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Even before thousands of Hollywood writers went on strike on May 2, their union sent out a lengthy list of prohibited activities during a work stoppage. Writing, pitching, revising, negotiating — all forbidden, according to the Writers Guild of America. Taking meetings or responding to notes? Forget about it. And as the days passed by, a frequently asked questions webpage accompanying the list was updated to reflect that activities like “For Your Consideration” or film festival promotion are no-gos.
Of course, that’s the whole point of a strike: to deprive an industry of the contributions of union members, in order to show how much they matter to the ecosystem and improve workers’ strength at the bargaining table. But, given the extraordinary circumstances, what can the WGA’s 11,500-odd film and TV writers actually do as long as the strike lasts?
The short answer: Not much, when it comes to writing for the screen.
Notably, writers can still pen “spec” scripts, or a script that has not been commissioned, according to guild rules. Once it’s written, though, “neither you nor your reps can shop, option, or sell the spec script,” the WGA is instructing members, or “take any action to further the future option or sale of the spec script, including developing the script with a producer, or attaching talent or other elements to the project.” Once the strike is over, writers with spec scripts on hand could then work with their reps to potentially benefit from the fruits of their labors.
If WGA members have interest in bringing their talents to other mediums during the strike, they can theoretically still work for markets outside the purview of the contract under negotiation, like on books or newspaper opinion columns. Said the WGA in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, “While the Guild cannot prohibit members from writing in areas outside our jurisdiction, work on projects that are nonetheless in the entertainment industry and run by struck companies undermines our efforts. That is why the WGA is encouraging all its members to refrain from accepting writing assignments for struck companies regardless of whether that work is covered under the Guild’s jurisdiction.” When asked about fiction podcasts and video games specifically, a WGA representative referred to the guild’s strike rules, which say the restrictions apply to fiction podcasts covered by the WGA, while writers on other fiction podcasts should consult the union on a case-by-case basis.
Overall, writers must avoid “the performance of writing services for a struck company in connection with audiovisual or audio works intended for initial exhibition in any market covered by the MBA, including feature motion pictures, television and new media, as well as the option or sale of literary material for that purpose,” the guild has stated. “Struck companies” include Universal Television, Walt Disney Pictures and Amazon Studios LLC, among many others.
Writers cannot write for film, television or new media projects covered by the contract for non-union companies, thanks to the guild’s Working Rule 8, which bars members from taking work from “any person, firm or corporation who is not signatory to the applicable MBAs.”
When it comes to animated projects, where the WGA covers writing in some instances and The Animation Guild (an IATSE Local) covers writing in other cases, the union advises that its strike rules apply to all WGA-covered animated series. Otherwise: “Writers who wish to perform writing services in connection with fully animated theatrical features and television programs are advised to consult with WGA staff to determine whether such writing is prohibited before performing, or contracting to perform, any writing services.”
So-called “multihyphenates” — writers who wear other hats, such as being a producer, performer and/or director — are allowed to continue performing only explicitly non-]writing work during the strike. The guild is including its so-called “(a) through (h)” services (a list of activities that can be done by non-writers on covered projects, according to the WGA’s contract) in its list of banned activities for hyphenates: Those services include cutting for time, “changes in technical or stage directions” and any small changes to dialogue or narration made before or during production on a project, among other activities.
“The Guild strongly believes that no member should cross a WGA picket line or enter the premises of a struck company for any purpose. Under applicable law, however, the Guild may not discipline a hyphenate for performing purely non-writing services,” the WGA writes in its strike rules. It warns that its definition of “writing” is broad, so tells hyphenates, “when in doubt, don’t.”
Also acceptable per the WGA’s rules is union members accepting payment for writing that was completed before the strike began on May 2. Writers can accept residuals checks from previous projects and can accept payment for any writing delivered before the strike was called or for an option where every detail was completed except payment before the strike. “You may also accept payment during a strike for the sale of literary material if a struck company unilaterally elects to exercise a pre-strike option to purchase the literary material or the struck company unilaterally extends an option for literary material as long as you are not required to sign and/or deliver any transactional documents or literary material during the strike,” the WGA has told its members.
The consequences for breaking the WGA’s rules during a strike can be severe: “Discipline may include, but is not limited to, any or all of the following: expulsion or suspension from Guild membership, imposition of monetary fines, or censure,” the guild has stated. After the 2007-08 strike, comedian Jay Leno famously faced the WGA’s trial committee over claims that he broke the guild’s strike rules when he wrote monologues for the Tonight Show during the work stoppage. The panel eventually cleared Leno, who famously came out to support picketers during that strike and was back on the WGA picket lines this past Tuesday, handing out treats from L.A.’s Randy’s Donuts.
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