Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The WGA strike

I imagine every writer who has a blog is offering his/her thoughts on the pending WGA strike today. Here, in no particular order, are mine.

And yes, I will continue to blog if there is a strike.

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Make no mistake about it – industry strikes only occur when management forces the issue. ALWAYS. Every time. No exceptions. Who do you think can hold out longer? The story editor of KIM POSSIBLE with two kids in private school or Sumner Redstone? So who do you think has more to gain by playing hardball?

What’s scary is this: in the old days, one of the unions would strike, it would last for a few months and Lew Wasserman of Universal would say, “Okay, this has gone on long enough.” and it would be over. This year there is no Lew Wasserman. There is not even Universal as we knew it.

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Some network officials are saying that since this season is already a bust with no breakout hits (and whose fault is that I ask those same network visionaries who programmed CAVEMEN, VIVA LAUGHLIN, and NASHVILLE?) a strike would be welcomed. They could cut losses from runaway production. That’s fine except that after the last strike in 1988 the combined network share dropped 10% and has continued to fall ever since. The industry suffered a half-billion dollars in lost revenue, and MOONLIGHTING ratings never recovered. Can the AMPTP really afford another big strike?

It’s like if you’re a restaurant that’s struggling is it a good idea to close on weekends?

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How’s this for an idiotic remark? In a recent article in the LA TIMES, TV writer Robert Eisele suggested that in light of the strike if writers “can afford a Bentley, get a Mercedes.” Yeah, that helps the WGA’s image. We’re all driving Bentleys. Newsflash: NO writer I know drives a Bentley. And none will until they start putting Prius engines in the damn things! Oh...and we don’t light our cigars with hundred dollar bills either.

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This acrimony between writers and management has been going on since the 1930s when scribes first rose up and had the audacity to…well, ask for things. Warner Brother czar Jack Warner warned that any writer who joined the union would “find themselves out of work forever”. And he claimed this wasn’t blacklisting because “it would all be done over the telephone”. Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox once said, “Throw that writer off the lot until I need him again!” Critic David Thomson says Hollywood writers are like divorce lawyers or private eyes. When you want them you have to have them, but later you despise them.

Is there any wonder we “Schmucks with Underwoods” have an inferiority complex and assume a defensive posture? We spend our entire careers trying to protect our work against studios, directors, actors, fellow writers, research gurus, networks, and girlfriends of the all of the above.

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Networks claim that streaming shows on the internet and making them available for ipods is merely for “promotional purposes only”. If that’s true, why do they CHARGE for them on itunes? And even if they didn’t, by making shows available on the internet they reduce their value for reruns and syndication.

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Nice timing of NBC Universal and News Corp to begin testing their joint venture – a video site focused solely on TV and film content – three days before the WGA contract was up.

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And is it just me, or don’t writers who feverishly try to finish and turn in their drafts right before the deadline undermine the WGA’s cause? If Paul Haggis DIDN’T turn in the latest installment of the James Bond series, the studio might have a tad more incentive to make a deal, don’tcha think??

Meanwhile, other writers turned in multiple variations of scripts so the studios would have flexibility filming them. That to me is unconscionable. These are the screenwriters who stand to benefit from DVD and other delivery system royalties. All the rest of us are giving up work to fight for them and they turn in multiple drafts to accommodate the studios?? No wonder the producers think we’re idiots.

And thank you to actors like Vince Vaughn, who since he isn’t in the WGA, finds nothing morally wrong with agreeing to polish scripts during a strike. The fact that we go out on strike to craft a deal that will be the template for the SAG deal so HE won’t have to go out on strike apparently means nothing to him.

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Without credit arbitration (won by the union in a hard fought battle) Jeffrey Katzenberg and Brad Grey might each have four Oscars for co-writing screenplays.

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I will never make another joke about the Teamsters. I love those guys!!! If the Teamsters refuse to cross the picket lines this could be a much shorter strike than management expected.

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I know WGA President Patrick Verrone. Worked with him on a project. Being in a writers room with someone on a show with problems is how you can really learn about a person. Pat is talented, reasonable, dedicated, and cool under pressure. He is far from the John Wayne his detractors claim him to be. We need to give him our support and we need to remain unified and strong.

I’ve been through three strikes already. Many of the companies I struck are no longer in business. Two-thirds of the people I struck with are no longer in the guild. And unlike actors and directors, when we go out it doesn’t just shut down the industry. It slows it. Hair restoration crèmes have faster results. But as someone who has prospered and enjoyed the gains writers before me have won, I feel it’s my obligation to fight the good fight for the next generation. And hopefully in twenty years, when the issue is holograms transmitted directly to the back of viewers’ eye lids, WGA members will hang tough for a piece of that pie.

We’re just looking for our fair share. MyPiece not MySpace. iShare not iTunes. NetWorth not NetFlix.

44 comments:

Jallad Productions said...

Great post, Ken. I read a long biography about Lew Wasserman, and it did seem that he always willed things to happen when needed. Don't worry about Vince Vaugh. As soon as Fred Claus comes out, he won't be polishing anything.

VP81955 said...

My father founded a union for civilian technicians in the National Guard, who because of their unique civilian-yet-military status were neither fish nor fowl and were often treated like servants by some in the Guard. After several years' struggle on Capitol Hill, hey won their rights as federal workers, and are now protected.

Were my father -- a man who respected the power of the written word -- here today, he'd express solidarity with you guys. Best wishes.

The Crutnacker said...

Wrong about Vince Vaughn, when he promotes Fred Clause he's polishing a turd.

I'm not a writer, so I can't speak to it well, but it seems as though the creators (writers, directors, actors) should have some compensation for new revenue streams.

My hope is that soon reality show writers (if they haven't already) unionize and start making these pieces of crap more expensive to program.

If you're a conspiracy nut, you might almost wonder if the networks didn't program this crappy season with the strike in mind.

Question: Do writers get anything from DVD sets of old shows? I'm guessing that if you told anyone ten years ago that people would be scarfing up full seasons of shows on video that weren't Star Trek, they'd have laughed at you.

Good luck Ken. Carry one of those large pencils they use to decorate daycares with you to bash the knees of any scabs who cross the picket line.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to also wish you good luck. Hope the writers will be back soon and we can get some decent entertainment like Cheers and Frasier. What's happened to TV lately? Can you imagine a show so good that stores actually close like they did when "I Love Lucy" was on? Sometimes I feel like I use TV more than I watch TV.

Tim W. said...

If the internet is for promotional purposes only, why was NBC head honcho Jeff Zanuck complaining that NBA has ONLY made $15 million from selling their shows on the iTunes store? For something that's only promotional, isn't any profit icing on the cake?

Anonymous said...

Wait, does this mean you're going to stop blogging till the strike is over?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and DoucheStone, not TouchStone... and 20th Century Fucks, not 20th Century Fox... and Whiner Brothers, not Warner Brothers... And Slimy, not Sony... And NBC/P-U, not NBC/U. If I missed any jerkwad studios or networks it's only because I'm tired.

Phil H. said...

Good luck in getting the right contract. My father was a Teamster and a Teacher (odd combination when you know that he taught elementary school) and he was a negotiator for both unions. The strike isn't neccessarily for the here and now, it's also for the kids (and adults) that dream of eating stale chinese food at 2am while trying to wring on more joke out of a scene.

Tiny Writer said...

Fantaist post, Mr. Levine. Insightful and cogent as always.

I, too, was a bit annoyed by the rush of writers to get the scripts done before the deadline.

Who are they helping?

One wonders why millionaire Oscar winner Paul Haggis found the need to undermine his own union in this matter.

l.a. guy said...

"Jeff Zanuck complaining that NBA has ONLY made $15 million from selling their shows on the iTunes store?"

Well apart from the guilds participating in the Internet revenue streams, the media companies do have a serious problem. As Zucker said, by distributing via iTunes (or whatever) they're turning dollars into pennies.

I'm not sure there's anything that can be done about it, but it is not the path to future riches for any of the participants.

Instead of each guild getting bogged down in the profit participation I don't understand why the WGA, DGA and SAG don't negotiate that with the AMPTP all at once. They're all effected by the same math and basically whatever the AMPTP gives one is has to give to the others. Then each guild could negotiate just the issues that pertain to them specifically.

I wouldn't be surprised if scripted episodic shows vanish from Network television eventually. They're already at a terrible disadvantage relative to cable because of different rules and economics.

Interestingly commercials, which kill the pacing of scripted shows, don't really detract from reality shows, if anything it adds to the drama and gives the viewer a welcome break to hit the bathroom.

I don't see anyway the WGA is going to get jurisdiction over reality shows. For the most part the shows are written by producers, and you would need a very charitable definition to include what they do as 'writing.'

Resolving on-line residuals is going to be a killer-- how much money is Fox generating streaming last weeks "Back To You" on their website? I'm sure they would argue they're doing it to try and build an audience and that the guilds will also profit from the success of the show if they succeed. The guilds will say that promotional or not, the network is deriving value from the exhibition so they should get a cut. Very tough to quantify.

These strikes are always a lose-lose with the public, it will be viewed like a baseball players strike; millionaires fighting with billionaires.

I wonder if the WGA would honor a Teamsters strike?

D. McEwan said...

"Millionaires vs Billionaires"

Puh-leaze. Yes, there are a ahndful of writers who are wealthy, and some writer fees sound high to people fighting to make ends meet, but the VAST MAJORITY of WGA members are regular Joes and Josephines trying to make the house payments, keep gas in the car, and pay for their kid's educations like everyone else.

And the simple fact is, THEY are the creative ones. Everyone else in the industry, including the billionaires at the head of the studios, are making their wealth sucking from the writer's talents. It's difficult not to view the non-creative, souless business majors running studios as vampires living off the talents of others, and then trying to sound aggrieved when the people who actually have the talent dare to want a fair share of the profit it generates.

I want my 16 new episodes of LOST, but the strike must be supported.

tiny writer said...

l.a. guy -

How is it "tough to quantify" what the networks are earning for shows exhibited on-line.

When I watch a show streaming on-line, it is interrupted in the beginning and at every act break with an embedded commercial.

Surely it's fairly easy to quantify how much the network is charging for those ads.

I would hope they would have the paperwork somewhere....

l.a. guy said...

D. McEwan said...
"Millionaires vs Billionaires"
Puh-leaze. Yes, there are a handful of writers who are wealthy"


I'm not saying they are all wealthy, I'm saying that will be the public perception. AMPTP can say these writers are already getting tens of thousands of dollars, etc... and to the guy on the street it sounds like a lot of money.

"And the simple fact is, THEY are the creative ones."
I know this won't be a popular opinion on this blog, but you know there is the matter of someone putting up the money for the development and production of these shows. These are not risk free investments and that is real money.

tiny writer said..."When I watch a show streaming on-line, it is interrupted in the beginning and at every act break with an embedded commercial."

Good point-- certainly the guilds are entitled to their fair share of what ever revenue is generated.

It seems to me at the heart of all this rhetoric is that the guilds feel like they got screwed when the original home vid residuals were worked out. They see an eerie similarity to the studios "we don't really know if this will amount to anything, so let's just use this formula for a while until we figure it out" position with the on-line distribution and don't want to get suckered again.

Unfortunately for the guilds I just don't see how the on-line distribution is going to add up to much. $15 Million in revenue for NBC on iTunes? They probably book that much revenue for a couple of NFL games. The more advertising migrates from traditional media to the internets (more targeted and at lower rates) the smaller the pie is going to get.

Meanwhile the guilds want to get a bigger, or in their view, a fair share of DVD revenues, but it's hard to imagine the AMPTP being very generous on that issue.

Don't get me wrong, I hope there isn't a strike. It will directly effect my income too.

Diogo said...

It's nice that you mentioned the MOONLIGHTING incident. I seem to Recall they actually showed the writters of that show at the time with "Strike" posts, and Bruce and Cybill, with nothing they could say, enlisted someone to do a version of "whooly bully" (sp?). I believe the decline of that show had less to do with the strike, but more to do with the exit of its creator, at the end of that season.

That's another thing I noticed. almost every single creator or showrunner, come year 5 or 6, gets a credit at the end of a show, but rarely, if anytime is credited with scripts. some even get "consulting producer" credits. Is the desire to go off on projects that could, and most likely will fail, stronger than the will to continue on a successful show that, from what you've written is so hard to come by?

Anyway, wasn't the strike delayed one week? At least according to some online press. It will be depressing when serialized dramas return, because their story will be left hanging. What will they call 24 if they can't complete the season? "humm... number?"

Anonymous said...

If Murdoch is involved, don't bet against him setting up a new non-unionized broadcast network in Mexico - telenovellas written by interns, and a few school-fee/alimony crippled hacks taking the Dirty Digger's shilling. He fights dirty.

pcinme said...

Good luck, all. Just try to end it before CBS starts season two of "Kid Nation," okay?

Anonymous said...

Okay... "millionaires" fine. That's fine. I don't begrudge any writer who makes a million, because in NY or LA that's only barely scraping into the middle class. You ever see a million dollar house in New York? That's a two-bedroom.

Streaming and downloading means the cost to distribute trends towards zero. So the person or people who actually put their time, energy and money into a project should get LESS residual profit? That's bass-ackwards.

Believe me, if the Teamsters or IATSE struck, the networks would crawl back to the table. One reason the Teamsters never strike is that they don't have to.

Zucker's smart, and he knows $15 million is a drop in the bucket for the coming downloading bonanza. When torrents are accepted by the media, and they will be... Katie bar the door. It'll be just like iTunes was to the song. Pay Per View *PLUS* advertising? fugeddaboudid.

VP81955 said...

If the internet is for promotional purposes only, why was NBC head honcho Jeff Zanuck complaining that NBA has ONLY made $15 million from selling their shows on the iTunes store?

Uh, you're confusing Jeff Zucker with legendary 20th Century-Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck, who for all his excesses had more talent in his pinkie finger than Jeff Zucker does in his entire Harvard-educated body.

Mary Stella said...

Writers have every right to earn more money from new revenue streams. Even if I wasn't a writer, this would be a no-brainer. I felt the same way the first time I heard of actors holding out for more money from sales to syndication.

Anonymous said...

As a starving artist (and SAG member), I'll be out on the picket lines when I can in support of you guys. I hope that the WGA can get a contract that will also help the animation writers out there.

John Pearley Huffman said...

Ken,

At least one writer you know in fact drives a Bentley.

At the end of Sitcom Room, Sam Simon drove away from the hotel in his Bentley Continental GT. And to my ear, that sounded like a twin-turbocharged 12-cylinder engine under its hood, not a Prius drivetrain.

I had a nice conversation with Mr. Simon about the electric car he also owns and the electric Tesla roadster he has on order, but the car he was driving that day was a honest-to-God Bentley.

For the record, I did not see him light his cigar with a hundred dollar bill. It was a twenty.

Okay, he didn't even have a cigar that day. And Eisele's comment is utterly dopey. But at least some of the WGA membership does drive Bentleys.

Cathy Krasnianski said...

Ken,

Is there anything we non-WGA member writers can do to help the cause?

Anonymous said...

Should the WGA go out on strike, I plan to offer my writing skills and services to all the studies. I figure after completing my first few scripts, they'll be begging you guys to come back and would pay anything.

Alaskaray

The Crutnacker said...

I disagree with the comment that scripted shows will disappear completely from networks. Reality is cheap to produce, but it's not an ongoing revenue machine. Cable has a bit more latitude in content, but nobody cares how much profanity, blood, sex, and violence is in a show if the show sucks.

I think the networks and producers of shows are in a better position now than they have been in some time. They have numerous outlets to distribute a show (original broadcast, internet, on demand, DVD). They have ways of getting a return on an investment if a show fails with DVD and internet streaming.

There is no reason why writers, actors, and other talent SHOULDN'T have a fair contract to address these other revenue generators.

As for Paul Haggis getting that script done before the strike. Don't blame him, he's got lots of e-meter sessions he's got to pay for with $cientology.

Tim W. said...

l.a. guy,

Your argument about turning dollars into cents would make more sense if the iTunes audience was, at this point, more than the tiny fraction of the television audience that it currently is. I'd love to see some sort of financial breakdown for per person earnings from television viewers as compared to iTunes viewers. Episode downloads is still in it's experimental stages, and there's little doubt that that is where the future is. And my initial point was that if selling episodes over the internet is promotional, and considering how few people download as compared to watch live or recorded broadcast episodes, then $15 million is a pretty damn good amount of profit.

VP81955,

Yes, typo. It was Jeff Zucker that said that. You might also note that I said that the NBA has only made $15 million. The NBA, as far as I know, has made nothing from iTunes.

Gail Renard said...

I'm Chair of the TV Committee of the Writers' Great Of Great Britain, and I just wanted you all to know that our union supports you and we wish you all good luck. We'll be warning our own members on the dangers of strike-breaking. At times like this, family sticks together. Actually my family doesn't, but that's another story.

Anonymous said...

Ken, excellent piece. I'll see you on the picket line.

Ken said...

"dollars to cents" is off by at least one order of magnitude. iTunes sells an episode for 199 cents; I doubt you'll find many suckers willing to pay 199 dollars. Even if he's just talking about their profit, I don't see the price structure that will allow them to increase their profit ten- or a hundred-fold. And don't forget, you can make it up in volume. So it's a nice phrase, but a lie.

As far as the financial risks of funding Hollywood: boo hoo. If your million-dollar investment pays off, the guilds are asking that instead of making very many millions, you make slightly fewer millions. If you don't like the risk, buy bonds. But of course, that doesn't give you a reason to schmooze with the beautiful people.

Anonymous said...

LA Guy, great responses - both of them. Crutnacker, too (and Alaska ray).

Sigh. What a mess it is.

Anonymous said...

Good luck. If it doesn't work out move up here to Canada and work with Cronenberg.

l.a. guy said...

The Crutnacker said...
"I disagree with the comment that scripted shows will disappear completely from networks. Reality is cheap to produce, but it's not an ongoing revenue machine."

Networks don't make their money from syndication (unless they own a piece of the show, which is rare) so they don't care about that. All they care about is attracting eye balls using the least expensive means possible and collecting advertising dollars. Whether that's by way of sports, news, reality or episodic shows doesn't matter to them.

"I think the networks and producers of shows are in a better position now than they have been in some time. They have numerous outlets to distribute a show (original broadcast, internet, on demand, DVD)."
There's no question there are more avenues of distribution, but there profitability is an entirely different matter. The challenge is that while there are more ways to distribute content, the aggregate number of viewers is diminishing as television and movies compete with the internet and video games for peoples attention.

To the degree those viewers are captured on-line and not in front of their tv's, the revenue streams start to drop off precipitously. Google is cannibalizing traditional advertising dollars and charging less for impressions. My understanding is that even if the same number of viewers were watching on-line, at least so far, it would not generate the same amount of advertising revenue.

I think we're looking at studios and guilds fighting over a bigger piece of a shrinking pie.

"Streaming and downloading means the cost to distribute trends towards zero."
I'm not sure that's true. It's certainly more efficient to broadcast content than to transmit it bit by bit to millions of users. If the internet were to deliver anything remotely like the quality of HD television on a massive scale it would crush the infrastructure. Bandwidth is getting cheaper, but no where near free.

The Crutnacker said...

Networks rarely own a piece of the shows? On what planet? Ever since the FCC took away the regulations that limited their ownership, they have their hands in many. I just did a quick IMDB and scanned some stuff on TIVO.

Desperate Housewives -- owned by ABC. CSI Miami -- CBS Brothers and Sisters -- ABC. Let's not forget about the number of shows owned by the networks parent companies.

I would argue that revenue streams aren't necessarily drying up. Network shows still reach more people than cable by far on any given night, so they're still the biggest advertising bang for the buck.

If you think about DVD sales, the production costs for a DVD are virtually nil. You dump last season on some discs, put them into some cheap cases and BOOM, you have probably $35 to $40 of pure profit on each set. Attach an advertisement to the discs and maybe add a few bucks more.

l.a. guy said...

The Crutnacker said..."Networks rarely own a piece of the shows? On what planet? ... Desperate Housewives -- owned by ABC. CSI Miami -- CBS Brothers and Sisters -- ABC. Let's not forget about the number of shows owned by the networks parent companies."
I stand corrected, after persusing a development database I can see they do have their hands in a lot more shows than I thought. (Although reality shows, sports and news are not among them.)

I'm not sure how much their sibling companies production arms motivate the network side, in my experience the network people are pretty focused on generating ratings and don't really care who the content comes from. No doubt the studio side feels differently.

"I would argue that revenue streams aren't necessarily drying up. Network shows still reach more people than cable by far on any given night, so they're still the biggest advertising bang for the buck."
No question, but the problem is the audience is shrinking. So even though broadcast television still reaches by far the biggest audience, it is diminishing in historical terms and that effects the bottom line.

Dwacon® said...

I'm driving a V-Dub. And this strike comes at a horrible time for me. But is there a good time?

Tom Dougherty said...

Best of luck to the writers and their families. I hope this strike is settled soon, and while I'm at it, I hope that the game show/reality TV sickness passes soon too.

Tom Quigley said...

Well, now that's it's official (as of Friday morning, Nov.2) 1000 percent surpport to you and your fellow scribes, Ken.

Anonymous said...

Hope the sitcom isn't dead after this. Good luck WGA

Anonymous said...

Good luck to all. May it bring a quick and satisfactory resolution, sooner rather than later.

Reading both sides, it's also a concern that the multi-nationals could prop up some writers overseas, give them the internets and room and board and just carry on. I've only read portions of the Guild contract, so I don't know if studios are prohibited from working outside the system.

Ava's Daddy said...

Ken, well said.

Writers: good luck and godspeed. As an aspiring writer, I sympathize with the Guild. As a news writer in Middle America, I'll follow the prgress and push the information to my viewers. It's important for the writer's collective voice to be heard.

Good luck.

RAC said...

Damn you, Vince Vaughn, for stealing my scab gig! Back to panhandling for me again. Cripes.

Crankywriter said...

I'm not worried about Vince Vaughn, I'm worried about my "friends"...

Word today is that the teamsters "support" may be less than predicted. Heard from one producer on a TV show that their teamsters had agreed to drive "up to" the studio, at which point the IA guys on the lot would take the materials across the lines and then the rest of the distance.

Also heard that more than a few of the show runners who penned or signed the "Pencils Down" ad in the trades were planning to shoot and cut multiple episodes of their shows -- some were having edit bays set up at their homes so they didn't have to "cross lines" to work. Others were slated to direct their episodes so that any changes they pitched were in their roles as DGA.

And I'm striking for....?

It was sounding like we were better prepared than in 88 -- not so sure now... hope I'm wrong.

David Andrew Lloyd said...

To support the writers strike, ask your friends to stop renting DVD's or watching Reality Shows or Reruns. My mom plans to cancel NETFLIX, which is a huge sacrifice for her. (If that doesn't work, we mobilize the kids - and have them stop doing their homework. Unless it involves e-mail, it should be easy to get kids to stop writing.)

Anonymous said...

First of all, I love this blog. As a Film/English student (who will hopefully join the WGA someday!), it's been a great read.

That said, I'm new to the nature of strikes. How will this affect the 20-something writers who are looking for jobs, or will be after graduation? Should they not pursue agents at all until the strike is over, since any jobs they get will break the picket line? I've been advised by trusted friends and professors to respect the picket line (which I planned on doing anyway for moral reasons), but I'm curious as to what other union members think students should do.

And let's face it... If anyone knows how to picket, it's a college student.

jon said...

To the student who posted. I'm an aspiring writer as well and what I've been told by many WGA members is avoid any writing work, including sending any writing to studios, during the strike. If you want to be in the WGA, honor the strike. I'm sure a lot of aspiring writers will rush to send specs and scripts to studios hoping that they're in need to writers, and I'm sure none of them will ever work again.