The Screenwriters Association (SWA) has made a breakthrough in formulating a fair pay plan for writers — an initiative that has been welcomed by the industry.

Filmmaker Ritesh Sidhwani of Excel Entertainment has signed on for the guidelines laid down by the SWA.

Rajabali, writer of movies like Ghulam, The Legend of Bhagat Singh and Raajneeti who has been lobbying for the rights of screenwriters for long, says the SWA has been pushing for a minimum basic contract (MBC) among film producers to ensure that writers get paid at least minimum wages.

“Generally, owing to historical conditions, barring for some top writers, screenwriting fees have been really low. Moreover, because of the hugely unequal bargaining power, writers have been unable to negotiate contracts that could offer them fair terms, based on the principle of mutuality. This has caused frustration and anguish in the screenwriting fraternity for a long time now,” Rajabali, who heads the SWA sub-committee on MBC – Films, told IANS.

He said three recent developments have created conditions for a change. “One, the film industry has realised that without a good script, there is no way in which they can make a good and/or a successful film. This has repeatedly been established, ad nauseam.

“Two, lots of new, young writers with talent and a brave voice have been writing some wonderful scripts, many of which have become films whose impact is attributable to the writing.

“And, three, the SWA, peopled by young energetic leaders, has been proactive about improving the calibre of writing and been hammering home the need to improve writers’ fees and the protection of their rights.”

A minimum basic contract was drafted some years ago for film, as well as television writers, and for lyricists. Negotiations had begun with the Film and TV Producers Guild, the Indian Film and TV Producers Council as well as some broadcasters. But for different reasons, they couldn’t reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Filmmaker Vipul Shah says he had initiated this as an understanding between the Writers’ Association and the Producers Guild of India to sign a contract along with Ashutosh Gowariker and Rajabali, but the Producers’ Guild backed out.

Welcoming the progress, Shah told IANS, “It’s a good initiative and should be supported. In my production house, we have a rule of paying much higher than what is proposed as minimum payment to writers.

“We pay much higher to writers. We also have a profit-sharing model if writers want to take that chance. We believe, as a production house, writers need to be respected apart from being paid more money.”

Pointing out that for years writers’ name was taken out of the publicity material, he said, “In all my films, the first credit on poster and every publicity material is given to the writer. Writer needs to be respected as he is the backbone of the film. If he is happy and doing good work, we will make better films every single time.”

After signing up with Excel Entertainment, Rajabali says even Siddharth Roy Kapur has agreed to discuss and negotiate the minimum basic contract.

“Likewise, we are approaching the major production houses, and hope to get the film industry accept these as a standard model. Likewise, for TV writers as well as lyricists, we shall resume the process of negotiations.”

A stream of writers and filmmakers lauded the initiative on social media.

Ajitpal Singh, writer-director of Rammat Gammat, said, “If the idea of minimum wages is implemented in earnest by producers, there can be a revolution in content as more talented people will take up writing.”

The minimum basic contract works in a simple way. The fair remuneration formula is to ensure that no film screenwriter is paid below these. It also takes into consideration the production budget of a film.

For a film with below Rs 5 crore budget, the minimum fee for script is Rs 12 lakh (Rs 3 lakh for story, Rs 5 lakh for screenplay, Rs 4 lakh for dialogue), for film with Rs 5-15 crore budget, the minimum fee for script is Rs 24 lakh.

The writer and the producer would be free to negotiate a higher fee, based on the writer’s record and the merit of the script.