The Writers Roundtable
Moreover, because the vast majority of the members of that union are not employed, frankly, the union — the Writers Guild — works best as an organization not to protect writers from management but to protect people who want to be writers from people who already are.
I have never had any trouble with a studio, with a network, with a producer, with a director, with a star. I have only ever had trouble with the Writers Guild. Just the credit process, which says that the first writer on a movie gets an irreducible story credit — just that. Even if you come in and you do an absolute Page 1 rewrite, [and] none of this first writer’s work ever appears on the screen. What you’re saying is that a writer’s credit is a reward for effort — that writer got paid for their effort. The writing credit should be information to the audience — who wrote what you just saw on the screen.
I was one of a couple writers on Moneyball, which just wrapped. Very famously, Steven Soderbergh was the original director on that, [but] Bennett Miller ended up directing the movie. In a million years, the DGA would not allow a credit that said: “Original directorial concept by Steven Soderbergh. Then directed by Bennett Miller.” The DGA doesn’t want to dilute the power. The Writers Guild is very happy to give the impression that a movie is written by five different people, which ultimately gives the impression that the director was the author of the movie because [the audience] sees one name at the end.
Phillips: That’s the best argument: They dilute it. They’re their own worst enemy.
Sorkin: I’m also part of the 9% of the membership that did not vote to authorize the strike. By the way, I will now not get a WGA Award nomination. (Laughs.) It’s not a coincidence that 9 percent is roughly the same as the number of people who are employed. The fact of the matter is that for many, many members of the Writers Guild, being on strike represented a career step up. They weren’t unemployed, [but] they could now say they’re on strike. There was an odd camaraderie to it. I kept reading these articles that were cringe-worthy about how much fun people were having on the picket line. Meanwhile, the members of the 19 different craft unions who work on television series, who work on a movie, who are union wage-earners — their unions make sense — who are the principal wage-earners for their families, they’re out of work.
Phillips: That was my biggest issue. I make more money as a writer on Old School than my sister, who is a pediatric oncologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I’m embarrassed to be talking about money and standing in front of a studio holding a sign fighting over 3 cents a DVD when we’re already overpaid.
Sorkin: I never even understood the issue behind the strike because I don’t know anything about technology. If you want to get the extra 3 cents, write better. Your agent will get it for you. Let the markets work.
Beaufoy: [But in England], we don’t have the great luxury of an incredibly strong union. There’s virtually no Writers Guild. It doesn’t have health plans; it doesn’t come to your aid legally if you need it; it doesn’t give you a pension plan. I always thought the point of unions was to help the weaker ones, the people at the bottom of the pile. You say if you’re a really good writer, you’ll be employed. [But] I bet everyone at this table knows good writers who aren’t employed.
Wells: In fact, just a little over 50 percent of the Writers Guild members who vote on contracts are employed during every 12-month period. So it’s not 9 percent of the membership that’s actually employed.
Sorkin: All right.
Wells: The guild was formed for the exact reasons you’re talking about. I would be the last person in the world to try and defend all of the specifics of the credits manuals. But there has recently been a change that the membership passed. Just to address one of those [changes], the percentages you’re talking about still exist on original material but no longer exist on material that’s based on other sources. Which was a huge thing to pass. I appreciate there’s a lot of frustration about that. The union was formed for a couple of different reasons. Primarily, the thing we still do is to protect the credits. Very often, in the old system — before there was any credit system controlled by the guild — those credits routinely went to a producer’s friend or the producer himself at that time. It is one of those things that I defend only as the best alternative to a horrible situation.
Phillips: That’s an easy thing to fix, but …
Wells: The union attempts to help those writers not at this table, but people in a position in their career where they do need additional help. And where certain things do matter — as an example, making certain that we have coverage over some kind of residuals, like in the case of The Full Monty.
Beaufoy: That wouldn’t have happened if I was a member of the WGA.
Wells: He would have made a lot more money.
THR: If you didn’t write, what would you do?
Sorkin: I’d be unemployable.
Wells: My ambition coming out of school was to end up working in a regional theater someplace.
Arndt: I would be happy owning a surf shop in Costa Rica and renting surfboards and going surfing in the morning.
Beaufoy: I’d be a potter, a ceramacist — that’s what I started out as. I think about it every day, and it keeps me sane.
Lindsay-Abaire: My dad sold fruit out of the back of a truck for all of his life, so I could easily imagine that. When I was growing up, I always thought I wanted to be an architect and build buildings.
Phillips: I’d probably be in women’s footwear. (Laughs.) I have a thing for women’s feet. I’d probably own a women’s shoe store. I might do that anyway.