One of the most resonant issues on the table in the ongoing Writers Guild of America contract negotiations has turned out to be one of the hardest to define: mini rooms.
Rising to the top of writers’ concerns in bargaining with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers is the rapid growth in the use of so-called mini rooms in the development and production of TV series. Yet ask anyone around town to define what constitutes a mini room, and answers vary greatly.
While traditional writers’ rooms consist of seven or eight writers (or more, depending on the show, its budget and the level of experience on staff), a mini room is often “a miniaturized writers’ room,” one TV exec says. “We’ll hire two to three additional writers to help our showrunner crack the first two to three scripts, after the pilot is written.”
Multiple literary agents, execs and scribes who spoke with Variety identified two scenarios that most often lead a production entity to establish a mini room. The first is a development mini room, in which a writer has sold a pitch or a pilot script to a particular platform. In lieu of a pilot, the outlet will want to see two or three more scripts to determine the show’s potential before formally ordering it to series. In this case, the writer — typically an established showrunner — will hire a handful of writers to work on the scripts over a few weeks, with everyone being paid at scale rates. In some cases, showrunners themselves will request a mini room setup.
The mini room route to birthing a series was pioneered a decade ago by AMC Network, a smaller cabler that works with limited budgets. The model has been used for the development of such AMC series as “Mayfair Witches” and “Kevin Can F**k Himself.” A more recent example would be Hulu’s adaptation of the series “A Court of Thorns and Roses” from writers Ronald D. Moore and Sarah J. Maas. That show is envisioned as a high fantasy/epic romance and would be a significant financial commitment — which means a pilot would be tough to amortize if the show didn’t go to series. Therefore, Hulu is looking for more material to evaluate beyond the pilot script, show bible and book series by Maas.
Meanwhile, the other mini room scenario comes into play for a series that has been picked up or has aired a full season. A network or streaming platform may then establish a mini room to write a few scripts to help it decide if the show should be renewed.
Those who spoke with Variety said they do not see as many issues with the first scenario as with the second. But in both cases — if the show doesn’t get a greenlight or renewal — it can tie up writers for as long as eight to 10 weeks, during which time they can’t take other jobs. Even if the series does get ordered, the mini room writers often will not continue with the show, especially if the total episode order is 10 or less.
“We’ve had situations with mini rooms where they have given us a lot of great information, and we’ve had other situations where the pilot script has been great but the other two scripts have not been great and the shows have hung themselves, basically, by requesting a mini room,” an exec says.
The issues with both scenarios, however, are significantly more pronounced for newer writers. Not only are newer writers less likely to get staffed in a mini room, but even if they do, they will only make scale. In the WGA’s view, this has led to an overall depression of writer pay rates as mini rooms become more common. In addition, writers will struggle to advance to showrunner if they don’t get the chance to be involved in the production and post-production process.
“It’s wild to me that the first 10 weeks of breaking a show are the most important,” “Abbott Elementary” and “Harley Quinn” executive producer Justin Halpern (also a WGA board member) recently told Variety. “And to think that those are the weeks we get paid minimum, and maybe we don’t even get to go on with the show. That doesn’t seem like equity.”
The WGA’s official stance on mini rooms is simple, per a spokesperson: “A writers’ room is a writers’ room. Writers need to be compensated properly for the value they create.”
Certain platforms and studios are now refusing to even refer to mini rooms as “rooms.” One outlet has created a template where three writers and a writers’ assistant work together for a few weeks to break story, with one or two of those writers creating the actual scripts. Meanwhile, some studios are insisting that mini rooms are in fact “gigs” rather than full-blown rooms.
TV executives acknowledge that the strain is real. Some have been surprised at how many experienced writers are taking mini room jobs simply to stay in the game at a topsy-turvy time for the industry.
“Maybe the mid-level writer who’s doing the mini room is doing it to get the work,” an exec says. “Despite the explosion of television and all of the millions of shows that are on, people are still taking the jobs where they can come.”