Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Staff vs freelance TV writing

My chat today with Showrunner extraordinaire, Al Magee (not just in my opinion, he having won the Showrunner award at this year's Writer's Guild awards) on the set of Little Mosque on the Prairie led to an interesting delineation between the hiring obligations under the Writer's Guild of AMERICA agreement versus the Writer's Guild of CANADA IPA agreement. He pointed out that in the US, shows are obliged to hire a minimal number of freelance writers per season, whereas in Canada no such obligation exists.

A little explanation of how TV staffs their writing department may be necessary here.

TV shows hire a Showrunner first. His or her job is to oversee the creation and production of a season of a television series. He gets to hire writers, directors and actors as well as crew and oversee the writing, production and editing of the show. In most cases, he'll hire story editors on a weekly rate to work "in the room"--ie, literally attend meetings in a writer's room and break down the season's arc and each episode's stories. Story editors are usually guaranteed a certain number of scripts as well.

A freelance writer hired to write an episode would not be invited to be "in the room." They are expected to deliver their script and at that point, the story editor will take over if necessary--which it usually is--and hone the script for creative and production considerations.

Most shows in Canada hire few to no freelance writers to pen an episode "out of the room." There's no requirement that they do, but in the States there is, which allows some of the work to be spread out to freelance writers who may work on one or two or even three different series every year.

Al wondered out loud if this wouldn't be a good thing in Canada as well--the obligation to hire the occasional freelance writer--because if you choose someone who is not the vocal type as a story editor, while they may be a great writer, they don't bring much value added to the room. They would be more suitable as strictly a writer of episodes. But once the show is fully staffed as is usually the case in Canada, the showrunner has no room to maneouvre his or her hiring to bring in a freelancer. The obligation would keep that option open.

Having spent most of my writing career as a freelancer, I'd certainly applaud this initiative to reserve a script or two per season for a freelance scribe. In fact, when I began writing series television, virtually all the scripts were written on a freelance basis, but since about 1990, the industry in Canada has shifted to a more "American" model--staff writers hired to fill the room for a season and guaranteed a couple of episodes. It's ironic that the American model requires the freelance position!

What do you say, WGC? Think we can open the door a bit for the freelance writer--the bulk of our membership? (I know the answer--not now, as we will probably ratify just an extension to our current IPA agreement.) But this should be on the table for future negotiations.

Meanwhile, I hope Showrunners take a nod from Al and leave themselves the room to hire a freelancer or two every season. It means that freelancers must take more responsibility for the drafts they deliver, but it will also give Showrunners flexibility that they may not know they'll need at the start of a season.


AL said...

Hey Sugith. And here I thought we were just shooting the shit over lunch. Anyway, thanks for the kind words and for forwarding the conversation. A couple of points of clarity. The show running on this season of Mosque is very much a partnership between myself and comedy genius head writer Rob Sheridan. This years WGC show runners award was given to the awesome Mr. Peter Mohan. (I received the Alex Barris mentorship award.) I'm hoping we can get more freelancers on series. It brings a fresh energy, challenges the room, and it spreads the wealth among our colleagues. I like the idea that a writer can get a couple of freelance scripts and then buy the time to develop some original material, write a pilot, and get their own work going. What is the popular opinion on freelance scripts? Cheers AL

Sugith Varughese said...

Oops. Thanks for the clarifications, Al. And don't worry, I won't write blogs about EVERY conversation we have.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

I try and hire freelancers on every show I do -- but it is hard to do sometimes because what producers do is hire story editors for wages that are too low and then top up their salary with the option to write scripts -- the script fees "top up" their story editing salaries and it becomes a bit of a free for all as story editors try and make as much money as they can for the three to six months they are working on the gig.

it's a mixed blessing -- back in the day when i got started productions would hire tons of freelancers -- maybe 13 or a series of 26. because the freelancers were not involved in the "day to day" realities of the show their scripts would have to be extensively re-written usually by me -- it was through this process that i learned how to be a writer -- now I didn't make as much money then as I do now but i learned the skills that allowed me to charge what i now do to do a gig -- kind of a get fucked for the first five years but make good cash later.

but it is not all about me.

the thing that freelancers did bring was a fresh perspective to a show. when you work staff after a while you fall into patterns -- hiring freelancers can help you break those patterns and keep the show fresh. sometimes only a dozen of the freelancers lines might remain after a "staff" rewrite but sometimes those dozen lines may give you a new character arc than you can ride for a year.

in short, i think that the WGC should be trying to insist that there should be a number of mandatory freelance hires -- maybe two of a series of 13 and four on a series of 26 -- if only to stop the lucky ones of us who get to be staff writers to stop being such greedheads,

Alex Epstein said...

In my experience, every free lancer I've worked with mailed in a script that had to be HEAVILY rewritten by staff. So basically we were giving away the production fee to someone who was doing very little work compared to the staffers who had to make the episode fit the show.

I've also written free lance scripts, which is nice work if you can get it, because you nab the production fee for very little work. Even if you put all your heart and soul into it.

I would go out of my way to avoid hiring a free lancer. They aren't in the room, they aren't going to get the show, you're going to have to rewrite the whole thing. yourself for no money and no credit.

Far better to hire the same person as a junior story editor, have them in the room, getting the show, contributing to the magic of the room.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sugith. I'd love it if doors were open to freelance writers for Canadian TV shows. Now, are you advocating these opportunities be open to non-union writers as well as union writers? As a non-union writer the lack of opportunities in Canada can be frustrating. I don’t particularly agree that just because you’re a freelancer (and your not in the room) you don’t “get” the show. Most shows are formulaic and I think many writers can learn the format for a show (Characters, Act breaks, script Length, Story history… etc) without being in the room. A couple of questions I have are - do the freelancers that have their material re-written get screenplay credit? And what is the best way for a non-union writer to “break in” to writing for Canadian TV? Thanks, Terence.

Anonymous said...

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