WHAT A WGA STRIKE WILL MEAN FOR NON-UNION SCREENWRITERS
I arrived in Southern California in the summer of 1983, intent on becoming a professional screenwriter. Like most newbies, I divided my time between my “paying job” – working for a local public relations agency – and banging out the spec scripts I hoped would catch the attention of Hollywood agents. (When I say “bang out,” I literally mean bang out. This was the age of typewriters, years before personal computers and Final Draft.)
An advertisement in Daily Variety for original screenplays led to me landing my first agent. From there, I started getting paid assignment work writing independent features (non-union, low-budget) and sold a few options on my original material to actual “big name” producers. By the spring of 1988, I was working on a feature project with a former studio head-turned-independent producer and seemed to be on the verge of a career breakthrough.
And then the 1988 strike by the Writers Guild of America brought everything to a crashing halt. That strike ended up lasting a record 153 days and cost the L.A. economy an estimated $3 billion. It also taught me a lot about what non-union writers can and can’t do during union work stoppages.
Having been down this road before, I know many non-union writers – and there are a lot of you – that are wondering how a strike by the WGA starting May 1 is likely to affect your own burgeoning careers and employment possibilities. Having now lived through two major strikes – once as a non-union writer (1988) and later as a card-carrying member of the WGA (2007-2008) – I believe I can help clear up some of these questions.
First, some background.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is the labor union that represents professional screenwriters. The key mission of the WGA is to serve members by establishing minimum salaries and residual schedules, certifying and protecting creative credits, and managing a health insurance and pension plan. To become and remain a member, you must accumulate a minimum 24 “units” over a three-year period using a guild formula based on employment and/or sales with a “signatory” company, that is a studio or production company that has signed an agreement with the WGA to hire only union writers and abide by its rules.
All the big studios – Disney, Universal, Paramount, Sony, etc. – are WGA signatories, as are the broadcast TV networks.
Most big production companies — especially those like Marvel and Lucasfilm, which are studio-owned – are signatories as well. They can only hire WGA writers, and anyone who sells a spec script to one of them must join the WGA.
The issues in this go-around of contract negotiations cover everything from how writers get paid for writing streaming series to a proposed imposition of restrictions on the use of artificial intelligence (AI). If the WGA and the studios can’t come to an agreement, the union will likely call on its 10,000-member union to strike. That means striking writers will no longer be able to sell scripts. Writing – and rewriting — for existing TV series will stop. No more deals can be signed with signatory companies. Movies and TV series with completed scripts can continue to shoot, but no new material will be created until the strike ends. (However, you can count on striking writers to use this time to work on spec scripts they’ll market when the strike is over.)
So, what does this mean for you?
First, even if you call yourself a screenwriter, if you’re not in the WGA, you don’t need to strike. You can continue writing, talking to agents, and even meeting with production companies that are being struck. What you can’t do is formalize any deals, sign any contracts, or get paid for work by signatory companies. If you do any of these things, you can get “blackballed” by the WGA, that is, be labeled a “scab” (union-buster) and be permanently banned from future union membership, something that could severely impact your long-term screenwriting career possibilities.
This doesn’t mean you can’t seek paid work during the strike or attend a networking event like a pitch festival.
In this digital age, there are hundreds of companies producing everything from web series to independent films that don’t use – and never have used – WGA writers. (Frankly, they can’t afford them.) In the broadcast and streaming media, game shows, reality shows, documentary series, and many other so-called “non-scripted” programs use – and will continue to use – non-union writers. The same goes for shows produced outside the United States. None of these will be affected by a WGA strike and you are free to seek work there without future repercussions. You also might be able to sign an option or make a sale with a major studio, as I did during the 1988 strike…
I was able to get work in syndicated TV working for a “shell company” created by a major studio – a WGA signatory – specifically for the purpose of hiring non-union talent. My contract was with this independent company, not with the studio, so I was not in violation of WGA rules. (They were also able to pay the writers less and didn’t have to contribute to any health and pension programs.) I suspect that, should the WGA strike in May, we can look forward to the creation of similar “shell companies” to produce new lower-budget screen and streaming content. And some of these companies are likely to become WGA signatories when the strike is over, as the company I worked for did after that record-breaking work stoppage.
In short, should a strike be called – and there’s no guarantee — as a non-union writer, you still have plenty of opportunities, maybe even more than ever before, to advance your career. Not only will non-union writing jobs continue to be available, but agents and producers will have a lot of free time to meet with people and look at projects they would otherwise not be able to consider. And there’s also the possibility the aforementioned scenario that happened to me could happen to you, too. So don’t wait the strike out. Use this window, if it should arise, to establish the relationships and lay the groundwork you need for post-strike success. – William Winkler
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