Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Writer's Strike

At the moment, the Writer's Guild of America (East) and the Writer's Guild of America (West) are on strike.

There is no Writer's Guild of America (Central) because according to the popular media, nothing exists between the east and west coasts except cornfields and the world's largest ball of twine.

The Strike

There are 12,000 writers striking against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers - the people who make the quality programming we enjoy every night on cable TV.

Television has pretty much ground to a standstill. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are in reruns (like they are every Friday - leading one detractor to demand: Why is it called the 'Daily' show if it's only on four nights a week?)

And there's no end in sight - experts warn that this strike could continue well into the beginning of 2008.

Leading us all to ask: What the hell is going on?

The Write Stuff

I'm a writer. It says so in my job description. Should I be on strike?

I feel, deep within my heart, that I should be mortified if my writing brethren are being exploited. I'm all set to jump on a bandwagon - but nobody sent me an invite!

Maybe the invitation writers were on strike too...

But to be honest, I'm pretty much confused by the whole thing. I'm a big supporter of 'writers' so I'm instinctively on their side... But I'm also a stuffy old Tory and don't like Unions very much -and besides, these guys are getting paid to write so they shouldn't be complaining, should they?

I mean, the first rule of being a paid writer is to remember that there is ALWAYS somebody willing to do your job better, for less money, just to get their foot in the door.

Anybody who gets paid to write (even marketing stuff like me) is very, very lucky. The alternative is scrubbing toilets for a living - or selling radio advertising.

So if you've got the best job in the world (being a writer) why should you be on strike?

I figured I'd look into it and see what all the fuss was about.

New Media

The last time the writers were on strike was 1985.

It was around the time of the birth of the home-video market. Movies and TV shows the writers had worked on were being offered for sale on VHS cassette for the first time - and the writers figured they should get a percentage of that revenue, just like they did with box-office income and television cash.

After all, it was their work. The studios were making a profit from it. They deserved 'their cut.' And so they got it. The writer's were awarded 0.3% of all revenue generated from the sale of their work on videotape.

That means if the studios got a million dollars in profit from selling one particular movie on VHS tape, the writers walked off with $3,000.

Even Newer Media

Twenty two years later, the writers have realised that the home video market has exploded. Money raised via DVD sales now beats box-office income. For every $MILLION a movie makes when it gets released in theatres, it can bring in two and a half times that in subsequent DVD sales.

So the writers want a bigger 'piece of the pie.' The union is demanded a doubling of the current percentage, raising the average writer's income from a DVD sale from 4c to 8c. What's more, they want 2.5% of revenue from 'new media' - in the form of iPod downloads, webcasts and all that jiggery with mobile phones that play TV. [If the download is free, surely 2.5% of it earns the writers nothing - Editorial Bear.]

Naturally (since a 100% increase is a pretty big opening negotiation) the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are saying 'no ball!'

I can see where the writers are coming from. Their experiences with the home video market proved that the way the viewer consumes TV and movies is constantly changing - and if they don't get their percentage in now, in five years time, television could be defunct and their contracts might not get them any revenue for their work being transmitted over the net, direct to people's mobile phones or - and it could happen - beamed into their brains or something.

It's a small percentage, but it's valuable. God knows a professional writer doesn't often have a steady paycheque. The trickling revenue from DVD sales and television reruns is often all that sustains them over the lean periods - and they're going to get a whole lot leaner if DVD sales get overtaken by automatic downloads that the writer gets no revenue from.

Reality Bites

However, the legitimacy of the unions' claim suffers a bit when other things are taken into consideration - like America's obsession with Reality Television.

You've all heard of reality shows. Big Brother. American Idol. That sort of thing. They normally involve putting a bunch of opinionated people in a confined space and then videotaping the results.

A lot of Writer's guild members work on these TV shows - but since they're 100% unscripted, can they claim credit (and revenue) for 'writing' on them?

No! Of course not. That's silly. They should just take their paycheque and be done with it.

Union Busters

In fact, I'm surprised the Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers is playing ball at all - because writers don't have much of a foundation when it comes to this sort of thing. If steel workers or train drivers go on strike, you can't exactly replace them with fully trained alternatives the next morning. But writers?

America is FULL of millions of aspiring writers and, like I said earlier, they'd be quite willing to replace the union members at the drop of a hat.

If the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers put an ad on Craigslist reading: 'Opportunity for Writers! Pay on Contract Basis Only' there would be millions of applicants who'd be happy to do what the on-strike writers currently do without demanding a cut of resales and reruns.

They'd just be happy to get their foot in the door of the showbiz world.

As a professional writer, I always remember my mantra: There is always another writer willing to do your job better, for less money.

Writing is a passion. A calling. And those of us who earn a living from it are very lucky indeed.

I agree with the Writer's Unions that they shouldn't be exploited - but I also believe that every single 'striking' writer should remember how incredibly lucky they are to have that job.

For every Larry David (the writer of Seinfeld) who makes $500 million from his work, there will always be a hundred writers who can barely pay the rent and do it just for the love of writing and the thrill of contributing to a TV show or movie that people enjoy.

Besides... Isn't the whole concept of a 'writer' striking just absurd? I mean, writing for a living is the ultimate white-collar job. I can hardly imagine a band of writers making a picket line outside the studios, warming their hands around a fire and singing songs about 'the man' exploiting them and chaining them to a typewriter.

While decent, hardworking Americans might have sympathy for exploited steel workers, cops and firemen, they're not much sympathy for the striking writers. The public are effected - by their favourite TV shows going off air. But I think the general opinion is that the writers should stop bitching and just get back to work.

It will be very interesting to see how it all pans out.

In the mean time, I'll adopt a Yorkshire accent and cry: 'Stay strong, my writing brethren!'

1 comment:

DarlingDiggy said...

I think your perspective is right on point. There are thousands of aspiring writers and that hollywood depends on such a small lot is quite unbelievable. Reality TV needs to go back to reality and Hollywood needs to do what it does best-entertain. Entertain us and please get some new writers!!