Timothy Dowling

Fighting for Feature Writers: a Q&A with writer Timothy Dowling

Photo courtesy Timothy Dowling; graphic: Stephanie Aly

Between dealing with a seemingly endless series of corporate mergers, increasing demands for unpaid labor, opaque payment practices and an outdated compensation model, the Writers Guild of America is in a challenging position headed into its upcoming contract negotiations. Thousands of writers across the TV and film industries are relying on the Guild and its organizing power to effect substantive change in an industry that has taken hits from multiple directions — and to do it while maintaining productive relationships with studios and production companies.

Tuesday’s election for the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America West offers WGAW members a chance to help choose the next generation of leaders in their fight for expanded labor rights and contract enforcement. (The WGA East held their election on Thursday.) In the days leading up to the election, I spoke with Timothy Dowling, one of 17 members running for eight open seats, about why he is running and what he hopes to accomplish on the Board. Dowling says that he respects the work of current and previous Board members and hopes that by winning a seat, he can bring more attention to issues affecting feature writers during the upcoming contract negotiations. 

Dowling is a 22-year feature writer who has been a vocal advocate for screenwriters and an active member of the Guild. He co-wrote Role Models, Just Go With It, This Means War, George Lucas in Love, Pixels and Office Christmas Party. Despite the industry’s current challenges, he maintains a hopeful, community-focused vision of what’s possible for writers and for the industry generally. 

In a wide-ranging conversation, we covered the unique situation feature writers face; what can be done to ensure that all writers are fairly compensated for their labor; how the industry can wield power to fight for marginalized communities; the importance of community building; and what he plans to focus on if he wins a seat on the Board. 

Read our conversation below and find Dowling’s candidate page here

Why are you running for Board of Directors? Why now?

I am running because I love writers. And I love what I do. And we are in an unprecedented time of change in our business. … The world. There are fewer films. Less work. And writers are making less. I want the studios to make money. To be successful. I root for every film and TV show to be a hit; people going back to the movies in a big way this summer made me so happy. But when they are successful I want writers to share in that success. 

To me, this next negotiation is about our seismic shift to streaming and making sure that writers get their fair share of that revenue. I am running to fight for middle-class writers. And for those green envelopes that pay the bills sometimes between jobs. 

Also, while I want to fight for all writers, I want to be an advocate for feature writers on the Board, who have traditionally had less representation. 

What are some of the issues feature writers face that may not be as apparent to people who are more familiar with the TV side of things? 

Less work. Fewer films getting made. It was happening before but Covid accelerated that, as well. And of the films getting made — more of them are IP-driven these days, so there is less work than there used to be. The days of big original spec sales and pitches seem to be behind us at the moment. I hope it comes back.

Jobs are taking longer to get and deals even longer to make. 

In listening to feature writers after I decided to run, I have heard them talk about making it easier to get their projects out of studios if (the projects) are just sitting there and not getting made. I am all about this. Let’s get our work made.

I have heard others talking about the ridiculous studio accounting practices where no one ever sees a cent of the net profit owed them, even on the most successful movies. This is something that maybe we need to fight to change because we have all just accepted it. No one is saying, “Pay us money on films that didn’t make a profit,” but if they do, the writer of that project deserves to get paid. 

I have credit on five movies. All five made money. I have not gotten a single cent of the net profits owed me. There is something messed up about that. 

Transparency on streaming residuals has been a significant issue for writers. What has your experience been? 

Yeah, we just don’t know how much money they are making from our work or how many people are watching. Again, I want the studios to make money and be successful. When they do, that’s good for us, too. But I also think that when they are making money off our work, we should share in that.

My movie Just Go With It, which is a 10-year-old movie, came on a major streaming service this year and was the No. 2 movie for about a week and in the top ten most-watched films for a few months. I have no idea if I got paid anything for that. 

I had another writer friend tell me they had a movie their studio sold to Amazon and the studio kept telling them how much money they made on it and how successful it was for Amazon. My friend said they got nothing from this. That needs to change. 

What do you think needs to change to ensure writers are fairly compensated for online views?

I think we need to come up with a formula that’s fair, and probably should be based on views. If something is getting a ton of views and bringing subscribers to that service, the writers should be paid for that. And conversely, if no one is watching, they shouldn’t have to pay us as much. This isn’t rocket science. Pay for success. Let us all share in that success.

To be clear, I don’t want to go to war with the studios. They are our partners and in many cases friends. I love my colleagues that I work with on the studio side and we are in this together. I just think we should also share in the successes together. 

You talked about the need to decrease the time it takes to close a deal and then finally sign the paperwork. Can you explain the current process and how the timeline impacts writers?

There is no set rule right now for negotiation length. I have just found in the past few years that deals are taking longer and longer. And as jobs are taking longer to get, it would be nice to put a reasonable cap on negotiations so they don’t drag on forever. 

It takes a long time to book a job or sell something, but you don’t then get paid. You don’t get paid ‘til the paperwork is signed and done and you are commenced. Often times you have been doing the work long before you get paperwork and are paid. 

I think there should be a cap, and if you go past a certain time, they should have to pay the writers something while the deal is getting done. This is something that wouldn’t make the studios pay any more than they already would with the deal. It’s not gonna affect them, but it would affect the writer who is getting paid for the work they are doing in the meantime.  

I think we are the only profession where you have to bug the shit out of people just to get paid what you are owed on something. It always takes forever. I have been working as a writer for almost 20 years and it’s always been that way, and you always feel bad bugging them. But, you know what, they get paid every week and don’t need to bug anyone to get paid what they are owed. So writers should be the same. 

I think your call for paid pitches reflects many workers’ frustration with the amount of unpaid labor required for pitches and interview processes in creative fields. What do you see as the most significant hurdle to getting writers paid for pitches?

Getting them to agree to it. Look, (you) do a ton of free work when you go up for a job. You are expected to come up with the whole movie to get hired these days. It’s a lot of work and if you don’t get the job, it’s a waste of time. 

I think it’s not unreasonable to ask for something if they are asking you to do this work. For most open writing assignments they talk to 3 to 5 writers. So on a project, it’s not gonna break the bank if the studios have to pay a few thousand dollars to each writer who pitched and did the work. Which, by the way, would not even remotely adequately compensate writers for the amount of work they did. But it would be something.  

How do you think making that switch would impact writers more broadly? The compensation would obviously have a direct impact, but do you think paid pitches as the norm would affect writers’ approach to the process? 

I don’t know; we‘d have to see. You’d obviously have to have standards so people wouldn’t take advantage and come up with a bullshit no-work pitch just to get paid. But honestly, if they did that just to get that fee, they aren’t gonna work too much anyway. So I don’t think it would be abused.

A bill to extend California’s film and TV tax credits was just shelved until next year, although it’s almost certain to pass in some form before the program sunsets in 2025. You want California to do more to return film production to the state. Have you seen anything from states with similarly competitive tax credits (like New York or Georgia) that you’d like to see California adopt? 

I think Gavin Newsom is an advocate. And someone sympathetic. Our California economy is doing great; we have surpluses, so now is the time. He has done a great job but I think there is a lot more to do. Really NO big movies shoot in LA anymore. That is hundreds of millions of dollars per big project going to other states and countries. Let’s bring that money and those jobs back here. 

Also, I’d argue from a tourism standpoint that as a kid I couldn’t wait to come to LA and see where they shot Die Hard and Beverly Hills Cop and Pretty Woman or go to Universal and see the Back to the Future sets. Now nothing big shoots here, so you don’t have that. 

Many big movies shoot in London. London is a far more expensive city than LA. If they can figure out a tax break that makes sense, so should we. 

To me, it’s a win-win for the state and for the business. It’s a fight I want to be a part of. 

Your platform highlights the power the industry could wield to put political pressure on states “that are anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ, and have unrestrictive gun laws.” What would you like to see happen and what kind of impact do you think it could have?

Yeah, we are sending jobs and money to these states that don’t respect the right of their citizens or their safety with some of their laws. I am saying let’s push NOT to send money and jobs there, and, rather, support states that care about the right of their workers and their safety. Money talks and if we want to enact change, we need to put our money where our mouth is. 

This is my political operative brain speaking, but it’s also a good reminder for those of us who live in states like New York or California that there’s still work that can be done in our own states to protect those who are actively losing their rights.

Of course. The fight never ends. There is always more to do. 

Can you talk more about the community building you’d like to do among writers? How might building that kind of support system influence your approach to the labor issues we discussed?

I am a feature writer. I write alone. We are not on sets with other writers like actors are. What we do is a unique thing; only we get it. And I just would like to help create a community and support system. I am also fairly social and love meeting people, especially creative people. 

So, if elected, I wanna be the cruise, social director of the guild. Let’s get together and build friendships, bonds and connections. Also, don’t we all need a drink right now? 

Indeed. Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you’d like to add?

You can go to my webpage to read more. I’d love people’s support and vote these next few days. We have way, way more TV writers in our business than feature writers, but I hope to get the support of both. We are all writers, after all. And I am proud and humbled to have had the endorsements of some of the writers I admire most in this business. I got their support because they liked what I was saying and what I want to fight for. Thanks for listening. And write on!!!

You can find more information on Timothy Dowling’s WGAW candidate site. Follow @TimothyDowling on Twitter.

The voting period for the 2022 WGAW Board of Directors election closes at 12 p.m. Pacific on Sept. 20.