Documentary Film and Nonfiction Programming

"Documentary films are written four times. The first time you write it is when you conceive your questions because those questions have to lead to a narrative. You have to know that the answers of your subject are going to start piecing together the film. The second part is when you get the transcripts back [from the interviews]. I highlight them and start to puzzle all the different bites together. Where there is a break and it needs to be redirected, you write the voice-over. That is the third part of the process. The fourth time you write is when you are in the edit bay and you look at the footage. You do it all over again. It is really about taking your subjects' voices and giving them narrative."

-- Stacy Peralta, WGAW Nonfiction Writers Caucus Member


Click here for the Documentary Screenplay Contract’s current terms and 2014 filing documents. This contract was revised in 2013 to include a new deferment definition.

What is it?
It is a contract designed to meet the demands of the documentary film business as well as ensure the rights and benefits for writers of theatrically released documentaries budgeted at $1.2 million or below.

How does it work?
Many documentaries are financed by filmmakers themselves. Before this contract, working under the WGA agreement was cost-prohibitive to most filmmakers who stretch every dollar to create their works of passion. Now writer-directors and writer-producers can work under the protection of the WGA and use partial or complete deferments instead of having to pay all writing fees upfront. In addition, the agreement makes it easier on theatrical documentary producers who want to hire writers under the WGA agreement by allowing for partial deferments of writing fees in accordance with various budget breaks. And in the event a documentary screenplay is purchased prior to the start of principal photography, fees for the purchase of such literary material may also be at least partially if not completely deferred. Deferred payment terms are “most favored nations” with the person who performs directing services.

A Documentary Screenplay Contract must be requested by the Writer and the Company must file required Documentary Screenplay Contract documents. The request and documents must be reviewed and approved by the WGAW. If the Contract’s terms are included in a personal agreement but no additional documents are filed, the Writer is NOT ensured that the Documentary Screenplay Contract will apply to the project. The Guild’s Signatory documents and process should not be confused with the WGA Documentary Screenplay Contract requirements.

What are the benefits?
By working under this contract you may receive premium health care coverage; earn money towards a pension plan; obtain residual payments when your work is rebroadcast on television and distributed on DVD and other media; qualify for WGA membership and the benefits that most film and television writers have known for over 75 years.

Further information
Both Members and Non-Members should call the WGAW Independent Film Line at (323) 782-4731 regarding this Contract.


Become a member of the Nonfiction Writers Caucus. In the spring of 2003, the WGAW Board of Directors approved the launch of the Nonfiction Writers Caucus and since that time, membership has steadily grown. The caucus was formed to enhance and protect the rights of documentary filmmakers, writers writing basic cable nonfiction programs and writers writing Network Reality programs. The caucus is open to WGA members and non-members who have worked in the nonfiction arena.

Benefits of the WGAW Nonfiction Writers Caucus

Nonfiction Writers Caucus members:

  • Shall receive all WGAW mailings and communications, including Written By, WGAW Member News, the WGAW Membership Manual and its periodic updates.
  • May serve on the Nonfiction Writers Caucus Steering Committee and certain other WGAW committees as designated by the Board of Directors.
  • May use the WGAW Script Registration Service at a reduced rate.
  • Shall receive access to The Guild Screenings subject to the annual availability of this program.
  • Can become members of the Musicians' Interguild Credit Union or its successor subject to the discretion of that entity's governing body and may be entitled to participate, if otherwise eligible, in any employment access program administered by the WGAW Human Resources Department

Nonfiction Caucus Application (pdf)


Whether you are nonfiction writer working on basic cable, PBS, or for a feature film documentary, you can have your work protected by a WGA contract. The Guild has negotiated dozens of agreements for low budget nonfiction programming. Don't let the companies tell you they can't afford a WGA agreement. Call us first.

If you have a question about a particular company that you are considering working with, call (323) 782-4511 or email the Organizing Department.


The WGA is actively working with producers to negotiate agreements covering nonfiction programming at all budget levels. The Guild has negotiated deals covering hundreds of hours of programming. If you have questions about hiring nonfiction writers call (323) 782-4511 or email the Organizing Department.


The 2014 Documentary Screenplay Award was presented to Stories We Tell, Written by Sarah Polley.

Please go to our Awards pages to see a list of previous winners and submission details.


International Documentary Association:

Film Independent:

Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program:

For more helpful links, please go to our Industry Organizations page.