So, you’re a writer and you’ve written some scripts that have been optioned, maybe even produced, or someone hired you to write on a series. Congratulations, you’re off to a great start. Now what? Keep writing, because that’s your job as a professional.
If you are hired to write for a company who is a signatory of the Writers Guild of America, either East or West, you will be required to join. A signatory company is any company that has signed the WGA’s collective bargaining agreement.
First, a very brief history. Books have been written about this fascinating topic. I encourage you to research it for a more in depth understanding. Founded in 1921, the Screen Writers Guild was the recourse of ten film writers who were frustrated by their wages being reduced by the studios. TV writers were added in 1948, and it formally became the Writers Guild of America (east and west) in 1954. Today, the Guild has thousands of members who write in a variety of formats including movies, television, streaming, and new media, encompassing scripted, unscripted, documentaries, news, animation, podcasts, and video games.
Let’s get this out of the way before it becomes confusing. The WGA has two branches: Writers Guild of America, east, and Writers Guild of America, west. They are both labor unions whose primary purpose is to fight to protect your rights as a writer. Both branches accord the same rights and protections to their respective memberships. Their membership requirements are mostly similar.
How do you decide which branch to join? It’s taken care of for you by your geographic location. If, at the time you join, you live east of the Mississippi River, then you are WGA,e, and if you live to the west, WGA,w. See? Simple.
The WGAs primary purpose is to enforce the collective bargaining agreements it has negotiated on behalf of the membership. In furtherance of this, the Guild provides three main services, the Minimum Guarantee, Residuals, and Credit Protection.
Minimum Guarantee: The Guild has negotiated with the studios, networks and streaming services, a floor for how much you are paid as a writer. And here is where it starts to dip into confusing. Depending on whether you are writing a screenplay or a teleplay, the length of that teleplay, on what platform it is distributed, and what year it is, will determine how much you are paid. But you cannot be paid less that what the Guild has negotiated for your particular situation.
The best place to determine your particular situation pay grade is the Schedule of Minimums, which is found on the Guild website. The Schedule of Minimums is mostly a series of charts that outline what you get paid under the Minimum Basic Agreement.
This is where confusion sets in --
Did you write a story or treatment? Is it someone else’s idea or did you dream it up while dancing in the desert with 50,000 of your closest friends? Did you write a first draft of the script? A rewrite? A polish? What is the intended budget of the final project? High Budget is considered everything $5M and over. Low Budget is of course… under $5M. How long is your project? Is it 15 minutes or less? Is it a very robust 120 minutes or even longer, because every word has its particular place in space and time and to cut even one syllable would be an unraveling of cosmic proportions? And finally ask yourself, is it theatrical? Or network? Or basic cable, premium cable, streaming, new media, podcasting (radio play = audio/acoustic performance).
If you can figure all that out, congratulations, you’ve earned a PhD in Guild Mathematics. Me? I’d just look at my paycheck and thank the Guild for all its bounty. Because if you are being under paid, or not paid at all, the Guild will pursue the offender to the ends of the earth and extract what you are owed. On that you may rely, just ask anyone who’s received a check for foreign levies.
Which leads us to --
Residuals: Residuals are compensation paid for the reuse of a credited writer's work. That means you get paid every time your creation is exhibited for an audience. A tiny amount, sure, but it adds up. Actors get them too, as do Directors. So, writers, don’t think you are special. But they are lovely and generally come once a quarter, for as long as your creation is out in the world. Unless you opted (voluntarily or not) for a buy-out, in which case you received all your money up front.
The amount of residuals calculated is determined by your credit. Do you have sole credit? Do you share credit?
Credit: Being a “credited writer” in this case has nothing to do with Equifax or the number 540. This is your moment in the sun, your name up in lights. Credit means the coveted “Written by” preceding you name for all the world to see. The producer submits their suggestion for credit to the WGA, and your Guild is the ultimate arbiter of who gets credit on any particular script. If there are multiple writers, the Guild decides who gets credit, if not all writers are to share credit. If you, as a writer, disagree, you can call for arbitration, but they still decide.
Additional Benefits: In addition to its three main functions outlined above, the WGA provides educational opportunities in the form of programs, seminars and events for the membership, it advocates for legislation on issues of interest to writers, and provides health insurance and a pension plan to those members who qualify. And, saving the best for last, screeners! You get to vote for the WGA awards and are sent scripts and videos of the nominated projects.
If you’ve overcome the impulse embodied in Grouch Marx line, “I don't want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member,” then --
First, you must have acquired “24 units” at any time during the three years prior to your application. I will explain the “units” thing shortly. Be patient. You’ve gotten this far.
There is no one way to acquire your membership card. Everyone has their own path to follow. However, the following are the two most common types of membership.
Associate: You are eligible to join if you are hired to write a script by, or have sold a script to, a Guild signatory company but don’t have all the required units yet. You can pay $100 per year for a total of three years in your attempt to collect all those coveted units. While you are not accorded all the rights and privileges of a full member, you are put on the mailing list, you can attend lectures (currently all online), participate in committees (also online) and see the free screenings shown in the Writers Guild Theater (DAMN YOU COVID).
Current: This is the coveted status. You’ve satisfied the unit requirement. You are now invited to pay an initiation fee of $2,500 and you’re in. All the rights and privileges of membership are accorded to you. Contrary to what’s circulated in the rumor mill, there is no late-night hooded initiation rites. Or is there?
You’re in! Congratulations!
Keep in mind that your membership requires you to pay dues. How else would we pay for all those free screenings, and health care, pension fund, and legal fees for the collective bargaining? No gripes tolerated here. The Guild does a ton of stuff for you as a writer so that you can spend your time playing solitaire, pretending it’s research, and not chasing down producers for the money they owe you.
Before I sign off, let’s try and understand... The Pesky Unit Question.
24 units in the preceding 3 years? Here's what you need to know.
Based on whether you’ve sold to or been hired by a Guild signatory company, the unit system is broken down by your particular situation.
You get a set number of units for each the following: a screenplay, teleplay, radio play (think audio only, no visuals), story, bible, breakdown, rewrite, polish and an option. The calculated number of units depends on the length and type of the project (theatrical, television, radio play, primetime vs. non-primetime, etc.).
To get all 24 units in one fell swoop, sell or be hired to write a feature length screenplay for theatrical release, or a teleplay or radio play that is 90 minutes or longer. Also, you can be hired to write the bible for a television serial or primetime miniseries that is at least four hours long. It gets very esoteric.
And don’t forget, you are credited 2 units for each week you are hired as a writer for a signatory company, so if you work 12 weeks? Bam! 24 units and you’re in. Only work 6 weeks? Then you’ve acquired units that count toward an associate membership, but not quite enough for a current membership.
If you are hired to write a script for a television or streaming one hour (60 minutes or more but less than 90 minutes), this is typically known as a freelance script, since you are not hired to be “on staff,” you’ve earned 12 units. If you are on staff, then you get the script plus the weekly hire units.
Or if you sell or are hired to write a story for a television program that is at least 60 minutes but less than 90 minutes long, you will earn 8 units towards current membership.
Or… Or… Or… it really all depends on your particular situation. Sell a feature length script, get hired to write on a TV show? You’ll be invited to join the Guild. Write stories, bibles, breakdowns, you will eventually get there, probably sooner than the three-year window, as long as you keep working. All rules are meant to be broken, so if you don’t make the 3 year time frame, you can ask that an exception be granted.
The bottom line is that you can sell fifty scripts but if those sales are not to a signatory company, then they will not count towards your WGA membership and you will probably not receive fair market value as compensation. So, while it is very nice to have someone interested in optioning/buying your script, and tempting to take advantage of that interest, make sure they are a GUILD SIGNATORY COMPANY. Otherwise, they are most likely taking advantage of you.
I am happy to try and answer any further questions if you contact me via Stage 32.
Check signatory status here.
Get it from the horse’s mouth (also an explanation of the breakdown of units): here.
Chris, a former Prosecutor, is a writer and filmmaker who has served as a legal consultant for numerous films and television projects. She worked both for Universal and Disney in their business and legal affairs departments. She also consulted on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit before joining their staff as a writer.
Currently, Chris develops, writes, and produces independent feature, documentary, and TV projects. She is a Member of the New York State Bar Association and the Writers Guild of America, west. She is honored to be chosen as the Grand Prize Winner for the 4th Stage 32 TV Writing Contest (2019)
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