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It's the Money, Stupid

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The Writers Guild of America is a middle-class union. Almost half our membership receives no income from Guild-covered employment in any given year. As a result, the median income of Guild members from screen and television writing work is $5,000 per year. That's right: five thousand.

Among the lucky half who actually work, one quarter earns less than $37,700 a year. And even that income is sporadic. You sell a spec screenplay in 2003, you may not sell another one until 2009. More than half of those who have 'safe' staff jobs on television series will not be on television writing staffs five years from now.

So like everyone else, we do what we do to (as the President would say) put food on our families.

One of the things that tides us over during the leaner years is residuals. In other words: when the work we create has a longer tail, a continuing revenue stream, some of that comes back to us. Marc Cherry, who created Desperate Housewives after a long dry spell, would have had to give up writing altogether as a profession had he not been supported by residuals.

But those residuals for things like television syndication are drying up, as syndication, re-runs and the like are replaced by DVDs. You don't watch re-runs of The Sopranos on channel eleven: you watch them on boxed sets. But the residual rate on DVDs is a fraction of a fraction: oh point three percent.

As re-runs and syndication dry up, and a decent formula is replaced by an indecent one, our members stand to lose roughly 80% of their residual income--of what tides them over.

This is why we're asking for four cents more for every DVD. And that's why we're asking that the DVD rate--calculated when cassettes were in their infancy, when DVDs were a gleam in no-one's eyes, when the internet was still ARPANET and closed to commercial interests, when George Michael was in Wham!--not be the determinant of how we're compensated for downloads in this brave new world.

In simplest terms: the costs of manufacturing videocassettes were relatively substantial. The costs of DVDs (stamped rather than spooled) were much less. The costs of internet downloads are smaller still: no box, no disc, no shrinkwrap, no warehouse, no inventory, no shipping, no rackjobbers, no damaged merchandise, no returns. Yet the media giants want to compensate us at the same fraction-of-a-fraction rate.

As you know, the media conglomerates are not charitable. If you believe Fox wants to compensate writers fairly, you probably believe that The No Spin Zone is a no spin zone. And just as in other industries, the gap between what the CEO makes and what the lowest-paid worker makes has multiplied exponentially. The fact that we create the intellectual property, that none of their earnings would be possible absent what we being to the table, is not a matter of large concern to them. It is truly a new Gilded Age, no less so in the IP industry than in real estate or hedge funds.

The conglomerates have put rollbacks on the table, they have put insults on the table, but they have yet to put on the table a complete economic package. We are striking because the conglomerates will not negotiate in good faith otherwise.

The news stories--on radio and television stations owned by the same conglomerates against whom we negotiate--are filled with stories of limo drivers, caterers, florists, waiters, even agents, who might be laid off if the strike is at all protracted. What they don't talk about so much are the writers, thousands of them, who are putting their houses and cars and families and kids and futures in jeopardy to fight for what they believe is right. And what the conglomerate-owned media talk about even less: that no one on this food chain, from high to low, would be eating without the intellectual property writers create.

It's the money, stupid. They have it. They don't want to let go of it. They care so deeply and profoundly about not letting go of even a little of it that they're willing to let thousands upon thousands suffer.

In their moral universe, a fifteen-buck DVD of a movie doesn't have another four cents in it for the people who dreamed up that movie in the first place. And in that same moral universe, a rate set experimentally in the 1980s for videocassettes must be set in stone for the internet era, or else.

Jake Gittes, courtesy Robert Towne, once asked of Noah Cross, "How much better can you eat? What can you buy that you can't already afford?" Noah Cross replied, "The future, Mr. Gitts, the future."

The cost of any one CEO's severance package is, the way these things have been going, in the hundreds of millions. In other words, substantially more than they are offering all screen and television writers over the next three years.

Read more thoughts about the strike on Huffington Post's writers' strike opinion page