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
SNL writer Tim Kazurinsky on Chicago’s WGN explains the strike: