Writer of Ghulam and Raajneeti, Anjum Rajabali feels producers should not just value a script but also give dignity to the writer – Exclusive | Hindi Movie News
SWA has been fighting for the Minimum Basic Contract (MBC) for almost a decade. What are the hurdles that you’re still facing?
It has been a struggle but it has not been a concerted one because the situation was a little fluid. The corporations were beginning to come in, the private sector was moving in, plus, multinational studios came in, followed by the OTT platforms. There was a certain fluidity in the way in which the professional culture between writers and producers was progressing.
Plus, there were these copyright rules which had changed and at the same time we were awaiting the registration of the copyright society. We thought that there would be a concerted decision on the table on all of these matters. Now, there’s some clarity in any case on both sides. They have set their systems saying that this is how the contracts are likely to be. Those mandates are not entirely accessible to us. As a result of which we would like to discuss them to bring about some reform in the writer-producer equation. It concerns some important issues which we want to take up in the first round itself.
So, what exactly are these issues?
There are two important things for which a writer works. One is the fee of course which he/she gets. That’s how their home is run. The second is credit, which is perhaps more important than the writing fee. Because credit determines a writer’s future. When a piece of work, which people have appreciated is attributed to you, then people want to work with you. It consolidates your career. A writer should be known by his/her work. If he/she is not known by their work, then obviously there’s a problem.
Sometimes, there’s team work. There are co-writers. Sometimes, after you have finished writing the script the producer is at the liberty to engage another writer. In this case, it has to be resolved who gets the credit. Which writers deserve co-writing credits and in what order credits are determined. So, that becomes essential to be clear about.
Here, the producer takes a shortcut saying that the final credit will be at the discretion of the producer. Now, this is not acceptable to us. Because it has actually to be based on the amount of work of a particular writer that is visible in the final film which has been made. If my work is significant in the final version of the film then I should have the credit for that. It cannot be left at the discretion of the producer. Because he may not have expertise in any case to be able to look at all the drafts that various writers have written and compare them with the final draft to determine whose work has been carried in what measure.
The world over, the writers’ guild is a bunch of writers. Many of them are knowledgeable, experienced senior writers, which is why they’re able to do that. The system that Screenwriters Association (SWA) has set up is fairly scientific in determining credit, which we call credit arbitration in case of a dispute. So, it should be left to a committee of experts who can sit together and do all comparisons and finally determine credits transparently.
If a writer has worked on a script for say 3 years but it got reworked by another writer. How does the original writer deal with that?
What is the meaning of credit? Credit is not dependent on the amount of work that you have done. I might have worked on a script for 16 years but finally if some other writer has been engaged who has contributed by changing say 75 percent of the script in the final version of the film. In which case, what the credit means is that the film you’re watching is written by who? Not who worked for a longer time, or who was the original writer, or who worked harder. I may have been writing a script for 16 years, but the new writer could have written it in one month. That is not the issue. Credit means to attribute the work that you’re watching on the scene to a particular author. Therefore, it has to be determined like that. A writer cannot sit and say, “What about my three years?” You are not credited for three years. You’re being credited for the work that’s seen on the screen.
Have Excel Entertainment and
No, they haven’t come on board for the contract yet. We have not reached that stage. What they have agreed with are certain points, which we also need to formulate. Ritesh Sidhwani and I had a word way back in 2018. I had said that there are certain minimums that SWA is recommending based on the budget of the film. That’s the minimum a writer should get for a script.
So, he said, “Tell me about it.” So, I explained the whole thing to him about writer’s fees according to the budget of the film and Ritesh said that it was reasonable. I asked him whether I could announce it. He said, “Absolutely, announce it. And if someone from the press speaks to me about it, I’ll stand by it.” Then I spoke with Siddharth Roy Kapur as well. And he was also responsive. Siddharth was cool with credit. He also said publicly that he’s okay with the formula that SWA has proposed and the fact that SWA will arbitrate in the case of a dispute. He’s very happy that it’s off the producer’s head.
That way, there are reasonable people that we’re beginning to speak with. So, one after the other, we’re expecting that there should be change.
Maybe others like OTT platforms who might say that this is our company policy that we determine. That cannot be done. Just because you have paid writers for the script, you’re not at liberty to determine what the credit is. Credit is totally dependent on the work there. That you’re not in a position to judge because you don’t have the expertise to judge. Hence, it should be left to experts and it should be an organized system. We’re happy to discuss that system – this is what we’re proposing, in fact, it’s already in place in the system. Now, we want them to actually formally agree that yes if there’s in fact a dispute amongst different writers, you have to leave it to SWA. Then the responsibility is on our head in any case. If a writer comes and argues with a producer, all the producer has to say is that in the contract that you’ve signed, the arbitration has to be done by SWA, so go to your union. Why are you coming to me? The producer is even legally protected. If the writer wants to file a case against this arbitration then he has to go to court against the union. We will deal with that. How is the producer concerned, I don’t understand at all. It’s a dispute between two writers. They’re members of SWA. We will resolve it. In fact, I’m taking the responsibility off your head. I’m also taking the ill will that you might get otherwise. Writers might hold a grudge against you. Here, there’s no grudge at all.
What are the excuses the producers usually give for not paying the screenwriters the minimum basic fee?
We must understand that there’s history involved here. Right from the beginning, the producers’ control over a project was complete because they were the ones with the money. So, right from the historical times, they were the employers. In the studio system, they would actually keep writers on a payroll. Whatever the writers write will be the producer’s property whether he makes it or not. It was like you’re a Munshi. And the producer was Sethji.
This attitude has continued to a certain extent because the producers feel, ‘I’m the one who’s paying money, I should have the control to determine the decisions’. The minute you ask for a change in balance, the bargaining leverage of the writer increases. There’s a certain anxiety that the producers might be feeling. As a result of which, they might feel, tomorrow morning these writers might start demanding something which we don’t want to give.
Plus, when it comes to minimums, everybody knows in the business that nobody wants to pay. Because the executives think that their job is to save the company’s money. That’s why the new writers get squeezed because they don’t have an option. Their bargaining power is very weak. If they do that with me, I have the option to walk out.
The senior writers are not lacking in work. But that is not who the scheduling minimum is for. It is actually for the new writers who feel squeezed. Therefore, there should be a safety net. A producer or filmmaker cannot go below that. There’s a certain dignity involved. What are we asking for? We’re asking for nothing. If your film’s budget is Rs 5 crore excluding the star fees, then you should be able to pay the writer Rs 12 lakh. What is that coming to? If your budget is Rs 15 crore, then give the writer Rs 24 lakh which is nothing. About 1.3 percent of your whole budget. Your entire film is based on the script. We are encouraging producers by telling them that if you invest in the script, you’ll be able to save money later. Because the script will be written efficiently and your film will be a success. If the script is bad, what are you going to do? Why are you demotivating writers?
Some producers tell writers to take whatever money they’re offering because they’re giving the writer a ‘chance’.
That’s what I mean by the longstanding attitude. There’s no such thing as giving a chance. No producer ever will give a break to anyone unless he believes that their work will give them profit in the business and that there’s a commercial value to it. Nobody is doing anybody a favour. They think that they’re giving a writer a break so he should be grateful and accept less money.
No, you’re not giving me a break. You want my work, which you believe is going to be valuable to you. That’s why you’re engaging me. If I didn’t know how to write, why would you engage me? There’s no such thing as ‘chance dena’. This is exactly the attitude we’re fighting against. This is an absolutely professional exchange. The writer has something of value which is called a script and the producer needs it. The producer knows that without a script there’s no film business. The producer is bringing the value that a writer needs, the ability to make the film and to pay the writer what he/she needs. He is offering the script for these two things. What is the problem? It’s a fair professional exchange. It shall be treated as such.
There’s a belief in the industry that the producers are ready to pay the stars, not writers.
That’s another lopsided approach the industry has because they believe that stars guarantee an opening. But history has proved that doesn’t always happen. If the script is not good, even if you do get an opening weekend, from Monday it begins to tank. The opening weekend belongs to the stars. From Monday onwards the film belongs to the writers. If your film stays, that means the story is working and the script is working.
Besides, star fees are not our business. All I am saying is that no matter how big a star is, if your script is weak, then your film will be in danger. If you have written a wonderful script and even if you don’t have a big star, the word of mouth in India is so strong that the popularity of the film grows. We have seen it umpteen times that if the script is competent and the director is good, an actor can become a star. But what will a star do with a weak script?
We have been hearing content is king for many years but it seems like lip service. Have things really changed?
I will happily and most certainly acknowledge one thing that actually the appreciation of the need for a good strong script has most certainly gone up. There’s much more interest in the film industry among producers, studios, and platforms. They all take scriptwriting seriously, undoubtedly, which is a good thing. Also, the opportunities for writers have increased a lot. Earlier, you only had cinema and TV. Now, you have the OTT platforms. There are lots of opportunities.
All we are expecting is that, for one, while you are looking for good scripts, we also want you to not just value that script but also accord the due dignity that a writer needs. This means certain basic rights like credits, protection against arbitrary termination, and unreasonably indemnity demands – you cannot bring in these things. Because we feel exploited. All we are saying is that let it be fair. We are not saying that the makers give us more than what is due to us. Obviously, not. We are not trying to counter-exploit you. That is not our style.
I don’t understand what could possibly be a problem when you’re making an agreement, the agreement should be based on fairness and mutuality. It’s an agreement between two parties. So, both parties’ points of view should be accommodated in the contract which regulates the relationship. Problem kya hai? If I’m selling a house and someone is buying, then the points of view, rights, and vulnerabilities of both parties should be accommodated in the agreement, no? That’s what we’re trying to say. Sit with us and understand what we’re trying to say and be reasonable as we’re being reasonable.
Do many writers succumb to this pressure? Or is there a change in their attitude because of the ongoing fight for rights and MBC?
What is it that makes a writer protected? For that, you need to understand a writer’s vulnerability. When an individual writer is up against a big corporation with well-paid high-ranking lawyers and executives, his bargaining power becomes weak. Take it or leave is the attitude that a writer has to face. A new writer is seeking to establish himself. Even other mid-level writers or sometimes senior writers succumb to the pressure because they say, “Aisa hee hai. These are our company policies and we cannot change that. You go with this, or we cannot work with you.” So, a writer gives in.
Historically, we have always sort of given in. It is true that an individual writer does not have the bargaining power to anywhere match the bargaining power of the opposite side. But now the SWA has, in an assertive way, moved towards effective bargaining that represents the community of writers and we will speak on their behalf to standardize certain important clauses and certain protocols of credit and payment schedules so that an individual writer doesn’t have to negotiate. Because the SWA and producers/studios/platforms have agreed. That is what we are moving towards now. Once we move forward, we will see a steep change in the attitude of writers and position of writers – the things that Hollywood writers enjoy. Collective bargaining has helped the WGA writers immensely.
We are working towards establishing a clear system of collective bargaining where the union will represent the writers to speak on their behalf to work out reasonable and standardized contracts.
What about the agencies that represent writers?
SWA has got nothing to do with those agencies. The agencies are those companies/representatives who are employed by the writers, which is their private matter altogether. Have the agencies made a critical difference? No. Have the agencies taken the load off the writer’s head to do their negotiations and legalities? Yes. Are the agencies able to get mid-level writers to get more jobs? Yes. Because that’s an agency’s job. Have they changed the basic protocols of the writers’ contract? No. That has not happened. The agencies are there in terms of getting business for writers and perhaps a better fee. But there ends the matter.
Are there still hidden clauses that manipulate the writers? Do writers refer to SWA in such cases?
Yes. We started a legal advice service 5-7 years ago. We have a full-time legal officer working with SWA so that all the SWA members have this offer in the event that you get a draft contract from the producer, show it to the SWA legal officer first. We will give you advice on whether it’s correct or not, or whether you should negotiate or not. So that the writer is empowered with some understanding. But understand that although the writer has the awareness, the fellow doesn’t have the bargaining leverage to change anything. So, the person on the opposite side puts the foot down saying nothing will change in the contract. So, eventually, the writer feels helpless and signs it. “Yeh aise hee hota hai” attitude has always been there in our society, whether it is concerning women or minorities.
What about royalty for screenwriters?
When the law changed in 2012, it stated that for every category of work, there should be a separate copyright society. Now, the Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS) has been around since the 1960s. They have a fairly large organization and have been in operation for 60 years. They are continuing to collect royalties. After the law changed, there was further empowerment which they have now. The royalties are defined. That system is working.
Our registration is still pending. We had put forward our registration in April 2016. It’s been an altogether different struggle to get the copyright society registered. Once that registration takes place, we can consider how to operationalize it. A lot of back and forth has already happened. We changed a few things as per their suggestions. We complied with all of them. But it is still pending registration. So, I can’t talk about it.
All I can say is that there’s a clause that big producers and platforms try to insert which says that the writing fee given to the writers contains 40 percent of advance royalty. Which is bullshit. You cannot determine in advance what the royalty can be. What you are offering right now is the writing fee. You’re paying the fee to the writer because he’s assigning the IP of his work to you so that you can go ahead and make the film. And that’s all that is there. There’s nothing to do with royalty. They try to include that and use their muscle power. This is not acceptable to us. There are these various counts on which we have to ensure that we push back all the unfair clauses.
Is there hope for change in India with the strike by WGA?
SWA and WGA are sister organizations and there’s solidarity. But there cannot be a direct bearing on this. We have to fight our own battle which we have just begun. There’s a lot of hope. We’re moving with not just hope but confidence. Because I think they have also realized that the time has come now to iron out certain difficulties that writers may be facing in their contracts. So, they’re willing to listen. We have the first round of meetings ready. There were about 7-8 leading producers at the Film Producers’ Guild’s office last August, where we spoke with them. There was a clear desire on both sides that let’s sit across the table, let’s understand each other’s point of view, and let’s iron it out. And that is imperative now.
We are going the distance. We are not stepping back. This is why certain important clauses have to be taken into account – the writer’s vulnerability and writer’s protection of rights, we’re not going to take a step back on that.
What do screenwriters have to do in the current scenario to secure the best deal for them?
This question contains seventeen sub-questions. I cannot give you one answer. But I will give you one clear advice. No writer should sign a contract without actually showing it to his/her lawyer. You must get legal advice from a trusted source on that. And you must learn to negotiate.
My other advice is that there are two factors to be remembered when you enter a negotiation. One, you need to have the intelligence to understand the other person’s point of view. Second, you should be ready to walk off the table.
But a walk-off can be difficult, no?
When one person does it, 5, 10 or 50 people will do it and suddenly you’ll realize that it has become impossible for producers to push this through because the writers are ready to take a chance to leave the deal.
Is it difficult to bargain with an individual organization or a studio/platform?
It’s easy to bargain with an individual producer because it’s a smaller organization, it’s compact. You know the people and people actually have the stakes in the company. At platforms, you’re dealing with executives. It has got nothing to do with them. It is some shareholders’ money that is lying there. Here, there’s at least some skin of the producer in the matter.
How have you decided on the minimum fees for a writer?
We are saying that the minimum fee should be Rs 12 lakh. At the moment, we’re only pushing for that. We’ll aim for the higher slab after a while. Right now, our whole focus is on the first round of discussions when a new writer, who is the most vulnerable, should be protected. There should not be a fee paid to a screenwriter below 12 lakhs. That is a dignified safety net that every new writer needs to get. That’s the minimum value of the script.
These days, many scripts are going to lawyers to be read. What is this new development?
The producers are feeling very vulnerable because all kinds of people are filing cases against them in various parts of the country. Obviously, they get very upset when someone randomly gets offended and files a case and they have to go there to deal with it. In the case of Tandav (Amazon Prime Video), it became very dangerous for the platform executives, writers, actors and the director. Out of that anxiety, producers have decided to take advice from lawyers to see if the script has something that can be misinterpreted by somebody despite it being not intended.
Does the legal review of scripts become uncomfortable for writers?
Of course, it is uncomfortable for writers. Even I feel uncomfortable. But these are the times that we’re living in. The producers are more scared than the writer because a film could be prevented from releasing. I completely see the producers’ point of view in this. They’re trying to be safe.