Thursday, June 30, 2016

"An Unavoidable Obligation"

It happens about once a year.  I get a call from the “Credits Administrator” for the Writers Guild of which I am a member although, owing to permanent unemployment, my dues have shrunk to a percentage of my diminishing worldwide residuals.

Thank God they like Major Dad in Uzbekistan.  Although their devalued currency does little to advance my actual net worth. 

Anyway, the administrator is calling to ask if I am be available to participate in an arbitration proceeding, which is like “Jury Duty”, except everybody’s a writer, although the response to this “Call to Service” is equally enthusiastic.  You hope you have a good reason to say “No”, or a bad reason but you are a good liar.  Unfortunately, I was available, and I am incapable of lying.

“I am going… on a trip… somewhere… tomorrow… or soon.  So I can’t.”

No can do.  They would feel my nose growing right through the telephone.

I say “Yes”.  She says “Thank you.”  We hang up.  I say “Shit!”

Within hours, I am delivered a large brown envelope containing the written material I am required to examine, the Television Credits Manual whose regulations I must assiduously follow during my deliberation, a list of ordered procedural instructions and, as an “appreciation” for my participation, two York peppermint patties. 

They traditionally send M & M’s, but they ran out.

Here’s where it gets stupid.


“Why do they have arbitrations?”

Thank you for asking.  The simple answer is money.  Which is invariably the “Default Answer” in this country.  “When almost ninety percent of the electorate is in favor of background checks for gun purchases, why can’t the Congre…” –  Money!

You see that?  Try it.  It works for everything.  (“What does that hottie see in that doddering billion… Got it!”) 

Here’s why they have arbitrations.  At least one reason.

A writer creates a series.  They are replaced by another writer who moves the project ahead.  (Was I ever replaced?  Yes.)  The show makes it to air.  (That particular one didn’t.  Hah!)  The show runs for five years and sells to syndication for hundreds of millions of dollars. 

How are the subsequent profits divided between the writer who originated the project and the writer who brought it successfully to the “Finish Line”?

The answer lies in the assigned credits, determined, when there’s a disagreement, through arbitration.

The current issue was simpler and, as I said before diving into that indispensible tutorial on arbitration, stupider.

According to the background material I received, I’ll call them “Writer A”, reflecting an ingenious subterfuge used to insure the participant’s anonymity.  (You cannot use actual names in arbitrations because all writers harbor an overt or unconscious hostility towards each other – a serious impediment to the requisite impartiality.)

“Writer A” who had written a short film was contracted to adapt that short film into a “Web Series.”  (I imagine there is money in “Web Series” but I do not know how much.  Probably less than the multi-billion dollar websites that make neither a product nor a profit.  But it’s something.)

Not entirely satisfied by “Writer A’s” adaptation, the “Employer” – a studio or production company – brought in “Writer B” to hopefully take the project to “the next level”. 

Now before the arbitration – and here’s where it gets stupid – it had already been determined that “Writer A” would receive the “Created By” credit for the “Web Series”.  The “Employer” also determined – with the agreement of “Writer A” – that “Writer B” should receive the “Developed By” credit for bringing the series to ultimate fruition. 

What was the purpose of this arbitration?

To determine whether “Writer B” should receive the “Developed By” credit.

Even though there was nobody on the project who was arguing they shouldn’t.

(Imagine a lawsuit in which both sides are in total agreement.)

Why then were we engaging in this process?

Writers Guild by-laws assert that a “Developed By” credit triggers an automatic arbitration.

There are many different kinds of smiles.  The one I displayed when I understood I was participating in an arbitration in which the participants were in indisputable accord was a mixture of bemusement and irritation, saying, 

“I am doing something for no reason.”

And I have to do it fast, do it correctly, and if there is no unanimity, I have to participate in a teleconference with strangers where I will be required to defend my position against writers who believe exactly the opposite.


I am doing something for no reason… and it is making me extremely nervous.

To be continued…

By the way, I am also anonymous in this process. 

Call my “Arbiter Number 3.”

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I feel the need to make you more nervous. On occasion, Web series become sufficiently popular that they are taken forward to become TV series. BROAD CITY and DRUNK HISTORY both began as Web series. Some Web series have famous names attached, too - for example, Lisa Kudrow in WEB THERAPY, Felicia Day's THE GUILD, and Jane Espenson's HUSBANDS.

Therefore: although the stakes attending your decision are probably quite small *now* just don't know if one day down the road you will have changed someone's life by millions of dollars. Happy deliberating!