The Theory of Chaos

Friday, December 14, 2007

Our Story So Far (Strike Talk Part One)

For writers in other art forms, the copyright is theirs. If they write a novel, whether it's sold as a hardback, paperback, e-book, audio-book, Reader’s Digest Condensed Book, anything, they’re guaranteed a royalty and no one can take that away from them. Anyone who argued that an audio book represented a scary new technology, and that the author of the book should agree not to get any money from it because of its newness and scariness, would be seen as a mad fool.

But in Hollywood that’s different, you sell your copyright to the studio. We accept this – it’s necessary for business, because if I’m hired to write an adventure for Superman I can’t exactly copyright the guy, can I? However, since I did do considerable creative work in cooking up his new adventure, it seems fair that a structure be in place where I can participate in the success if my particular story, and the dialogue and characters and situations I created for that story, gets a lot of circulation.

So instead of royalties, we make residuals – whenever the studios make money, a small percentage of it is given to the Guild, which then distributes them to the writers of that particular project. Since there’s basically no such thing as steady long-term employment for writers in Hollywood, residuals provide stability to those fortunate enough to have seen a project made. A successful movie or television show can bring in revenue for decades, and it’s these giant libraries of “content”, constantly re-packaged and re-distributed, on DVD or cable channels or on-demand, that ensures a never-ending stream of revenue to the media companies that own those libraries. As the writers of that content, the share we won after previous strikes and hard negotiation was 2.5%.

It’s important to emphasize this point. We have never asked for more than that 2.5%. Both sides have done quite well by that formula. All we have asked through the years is that the same formula be applied across all the various platforms for distributing the same media.

We’ve heard of this thing called “The Internet”. We suspect that in the next few years people on this “Internet” are going to make a few bucks selling content to people. Since the Hollywood studios produce some of the snazziest content in the world, we’re pretty sure they’re going to try and make some of those bucks. It’s what we would do, and we’re not Brilliant Businessmen like they are. It’s what they’ve been telling all their shareholders they’re going to do; some guy named Les Moonves says this little TV show called CS-Something is going to make them $2 billion in profit all by itself. So all we want is what we get whenever they re-air A Christmas Story on cable – our 2.5 cents off each dollar the studio got from the cable channel for the rights to air it. If it’s worth 2.5% on TV, and it’s the same movie on the Internet, why should it no longer be worth 2.5%?

So in order to ensure we got this share, and to finally rectify the bad contract that gave away 80% of our share of residuals for home video and DVD, we made it part of our new proposed contract to the studios.

Here’s some of that argument, plus a little history, with catchy music and graphs:

Why We Fight

We have had this proposal on the table since July. We have been attempting to negotiate since July. And in all that time, the studios have never addressed that proposal. Instead they have made counter-proposals that give nothing for DVD or the Internet, and pay us less than we make now overall. Then they fire off laments in press release form, bemoaning how radically unreasonable we are for not handing over our lunch money.

Of course, we all know that not everything in a negotiation happens in the room. Back channel communications are well known in Hollywood, and many disputes have been resolved through them. As we approached the expiration of our contract, the writers voted to authorize a strike in the hopes that the studios would finally negotiate seriously. Those back channels fired up, and word came through that the studios were hung up on the DVD residuals. They really sincerely wanted to have a fair discussion about the Internet, but the changes to the DVD formula were so potentially disruptive, financially, that it was an impossible stumbling block to any real discussion.

Now, we’re never going to get back all the DVD residuals we should have gotten for the last six years, and the medium has somewhat flattened in its growth. And the Internet is the future, so the Guild’s negotiators, hoping that this represented a real opportunity to avoid a strike, and all the pain it would spread throughout the industry, made the wrenching decision to drop our DVD demands.

And how did the studios respond to this incredible show of trust and sacrifice? By walking out without making any proposal at all.

They know that they have three major contracts to close in the next seven months – ours, the directors’, and the actors’. Whatever happens now will happen threefold. Their goal from the beginning has been to break this union to show the others who’s boss. Their strategy from the beginning has been to stonewall, demoralize, and make us feel insecure, divided, and helpless enough to get us to chip away at our own proposal while offering nothing in return.

On this path, we were going to end up with nothing. They were not responding to comity, nor loyalty to the artists who have made their content, nor to the economic good sense of rewarding the employees who make you money, nor to the dire forecasts of how much a strike would cost them, their shareholders, tens of thousands of their employees, or the city and county of Los Angeles. And they certainly didn’t respond to the thought that this was going to make them all look like giant, greedy assholes. They just walked out, and again whined to the press about how our Guild’s leaders were fire-breathing zealots determined to strike no matter what.

I sure as hell didn’t want to strike. I was closing an option deal. I was interviewing for a re-write job. An up-and-coming director who’s being wooed by the studios just attached himself to my new spec screenplay. I was set to make real money, the kind that could significantly improve my life. But I stand by the Guild, and together we went on strike, because we only get one shot at this. These contracts last years, and in new technology, a lot can happen in just a few years. This is our one shot to get our share – not fees, just a percentage of whatever they make. If they make no money off the Internet, we won’t either. If they do, we want the same piece we get elsewhere. It’s not complicated.

So now we’re on strike. Next time I’ll write more about what’s happened since then. Until then, I’ll leave you with a brief history about our Guild’s roots, and how we’re really just the latest chapter in a very old story, delivered by Phil Alden Robinson, the Academy Award-nominated writer-director of movies like Field of Dreams and Sneakers:


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