Sunday, July 20, 2008

Staff vs freelance TV writing part 2

I guess I started a bit of a firestorm with my first post on the topic as you can see by the comments. After digesting the comments posted so far, I still feel that we should move closer to the American/WGA model of requiring a minimum number of freelance scripts assigned for every season of a TV show.

Two reasons for this:

1. As a guild, the WGC should be representing the entire membership. Our membership is not just made up of the lucky few who have staff jobs. And staff writers are still hired as independent contractors--they're still freelancers whose contracts are different than a single script contract the conventional freelancer signs. I think we all became writers because, in part, none of us really wants to work for a living. We live by our wits, literally. If I CHOOSE not to pursue a staff writing career, it doesn't mean I'm any less of a writer or a professional than one who does. I'm just deciding how to manage my career. Maybe I want to work--as I do--as an actor and a director as well. That doesn't mean I'm incapable of being a working writer, but if we reduce our definition of working writer to staff writer, then we need to profoundly change the IPA! If we have two classes of writers--first class being staff and underclass being freelance, then the WGC should really be trying to get an hourly rate instead of a weekly! And give lessons on punching time cards. But we're not all made up of people who choose to work 18 hours a day for six months on one show. The WGA understands this of their membership. I think the WGC and it's membership should understand it as well.

2. Flexibility. I went into this in my earlier post, as articulated brilliantly by Al Magee--but hiring a staff writer LOCKS the showrunner. Not everyone is good in the room. Maybe they're not as loud as another writer--bad for the room, but it doesn't mean they can't make a useful contribution to the show in delivering scripts. For every freelancer who's phoned it in, as one commenter suggests is the problem with freelancers, I suspect Al Magee and other showrunners can name a staff writer who hasn't earned their weekly and would have been better used to strictly write scripts.

Requiring a minimum number--and let's face it--we're probably talking about 1 per season--of freelance scripts--rewrites the paradigm and reminds showrunners that there are other ways of getting the scripts done besides putting everyone on staff. It puts in place a basic principle of our membership, which is that we are all independent contractors. That's why we can't collect EI. (Interestingly, in a more right wing environment like Hollywood, where writers are employees and give up their copyright, they still require the hiring of a minimum number of freelancers! If hiring freelancers hasn't caused the American TV industry to collapse, I don't think it's going to destroy the power and glory of Canadian showrunners, either.)

A non-union writer made a comment that I believe suggested the required hiring of non-union writers as well. Of course, that's NOT what I'm advocating. In fact, there's nothing stopping a showrunner from hiring non-union writers now. They just have to be hired under a Guild contract and paid no less than Guild minimums. But if a non-union writer wants to become a union writer, they need to break in, just like we all did--it's an open union and always has been. However, you do have to be hired by a signatory to our agreement in order to earn your way into the Guild. (To answer that commenter's question, a freelance writer who gets rewritten by a staff story editor will still get the writing credit for that episode--unless the story editor also has a writing contract for that episode and that would mean it's a co-written show contractually with all the attendant money split and credit issues.)

1 comment:

Terence said...

Thanks for this latest post and answering my questions, Sugith. Clearly the American model is better as it injects fresh blood/ideas into an existing show. As Canadians we need to think beyond our own border and see what works in other markets. This also makes our work more enticing to the world. Someone once said, “Success leaves clues!” We need to take note. Cheers!