The Screenwriter’s Bill of Rights

With the amount of available outlets for filmed entertainment exploding exponentially each year, the demand for screenwriters at nearly all levels below the “Studio Tentpole Writer Line” grows ever higher.

But so does the number of producers and companies jumping into the filmed entertainment sector, at all levels, from Podcasters to YouTube Humor Channels (like my friend and former co-worker Epic Lloyd) to low-budget (yet still multi-million-dollar) feature films and series.

If you’re in the Writers Guild of America, you’re all set. You’re guaranteed a set amount of money for a set amount of work, and you’ve got your union backing you up and defending you against the big-moneyed producers who seem to think that screenwriting is one of the least important, most-exploitable elements on their pictures.

But if you’re not in the WGA, and you don’t have a good agent, manager, or attorney, you could be fighting an uphill battle when it comes to protecting yourself on a smaller film or project.

At the same time, screenwriters need to get on smaller films and projects — a lot of them usually — in order to build that “cred,” make those connections, gain that vital, real-world writing experience. If you’re writing for a project whose producer is a WGA signatory, you can build your credits and work your way into the union. But if they’re not a signatory, it’s not always easy or even possible to translate all the work you do for a particular film into steps forward that can actually help your screenwriting career.

That being said, there are a few basics that we screenwriters can demand of our employers (or collaborators, if not getting paid). In fact, they’re not even “basics.” When you really think about it, they’re Rights that every new screenwriter should be entitled to.

The Screenwriter’s Right to a Fixed Number of Screenplay Drafts

I worked on a project in 1997-1998 where the producer had me churning out draft after draft, some 40 in total. I was a new screenwriter and I was promised a 10% share of the film. Joe Mantegna was attached, as were a few other celebrities, and I was a part of the actual process that got Joe attached, so I knew it was the real deal.

But 40 drafts? The producer ultimately moved on from me to another screenwriter. More accurately, he was working with me and several other screenwriters at the same time and, without us knowing it, would be asking each other to incorporate the best parts of each others’ scripts into our own versions, hoping that through this sort of odd “assembly line” process he could finally land on the script he wanted.

I was bamboozled, and never saw dollar one. To be fair, I was not an epic, genius screenwriter at the time (and nor am I now, as far as I can tell), but all the same, I should’ve outlined with the producer, in detail, exactly how many drafts I was expected to write, what precisely encompassed a single “draft,” and the agreed turnaround time for each.

Any screenwriter, no matter what level, deserves to contract with a producer for a specific limit of drafts, and to be contractually bound to exactly what makes up a specific “draft” as a unit of measurement. For example, is a draft just a few words here and there being changed? Or is it 500 words being changed? Or is it 2500 words being deleted? I’m getting a bit into the weeds here, but the point is, screenwriters are owed to be limited to a fixed number of drafts, and the producers they work with owe it to the screenwriters to both agree to and stick to that fixed number of drafts.

The Screenwriter’s Right to Compensation

Screenwriters at all levels deserve to get paid. Period.

But that’s not always possible, and it’s not always smart for a screenwriter to demand as much, especially when just starting out and looking to hone her chops or make connections or get a few initial credits under her belt.

Whenever you agree to write for a project or let a producer of any level use your work, try to get paid.

If you can’t get paid, at least let paid compensation be your first bargaining chip. Don’t immediately take it off the table. Even if you know you probably aren’t going to get paid, let it be something of value that you trade away, in order to get something else in return.

For newer screenwriters, compensation other than cash can be just as valuable, depending on what you’re trying to do, and what the compensation actually ends up being.

Backend points, points off the gross, a split of the Kickstarter campaign, having the producer set up a pitch meeting for you at Bad Robot, the producers paying your rent for 3 months, you name it. It’s not the form of the compensation that matters; it’s whether or not that compensation has value to you.

Like I said, screenwriters deserve to get paid, but short of that, you can still be compensated for your hard work. Get compensated. For more on working with producers, check out our Writer’s Guide on Working with Independent Producers here.

The Screenwriter’s Right of Immunity From Idiotic Script Notes

Even if you’re a WGA screenwriter, you’re going to be working with a lot of people who really shouldn’t be giving script notes. Before most studio scripts get made these days, they’ve got to run through marketing, foreign, and home video departments before they’re cleared for production by the traditional studio heads. Studio heads which, in the current corporate climate, seem to be more bound to Wall Street and their profit-demanding stockholders now more than ever.

But idiotic notes can happen anywhere, at any level of film production. And screenwriters deserve to be protected from them whenever possible, especially if you’re working for little or no money or compensation. 

The Screenwriter’s Right to a Straightforward, Binding Deal-Memo or Contract

No matter what size film you’re working on, screenwriters are entitled to a clear, straightforward, binding legal contract, whether that contract is a simple deal memo, or a full-blown 2-page contract. Signed by the producers or people in control. Notarized by a notary public.

Each line of the contract needs to be in English (or your native language) — clear, understandable, non-legalese English (or your native language).

Each term in the contract needs to spell out exactly what the two parties — screenwriter and producer(s) — are trading each other.

In my experience, 1-2 pages will do just fine to cover my screenwriting butt, but some may be just fine with a simple, 3-paragraph deal memo.

If you’re not clear on the terms of your contract, you will be exploited. Make sure you understand it, make sure you insist upon terms that protect you. Use this articles as a starting point to define your terms.

The Screenwriter’s Right to a Non-Watered-Down Screenwriting Credit

My friend recently worked on a couple of features. One that was funded by an oil company with an interest in putting out a “message movie” that basically attempts to undermine a certain animal-protection organization, and the other funded partially by an indie producer and partially by overseas presales.

In one case, he disagreed with the direction of the film so much that he insisted the producers remove his name from the screenwriting credits. But for the other film, he was proud to have his name as one of the screenwriters.

Unfortunately, other parties on the film — parties that had little or nothing to do with the story or actual screenplay — insisted upon having their name(s) on the film under a Story By credit and under his name as one of the Co-Writers.

When my friend complained, the producers argued “What are you mad about? Your name is still on the film as screenwriter.”  But what they couldn’t understand, or perhaps did understand but didn’t care, was that adding more names to the list of screenwriters — especially when the names haven’t done nearly the amount of work nor contributed nearly as much as the actual screenwriters — actually diminishes the credit of the true screenwriter(s). (By the way, here’s our take on how screenwriters can win arguments with producers).

Screenwriters are entitled to have their credit remain untouched, but are also entitled to have the list of screenwriters or story by credits on that film remain true to the relative contributions of the actual, real writers. Screenwriting and story by credits — heck, any credits on a film other than maybe Associate Producer — should not be handed out as vanity credits, nor for political or financial purposes. Insist upon it in your terms!

The Screenwriter’s Right to Participate in All Aspects of Production and Post

If it’s a small film, and you feel the compensation you’re being offered is not on par with your value, and you feel you’d like more exposure to prep, production, or post, you’re well within your right as the writer of that project to insist upon having full access to participate in the entire production process. On set, in the production office, in the editing room — if you feel that you need that real-life production experience, insist upon it.

All of that access may be beneficial towards your growth as a writer and filmmaker, but even better than that is that you’ll likely be able to maintain some sort of influence on the actual project itself as it goes forward, depending on whatever terms you agree to with your producers, and how smooth the chemistry between/among you and the crew turns out to be.

The Screenwriter’s Right to Their Words As Written

Again, especially on smaller non-WGA films, you may want to insist upon the right to not have your words changed. While it’s true that every production in the world strays somewhat from the printed word of the screenwriter — whether it’s an adlib from an actor, or a beat that could use fewer syllables for the director to have his talent react to. Be flexible, always. The chaos of film production requires it. But if the film you’re writing for starts to look nothing like that film you wrote, make sure that you have the right to insist upon sticking to the “book,” or that you have…

The Screenwriter’s Right to Remove Their Name From The Final Film

Every non-union screenwriter should be able to “Alan Smithy” herself should the film deviate drastically from her written words, and should all her failsafes fail to prevent such a thing from happen.

My aforementioned friend did this just last year, when he felt the project became too distant, too different from the one he and the other writer originally put to page. It was a tough decision. A feature screenwriting credit is a major deal for us struggling screenwriters, and walking away from it isn’t easy. But ultimately, he felt the credit would hurt him more than help. The film was really that bad. Not from a production standpoint, but from a political standpoint. What the film started as was entertainment with a message. What it ended up becoming as the producers rewrote the film, was a message, and that was about it.

The Screenwriter’s Right to a Producer or Associate Producer Credit (bonus)

Finally, if you’re working for free, cheap, or for other non-standard and/or dubious compensation in exchange for your screenwriting, you have the right to ask for a producer or Associate Producer credit.

An Associate Producer credit doesn’t always open doors, nor does it usually bring in a hefty paycheck, if any, but it can add to your resume or IMDB in a small way. Should the small film you’re working on suddenly blow up and get a 2,000-screen release, even a small Associate Producer credit could feasibly strengthen your bargaining position or put you in front of others when hitting up the producers for any deferred pay or participation revenue.

Just because we’re not WGA yet doesn’t mean we don’t have rights. Know your rights, agree to them with your fellow aspiring screenwriters, and hold firm. Hacky, inexperienced, or even devious Producers will exploit us, but only if we let them.

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