Wednesday, November 14, 2007

PTR Commentary: The WGA Strike – Rewriting for Change

By LillyKat
PTR Staff Writer

Writing is rewriting.

Long ago, long ago in a writing galaxy far, far away, I learned this very simple mantra from my first creative writing teacher. She was the first one to give me permission to throw out entire passages I thought were the bees-knees when, in actual fact, they did absolutely nothing for the development of my overall story.

So, I learned to go back.

To strengthen.

To tighten.

To refine.

To improve.

You should always go back.

Any good writer will tell you this.

It’s always better for the story.

So it should come as no surprise, then, the “story” of the strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which has brought the television industry to a screeching halt (with the film industry not far behind), has been weighing heavily on my mind since the first picketers hit the sidewalks on November 5th.

The WGA wants a rewrite.

The studios think the same story that has existed for the past 20 years is just fine.

Strike, anyone?

It’s disturbing to me the hardball tactics that are being employed by the studios and networks. But alas, the historian in me knows better (think Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly at the turn of the 20th century). Historically, no matter the industry, the big guys generally do not like it when the little guys start asking for their fair share of the pie. And the big guys generally do not give it up easily.

Then again, dictators never see their downfall coming, do they?

The two biggest sticking points of discussion:

1) Residuals paid on the sale of DVDs: The WGA would like to up this to a whopping 8 cents per DVD (up from 4 cents).

After 20 years, can I ask how this is seen as an unreasonable request? Can you imagine if the rest of us were still being paid at a 1988 pay rate for our work (you know, when VHS and Betamax were still slogging it out, and big hair, big bangs and jeans with a waist line that hit you about mid-stomach were in)? How can the studios expect the writers to think this is still a commensurate compensation rate after two decades of astronomical sales growth from the home video (now DVD) market?

2) Payment for shows, movies, etc., made available via the new Internet media environment (think online downloadable material from places like iTunes and Unbox): The WGA would like this to become equal to the television residual rate paid to studios when a piece of work is sold to be rebroadcast (2.5 cents for every dollar the studios earn). Currently, writers get nothing.

Contrary to all the naysayers who take potshots at the writers for “suddenly” complaining about their contract, here’s a new flash: common sense tells us new media was obviously not the big deal it is now when the last contract got negotiated; and, writers have been trying to get back the 80% pay cut they agreed to take in 1988, which at the time was done to help the studios grow the then VHS business with the understanding they would get the pay cut back after the business took off.

I’d say after 20 years of waiting, and with the introduction of an entirely new medium by which people get to watch their work, it really is time for a rewrite.

The new Internet media issue is raising the biggest (and arguably loudest) concern. The studios and networks keep using the same ol’ story of the medium being “too new / don’t know how to handle that / really is just a promotional thing” so as to get themselves out of having to share a piece of the online pie.

Problem is, when half the audience now gets its entertainment delivered via an online media source, that argument becomes completely bogus.

Plain and simple.

This is 2007.

New media is going to be (if not already) the way people get their entertainment going forward. The people who create the stuff we download have a right to be paid for that work each and every time we go to get a copy of it. How is this any different from when authors of books get paid for every copy they sell and/or songwriters get paid every time their song is performed or published?

I also take issue with people who think this strike is about a handful of rich writers just wanting to get richer.

That is even more of a bogus argument.

This strike is not about writers in the Paul Haggis tax bracket – those who get paid upwards of $250K a week to write the next Crash or revise the latest Jerry Bruckheimer magic carpet ride.

Yes, I’ll give credence to the argument that some folks can make a really good living if they are fortunate enough to a) find steady work in the business, or b) garner grand success that entitles them to be paid a hefty sum of money, or c) have some spectacular financial advisor, or d) all of the above.

However, that must be weighed equally against the hard reality that nearly half (48%) of WGA members are unemployed at any given time, there is no job security for writers after XYZ show or 123 film is done, and there are thousands of non-Paul-Haggis scribes who grind it out week in, week out for a modest mid-level income of the five figure variety (not six).

This strike is about folks like Kate Purdy: a staff writer on a quality television show who is trying to make a living doing something she loves whilst asking to get paid fairly in the process – both during her run on Cold Case and long after she’s moved on to something else but of which we still get to enjoy.

Side note irony: Cold Case isn’t even available on DVD nor as a legal download alternative given the costly obstacle in obtaining digital distribution rights for – yes, you guessed it – the music featured on the show.

Hmmm, so let me get this straight once again: the songwriters of the music featured on a television show are getting paid for multiple copies of their work to be republished and/or distributed digitally, but the actual writers of that same television show aren't and/or are stuck with a half-baked deal from 1988?

Wow, that seems fair.


And yet Kate, like so many other writers, is willing to make a stand – without the luxury of a huge salary, huge residuals or huge payouts to cushion the blow – to re-write their own story to get a fair deal for their work now and in the future.

There is no fuzzy math, here.

Studios continue not to want to pay for what a writer sits and toils over.

For what a writer writes and re-writes until he or she thinks they can’t write anymore.

For what a writer thinks is for sure the biggest waste of time only to find out people love the end result.

For what keeps a writer up at night until he or she discovers the perfect line for the perfect moment that brings the entire story together.

Why is it that everyone but the writers seems to forget that nearly every story you fall in love with on the tube or every movie one sits down to watch for the 45th time started with a writer staring at a blank page to create the story that is just about to be told?

Wouldn’t you want to get paid for that if you were entitled?

No matter when or where someone saw it?

It’s unfortunate the studios remain unwilling to negotiate on this issue.

For the writers who live off those residuals, and for the guilds to fund the pension and health plans to take care of their members, it really is that important.

That critical.

And it’s something worth making a stand for.

The sooner the studios accept this, the sooner everyone can get back to the negotiating table.

With all that said, it must be duly noted that while I support the strike and what the writers are trying to do, I understand whole-heartedly the effects the strike is having on the Below-The-Line workers. That is, writers aren’t the only ones out of work. This affects every single person who works on any show (or film) that cannot report to work and collect a regular paycheck if production is shut down.

Grips. Techs. PAs. Make-up. Caterers. Foreman. Drivers. Set builders. Costumers. Assistants.

And since there are folks both above and below the line that exist paycheck-to-paycheck, the power and impact of this strike cuts both ways. It is not going to get easier, and it will continue to hurt a lot of folks until a resolution can be made.

That said, historically, there comes a time when a generation of folks makes a stand for change – especially when it is fundamentally the right thing to do and of which its effects will echo into future generations.

"Real change requires sacrifice, discipline, courage."

Character: Chelsea Cellini
Movie: Role of a Lifetime
Writer: Tony Alda

I believe this may be one of those times.

And at the end of the day, I do not care what fabulous director is hired, what genius actors sign on, how many CGI artists play with the greenscreen, how many animators doodle up Nemo, or how many stuntmen are sent flying off buildings, there has to be a script for any of this to even be conceived.

And someone, somewhere, wrote it down.

So let’s go back and rewrite this one for the better, folks.

The real ending to this story does truly depend on it.

(Grateful acknowledgements: United Hollywood, and


TVFan said...

BRAVO LillyKat!!! Your commentary made me want to give you a standing ovation. If only every person who thinks the writers are the ones being greedy would read this piece, I think the studios and networks would have a PR nightmare on their hands. Excellent, excellent work. And so well written. Thank you!! :-)

Naj said...

Thank you LillyKat for this article. There really is a lot riding on this and it's time for the appropriate people to pay up. I think the writers are doing what they have to for future self-preservation.

eurache said...

Bravo!!! I hope the writers get what they deserve!! :)


Anonymous said...

What an awesome and inspiring post!

We are trying to take a positive step to end the strike.

Would you blog about:

We feel that viewers going directly to the "hawk" CEOs responsible for walking away from the negotiating table will have the most impact. No company likes complaints from consumers, right?

Jeff said...

Your article would be more convincing if it was accurate. Writers DO NOT currently "get nothing" for "online downloadable material from places like iTunes and Unbox"

And fact is linking to this blog post and touting it as an example of someone who "understands exactly what's at stake" is an example of the deliberately false propaganda that they're continuing to try and propagate.

Fun Joel said...

Thanks for this. A well thought out post, and I agree with the overall sentiment 100%. I'm a non-guild (yet) writer, and I've been out on the lines in support, etc. But I'm also a bit of a detail-monger, and so I must correct one point.

In discussing the DVD residuals formula, you say that the writers are being paid at 1988 rates. This is not exactly correct, or at least implies something that isn't accurate. It makes it seem that a writer would receive the same amount of residual payment today for sale of a DVD as he or she would have for that same DVD in 1988. But in reality, since the residual formula is based on a percentage of the sale price (i.e. it is not a flat 4 cents per DVD, but rather is a small percentage of the sale price, 4 cents on a $14.95 DVD), the compensation rises as the sale price rises, thus keeping up with inflation, cost of living, etc.

Now of course, that doesn't mean it is a fair price. The .3% formula is ridiculously low, and was also accepted as a lowered formula as a "wait and see" amount until they could figure out if there was really any profit to be made in them thar DVD thingies. It was ridiculously low then, and still is today, and still deserves to be raised (probably much higher than to .6%).

Thanks again!

LillyKat said...

Thanks very much, fun joel, for further clarification on the DVD residuals formula. I think it's hard for the general folks out there to really understand how it all breaks down, so it's very helpful to have the additional detail. My intent was to point out that, as you say, the deal the writers have seems significantly outdated given the exponential growth of the video/DVD market over the last 20 years. It needs to be reevaluated, which, from a general layman's point of view, is simply what the writers are asking. Let's go back, look at the darn thing, revamp it to be more fair and to cover the new media element. The sooner everyone gets back to the negotiating table, the better for all. A stalemate just continues to hurt more and more people. I want the dialogue between both sides to start up again, not just dissolve into finger pointing and name calling. That accomplishes nothing, and there is too much at stake for it to dip down into that level.

Here's hoping for a fair resolution upon which both sides can agree.

Sue Doe-Nim said...


I totally would have told everyone the same thing.

Except I'm not a writer and the words kinda escaped me.