. Which is that the assumption now is that the showrunner, or the showrunner plus one other person will take care of everything.
Craig: That’s right.
Chris: Everyone else is actually fungible. We can take them or leave them. They can leave whenever they want. They can submit any script to you they want. Eventually you’ll make it right. You’ll take as many weeks as it takes to make it right and they’ll be fine. So they don’t worry about those things.
Craig: Well, it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the more you treat staff writers as fungible, or the more you treat say the first writer on a feature as fungible, because we’re going to hire somebody for scale or scale and a half and then work them to death and then get a script out of them, the harder it is to train people. This is a business that requires training. There are a few writers who are sort of born as they are and they occupy their own space and that’s fine. But the vast majority of writers working in film and television learn and grow through experience. And when they don’t get it, because they are treated as fungible and discardable, you’re there to basically put some stuff on a page so that the showrunner can rewrite it or the A-list feature writer can rewrite it.
Then that base of writers is depleted. And then that’s all you’re going to get, because that’s all that’s there. If you treat them like crap, they will become crap.
Chris: Right. I think that is a real problem in features. It can be a problem in television. I don’t want to speak for everybody. My feeling about this, when Amy and I — Amy Lippman and I were doing our shows — and Billy and I do the same thing, is that we do as much as we can to make sure as much of the writer’s material stays. Or, I mean, obviously the obligation in the end is to produce something that is as good as it can possibly be. But we also, with all due respect to Damon on your show, send our writers to set. Send our writers to the editing room.
Our feeling is their first job is obviously to help us make sure the show is as good as it can be. But our second job is to prepare them to run shows. That it is a both a job and an apprenticeship. And no one else is going to teach them that. So, one of the issues I have, and you probably don’t want to talk about this now, one of the fears I have about all of this, about the way the world is working is that when you divorce the television show from the calendar, when you can write before you shoot, you diminish the writer’s ability to be part of all the different aspects of production.
John: That’s exactly what I wanted to get to. So if a season is written before it is shot, and in many cases a season is written before it’s even green lit. We have friends who have written whole seasons and then like, OK, now we’ve got the green light. Now we go off and shoot it. It ends up being the showrunner plus one other person who is the only person left around to sort of do that stuff. So your case of like a writer being on set or a writer being there in the editing room, that person is well beyond their 24 weeks or however long it’s supposed to be.
Chris: Right. And that’s a real problem. So for example, on The Last Tycoon, Billy and I said we want our writers to be employed through the end of production on their episode. We couldn’t get everyone employed straight through the end of all production, as used to be the case. But everyone stay for his or her episode. And if we could, even for a week or so of postproduction. And showrunners have an effect on that. And talk to Shawn Ryan about it. He takes care of his writers. And you see how somebody ought to behave.
It’s a problem. It’s a real problem. By the way, even shows that aren’t completely finished writing beforehand, they’re somewhat finished writing, and if writers have a 24-week span and you’re only partially through the production season then those writers go.
Now, having said that, it is not our job as the Guild to — we can’t tell people how long they need to hire writers except based on the number of episodes. So, what we need to make sure is that — and we try to make sure — is that when you’re working you are being paid a reasonable fee. Then you are free to go out and get another job. It is possible that one of the effects of this new proposal will be that writers will actually work fewer weeks on their shows because — they’ll make the same amount of money, but instead of working 30 weeks or 32 weeks for one show, we hope they’re working for multiple shows. And that is OK, I think.
Look, we’re going through a change, a real change, and there are real stresses on writers because of it. The idea — and I know lots of young television writers because we hire them — the idea that you need to find a job twice a year as opposed to once a year, and that often finding a job twice a year means that your connection to your original show, even if the show is successful, is attenuated. That’s full of uncertainty. It’s not a great position to be in. But that is — we’re not in control of the way the business changes.
John: But who is responsible for getting you your next job is often your agents. And weirdly they’re not part of this real discussion in terms of the negotiation between us and the AMPTP. Like they’re the ones who are ultimately going to be responsible for getting that person the next gig, and yet they weren’t in that room for this. So, was there outreach before this all started in terms of what the agencies are finding or what the agencies are experiencing with their writers and short seasons?
Chris: Well, the agency question is a very complicated one and we could probably have a whole separate hour–
Craig: Good, just jump on the third rail. Hug it. Hug it and lick it.
Chris: Wait, wait, I’m shaking. The agents are going to have a lot of responsibility coming off of this contract. The good thing for them is that we’ve made it plain now what writers are paid for. And so we will be able to see whether agents are doing the job they need to do to make sure that writers get the extra weeks of work or get onto another show.
Before, I think agents were — and you can talk about whether this was the agency’s fault or not — they were part of this general trend to saying, “You’ve got accept a deal that says you’re working essentially toward minimum. Take it or leave it. We’ll hire a different writer if you don’t say yes.”
Craig: Absolutely. Well, agents in general are defined by their laziness. I say this to my own agent all the time, and I love him. But if there’s something — they have this many clients and this much time. If there’s a way that they can make money and it’s less effort for them, then they’ll follow that, even if it means maybe they make a little bit less than they might have otherwise.
So, if they hear like, look, I get you on a show and then I don’t hear from you for a year. I did my job. I got you a job. So now they have to work a little harder. But I actually think that they will enjoy it more. The thing about agents sort of paradoxically is that on the one hand they’re lazy. On the other hand, they get excited when there’s a chase. It’s just the maintenance part that I think they hate so much. Like someone calls them halfway through the year and goes, “I’ve been on this show for 14 weeks. I’ve been paid about what I would normally get paid for three weeks. This stinks. Can you do something about it?”
“No. And this conversation is boring and I don’t like you.” That’s kind of what’s in their heard. As opposed to, OK, I’m coming off. What do we got? Where do we go? How do we get a job? Now it’s a hunt. And I think that’s more fun for them.
Chris: Right. Well, I hope we get to the point of the list of all the things that writers and agents need to pay attention to from this point on. Because it changes now once this new contract goes into effect.
But before we do that we have to talk about the other limitations on this new proposal.
John: Tell us.
Chris: The other limitations are first that it applies only to people writing on shows that are 12 episodes or fewer on broadcast, or 14 episodes or fewer on cable.
John: Cable and streaming? Or just cable?
Chris: Cable and streaming. And non-network/broadcast network. So here’s a little inside of like how things work in negotiations which is the AMPTP is not a united front. They don’t all have the same point of view. They are different companies with different business profiles. And so for example the 12-episode limitation on broadcast was a limitation that was very important to the constituents of the AMPTP who principally do or still largely do old-fashioned network shows. Who said, well wait, 13 episodes? That’s the kind of order we used to have when you start a show. You only get 13 episodes. You get your nine and your back half if the show is doing well. We don’t want to be restricted — we’re going to solve your new problems. We’re not going to solve an old problem of yours.
Now, we talked to them about the fact why that didn’t really make sense. That in fact when you do your 13-episode first part of your order you’re not actually attenuating writer’s services because you’re always anticipating the possibility of the back nine.
Craig: Correct. Actually, I mean, you call it a restriction. It’s sort of an easy restriction to give up because it doesn’t really — it seems mostly overcautious on their part. The point is not to spread those 13 weeks. That’s not how they work. So actually that’s not that bad.
Chris: I know. But nevertheless, it was a hobbyhorse of theirs and one thing that you find that’s tough about these things is they really do tend to be more open to solving new problems than old problems. So they said, “Well if that was a problem on 13 episodes, you never told us before. We’re not going to solve it now.” It wasn’t, of course, a problem on 13 episodes.
So, that’s the first restriction. And the second restriction is that it only applies to people who earn $350,000 or less in a season, excluding script fees. So that’s only episodic fees. That means that many showrunners or even co-executive producers will not be taken care of in this. The sort of thing by the way I should say goes into effect May 1 of 2018. So a contract that was signed beforehand does not include that. And for example I know a writer who was applying for jobs once our show went down and one of the studios who was looking to hire her said, “We want you to sign a two-year deal.” Because they’re looking to lock people up under the old terms for as long as possible.
Craig: This doesn’t start until May 1, 2018?
Chris: It can’t. Because the — you know, people are mid-contract. So it’s got to be new contract, as is often the case.
Craig: I mean, I don’t recall an MBA term that was that delayed before.
Chris: Yes, it’s not uncommon. The minimums will go up immediately, but certain things that are — for example, our options and exclusivity —
Craig: There was a lag on.
Chris: There’s always a lag on it because you’re not going back to old contracts or in the middle of saying we’re changing them. This is a way of saying anything past this date.
So, you may want to ask questions or I’m going to dive right into what this means.
John: Tell me what it means.
Chris: OK. What it means is that we negotiated as much as we could and we got as much as we could out of the companies. And a lot of this was really meaningful. The limitations are really meaningful as you talked about, Craig. And the 350 number on eight or 10-episode orders for a lot of writers is really meaningful.
We know, for example, how much that would have made writers in additional money had it applied to last year. Though there’s no guarantee that that will be true. And we know that it could be substantial. But there was a limit to what we could do. And they were limiting their liability and the $350,000 yearly cap and the episodic cap is a way of doing that.
What it means is that writers and their agents need to be vigilant about this and be able to say, particularly agents, say to companies, “You hired a client of mine as a co-producer and you guaranteed him or her an episodic fee that only amortized over 2.4 weeks. I’m not going to sign a deal for my supervising producer that brings them down to minimum.” That using this begins to change the way people think about the way writers should be paid.
I mean, I had a conversation with somebody at Netflix who said it’s actually changing the way we’re thinking about paying writers because you’ve done this.
Now, there’s no guarantee of that. And there’s no question that studios are going to push back on it. But there’s no way that this is going to work for everybody unless agents begin to use the leverage of their lower rung on the hiring ladder clients as pressure for those above.
I mean, I know as showrunners, and particularly showrunners on shows, many of them are extended many, many weeks beyond their 2.4, into the point where their salaries are getting closer and closer to minimum. The negotiations are going to have to be tougher on those things. And we’ll go back to it again. You know, we’ll go back to it again in three years if the evidence is that people are still being taken advantage of.
John: Can I restate this in a way that I think may make it more clear for certain people? So what you’re saying is that this negotiation, we’ll just talk about the 2.4 weeks, these are things that are going to apply to lower level writers.
Chris: Not just lower. $35,000 and episode for a ten-episode order is a good–
Craig: We’ll call them the middle class and down of — sort of exclusive of the, let’s call it the fancy writers.
John: Exactly. But the same way that sometimes top tier writers can negotiate things well beyond the norms, this may change the norms to a degree so that you can push from the bottom up. Some people who are not currently covered by the details of this contract.
Chris: That’s right.
John: So an agent can say like, “Hey listen, if this were 2018 and these things come into effect, this writer or a writer like this would be qualified for this 2.4 clause. We want that now.”
Chris: That’s right. We want contracts in terms of weeks. We want to know what your weekly salary is. It’s no longer okay to express things in episodes and keep our fingers crossed for a showrunner, for example.
Craig: I think that’s likely. Now, of course, agents also have to be aware that naturally, I would imagine, companies will say, “OK, well, we’re paying these people more. Who can we pay less? Oh, the guy that’s making more than $350,000. Let’s pay him less. Let’s pay her less.”
So, I always feel like these things are like water. The companies’ greed is like water looking for a crack. And agents’ greed is like water looking for a crack. You know, the way speeders and cops have always had this thing between the radar detectors and the radar gun. This is how it’s going to go.
But at least we’re in the right battle now. Whereas before everyone was just getting hit over the head and nobody could do anything about it. Like the way currently is for feature writers. When are we going to talk about that?
Chris: We’ll get to that.
Craig: Oh, good.
Chris: By the way, an analogy to this is the way in which the option and exclusivity clause that we negotiated into the MBA three years ago and extended this year I think has changed conversations. So, I know there was a point at which the idea that — let me explain what that means.
So, what are options and exclusivity? It means that if I am on a show and I don’t have the ability to go off and do something else, I can be held by the company who hired me while I’m waiting for the next season of my show to be picked up. And often, or not often, but many times in the new world you would make your show, it wouldn’t air for six months, they wouldn’t decide for four months. And then they had to go back into production. And so there are lots of terrible stories about writers who are employed for eight or ten episodes and waited for a year. This is the old days.
We negotiated — in addition to which there were also restrictions that said you couldn’t develop for anyone else or do any other work while you were under contract because of the exclusivity.
Craig: And this was the negotiation not this past one, but the one prior to that?
Chris: That’s right. It also had a bunch of restrictions on it. You couldn’t earn over a certain amount of money and have this apply. But what I think happened, and that number now is bumped way up in this contract. Even still, those provisions are not in and of themselves real protections for writers entirely because for example they include a 90-day waiting period. If people really applied that to writers, the difficulty of finding a second job in a year would be so great that most people wouldn’t be able to do it.
But I think that conversation, the open conversation, changed the way people viewed options particularly. And nowadays it is much rarer for a writer to be help. Certainly we on our show say go get work. You know, you’ve got to go. We hope you’re going to be back here if we get picked up, but we don’t know and you’ve got to survive.
So I hope that the conversation changes fundamentally. Because these things–
Craig: The contractual language does have ripples in the general culture of how things are actually done. Because a lot of things in our business are done according to the MBA.
But then there are a lot of things that are just general practices and there’s a sense of an influence. The companies have acknowledged that holding somebody all that time is just wrong. You don’t have to look at the terms. They’ve made that acknowledgment, so now I can use — it’s just part of our deal. And similarly now they have acknowledged that paying people on an episode basis only and ignoring how much time that takes is wrong. So now that’s part of our conversation. And I think that’s great.
Chris: In fairness to them, I mean, more to options and exclusivity than the episodic fee, they slid into this. No one was saying is there a way to–
John: To really hurt writers.
Chris: We keep writers for a year without paying them upfront. They made shows. They didn’t know if they were going to get a pickup for a long time. They were afraid of losing their writers.
John: Yeah, it was fear.
Chris: It was fear.
Craig: That’s actually a really important point. That, look, I’ll talk about the companies being greedy all I want, because they are. And I always feel like if I were to call them greedy to their faces they would say, “Thank you,” because that’s why they’re there.
But, we’re the last thing I think that they think about. What happens is the world changes. They follow the money. They follow a pattern. They look and see what the other guy is doing. She had success with this, I’m going to go do what she did. Then somebody goes, “Hey, do you realize what you’ve done here?” And they go, “No, we don’t care. We’re busy. We’re trying to make money.” And we have to kind of hit them pretty hard with a stick to make them realize, no, no, no, fine, go do what you’re going to do and make your money, but you have to address the changes you made down the line, which you don’t see or don’t care about seeing until we force you to see.
Chris: Right. Look, it’s a much more complicated world than it used to be. There were fewer writers employed in the world of a few networks. And the creative opportunities, particularly independent production ended, were much less than they are now. But there was a kind of logic to the work year. You get paid for a year. You take a couple of weeks off during your hiatus and when your show comes back you’re all available because there was nothing else you could do. That’s really nice.
It’s hard for all of us. I mean, it’s weird for the studios who don’t have writers available and showrunners who don’t, who can’t keep their writers around because the writers need to work. It’s even worse for ordinary writers who actually need to find jobs every five minutes. Let’s be honest. If you’re on a 24-episode contract, say 24-week contract, you need to be looking for your next job in the middle of that, maybe ten weeks in, because it takes a while. You can’t wait till the 24 weeks are over.
Craig: Oh, I wonder what that’s like. Oh, feature writers have been dealing with that for 20 years now. Minimum. I mean, I’m sorry and everything, but it’s so funny how so many of the problems that television writers are experiencing —
Chris: It’s completely true.
Craig: We have been dealing with for decades.
Chris: Divorcing the television production season from a calendar turns it into a version of essentially feature.
Craig: Well I’m glad that you took care of television writers now that they’re like us. But maybe also we should talk about feature writers and how —
Chris: Did you want to go to that next?
John: Let’s finish up one thing from the press release, because I just don’t actually know what was negotiated or decided. For the first time ever, job protection on parental leave. What happened with parental leave?
Chris: We asked for a certain number of weeks off, paid. We ended up with a certain number of weeks off with a guarantee that you get your job back when you come back, if your show is still in production.
John: So this is for TV writers who are in the middle of a season and leave because of the birth of a child.
Chris: Or the adoption of a child, or a foster child, all those things. And male and female. There’s no distinction made there. You have the right to take time off to do that and then come back. It is a meaningful, small additional step in the right direction. It’s not the same as paid leave to do that, but it’s a beginning. And it was something that we gained in the very last moments of the negotiation. At a time when a few things were left on the table, including our feature proposal.
Craig: And they need to come.
John: I think it’s worth noting though that everybody else in that room was working for companies that probably already had parental leave.
John: Because it’s really common among corporations in Hollywood for this to exist. So it felt weird that we didn’t have this kind of protection.
Chris: And that was certainly one of the arguments that we made. On the other hand, what is also true is it’s a complicated practical thing when you’re working for 24 weeks, for example. You know, it would have been an easier argument strangely if we had been back in the old world where you said, look, we’re all working essentially all year long. If somebody needs to take X number of weeks off, that doesn’t change your production schedule. But, you know, they come back and say we have five writers working. You want to take half — your time off for it comes in the middle of —
Craig: As a showrunner, I would imagine that’s a tough one. You’ve got a small staff. And you’ve got the money you’re spending. And you’re not getting more. And then you lose 20% of your staff for let’s say a crucial chunk of time. If you have to also pay them you can’t sub anyone in. It’s tricky on that basis.
Chris: And I don’t want to speak for other showrunners. Our point of view was people need to go and take care of what they need to take care of.
Craig: Of course.
Chris: But not everyone, A, feels that way, or maybe not everyone has that flexibility. Now it’s built in. And the truth is the problem was always, and it came back to us, you know, showrunners should be good about those things. And we say, showrunners could be good about those things, but we don’t want to rely on showrunners to say we want to be reasonable about that stuff.
Craig: Strange thing for the Writers Guild to be taking a position on since we represent all of the showrunners.
Chris: Right. But we don’t have the ability to say, I mean, you should not need to be reliant on the kindness of your boss to do things.
John: Exactly. That’s why it’s important to write these things down.
Craig: It’s so odd. It’s like we go in there and part of our argument is our own membership is unreliable and treats writers poorly. Can you treat them better?
Chris: Well, no, not in this case obviously, because I think it is a complicated thing — not that there aren’t showrunners who would do it, who would say go home, don’t work, we’ll bill the studio, and don’t worry about that. That’s a complicated position to put people in. We could have a long conversation about showrunner responsibility and the way showrunners do or do not serve the best interests of both their show and the writers at the same time. It’s a really complicated thing.
Craig: Well, we don’t have that problem.
John: Let’s do something simple then. Let’s talk about screenwriters. And let’s talk about the situation screenwriters find themselves in and sort of what was in this negotiation, what was not in this negotiation, and sort of where the future work is ahead for feature writers.
Chris: Well, Craig, you can talk about — I mean, the screenwriter proposal we came in with was one that you talked about at the meeting. So why don’t you talk about —
Craig: Well, I’ve been talking about it for a couple of years. And just as an aside, getting the Guild to recognize that there are issues that we can attack with the companies that are feature-based that aren’t as simple as what the minimum is, what scale is, is hard. It’s really hard. I had a long, difficult conversation with Tony Segal who is the outside counsel for the union. But, you know, it worked out OK.
We’ve been dealing with this problem of what we call free rewrites forever. And the problem has started and people got nervous and upset. Then it got worse and people got panicked. Then it got so bad that everyone became sort of overwhelmed and just said, well, that’s the world we live in now. But that’s not acceptable.
The practice is the studio hires a writer. They only guarantee them one step. We used to be guaranteed two steps. A step is a draft. And then a producer comes in and the producer talks to the writer and says show me the script before we send it to the studio. And the writer shows them the script when she’s done. And the producer says, OK, I have a ton of notes. We have to do a lot of work. We get one shot with the studio. This is going to kill it. Blah, blah, blah.
And part of the reason that happens is because the producers get paid almost nothing for the process of developing a screenplay. I literally think they’re down to like $20,000 for the process of developing a screenplay. They make an enormous amount of money, in theory, if the movie is made. They have a fee, a production fee, which is largely millions — million and over. And then they oftentimes have a percentage of profits. There’s a huge upside to them. They want to deliver, they are incentivized to deliver to the studio something that feels like you could just go shoot it tomorrow.
So, they make the writer rewrite it. And then they make the writer rewrite it, rewrite it, rewrite it, rewrite it. I’ve heard people do nine or ten drafts for a producer. They have been paid once. In fact, they haven’t even been paid once for that.
John: They’ve been paid half.
Craig: That’s right. Television writers, at least the fee is coming on a weekly basis. They’re paid half. That’s the commencement money. Half. They can’t do another job. They are doing what they should be paid seven or eight times for, per our contract. They’ve been paid one half of a time for. And finally then the script is turned in and lo and behold the studio has notes, and thoughts, and maybe we should get a different writer. Why is the script like this anyway? A lot of times these writers are sitting there going, oh my god, I had it right the first time.
OK, so what do we do about this? The Writers Guild attempted to enforce some sort of legal constraint on this and failed. My proposal was simply this: I understand why the studios don’t want to guarantee two steps to somebody like me, or somebody like John. They pay us a lot for one step. And it’s far more than scale. Fine.
But for the writers who earn, and my proposal was twice scale or less, they should be guaranteed two steps. The guarantee of two steps allows a relief valve. They can write a draft, show it to the producer. The producer, maybe they have two or three weeks of notes, which was common, and nobody has a problem with that. Do them. Then turn it into the studio knowing there’s another bite at the apple for the producer and the writer.
Get the studio’s input. Get everybody involved. Then send the writer off to do a second draft. And in this way this relief valve has hopefully reduced some of the enormous pressure of doing multiple drafts over, and over, and over. And if you limit it to writers who are earning double scale or less, you are essentially saying what we’re doing really is just maintaining our minimums. And the amount of money that this would cost the studios is not very much. I mean, first of all, if somebody’s quote is already double minimum for a draft. Fine. Pay them scale now for two steps. Their life hasn’t changed. They’re going to writing theoretically fewer drafts than they would have.
So, this was the proposal in principle. And I did not expect that we would get it. My great expectation was that we would begin that conversation.
Chris: And we obviously didn’t get it. It stayed on the table till the very end. It was not — and by the way, that’s not true about all proposals. We take things off all the time. We’re constantly narrowing our list of demands, as is the company, taking off things that are rollbacks or other requirements, or making adjustments so that when we get toward the end of the negotiations we have something manageable to have a conversation about.
And this was one of the few things that was left on the table in the last minutes. It had been the subject of a lot of conversation in the room. The big room when we were sitting opposite each other. Impassioned pleas from screenwriters on the committee. We don’t always speak in that big room. David does the negotiating, but periodically individuals get to speak on things that matter, particularly in where the power of a writer speaking may hold more sway.
We weren’t optimistic about it, but we were hopeful because the cost of it was so small in the long run. You can figure out why you think they said no, because they said no to some things they could have said no to. They could have said no to family leave and gotten away with it. We were — let’s be honest — not striking over eight weeks of unpaid family leave. Just as we were not going to be able to muster a strike over this.
We talked over there’s a possibility that they might do that. In the long run, the argument that said we want our creative people to make those decisions and we’re not as business people going to do that was an easy out for them.
Craig: Yeah, I think, look, I think their great fear is that what we’re trying to do is back door guaranteed two steps for everybody. And I don’t know how to tell them that that’s not what I would want. And, of course, it’s not like I have control over what the Writers Guild might say or do years from now. But the purpose of this is not that.
And I don’t know how to get that across other than to say it’s nice that we’ve started the conversation.
Chris: Right. And we are, by the way, internally having a lot of conversation. Look, I’m not on the board anymore and I’m not an officer.
Chris: But I know that there are conversations about new approaches to this, because it’s been a frustration. You want to be able to go into a contract and say we have — it’s beneficial. It’s helpful to say we have something for all of our members. It doesn’t do us any good to say honestly in screenwriter meetings, you know, there is a limited amount we can do in MBA negotiations for you. So we are trying to figure out ways to begin to achieve some of those things.
Craig: There’s more than you think. I’m making a list.
Chris: Good. These are conversations that we’re going to have. I mean, look, one of the fundamental things is there’s a big difference between the economics right now of the screenwriting business and the television business. There is a —
Craig: You know why in part? Because the feature writer needs essentially have not been addressed. And this is just me saying it. It’s not surprising.
It’s not just that there’s a lot more employment in television. It’s that when there’s a lot more employment in television and then a problem emerges, the Guild coalesces as it just did and fixes it.
Chris: But we are helped by the fact that the demand is reasonable in relation to the supply. So, in a world in which as you know jobs are hard to come by for screenwriters, particularly the screenwriters you’re talking about, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to actually —
Craig: You could let us go. I mean, in all seriousness, the Writers Guild could let screenwriter go. I mean, there is an argument to be made that if a union can’t effectively negotiate for a segment of its employees, its membership base, it should let them go and seek representation that could. Otherwise, what’s the — now, we do as screenwriters we do submit a vastly disproportionate amount of dues, because all of our money is dues-able. As opposed to television writers, which as you pointed out, are getting paid minimum as writers. That’s dues-able. All the rest, not.
Chris: But remember, Craig, it’s not just a question of MBA negotiations. It’s also an enforcement of contract provisions that are in there and we have a difficult time enforcing those provisions in the contract in part — at least in part because we don’t have enormous member support for the enforcement of those things.
Craig: I disagree very, very strongly. I hear this all the time. It is the union’s favorite excuse. I’m going to give you an example. And I brought this up at the meeting. The Guild in response to an endemic late pay — the reason that John asked, by the way, about OK, if you work that extra week as a TV writer does your agent need to call, because that’s how it works for us.
John: That’s totally how it works for us.
Craig: For us. Nobody pays you until you go, “Hey, where’s my check,” and then you got to call and send a thing, and a thing. OK. So, the Guild in response to that said, OK, yeah, we’re having a problem here because the rules are that they should pay you on time. And they’re not. So, I’ll tell you what. On your form, when you’re declaring your earnings, so you know how much dues to send in, write when you delivered and the date you were paid.
They have all of that information. They have done nothing with it. They don’t need our help for that. They can just enforce that.
Chris: Well, exactly. We began during my term a late pay initiative that actually involves the agents in an attempt to rectify that situation, where we have now gone to agents and said you need to let us know when the day of payment is and when payment actually occurs. And all of that comes from the agent.
In other words, the idea is instead of putting it on individual writers to do that, the information comes back from the agents about delivery of drafts, first drafts, and that triggers the timeline for someone to be paid. I’m not at the Guild anymore, so I can’t tell you where we are with that.
Craig: No one has ever called my agent about that. And I’ve never heard anybody’s agent getting called.
Chris: Who is your agency?
Chris: Well, we’ve talked to them plenty of times.
Craig: Yeah, but they don’t do it.
Chris: Well, that may be true. By the way, and I can’t, as I say, I don’t know what the compliance is. And it varies by agency.
Craig: But my point is I brought this up at this meeting and David Young, our Executive Director, was seemingly unaware that that data was there. And Chuck Slocum who is our data guy said, “Oh, yeah, we do have that on every single form from every single feature writer. And a lot of people fill it out and we just haven’t been doing anything about it.”
Chris: Right. And remember though the way you’re talking about it is always after the fact. It’s a quarter later at least. I’m talking about a way of doing it in the moment.
Craig: I’ll take a quarter later as opposed to what we have now which is never.
Chris: Look, the Guild is also in part making strides in its IT and making sure that kind of stuff gets inputted in the right way. I can’t tell you exactly how that works. And I’m not trying to make excuses for what’s going on.
Craig: Nor am I putting this on you.
Chris: But there have been attempts — there are attempts — by the way, I don’t think this is about the question of whether people want enforcement or not. There’s no question that there are things that we can do in concert with writers and with agents to make some adjustments in the way that late pay is handled. It’s a real problem.
Craig: I’ll give you another one. When you directed a movie, was it DGA or–?
Craig: So, first time I directed, day one, the DGA shows up. And it’s a nice lady and she talks to me and just sits with me for five or ten minutes and asks me a bunch of questions. And then she left and she was satisfied.
Now, we have a lot of writers. More writers probably than individual directors, although there are a lot of directors working on television, too. But, if a writer is earning less than a certain amount of money, and this is nothing — we can do this today. I don’t think we need approval from anybody. The Writers Guild should have somebody assigned to them. And they are called. And they have a conversation. And they find out who is the producer. And we’re going to tell you now how this works. Let me inform you how it works. Let me inform you what the dangers are of repeatedly doing drafts. Tell me if there’s a problem. I can help. But I am assigned to you. I am your caseworker because you’re new and you don’t make that much money.
Everything that I’m concerned about from that proposal to this is about protecting our most vulnerable feature writers because at this point now there’s a small island of A-list writers and then a large sea of vulnerable. And we are abandoning them. And we are hallowing out our minimums. And I tell Billy Ray this. We earn too much money. John earns too much money. I earn too much money. Because there’s so few of us now left. And they’re not training people. They’re not protecting people.
Chris: Right. We know. Yeah. By the way, I’m not disagreeing with any of that stuff. Look, I can’t speak to where a given proposal that you’ve made, if you’ve talked to somebody has gone or not. I think — you know, I found reasonable openness to being creative about this because it’s a genuine frustration on the part of the Guild.
Craig: Well, I’m sitting down with David Goodman in a week or two. He’s running, I believe, unopposed for president of the Guild. So, even David Goodman can win that election. [laughs] I love David. He’s a good guy.
John: I want to wrap this up by talking about the thing I see both in TV and features. Which is TV it started to become a definition of episodes were not a useful way of looking at sort of how we were doing the work. Because we were really talking about the writer’s time, and that was really the definition.
In screenwriting, for quite a long time, we get paid by the draft, but we really should be paid for our time. The time is the concern. That we’re being dragged out over all of these different months.
It’s also interesting to see that we have these feature rooms that have started up where they’re getting a bunch of writers together for four weeks to break the back of things. In those cases, you kind of are being paid on your time. It’s not about the draft. It’s not about the actual document that you’re creating at the end of it.
So I feel like we’re in this weird transition where we’re trying to figure out whether we’re being paid by draft or by episode, or by our time. By the time we’re spending.
Chris: And, in fact, by the way, I mean, the conversation didn’t even begin with television, by the way. I think you were probably there when we first started talking about this idea. I think we went to a CPSW meeting where we go, a small group of writers, to different studios and talk about the issues screenwriters are having. Late pay. Multiple rewrites. Lead behinds. Sweepstake pitching. All of those things.
And we began to talk separately about the idea of being paid for time. And I actually during my presidency made a presentation to the writers. David and I went around and said, look, the measures of our work no longer apply. And we began to talk for a long time about the idea of screenwriters being paid for time. It’s a complicated thing. And we got a lot of pushback from people.
Craig: I’ll push back.
Chris: It turned out to be more complicated than television. And by the way, television, we didn’t have those conversations. We didn’t even know it was coming at that point. Six years ago, the very beginning of this, it haven’t even occurred to us, or me, yet, that we would have the same problem.
Craig: But it’s always been a workplace where people show up on days, Monday through Friday, and they leave. And I know that you’re there doing the work. So there’s all sorts of ways to talk about how you might transfer feature writing, which is very independent and very freelance, to time, but the problems — initially the problems that come to mind: the second you move to time they’re going to take that as an opportunity to push everybody down towards minimums, which is what they like to do. We know that. For a fact.
You could then say, well, also they are going to enforce time limits on your drafts. But feature-length screenplays are not quite like television episodes. First of all, they’re much longer. And they are also incredibly flexible. They do not conform to a certain format. They can be very, very long and very, very short. So you can have a guy that’s writing an 80-page horror movie, just fill up that time. And you can have somebody who is writing a 180-page epic, struggling because they need more time and they’re not getting it.
And, also, there’s a problem, frankly, with writers that don’t deliver on time. And, look, they’re going to be aware of that problem. So, I think sometimes you could back stop it with time.
John: I think that’s what I’m talking about is the back stop of time. Because you and I both work on weeklies on projects and the great thing about a weekly is I know when I’m on the clock and I know when I’m off the clock. And if they’re calling me in to say like, hey, can you fix this thing, I’m like, great. Is this a new week? Or is this not a new week? And when we talk about these vulnerable screenwriters, they don’t have that kind of protection of like I’m not on this project anymore.
Craig: Well, in part because they’re not doing that kind of work. I mean, the proper weeklies come in when we’re dealing with movies that are in production. They are on a schedule.
John: We always get described work to us in terms of weeks. We think this is three weeks of work. And so we already are talking in terms of weeks, so I think —
Craig: Well, but not when you’re doing a first draft. I mean, no one talks about weeks then. I mean, I can say, look, I generally take about ten weeks to do this sort of work.
John: But some of our most vulnerable writers though are not being hammered on that first draft. They’re being hammered on the inevitable rewrites, or the rewrite of that other script that’s already out there. So I think they deserve the same kind of protections you and I get for the types of work that is a couple of weeks of work. And it ends up being a lot.
Craig: If they report it. Yeah.
Chris: I’m going to make an argument. You’re going to tell me I know less than you do, which is fine. We’ll just do it. We’ll just do it. So we’re going to make up numbers. You have ten weeks — your contract is back up at ten weeks. You get to the end of the ten weeks and a producer says, “This is so good. But if you did a little bit more work on this I think we’d be in really great shape.” And the Guild says, no, you’re done. And a writer says I don’t care about this because I need this. I’ve got to work my 11th week.
And we begin to, you know, in the same way that drafts don’t work, we begin to have that problem on the margins.
Craig: You do not know less about than I do about this. You know exactly as much as I do. And, look, also writers understand as feature writers it’s not like — we’re not like novelists, but we are closer to the novelist notion than we are to the staff writer in a television room option. We are writing something that is us and it is variable length and variable creativity. It is one thing.
It is not meant to be repeatable. No matter how many times I get hired to write sequels. [laughs] And there needs to be flexibility.
John: The challenge though, Craig, the argument is over what is the definition of the draft. I mean, so yes we’re writing a screenplay, but the problem comes I think, well, this is the draft. And everyone says, no, that’s not the draft. And so the good thing about time is like time is clear.
Chris: I think we’re going to continue to have those conversations and it’s going to be complicated. You know, I always said that one of the things is, I think it’s probably true for you guys in features. And for writers, particularly higher level writers in television in the old days, which is they paid us enough that we were essentially on an all services contract. Make me do whatever you want. Right now I’m feeling more like I’m making something than I’m being employed. And you pay me enough to feel that way, so I’m not going to say to you I’m in the middle of my 17th draft, I’m not going to do an 18th. I want this exactly right. And I want us all to be happy because that’s the way we’re going to make it. That was really great.
It stopped being great for feature writers when they got paid so little for their time and that was extended as if they were expected to do anything to make it right. Although that still comes into conflict with our natural inclination to think of ourselves as artists as opposed to just employees. And it does the same thing for television writers who are now being told you are going to be paid minimum. You can work as much as we want you to, seven days a week.
John: Well, I mean, a lot of times screenwriters are being treated like the showrunner for a brief period of time, but then we’re fired.
Chris: That’s right.
John: And that’s the issue. It’s all of the sort of like —
Chris: But the $100,000 screenwriter is also being treated like the showrunner.
Craig: That’s right.
Craig: And so they’re entrepreneurial and they’re responsible for their little staff in their head. Look, I have lots of things that we can talk about and I want to talk about with folks. You know, John is running for the board, so I’ll yell at him about it if he gets elected. Which, I mean, I’m going to vote for him. Am I allowed to say that on the podcast?
John: I’m not sure.
Craig: OK, well I’m voting for you anyway. I’m allowed. I have free speech. Landrum-Griffin Act.
Chris: We can’t ask you if you’re voting for him, but you can say you’re voting for him.
Craig: But I think that probably to start, tiny little bites. Tiny little nibbles of things targeted at the smaller, lower earning writers, would be great.
The CPSW, I don’t know if it’s gone around and had any conversations with the studios since I was last doing it with you and Billy and Susannah Grant a couple of years ago.
Chris: And Damon.
Craig: And Damon. It would be nice to come —
Chris: John, were you there?
John: I’ve done CPSW as well, yeah.
Craig: I think it would be great to go back and talk to Donna and talk to Shawn and say, OK, remember us from two years ago. Remember the things that you said? Here’s how you did. Here’s your report card. We promised them a report card, which I don’t believe we’ve delivered.
Craig: We need to do better.
Chris: One of the reasons why this negotiation worked the way it did, and every negotiation is different, and not a guarantee of future success or any of those things is because writers were engaged in this. They filled out surveys. So we had 1,000 writers in television telling us twice exactly what was going on with them. How much money they were making. How the world had changed. In the same way as screenwriters did with the screenwriter surveys and told us where we were and which studios were taking advantage of them when it was producer versus a studio.
That’s necessary for this process to work well. I mean, part of it is our responsibility to go out and hold those meetings that we do over a period of time. But sometimes when we ask people questions, as we do with these surveys, the more people who fill them out, the more accurate information we have, the better we are at assessing what’s worth fighting for and what’s not. So, that worked well this time around. And it triggered — because you were talking about the studio and the CPSW meetings, which were always on the back of the screenwriter surveys, were telling us what–
Craig: Correct. And that’s the frustrating part is we get surveys back from television writers and we mobilize for war. We get surveys back from screenwriters that are arguably worse and we go, “Oh, well…”
Chris: Well, we don’t go, oh. We try. And we have more success in the television field.
Craig: I haven’t noticed the trying. And I’m just being honest. I haven’t seen the kind of trying that I’ve seen the outreach level. And it may be easier to talk to eight or ten television writers at once in a room, and I get that. But easy is not the cause here. The cause is the duty of fair representation. We cannot keep going down the path of, well, it’s harder to represent screenwriters. It’s harder to go talk to them. It’s harder because of this or that. Then it’s harder, but we have to do it.
John: The last thing I would pitch for is that we have to always be mindful that we are representing our current members, but we also need to be thinking about the people who are going to be members really soon. And so a lot of people who are going out there for jobs right now, they’re not currently members, but they’re facing the same kinds of things. And sometimes they’re facing the bad situations before our members are. And so we need to do a lot more outreach to what’s happening to those aspiring screenwriters who have gone in for their 15th pitch at a place and what their life is like.
Because they’re not filling out a survey, but they’re incredibly crucial to our knowing what’s going on.
Craig: See, that’s why I would vote for him.
Chris: Yeah. We need people talking about those things. And we need people with the experience of coming straight up the ladder of screenwriting, which people are having a harder time doing now.
Look, I might take you on about the level of concern we have and that the Guild’s concern is honest or not. I think what you saw in this year’s negotiations was an attempt, once we went through all of those answers, to come back to membership and also be honest about what we believe we could achieve. In other words, it was a very conscious decision to be able to say, look, the world has changed in these ways since the last time we negotiated. That gives us an opportunity to make some big moves on our side if we can mobilize enough support. That was more true in television than in features. And many more of you are now doing television.
Doesn’t mean that we’re not going to think about that stuff, but we need to both be open and creative and not give up. And then be honest with the membership about what we believe is achievable.
Craig: I just think that as a general philosophy, and I would say this to anybody running for the board, like you, John, or David, who I’m going to see, who is going to be our next president, that we are past the point where we can be comforted or accepting of the argument that it is hard or difficult or easier to do this, or this, or this, or more achievable to do this. We have to make it achievable. If we don’t stop what has happened now, it will just erode into the ocean.
We are just letting it die.
Chris: Right. So there are some creative conversations going on at the Guild. It’s too early for me to talk about it and it’s not my place to talk about. New ways, really turning things — like you do in a writers’ room. It’s like story is not working that way, let’s turn it upside down and think about a new way of handling this. Because what we’ve been doing so far hasn’t made enough change, which is something you know.
Chris: I know that’s vague.
John: All right, let’s leave it there. So we typically wrap an episode with a One Cool Thing, which is a recommendation of something you think our listeners should be paying attention to, or reading, or watching. So, I didn’t warn you about this, so maybe you can go third, and just recommend something out there that you’ve seen that you like, or you think people should be paying attention to.
So, we’ll give you a few minutes here.
Chris: Yeah, because I haven’t seen or watched or done anything. I’ve been negotiating.
Craig: Honestly, I have nothing right now.
John: You prepared nothing?
John: OK. Then maybe I’ll just do my one, because it’s something that you are going to love. It’s a new game. It’s on the iPad. It’s called Poly Bridge. And what you’re trying to do–
Craig: Poly Bridge?
John: Don’t pull out your phone quite yet. So, what you’re trying to do is build a bridge from one side of a chasm to the other side of the chasm, connecting little Lincoln log kind of pieces. But it’s incredibly well done and the physics behind it is great. So it reminded me a little bit of World of Goo, had a thing like it, but this is really good and sort of better in some really meaningful ways.
Craig: Poly Bridge?
John: Poly Bridge. So it’s also on Steam. I played the iPad version. The only thing I will say is that if you happen to have an Apple Pencil, it is an ideal use for the Apple Pencil because you’re putting some things in very precise places, so the Apple Pencil is useful.
Craig: I don’t have an Apple Pencil.
John: Now you need to get an Apple Pencil, because they are really good for marking things up.
Chris: I just started that. I started doing notes on screenplays.
John: Isn’t it really nice that way?
Chris: It’s fantastic.
John: So, when I’m on my phone I use Weekend Read, but when I’m marking up something on a full size script, I find a pencil — and I use PDF Expert which is just terrific.
Craig: Should I get one of those huge iPads?
John: No, you don’t need a huge iPad. You should get the new iPad Pro. And I’ll show it to you when we go in the house. It’s the 10-inch.
Craig: Because I’ve been using the iPad Mini forever.
John: No. Stop that.
Craig: Stop it?
John: Stop that.
Chris: I don’t have the new one, but I have the iPad Pro. It’s the perfect size for scripts.
John: It’s a great size for scripts.
Craig: Oh, and then I’ll get the pencil? And I can just write no.
John: We’re close to the Apple Store right here.
Chris: I would do this in a second draft if I were given this thing.
Craig: The only things I ever write on scripts when I read them is, “No.” That’s it. If I like something, I just think to myself, oh, I like that. But then if I get angry I just write no. So maybe I could do it like a macro where I just tap it with my pencil and the word “No!”
John: That’s good. You’ll love it. Chris, your opportunity, if there is something you want to recommend to listeners. You can use this spot.
Chris: I have to admit that I haven’t been doing much watching or doing anything since I had negotiations and producing this show. And it’s completely wrong for me to pitch my own show at a time like this. I kind of like this new book called Magpie Murders. It’s a mystery within a mystery. It’s like an Agatha Christie mystery inside another mystery. And she’s loving it.
Craig: What’s it called?
Chris: Magpie Murders. It’s the perfect summer reading.
Craig: I love Agatha Christie. There you go. That works.
John: That works. See, that’s exactly what a One Cool Thing should be.
Craig: Perfect. Thank you, Chris.
John: That is our show this week. Our show is produced by Carlton Mittagakus. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. If you have an outro you’d like us to play, send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions.
But short ones are great on Twitter. I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Chris, are you on Twitter?
Chris: I actually am. But I have no idea what my Twitter handle is.
John: So he’s not really on Twitter.
Chris: Yes, for my new show I’ve been tweeting.
John: So you’re having to do all that promo stuff.
Chris: Yeah. You can look me up.
Craig: I’m looking you up right now.
Chris: OK. You’re not following me? Apparently Billy Ray has a lot of followers and he won’t stop–
Craig: He doesn’t have a lot of followers.
John: No, not compared to Craig Mazin. Oh my god. Craig Mazin, are you over 100,000 now?
Craig: I’m close to 100,000. I’m like 97,000.
Chris: Oh, I think have over 100.
Craig: Chris, nice work, Chris Keyser. Oh, is that you? Yeah, that’s you. Chris Keyser, you are @chrskeyser. And I’m following you now. You now have —
Chris: Three followers.
Craig: You have — oh look at that picture of you. You have 345 followers.
John: Oh, so that’s good. That’s a good start. You have a blue check mark.
Craig: Watch what happens after this. Watch what happens after this.
John: Oh yeah. So everyone follow Chris Keyser and tell him what you think. And watch his new show which is called The Last Tycoon. It is debuting on Amazon when?
Chris: On the 28th it drops.
John: How cow. It drops. That’s so nice. And by drops, all episodes all at once.
Chris: All at once.
Craig: I’m worried that you think that the words that Billy uses are cool. They’re not.
Chris: No, no, no. I had this conversation where Amy Lippman, my writing partner, said, “When’s your program going to…?” And I said it drops on the 28th. And she said, “Are you ashamed of yourself?” And I was.
Craig: As well as you should be. That’s great.
John: Final bit of boilerplate here. We’re on Facebook. Search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can look for us on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. People leave us reviews and that’s just delightful. I get a little slap notification whenever they show up.
Show notes for this episode and all episodes are at johnaugust.com. But you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. It’s $2 month. Plus we now have the new USB drives that have all the first 300 episodes. You can go back and listen to the first episode Chris Keyser was on so many years ago.
Chris, thank you very much for coming in.
Craig: Thanks Chris.
Chris: It was really fun.
John: It was a pleasure.
- Scriptnotes, 289: WGA Negotiations 101
- Chris Keyser on IMDb, Wikipedia and Twitter, and on episode 138
- Poly Bridge
- The Apple Pencil, PDF Expert and Weekend Read
- Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, on Amazon
- Season 1 of The Last Tycoon “drops” on Amazon Prime July 28th
- Get your tickets now for the July 25th Scriptnotes Live Homecoming Show
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
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You can download the episode here.