Friday, December 28, 2007

Strike Me Down

Recapping our WGA strike coverage with more analysis and commentary

by Jim Cirile

Let me say up front that Coverage, Ink supports the WGA 100%. The things the Guild is asking for are a pittance to the industry conglomerates. Of course writers should make more than 4 cents on a DVD. Of course writers should get paid when their work is viewed online. Duh. Under the Guild’s proposal, Paramount and CBS would each pay $4.66 million per year while MGM would pay only $320,000/year. Seriously, that’s it. So for the AMPTP (producers) to be shutting them down and refusing to budge (as they have for months) is reprehensible and frankly seems flat-out bananas. Unless they’re planning on replacing all scripted entertainment with 24/7 Paris and Britney coverage in ‘08. (Agh!)

That said, did the Guild really have to put the entire town out of work for the last two months of the year? I have a lot of friends who are out of work now – not just writers, but photographers, UPMs, drivers, on and on. Was there a better way this could have been handled? IATSE president Tom Short seems to think so, and he blasted the WGA brass on the front page of the 11/15 Hollywood Reporter, saying that WGA management’s failure to engage AMPTP earlier has resulted in ‘devastation’ and that their ‘incompetence’ and ‘inexperience’ has put 50,000 IATSE members out of work. The flip side is that the WGA pretty much *had* to strike now – the AMPTP wasn’t budging, and if they’d waited into next year, they’d lose their scant leverage and possibly wind up drowned in a trifecta of potential strikes – WGA, SAG and the Director’s Guild all at the same time, after the studios had a chance to stock up on product. Okay, I get it.

But there are other things. When I first joined the Guild, it baffled me to learn that a writer could work on a project for months, only to not receive any credit at all in the finished film. Nothing, zip. Because when the WGA does its arbitration, it decides who gets the credit. They pick one or two names, and then the other 11 writers who worked on the project? S.O.L. I think this is a flaming wagon of dung.

So I wrote the WGA to tell them so. Why is it a PA can work on a film for one day and get rolling screen credit (which I have done,) yet a writer could work on a film for months, have their ideas or dialogue or even whole scenes in the finished film and get none? Outrageous. The solution is simple. The WGA should keep the arbitration system to award credit and residuals and profit participation, and those writers credited should be, as always, get credits in the titles just before the director. Fine. But then there should ALSO be a “Contributing Writers” credit in the crawl listing every writer who worked on the project, whether any of their effort made it to screen or not. These writers receive no additional compensation -- they simply get a screen credit because they worked on the damn film.

“Written By,” the WGA magazine, actually printed my letter, and I spent a year or so trying to get traction on this idea. I was finally told by a friend with close ties to the board to give it up -- the WGA *likes* maintaining the illusion that only one writer (or a team) wrote a movie. They will never do anything to officially acknowledge all the other writers. WTF?

All these years later, nothing has changed, and I still think I’m right and the WGA is full of it. So maybe I’m carrying a grudge? Not really. But it makes it hard to accept that they really have all the membership’s best interests in mind, when it’s the Guild themselves who is first discriminates against writers with their arbitration process.

On Monday Dec. 10, the Writers Guild of America sent an official communiqu̩ to the entire WGA West membership plugging a spoof site ridiculing the AMPTP. The site, http://www.amptp.com, lampoons the AMPTP's poor judgment and is entertaining satire to be sure. But at a time when thousands of people are out of work heading into the holidays, most of whom will never see any benefit from any WGA deal -- only lost income Рshould the Guild really be antagonizing producers whom writers will have to work with again?

I mailed my concerns to the WGA. WGA President Patric Verrone responded promptly:

Jim,

Thanks for writing. So you know, this web site was done without Guild knowledge or input but, when we saw it, we thought members would be interested. We remain committed to resolving this contract as soon as humanly possible. Remember, the AMPTP walked away from the table on Friday, not us. We are ready and willing to bargain at a moment's notice.

Seriously.

Best,

Patric

Great response, and indeed, the AMPTP did just up and walk away, the bastards! But still, shouldn’t this be something you let spread virally, not sanction via a Guild mailing? Maybe not. Reader Jerry Monaco, a former union organizer and veteran of many strikes, commented in a fascinating response on the Coverage Ink blog, “The truth is that the WGA alone is neither big enough nor powerful enough to be what Galbraith once called a counter-veiling power. But to slag on the union for doing something successfully, something that we non-writers that support you admire greatly is not seeing the reality of the situation.” Fair enough. “When your bosses complain about how upset they are about the tactics and antics of your union, it is because your union is getting under their skin.”

So here we are at the end of the year with no negotiations scheduled and no end in sight. Yeah, the picture’s a bit bleak, and there’s certainly going to be plenty of second-guessing. Maybe I’m guilty of that. But at the end of the day, what the writers are asking for is fair, and the producers are being A-holes. End of story. Let’s all hope that this puppy ends SOON so the town can get back to work.

UPDATE 12/26: A high-level writer friend tells me a reporter from the “New York Times” just called him asking if there’s any truth to the rumor that 8 or so A-list feature screenwriters are preparing to ankle the Guild and resume work! Holy crap! My friend knew nothing about this and couldn’t comment. But if this is true, it could well break the Guild’s spine. But -- my guess is this is a load, disinformation put out by AMPTP to create unrest. I can’t imagine these writers would jeopardize their health benefits, huge pensions and residuals to do such a thing, but hey, this is “The Times” calling, the supposed paper of record (their shameless, uncritical stumping for the Iraq occupation and ignoring of many other critical issues notwithstanding.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

my two cents is as follows...

A Hollywood writing career is a very subjective thing, and very few writers experience anything close to "job security." Very few screenwriters are lucky enough to sell more than one or two scripts that actually get produced and released in their entire lifetimes. Therefore, it's of the utmost importance that the WGA suck it up once and for all, and hold out for anything and everything that we writers deserve. Even as much as retaining of copyright of our original scripts, if that's what it takes. Stage writers enjoy complete intellectual property rights for their art for life; in many cases they also enjoy much clout in the productions whenever their plays are licensed and produced.

Television -- especially since the advent of DVD box sets -- and feature films have much higher profit potential than stage productions, and therefore the value of quality writing increases exponentially. Writers deserve as much respect as the other "above the line" entities (actors, directors, and -- ugh! -- producers), and this means a much more fair share of the profits. And the only way to ever garner such proper respect from the industry is to hold firm, once and for all, until the producers themselves begin to have to contemplate how they're going to pay THEIR mortgages for a change. That means walking the picket line until the TV audience begins to make very loud noises about not having their "24" or their "Desperate Housewives," for an entire season! And even walking it till the movie studios start having to pore over those piles upon piles of mediocre scripts they would never give a green light to without major rewrites, and now there's no talented rewriters available to fix them. Suddenly, even the "elite" film people begin to realize just how important a talented writer is to his or her own livelihood. Suddenly, it becomes a little more plausible to sacrifice that new cabin cruiser or second vacation home in order to continue to make their payments on the main house. Suddenly, the Brads and Julias and Georges and Ridleys and Clints and Martins may have to accept a paltry ten or fifteen million per picture instead of their usual twenty in order that the person who conceived the story and the very words they speak be able to afford their necessary inkjet refills and endless upgrades of Final Draft.

As for all those poor folks who are currently unemployed due to the strike... I give a big, fat "Awwww! Poor babies." In case they haven't figured it out yet, careers in the "entertainment industry" are anything but secure. In fact, it's usually the production staffs and crew who are the most used to "down time" and periods of unemployment. Given the nature of the biz, it's expected, and usually prepared for. At least by the smart ones, anyway.

Above-the-line skills -- a.k.a. "The Talent" -- often work for little or even nothing for YEARS before their break comes, if ever. Staff and crew positions usually become paid ones after only serving a short time as an intern. It is not the responsibility of the Talent to look out for the needs of everyone else. In fact, if staff and crew want more secure jobs, they should support the Talent all the more in their quest for equal respect and compensation in order to avert future strikes that could potentially affect their own livelihoods. Practically speaking, if job security is so important to them, they should choose another industry to work in, period.

People take the skill of writing a script for granted, when it's the exact opposite that's true. Pushing a camera dolly, plugging in lights, building sets, sewing costumes, even organizing all of that together -- which is what Producers do, btw -- is really not that difficult to learn for most people. Even acting is a skill that can be mastered by anyone willing enough to give up their fear of looking foolish to others and simply play make-believe convincingly. The rest is accident of birth and whether or not your parents' DNA created a combo that looks and sounds good on camera.

The most important "talent" in film are the director and the writer. In TV, it's ALL about the writer. Yet everyone and their uncle thinks they can do it. They can't. It's hard. It takes years, even decades, to start to become even proficient at it, let alone master the art. Yet we writers continue to bend over and take whatever Hollywood deems we deserve because we love the art form so much, we enthusiastically do it for free on a regular basis. And until we demonstrate to the system that those days are over once and for all, we will gladly take whatever pittance they throw at us that's just a little more than before, and call it victory.

If the WGA truly wants fair compensation for what its members deserve according to their contribution to the industry, then it will bite the bullet for as long as is necessary to force those in power to rethink their evil and greedy ways. The writers HAVE the power to change the status quo forever. They need only to gut it out until those who "think" they have the power begin to suffer real hardships, and then events will begin to unfold that will awaken screenwriters to the reality that has been there all along.

I support the strike for as long as it takes to bring RADICAL change to the current compensatory system. However, if the WGA is simply going to cave in exchange for a marginal increase and/or participation in DVD and Internet distribution, then perhaps it really will have all been for nothing.

Until then, I'll be self-producing my own writing for webcasts, where my art will find its own audience (or not) and I don't have to play Hollywood's game that's rigged so that the "house" always wins.