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The Ins and Outs of TV Series Writer Deals

By Dina Appleton

The television business has undergone a dramatic change in recent years. In the past, studios would lavishly spend millions of dollars on long-term development deals with TV writers referred to as 'overall deals' in the hope that during the two to four year term of such arrangements (during which the studio is paying the writer's overhead plus a salary), the writer will create a hit show for the studio. Those days are now gone -- unless of course you're Dick Wolf or David Kelley!

Nowadays, a writer is typically engaged to perform the initial step of writing a pilot script, and the studio is granted a number of options to engage the writer to render additional services on the pilot episode and/or series (both writing and producing). The benefit of this arrangement to the studio is clear: if the studio is not happy with the script, it can cut its losses relatively early, having committed only to payment of the initial script fee. Such deals, referred to as 'one-off's,' used to represent only a fraction of the deals that studios would enter into when developing television pilots and series, but are now the dominant form of television series writing deals. To give you an idea of what we're talking about and a heads-up for important things to consider when you're negotiating a deal, below is the basic outline of a television 'one-off' pilot/series writing agreement.

1) Pilot Writing Fee
The first item you would negotiate in connection with these types of agreements is invariably the pilot script-writing fee. Under the WGA Agreement (which governs most television projects, as all of the major networks are guild signatories), union minimum (or 'scale') for such services is approximately $30,000 for a half hour script and $43,000 for a sixty-minute script. For scale, the studio will be entitled to a story, first draft and final draft of the script (also called a teleplay). In most instances, the studio will bargain for a story, first draft, two sets of a revision and a polish. Usually, the writer/creator will receive more than scale and pilot writing fees can range from $50,000 (for a relatively inexperienced writer) to $250,000 or higher for an A-level television writer (i.e., one who has already created at least one successful series, such as David Milch). As we mentioned above, this is the only money that the writer is guaranteed to receive under the 'one-off' deal.

2) Pilot Producing Services
The next issue of negotiation you would need to concern yourself with is the nature of the writer's services (if any) in the event that your script is well received and the pilot episode is ordered to production. In many cases, the studio will guarantee the writer employment as an 'executive producer' of the pilot episode at a negotiated fee. Other times (for example, if the pilot writer is not an established television writer or 'show-runner'), the studio might agree to attach the writer to the project at a lower level, such as a consulting or supervising producer. The writer's role in connection with the pilot is ultimately a result of negotiation, taking into account the writer's clout and prior experience. The WGA does not govern producing fees, as such services are not deemed to constitute writing. The fees for such producing services can range anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000.

3) Series Services/Compensation
If the pilot is 'picked up' by the network (i.e., series episodes are ordered to production), the studio can choose to exercise its option (negotiated up front, as part of the 'one-off' deal) to engage the writer as some type of producer on the series. A writer's series episodic producer fee will generally be lower than the pilot- producing fee, as there is less work to do once the first episode (i.e., the pilot) is completed.

Another point that is negotiated as part of the pilot/series deal is the length of time that that the pilot writer (or 'series creator') will be 'locked' or attached to the series, thereby continuing to receive screen credit and a fee. A studio will usually agree to lock the writer/creator to the series for at least one year, and in many cases two years. Again, this depends largely on the writer's status in the television industry. Top writer/producers, such as Steven Bochco, might be guaranteed an executive producer fee and credit for the 'life' (i.e., duration) of the series. A writer/creator might also be guaranteed the opportunity to write (and be paid for) a specified number of episodic scripts during each year of the series.

In addition to series producing fees, you may negotiate for a 'series sales bonus' (i.e., a sum of money payable as a bonus if and when the network orders series episodes based on the pilot). While the dollar amount of a series sales bonus will vary and is subject to negotiation, it is fairly standard today for a series sales bonus of $25,000 to be granted in the event the writer receives sole 'written by' credit on the pilot and sole 'created by' credit on the series. This bonus may be reduced if the writer receives shared credit and/or if fewer than a set number of episodes (usually 12) are actually produced.

Finally, the WGA Agreement requires that the writer or writers accorded 'created by' credit on a series receive a royalty (or payment) for each episode of the series that is produced beyond the pilot. The current WGA required royalty for network prime-time programming is approximately $1,000 per episode. Subject to this minimum, the actual amount of the royalty payable to the series creator is negotiable and may be as high as $6,000 per episode for top guns.

4) Profit Participation
A writer's profit participation in a television project is typically more significant than with respect to a feature film, and is more likely to generate payment to the writer for two reasons. First, as television writer, you can normally negotiate for a percentage of the profits in excess of five percent (which is the standard participation for motion picture writers with limited exceptions). In addition, television writers are generally more successful than their feature film counterparts in extracting favorable terms from the studios relating to the calculation of such profits. Second, an enormously successful series may generate so much cash relative to its costs, that regardless of the precise definition of the project's 'net proceeds,' it is likely to generate some payment in many cases.

We think it is therefore imperative for a writer's representative to take great care in negotiating the definition of 'project proceeds' in the writer's contract. A top-level showrunner/creator will often be able to negotiate for 15 percent or more of the 'adjusted gross receipts' (gross revenues less certain defined deductions and a reduced distribution fee), or for up to 50 percent of the 'net proceeds,' reducible by net participations granted to third parties. If a project survives the uphill battle toward syndication, these profits may indeed materialize.

5) Credit
Assuming that the production falls within the WGA's jurisdiction, the Writer's Guild Agreement will determine the form of most writing credits. Typically, the writer or writers receiving 'written by' or 'story by' credit on the pilot will be accorded a 'created by' credit on the series. The WGA does not, however, govern producing credits. The terms and conditions relating to the writer's 'executive producer' or 'supervising producer' or even 'consultant' credit need to be specifically addressed by contract. In recent years, a number of established writers have requested 'logo' credits (which will typically appear in the end titles) in addition to their producer credits. For example, a 'Chase Films' logo appears at the end of every episode of The Sopranos at the request of that series' creator, David Chase.

6) Perks
As is the case with most talent agreements, writers can usually negotiate for some basic 'perks' (which may or may not be granted, depending upon their status), such as: (i) first-class travel if the studio or network requires the writer to travel; (ii) first class accommodations; (iii) a per-diem; and (iv) ground transportation to and from airports, hotels, and sets. In addition, some writers request that the studio provide an exclusive office and assistant during all periods in which they are expected to render exclusive services. Finally, a reserved parking space is considered a bit of status symbol in Hollywood and is requested by most series creators. This is merely a brief overview of television pilot/series writer agreements. There are several other terms and conditions that vary from deal to deal, which writers should be aware of when entering into such agreements. Before signing any contract, we strongly recommended that writers consult with an experienced entertainment attorney who can review the agreement in detail.

Meet the Author: Dina Appleton