Friday, November 9, 2007

The Writer's Strike 2007

I doubt very seriously that many of you remember the TV series Frank's Place. Frank's Place was a comedy created by Hugh Wilson (creator of WKRP in Cincinnati), starring Tim Reid as Boston professor Frank Parrish who found himself trapped in continuing the family business. That business was the restaurant Chez Louisiane, which Frank inherited and henceforth had to run. The series received high marks from critics, but unfortunately it also received low ratings. It only ran for 22 episodes on CBS in '87-88 season. My favourite episode of the show was "Frank's Place--the Movie," in which a movie is being shot on location at the Chez Louisiane. Among the subplots on that episode was one concerning a poor bloke, clearly connected with the production, who received no respect from the director, had difficulty in getting on the set, and was generally persona non grata with the film crew. In the end Frank strikes up a conversation with the fellow and learns that he is none other than the movie's screenwriter.

Sadly, writers get no more respect in Hollywood now than they did in 1988 when this episode first aired. In fact, I rather suspect that is the primary reason that the Writer's Guild of America has had to undertake its first strike in nineteen years. The last time the WGA went on strike was in 1988. That strike lasted from March 7 to August 8 of that year. The primary concerns of that strike were reduced residuals for reruns of TV shows overseas and reduced residuals for hour long television series. That strike ended the run of several TV shows, delayed the start of the new fall TV season, and forced the studios to postpone production of feature films. In the end the 1988 cost the film and television industries $500 million.

This strike has already had an impact on the television industry. As in the case of the 1988 writers strike, the late night talk shows have been the first to be hit. For the coming week both NBC and CBS announced that their late night talk shows will air entirely reruns. The majority of sitcoms have shut down production. The strike has even produced its first causality--Back to You, the Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton comedy, will not return from a planned hiatus. Hour long series have also been hit. The season debut of 24, which depends heavily upon its tightly plotted scripts, has been postponed due to the strike. Desperate Housewives has shut down production. Grey's Anatomy, ER, and other hit shows are running out of episodes. Lost, set to return in February, may not be able to resolve this season's plots, with fewer than 16 episodes in the can. What this essentially means is that reruns will start sooner and we could see many more reality shows. It will take longer for the film industry to feel the effects of the strike, although if it lasts as long as the 1988 strike, production on various films will inevitably be delayed.

The fact that there may be no new episodes of individuals' favourite shows and that major motion pictures may even be delayed may cause the average person to resent the WGA. I rather suspect that there are many out there who believe that writers in the film and television industries are overpaid people too lazy to get a real job. This is hardly the truth. The average person often hears about million dollar deals inked for screenplays, but this is hardly the norm. As little as $20,000 may be paid out for a screenplay, not a particularly large amount of money, especially if one is unlucky enough to only sell one screenplay a year. And work weeks for writers in Hollywood can vary from the 40 hour week to which the rest of us are accustomed to a stagger 80 hours a week. The average screenwriter is not a multi-millionaire. He or she is often an overworked individual with the same concerns about money that the rest of us have.

Indeed, it is money that is at the heart of this strike. Or rather, the fair distribution of money. Under the current WGA contract, writers only earn four cents out of every DVD and VHS tape sold. This contract was created in 1985 when VHS sales were not particularly great and DVDs were just a dream of the future. Since then things have changed and DVDs are a big business. While the studios are making money hand over fist, the writers are still just earning four cents out of every DVD sold. Of course, the other bone of contention between the writers and the studios is residuals from the Internet. Currently movie and TV show sales (through venues such as ITunes and AOL Video) over the Internet are less than that of DVD sales. And contrary to the belief of many pundits, I suspect it will always be that way (I think many are not savvy enough to download movies and TV shows from the Net and I also think people will always prefer a physical object, such as a DVD, to a digital download). Still, there is money to have from the Internet. As of March 31, 2007, Disney had already sold around 2 million movies and 23.7 million TV show episodes through Apple's iTunes (Disney and Apple had just signed their deal in October 2005). It seems only right that writers should get their fair share of the money that movies and TV shows generate on the Internet.

Indeed, even though writers have never been treated with any particular respect in the film and television industries, even though they don't enjoy the sort of celebrity that some actors and directors do, it must be pointed out that the vast majority of movies and TV shows would be impossible without writers. The vast majority of movies and TV shows must begin with the written word, a script. And for there to be a script there must be a writer to write it. What is more, writers many times have to expend an inordinate amount of time on a script, not simply writing it, but rewriting it and revising it even as a movie or TV show episode is being shot. They often work long hours for very little in return. Given their importance to the industry and given the fact that they are largely responsible for what we see on both movie and TV screens, I think it is only fair they share in the money made from the products created using their scripts.

It is for that reason that I am not going to gripe when there are no new episodes of 30 Rock and when Lost does not last its full 16 episodes. As a writer myself I not only sympathise with the screenwriters, but I can identify with them. They are only asking for what is fair, and if that means I miss new episodes of my favourite shows, then so be it.


d. chedwick bryant said...

Great Post. I couldn't help thinking about great writers like Dorothy Parker who ended up screenwriting and slowly losing their hearts and minds in L.A. I don't know why I thought about her in particular... but I am with you--I will not gripe about the lack of new stuff.

Sheila West said...

I am an aspiring scriptwriter who has finished only one feature length script and several shorts. Meanwhile, I have dozens of incomplete scripts flitting around in my harddrive and in my head.

Writing is an almost effortless thing to me. Thinking up stories and then hammering them out upon the anvil of my mind, making them take shape and symmetry, and then sitting at the keyboard. I love doing it. And I quite stupidy assumed that EVERYONE had the ability to do that, so I never imagined it was anything that could actually be worth money.

But then I read this quote. It's from a very wonderful man who said this one very terrible thing. He was an executive at MGM for overten years back in the 20's and 30's, and then died in the mid-30's leaving an amazing legazy of superior film crafting. He's so highly regarded in film history that the Oscars have an entire award named after him: the Irving G. Thalberg Award.

He said the following in a closed meeting with the other MGM bigwigs back in the 30's:

"Gentlemen, the most important part in filmmaking is played by the writers. And we must do everything in our power to keep them from finding out."