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WGA Strike Primer: The Big Secret

01/29/2008 11:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Irving Thalberg is arguably the most-legendary executive in Hollywood history. As MGM's head of production, he was responsible for classics like "Mutiny on the Bounty," "Grand Hotel" and "Broadway Melody of 1938," all winning the Oscar as Best Picture. He revitalized the Marx Bros.' career with "A Night at the Opera." The Motion Picture Academy created the Thalberg Award to honor the high quality of an artist's career.

Irving Thalberg knew both the craft and business of movie-making together as well as anyone ever in Hollywood. Here's what Irving Thalberg said about writers:

"The most important part in filmmaking is played by the writers. We must do everything in our power to keep them from finding out."

The writers have found out.

And the AMPTP corporations have only themselves to blame. They opened the hidden door, turned on the overhead light, and let writers inside to read the magic book.

Here's what the Book of Secrets says. There's only one chapter.

"In order to make anything, we need a script.

"Audiences pay or tune in to see actors, but actors need something to say. Directors bring everything together, but directors can't direct a blank page.

"The closest there's ever been to a movie made from a blank page is 'Last Year at Marienbad.' It's a French film. (Leave it to the French.) It does have words, just not in any coherent order. No known human understands it. Hollywood must avoid making movies like this. Just don't tell writers why, although they can probably figure it out since they're writers and pay attention to things like plot and dialogue.

"We also need writers for non-fiction TV shows, because without a script a non-fiction show would just be like watching people at a bus station. Easy to fix: promote these shows as supposedly being "reality." It sounds believable, audiences will buy it.

"Since many people are important in the process, we must build up their aura over writers. Promote the grandeur of actors - yes, we'll pay millions, but when costs get too high, there will always be someone newer, cheaper we can sell as "hot" or "upcoming." Promote the director's name above the title, like it's All-Knowing. Everyone wants to be thought God-like, especially directors, which is why they became directors in the first place. Not a problem, we'll retain "final cut," and can edit the movie however we want.

"As important as these people are, however, they all need those filled-in pages.

"It is therefore necessary that we always replace writers, to water down their importance, unlike novels and plays. Call it "collaborative." (Note: never make comparisons to plays, which are just as collaborative and where writers retain copyright - as they do with novels. And songwriting. And well, with most-everything else written.) Get our PR departments to imply that actors make up everything they say. And call directors the 'auteurs" of a movie. 'Auteur' is French for author. (Leave it to the French!) Also, keep repeating this sentence until people buy it - 'The script is just a blueprint.' It sounds dismissively cold and two-dimensional. Never mind that the person who designs a blueprint is the 'architect,' which would make the only director the 'project foreman.' As long as you divert attention from saying, 'The script is the creation of the film's world, bringing characters into existence with themes and structure,' you'll be okay.

"Writers won't notice. Writers are sort of anti-social murks who have chosen as a life-profession to sit alone and imagine things in their heads. They'll be grateful if people simply speak to them, or occasionally buy them a free lunch. Even if they figure most of this out - and they will, because they're writers and always figuring out plots - we must keep the Main Truth from them. As Obi-wan Thalberg said: we must do everything in our power to keep them from finding out.

"And the Main Truth is this: they don't need us. Yes, we help them. Yes, they like having us. Yes, we're important. Yes, we pay them (except net profits. And for the Internet). But they don't need us."

And here, the Book of Secrets ends.

Well - the writers have found out.

And it's the AMPTP corporations who told them. Not subtle hints. I mean, told. Literally. Told.

"You can't talk about great tech without great content," Beth Comstock told the Los Angeles Times. Oh - she's NBC Universal's president of integrated media. Explaining the corporation's need to have a heavy presence at the Consumer Electronics Show. You know, that whole new-fangled "New Media" thing.

(Side note: the current AMPTP offer for that "great content" is zero.)

Writers do like having the studios and networks. They have benefited from them. (And been screwed by them, but who hasn't?) But writers don't need them.

Because there's the Internet. And major New Media corporations are aching to make movies and series - have their own "great content" - that can be shown on the Internet, in the void left by studios and networks. And there's oceans of money and companies to do just that. Already. And it's being done online. Already. And writers have actually figured it out. Already. Setting up personal deals with venture capitalists. Labor discussions between the WGA and Internet behemoths. Already. And the AMPTP corporations did it to themselves. All because they walked away from the table and wouldn't just talk. Giving writers time to think, talk and figure it out. This is arguably the worst blunder in movie history, topping "Battlefield Earth."

It's a blunder of epic proportions, because the door the AMPTP opened also leads to copyright ownership for writers. And this has been their Holy Grail for decades. And the AMPTP corporations brought this all on themselves.

The AMPTP still has time to reverse at least some of these problems. But that door they opened? It's closing fast. And the writers are inside now. Meanwhile the CEOs sat elsewhere, breaking bread, talking to people not on strike. Oblivious that whatever happened in their talks with directors did not make their other problems magically disappear.

In the meantime, Irving Thalberg's big secret is out.