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Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Abroad Thoughts from Home

This is probably the most niche blog post ever, but I wish I'd had access to something like it when the need first arose. It's the Idiots' Guide for a British writer joining the staff of a US TV show. How you land the gig is up to you. This is just about the admin.

What used to be a rarity is becoming more common. For the British writer it's almost invariably a sideways move following a notable success at home or as part of the package in the acquisition of a successful format. Freelanced scripts aren't unknown, but they're exceptional. As a rule American TV drama is staff-written and the writing staff all work on-site. For all you need to know about staffing and more, I can make no higher recommendation than the Children of Tendu podcast.

This is an ad-hoc list that I threw together for a friend who asked for some advice. It's not authoritative, or comprehensive, and I'm taking no responsibility for any errors or omissions.

If it happens for you - and I hope it may - it's a brilliant adventure, and maybe some of the following will help to smooth the process when the time comes.
  • If you supply material to the American market but stay resident in England, then you can do that with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) which means the IRS will leave you alone and you'll pay your taxes on the income as normal in the UK (UPDATE: I've been told that this has changed, and that you can now claim the exemption with your own country's tax ID. But make sure you check.).
  • BUT if you're on a TV staff then you'll relocate, most likely to LA (though some shows have writers' rooms in NY). The room is almost always in LA even if the show is shot in Atlanta, Toronto, or wherever.
  • For that you'll need an 01 visa (Alien of Extraordinary Ability) to get in, and a social security number to get paid.
  • For the visa I had to make an appointment at the US embassy to show my employment contract and provide evidence of past achievements. It wasn't anything horrendous, just a lot of faff in a tearing hurry. Shows are greenlit at short notice and staff up quickly, so you don't get much lead time.
  • My US employer hired a service in London to deal with my application and fast-track it through. I got my passport back at my hotel the evening before my flight!
  • The payroll company will want a social security number in order to start paying your salary. Once in LA you can apply for it in person. There's an office on Olive Avenue in Burbank. It can take a few weeks to come through as it has to go via Homeland Security. My income backed up while I was waiting.
  • You'll also need to provide your employer with a Certificate of Continuing Liability from HMRC, which basically says that despite working in the US you're still a UK resident and taxpayer. Without it they'll withhold Medicare and Social Security payments from your salary, and you won't be able to reclaim the money. I was completely unaware of this, and in that first year it cost me dear.
  • To work for any of the WGA-signatory production companies - which is all of the reputable ones - you'll need to be a member of the Writers' Guild of America. 
  • At one time any writer from Europe would be enrolled into the WGAEast, but that doesn't seem to be a hard and fast rule. There's no substantial difference between the branches. Existing members of the Writers Guild of Great Britain can have the joining fee waived.
  • Dues are paid quarterly. Your paid-up WGA membership will provide you with medical cover.
  • You'll find that most of your coworkers will have their salaries paid into a Loan Out Corporation or LLC. My experience here is limited. I just worked and got paid as an individual. As an expat I already had enough admin to contend with.
  • Once you have your SSN you're in the system and you'll have to file an annual return with the IRS and pay taxes on your US income. This is claimed as a tax credit against your UK liabilities, so you don't get taxed on the same money twice.
  • If you're working in California you'll be paying Federal Tax and California State Tax.
  • A friend of mine who worked in California for one year (not in the TV business) filed his year-end return using a program called Turbotax. I felt much safer having a US accountant do it. Having said which...
  • My first accountant had no experience with expats while I had none of the US tax system, which resulted in various misunderstandings and penalties. Now I'm with an outfit with expertise in the tax affairs of non-residents.
  • On arrival I booked into a motel for a couple of weeks and looked for longer-term accommodation while I was getting into the work. You can take your chances on Craigslist but the premiere resource for LA is westsiderentals.com. You can search their listings for free but to get contact details you have to register. 
  • I paid the modest fee and searched for a furnished guest house, which is generally self-contained accommodation attached to a bigger property. 
  • The search categories for a reasonable commute to the major studios are Santa Monica/Westside, Hollywood/West Hollywood, Studio City/San Fernando Valley.
  • But find out where your writers' room is going to be. Many productions set up their offices in a rented suite away from a studio lot.
  • Before heading out I booked a long rental on a car. For some reason it worked out cheaper doing it from the UK. Booking from here I got the Collision Damage Waiver included; had I done it on arrival that would have been an extra.
  • Alamo was offering the cheapest car rental at that time.
  • I don't know if it's still the case, but renting a Satnav as an extra came at some ridiculous price. I took my own with a US map preloaded, and it was invaluable.
Pay special attention to the Certificate of Continuing Liability. No one warned me and, as I said, it proved an expensive omission.

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