The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

March 1998

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 28 February 98 Copyright ©1998 alt.screenwriters

Imagine walking in to pitch story ideas for Law and Order; or Mad About You, and after you make “nice-nice” and everyone says they love ya babe, you pull out a copy of the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA). “Oh, yeah,” you add, “just one more thing — I need you to sign this little contract, and pay me extra, so I can get my health and pension benefits from the Writers Guild.” No doubt they’d fall on the floor.Okay, so reality is they already have signed it, and getting Health and Pension isn’t an issue for you in film and television. But to interactive writers, it’s a big issue, and pulling out a contract the size of a script would floor anybody on the other side of the table who isn’t part of the Hollywood scene. Writers Guild to the rescue. Enter the IPC.

The Interactive Program Contract (IPC) does for interactive writers what the MBA does for film and television scribes, sort-of. But, taking a hint from the computer industry, “user-friendly” is of the utmost concern with this contract. Its size? A whopping one page. Its mission? To help make sure “new media” writers can get Health and Pension coverage, just like other Guild writers. Its scope? Coverage of “writing and designing interactive digital programs produced for disc, cartridge-based platforms, and on-line services” (excluding certain news format reporting and journalistic writing). This means that you can get Health and Pension contributions made to the Guild on your behalf for just about any Interactive or New Media project on which you write. And probably the aspect of the IPC that new media companies can most comfortably curl up to is that the contract is good only for the services of a particular writer on a particular project. No long term commitments, no vows of ’til death do us part.’

According to Susan Gerakaris, head of the Guild’s Industry Alliances division, the decision to operate under the IPC is in large part thanks to the committee of interactive and information writers known as CMAT (Creative Media and Technologies), who have already worked in the trenches and know the terrain. “This industry is so new and has gone through so many changes that they felt that it was too early to mandate a full collective bargaining agreement,” she says.

That’s the key. The IPC doesn’t mandate terms and working conditions. “The benefit to the writer and the company is they negotiate all the terms and conditions of employment, and the Guild doesn’t get involved, but the writer gets pension and health fund contributions.” Nothing could be simpler. To date, 94 companies covering 195 projects have taken advantage of hiring professional writers and paying contributions to the Guild. Seven writers have become Guild members based solely on interactive writing.

But wait, there’s more! If you’re not sure exactly how to go about negotiating a new media project you’ve just been offered, Gerakaris invites Guild members to call the Department of Industry Alliances for help. Not surprisingly, most of the questions they field have to do with compensation. “What kind of compensation should I be asking for, what is the best way to figure my rate (and) do companies pay royalties?”

Many writers also ask about writing samples, and she coaches them on whether they may be appropriate. It’s not unusual for interactive companies to ask for writing samples as if they were essay tests, i.e., ‘Write this for me, and if I decide to use you as a writer I’ll pay you for it.’ The problem: if they decide to go with another writer, what’s to stop them from using your sample in the final product? “We encourage writers not to do that kind of work for free,” she says, and she even advises writers to be sure to protect themselves against this possibility by putting it in some sort of written agreement: ‘If you don’t hire me, all rights to the sample revert to me.’

When approaching a company to sign the IPC, Gerakaris recommends bringing it up early in the discussions. She believes this way your odds are better that either they’ll agree to a contribution to the health and pension funds, or they’ll agree to an overall figure that includes pension and health. “What’s hard for companies,” she says, “is when a writer says, ‘I need 10K’ and the company agrees, and then the writer says I need more for pension and health because I’m a WGA member.” Her advice? Include it as part of the early discussions. “As long as it figures into the overall budget the company has for writing services, most companies are very willing to pay it.”

Will the IPC evolve into a full-fledged Minimum Basic Agreement? What will the MBA of the 21st century look like? While we can’t answer these questions, we do know that the TCIs, Microsofts, and Electronic Arts are betting billions of dollars on the new media landscape, and as this column has argued since its inception, screenwriters had better make sure they have a place at the table when the dinner carts start rolling out…

Stay tuned.

Written by tborst

February 28, 1998 at 11:11 pm

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