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
(Made in America; Riding Giants)


What is it?

The Documentary Screenplay Contract 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.

Read a financial summary of the Documentary Screenplay Contract. This contract was revised in 2013 to include a new deferment definition.

Are you interested in filing a Documentary Screenplay Contract for a theatrical documentary film project?


Please contact us for additional filing information. If you are filing documents for a WGAW Member or Members, call (323) 782-4502 or e-mail: Contracts. For projects involving Non-WGA writers, please call (323) 782-4731 or e-mail: WGAW Independent Film.

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.

The Documentary Screenplay Contract is only used when requested by the Writer, and the Company must also file required Documentary Screenplay Contract documents and Signatory paperwork. If the Contract’s terms are included in a personal agreement but no additional Documentary Screenplay Contract documents are filed and approved by the WGAW, the Writer is NOT ensured that the Documentary Screenplay Contract will apply to the project.

The WGA Documentary Screenplay Contract requirements should not be confused with the Guild’s Signatory documents and process. If you would like to become a Guild Signatory Company, find out how here. If you have Signatory questions, call (323) 782-4514 or e-mail: Signatories.

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 decades.


The 2015 Documentary Screenplay Award was presented to The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, Written by Brian Knappenberger.

See a list of previous winners and submission details. A Writers Guild contract is required for eligibility.


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 writers and filmmakers, and those writing basic cable nonfiction and 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:

  • May receive WGAW mailings and communications, and WGAWpublications.
  • May receive invitations to NFWC-related events.
  • 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.
  • May become members of the Musicians' Interguild Credit Union or its successor subject to the discretion of that entity's governing body
  • May be entitled to participate, if otherwise eligible, in any employment access program administered by the WGAW Human Resources Department.
  • IWC members shall grant to the Guild exclusive authority to claim for their benefit any royalty, payment or remuneration of any kind attributable to writing services rendered under a collective bargaining agreement to which the Guild is a party.

Nonfiction Writers Caucus membership does not provide the right to vote in WGAW elections, to run for office or to attend WGAW membership meetings for the Writers Guild of America, West, Inc.



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: Organizing.


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: Organizing.


International Documentary Association

Film Independent

Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program

For more helpful links, read our list of Industry Organizations.