Smart on the page, smart on the screen—smart for the writers?

According to this recent Postmedia News article, it’s getting harder to fund documentaries in Canada. So the kind of partnership The Walrus and High Fidelity HDTV have announced—making documentaries “inspired” by Walrus stories and broadcasting them on High Fidelity’s eqhd channel and on WalrusTV—might be what the industry needs to continue putting our non-fiction stories on film. But, being ever-curious about compensation for freelancers, we wanted to know: who, if anyone, is paying the writers for providing that inspiration?

A Globe story outlined the partnership when it was announced. A collection of 14 films were ready to go when eqhd first started broadcasting them on Jan. 10, and the plan is for eqhd to adapt one article from each issue of The Walrus going forward. The article also noted the partnership’s promotional mantra: “Smart on the page, smart on the screen: The magazine you can’t wait to read has just become the magazine you can’t wait to watch.” It also notes that, late last year, Blue Ant Media announced it was purchasing High Fidelity; this came shortly after Torstar, owner of the Toronto Star and The Grid, invested $22.7 million to acquire 25 per cent of Blue Ant, a company led by former Alliance Atlantis Communications CEO Michael MacMaillan. (Blue Ant is a majority shareholder of GlassBOX Television, operator of Travel+Escape, Bite TV and AUX TV, and has a minority interest in Quarto Communications, publishers of Cottage Life, Outdoor Canada, and other titles.) But it didn’t mention if Walrus writers were getting paid when eqhd made documentaries tied to their work.

We contacted Walrus co-publisher Shelley Ambrose to ask if the magazine already had documentary rights written into its freelance contracts for features or, if not, whether the writers whose stories are adapted into documentaries will receive additional compensation. Ambrose said that “we don’t actually make television,” that eqhd contacts writers, and those writers make up their minds whether or not they want to work with them. She compared the writers’ participation in eqhd’s documentaries to writers appearing on any TV show to talk about their work. As for compensation, Ambrose was under the impression eqhd did not pay the writers. Lori DeGraw, manager of presentation for High Fidelity HDTV, confirmed via email that eqhd contacts writers and asks for their participation, but she would not comment on compensation. “I hope you can appreciate that, for both privacy and business reasons, our company won’t publicly discuss any specifics about the terms or agreements we have with any individual or company, regardless of the project,” she wrote.

As for contracts, Ambrose said the deal with eqhd does not affect The Walrus‘s agreements with writers. “All of the writers have been thrilled to have their work made into something else,” she added.

We imagine many writers would be more thrilled to be paid in addition to having their work made into something else, but wanting to be sure, we asked one of the Walrus writers who worked with eqhd about the experience. And it turns out Stephen Marche—whose November 2011 Walrus essay “The Meaning of Hockey” became a documentary of the same name—was, at least, very pleased. Marche told us via email that he wasn’t compensated by eqhd people or by The Walrus for being on WalrusTV, but he had no qualms about the arrangement. “In my view, the eqhd video is more or less promotion for the article, which I regard as both a benefit to myself and as one of my responsibilities to the magazine, the same as if a CBC radio or television person called me up and wanted me to go on their show to talk about it.” Marche also noted the eqhd people he worked with “were very pleasant and professional” and he had “no complaints.” You can watch the companion documentary to Marche’s essay, featuring an interview with Marche himself, on WalrusTV here (it’s really quite good).

To find out how often and how well writers are compensated when their work is adapted into films, we got in touch with Jackie Kaiser, vice president of Toronto-based literary agency Westwood Creative Artists. “Briefly, it really depends on whether the specific piece is being adapted for film or is just one of many sources the filmmaker draws upon,” she responded in an email, noting that Westwood handles “a fair number of book-to-film adaptations,” both dramatic and documentary. “The writer is always paid in these situations for the rights to their work, and sometimes also for consulting fees,” she wrote. “But occasionally, especially where there is more than one book on a subject, a film will be made on the same subject without the book having been optioned.”

Interestingly, according to Kaiser, the fee a writer receives when a book is optioned for a feature-length documentary is “quite modest” compared to what they get for a feature-length dramatization, and, as one would expect, it’s much less when a short film is made from a short story. “There is very rarely any significant money involved,” she wrote.

So maybe Walrus writers aren’t getting a raw deal, in light of the industry norm, but that doesn’t mean the industry norm is fair. In the Globe story noted above, Blue Ant’s MacMillan, via High Fidelity president Ken Murphy, reportedly told Ambrose to “think big” when it comes to their partnership. We hope everyone involved does that—as long as they remember to set some profits aside for their inspirational writers.

Posted on January 24, 2012 at 10:55 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , , , ,

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