And so, the Writers Guild strike is upon us. Scribes carrying picket signs began marching outside studios and network headquarters on both coasts this morning. To those who don't think the strike involves any sacrifice, I'd like to point out that, for many L.A.-based writers, this is the first time they have walked anywhere in years.
I hope that these picket lines -- and the absence from work of actors, directors, Teamsters and others who refuse to cross those lines - will cause some sobering realizations in boardrooms from Burbank to Broadway, but the writers' demands have seemed so reasonable to me throughout this process that I frankly don't know what might break the stalemate. The corporations' apparent unwillingness to concede to the WGA on a single major issue reminds me of the way President Bush treats Congress: "I'll be happy to negotiate, just as long as you end up doing exactly what I want."
The very anonymity of the writer in TV and film does seem to be handicapping how the writers' side is portrayed in the media. When attendees were converging on the Convention Center for last Thursday's closed-door pre-strike rally, one could sense the news cameras scanning the crowd desperately for anyone whom anyone would have any chance of recognizing. Even I had no clue who these people were, until I spotted an LA Times photo featuring household-name Larry Wilmore. The arrival of well-known writer/performers at today's protests helped a bit. "Look, it's Tina Fey! And she's outside 30 Rock! How perfect is that?" But if the spectacularly fortunate few who are familiar to the public at large become the faces of the strike, this creates its own problem, furthering the myth that this is merely a petty spat in which a lot of rich and famous writers are acting spoiled and greedy, trying to shake down the kindly and benevolent multinational mediasaurs.
Others in this space have written with much greater expertise and detail on the financial realities of the industry's working (and very often non-working) writers. I particularly recommend Howard Rodman's "It's The Money, Stupid" and Chris Kelly's "What Were Residuals, Daddy?" To expand on Mr. Kelly's main points, residuals are not a gratuity that the studios can decide to hand out if they like our service; they're an essential part of the bargain in this showbiz crapshoot. Inherent in their concept is that residuals SAVE money for television networks, since it doesn't cost as much to pay residuals for a rerun as it would to pay talent to create a brand new show.
True, the rerun market has eroded in recent years, but it's not because people have suddenly decided they never want to see their favorite shows again. It's just that they're frequently choosing to watch those episodes on their own schedule and their preferred platform. They buy deluxe boxed DVD sets, they download from iTunes, they may now even watch advertiser-sponsored "free" streams over network-controlled websites - all the areas where the corporations claim there's not a nickel (or even four cents) of profit to spare for the people who dreamt up those shows in the first place.
It's a fluke of timing that writers are taking the lead in this battle. If the actors' agreements were expiring first, I feel certain that they would be fighting the conglomerates on precisely the same grounds. By its very nature, the craft of scriptwriting is passive-aggressive -- sitting alone in a room, conjuring up scenarios which prettier people will be forced to enact - so it must be jarring to see these timid scribblers suddenly becoming so aggressive-aggressive. We're not used to standing up and shouting for our rights, when a well-turned quip (or an overwrought blog post) is more in our comfort zone. The fact that we've taken this drastic a step into the glare of national attention and actual sunlight indicates how important these issues are for the future of our profession.
I've always been dismayed by the mixture of dismissal and contempt which is reserved for screenwriters. Well, at some level I do understand it, because nothing about the job seems all that difficult to the outside observer. "You're just making stuff up! You just write down what people should say and what they should do. Heck, I say and do stuff all day. How hard can it be to write it down" Most people wouldn't have a clue how to direct or edit a movie or operate a Steadicam, and their experience playing a poetry-reciting turnip in their fourth-grade pageant cured them of any desire to act for a living. But writing? Everyone's taught to write. Or, as Prince or anyone under a certain age with opposable thumbs might put it, "evRE1z tOt 2 RYT :)".
But it is not easy to write. It is particularly hard to write well. And while we've all seen far too many examples where utterly cruddy writing hasn't been an obstacle to ungodly commercial success, the best actors and directors know the value of a great script. Undoubtedly, the best producers and executives do too, even if they still don't want to part with any more of "their" money than they absolutely have to.
I certainly wouldn't want to be a network or studio executive, nor would I claim to be able to do their jobs. But maybe the Writers Guild should demand that, during the current impasse, each of the members of the AMPTP negotiating committee must write one episode of their favorite TV show or must script the sequel for their studio's biggest tentpole franchise. Maybe then it would be clearer to them how difficult our task is and how important writers' contributions are to that revenue stream which gushes into their office buildings, from which tiny rivulets are allowed to trickle back to WGA members inside precious green envelopes.
Come on, Nick Counter. Show us your best "Dirty Sexy Money".
Or just show us some respect, and let us get back to work.
Read more thoughts about the strike on the Huffington Post's writers' strike opinion page.