A Revised First Draft Walks Into a Bar - Complications Ensue
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Thursday, January 24, 2008

You turn in your draft. The producer gives you notes. You turn in a revised draft.

From time to time, a producer will assert that the second draft you turned in is a "revised first draft," not a second draft. Your producer may truly believe himself. But his belief, not inconsequentially, means he doesn't owe you a second draft payment.

Here's the reality:
Q. A revised first draft, a devout Muslim and the Easter Bunny walk into a bar. One of them orders a drink. Who is it?
A. The devout Muslim. The other two don't exist.
Which is how the WGA and WGC contracts work. If the producer (or the director, or the producer's development assistant, on his orders) gives you notes and you revise, that's a second draft.

That doesn't mean I only revise things once. I'm a team player. I can't tell you how many times I've revised the pilot of the show I'm developing. And if I send in a draft and then fool around with it without producer or network notes, and send it in again, I never consider that a new draft.

But I expect to be paid for the two drafts that are in my contract before I do any free tinkering. Otherwise who's to say when you finally get to a second draft? Principal photography? Whenever the producer is in a jolly mood? Whenever he has some spare money burning a hole in his pocket?

This is one of the reasons I stick closely to my union. The first time a producer pulled this on me, I wasn't in the union, and I was out 20% of the contract. Which was for $1000. Yes, they stiffed me for $200! Since joining the Guild, God bless them, I've had admirable help 'splainin' the nature of a second draft.

Producers will sometimes tell you, "That may be what's in the contract but everyone revises their drafts for free." My impression is that the standard of the industry is this: you are paid for a draft and a set, meaning a draft and a set of revisions. Many writers will rewrite the draft quite a bit beyond the set, without asking for additional payments, unless they're on a weekly. But there are no free revisions until the paid revisions are exhausted. The paid revisions come first.

How can you avoid this awkward situation cropping up? Make sure there's a "paper" trail.

When you start writing a treatment, send your producer an email saying "I'm really excited to be starting the treatment for GO POSTAL." When you email in your treatment, make sure the subject line says "GO POSTAL treatment" and that the text says "here's my treatment for GO POSTAL." Don't use writer terms like beat sheet or step outline or synopsis. An outline does not trigger a payment. Use the term in your contract, which in a Guild contract is "treatment."

When you start writing your first draft, send an email saying, "Okay, I'm starting my first draft, wish me luck!" If you don't get a positive answer right away, you might want to send an email saying: "Um, should I start now?" and make sure you get a positive answer.

And when you turn in your first draft, write, "Here's my first draft of GO POSTAL!"

Don't say ANYTHING in that email about how there might be further work to do, or it's not perfect, or apologize in any way for your first draft. You might cause your producer to expect you to revise your first draft for free. Keep your own notes to yourself, if you have them; let your producer bring his notes. I always make more revisions than the producer's notes, trying to improve things even if he thought they were good enough.

When you start the second draft, send in an email saying, "Great notes, thank you. I am starting my second draft now." Make sure you get a positive response.

While none of this will protect you from a truly unscrupulous producer, there are far fewer of those than there are producers with a slightly self-serving point of view. Clear communication and a paper trail will help eliminate any confusion that might exist in your producer's mind. It is very hard later on for a producer to maintain he didn't know you were writing a second draft when you have a copy of your email to him that says "I'm starting my second draft." If you're clear, the question may never come up at all. And then everyone's happy.

In both stories and contracts, clarity makes for a smoother ride for everyone.

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2 Comments:

I'm guilty of not doing this myself, but at least in Canada, there's also a form you fill out on the WGC site to indicate when you've delivered a stage. They keep track and if you get into trouble later that's what they rely on.

The other thing that producers try to do -- esp before you're union -- is say that payment is triggered upon their "acceptance" of a draft.

That's bullshit language. WGC and other union language specifies it's on DELIVERY. You hand in the draft, you get paid.

Yes, the working writer will always wind up doing more work on the drafts than is strictly contracted. Which is all the more reason why morally, the good producers know to pay your signing, outline, first, second draft and polish payments quickly.

Every writer has to decide for themselves how many drafts past the contracted you'll do for free. Technically none, but everyone actually does do several. If you're not on a weekly that becomes an issue. Cause you know, Daddy needs to make cake.

By Blogger DMc, at 10:26 AM  

You guys both said it. There's contract language, which specifically states the stages of payment, and then there's practice, which means that almost without exception the writer will do more work than they're paid for.

The sad truth is that the Canadian system as set up sometimes needs an approach towards work that strays a bit from hard stages, counter to the contract, and which therefore requires some good faith on both sides.

Producers, often justifiably, have acquired the reputation for taking advantage of this practice by screwing the writer. A good example is raised by Denis in the very valid point of acceptance vs. delivery. Yes, you get paid, theoretically, upon delivery. But there's a flip side. What about delivery of materials not requested/contracted? Are those admissible for another payment? Credit, or credit arbitration?

Following the contract, you'd say no. But practice has evolved where material is going back and forth regularly. Now all of a sudden it's not so clear.

All this shows why good faith is needed. And when good faith goes bad (which you should always count on) why a paper trail is so smart.

The producer probably has one and unless you're really diligent the truth likely falls somewhere between theirs and yours.

The good news is that Canadian producers are notoriously disorganized and there should be no reason why a writers' paper not at least be as strong.

By Blogger Ed McNamara, at 2:27 PM  

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