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Free is NOT an Option

Free is NOT an Option is WGGB’s campaign to tackle the growing amount of work writers are expected to do for free

‘Sweepstake pitching’, ‘bake-offs’, ‘pre-writes’ and ‘shopping options’ are now common parlance in certain sectors of the creative industries. Yet, according to a survey of WGGB members, they represent a sinister and growing trend.

The survey found that 87% of respondents in the TV and film industries reported a significant increase in the amount of work they had been asked to do for free. Other writers – authors, poets and playwrights – also reported an upward trend in this practice.

Of particular concern was the increase in the amount of free work expected in the development stage of a project. Weeks of time-consuming research and work on treatments are now routinely required, with no remuneration.

Investing their own time and money, writers condense an entire TV series into a ‘pitch’ of one or two pages to give a producer a feel for how the series works. To do this without losing any of the complexity, depth, twists of plot, character arcs, relationships, dramatic conflict, tone or underlying power of the subject matter takes a great deal of work, not to mention years of experience. Beyond this point a writer must be paid.

Because there is a fundamental difference between a pitch and a treatment, writers have reported being asked to write endless treatments for no money, or have been promised money that never arrived. There were also stories of attending meetings with producers and commissioners, and being the only one sitting around the table that wasn’t being paid.

WGGB has long been aware that this practice has been a problem with small, new or unscrupulous companies, but is concerned that it is fast becoming the industry standard even for large, well-resourced production companies dealing with established writers with significant credits to their name.

“It is extremely worrying how far the dominant narrative on this has shifted and how commonplace and acceptable it has become to expect writers to work for free,” says WGGB member and former TV Chair Bill Armstrong, who spearheaded the campaign.

Independent TV production companies came out of the survey as the worst offenders, despite a report published by trade association Pact (Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television) in 2014. This showed that the UK’s independent television sector is now worth more than £3 billion to the British economy, quadruple its value a decade ago.

While this increasing expectation that they should work for free is undoubtedly having an impact on writers’ lives, incomes and self-esteem, WGGB is also concerned that there is another worrying implication.

“Of late there has been much debate about the lack of cultural diversity on our screens,” continues Bill Armstrong. “Initiatives are rolled out but seldom make much difference. The elephant in the room, predictably, is never addressed. If so much of a writer’s work has to be done for free, the only people who can afford to enter the business or remain in it are those who have an unlimited overdraft facility from the bank of mum and dad. And those people are most likely to be white and middle-class. If we carry on the way we are going, we will soon find ourselves in the situation where the only voices we hear and the only stories that get told are those of the independently wealthy.”


 

What we are doing

We have worked with our most experienced members to compile guidelines on what a writer should and shouldn’t do for free. In the long run, devaluing their own work does a writer no favours, and hurts all writers in the process. These guidelines also include a 10-point negotiation primer – how to say no and talk about money without losing work.

Our guidelines reflect the broadcasting world we live in but also protect the writer’s fundamental right to be paid fairly. We will be taking these guidelines to broadcasters and indies and start to build a consensus.

We have also produced a template ‘Right to pitch’ contract for use by producers. This gives the producer the sole right to pitch a writer’s idea to a broadcaster and does away with expensive legal work. You can download it from the Resources section of our website, under ‘other guidelines’.

We have also used our position as part of the Performers’ Alliance Parliamentary Group to lobby MPs and gain support from opinion formers for our campaign. See who has supported our campaign statement so far here.


 

What you can do

Keep us informed

We want to closely monitor the situation, and build up a detailed picture of this practice. Let us know by email if you have been asked to work for free (all information will be held in the strictest confidence). Contact WGGB rep Lisa Holdsworth who is overseeing the campaign.

Seek advice

We realise it’s hard to say ‘no’ when production companies and broadcasters make it brutally clear that this is the only way to be considered for a commission or a place on an existing show. Writers are also isolated and highly vulnerable to pressure. If you want advice on what to say if you are asked to work for free, contact us by email.

Bookmark this page

For future campaign updates.

Join WGGB

Less than half of UK TV writers belong to their union. The more members we have the stronger we are. See our Top 10 reasons to join WGGB and join here.

You can read a speech given by WGGB former TV Chair Bill Armstrong on Free is NOT an Option at a European Writers’ Council meeting in Brussels in November 2014 and at TUC Congress 2015. And read what former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said about the campaign in Parliament.

Photo: Shutterstock/stokkete

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