How Exclusive Contracts Leave Writers and Actors Scrambling to Navigate Supercharged Job Market

At a time when the global content business is moving faster than ever, many writers feel like they’re still stuck in second gear by the nature of series deal contracts that haven’t kept pace with the times.

At present, networks, studios and streamers can hold writers and talent under exclusive deals for anywhere from nine months to more than a year in some cases, per standard series agreement deals. That prevents them from booking other jobs in that time without a complicated process of approvals, hindering scribes’ ability to chase other job opportunities. Actors are bumping up against the same restrictions in this moment of Peak TV employment levels for experienced thespians.

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The constraints have been part of writer deals for a long time, but they were instituted at a time when broadcast was the only game in town and writers worked eight or nine months out of the year on seasons of at least 20 or more episodes.

But now, multiple TV lit and talent agents who spoke with Variety say that they have lower- and mid-level clients who are losing work due to exclusivity, exacerbated by multiple factors like the year-round development cycle and short-order seasons of 13 episodes or less. Writers get paid less because they work on fewer episodes, but they still face long contract holds.

The tension has been building for some time. The Writers Guild of America tried to address the problem in its last two master contract negotiations with the major studios and networks. But industry veterans say problems persist with contract terms outmoded for today’s marketplace.

“Short [season] orders are a major reason this is a problem,” one talent agent says. “My clients are working for fewer weeks and therefore making less money on a given job, but then they are being held under these exclusive deals for the same amount of time as if they were working on a 22-episode season.”

Laurie Espinosa, senior director of contracts for the WGA, says that complaints about short orders go back about a decade to when cable networks began pushing into prestige dramas. Espinosa says that Article 67 of the guild’s basic agreement was negotiated in 2014 to put limits on how long writers could be held to exclusivity.

“As far as we’re concerned, in terms of exclusivity, for those writers to whom the provision applies, they can’t be held exclusive after the last payment is due under their agreement,” she says.

Espinosa says that writers earning less than $350,000 in a given year are covered by the provision and that 60 days after the break in employment or a hiatus, they must be free to pursue other work. But a hiatus only exists if there are no writers working on a project.

“A hiatus isn’t really a hiatus if you have the showrunner and his or her No. 2 working on rewriting scripts, or polishing scripts,” she says. “That is actually not a true hiatus. So we’ve had some difficulties with that.”

Of course, it is entirely possible for networks and streamers to sign off on someone taking another job if the scheduling lines up. But there is no guarantee this will happen — and mid-level actors are feeling the pinch. A-list stars have the cachet to move between outlets and sign one-year deals for prestige limited series, while others are not so fortunate.

Getting approval can take time, and agents say that if it does not come fast enough, the other project can move on to other people for the open roles.

Network executives are recognizing that the status quo is untenable and that changes to the current system are inevitable.

“I definitely have seen exclusivity loosen as the orders have diminished,” one network casting executive says. “And as long as we put in protections for marketing and publicity, or airdates that won’t bump into our shows, I definitely find that we’re supporting it more.”

Whether or not that support will extend to all major networks and streaming services remains to be seen. What is clear, though, is that they will need to adapt if they want to avoid more strife with the creative community going forward. Given that labor organizations like the WGA and IATSE have made impressive strides in recent years, it seems inevitable that change is coming.

“I don’t see how they can keep going like this,” a TV lit agent says of networks and streaming services’ holds on writers. “If this keeps up, they are going to burn a lot of bridges.”

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