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Writers' Strike

This entry is an email circulated by James Kahn, writer/producer of Melrose Place and Star Trek Voyager, and my friend and former housemate in LA. It's dated yesterday, Wednesday November 7, and gives a great first-hand view of strike.

AMPTP represents all the studios, mini-studios and broadcast networks, WGA is us poor downtrodden yet strangely gifted writers, roughly 10,000 guild members, roughly 2000 working at any given time. We get paid a flat fee per script, and then if it gets produced we get a residual, like a royalty, every time the episode is rebroadcast, or sold retail. I make 43 dollars every time one of my Melrose Place episodes gets shown, for example.

In 1988, when DVD's were but a twinkle in the studios' collective eye, there was a negotiation about what the writer's residual should be every time a DVD was sold. The studios complained that it was an unknown medium, they might go broke trying to develop it, so the WGA agreed to cut them a break until the next contract talks, and for that contract we agreed the writer of the movie would get 4 cents for every DVD sold. (Never mind they were selling at that time for about $75, and the guy who made the box the DVD came in got a dollar per DVD. The writer got 4 cents. Reminds me of the locally famous quote by Irving Thalberg, who was considered the greatest head of production at MGM, when he told Louis B. Mayer, "The most important guys in the business are the writers - and we must never let them know.")

Cut to twenty years later, writers are still making 4 cents per DVD, so we went into these negotiations saying we wanted that to go up to 8 cents. Plus, there's this new thing called the internet, or interweb, or webbernet, or something like that, which is starting to stream massive amounts of movies, TV shows, etc., and is only likely to get bigger, maybe killing TV altogether - and writers don't get a nickel for anything they've written that ends up on your laptop. So during the current negotiations, the AMPTP said look, it's an unknown medium, they might go broke trying to develop it (sound familiar?) - so they're not going to pay writers anything at all for movies or TV shows that get distributed online. And not only that, they decided they were going to roll back the old TV and film model as well, so the writer was not going to get any residual in any medium until the studio showed a profit on that show or movie. HAH! Ever hear of Hollywood accounting? My two favorite examples are that the movie Titanic (which has grossed billions and was made for 300 million) is still in the red, on the books; as is the TV show The Simpsons. Under the studio proposal, no writer would have gotten any residual money for either of those.

But the most annoying aspect of all this - which reflects the tone of the entire corporate mentality during the reign of the Bush monarchy - is the unapologetic greed of the corporate owners. Writers collectively now get 55 million bucks a year in residuals for everything. If the studios gave us everything additional we were asking for now, that would go up to 75 million. That extra 20 million distributed among all the studios and networks comes out to about one million per year per corporation, to cover all writers' residuals. Viacom's annual revenue is 18 billion, with a B, and its top execs make about 60 million apiece annually.

Anyway, that's more or less where talks stalled. At the very end, the AMPTP took their ridiculous "only after we show a profit" demand off the table, and the WGA took its 8% DVD demand off the table, and also took 9 of 25 other demands off the table, so the only real hurdle was the internet issue - we wanted to get paid for internet distribution, they said no, writers had to do that for free.

In the end, the money is important, but I think psychologically it all comes back to Irving Thalberg - writers get no respect. All those executives and development people who do so little to add to the process need to feel superior to somebody, and writers are it. We invite it on ourselves to a certain extent. Every writer I know goes back and forth between feeling "Hey, I'm pretty good," and "What ever meade me think I could write? I'm a complete fraud, and any minute everybody is going to find out." I don't think executives ever have those moments of doubt. But they seize on that glassy-eyed stare in writers, who were always the unpopular kids in high school to begin with, and leverage it into being the power clique. It's just high school all over again. But now the currency is actual money instead of who gets asked to the prom.

So I just came back from my first picket line since Viet Nam and Civil Rights. It was really fun. 3000 writers were staked out in front of all the studios. About a hundred of us were carrying signs (My favorite is a bolt of lightning, at the tip of which is a pen nib splattering blood on a page, with the words WRITERS STRIKE!!) in front of Universal Studios. A few people from Screen Actors Guild and the Teamsters joined the line, and it was almost too noisy to talk because most of the cars driving by kept honking in support. It's a writer-friendly town, except for the guys who hire us.

I'd been hoping for songs from the old days. ("There once was a Union maid, who never was afraid, of goons and ginks and company finks, and deputy sheriffs who made the raid. She went to the union hall, when a meeting it was called, and when the Legion boys come round, she always stood her ground. Ohhhh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union..." Etc. Or: "I thought I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me. Says I to Joe, 'You're ten years dead.' 'I never died,' says he.") There was, however, lots of shouting movie lines. Like from "300." ("This is where we hold them! This is where we fight! Today no Spartan dies!")

My favorite moment on the line: An executive pulled out of Universal in an EV-1, the electric car, and had to stop at the red light at one of the corners we occupied. The strike captain ran up to him enthusiastically, said, "I love your car, man, what's it like to drive?" The executive just kept staring straight ahead. The strike captain said, "It's electric, right? Where do you recharge? I want to get one!" The executive just kept staring straight ahead. Strike captain: "Come on, man, roll down your window, talk to me." The executive rolled his window down two inches and muttered, "I can't talk to you. This is all being filmed." The light turned, and he drove off. We all looked around, and sure enough, we found a hidden camera, no doubt documenting us all with face-scan ID technology, for future reprisals. But the strike captain was unfazed. He faced the camera full frontal, dropped his pants, and said "I hope you guys have a really big lens." And then others behind him shouting, "I am Spartacus!" "No, I am Spartacus!"

Anyway, by the end of the day, writers had gone out to several location shoots as well, and made so much street noise the company had to shut down production. Local cops were looking the other way, too. Unfortunately it's all fun and games now, but it looks to me like it's going to be long and ugly. About 4 or 5 months into the strike, this man-the-barricades sentiment is going to turn bitter. For one thing, the whole L.A. economy gets hit - copy shops, restaurants, car dealerships, even Starbucks may have to downsize to two shops per block. And if the L.A. real estate market looks bad now, wait until Hollywood's out of work for half a year.

So last week I started writing a novel. I figure it's better than working for a living. (See? There I go again, inviting disdain by denigrating the very thing I want valued. It was always a joke in TV that when people were obsessing about some line or scene, someone would say Relax, it's not heart surgery. But I'm here to tell you, I've done heart surgery in the emergency room, and although it took a lot of skill and training, it wasn't anywhere near as hard as sitting in front of a blank page and willing myself to invent something from whole cloth and shape it day after day for weeks until it emerged as something that could be produced and watched and even enjoyed. Maybe by someone lying in a hospital bed praying to be transported out of his pain and suffering, who would gladly give me 8 cents to watch my DVD.)

In any case, that's the way it is at Strike Central. The L.A. City Council today voted a Resolution that they would like the strike to end. (Come on, kids, play nice.) More updates as they occur. I thought I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me - but it was in black and white on Turner Classics, so the writer didn't get paid for the broadcast.

The pen is mightier than the... not sure what right now. But I'll keep scribbling.

James Kahn


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