For the first time, on a European level, the three main organisations representing screenwriters, directors and their collective management organisations came together to call for an end to buyout contracts. This is big news.
These are becoming the norm in our industry and, with the future of distribution destined to be online, more and more authors are signing away their exclusive rights against a lump sum and denying them the opportunity to receive some of the revenues from that online exploitation for ever. For ever.
Authors’ exclusive rights are the foundation of the European vision of authors’ rights and are what enable a screenwriter or director to make a living and keep being creative. They are exclusive but not unwaivable. As a result of weak negotiating power in many European countries, screenwriters and directors increasingly waive these rights for a single sum of money. Although sometimes quite a significant amount, in many cases this is the last remuneration the author will see for their work. A producer might argue that the author is lucky to get all that money before the film is even made (remember however that production is split into two phases – pre-production and exploitation – the author has often spent years developing the work for no money) and irrespective of its success, but that misses the point. Doesn’t the creator deserve to be linked to the success of their work?
When you buy a DVD, shouldn’t you know that some of that money is going to the screenwriter and director, the people who had the idea and crafted the story that you want to watch? When you download or stream a film, wouldn’t you like to be sure that part of the cost (if you downloaded or stream legally) goes to those creators?
The reality is that this is probably not the case. As ever, the question is complex. In the production country of the work, the author should hopefully get something. But what about the sales outside of the production country? How transparent is Europe’s audiovisual chain as a whole? Can a screenwriter or director really monitor how their work is doing abroad and whether they are due any money?
There are several reasons for this. Europe’s audiovisual industry is almost entirely made up of SMEs, sometimes tiny production companies made for a single project. Although they might not like to admit it, these companies often do not have the capacity to follow their own income, let alone what should be passed on to authors. Herein lies the reason behind the sector’s dependency on minimum guarantees. Take what you can up front and don’t worry about the rest.
This all said, this is not a reason to divorce authors from their works. If you can’t manage the money then get together and set up a structure that can and ensures that the online service that makes the works available to the public pays. The solution is not to force screenwriters and directors to sign everything away so you don’t have to worry about them. Screenwriters and Directors don’t want to meddle in producers licensing systems but they do want to be linked to the success of their works. Authors can understand that producers need to cover their outlay that financed the film and that they would like to make a profit which they could use to finance the next project.
They just want a fair contract that gives them income that is proportional to the exploitation of their work.