Writing for Free? Hollywood Guild Wants That to Stop

No Writing Left Behind Campaign - H - 2018

No more "leave behinds," says WGA West, in an effort to end a slippery slope that leads to unpaid writing and rewriting.

The Writer Guild agreement prohibits uncompensated writing but in the screenwriting world, a slippery process has emerged, says WGA West: studio executives and producers often expect or request “leave behinds” — short written summaries that writers leave behind after a pitch.

That sounds innocuous enough, but the union says that studios or producers have gotten into the habit of asking writers to revise — and repeatedly re-revise — those leave behinds. It amounts to free writing, and now the guild is launching a campaign urging members to draw the line: no more leave behinds.

“What should a writer do if asked to leave written material after a pitch?” says WGA. “Don’t do it.”

According to veteran screenwriter and WGAW board member John August, this practice is particularly a problem when writers are interviewed for open assignments. Five to ten writers or writing teams may typically be interviewed in such circumstances, and the leave behinds and rewriting amount to uncompensated development activity by studios at writers’ expense.

Even a short leave behind becomes a gateway to open-ended revisions and development, says another screenwriter, Michele Mulroney.

“All writers need jobs, and especially when it’s early in their careers it can feel like they have to do whatever it takes to get hired,” said Mulroney, also a WGAW board member. “But leaving behind a treatment for a producer or executive is the equivalent of writing for free. It opens the door to what can often be months of more free work like getting notes on the treatment and revising it multiple times. Guild rules do not allow for uncompensated work and members need to know that they simply don't have to give in to these requests.”

Rather than leave behinds, said August, the executive or producer should have an assistant taking notes. And if more elaboration is needed, the writer should offer to return for a follow-up meeting.

Leave behinds also open the studio or producer to a later claim of copyright infringement by writers who didn’t get hired. For that reason, says August, some studio legal departments don’t allow them.

The guild says that screenwriters in a recent survey reported that after initial meetings they were frequently being asked to leave behind or email written materials, a practice the guild also refers to as “prewriting” because it is free work created by a writer before being hired. Such material ranges from outlines and notes to actual treatments, which are detailed outlines of a story or proposed screenplay. The guild says its survey revealed that prewriting is “one of the most pressing issues screenwriters are facing.”

“Everyone wants to be a pal, to be obliging. But this is a situation where helping out is hurting yourself and other writers,” said August. “If you hand in your pages, you make it harder for every other screenwriter to say no when they’re asked. Things don’t change unless we all say no.”