Saturday, November 3, 2007

Walk the Line

Fall Colors
As some of you know I have been a TV writer for several years and as a result a decade-long member of the Writers Guild of Amerca (WGA).

Late last week negotiations between the writers (who create content) and the studios (who buy and produce and distribute) pretty much broke down. The Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), which has been in force for three years and was extremely unpopular with many writers, expired and no new agreement could be reached to the replace it.

So yesterday, the WGA (including the WGA west and the WGA east) both voted to authorize a strike. We are preparing to walk out on Monday at noon, EST.

Nobody's sure what this will mean or even if it will happen (there's a last-ditch effort planned for Sunday when the two sides will get together again to try to work this thing out).

But there's a lot of finger pointing on both sides. The studios (and some in the media unfortunately) say writers are already well compensated. They paint us as overpaid and greedy, saying we will be driving BMWs to the picket line. Some of the writers' side have called the studios greedy, corporate union busters who just want to keep more of the billions they make away from us, the people who create the damn content in the first place.

Sure, there's grains of truth in both arguments but if there is a strike, it's not the writers who wanted it, despite our leadership's militant stance. (And it has been militant and I, for one, haven't supported that.) The fact is, striking is the one power we do have to ensure we are treated and compensated fairly, based on the economics of our business. And it doesn't matter how well we're compensated if we're not getting a fair share of the money we generate.

And let's be clear about that. There is no movie, no t.v. show, no Late Night with David Letterman or The Daily Show without writers. Someone has to start with a blank page and come up with the words that will be spoken by actors and news anchors and talk show hosts. Writers as a group do not get the same respect for their work as others in the film industry. A director can call a movie his own (A Film By X) even if he started with a script that was entirely out of the effort and imagination and brain of a writer. In fact, once a writer options the use of his script to a studio, the studio can change his words to the point where the final script is completely unrecognizable from the original. And there's no guarantee the writer will even get credit for coming up with the whole thing in the first place. That's right. I can spend a year of my life writing a script where the characters, concepts, plot, idea and words are completely out of my own head, sell it to a studio and watch it morphed to the point where I don't even recognize it anymore. Someone else might even get credit for writing the movie.

People will talk about a great film -- Network for example - as if it's entirely the creation of the director Sydney Lumet, when in fact one of cinema's greatest screenwriters came up with this startling original idea and wrote the script (Paddy Chayevsky). (In fact, Cheyevsky has been thinking of a satirical film about television for most of the latter part of his writing career and it can be said that Network was a result of a lifetime of work.)

We're not just fighting for respect. We're fighting for fair compensation. There's a pretty good blog up now called United Hollywood that's spelling out the issues better than I can. The point is we want to make a deal that makes sense for us and them, that allows us to keep the gains we've earned over hard battles in the past and also ensure we are fairly compensated for the use of our material in the new frontier of cyberspace.

The truth is that writers do make a lot of money. But we don't work all the time. At any given time almost half of the members of the WGA are unemployed. This is why residuals (payments made for the airing of our work over time) are so important. An episode I wrote for a Law & Order franchise in 2001 is still paying me residuals. But consider that when it sold into syndication, the per episode fee was just under $2 million. My take for the episode I wrote was less than 3 percent. So I ask you, who's making out better? The person who created the episode or Dick Wolf and NBC?

There's a staggering amount of money being made by Hollywood right now, despite the studios' protestations to the contrary. Just read today's business page for proof. All we're asking for, again, is our fair share of that pie. The size of the pie shouldn't matter. This is America, after all.

I don't think there's many of us who want this strike. We rely on the money we make when we work and if there's a strike, we obviously don't work. No work, no pay. The longer the strike lasts, the harder it's going to be for us as individuals. We're just like everybody else -- we have mortgages to pay and kids and car payments. We understand this but as our members have argued, we fear rollbacks and a bad deal more than we fear a strike.

I didn't want this strike in the first place. I don't support the methods of the people who run my Guild and I didn't vote for them. But that doesn't change the fact that the Studios forced us against the wall and I'm proud of my union for not caving to this pressure.

I remain hopeful that a planned Sunday negotiation session will lead us to a settlement but I'm prepared for the worst.

I'll walk the picket line and stand up with my fellow writers. I know it's the right thing to do.

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