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Dax Phelan
Director , Producer , Screenwriter
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The WGA Strike: "Why the Striking Writers Are Right"

"Why the Striking Writers Are Right"By Mark HarrisThe Writers Guild of America is a hard union to love, even for many of its members. Anybody who has spent time in a roomful of writers knows that getting them to agree on anything is a fool's errand. Fill that room with 12,000 people, and you have a fractious alliance that has, at times, barely been on speaking terms with itself. The WGA, long known as the guild that can't even unite its East and West coasts, has always been something of a mess, and its handling of the run-up to the strike that started on Nov. 5 has been met with some justifiable criticism. It's not easy to reconcile the needs of TV showrunners (who are essentially both labor and management), movie screenwriters (who are pure labor), young writers, old hands living off residuals, a few people who make a great living and a lot of people who don't, all within the scope of a single contract. And this year's WGA negotiating team started off on a bad foot, packing 25 years of resentment about lousy deals to which their own predecessors had acquiesced into a list of new demands meant to rectify old injustices.

While they were doing that, the producers, with breathtaking dishonesty, worked a press corps that remains all too willing to live in their back pockets, portraying writers as ungrateful millionaire princelings. As this nonsense was taking root, the WGA bobbled any real chance of coordinating its efforts with other guilds, spent months talking tough while making it easy for the networks to live without writers by helping them stockpile scrīpts, and failed to make their own strong case to journalists until they hit the picket line. As negotiators and strategists, they're not geniuses. Many commentators have compared the WGA to the Democratic Party, and like the Dems, the Guild is a loose coalition of people whose shared interests are only occasionally strong enough to counterbalance their sharp internal divisions. But (also like the Dems), they're capable of summoning a surprisingly united front in the face of a common foe. They've now done just that.

It's a shame that the WGA so neglected its own image in the weeks leading up to the strike, since it has led too many observers to embrace the laziest kind of neutrality — a position that sneers at the hyperbole of both sides, and in so doing suggests that the writers and producers are somehow equally far from reason — that a magical midpoint of compromise could be found if everyone would just calm down. That's not what's going on here. The writers may be conflicted and prickly, but they're also right. The studios and networks are wrong. And yes, when you strip everything else away, it really is that simple.

Complaints about tactics, timing, and the problematic personalities at the negotiating table shouldn't obscure the fact that the position of the AMPTP (the producers' negotiating alliance) has been, and remains, ethically indefensible on the two issues that matter most — residuals and new media. Let's look at residuals first. Currently, for every dollar spent on a DVD, writers receive about one-third of a penny. They would like, instead, to receive about two-thirds of a penny. The AMPTP's first response to this was to waste weeks by advocating a complete abolition of the residual system. Why, they argued, should writers get paid for their work after it's released? Studio chiefs who are smart enough to know better even hauled out a tired old maxim attributed to the late MCA titan Lew Wasserman — ''My plumber doesn't charge me every time I flush the toilet'' — and repeated it in perfect Karl Rove everybody-stay-on-message lockstep.

Ugh. Lines like that give you a taste of what the entertainment world will be like if management ends up doing its own writing. Not to belabor an already disgusting analogy, but writers — and directors and actors, who have their own renegotiations coming up — aren't the plumber: They're the water. Without them, nothing goes anywhere, and you end up with a toilet full of...well, let's just say ''reruns.''

In making this argument, the AMPTP blithely ignored a century of copyright law that grants creative writers in every other field — novelists, composers, lyricists, playwrights — ongoing income from their work based on its sales. The studios and networks claim that the difference is that writers for film and TV don't hold copyrights to their own work. That's a fair legal distinction, but a morally illegitimate one, since writers for movies and television do the same kind of work, face the same kind of chronically unsteady income, and depend in the same way on income from good years to tide them through bad ones.If you run a company that produces written entertainment, you either believe that writers have value, or you don't. If you do, the only decent thing to do is to recognize the legitimacy of paying writers a percentage — yes, a whole two-thirds of a penny — as long as the companies that own their work continue to derive income from it. What's

decent is to have spent valuable negotiating time floating a specious theory of big-picture bullcrap about how the residual system is ''antiquated'' without offering any alternative compensation in its place. (Since the producers abruptly dropped this idea, one has to wonder if it was ever raised as anything other than a thuggish scare/stalling tactic in the first place.)

Oddly, the same executives who speak with absolute authority about the horrifying injustice of paying residuals seem to turn into bewildered children, lost in a fogbound forest and helpless to see even two feet ahead, when they confront the other big issue: income from streaming video, new media, and the Internet. Writers, like everybody else with a brain and a computer, have figured out that this is where a large chunk of the future of movie and TV revenue resides, and they want a piece of it. To which the producers have essentially responded:

Never mind that these same executives have, for years, vigorously pursued deals to put their content on the Internet, acquire websites, and sell advertising for both original and repurposed programming. (Why? To , in case anyone is unclear.) Suddenly, when the people who write that material ask for a share, they go all fuzzyheaded. One of AMPTP's demands has been a three-year period to study the economic viability of new media. You read that right: . If any studio honcho can keep a straight face while uttering the phrase ''three-year study,'' I'll fork over...at least two-thirds of a penny. What's the breakdown — one year to figure out the cash flow, one year to count the money, and one year to decide which lie to tell the writers?

The problem with this position is that writers deserve a share of revenue for material they help to create.

a share only if the revenue is really, really a lot. A share, period. If it turns out that streaming video is a goldmine, then both sides will get a lot of money. If it turns out not to be, they'll get less. Corporations are fond of reminding their employees that they're all a ''family'' during tough times. But when families sit down to dinner, Dad doesn't get to say, ''I'm gonna eat until I decide I'm full, and then we'll see if there's anything left for the rest of you.'' The right of a writer to earn money from work that continues to generate revenue cannot be dependent on how comfy studio and network heads are with the fullness of their own coffers.

The producers' alliance disagrees. They've put their game faces on for a months-long strike that could devastate the economic lives not just of writers but of any workers whose jobs vanish when a lack of scrīpts shuts down the production that employs them. AMPTP's position is that it can outlast the writers, and it probably can. But why should people in the business of making and selling creative product evince such contempt for the people who make that product possible? Do these gentlemen, some of whom are active and vigorous fundraisers for the Democratic Party, know what the Democrats think of corporate fat cats that try to starve out unions? In this strike, management may yet get what it wants — but only by pursuing it with callousness, greed, and disdain for the people who create the work without which their companies wouldn't exist. It's hard to respect anyone who wants to win that way.

Whatever else happens, it's time for both sides to start talking again. Nikki Finke, who has covered the negotiations with more zeal and specificity than any major media outlet on her Deadline Hollywood Daily blog, has recently suggested that the level of acrimony between the negotiators has never been higher. If it's true that the people on either side of the bargaining table are now so at odds that dialogue is impossible, then they should step away and be replaced with people whose interest is not in posturing or bullying, but in negotiating a fair settlement. And the first move ought to come from the producers: As always in a labor dispute, real negotiations begin only when management commits to the principle of treating its employees with respect and fairness. If the producers can't do that, then the future that the studios and networks pretend is too murky to discuss is going to become a lot clearer — and a lot uglier.

about 12 years ago 0 likes  10 comments  0 shares
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The 'murky future' is a path currently being trodden by the music industry (a 30 year long path on which we've only trodden halfway). And as you said - this strike is more about righting old wrongs. A waste of time if you ask me. The studios are already dragging thier feet when it comes to the internet, it's the best time for the WGA to get thier wishes & wants laid down in stone before the new model gets put into place.
about 12 years ago
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G H
Looks like a satisfactory resolution to this matter is not going to come easy... do you think it may take a couple of years, before a final decision is made? So, will writers eventually be entitled to a "set" percentage of what they produce? When will the policies be finalised? I tried the "Deadline Hollywood Daily" blog link, but it didn't work for me... =/
about 12 years ago
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not even asking for multiple pennies, sigh....I don't understand why most tv/movie writers don't get the recognition they deserve. Most people can name actors, directors, and producers in the business, but the writers seem to get continually shat on. I probably don't know 1 person that could name a successful script writer :\ I hope you guys get what you're going for!
about 12 years ago
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Very informative Clever Maxim .....''My plumber doesn't charge me every time I flush the toilet'' to put forward against the writers WOW what a sophisticated and intelligent argument.....Do they really say that? Funny how the management can chose to play dumb when it suits them- but again it all comes down to money and who can keep and make the most. Writers have a hard enough job making people look funny and intelligent which in some cases you can't put a price on. Hopefully both sides will come together and a solution can be sought. Wishing all the writers the best of luck.
about 12 years ago
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Good read. Aversion is not the answer. The two sides definitely need to come to the table and start talking. It would seem any resolution will come about slowly and painfully at this point.
about 12 years ago
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thanks for the message, I hope the reason prevails soon and you can return to make what you like, be with your dear beings and write, my support and regards.
about 12 years ago
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This is the thing I don't get, I mean it is true that novelists and the like receive ongoing royalities from their work, so what is the difference in what a screen writer does, how can management use the argument of a plumber and toilet, that's just a bigger slap to the face of the writers. Like with most things in life, the important support on a bridge is not realised until it's gone, and the bridge no longer exists for people to use...not quite sure where I heard this but it makes good sense for this scenario. I hope the writers get what they deserve, and management realise just who it is that is keeping their bridge strong.
about 12 years ago
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Although there is a danger that the studios will just hire in-house writers (under a different job title... and face it, the entertainment industry has no scruples) to continue making content while everyone else & the WGA waits for a resolution. Unfortunately, screen-writers have fallen into the same employment category as magazine journalists or factory workers. They manufacture product, and have no claim over revenue generated by that product. When & how the hell that happened, I have no idea!!!
about 12 years ago
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Been following the strike for a long time and it's a sad thing to see as it affects a lot of people. I hope you don't mind if I post a short plug for www.fans4writers...they're compiling a whole slew of links of strike coverage from varying perspectives as well as information on how fans can show their support or help out people affected by the strike.
about 12 years ago
Lady detective with caption
Dax, Well thought out piece. As I tell actors about playing believable characters. "Real People always think they are right and everyone else is wrong." What happened to the philosophy that everybody wins but nobody wins everything? When they use the Wasserman line — ''My plumber doesn't charge me every time I flush the toilet'' I would love to retort , "but the plumber didn't build the toilet bowl out of nothing, nurture it for years, pay for the water, and watch someone take and turn it into something I didn't recognize!" thanks for the thoughts and knowledge. Jeanne/ ActorsDetective
about 12 years ago

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