Heading into the 2017 contract negotiations, I was writing a limited series for ABC and a feature film for a Chinese Production company. I was working hard on projects I loved. Living the dream.
And yet… If you had told me when I started my career that I could be writing two projects at once and feel financially squeezed, I would have said, ‘Impossible.’ The Chinese Producers paid me right away. But ABC took six months to close my deal as they tried to secure the rights to a project they had told me they already owned.
When I emailed my observations to the co-chairs of the Negotiating Committee, it struck a nerve with them. It made them understand what many writers are going through right now. This feeling of, ‘I’m working hard, my dreams are coming true, and yet… how am I supposed to pay my bills?’
More writers are working now than ever before. Gross earnings are the highest they’ve ever been. And yet…in many ways, it’s never been harder for writers to make a living.
Here are my thoughts on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly in the Writers Guild today.
EARNINGS are the highest they’ve ever been. Peak tv means MORE WRITERS are WORKING than ever before. That’s fantastic because it means our –
PENSIONS are rock solid. According to the Federal Government’s auditors, our pension is in the ‘Green Zone.’ The fund has almost full recovered from the 2008 stock market crash. This is not a lucky fluke – in our last three contract negotiations, firming up the pension has been a priority. As a Board Member, one question I am asked over and over again is “Will I get my pension?” The short answer is “Yes.”
HEALTH CARE costs are spiraling out of control for all Americans, not just WGA members. While the Cadillac Tax seems to have mercifully disappeared, it’s an ongoing battle to maintain our health plan at the levels we have all come to expect and depend on. Our negotiations were successful in maintaining our health plan. For me, keeping our health plan strong will always be a top priority.
RESIDUALS. The exponential growth in the amount of money the Guild collects for our members from new media continues to prove the importance of the WGA’s focus on that area, especially with the collapse of the DVD market.
PARENTAL LEAVE. In 2017, the WGA negotiated eight weeks of parental leave for television writers and writer-producers on staff of episodic series or serials. It’s hard to believe that in 2017 this still had to be fought for (and it was not an easy win) or that feature writers still don’t have any rights to time off. But they don’t. This needs to change.
GLOBAL EARNINGS. I wrote a screenplay for a Chinese Production company. They paid my full quote. They flew me to Shenzhen, China. But they have not made my Pension and Health Contributions. The WGA is trying to collect the money. I have discussed with David Young the idea that we should create a one-sheet for Foreign Producers in their native language, explaining what the requirements are for a WGA contract. Stay tuned.
ANIMATION. Feature animation writing can be covered under the MBA. Or not. Or both. Yes, really. Some features start off covered by the MBA and then switch to a non-union contract. What can you do? First off, ALWAYS send your contract in to the WGA. It’s a union requirement. Then push your lawyer or your agent to get you a WGA contract.
RESIDUALS, which should never be commissioned, average about 2% of a film’s domestic gross. So the next time you are asked to write a non-union film, think about the 2% you won’t be earning. Then go back and push for a WGA contract. If your agent or manager or lawyers wants to commission your residuals, tell them you’ll let them – as long as they negotiate an overscale residual. Why should they commission something that the WGA negotiated?
THE 25% PROBLEM. When I joined the Board of Directors, people would be surprised when I’d talk about how many members pay 25% of their earnings to their agents, managers, and lawyers. I often felt like I was the only Board Member who paid this absurd tax. Today, other Board members echo my concerns and David Young understands how this is a HUGE problem for our membership. Who earns enough to pay out 25% of their gross earnings? As member surveys say over and over again, people feel like they need managers because their agents are not giving them the full service that they used to receive.
BASIC CABLE PARITY. It’s getting better. It’s still not great. But the basic cable providers were given a break to help them get on their feet. They’re all grown up. Time for the breaks to end.
DIGITAL PARITY. More people are watching episodes on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu than many Network Shows. The WGA has made big strides with APPLE TV. We still have a long way to go.
CONTINUING EDUCATION. Everyone in the WGA needs to keep learning. Continuing education is one of the hidden gems that comes with your WGA membership. Use it.
And now, I’m sorry to say, the ugly…
DIVERSITY. In a city that is 50% Latino, the percentage of Latinos in the Writers Guild is “Statistically Insignificant.” Seriously, that is just ugly. The diversity committees are doing great work. But they can’t succeed without the help of showrunners and network executives.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT. In the WGA, it’s not about Harvey. It’s about other writers. A shockingly high percentage of our members have been harassed by other members. Education is part of the solution. But we ALL need to take responsibility for it. If you see something, you need to speak up. The WGA will be holding a series of Town Halls and Awareness Seminars. I urge you to attend. Even better, bring a friend.
I have been a member of the WGA for over twenty years. I have served on the last three negotiating committees. I have been on the WGA Board of Directors for the last four.
I am incredibly proud of what our guild has accomplished. It is far from perfect. There is much more to be done. But in 2018, look around. Ask yourself if you know anyone with our Health Care or our Pensions or even at a basic level our ability to determine our credits. I am grateful for all the benefits and protections the WGA has provided to me and my family. Right now, our Guild is on an island. We are one of the last strong unions in the United States. There are no guarantees. Without vigilance, it could all easily disappear.
I humbly ask for your vote. In exchange, I promise to fight for all writers. I am always open to your thoughts and suggestions. You can email me at JFERNANDEZ@WGA.ORG.
Thank you for your consideration.