The Writers Guild of America (WGA) definitely carries clout for anyone involved in film, television, and digital media. As the New Member letter from WGA West puts it, “You had about a five times better chance of hearing your name read at the Major League baseball draft this year than of getting this letter. Make sure your parents know that.”
However, fully understanding the WGA can be difficult. Entertainment law is extremely complicated. Luckily, there are writers like John August and Craig Mazin who nicely summarize the complexities. (Check out their Scriptnotes podcast, which is an invaluable resource for anyone in the industry.)
After searching the WGA website, reading transcripts of podcasts, and talking to guild members, I have whittled all the important details down to a few pros and cons:
Writers can reap some serious rewards once they’ve made it through the WGA’s application process. As Craig Mazin noted in Scriptnotes, “There are certain things in place that you would not get on your own. Those are very specifically: minimum salary for your work, credit protection for your work, residuals for your work, healthcare for your employment, and pension for your employment. Those are the big ones.”
Navigating the entertainment industry can make you feel like you’re in a foreign country where you don’t know the language. A WGA membership ensures that you have up-to-date info on everything from net neutrality and creative rights to getting paid on time.
One of the biggest benefits for WGA writers is the ability to receive residuals. For example, Dylan Gary, who was a staff writer for the HBO show Tell Me You Love Me, would receive (small) checks in the mail because an episode of his had been aired in Argentina. Without WGA membership, he would not have the power to earn further payment for the distribution of his work. More info about the ins and outs of residuals can be found here and here.
Insurance without membership
WGA East Foundation Board member Jenny Lumet told me screenwriters can still benefit even when they’re not members. For example, anyone can go into the guild offices with a spec script and register it. You don’t need to have any form of representation. As Lumet said, the WGA’s ultimate goal is to help people “navigate the totally bizarre waters of getting hired as a writer.” That means, guild member or not, they still have your best interest in mind.
Within the past year, WGA East also created a Diversity Council to help workers in the entertainment industry voice their concerns. This is especially important after the 2014 Hollywood Writers Report was released, revealing the alarming lack of women and minorities in writers’ rooms. According to Lumet, the council helps writers understand how the hiring process works.
“No guild has the muscle to demand hiring changes, but what we can do is provide information,” she said.
Membership can threaten your job
Writers must already work for a company that is a signatory of the union in order to be considered for WGA membership. In addition, while joining the WGA can be beneficial down the road, it can jeopardize employment in the short term.
Before writers accept positions at a new company, they can make it a condition that the institution joins the WGA. For those who want to join the WGA once they are already employed, they can use the fact that fellow employees are already in the guild as leverage to gain their own membership.
Eligibility rules are difficult to understand
Finding out if you’re even a candidate for WGA membership can be complicated. For example, the West Coast WGA requires writers to have 24 “units” under their belts in order to be eligible. Different amounts of work constitute a different number of units. Four units is a story for a non-prime time serial that runs between 30 and 60 minutes. Twenty-four units is a screenplay for a feature-length motion picture. Who knew that unit conversion lesson in middle school physics would come in handy for screenwriting?
Assuming you didn’t catapult to fame with one screenplay, you’re going to have to do some math. On the other hand, you can always wait for a letter in the mail. Gary, for instance, was invited to join the WGA after earning his HBO staff job.
A full description of the unit system can be found here.
If you work in new media—writing for the Internet or mobile devices—you’re likely to confront even more confusion. To try and demystify the WGA membership guidelines for yourself, check here.
You have to pay dues
The necessary evil: WGA union members have to pay annual dues. They range from person to person, but are always 1.5 percent of applicable earnings, plus $25. Gary paid approximately $1,200 for his yearly membership.
You don’t have a choice (for good reason)
If you’re lucky enough to land a project with a company that is a WGA signatory, you might be surprised by the fact that you have to join the guild if you want to close the deal. However, this caveat isn’t there to protect the company—it’s designed to protect the writer.
As August wrote on his blog, “If it weren’t mandatory, studios would pressure writers not to join.” After all, if you sell a script and aren’t a unionized worker, the studio doesn’t have to pay for your healthcare, pension, or residuals.
Selling a script is hard enough. While the WGA is there to protect writers and their creativity, to outsiders it can seem like the Illuminati for insecure screenwriters who want to drive Porsches and mooch off the craft service table.
“It’s hard for people to navigate the totally bizarre waters of getting hired as a writer,” Lumet said.
But at least as a member, you can spend less time worrying about legalities and more time worrying about actually writing.
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