I’ve been a screenwriter pretty exclusively for 13 years now. In that time I’ve had almost 20 feature jobs. I’ve worked on some great things and sometimes even liked some of what I wrote. It’s been a good career by almost any measure, and I love that I still get to do this.
The hazards of being a feature writer are huge: the barrier to entry is high, our working careers are often brutal and short, at their best deeply unpredictable, and we work in a world where, to put it mildly, the writer often isn’t exactly king of the story.
Screenwriters’ “Big Four” issues, issues that have gotten significantly worse over the last decade, come down to late pay, pre-writing, free revisions, and one-step deals.
Fixing any of these issues won’t be easy. I’m running this year because I want to ensure screenwriters’ issues stay front and center now and as we go into the 2020 MBA negotiations.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t get into filmmaking because it was a good plan for an easy life and great, consistent money. Like a lot of screenwriters, I’d probably do this for free if I could, and feel lucky I get paid to do it at all.
Screenwriters wear our unreliable careers like a badge of honor, and arguing over a little more money or better job security or perfect business practices can seem... pretty back-burner when you have a script to finish, and you usually do.
Only about 2000 screenwriters get feature work in any given year – limit that to writers working on major theatrical releases and the number dwindles to a few hundred. The competition for work is beyond brutal.
We will often do ANYTHING to get a job, anything to KEEP that job, and anything to try to thread the needle in the home stretch and do whatever it takes to GET THE DAMN THING MADE.
Feature writing is a high-risk end of the business, and screenwriters who don’t accept that first principle – that the first person shouldering risk in this very risky business is actually YOU – well, those writers don’t usually last.
These are the terms we’ve accepted to get to do what we love.
But here’s my big problem with that line of anything-for-my-career, Stockholm-syndrome thinking. I do this because I love movies. Old school in-theater movies. These practices aren’t just making it hard to be a screenwriter – I've come to believe they hurt the end product.
As we’ve seen one-step deals become the absolute industry norm, as screenwriters have turned into de-facto employees of the agencies who represent us, as executives have come to expect free rewrites on a page one they already characterized as a “re-write”– with an agency-fueled revolving door of writers where bigger movies can have upwards of 17 consecutive writers, the movies I see (with some loving exceptions) in theaters these days are starting to feel like a lost game of Exquisite Corpse.
Fewer movies are getting made, FAR fewer KINDS of movies are getting made, and theatrical audiences are starting to wonder why the hell they left their bomb-ass new big screen TV for... this?
Meanwhile, in the trenches, this shrinking market is allowing new downward pressure on screenwriter pay, and continually higher expectations of what writers must do to get a job and keep it. It’s bad for writers, it’s bad for studios, and it’s bad for the final product.
Who DOES benefit from our new normal? The agencies.
The revolving-door development cycles, the single-minded focus on tentpole movies and the high dollar contracts they generate – all of these things are, in part, the result of agencies quite naturally wringing as much cash out of the studios as they can manage to
And meanwhile, the movies we traded our lives to write are suffering, because sustainable careers and coherent work are nearly impossible in this chaotic, well-monetized goat rodeo formerly known as studio feature development.
This isn’t a business model built to last. Good movies require good writing. Good writing actually requires time, consistency and yes, pay for the first real risk-takers in the development equation. It’s why everyone is running off to TV.
Packaging, in-house production entities, conflicts of interest – all of these things further remove any real incentive to keep a sustainable feature business, built on good writing, going. Is it their responsibility to fix this situation? Or is it ours?
Our current agency campaign is an attempt to correct course, to focus our agencies back on representing us by tying their profits more tightly to our own. ANY progress we make will be good for EVERYONE.
Even simply getting contracts and invoices negotiated will significantly help our guild protect the future working lives of working writers.
But none of this, and I mean NONE of this change is going to happen if screenwriters cannot even get it together to stay united as a union in the middle of our MBA negotiations.
I’m a huge fan of dissent and healthy debate. I’m all for constructive disagreement. I think a board that reflects a diversity of opinions as well as humans will be a healthy thing to have.
But I also believe in a strong union. And some of the things I’m hearing and reading aren’t healthy democratic “differences of opinion” – they’re straight-up anti-union talking points, right from the agencies, repeated by some of our own members.
Classic anti-union dog whistles like “we should all have a right to work whenever and however we want” or “but the agencies will let us CHOOSE whether or not our projects get packaged” just... don’t really have a place in healthy union debate.
The agencies have been VERY consistent in their talking points, claiming among other things that this action has little to offer screenwriters. These points have been repeated VERBATIM to screenwriters by the pro-ATA slate. Nothing could be further from the truth.
And what about “Get back to negotiating with the ATA” – because walking away was some sign of our leadership’s “failure?” Give me a goddamn BREAK. Walking away is part of the negotiation.
I remember openly discussing strategy, in March, at the Sheraton, the open mics and big screens. We would begin by negotiating with the ATA, and if we could not get an agreement from them collectively (we did not), we would focus on smaller agencies (we have),and even leave the ATA bargaining table if we had to (which we rightly did), and see which of the big four breaks first and does the right thing for their writers. The Big Four aren’t friends. They’re competitors. This is basic.
But now, everything is on pause as the Big Four wait and see how their favorite candidate fares. A woefully unprepared and inexperienced candidate running on a platform seemingly composed of a single idea and single clear goal: give up now and, I suppose, beg for forgiveness.
As a screenwriter, I built the career I have in partnership with my very wonderful and deeply committed agent. I actually can’t conceive of finding anyone else and don’t intend to – I want this sorted out and sorted out soon, as much as anyone.
We didn't agree to this lightly. What we are doing isn’t easy, and we didn’t expect it to be. Like all the other vagaries of our business, taking part in union actions is a built-in feature. We never got any of the things we now take for granted without sticking together.
Right now, screenwriters have to help each other out. We have to stick together. Sticking together is how our union got us... Residuals. Health care. Minimums. Our pensions. It’s how we are increasing and protecting diversity in our badly mono-cultured industry.
Real solidarity – not some lip service spoken by people who never once served in the union – is the ONLY way we will win this, and the ONLY way we can hope to improve screenwriters’ careers and working conditions going forward.
I’m all for informed debate. But if the information you’ve got is 100% agency talking points… if the union experience you have is literally zero… if the only plan you’ve got is to roll over… I'll stick with the horses we bet on, thanks.
When unions are divided from within, they weaken and fail. Who will crack first? Will it be us? Or will it be the ATA? I’m fighting for – and I’m betting on – our guild.