Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My thoughts on Mini-rooms

Networks and studios have found yet another way to exploit writers. Their latest brainchild: Mini-Rooms. Here’s a Vanity Fair article about it.

When a network orders a pilot for a short series (6-13 episodes) they now put together a small room of baby writers for two or three weeks to come up with future stories and/or scripts. If the show is then picked up they already have a lot of the stories broken and writing completed.  They don’t have to hire a full room of writers and even if they do there’s now less work to be done so the time frame is less and the network or studio is in an advantageous bargaining position.

So writers are hired on the cheap. And in a business where stability continues to dangerously shrink, TV staff jobs start seeming like four-week freelance assignments. Writers have to cobble together a bunch of these a year to survive. And getting any TV writing job is harder these days. Way more hoops. You have to be approved by the network and the studio and pod producers. Generally it takes meetings with three or four entities before a writer is offered even an entry-level job.

Can the WGA stop this? Not really. The networks/studios have found a loophole. They’re paying Guild minimums to these Mini-room baby writers (who understandably are just relieved to be working, even if it’s for the minimum and only for a couple of weeks) so they’re not doing anything strictly illegal.

And who is there to safeguard and protect writers from this insidious practice? Well, it should be agents. That’s their job. They could fight to ensure their clients got proper above-scale compensation. So why don’t they?  Because commissions are no longer their primary source of income.  In this new conglomerate world agencies now survive by making package deals and owning a percentage of shows.  Hard to fault them.  Everybody has to adjust to this new marketplace. But writers do receive way less protection than they used to. 

This is just another reason why the WGA wants to renegotiate their long-standing agreement with agencies.

Personally, I loathe the idea of Mini-rooms. If you hire me and my writing partner to create a series for you the pilot will be in our voice. We don’t need to enlist the help of inexperienced writers for pennies on the dollar. And quite frankly, it’s insulting to us that the studio/network would even suggest it. It’s like we can’t deliver a pilot on our own? We have to surround ourselves with help?

It’s one thing if you have a multi-cam pilot in production. Scripts have to be rewritten in one night following run-throughs. Putting together a mini-room for one or two nights makes sense in that case. But guess what? Studios/networks WON’T pay for those mini-rooms. Instead, writers have to rely on their experienced colleagues to come in as a favor, usually for a nice gift that comes out of the showrunner’s pocket.

And even that is now further exploited because writers are putting together mini-rooms to punch up pilot scripts before they go to the network. And those rooms are not compensated. In those cases I lay the blame squarely on the writer who created the pilot. First of all, where is his pride? Secondly, he’s being paid a lot of money to write a pilot. I get a free lunch in Styrofoam? I’ve helped out on a couple of pilots like this (not knowing the situation beforehand) but never again. And if I ever find myself in this situation in the future, believing I was helping out during production when it was actually pre-production, I will wish the creator well and go home.

Just remember this: All these changes in the system are designed EXCLUSIVELY to help the studio and network  and agency and save money. They are NEVER to benefit the writer. They are NEVER to improve the quality of the creative process. So pretty much anytime there’s another one of these new trends like Mini-rooms or Paper Partners you can pretty much bet that my position is I’m against it.


Janet Ybarra said...

Sounds like it's more ways to whack the economy toward the fat cats and away from the working stiffs which has been the general story of the US economy, more or less, for the last 40 years or so. Sounds like the WGA and agents need to get back to protecting writers' interests.

As for today's photo, Ken, was that a Freudian way of saying you'd have wanted to locked in one of these mini rooms with Ms. Wood? ;)

E. Yarber said...

I spent a few years away working on a book and once I came back I found the business is now run like temp work. Don't know if I could have protected myself any better if I had been in the market during the transition, but it's no fun.

Anne in Rockwall, TX said...

No wonder so many in Tinseltown are staunch leftists. This type of behavior by the studios is reminiscent of the conditions that brought about the rise of the worker's parties in so many countries.

I had assumed that with the advent of OSHA and EEOC regulations, there would be little need for unions. I was wrong. It seems oligarchs still reign, at least in the entertainment industry.

Why do you think that is? We have, over many years, passed laws that protect child workers, eliminate dangerous working conditions, require equal employment opportunity in hiring and practice, protection from sexual harassment, and others. Why have no regulations been enacted to protect writers, actors and crew in Hollywood? Why is there no redress?

This is neither snark nor sarcasm. I am seriously interested in the answers.

Brian said...

Why is that each and every article, blog on TV/movie business about how the writers are being shafted???

Something are the other.
No proper credits. Cheated out of residual checks. Low pay-long hours. All night re-writes. And now this.

Seriously..... is being a writer in Hollywood, the worst job on this planet?

Charlie said...

"Why have no regulations been enacted to protect writers, actors and crew in Hollywood?"

Annie, I agree with the writer part, but not the actor part. I personally believe that only writers, musicians need to be paid residuals and not actors, producers, directors or others associated with a TV show or a film or a song.

The person who invented something gets the royalties right? Not the workers who are manufacturing or selling that product. So, why pay residuals to actors?

Anyway I feel sad for writers in these situations and that is my opinion, not that it matters.

Janet Ybarra said...

Annie, neither OSHA nor EEOC directly deal with matters such fair and prevailing wages.

I have seen first hand the benefits of unions. I used to work for a very fine gentleman who prior to owning his company had been a union chief and brought that same mindset into running his business.

E. Yarber said...

The best history for anyone curious about the position of scripters in the business is THE HOLLYWOOD WRITERS' WARS by Nancy Lynn Schwartz and Sheila Schwartz. You'll see what they fought for and how the current trend is a rollback.

Mike said...


Hollywood writers don't have the worst job on the planet. There are tons of shitty jobs with lower pay around the country itself, forget the planet.

It's just that, Hollywood writers have access to media to air their complaints. And when they strike; it's news. Theirs is a high profile job. So it seems they are the only one who suffer day in and day out.

By Ken Levine said...

Really? Writers are the bad guys here? Writers are just whiners? Others have worse jobs?

Let me point something out. Writers work very hard. They develop their skills. The competition to break in is brutal. Much harder than many other professions. The competition to stay in remains brutal. They work in an industry where the people above them make far more money than they do on the work they created.

Writing is hard. No, it's not digging ditches, but you try it. You try writing a script that is good enough that someone wants to buy it. And then write the next one and have that be good enough that you sell it. And eventually support your family and put your kids through school over a twenty-year period based on your ability to write scripts that people pay for. All in in environment where compensation is shrinking and competition is growing.

Oh, and it's these ungrateful whining writers who provide you with all the entertainment you enjoy. All the TV shows, all the movies. Do you have Netflix? Who wrote all those awesome shows you're watching?

So perhaps have a little empathy. Or find another blog. Because here writers are valued.

Anne in Rockwall, TX said...

This may be a really dumb question, but are there so many wannabe writers out there dying to get into the business that supply and demand allows the studios to do what they wish? As in, "Oh hell, get me another writer, this one is a pain in the ass."

I honestly don't know the numbers of writers and would-be writers vs. the volume of jobs available, but I assume the above attitude explains a whole lot of the decline of movies and television of late.

Although with all the new platforms for viewing, it seems there would be more chance for writers. Maybe because my profession is data analysis, my view is cockeyed, but it makes no sense to treat the people responsible for a hit show or movie (and yes, it is the writing that makes it a hit) treat the golden goose like a cow patty.

Where is the logic? Where is the business sense? After all, these are businesses. In many other industries this sort of shortsightedness would lead to failure.

Oh, and this is a very interesting conversation. Thanks for bringing it up, Ken.

Keith Nichols said...

The contest between labor and management is constant in almost all industries. If the writers don't organize effectively and deny their services to exploitative employers, they will continue being exploited. Ask people who make movies or automobiles or drive trains and busses. An advantage of writers is their above-average intelligence and talent. Not only do they have a special skill, but they could very likely succeed in another line of work that, like writing, doesn't require digging ditches or washing dishes. But if they want any security writing for a living, they gotta get better organized. (I would say that this applies to our country in general, considering the government we've allowed to take power over us.)

VP81955 said...

I'm with Ken. (Though I must admit this is yet another reason I prefer to write features.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I can't tell if I asked about this before or after you wrote the posting, but thanks for the response.


E. Yarber said...

When I worked for Story Departments, the submissions piled to the ceilings, but nearly all of them were garbage. It's very hard to find actually talented writers, but even those with ability are generally treated like wannabes. I know because I did my best to recommend anyone who impressed me, and saw how their work was treated.

Terrence Moss said...

corporatism is killing television.

VP81955 said...

Yet it isn't merely Sessions and his fundie anti-union friends in the backward South who are on the side of management, but the supposedly more "enlightened" coastal technocrats who are at fault. Just try to organize lower-level workers at Apple or Amazon, and Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos will give you the same canards as any member of Walmart's executive board. They may be more progressive on cultural matters, but on labor vs. management they're every bit as regressive.

VincentS said...

Sad but not surprising. Management will always try to squeeze talent. That's why they invented reality shows. Minimal writing (though they ARE scripted) and they don't need to hire professional actors.

blinky said...

In the TV business it used to be standard to have a Reporter, cameraman and editor. Now a lot of places hire Preditors: One person that shoot, is talent and edits the video. Three jobs become one.

Nora said...

Ken a related question on experienced writers/script doctors helping during a shooting of a movie or a TV pilot or some other time when needed the most.

Do they take help because there is some problem with the script or just that the studios/stars/directors want re-assurance from an experienced writer?

And what exactly is the magnitude of change a script doctor does? Just fine tuning or major ones?

Wouldn't the actual writer's feelings be hurt because someone else has been hired to change his script?

And finally is there any real compensation or just some gifts like you said today or yesterday that Diane got a Porsche?

I am interested in knowing about this part of a writer's job since it sounds like its a cool one. Like you know in "Pulp Fiction", Harvey Keitel is called to handle "situations". Similarly I figure these writers just zoom in and do their magic and just take off :)

Please share your experience too. Or is there an unwritten rule that script doctors should not talk about their work :)

I hope you will indulge me in one of the Friday questions or an entire blog would be just great :)

Steve said...

I would say that the problem stems from the fact there is more supply than demand. Hollywood is the ultimate dream for many. So there are lots of budding writers or wannabe actors. As such so many are desperate for a break that studios take advantage of it.

And writing is not a technical profession where in, you invest in that person with training and equip him with skills that he becomes indisposable. So here, there is no pressure to retain the writer. These corporates treat them as they like. If not him, then another or another.

Can this attitude/treatment be stopped? Afraid not.

Anne in Rockwall, TX said...

I have the same fascination with script doctors and how it works as Nora. As I understand it, Carrie Fisher was one of the best.

Steve B. said...

Ken, what happened to the WGA Minimum Basic Agreement? I thought the MBA expressly guaranteed writers on WGA TV shows at least a 13 week contract. How do the employers get around that provision?

YEKIMI said...

Same can be said for radio. When I started out [way back in the mid 70s], the estimates were that there were roughly 500 jobs for DJs but close to 5000 people being churned out yearly from colleges, broadcast schools, etc. So you might get a job as a DJ but it might be broadcasting polka music to cows at 3 AM in the morning for a sackful of bananas as payment. Nowadays it's probably even worse what with one person basically voice tracking 20, 30, 50 or more stations or the syndicated morning and evening weenies putting DJs out of work. Like one friend who spent $14,000 on broadcast school and was forced to intern for no pay as a board op at a local station. Once he graduated, they booted him and brought in the next intern. To this day he has been unable to get a job in radio. A few of the former DJs I have worked with have given up ever getting a radio job again and have gone into PR work or something not even remotely related to radio.

MikeN said...

> reality shows. Minimal writing (though they ARE scripted)


Ted said...

Since many comments are about jobs being scarce and there are many aspirants, here is my question on another field of the business.

Is there any rule for voice actors to limit them from taking up so many roles? Like the Simpsons actors all do multiple voices. Aren't they snatching jobs from others?

Similarly Seth MacFarlane does so many voices on Family Guy. And he is pathetic. Dr.Hartman and Carter are the same. Brian and Tom Tucker are almost same too. He is not that versatile (read talented) but still does it thereby denying opportunities to others.

Michael said...

Fridsy question: On ALMOST PERFECT, did you have any plans for how Kim and Mike's relationship would evolve in Season 2 before CBS forced you to write Kevin Kilner out of the show?

Peter said...

Friday Question:

This year is the 20th anniversary of the tragic death of the much loved Phil Hartman. Did you ever work with him or meet him?

Jahn Ghalt said...

Two comments:

One, nothing saves bad writing - not acting, not camera work, not direction (though Lucas sure f*#ked up the 2000 Star Wars with Portman), not editing.

It's laughable to see well-budgeted, expertly shot, acted, edited film with crap writing - where are the producers?

(and where were they when the original writers "restored" the Jewel of the Nile screenplay?)

Two, I wonder if there might be an over-supply of writers? This looks like the glut of liberal arts PhD's which has chased only a handful of college prof positions since (at least) the late-80s. The mini-room thing looks a lot like "adjunct professors" at certain lesser "universities" - over-worked and under-paid.

Rod said...

Friday Question--

Whose idea is it normally to re-cast a pilot when it gets picked up? The new Cedric the Entertainer sitcom "The Neighborhood" recast two central roles, the new neighbors, played by Josh Lawson & Dreama Walker to Max Greenfield and Beth Behrs. What does a re-shoot cost? Did the showrunners not think their original choices were not strong enough? Was there pressure form the network to get a more "name" star?

Joe Blow said...

Are you joking? Ken once wrote about a new trend (at the time) of famous actors/actresses taking voice acting jobs, and how it was devestating the careers of professional voice actors. If those gazillionaires won’t turn down a few thousand dollars to help out an entire genre of entertainment professionals, how could anyone expect voice actors to restrict their roles? The super wealthy actors are always letting us know how their hearts bleed for the downtrodden of the earth, but they won’t do anything for the individuals standing next to them.

Peter said...

It's difficult to break into the industry as a writer, as I'm still trying myself, and yet the guy who wrote Big Mommas:Like Father, Like Son, one of the stupidest, unfunniest and most worthless pieces of shit ever made, has an agent and sold that script. Go figure.

E. Yarber said...

A brief view of script doctoring: The producer and director of a feature film have final approval of the script, because they're the ones paying for it and having to make it work on screen. This is specified in the contract a writer signs. Sometimes rewriting screws up a good script, but other times it's necessary to get something viable in production. Some doctors may make strategic changes that don't alter enough of a script for them to get credit under WGA standards. Others work under contracts agreeing to remain anonymous. Still others will wildly mess around with the script in order to take credit for themselves.

One time I worked on a horror movie. I kept only the creature and a few murder setpieces, using about 12 pages of the original 139. Another time everyone liked the plot but the writer couldn't handle characters or dialogue to save his life. I wrote a treatment showing how the roles could be humanized and would have worked with the proposed director on a rewrite (if he and the producers had agreed on his salary). Then someone wanted a tie-in in tandem with the launch of a video game. Three writers had already gone down in flames trying to dramatize it. I was sent a group of character designs, a list of settings, and some specific action scenes that had to be included in the story to reflect the game.

Basically you're like an auto mechanic who gets a motor that isn't running properly. Sometimes it needs new spark plugs, sometimes a complete overhaul. The filmmakers may come to you with specific changes they want, or you may have to make your own choices and see if that flies with the people paying the bills. Generally, the previous writer(s) are out of your hair. When they're kept around in jobs of mine, their goal has generally been to negate as much of my repairs as necessary. As mentioned above, this is generally more about retaining screen credit than hurt feelings, but ego is always lurking somewhere in Hollywood.

I was once given a car for working on a script, but it was an Aurora model. Generally I got a flat fee and the chance for credit if the project was completed, being considered a freelance contractor at that stage of development.

Janet Ybarra said...

Not only that, Ken, but you've got to turn in said quality script on a deadline, not whenever fancy strikes. To me getting the professional grade writing in on deadline is the mark of a true pro.

Janet Ybarra said...

Corporatism is killing society.

Ted said...

Joe Blow where did I even speak about "actors/actresses taking voice acting jobs" or about "super wealthy actors". Go back and read the question and try to understand what I asked.

I am just asking how many roles will they allow voice actors to do?

My specific question that followed was about Seth. He simply takes up all the roles. Hardly anything is left for other voice actors.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Janet Ybarra: Yes. To quote William Goldman, "The work may stink, but it always arrives."


Andy Rose said...

Re: voice actors... Unless you have a regular role in a super-successful animated show, cartoon voice acting is paid scale. Doesn't matter how long you've been in the business or your track record. Rob Paulsen -- one of the most successful voice actors out there who's been working non-stop for 35 years -- has said it's a "volume business." The only way to survive is to take as many scale gigs as you can get and hope that a few will become successes. Even then, you may not make much more than scale for each session, but at least you'll get residuals.

blogward said...

The mini-room might explain how, of the dozens of streamed shows released each month, the vast majority have a promising pilot followed by 6-9 episodes of pure melodrama - by which I mean characters without depth, plot turns without logic, and dialog more dumped than delivered.