Monday, April 10, 2017

Strike update

Negotiations resume today between the WGA and AMPTP (the producers). And just to be clear, by “producers” we mean the mega conglomerate companies that control the industry and world. We’re not talking Shonda Rhimes. We’re talking Comcast-Universal.

A strike authorization vote will be taken next week and it’s important to show solidarity if the WGA hopes to get anything at all. I’m guessing the AMPTP is letting this play out to see if the Guild membership really will commit to a strike. They will find that the answer is yes. And to repeat, the AMPTP controls the situation. The very second they decide it’s time to make an agreement there will be one.

But for now there’s a lot of sabre-rattling on both sides. Accusations and threats will volley back and forth. That’s part of the game. Ignore most of it. Also ignore dire predictions. No one other than the AMPTP knows if there will be a strike, or more accurately, if they orchestrate a strike, but I bet they don’t even know. Let’s see how this week of negotiations go.

Talking to a writer about my last strike post, he said, “Who cares what the public thinks? This is a private matter.” I don’t think that’s true. Because of all the rhetoric and mud that will be slung, another element must be addressed – saving face. It ultimately won’t be enough to strike a deal. A deal must be struck that doesn’t look like either side has given in. Believe me, that becomes a major factor.

Now to offset any balloon juice about how greedy those ungrateful writers are, here are some of their demands (with comments by me). Please bear in mind the industry profits are now $51 billion, double what they were just a decade ago. It’s not like they can cry poor. The WGA maintains that just a one percent fraction of that would provide the WGA its fair share.

So here are some issues the WGA has on the table. 

· Increase minimum compensation in all areas
Writers are actually making less now than they did ten years ago (while profits have doubled).

· Increase residuals for undercompensated reuse markets
Many writers rely on residuals because work is sparse. Networks are airing fewer reruns. Lots of cable stations are running episodes multiple times on multiple platforms. The writers are getting screwed.

· Expand types of made-for new media programs subject to MBA minimums Increase contributions to Pension Plan and Health Fund
Trust me, replenishing the Health Fund is the one issue that every writer will strike for and will stay out for as long as it takes.

· Strengthen economic and workplace protections for television and new media writers employed and compensated on per episode basis
When networks all had full seasons of 22, writers worked on a show all year. And they knew within a couple of months whether they would be picked up or not. With all these other platforms there is no time imperative. Nor do they order 22 shows. So they can be produced at a more leisurely pace. That’s fine except most writers get paid by the episode. So they’re working a lot of extra weeks for basically nothing. How fair is that?

· Strengthen regulation of options and exclusivity provisions in television and new media employment contracts
Let’s say you’re on staff of a Hulu show. You make thirteen. Then you wait to see if you’ll be picked up for more. But Hulu can take its sweet time in deciding that. It’s not like they have to announce a fall schedule by May 5th. They might not make that decision for a year. Yes, a year. And the writers are held to exclusive contracts – meaning, that they are not allowed to take other staff work during that waiting period. So do the math. Instead of 22 episodes, they do 13 (or 10 or 8), take more time to produce them, which dilutes their fee, and then they could be forced out of work for a year. The WGA is trying to eliminate those exclusivity provisions. I’d say that’s reasonable, wouldn’t you?

· Address inequities in compensation of writing teams employed under term deals for television and new media series
This deals with “paper partners” where studios pair entry level writers so they can get two writers for the price of one. And these young writers are forced to take it or they get no work at all.  Some baby writers work fulltime on shows and still don’t earn enough to qualify for health insurance. I’m sorry, that’s wrong on every level.

· Provide paid family leave for writers employed under term deals for television and new media series
Y’know, like other corporations (large and small) offer.

· Amend definition of a professional writer to include writing for new media Increase funding for Showrunner Training Program and Tri-Guild Audit Program
This is just a smart use of money. An untrained showrunner is going to cost the production. Budgets are tight, and inefficiently results in spiraling costs and overruns. Way better to prepare him going in to do the job. Again, does this seem greedy to you?

There are other issues but these are the ones in the forefront. Writers just want a fair deal.  And they would love to get one without having to strike. 

And finally, I’ll say this: I imagine the public perception of a screenwriter is Hank in CALIFORNICATION. It’s way more like Jim in THE OFFICE.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Your friend's belief that this is a private matter that doesn't concern the public is what's overall wrong with copyright law, which for 150 years was written by and for specialists. Now that the public has much greater access to distribution via the internet, those laws have proved a poor fit for a world in which many more millions of people are creators.

In addition, in past strikes the writers have very clearly and visibly benefited from public support. Who can forget the delivery of all those boxes of pencils to studios during the last writers' strike? Ultimately, the longer-term threat to the studios is that without writers they have nothing to show: Louis CK's HORACE & PETE, Joss Whedon's DR HORRIBLE, Felicia Day's THE GUILD - all of these are prototypes of a possibly very different set of future business models.


Roger Owen Green said...

You have a lot of good points, but the exclusivity provision is BRUTAL.

Douglas Trapasso said...

Possible Friday Q, Ken:

How can we, the entertainment audience, help out?

I will be first to admit that supporting striking writers doesn't seem as meaningful as supporting my local Wal-Mart or Olive Lobster employees when they walk for a higher minimum wage or medical insurance.

But I come from a union family. Exploited workers are exploited workers. If all your blog/podcast followers promised not to view or stream any media for say, one week, would that send an effective message?

VP81955 said...

In your corner, Ken. Solidarity with my fellow writers!

Anonymous said...

"I will be first to admit that supporting striking writers doesn't seem as meaningful as supporting my local Wal-Mart or Olive Lobster employees when they walk for a higher minimum wage or medical insurance."

Any writer on "the Big Bang theory" can stock a shelf at Walmart. Most Walmart employees cannot write a shootable sitcom comedy script. Writing is a specialized task that often requires years of work and self-discipline to become marketable. Greeting Walmart shoppers requires you to shower, dress in clean clothes, speak English, and refrain from drooling. Those skills are relatively easy to master, and can get you work in a lot of other places, like Target, a car wash, or as a showrunner on "Maron."

Take me out, Zombie Harlan Ellison...

Tom Reeder said...

I know that's Tom Straw on the left. Who's the guy in the Red Sox shirt?

ScarletNumber said...

@Tom Reeder

Not sure if serious, but it is the author.

As for the writers, I picture them as they are depicted on The Simpsons. Or the episode of Maron where Mark is a writer on Dave Anthony's show.

powers said...

The talented & creative writers are the Rodney Dangerfields of Hollywood. They get no respects,no respect at all.

Johnny Walker said...

Great to read what's actually going on. Thanks for that. Good luck to WGA members! Hopefully you won't go back until all your demands are met.

Just listened to episode 14, and now I have some Friday Questions :)

- Have you ever had any blowback from a comment you made on the air? Was the wife of one of the players listening while you slagged off her husband and it got back to them? (Sorry if you've answered that before!)

Your dedication to realising your dream is staggering. I'm so impressed. It's clear you would have been successful with all that dedication and practice. (Doing all that, three or four times a week, while also working on a show...? Didn't your wife forget she had a husband?)

But I was wondering: Did you ever find the skills you developed as an announcer useful in the writers room?

Matthew Kugler said...

Good ol' Tom Straw...

Brad Apling said...

The part of the public that care the most are those who write as short term gigs for magazines, websites, business newsletters, newspapers, educational videos and any other writing job where you may not get to control what happens to your output down the line.
The issues you note are those facing writers in many areas and can be summarized in three words: Need For Respect.
Granted that there are some directors and producers who have been script writers, but how many company executives could write weekly for any TV show as a 'fill in' in place of actual writers? It's not like in 1986 when many temporary workers were brought in by AT&T to fill the jobs of striking operators. Just try to pull in an unknown writer and have them get up to speed on a TV series within a day.
I thank you for publishing the concerns and issues of the WGA. Without being a scriptwriter or a member of the WGA, I can understand and support what they are striking for.

Barry Traylor said...

From my point of view the demands of the WGA are all fair and proper. And no, lest anyone thinks I am a writer all you have to do is ask my old English teacher. She'd laugh herself to death (that is if she was not already deceased).

MikeN said...

Doesn't the union handle the pension and health funds?

Seems to me the studios will keep pushing because they see the lack of leverage. They lose 25% of their bottom line, while the other side is out of work. It's how the NBA and NFL operated. They knew the players would be having to make lots of car and house payments and wouldn't be able to handle losing that paycheck.

PolyWogg said...

Thanks Ken, good post. I think the WGA is likely dreaming in technicolor on most of them. They can have compensation increases or health fund increases, probably not both at any significant rate. I can't square the circle on the exclusivity issue...would most members be willing to go to the mattress on that one? It's the one most likely to benefit WGA without really costing the studios directly in $$ paid, more convenience factor issues. And just because they remove it doesn't mean they'll honour it in practice when they do their own hiring ("Oh, you have a staff job over there? Thanks, we're going in a different direction now.").

Either way, I got a meaningless blog entry out of it of my own, and I predict a long cold winter.


cbm said...

Don't get me wrong, writers deserver everything they can get, but didn't the last writer's strike essentially kill some new shows? For example, "Pushing Daisies" was a critical darling with some momentum behind it, pre-strike, but no one remembered it when it came back.

KeepOnWorking said...

In my opinion, the only demand that has merit here is to do away with the exclusivity clauses in the contract. Writers should be free to work across various productions as other crew unions do. As a 25 year IATSE union member, being able to work on any production available is essential.

There is less production and shorter season. That means less work - for everyone. It doesn’t mean anyone is entitled to get paid more to make up for it. Should this exclusivity no longer be required of writers, then the complaint of shorter seasons is no longer relevant. If a season ends….move on and keep working. If you want a job you need to hustle and earn it.

The insurance problem is also solved by removing the exclusivity provision. With each job, producers put more money into the fund. If writer were able to work freely, more funding would occur.

I hope that the negotiations look how one concession/demand may effect the rest.

My union supported the last WGA strike, though it killed the show I was working on and put me personally out of work for over 6 months. Multiple times in this article there are attempts to show how these are not greedy demands. Also is the desire to “save face” in the public forum. It seems you have it backwards however. The public does not care if one side concedes, but they will most certainly see the winning (or hold out) side as greedy. Be careful what you wish for.

Let’s hope for a peaceful resolution so we can all keep working.