Guild: How to make a living as a screenwriter

One of the jobs everybody puts the word “starving” before is writer. One of the truths universally acknowledged, is that writing is a career you have to love because you have to fight pretty hard to get it to pay you. Screenwriting falls into this category, of a career you commit your life to and fight for.

As we discussed in class, the writers strike of 2008 is a fascinating look into why and how writers with the Writer’s Guild, both East and West (WGA, WGE) made the motion to strike in the face of extreme under compensation under developing wave of new media revenue. From this discussion, I have been working to research what it means to be part of the Writer’s Guilds in the present and how it affects or dictates a screenwriters career.

The Writers Guild of America (West and East), was formed in 1920 after film studios reduced wages. Currently, the union represents film, television, radio, and new media writers. Membership is determined by fees and the fulfillment of “units,” or scripts as defined by their guide, through selling or being employed with signatory companies affiliated with the Guild by writer contract. There are levels of membership, as determined by “units earned” are Current/Full membership or Associated/Partial membership, as outlined on the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) and East (WGAE) websites.

Associate membership is determined by a writer producing less than 24 units over the course of 3 years with signatory companies. For associate membership fee is $100 per year.

Writers Guild Units 1

The guide to units as found on the WGAW

Current membership requires 24 earned units over the course of 3 years (post application) and an initiation fee of $2,5000 payable to the Guild at the approval of membership.

Writers Guild Units 2.png

Essentially, this system allows full membership at the beginning of a well-built career, and partial coverage through associate membership to allow for developing writers to utilize the union.

But having a union doesn’t mean pay is solidified or standardized.  In recent years, the differences in pay have attempted to be rectified by various groups of writers sharing their salaries publicly. The product of this process found:

“that women on average were paid less than men, and that men’s bonuses tended to be higher.”

Similar to how Littleton describes the struggle of WGA to emphasize the importance of residuals for writers to Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP);  these writers are trying to make aware how there are still very clear disparities from companies to networks. 

While it’s hard to nail down an exact salary of writers the generally accepted starting contract salary, as listed by a report in HuffPo, is $3,703 per week for a minimum of 20 weeks.

While these numbers are good for steady employment, it takes years to get to a staff writer position or to sell a script. In the process, working up the ladder this salary is in the far distance as you move through positions of assistants, writers assistant, to finally selling and contracting a script. It’s daunting, but I want this job and I will fight for it. There are so many vague definitions and borders in creative industries, but through my research and our readings, it’s only been solidified to me that if you work hard enough and fight for your value, you can make a living you’re proud of.


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