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Thursday, July 17, 2008

DMc posts about the reasons why the WGC contract shouldn't mandate a certain number of freelancers. To recap, the WGA contract specifies that a certain small number of scripts on a WGA show must go to free lancers. The idea is to help newbies come up.

Denis's argument is that spreading the scripts around makes it harder for skilled writers to make a living.

I agree. There are some important differences between the way we work in Canada and the American Way.

First of all, in Canada, most of the money is in the scripts. Weekly salaries are not that high. My contract for my series gives me a lower weekly salary than the $6,000+ a junior story editor is entitled to in the States. If my show should go, I'll make that up in production fees. The WGC deal mandates that the writer of an episode be paid around 3% of the budget of the episode. (There's a more complicated formula than that but if the episode budget is a million bucks, the writer's getting a check for over $30,000.)

Normally a free lancer's script has to be heavily rewritten. They're not in the room. They aren't immersed in the show. I've never had a free lancer turn in a script that I didn't have to rewrite at least 50%, and often, in situations where I didn't get to choose the writer myself, we've had to throw the script out and go back to the beat sheet. A freelancer can bring new story ideas and a fresh perspective. They never turn in something you can shoot.

That's awkward because under the WGC rules, the contracted writer -- the free lancer -- is entitled to sole credit and 100% of the production fee no matter how little of their work remains.

In the US this matters less because the story editors are getting paid a whack of cash to rewrite things. That's their job, to rewrite. There is no production fee, either. So the scripts are worth relatively less and the salary is worth relatively more. It is less of an injustice to the writer actually turning in the shootable draft -- whether story editor or showrunner.

Moreover, in the US system a showrunner or story editor who heavily rewrites a free lance script is entitled to credit. So there may be no injustice at all.

There's another difference between the two systems. Shows in the US have bigger staffs. You can go over to Rogers where he's got seven or eight writers for a thirteen episode season -- and that's considered a small room. When you see the writing staff of a Canadian drama on the cover of CANADIAN SCREENWRITER, you'll rarely see more than six people, and often you'll see four. On NAKED JOSH the story room was my co-creator and I.

So if you take away a couple of story editors and turn them into free lancers, you leave the show with one head writer frantically rewriting everyone else's free lance script, working it like the one-legged man at the ass-kicking contest. And that's just nuts.

I'm not a big fan of hiring free lancers. In my experience they don't justify the pay. It's a mitzvah to bring newbies up, but they're not going to learn that much from free lancing anyway. I'd rather pay a few bucks more and have the same newbie writer in the room breaking story and giving notes. If I'm going to throw anyone a bone, it's going to be the writers assistant or script coordinator with a great spec. At least they're around, absorbing the show.
Q. What exactly is the reasons free lancers scripts have to be rewritten so much? I realize that they aren't privilege to information that those in the room would be, but could you give some examples of mistakes that freelancers make that they wouldn't if they were in the room?
Think of all the ways something could be a competent script by itself without being the show. Getting the character's voices wrong. Getting a character's personality wrong. Wrong tone. Not knowing that the set is only 20' long and you can't have a chase scene. Freelancers do all that and more.

To be fair, many of the freelancers I've worked with were not people I chose. In South Africa on CHARLIE JADE we had a bunch of guys who were already contracted when we came on board. Ditto on GALIDOR. Some more or less got the show. Some did not get the show at all. Some were not particularly competent writers. One guy turned in his draft and then went on a weeklong seminar so he wasn't available to write his second draft on schedule. I've had better experiences with people I selected. But still not great experiences. You bring in free lancers for the fresh perspective, but that's really more valuable on the 5th Season of LAW & ORDER -- where the staff is jaded, and the template is easy for a free lancer to copy -- than on the first season of a serial show where you're still finding your feet.
Also, why isn't the freelancer brought in the room for the time he/she is writing the episode? Wouldn't that solve many of the problems?
That's what they did with Rogers on EUREKA, for example. So long as the writer's agent didn't call in and start complaining that the writer was entitled to a weekly salary, that would solve many problems. But at the point where that writer has an office to plug in their laptop, and attends story meetings, what you're doing there is hiring a staff writer without paying them a salary. (Technically in the WGA deal, a "staff writer" in the specific sense is a writer who comes into the office to write their free lance script, but does not rewrite other people's scripts.) On CHARLIE JADE, rather than continue to work with multiple South African free lancers, we brought in Dennis Venter on a less than extravagant salary to write all the remaining South African scripts. (The co-production deal mandated a certain minimum number of SA-scripted episodes.) He did a lot better job for being in the room than he could have done from home.

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A couple of questions, Alex. What exactly is the reasons free lancers scripts have to be rewritten so much? I realize that they aren't privilege to information that those in the room would be, but could you give some examples of mistakes that freelancers make that they wouldn't if they were in the room?

Also, why isn't the freelancer brought in the room for the time he/she is writing the episode? Wouldn't that solve many of the problems?

By Blogger Tim W., at 1:43 PM  

I guess I wasn't thinking of shows in their first season, where, no matter how much a freelancer has read all the scripts, there's just not enough of a selection to get a good indication of certain character traits that possibly haven't even been introduced, yet and other issues. It's probably much easier to get good freelance scripts on a show that's been on for a while. I did a spec script for an episode of Entourage and as I had watched all 4 seasons in the last few months, I not only had a lot to go on, it was all fresh in my head. I knew each character quite well, each person's history and where their storylines would go.

How often is a spec of a show bought as a freelance script? I would think someone who knew (and liked) a show well enough to spec it would have a better feel for all those things you were talking about than someone brought in simply because he's done good work elsewhere. And with a spec, you already know what you are going to get before you pay. With a freelancer, it's more of a gamble.

By Blogger Tim W., at 5:28 PM  

Don't you guys have writers' assistants? Script coordinators? Office PAs who obsessively read and re-read the scripts?

If you're going to heavily re-write the script anyway, why not give the assignment to someone who would kill for the chance? I realize it probably sounds like a long shot, but I know BSG gave a script to a writers' assistant who ended up on staff for the last season. And if you look at the Emmy noms, I'm pretty sure that's the Mad Men writers' assistant listed as cowriter on "The Wheel."

By Blogger Harriet, at 6:25 PM  

Harriet that's a very, very different thing. And in fact, if you go back to the original discussion, that's the point I'll be making.

By Blogger DMc, at 1:25 AM  

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