The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Look For the Union Label

So as of midnight tonight, my union, the Writers Guild of America, is on strike. You’re going to see the impact of this first on the talk and comedy shows, which will go into reruns without writers to fashion jokes out of the headlines – just in case you ever thought Jay Leno made up all that stuff on his own.

For awhile that’s all the change you’ll see, since the studios have been stockpiling film and television scripts in order to keep the pipelines flowing for the months ahead. You might see a few more “reality” shows on the schedule as they try to make those stockpiles last, since the non-union writers who spend 80+ hours a week in editing rooms putting together the storylines for those “reality” shows work without overtime, health plan, or pension benefits.

But otherwise you’re not going to know much about this strike except what accusations get lobbed back and forth across the headlines. And since the companies we writers are in dispute with, well, OWN the vast majority of media outlets in this country, you might be able to predict how this strike is going to be presented.

So what’s this really about?

Let’s take a brief Wayback Machine sojourn to 1984. In the contract negotiations for that year, the Writers Guild politely turned around, unbuckled their pants, bent over, and puckered up, as the studios pleaded that they couldn’t risk sharing too much revenue from this newfangled technology known as “home video”; since it was so expensive and precedent-breaking, and no one yet knew if the masses were going to embrace it. So the writers played along and accepted an extremely small percentage formula for determining residual payments. Residuals are how the creators of this entertainment get to share in the money it makes long after it has moved on from the multiplex. Every time TNT shows
The Shawshank Redemption, there’s residual checks involved.

When it came time around 2001 to calculate the formula for DVDs, even though they are infinitely cheaper to manufacture and ship, studios wanted to keep that formula intact, even though writers had watched for over a decade as everyone but them got fat on home video revenue. The studios used the same arguments – that this was new, expensive technology, that nobody knew if America was going to buy in, etc. And the Negotiating Committee of the time did not believe in being confrontational, and they were saving their energy to protect our health plan, so they gave in.

Then we watched as, once again, DVDs transformed the cash-flow model of filmed entertainment, and allowed studios to keep the profits rolling in even as production, distribution, and marketing costs have mutated beyond astonishing to the level of gob-smackingly ludicrous.

Here’s how it sits now – if you pay $20 for a DVD over at Best Buy, the amount of that $20 that makes its way to the writers in residual checks (which is what many veteran writers live on after the studios have replaced them with younger ones) is about 3 cents. Maybe 4.

The Writers Guild would like to make 8 cents off every $20 DVD. It’s that simple. The studios would like you to believe that General Electric, Westinghouse, AOL Time Warner, Disney, NewsCorp, and Sony (the six conglomerates that control all the major movie/TV production and distribution entities) are going to fall to flame, ruin, and bankruptcy if this happens, and that we Writers are maniacal Bolsheviks for even suggesting they loosen their grip on that revenue as just compensation for having, well, written the content.

In addition, this now very-familiar conversation is happening again in the area of Internet distribution. Writers are catching on that, hey, there’s going to be some money made distributing movies and TV shows over the Web in the next couple of years, and the studios are suggesting that we should see exactly, um, NONE of that. Why? Because it’s a spooky, new, expensive technology, and they’re not sure America will embrace it, so it would be FAR too risky to establish a percentage they might share with us. I haven’t been out here that long, and even I think that argument is getting musty.

In a way I can see their fear. Traditionally, whichever of the three major Guilds (Writers Guild, Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild) signs a contract first, the other two then use that contract as a template. So the studios see this as not just a question of Writers rubbing a few more nickels together, but the potential hole-in-the-dike for all of those loathsome fuzzy creative people to start taking a bigger piece. And, well, We Can’t Have That.

Since the last contract, we have a new Guild President, a new board, a new Negotiating Committee, a new and unprecedented cooperative relationship with the Writers Guild East. We’ve been preparing for this moment, and I can honestly say that we didn’t want it to come to this. I only got my Guild membership because of my one ringing success – my script sale. In a sense I’m more of a fluke than a working professional at the moment. All of my present work is happening on spec, so this strike doesn’t change my daily routine one whit. But there are thousands of others out there putting an already-extremely-tenuous livelihood at risk; and they’re doing it so we all can have a better deal.

I’ve tried to think about what I can do to support this effort. The Guild is advising that each of us put time in every week to help out – standing on picket lines and the like. That’s hard to do with my routine, but I’m going to do my best. And I’m going to do something else, too.

I know there’s not a lot of logic to it, but I don’t have much else to give up to show my solidarity. So here it is – as of now, this blog is on strike. I’ll still read and comment on my friends’ blogs, but until there is a new contract in place, I will not post content here or on any of my other web outlets. You ought to know by now what an addiction blogging is for me, how essential a part of my craft it’s become. I suspect I get more enjoyment providing you with this work than you’ve ever gotten from reading it. So maybe you understand that it’s not easy for me to choose this. But it feels like the right thing to do.

I’ll be writing, of course. You may see an avalanche of material when the strike ends. But the WGA knows what it wants. Until we get it; I’m signing off. Take care.


  • Ok, so as a 10 time emmy award winning camerman on the most popular shows on right now. Should I get a piece of the action or am I just doing my job??? You need to shut the hell up, work like the rest of us and if you'll not talented enough to contiune to work... try another profession... growler [ia 600]

    By Anonymous growler, at 7:37 PM  

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