In a previous post, I wrote about the Writers Guild of America labor union, which most professional screenwriters end up joining sooner or later when they do enough work on guild-signatory projects. But what about all the writers that work on non-guild projects and don’t have the protections of the WGA in place?
Generally speaking, a company or project doesn’t become a guild signatory unless there’s absolutely no choice in the matter, like when they want to work with a WGA writer. With all of the guild rules, minimums, extra expenses, etc. involved, why would they?
As a quick case in point, the WGA requires that all signatories pay into the Guild’s pension and health plans (currently at 7% and 9.5% respectively)… so if the company hires a WGA writer to do a $100,000 rewrite, the amount they actually have to pay is that full $100,000 to the writer, plus $7,000 to the WGA pension plan, plus $9,500 to the WGA health fund. In other words, that $100K rewrite actually costs the company $116,500.
And that’s just one of the many reasons why companies will avoid becoming signatory to the Guild if it can be avoided. In some cases it can’t (like when they want to hire a WGA writer) and that’s fine, but companies don’t typically go out of their way to sign up if they don’t have to, which is why non-guild deals are so prevalent, especially for writers who are just starting out and/or aren’t already in the Guild.
There are a lot of companies out there that don’t produce guild-signatory projects or hire guild writers and, as a screenwriter, chances are some (or even a lot) of the jobs early in your career may be for those kinds of companies and projects. There’s nothing wrong with working on non-guild projects or being a non-guild writer per se, but it definitely requires you to be extra diligent about your contract and the work you do.
If a company or project is not signatory to the WGA, they have no obligation to abide by any of the guild’s rules… which means there’s no minimum compensation, WGA arbitration to determine credit, residuals, or anything else. Non-guild deals are like the Wild West; anything goes, and it’s all a matter of what you’re willing to agree to. A rewrite for $500? Sure. No money of any kind until the movie starts production? Fair game. An unlimited amount of free revisions as a condition of selling the script? If you sign that agreement, it’s legit and enforceable.
As a counterpoint, just because a deal is non-guild does not mean it can’t be a good deal for the writer. I know writers who have non-guild deals that are better than the minimums guaranteed by the WGA. Although, it should be noted that those writers typically have a lot of experience, bargaining power, and/or reps who know how to negotiate non-guild deals.
In a lot of cases, a non-guild signatory might use WGA standards as a framework for their own dealmaking. Since anything goes, there’s nothing prohibiting them from agreeing to a deal that pays you WGA minimum, entitles you to the first opportunity to rewrite, pays out residuals, or even agrees to determine credits in accordance with WGA standards and practices (even if the WGA isn’t the entity that actually determines the credit), and mirroring most of the standard WGA provisions as closely as possible is an effective way for a company to show that they’re trying to be fair and equitable about an writing deal even if they’re not signatory to the WGA.
All of this is why it’s so important to have an attorney or one of your other reps look over a non-guild deal before you sign it. With no standards and no labor union to enforce your rights, you need someone looking out for your interests, and making sure you fully understand the terms of the agreement. I know it can be difficult to find an attorney or a rep willing to look out for your interests early on in your career, but it’s well worth the costs – even if you have to pay an attorney his or her hourly rate – to know that someone who understands these deals is on your side and helping point out areas of concern before you get locked into a bad contract.
The final word I’ll say on guild versus non-guild deals for now is this… think of making a writing deal like getting medical treatment. If a WGA deal is like going to an established, accredited hospital where you know there are certain policies and procedures in place to make sure everything is on the up and up, then a non-guild deal is like going to a private practice with a guy who has a degree from the University of Natural Medicine. Either one can be effective for your individual circumstance, but if you’re considering the latter, you owe it to yourself to make sure you’re comfortable with the conditions of your treatment before you put yourself under.