The WGA emerges from the long slog of a strike and difficult contract talks with a deal that is far richer and more comprehensive than most industry observers would have predicted last spring when the fitful negotiations began.
In short, the scribe tribe’s sacrifice of mounting a 148-day work stoppage — coupled with the extra pressure heaped on when SAG-AFTRA went out on strike July 14 — gave the WGA the leverage it needed to power through its agenda.
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Here’s a rundown of the key issues that have been settled in the tentative agreement that the Writers Guild of America reached Sept. 24 with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
MINIMUM TV WRITERS ROOM STAFFING
The WGA asked for a minimum of six writers for a series that has been greenlighted for at least six episodes per season. The agreement calls for at least three writer-producers (members who are more senior) to be hired on all series, and that number can include the showrunner. The number of members at the more junior writer or staff writer level will rise on a sliding scale depending on the number of episodes ordered. A six-episode series calls for at least three writer-level hires. Series than run 7-12 episodes per season have to hire five writers; series that run 13 episodes or more must hire six writers.
The new component of the contract makes an exception for solo-writer shows, such as “The White Lotus” or “Big Little Lies” in which all episodes are written by a single writer. In those cases, the writer’s initial deal with the studio, network or streamer must call for the writer to work as a solo act from the start. Or as described by the guild in its summary of deal highlights, the minimum staff levels are in force “unless a single writer is engaged to write all episodes.”
There are also new rules about the duration of employment for writers — and there is yet another new stipulation designed to ensure that less-experienced writers get the chance to observe the production and post-production process. Per the guild: “2 writer-producers must be employed for the lesser of 20 weeks of production or the duration of production along with the showrunner.” That addresses the concern that writers and writer-producers are not getting the exposure and apprenticeship time needed to develop into full-fledged showrunners.
For pre-greenlight rooms, aka during the development process, requirements are that if three writers are hired, at least three writer-producers (including the showrunner) be guaranteed 10 consecutive weeks of employment. That addresses complaints from writers that the short duration of contemporary writers rooms made for difficult work experiences and hard to amass enough earnings to qualify for health care. Moreover, if a series is born out of a pre-greenlight development room, at least two writer-producers who worked in the pre-greenlight room must be hired for the series writers room.
IMPROVED STREAMING RESIDUALS
The WGA fought hard and secured what the AMPTP dubbed a “success-based bonus” for made-for-streaming TV programs and movies. The paltry residual fees that writers receive from streaming platforms was one of the animating forces for the walkout.
The new formula pays writers a bonus for original TV shows and movies that are broad-based hits for subscription-based platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, Max, Hulu and other streamers. The bonus covers high-budget, made-for-streaming titles. Most original series on major streamers meet the high-budget threshold. But the emphasis on made-for-streaming titles means that older series that were originally produced for non-streaming platforms — i.e. the USA Network drama “Suits” that has recently been a popular binge watch for Netflix users — would not qualify for the bonus.
For made-for-streaming titles that are viewed by 20% or more of the service’s domestic subscribers in the first 90 days of release, or the first 90 days of any subsequent year that the title is on the platform, writers will receive a bonus ranging from $9,000-$16,400 for a TV episodes and $40,500 for a feature film with a budget over $30 million. This bonus structure takes effect for titles released after Jan. 1, 2024.
The bonuses are equal to 50% of the fixed domestic and foreign residual even though the viewership threshold is only based on U.S. subscribers. The focus on engagement across a service’s subscriber base was a solution that allowed for an apples-to-apples comparison for a smaller platform like Apple TV+ compared to Netflix with its more than 76 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada.
As expected, the WGA also will see a big hike in foreign streaming residuals coming under the new contract, similar to the terms baked in to the Directors Guild of America’s contract that was set in May. The foreign residual calculation is expected to yield a 76% increase in foreign residual payments over three years for the streamers with the largest global subscriber bases over three years. The WGA said Netflix’s foreign residual payments for an hourlong episode of TV will climb to $32,830 over a three-year time frame compared to $18,684 at present.
The WGA wrangled guardrails around the use of generative AI in the creative process, including a provision that gives the guild itself the power to challenge the use of writers’ existing work to train AI software programs. “AI-generated material can’t be used to undermine a writer’s credit or separated rights,” the contract language states.
Per the guild:
AI can’t write or rewrite literary material, and AI-generated material will not be considered source material under the MBA, meaning that AI-generated material can’t be used to undermine a writer’s credit or separated rights.
A writer can choose to use AI when performing writing services, if the company consents and provided that the writer follows applicable company policies, but the company can’t require the writer to use AI software (e.g., ChatGPT) when performing writing services.
The Company must disclose to the writer if any materials given to the writer have been generated by AI or incorporate AI-generated material.
The WGA reserves the right to assert that exploitation of writers’ material to train AI is prohibited by MBA or other law.
The contract enshires the policy of ensuring that the vast majority of screenwriters will get a “second step” or paid to do at least one rewrite of a draft screenplay. The AMPTP initially offered to agree to those terms only on wholly original screenplays — not projects that are derived from existing IP or reboots and remakes of older titles.
The WGA worried that that nuance terms would only encourage studios to pursue more remakes and IP-driven content. Under the new terms, per the guild, “A second step is required whenever a writer is hired for a first draft screenplay for 200% of minimum or less, including original and non-original screenplays.” It also applies to spec scripts that are purchased outside of the usual development process.
Another big gripe among feature writers in recent years has been slowness in the payment schedules for screenplays. Screenwriters who earn 200% of the WGA minimum or less must be paid half of that fee at the start of the deal. If a draft isn’t delivered within nine weeks, another 25% of the fee is due the writer with the remaining 25% to be paid after delivery of a draft.
Screenwriters working on made-for-streaming films will also see an 18% gain on minimum compensation for story and teleplay, which rises to $100,000 for movies with a budget of $30 million or more. This gain coupled with the foreign residual streaming increases will yield a residual of $216,000 over three years for titles airing on the largest services, which marks a 49% increase from the terms of the guild’s previous contract inked in 2020.
Writers who work as duos (or in larger groups) have long been handicapped under the guild contract to earn the minimum threshold each year to qualify for health care benefits. That’s because the fees made by duos had to be split between two writers or more, which made it harder to reach the earnings threshold. Now, for the purposes of calculating health and pension benefits, each writer will be credited with earning the full fee even though it is still split across the team. Per the guild, “Each writer on a writing team employed for a script will receive pension and health contributions up to the relevant cap as though they were a single writer, rather than splitting the applicable cap. In addition, when a writing team is employed on a series, the contribution for each writer on the team will be made on the full weekly minimum instead of one-half of the weekly minimum.”
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