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ALTERNATE ROUTES: Screenwriting Lessons from the Writer's Guild Negotiations

Marty Lang explains how the recent Writer's Guild negotiations garnered screenwriting lessons for beginning screenwriters and filmmakers. If you studied the way this negotiation played out, there are some undeniable truths that can help you in your work.

Marty Lang is a screenwriter, filmmaker, journalist and educator. His feature writing/directing debut, RISING STAR, won Best Premiere at the 2012 Seattle True Independent Film Festival, and was acquired for worldwide distribution by Content Film in 2013. His producing credits include the 2016 Independent Spirit Award-nominated OUT OF MY HAND, and BEING MICHAEL MADSEN, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah. Twitter: @marty_lang.

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ALTERNATE ROUTES: Screenwriting Lessons from the Writer's Guild Negotiations

If you're like me, your eyes were glued to the Web last Monday for any semblance of news about a possible Writer's Guild strike. And thankfully, the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and the union reached an agreement they both were happy with. At 12:15am last Tuesday morning, both sides declared a deal was completed. And the WGA negotiated successfully on many of the issues they held as priorities, including basic wage increases, health plan support, and improvements in SVOD residuals. If you're a union screenwriter, odds are you're pretty happy with the results of this round of collective bargaining.

But what if you're not in the union? Are there screenwriting lessons to be learned through this for beginning screenwriters and filmmakers? I think so. If you studied the way this negotiation played out, there are some undeniable truths that can help you in your work.

As negotiations progressed, the WGA released a post headlined “The Cost of Settling is Reasonable,” where they argued that “The undeniable truth is that these costs are very affordable for these profitable companies.” How affordable? The six largest AMPTP companies would have to pay $103 million, against operating profits of almost $51 billion in operating profits.

Some screenwriters took it to the next step, tweeting that those numbers add up to one third of one percent of their profits. No matter where you stand on the negotiations, framing the numbers that way is a clear, powerful way to present how little the union was actually asking for. One in particular, LOST co-creator Jeff Lieber, offered hilarious comparisons between AMPTP profits and other things. Some of my favorites:

Simple and clear. Reading them clearly showed me that the WGA was being reasonable. Pitches for your projects should be just as effective.

One of the most striking bits of news to come from the strike was the solidarity of union members to authorize a strike. An almost-unanimous 96.3% of voting members authorized a work stoppage if a deal couldn't be reached. This united front undeniably gave the WGA leverage in negotiations, showing the AMPTP that their members truly were ready to stop writing and start picketing. The negotiating committee said as much in a memo sent out announcing the agreement.

“Did we get everything we wanted?” the memo said. “No. Everything we deserve? Certainly not. But because we had the near-unanimous backing of you and your fellow writers, we were able to achieve a deal that will net this Guild’s members $130 million more, over the life of the contract, than the pattern were expected to accept.”

This can easily be transferred to the world of screenwriting. When you team up with a director and producer to create a project, it's so important to know you all have the same end goal in mind. Working toward a common goal makes your work easier – and more fulfilling – for everyone involved. If 50% of voting WGA members authorized a strike, it would have been easier for the AMPTP to hold a hard line in negotiations. But because writers were united, they got more of what they wanted. Remember that as you work toward getting your scripts into production: find collaborators that share your vision, and want to work hard to achieve it.

It's easy to say that a screenwriter should write only what they believe in, and not try to chase the quick buck. But that attitude takes on real-world significance when what you write pays your mortgage, or feeds your kids. Marc Bernardin, a former editor at The Hollywood Reporter and current writer for the Hulu TV show CASTLE ROCK, voted for the writers strike, even though he was “scared shitless.” With a family that needs health insurance, standing for what he believes takes on real risk.

“I know exactly what a strike will mean for those writers, like myself, who are at the bottom of the ladder and don't have the sacks of cash earned over a long career to cushion themselves,” Bernardin said. “I also know that, sometimes, the right thing to do is also the scary thing, that standing up and declaring what you're worth can shake you to the core.”

That's a great lesson to remember as you write. It might be unnerving to stand up for what you believe in as a writer, or to fight for something you feel is an important part of your story. But like Bernardin says, sometimes the right thing is the scary thing.

Now that this round of negotiations is over, the WGA and AMPTP live to bargain another day. Assuming union members approve the deal, screenwriters will be working under a collective bargaining agreement until 2020. But until then, new writers can use the lessons of the 2017 negotiations to help them in their quests to become union writers, too.

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Get more insights into the realities of a writer's life in
The Writer's Legal Guide: An Author's Guild Desk Reference