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Opinion: Here's Why Indie Filmmakers Need Guilds If They Want to Get Paid

By Ursula Lawrence | Indiewire June 3, 2014 at 10:14AM

Lead Strategic Organizer, Writers Guild of America, East, explains why low-budget indie filmmakers need guilds if they want to get paid.
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'A Teacher,' directed by Hannah Fidell.
'A Teacher,' directed by Hannah Fidell.

It's a great time to be a budding indie filmmaker. Think about it -- you can crowdsource your financing, use better, smaller, cheaper cameras to shoot your film and then cut it on your laptop with readily available, sophisticated editing software. Once you've got your final cut, you can take advantage of a whole new world of self distribution options to get the project out there – and bonus! – you've got a built in audience from your Kickstarter campaign and active social media presence breathlessly waiting to see your film. Studios? Where we're headed, we don't need studios.

It's hard to find much wrong with the above picture. Making a film is more affordable and more accessible than ever -- and that's great news for filmmakers. But somewhere in the excitement over microbudgets and the democratization of filmmaking, something has gotten lost -- the lower budgets get, the less filmmakers get paid. 

Ursula Lawrence
Writers Guild of America, East Ursula Lawrence, Lead Strategic Organizer, Writers Guild of America, East

Making an independent film is a labor of love, but filmmakers still need to eat and sleep. A dedicated writer or director will work for free if it means getting their project made. That dedication makes them easy to exploit. With lower and lower budgets, exploiting this dedication is now easier than it’s ever been.

The Writers Guild of America, East exists to be a bulwark against this sort of exploitation. Arguably, screenwriters working on low budget projects need this sort of protection more than anyone else. Yet these writers have rarely been a part of the WGAE community. The reason is simple, according to WGAE Vice President Jeremy Pikser. "The traditional models for Writer's Guild contracts have been constructed to suit the needs of working inside the studio system," said Pikser. As a result, independent filmmakers and producers perceive using Guild contracts as financially out of reach.

The WGAE is taking two major steps to change this: the development of a "caucus" of indie writers and filmmakers and a new, more flexible contract for writers working on low budget films. The rise in low budget filmmaking has created this imperative; WGA leaders and members have also expressed a sincere desire to welcome writers working on these sorts of films into the Guild fold.

The Independent Film Caucus of the WGAE is made up of Guild members working in indie film but is also open to working screenwriters who are not yet members. Damon Cardasis, screenwriter and co-founder of the Lower East Side Film Festival, and an active member of the Caucus, believes the group provides a valuable resource to writers. "A lot of work as a writer/filmmaker is on your own so to have a forum where you can voice concerns or questions with peers is wonderful. It gives you clarity and also reminds you that you are not alone," said Cardasis.

James Schamus
Brian Brooks Former Focus Features CEO James Schamus.

The Caucus meets regularly to socialize and network, and also for more structured panels and workshops. "The caucus also serves as a classroom so you can constantly educate yourself on the ever evolving process of getting a film made and distributed," said Cardasis. "It allows you to meet with people on the other side of the industry that writers rarely get to meet with. You are allowed to ask questions free of judgment and gain an understanding of how the industry works as a whole without feeling like an idiot."

The second major initiative, changing our contracts to fit with the new realities of low budget filmmaking, goes hand in hand with building the indie community within the Guild. Bringing writers and filmmakers together through the Caucus is a great first step, but actually receiving the most immediate benefits of union membership – i.e. health care, payment for your work, residuals, protection of creative rights and so forth – requires a strong, enforceable contract.

Starting in January of this year we implemented new, lower budget breaks on WGAE feature contracts that allow writers working on even microbudget projects to receive some immediate compensation for their work. Additionally, writers on these films can now receive contributions towards health and pension on this compensation – something that wasn't possible before. Finally, producers should find that the new budget levels and options for payment provide more flexibility and are affordable so that hiring a Guild writer for a low budget film is financially feasible.  

"Making an independent film is a labor of love, but filmmakers still need to eat and sleep."

"With the recent new and improved low-budget contract, the respect for, accountability to, and protection of writers is not a function of the size of a film’s budget," said James Schamus, former CEO of Focus Features and longtime champion of independent film, "but rather a simple recognition of the rights that collectively writers can ensure for each other."

Filmmakers are already benefiting from the new agreements. Writer-director Hannah Fidell joined the WGAE two years ago on her project, "A Teacher," an ultra low-budget film which met with critical acclaim when it debuted at last year's Sundance. The decision to join the Guild at the beginning of her career was an easy one, said Fidell. "I joined the WGA for health insurance, a sense of community and of course the most important reason: the guarantee that from the moment I joined I'd be compensated for the work that I would continue to do as a writer as my career evolved."

Accordingly, her follow up feature was produced under the new low budget contract minimums. "The revised Low Budget Agreement allowed me to survive as a writer/director," said Fidell. "By ensuring that the minimum agreement was low enough that it didn't hurt the budget too much, I am now able to not worry about money (rent, bills, the basics of life...) while I'm spending the next few months working with my editor. This was the first time that I finally felt like I was getting a fair compensation for the work that I'd done (a rare feat in indie film)."

Fidell is currently developing a pilot for HBO with Mark Duplass based on "A Teacher," which she is signed on to write, direct and executive produce.  

The common misconception that the WGA exists solely to protect the rights of already-successful writers working for networks and studios is understandable. Though independent filmmakers have always been members of the Guild, they haven't always found it easy to work within the parameters established by Guild contracts. An active community of independent screenwriters within the WGA as well as new contracts that fit the budget of indie films suggest that change is afoot – and not a moment too soon. Budgets are getting lower but people still need to get paid. Where we're going we may no longer need studios – but we still need Guilds.

Ursula Lawrence is Lead Strategic Organizer, Writers Guild of America, East. She oversees the Guild's organizing efforts in independent film and digital media, building Guild membership and helping writers in those areas achieve the rights and benefits that come with working under a WGAE contract. She also works closely with indie producers on contract issues and recently helped adapt the WGAE's Low Budget Feature Agreement to bring it more in line with the realities of ultra-low and microbudget films. Lawrence represents the WGAE at film festivals and regularly appears on panels at industry conferences. Prior to working at the WGAE, Lawrence was at the Directors Guild of America, where she worked as a rep for directors of feature films, television shows, broadcast news and commercials. 

This article is related to: WGA, Writers Guild of America, Filmmaker Toolkit: Screenwriting, A Teacher, Hannah Fidell