Free is not an optionA letter from one writer to another
The recent Writers’ Guild Survey about the extent to which writers are being asked to give away their work for free, or work on others’ ideas for free, produced a howl of anger as a response. Though aimed at all writers – authors, poets and dramatists for the theatre – it was particularly tailored for those who work in film and TV. A whopping 87% of writers had been asked to work for free, with everyone experiencing an upturn.
It’s clear that there one culprit to blame. Us. We writers are simply colluding in our own downfall, by agreeing to work for free. The worse the story of abuse – endless treatments, being sacked from your own projects, promise of cash that never materialises – the more you wonder, why? The answer is simple. We’re all passionate about our work and understand there’s a lot of give and take in the industry (well we mostly give). Now, however, it’s time to stand together and say no. This is exploitation.
Let me clarify what “free” actually means. All writers accept that there’s a certain amount of spec work – you have to write a spec script to prove you’ve got the chops. That’s fine. When you pitch your idea, you have to put it on a page or two to sell it. But that should probably be it.
As one writer in the survey wrote: “I'd distinguish between two kinds of pitches – the one I write to showcase my idea and the one they need to sell it. I expect to present my wares for no reward. The tipping point comes when they start giving me notes.”
Another writer says: “Just a ‘one-pager’. Enough to get a feel for the idea. But of course what they want is an entire series condensed into a couple of pages and to do this you need to have worked out the entire series, how it works, how the characters interact etc. There’s a fundamental difference between a ‘pitch’ and a treatment. A lot of TV ideas can’t be pitched in the same way as high-concept movies can. It’s a lot of work to ‘create’ a TV series.”
Time and again, development producers seem to be set up with a salary and an assistant, but no budget to pay for anything. Can this really be true? When it comes to a Top 10 writer or a special book, the funding will suddenly be there. Surely, saying they don’t have any money, actually means they don’t have any money for you.
The survey asked writers to name and shame the biggest culprits and it turned out to be nearly every indie around. If we’re willing to fund a company’s development (and often these are huge indies turning over millions, never mind in-house BBC), then they’re only too happy to let us. How many times have we been in meetings with producers and commissioners to discuss our idea and we’re the only one around the table who isn’t being paid? What’s more, if a producer is in a commissioner meeting with several ideas, which one will they really push – the freebie or the one they’ve paid for?
If we don’t put a value on our work – why would anyone else? Aren’t we just devaluing our own market by flooding it with free ones?
Giving a producer a free option is a really bad idea, then you’ve really lost control of it and they have de factor ownership. Try asking the producer if you can send it out to other people during this period and see the response. They believe it’s theirs, with no money changing hands.
All we have is our ideas. They are our currency. Writing isn’t about typing, it’s about thinking. That’s what we’re paid for.
So what’s to be done?
Say no to unpaid work. If you have an agent, make sure they know this and that they ask producers when they approach you, if they have money to pay for development. The Guild is going to suggest that a tick box is included on BBC editorial specification forms, which asks if a producer has paid the writer for the work.
Join the Writers Guild – there is safety in numbers and who else is going to care about us?
Other suggestions from the survey
“The BBC sets out a guideline/schedule for payments at all stages. Networks adhere to these guidelines. Independents get a 25% reduction on these rates. All writers must sign a Guild agreement before they work. All companies must sign a Guild agreement before they employ writers. Non-signatories are fined double what they would have paid for a Guild writer. Fines imposed by the BBC or network airing the shows. Easy.”
“What I’d like to see emerge from this campaign is a Guild-backed and enforceable principle that if a writer develops material for nothing, effectively bearing the cost of development, that constitutes an agreement to executive producer status and fees on the project.” That makes good business sense – if a producer wants something up front for free, then they should pay more later on.
The industry is taking steps to stop exploitation for runners and juniors. Now it’s our turn. It’s up to us to enforce that free is not an option.