By now all of the country and half of the world knows that the U.S. screen and television writers are on strike. This weekend Toni and I are both going to write about it. Toni is in Norma Rae mode and will no doubt be interestingly passionate tomorrow. Because of my work with the WGA, I’ve been living with strike plans and strike talk for three years, now, and my outrage is more quiet. This has been a long fight, and it will be longer – as long as it takes for us to win. What we’re fighting for is the future.
Every three years the Hollywood creative guilds – actors, directors, and writers, renegotiate their contracts – that would be the MBA, the minimum basic employment agreement – with the studios who employ us. The contract includes among many, many other things: minimum payments, residual rates (this is the screen version of royalties), and pension and health contributions, as well as creative concerns. If we don’t reach a fair and acceptable agreement, then really our only tool to sway the studios is to strike – to refuse to work until they negotiate fairly.
I say studios, but the fact is, the old style Hollywood studios no longer exist. Vertical integration has been a fact of Hollywood for going on twenty years now and the creative guilds are actually being forced to negotiate for fair payment with enormous, multibillion dollar, multinational corporations. There is a good argument being made that by now this is in violation of anti-trust laws.
There has not been a writers’ strike since 1988 – before I was in the guild. There has not been a strike in large part because for various reasons, in the years when we needed to negotiate hard, the WGA has not been strong enough to even threaten a strike.
But this year, this contract, we needed all the strength we could get. There are dozens of important issues, but we are really only striking about one: internet downloads.
Anyone with half a brain knows that internet is the future of everything in entertainment. The corporations don’t want to pay writers, directors or actors for reuse of their work through the internet, and they think that if they squeeze us out of that now, that they’ll never have to pay us for that again.
That’s the bottom line.
Not only did the companies come to the bargaining table with a proposal that completely eliminated payment on internet reuse, but their initial proposal had 76 rollbacks of our previous contract, including separation of rights. Separation of rights is what screenwriters have instead of copyright: for example, it allows me to retain the right to publish a novel based on my original screenplay. It is one of the most cherished creative rights we have as screenwriters.
That’s just one of the proposals the corporations lay down which made it quite clear that they were not intending to bargain seriously or fairly.
That’s how weak they thought we were. We haven’t struck in twenty years and they probably assumed that we couldn’t pull it off this time. They thought this would be an easy win and they would be able to cut us out of internet profits once and for all time.
They were wrong.
As a former member of the WGAw Board of Directors, I have had the great pleasure of working with all of the current WGA west officers: President Patric Verrone, VP David Weiss, Secretary-Treasurer Elias Davis, WGAw Executive Director David Young, and most of the current WGA Board of Directors, and a great number of the WGA Negotiating Committee, East and West members, and they have been smartly and inexorably working toward this moment for three years, now.
Here’s when I knew we were going to win.
The strike of 1985 was a huge setback for the WGA in terms of residuals. Back then the issue was videotape residuals – videotapes were an emerging market and the WGA was striking primarily to get a fair share of the profits from videotapes. The WGA had previously agreed to a temporarily lower residual to help the companies build this “emerging market”. The “emerging market” had taken off for feature film releases and accordingly the WGA asked for the higher residual rate in the 1985 contract. The companies refused – making that issue a strike issue.
But the WGA has traditionally been deeply divided between screen and television writers. There are many, many more TV writers than screenwriters, and our issues are different. In 1985 there were no TV shows being sold on videotape yet, and the television writers perceived the videotape issue as a feature writers’ issue. A group within the television writers persuaded the other TV writers to cave on the issue and the WGA didn’t get the residual rates it wanted on cassette tapes. Two months later the original STAR TREK series was released on videotape and the TV writers realized just how badly they had miscalculated.
This year we have the same situation with the internet.
But we no longer have the divide between TV and feature writers. This is EVERYONE’S issue.
Three years ago I saw the current WGA leadership begin a massive courtship of the most powerful TV writers we have, the showrunners – the producer/writers who create and control the shows. The studios can keep pumping out feature films indefinitely – they have a huge backlog of scripts that they can pull out of their vaults while the writers are on strike. But television is much more in the moment. A TV show needs product every single week to stay on.
The showrunners are overwhelmingly united this time around. And they’re not working, period.
More than thirty TV shows currently have no more than one episode left to air before they will have to shut down production. We’ll be going into reruns and reality momentarily.
The corporations have billions and billions of dollars to wait us out. But they have no stories without us. And without our stories, they’re going to be losing money faster and faster.
How long can this go on? As long as it has to.
What we’re asking for, as the creators of television and film content, is a tiny fraction of profit from internet use of our work.
That will be our living, in the future, and we’re not giving that up.
And now I’ll post some links to far more eloquent summations of the issues
WHY ARE YOU ON STRIKE?
Payment for reuse of our writing has been a key part of our earnings for half a century. Now the studios are using the growth of the internet as a tool to take that away from us.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE ABOUT MORE MONEY FOR SPOILED, RICH WRITERS?
True, some writers are paid very well — but in any given year, almost half of the Guild’s active writers go without any employment at all. They count on residuals to pay their mortgages and feed their families between jobs. These new pay cuts will be particularly devastating to our most vulnerable members. And right now, most of the writing for new media isn’t even covered by the Guild at all — which means no minimums or pension or health insurance. That’s not fair, and it needs to change.
HOW LONG WILL YOU BE ON STRIKE?
Until we get a fair deal. Because the future — the internet — is at stake, this is the negotiation of a generation.
AREN’T YOU HURTING THE REST OF THE COMMUNITY BY STRIKING?
This concerns us deeply. But remember, we didn’t want this strike; it was forced upon us by management. In fact, we even went so far as to take off the table one of our most important issues — DVDs — in hope of averting it.
ISN’T IT TRUE THAT IN A STRIKE, NOBODY WINS?
We’re fighting not to lose. Management is trying to take so much away from us that if we don’t dig in and defend what we have, next time around they’ll be coming after our pension and health benefits. So we need to draw a line and stand up to them. In that sense, we’re fighting not only for writers, but for many others in our industry as well. We’re all in the same boat, and if we succeed, the pattern we set will benefit every other guild and union in Hollywood.
Strike Captains’ blog: United Hollywood
YouTube videos explaining the strike:
My hero – Howard Michael Gould
Jon Stewart on The Daily Show:
SNL writer Tim Kazurinsky on Chicago’s WGN explains the strike:
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Alex, thanks for this discussion of what’s going on with the strike. I aspired to screenwriting for a couple of years at most, and as much as I wanted to sell a screenplay, I wanted to be a member of the Writer’s Guild. I hope this turns out well for the people who write the stories!
I also wanted to say – I read a little tidbit on Backspace last night – do you have some good news to share??? 🙂
Hey, Billie – yes, I have been so wrapped up in strike activites that I haven’t been spreading the extremely good news that I’ve contracted with St. Martin’s for two more books, both supernatural mystery/thrillers.
And I’ll be hitting you up very soon for research, because the first is set partly iin North Carolina and concerns a Jungian psychologist… that’s what you get for being so interesting!
Huge congrats and LOL about the Jungian psychologist – can’t wait to read it. 🙂
Here’s some numbers for those asshats who think this is about rich writers wanting more money…
Of the approx. 12,000 guild members, less than 300 of them make seven figures a year.
Less than 2,000 of them make 200,000 a year.
Nearly 6,000 of them are unemployed each year.
I am part of the guild middle class – when I get paid, I do well. But see how you’d like this at your day job: Despite working almost constantly, I have not received a paycheck since August of last year. For no other reason than that is how our business works. SOP.
My residuals have kept my family fed, and my bills paid. The AMPTP wants to take those away from me. And from everyone else.
I drive a Toyota, not a Range Rover. I don’t have a lake house, or beach house, and I can’t vacation at the Grand Wailea or Maui Four Seasons.
The Studios’ estimated revenue from Internet broadcasts/downloads over the next three years is 4.6 billion dollars. Billion with a B. Not only do they not want to give us the four cents an airing we get right now, they want to pay us nothing. Not one penny.
For content that would not exist without us.
Over twenty years ago, we the guild agreed to “help” the Studios by cutting our home video residuals by 80%. That is not a typo.
They told us it was new, uncharted territory and we needed to help “grow” the market by cutting back. They promised us that once the market took hold, we would go back to our regular rate.
That was twenty-two years ago, and we are still getting the exact same number. It was a massive cut in 1985, think what it is in 2007.
I know the Studios are simply going to wait us out. Force majeure many deals, suspend others, and just wait for the writers with families and mortgages and health issues to be forced to cross lines.
It is disgusting and egregious of them. But that is what they are going to do. And it will probably work.
I hope and pray that it doesn’t. That God will lay hands on Counter or Iger or Moonves, and make them see that giving us a tiny, tiny piece of the pie we helped create will still leave them billions.
But regardless of how bad it gets, the fight I will not abandon.
Thanks so much for the insights! And major congratulations on your new deal, Alex! That is fantastic and well-deserved.
I never have been able to figure out how the writers are the ones who make the very least in everything, yet without them, there IS nothing. Bizarre inversion. All the other talent gets paid ridiculous amounts — pro sports would be a perfect example.
I’ve got my fingers crossed for you guys, because its implications will trickle through all the creative arts.
Congratulations on the new deal, X.
And thank you for a lucid explanation of the strike.
I volunteer to bring cookies to the strike lines.
Thanks, everyone. I’m enormously lucky to have non-scab writing income during the strike. A lot of my friends will not.
Cookies always help, Louise!!
And JT, you are too right that this fight is going to have a ripple effect to publishing. Vertical integration has been slower in publishing but there’s no doubt it’s happening, and our right to fair payment for reuse of our work is a fight we can’t lose.
Alex, thanks for the explanation, and I hope the writers win big.
Go get ’em, writers! Before becoming a thriller author, I was a newspaper editor and reporter. I became chairman of the Chicago Newspaper Guild and sat on a number of contract bargaining teams. I know very well that management will not part with one more penny for “mere” writers unless it’s forced. So lock and load and charge! If a long strike causes me to miss my favorite network shows, so be it–the studios simply do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to opposing this contract: the current four cents they’re paying the writers is obscenely greedy. I urge all writers, in all media, to stand together on this one and do not attempt to scab and strikebreak. The Internet is the future of ALL media, and what the TV and film writers are doing now will help all of us now and forever.
Great write up Alex. There is also a fan petition that was recently added online to add to your resources.
All my best,Rich
Thanks, Rich – that’s a huge help!
Kick ass, y’all.
Stand tough — and here’s hoping the advertising industry starts putting the screws to the corp.s when viewers reject reruns and reality… 4 more cents on the dvd? Jesus.And congrats on the contract, Alex!
Here’s another great site with suggestions for how to get involved:
Uh, folks? It’s already started in the book biz. E-book percentages were already reduced by HarperCollins. I should know. If your publishers-or former publisher hasn’t decreed this yet, just wait…
Alex, Paul and others,Thank you for this education.
This seems like a such a no-brainer. Without writers, the creative word stands still.
God willing, scabs won’t rush to fill the void. God willing, the strike will have a positive outcome for writers — and for us as a society.
I’ve never believed in the benevolence of any organization that thinks of people in terms of FTEs . . .
. . . or “units.”