1/16/2008

DGA/WGA Member Busts Myths

UPDATE 1/17/08: The "Simpsons" movie was not WGA covered. References to it being covered have been removed.
Melissa Jo Peltier, DGA and WGA Member, recently posted on a DGA board the following myths and truths about the WGA negotiations with the CEOs. She permitted us to excerpt it here. To see her entire post go here.

Myth #1) "The only sticking points with the WGA are reality and animation."

Truth is, there were four other sticking points on the table besides reality and animation - and two of them were issues the AMPTP cares MUCH more about than reality and animation. These issues are:

1) The fact that the WGA would NOT agree to abstain totally from work stoppage in solidarity with other striking unions (like the DGA or SAG or IATSE)...

...and 2) The fact that the AMPTP wanted us to take "distributor's gross" out of the formula for internet residuals, and accept "producer's gross" instead.

Anyone who has ever had a piece of a successful film or TV project and had to fight for their fair share in the courts knows that when studios are forced to open their books, "producer's gross" turns out to be translated in studio speak as "Whatever I SAY we made" - (and usually, what they say they "lost") on the film.

Myth #2). "Studios will never accept animation writers as part of the WGA"...and/or "Animation writers are already covered under IATSE and don't want to be WGA."

FYI, here's some TRUE history: about ten years ago, THE SIMPSONS television show writers fought tooth and nail and finally DID win the right to be represented by the WGA. (No one could argue convincingly that THE SIMPSONS wasn't "written", although FOX surely tried to!). So the argument that the studios will "never" accept animation writers in the guild is proven fallacious right there.

Feature animation has been highly scripted ever since the day that Mike Eisner famously said, "I don't get storyboards." Thereafter, most feature animation has been developed in the same way that live action features have. Without WGA protection, writers of 120-page dramatic scripts who create concepts, characters, backstories, dialogue, etc. can be asked to deliver draft after draft, and have no share in back end that runs to the hundreds of millions and often includes more mega million dollar merchandising such as toys, games, clothing etc. Remember, these are the same films that are paying superstars like Cameron Diaz, Mike Myers, Tom Hanks, and Owen Wilson their going rates (per their SAG contracts) to do voiceovers.

Myth #3) "Reality writers don't even want to be in the guild."

Here's a news flash - REALITY WRITERS DESPERATELY WANT TO BE IN THE GUILD. DESPERATELY

This one really gets me because I am a writer IN the guild and most of my work is in reality. I also co-own a reality production company that is a signatory to both guilds. We were one of the first in cable reality to do so, I'm proud to say, and over the past decade we have helped convince other small production companies to do the same.

Because our budgets are so small (a one hour non fiction cable show can be around the same as the craft service budget for one episode of a scripted drama series), and because the cable networks rerun our shows ad nauseum, we use a limited buyout deal on the Hitchcock formula that we negotiated with the WGA. Our writers get their P&W covered, and they are protected by WGA laws including arbitration in case company owners like myself and my partners unscrupulously decide to take the writer credit for themselves. In fact, our writers have earned several WGA awards nominations for reality/non-fiction/documentary writing that would not have been possible had we not been guild signatories. We also get the best writers in non-fiction this way. BECAUSE THE BEST WRITERS ARE GUILD AND THEY WANT TO CONTINUE TO WORK WITH GUILD PROTECTION.

What writer in her/his right mind wouldn't want that kind of MINIMAL protection?

I have yet to speak to a fellow reality/non-fiction writer who doesn't want to be in the guild.

11 comments:

Geo Rule said...

I said this early on, some jujitsu is required here re jurisdiction. The side of Mom & Apple Pie is insisting on free and fair votes by all writers proposed to be covered as of a certain day IN THE RECENT PAST (so producers can't just fire all the known pro-union people before the vote).

Then let the chips fall where they may. Let the AMPTP try to sell that "power grab" malarkey against that position. The truth is WGA is on the side of "let my people go!" and AMPTP is Pharoah. Do NOT give them even an inch to credibly position it any other way.

Jake Hollywood said...

Finally: truth is advertising. I like it!

Now, somebody run over to the AMPTP and tell them about this, I don't think they know about truth. And it might be helpful.

Jay said...

-->Feature animation has been highly scripted ever since the day that Mike Eisner famously said, "I don't get storyboards.

The WGA doesn't deal with levels of scriptedness. There is written and not written. All animation is written. Period.

No animated features or television shows, no matter what production process they employ, are made without any consideration beforehand of the story to be told and the dialog that might be used to help tell that story. The fact that some of them may not have a film format script is immaterial. We did not use traditional scripts on SpongeBob SquarePants but our show was written...and even under Walt Disney himself, animated movies did not magically acquire working story structures and dialog between greenlight and exhibition. Writers, working under other credits, and sometimes under no credit at all, wrote the shows. They may not even have been aware that they were providing writing services, seeing themselves as directors or storyboarders, but they wrote.

If reality shows, which are so often sculpted out of existing material, are written, then surely animation--ALL ANIMATION--every frame of which is created from the ground up, must be written too--without any further qualification.

--Jay Lender

Harold Hecuba said...

Wonderful post, great arguments. Only one error. While The Simpsons TV series is and has been covered by the WGA for almost ten years, The Simpsons movie was not. Sadly, Feature Animation, including The Simpsons movie, remains outside of WGA coverage.

VoodooChicken said...

So what exactly does the Animation Guild provide/not provide that writers would need specific WGA coverage? It's one thing to organize where there's no previous organization (ie Reality shows), but it's another matter encroaching on another union's supposed turf. If the Animation Guild hasn't provided enough for its members, then sure, maybe WGA is the answer.

Joe said...

All "the best writers in non-fiction" want to work on The Dog Whisperer?

Sounds like there's another "myth" that needs to be busted...

Michael said...

WARNING! THIS POST CONTAINS COMPLICATED AND NUANCED ARGUMENTS!

On point 2) of Myth 1): I think your post mischaracterizes the issue, at least in terms of how 'producers gross' vs. 'distributors gross' applies to TV.

There is a lot of fuzzy accounting about studio profits. But remember, the AMPTP profit-based residual proposal has, thankfully, been off the table for a while. So the suggestion that basing internet residuals off of 'producers gross' would leave the residuals vulnerable to the fuzzy accounting of profits isn't really relevant-- it's 'gross' not 'net.' What *is* relevant is a different kind of fuzzy accounting, but at the risk of sounding glib, the issue is much narrower than you're making it out to be, and also, largely containable by the audit rights which the AMPTP has offered.

In TV, 'producer's gross' does have a fairly cut-and-dried definition: it's the license fee that the network pays to the studio per episode of the show. In principle, I think it is more reasonable for residual rates to be derived from the producers' gross than the distributors' gross, since it's the producer who pay the residuals, not the distributor

Of course, the problem is that around 60-70% of scripted shows are self-dealt, which means that the distributor (the network) and the producer (the studio) are owned by the same company. (ABC/Touchstone, for example.) So, deriving residuals from the producers' gross leaves the WGA susceptible to artificial deflation of license fees in self-dealt shows.

This is a problem. But really not that big of a problem, frankly. And I think the WGA has inflated the importance of this issue.

Let me explain why it's not that big of a problem. In a typical show budget, maybe 20% is BTL salaries. And another 30% is actor salaries. And maybe 10-15% is writer/producer fees. These parts of the budget / licensing fees can't really be misrepresented or inflated-- they're just there, and they don't go up or down depending on whether or not the show is self-dealt. That leaves about 35% of the budget (for facilities, truck rentals, etc.) which CAN be deflated in self dealt shows. And often is. But not by all that much. Maybe facilities get over-charged by 50%. So, 35% of the budget/licensing fee in a self-dealt show might be 50% more than the market value. Which means the overall producers' gross might be under-reported by 20%.

So (and sorry this is a long post, but it's an important and complex point, and I don't get the sense too many WGA members have thought it through), when people talk about how it would be incredibly awful to derive TV residuals from PG rather than DG, the real-world translation of what they're saying is "if we derive residuals from producer's gross rather than distributor's gross, writers might get cheated out of about 20% of their residuals on the slightly more than half of prime time scripted shows which are self-dealt."

And the thing is, yeah, that sucks a little bit. but it's not the kind of wholesale robbery some in the WGA say this issue is about.

And also, important point, we'd have audit rights, so egregious cases of this could be counteracted. (There's a side issue here, which is buried in the most wonkish of the famous AMPTP Six Ultimatums, about whether those audit rights would be based on a Fair Market Value assessment from a third party, and I do think this is something the WGA might want to fight for, but that's complicated too, and this post is too long already.Except to say that I don't know how we would really determine Fair Market Value for streaming rights yet in the first place.)

Captain Obvious said...

Geo Rule said:
"The truth is WGA is on the side of 'let my people go!' and AMPTP is Pharoah. Do NOT give them even an inch to credibly position it any other way."

Wow, so many of your comments keep giving me belly laughs. Kudos.



Jake Hollywood said:
"Now, somebody run over to the AMPTP and tell them about this, I don't think they know about truth. And it might be helpful."

The AMPTP can't handle the truth.

Harold Hecuba said...

To answer voodoochicken: "So what exactly does the Animation Guild provide/not provide that writers would need specific WGA coverage?"

The simple answer: RESIDUALS. TV shows "covered" by the Animation Guild include such hits as "Spongebob Squarepants", "Kim Possible", etc. If it's on Nickelodeon, Disney Channel or Saturday Morning, then it's not WGA and there are zero residuals. Zero -- for episodes that are rerun literally thousands of times, earning many many millions for their studios/networks.

Craig said...

The question of animation seems complicated, but it's really not. As Jay said, animation is written. Since the 1960s and "The Flintstones", the vast majority of television animation is created with scripts, just like all TV programs. Feature animation is scripted as well (with story work also done on boards by story artists, based on the scripts).

The "Simpson's" movie was not done under a WGA contract, despite the series (and all other Fox Network prime time animated series) being covered by the WGA. But that doesn't mean the WGA doesn't or cannot cover animated features. The Guild can. And will.

There are many differences between what the WGA can provide to writers and what IATSE Local 839 can provide. 839 is now called The Animation Guild but for decades it was The Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union, which gives you a picture of its focus. Writers make up about 10% of the membership of 839 and, while 839 members do receive pension and health coverage, the focus of that organization is not on benefiting its writer members.

One example is that the going rate for half-hour animated scripts has not changed in well over 10 years. Ten years ago (and some will say 20), the going rate was $6000. But the 839 minimum was closer to $3000. Their minimum has gone up, slowly, basically at the rate of inflation. It's only in the last year or two that it's crossed the $6000 mark and the going rate (at 839 signatory companies) has increased to match it. When I started writing animation, the 839 minimum was about $3000. When the companies are willingly and standardly paying double the union minimum, you know there's something wrong.

Other problem areas that 839 isn't working to fix include credits, arbitration, requiring written pitches (sometimes of significant length and detail), cattle call meetings, etc.

Some animation is currently covered by the WGA, but, unfortunately, not a lot. Some animation is covered by 839 -- more than we cover. But a lot is currently non-union.

Craig.

John Aboud said...

Harold Hecuba correctly points out above that the Simpsons movie was not WGA covered. In fact, no feature animated film ever has been covered. The reference to it in Melissa's post has been removed.