Screenwriters are film players who write/create screenplays from which films and television programs are made. A screenwriter may write without being hired or paid for it or may write exclusively for any film. There are “script doctors”, who change scripts to suit directors or studios.
In the United States, completed works may be copyrighted, but ideas and plots may not be. A screenwriter can copyright their script or screen play with the Writers Guild of America. However, the Library of Congress also formally registers screenplays. To establish evidence that a screenwriter is the author of a particular screenplay (but not related to the legal copyrighting status of a work), the Writers Guild of America registers screenplays.
A screenwriter’s deal is usually comprised of option(s), a guarantee and bonuses.
An option is where the producer purchases the screenwriter’s work for a certain amount of money, in exchange for the option or right to produce a screenplay, treatment or other work within a certain period.
A guarantee is the money the screenwriter is guaranteed to receive, whether the script is produced or not. This amount is usually divided into payments for multiple drafts, comprising of a draft, a rewrite and a polish version.
Bonuses for the screenwriter may be a production bonus after the script goes into production, or, if there has been more than one writer, after the final credit has been determined.
Most professional screenwriters in the US are unionized and are represented by organizations such as the Writers Guild of America, East (WGA). The WGA is final arbiter on awarding writing credit for projects under its join.
The collective bargaining agreement that covers work done by Guild members under WGA is the Writers Guild of America Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement, it is also known as the Minimum Basic Agreement, or MBA. This contract is the industry-wide agreement that sets minimum terms for options and purchases of literary material from writers and for the employment of writers to write theatrical motion pictures and television programs. The contract serves as the basis for each individual writer’s contract.
The WGA MBA has a unique contractual construct called Separation of Rights, which separates out certain rights usually held or controlled by the holder of the copyright and transfers them to the original writer. These provisions entitle the writer to exploit these rights in defined ways, even though the writer no longer holds the copyright. Here, a writer transfers the copyright in literary material to a company in one provision of their contract, and the Guild MBA returns some of the transferred rights back to the writer through another provision.
The Writers Guild assists their writers in enforcing contract provisions, including creative rights provisions. WGAW’s Member Services Department or the WGAE’s Contracts Department aids screenwriters with any creative rights provisions relating to pre-production, production or post-production.
The Guilds’ Claims Departments pursue and investigate claims of contract violations, and tries to negotiate a settlement with the company in consultation with the writer(s) involved. The Guilds’ Legal Departments also take disputes to binding arbitration when cases cannot be resolved informally.