ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 3.6 - September 1998
Better For All Concerned: The Writers Guild of America's Animation Writers Caucus
by Craig Miller
The Animation Writers Caucus was founded in May, 1994. The purpose of the Caucus is to assist Animation Writers and help them to better the circumstances under which they work. By providing shared information, health benefits, educational and networking opportunities, and a code of ethics, the WGA Animation Writers Caucus makes the field of animation better for all concerned.
So reads the introductory paragraph to the "Directory of Animation Writers" published annually by the Writers Guild of America (WGA). Clear and concise, it gives an idea of what's behind the Animation Writers Caucus (AWC), but it doesn't really go to its heart.
The WGA is a labor union, "a collective bargaining agent," whose main purpose is to protect the financial and professional lives of writers, even writers who don't normally come under the Guild's charter. The organization is concerned about them and the conditions under which they work, too. Whether or not an animation script was ever written under a Guild contract, the WGA wanted to work to aid animation writers.
The Birth of the Caucus
In 1994, Brian Walton, executive director of the WGA, gathered together a group of animation writers and asked what the Guild could do to help writers improve things. A few meetings were held and, from that, the WGA formed a new department, the Department of Industry Alliances, which was specifically mandated to look into organizing and improving conditions for writers working in Animation, Interactive and other "new media," and Reality Programming.
In May of 1994, the first formal meeting of the Animation Writers Caucus was held. Open to anyone who has written at least one half-hour of produced animation, the Caucus started with 42 members. Today, the Caucus numbers around 300. However, the first four years of the organization's existence have been spent doing more than just collecting members. The Caucus has accomplished a lot.
Pocket Dragon Adventures, which debuts worldwide this month, is the first show done under a Guild contract. © 1998 BKN Kids Network and Real Musgrave.
Among the most important things that the Caucus has done happened in the last year. Animation is now being written under the aegis of a Writers Guild of America contract! The first show done under a Guild contract was the show my partner and I created, Pocket Dragon Adventures, which debuts worldwide in September. Over 30 animation writers worked on the show and received Guild benefits and protections. News of that contract opened the floodgate and dozens of inquiries have since come in. Recent developments include a series of made-for-video Garfield movies which have been done under Guild contract and a new prime-time animated series, The PJs, to air on the Fox Network, which is being written with full Guild protections for its writers. And, in a major deal signed in August between the WGA and Fox, four more prime-time animated shows will be produced under Guild contracts: The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Futurama and Family Guy.
Other achievements the Animation Writers Caucus has accomplished include giving a voice to the wants and needs of animation writers. Long a part of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union (MPSC), Local 839 of IATSE, writers make up less than 10% of that union's membership. The rest of the members are artists. So focused on art and artists is the MPSC that, to this day, MPSC does not have a formal job classification for writers, instead they are included with storyboard artists under the rubric of Story Persons.
As signified by the quote at the start of this article, the Writers Guild publishes an annual Directory of Animation Writers which it distributes free of charge to animation studios, networks, agents, production companies, and others. This listing of writers, their credits, and their agents or other contact information, makes it easy for those seeking animation writers to find the writer who would best fit a project and aides writers in finding work. AWC sponsors an ongoing series of panels and seminars on various aspects of the animation industry. Some, such as the recent panel of industry executives and the upcoming agents panel, are for members only and are held at the Writers Guild Building in Los Angeles. Others take place at industry events such as NATPE, the World Animation Celebration or the San Diego Comic-Con. These events serve to keep members informed of changes and trends in the industry, as well as to keep people aware of the involvement of writers in the animation process.
Networking is always important, and AWC events allow for animation writers to meet and get to know other writers and executives in the industry--always important in getting jobs or figuring out who to hire--and for sharing information. Bosses in all industries tell employees not to talk, not to let anyone else know what one is making or benefits one is receiving. That's because they don't want people to know what to ask for. Sports stars have learned better. Their contracts make the papers and the next guy now knows what's possible. The same is true in the entertainment industry. Knowing what deals have been made gives an advantage to members and their agents. Having opportunities to learn this information makes all the difference. While the above sounds dry, it's a very social atmosphere. Fun, and sometimes even food, reigns. Laughter is a hallmark of AWC gatherings.
An additional important advance is health coverage. Much animation work is still non-union, and even when writers work at MPSC houses, not all animation writers achieve sufficient hours to qualify for that union's medical plan. However, two different health plans are available through the WGA. A low-cost yet high quality self-pay plan is available to AWC members, and their families, who haven't yet written under a Writers Guild contract. For those writers who have, they and their families may be eligible for the no-cost WGA Health Plan.
Additionally, members of the Animation Writers Caucus receive all Guild publications and mailings, and can join the Guild's Film Society and attend all open Guild events.
To further indicate its strong and on-going support of animation writing, the Guild has just approved a new award. This award honors a writer for their entire career, for the work itself and/or the writer's contribution to the field of animation. The first WGA Animation Award will be presented at the AWC's annual meeting in October 1998.
AWC sponsors an ongoing series of panels and seminars on various aspects of the animation industry. Shown here is Craig Miller, left, with fellow panelist and AWC member Gordon Bressack at the 1998 Animation Opportunities Expo. Photo courtesy of the WGA.
Writers and Unions
Fun, information and awards are all good things, but animation is a business, and animation writers, like animation artists, work in it. The support and protection of a strong union is important to the quality of life for people working in the industry. The Writers Guild of America dates back to 1921, when it was founded as the Screen Writers Guild. Over the years, radio writers and television writers became included in the membership until 1954, when the Writers Guild of America was formally established as a Collective Bargaining Agent, a union representing writers in the entertainment industry.
But animation writing was not included in the WGA's charter. Why? Well, because in the earliest days of animation, few if any formal scripts were written. Concepts may have been written out but the actual writing of the feature or short was done in storyboards. It wasn't until the 1970s, when the half-hour television cartoons started holding sway, that real scripts were employed on a regular basis. But because writing was traditionally done by storyboard artists and the "gag men" and "story men" working with them, animation writers remained included in the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists union.
Today, few cartoons and features are written in this older fashion. For example, Disney's feature films have formal scripts. These scripts are boarded and reworked at the storyboard level, with sequences changed, added, or deleted. Then new scripts are written, including these alterations, and the process repeats again and again.
Even though scripts now exist as the primary form, animation writers have continued to be included in the MPSC Why is that a problem for writers? Why should they want to be represented by the WGA? Because 90% or more of the members of the MPSC are artists. Their problems and needs are different from those of writers. One hundred percent of the Writers Guild of America membership are writers. Animation writing is very much like writing for live-action. The scripts look much the same. The keys to storytelling, be it adventure or comedy, hard or soft, live-action or animated, are the same. The only significant difference is that animation writing is more visually-oriented. There's no question that animation writers have more in common with the members of the WGA than they do with the rest of the membership of the MPSC
Among other things, most animation artists--be they animators, in-betweeners, storyboard artists, or ink-and-paint artists--work on overall employment contracts, paid by week, on an on-going basis. While some animation writers are on staff, most are freelancers, working on individual scripts. They get paid by the assignment, not the week. When it comes to contract negotiation, especially against such hard bargainers as the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents Disney and Warner Bros. among others, it's hard to get the 90+% of the membership of MPSC who aren't writers to hold out for contract demands that apply only to writers.
An Animation Writers Caucus booth at the World Animation Celebration. Pictured, left to right, are AWC members Brooks Wachtel, Francis Moss and Richard Mueller. Photo courtesy of the WGA.
Fighting for Unique Rights
There are many ways of abusing workers or not giving them the respect they are due. The WGA would like to see a number of abuses that have been common in the animation industry changed or stamped out. One such is the Cattle Call process of hiring writers. A studio beginning production on a television series would let the word out to all writers about a meeting. Dozens and dozens would attend, hoping for a chance to work. The show's producer or story editor would talk about the show, Series Bibles would be passed out, and everyone dismissed; sent home to write a page or more for each of three, four, five or more story ideas/premises they came up with for the show. Literally hundreds of story ideas would come in, sometimes for as few as six or twelve open assignments, with the writers not knowing how futile their attempts at work were.
Another issue is screen credit. A writer's task is important to any film or television program. There's a saying that, to build a great building, you need a strong foundation. Everything starts with the script. If it's bad, the best animation in the world won't save it. Plus, without a script, there's nothing to animate. Writers deserve to receive credit for their work. In television, in particular, this was frequently a problem. Some shows used to run "gang credits" at the end of each episode. Every episode had the same set of names so one didn't really know who wrote the episode one just saw. Furthermore, if someone was hired late in the season, that writer's name never appeared on any episodes.
Still another abuse is unlimited rewrites. Studios would tell a writer to rework premises, outlines, and scripts again and again. Both the MPSC and WGA rules state that a script fee obligates the writer to deliver up to two drafts of a script if requested by the studio. Some studios were notorious for asking for four or more drafts of everything, but they wouldn't pay extra for this extra required work. The problem was exacerbated by the MPSC contract, although certainly not deliberately. MPSC's minimum rate for a half-hour television script is thousands of dollars below the going rate. The contract stipulates that, for the minimum payment, a writer will deliver two drafts of a script. Payment over scale--the amount above the contractual minimum--applies to rewrites at the rate of $750 per draft. So if the going rate is $2,000 over scale--and it is--then all script fees include the right for the studio to ask for two or more extra drafts before they even begin to think about paying for the extra work.
The WGA's Animation Writers Caucus is not really about getting writers out of one union and into another. It's an eventual goal of many Caucus members but it isn't the only thing the group is about. While money is an important issue, it's far from the central issue.
The AWC is about making a difference. That sounds trite but it's also true. Every writer--everyone in any job--has the right to be treated with respect. No one should be taken advantage of. No one should be made to do work without being fairly compensated. The WGA wants to see the abuses of writers that have long been standard in the industry eliminated. The Animation Writers Caucus is the instrument to that goal.
Visit the WGA Animation Writers Caucus web site in AWN's Animation Village.
Craig Miller is chairman of the WGA's Animation Writers Caucus. Miller has been an animation writer for over a decade. Along with his partner, Marv Wolfman, he created the series Pocket Dragon Adventures and served as executive producer, story editor and, of course, wrote many episodes of the series.
Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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