Sunday, June 7, 2009

Free re-writes

The scabrous practice of demanding free re-writes, which is the bane of the existence of the Hollywood screenwriter, is alive and healthy. I have pointed out before that the Writers Guild has failed miserably to stop this odious practice, and as work has become scarcer, money tighter, and production focuses more and more on fluff and nonsense, producers seem emboldened to increase their demands for free work. I would think it is a rare industry in which senior executives are not only asked to work for free, but are expected to do so without demur. So it is in the film business.

Some years ago the Guild filed a lawsuit in an attempt to put to an end to what is euphemistically called 'producers' polishes,' but their legal strategy was as bizarre as it was ineffectual. As I recall it, they argued before the court that the producers were de facto agents of the studios and therefore could not demand free work on the studios' behalf. This skewed and largely irrelevant point of distinction was dismissed by the court, and the lawsuit fell apart.

What the Guild should have done, of course, is argue that no employer has the right to demand free work from an employee who is under contract, and use threats to enforce the demand. This would have been a simple argument to make, could be understood by anyone (gaining sympathy from the public), and would have, in fact, addressed the real issue, which is that producers, with a stranglehold on any given project, are guilty of the crime of extorting work from writers; not that they are agents of the studios. The Guild's lawsuit having failed, it will probably be years before the issue is joined again in the courts.

Meanwhile, the producer's polish has become so ingrained in the business that no one, neither producers, writers, directors, studio executives nor agents, even gives it a second thought. We all just accept that, having turned in a first draft, we writers will be expected to re-write our work for free, before the second step of the contractual process commences. Now, lest those of you outside the industry conclude that a producer asking for a few small alterations, the change of a word or two, is innocuous, let me relate some of my own recent experiences.

On one script, we signed a contract for a two-step deal. This means that we contracted for, and were to be paid for, a first draft and one re-write. In fact, on this two-step deal we ended up doing fourteen steps, which means that we wrote twelve drafts of varying significance for free. On another recent script, we signed a three-step deal. After the first step, the producers demanded a free re-write, and refused to pay us until we had done it. Our agents insisted that we be paid, arguing that the producers had no right to hold our payment hostage. The producers agreed to pay us what they owed, on condition that we committed to the free step. The first draft took us about five weeks to write; the free draft took three and a half weeks. And for those three and a half weeks' work, we were paid nothing. I could go on and cite many other examples of this abuse; in fact, we have encountered it on almost all of the scripts we have written. Suffice it to say that the producers who have honored their contracts and paid us for every step we wrote can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Perhaps you understand now my frustration with the Writers Guild, which is so very careful of the rights of gay and lesbian writers, of Latino and handicapped writers, of aged and black writers, and so on in its manic pursuit of political correctness, but ignores the fundamental rights of all writers: to be paid for their work, not to have the minions of production change their work without their knowledge or consent, and to have the integrity of their work respected by the very people whom the Guild cannot persuade or compel to respect us.