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Erica, a 32 year-old screenwriter, has worked on eight Hollywood films and TV shows over the past 10 years, providing notes, advice and ideas for each project. Her creative collaborators would tell you she is consistently fun to work with and is up to try anything.
But she’s earned a total of $7,500 for her decade of work ($750 a year, before taxes) and she doesn’t have a single screenwriting credit — a fact that leaves her ineligible for WGA membership or for any opportunity to participate in the guild’s benefits, including its health insurance plan.
Like too many other disabled screenwriters, Erica is stuck in the “consultant trap.”
“Erica” is not a real person, but rather a composite of the all-too-common experiences of over a dozen disabled film and television writers who spoke to us anonymously over the past six months.
In light of these conversations, it’s no wonder the Writers Guild of America lists disabled writers among its least-represented demographics: Only 0.7 percent of the guild identifies as disabled, compared to 20 percent of the American public — a 28x gap in representation.
By relying on one-off “disability consultants,” rather than hiring disabled writers as fully integrated members of their creative teams, Hollywood executives, showrunners and producers are only widening a yawning disability representation gap that sets this community back offscreen, onscreen and in the real world.
None of this is meant to suggest consultants aren’t valuable. They are valuable when offering specific technical or contextual insights — those of a medical consultant, a weapons consultant, a military consultant — that augment, not replace, the skills of the existing writers on the project.
But disability is not technical or purely medical. It’s a deeply felt, fully lived experience — an ingrained identity similar to that of race, gender or sexual orientation.
There are four main issues with consultancy culture: 1) rock-bottom pay; 2) no WGA credits or benefits; 3) delayed engagement; 4) a moral dilemma of capitulation.
1) Rock-bottom pay
Many disabled “consultants” — who, it should be noted, are often fully qualified to be credited writers — are offered a fraction of a WGA-sanctioned rate for their work. They are paid hundreds of dollars (or sometimes nothing at all) to read a full script and provide notes. Under a WGA contract, a script polish would be valued at anywhere between a few thousand dollars to over $10,000, yet disabled writers are rarely extended that opportunity.
2) No WGA credits or benefits
Since consultants are non-union roles, disabled consultants often receive no WGA credits or benefits for their work. The hurdles blocking entry into the WGA are already discouragingly high, and the ability to remain within the guild is already an ongoing challenge, particularly for underrepresented writers. Non-union jobs mean no union benefits, and no health insurance — a domino effect that can ultimately prompt talented disabled writers to self-select out of the industry.
3) Delayed engagement
Most consultants are hired at or near the end of the creative process, often just weeks before principal photography begins, when the story is nearly locked. No matter how problematic a script or an element of onscreen representation may be, there’s often little or no time for — or interest in — making a consultant’s suggested changes, leaving the impression that companies are hiring a consultant merely to “rubber stamp” a project written by non-disabled writers.
4) A moral dilemma of capitulation
Limited employment opportunities for disabled writers already force many talented artists into a personally challenging decision: Reject the consulting job and lose the work or take the job but be underpaid; have no or very limited impact on the project; and reinforce a precedent that suggests disabled talent simply isn’t worth hiring and utilizing in full. This is a lose-lose situation for the disability community, even though studios, streamers, networks and production companies have ample resources to truly make a difference.
There’s a simple solution to all of the aforementioned challenges: Hire disabled writers at a project’s inception. Recognize them not as one-off consultants but as valuable and collaborative creators and problem-solvers. This applies to both film and television, for when disabled characters are part of a narrative and when they are not.
At Inevitable Foundation, we’re laser-focused on building a content development pipeline with and for the most talented professional disabled film and television writers. In the process, we’ve built the world’s largest database of professional disabled screenwriters and a Content Development Concierge to match showrunners and creative executives with talented writers for their projects.
Nearly every week, we’re asked if we consult on film and TV projects, and our answer is always the same: Hire our fellows and their peers to write, not our staff to consult. Your project will be richer for it — and will further the careers of underrepresented writers who have plenty to offer an industry desperate for fresh (and profitable!) perspectives.
But that kind of talent costs money — and it’s time companies and people in positions of power start paying for it.
Richie Siegel and Marisa Torelli-Pedevska are the founders of Inevitable Foundation, which funds and mentors mid-career disabled screenwriters. Inevitable Foundation uses identity-first language.
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