Free Is Not An Option

Professional writers of film and television can work in two ways ‘On Commission” or “On Spec”.

‘On Commission’ means the writer has been hired by a Producer at an agreed fee to write treatments and scripts that will be owned by the Producing entity.

“On Commission’ writers have no ownership and little control over their work and are in reality simply providing a service to the Producer or Producing entity, which ultimately owns and controls what is done with the writers work.

‘On Spec’ means that the writer ‘speculates’ with their own time by writing a treatment or script that they hope to subsequently ‘sell’ to a Producer or Producing Entity.

When writing ‘On Spec’ writers have complete control and ownership of their work up to the point at which they sell it to a Producer or Producing entity.

However, the lines between ‘Spec’ and ‘Commission’ are becoming increasingly blurred as professional Producers are asking writers to work ‘On Spec’, i.e. for free,  on projects that the Producer will own if the project is subsequently green-lit.

So a writer could, and surprisingly often does, develop an idea unpaid and then get ‘sacked’ when the project is green-lit. So the Producer gets the benefit of the writers work but the writer remains unpaid. In some cases the writer will be paid for the work done up until the green-light but not be offered any more paid work on ‘their’ project. This is also iniquitous because writers work ‘On Spec’, i.e. for nothing,  because of the promise of greater reward down the line, not simply to be paid an hourly rate retrospectively.

Unsurprisingly, Producers think this conflation of ‘On Spec’ and ‘On Commission’  is a great system and writers think it is crap!

At the BBC Writers Festival 2018  back in June I caused a minor stir by publicly challenging Piers Wenger (BBC head of drama), Victoria Fea (drama commissioner at ITV), and Anna Hargreaves (drama executive at SKY), about the scourge of indie producers asking writers to “work” for free on projects that will be owned by the Producer if green-lit.

As Jeff Norton says in his blog

“At first, the panel looked at him (i.e. me, Chris Jury) like he had 3 heads. Then he asked the audience (who were all working, credited writers) to raise their hands if they’d been asked to write substantial work (i.e. not just a one-two pager) for free by producers. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say every hand in the house when up.

The commissioning executives looked shocked.

The writers in the room felt validated.”

My intervention at the festival was spur-of-the-moment in response to things the panelists were saying but it was/is also part of the ongoing WGGB campaign, Free Is Not An Option, which seeks to challenge the expectation that professional writers will work for nothing in the development of film and drama projects for professional producers.

As a member of the WGGB TV Committee and a practising writer I am all too aware that this practice is endemic across the industry as more and more people seek to gain entry to the ‘glamorous’ world of writing TV drama and comedy and fewer and fewer producers are prepared to risk capital on script development.

We are constantly told that in drama and comedy ‘the script is everything’ but until a project is green-lit it seems no one wants to spend any money developing these all important scripts.

To be fair to programme Commissioners when they read a script that is for them the start of the process. If you are a channel controller when you read a script to you it is a ‘first draft’. But in reality before it got on your desk it will have gone through extensive development involving multiple drafts, of multiple types of documents, written over a period of at least 6 months  and more likely 2 years.

If a film or programme based on the script is green-lit then all is well; if not then all that time and effort remains unrewarded… at least for the writer.

Producers and Script Development Executives for broadcasters and for major Indies are almost always salaried staff. Writers never are. Thus salaried Producers and Executives involved in script development are paid whatever the outcome of the development process but ‘On Spec’ writers are only paid if the project is green-lit. This is where the inequity lies.

It is NOT iniquitous if a writer works ‘On Spec’ with a producer who is also working ‘on Spec’ and they both share ownership of the project and are both locked-in.

The inequity arises when salaried staff working for established private companies and public broadcasters expect writers to work for nothing and also expect that the writers unpaid work does not give the writer any creative rights. (Legally of course the writer owns any unpaid work they have done for a Producer. But faced with the option of getting nothing at all and the show being cancelled or at least getting back-pay for a treatment or script work already completed most writers are in no position to bluff it out.)

The WGGB campaign is seeking all UK Commissioners to introduce a system whereby all Producers seeking to submit work for consideration must demonstrate at the point of submission that they have at the very least paid for an option in the work.

The fact that this very modest demand has been completely rejected and/or ignored by all the UK Broadcasters would suggest that the ‘shock’ which Jeff Norton described being shown by the Commissioners at the BBC Writers Festival was perhaps disingenuous?

As Chair of the Midlands TUC Creative & Leisure Industries Committee (CLIC) I am also aware that this ‘scourge’ of professional Producers expecting creative workers to work for free is endemic across the creative industries. The MU have their Work Not Play campaign and Equity has Professionally Made Professionally Paid.

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