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In 2021, shortly after founding Inevitable Foundation, their nonprofit to advocate for disabled screenwriters, Richie Siegel and Marisa Torelli-Pedevska penned a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter explaining the “consultant trap” in which all too many scribes with disabilities find themselves. Rather than hiring them for the writers room, the industry tends to relegate such artists (and those of other historically excluded identities) to short-term, creatively limited gigs as consultants, which pay little and build no career equity.
“The op-ed got a great response, but you go, now what?” Siegel tells THR. “How do we actually do something about this systemic issue versus just articulating it? We weren’t going to write 10 more op-eds. We could go meet with people and try to convince them, but we believe in direct action. It’s aggressive, and I think people recognize the aggression of it in a good way.”
The solution that the Foundation came up with is the Disabled Consultant Futures Fund, a bold proposal to give disabled creatives leverage when considering consultant offers and more agency to decide on which opportunities serve their own professional goals. First mentioned in the Foundation’s open letter to Hollywood published last week and signed by 35 disabled and allied industry figures, the Foundation offers to pay disabled artists weighing a consulting job 150 percent of their initial offer to be able to negotiate for better pay or an actual creative role — or to walk away and work on their own projects instead.
“My goal is to be a long-term staff writer, but I have to take these consulting gigs to make money,” says one disabled writer. “You always take them with the hope that the people on the other end will hire you as a writer for the next season, but the reality at least for me is that hasn’t happened: ‘We want to have you back again as a consultant.’ Now they have you at a much cheaper rate. At the end of the day, when studios hire disability consultants in place of writers, the studios win for saving money, the non-disabled writers win for getting more credits to their name, and the people who lose are the historically oppressed minority group.”
Consultant fees can be as low as $15 an hour to read a script for fact-checking and sensitivity (not the most creatively rewarding work for artists moonlighting as consultants, who are explicitly told they will not be credited for any creative contributions so as not to run afoul of WGA jurisdiction). Because Hollywood studios and production companies offer their consultants so little, Inevitable has not had to raise any additional money in order to launch its Fund to outbid them.
“This is not something we had a grant for; we’re funding this out of our general operating support, effectively,” says Siegel (Inevitable is supported by the Ford, MacArthur, Doris Duke and Nielsen Foundations, among other donors including media companies like Netflix, Disney, AMC Networks and Spotify). “It’s not like we had to deploy millions of dollars to do this. It’s actually a very finite amount of money, which is the problem we’re trying to solve. But that means the impact or the ROI [to disabled creatives and to the mission] could be quite significant.”
Inevitable worked with lawyers and other expert advisors to fine-tune the process for how to vet applications to the Fund and how to structure payouts. Fund recipients will not be given a grant per se but will rather be designated as contractors by the Foundation, helping it gather valuable research on the state of Hollywood’s disability consulting business (by virtue of sharing information about their consulting offers) that Inevitable intends to publish later this year.
But getting a 150 percent counteroffer to walk away is actually only the third-most desired outcome of the Fund. Since Inevitable’s chief objective is to support disabled writers in their career of choice, among the many resources offered as part of the nonprofit’s new Hire Disabled Writers campaign are a bill of rights and an email template giving them the language they might need to advocate for their hiring as actual creatives.
Siegel says that more than the logistics, the most challenging aspect of the yearlong process of developing the Futures Fund was getting the messaging right. “We’re not anti-consultant, but we’re still pro-disabled creative,” he says. “We’re all about these writers, producers and directors getting work, but we also believe there’s equitable and inequitable work, and problematic work in the short, medium and long term. Consulting is good in context with the presence of other disabled creatives in positions of power on the project. If you remove that, it becomes problematic because it’s supplemental, not additive.”
To help make the jobs of those who choose to take consulting work more equitable, Inevitable has designed a schedule of minimums (modeled after the Writers Guild’s, but not legally binding) to create best practice standards for pay rates, transportation and meal expenses, insurance and overtime, as well as a template for a contract rider (with help from lawyers at Sloane Offer, working pro bono) to get those stipulations into writing. “[The consulting field] is all the Wild West. Most people who are consulting, imagine you’re getting paid $300 — you’re not going to hire a lawyer to negotiate that,” says Siegel.
Adds one disabled actor who has done plenty of consulting work and advised Inevitable on the development of the fund, “I don’t want to take a job when it’s low pay but at the same time, there’s this [feeling of] responsibility: If not me, then who? As an actor, I’m lucky I have an agent or manager to come up with the deal, and a lot of things Richie has done [for consultants] helps relieve some of that pressure to be able to come back with a professional counteroffer.”
The consultant trap does not exclusively affect disabled creatives — Disney hired Indigenous and Chinese consultants for the Avatar sequel and its live-action Mulan, which were both written and directed by white filmmakers — and Inevitable’s Disabled Consultant Futures Fund can potentially serve as a model for other impacted artists. “I’m not aware of any other precedent like this in the industry, that’s partially about negotiating leverage, partially about capping the downside and partially about financial cash relief,” Siegel says. “The hypothesis is, can we spend $30,000 to $50,000 over the next year — and I think that could be on the high end [for the disability consulting market], honestly — and potentially unlock millions of dollars in earnings for disabled writers? I’d take that bet any day.”
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