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TOPIC: What does the strike mean to you??

What does the strike mean to you?? 12 Nov 2007 12:03 #16532

By David DuBos, WGAE Member

What the Strike Means to Me…

November 5, 2007 1:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Any Producer looking for equal time?

Lately, there’s been a flurry of activity going on in New York and Los Angeles. Members of the Writers Guild on both coasts have struck and have, as I write this, managed to successfully shut down at least 6 television shows in addition to the late night lineup of Letterman, Leno, Conan, Kimmel and Craig; additionally, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and others are stopping production. Soap operas are next, followed by more television shows until it eventually reaches the outer limits of the entertainment empire: Theatrical Films.

Monday’s strike is the first sea change in what could lead to a massive tidal wave of work stoppage in the entertainment industry. It could last months, layoff thousands of workers, and in the long run cost the industry well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. And all for what, you ask?

8 cents.

Never have so many been struck down, literally, by so little.

What is the WGA?

During the past few tumultuous days, I have been contacted by several media outlets, friends, business associates, and long-lost acquaintances who are concerned for my general well being. While I’m flattered by the initial attention, the talk turns to the dreaded words “Writer’s Strike” which sends shivers more up their spines than mine. They don’t understand this because they don’t understand exactly what the Writer’s Guild does.

When I explain to them that the Guild does not act as an employment agency, and that in actuality they have little or no effect on my hiring as a screenwriter, they become mystified. What good then, is this Writer’s Guild, they ask? I tell them that the Guild is, in effect, policing the studios, distributors, and production companies who profit off of my writing; they make sure that when money changes hands, that my hand is included, down the road anyway, in the form of residual payments.

They also step in when more than one writer is involved in the making of a motion picture or television show and conduct an arbitration to make sure each writer is given a fair shot at achieving what most writers crave, which is proper credit equivalent to their work input.

That essentially is what the Writer’s Guild does. Personally, I prefer to think of them as the gentle giant, the largest of your friends you had in grammar school, the one who protected you from the school bully. For the thousands of writers who make a living or even semi-living from their craft, nowadays, truer words have never been written.

I hate to paint such a black and white picture of the skirmish that has erupted between the Guild and the AMPTP, i.e., the Producers Guild who represents the studios. But the facts are the facts. And I’m about to lay them all out for you.

Residual Payments

This is one of the Major Sticking Points in the negotiations. The Writer’s Guild wants to increase the DVD residual formula from 4 cents to 8 cents on the average DVD sale.

Let’s really put this into perspective, folks. We’re talking on a typical VHS or DVD (your garden variety one you get at your favorite retail store) that the writer is paid 8 cents. To put it into percentages, the WGA is proposing doubling the residual payment from its original 0.3% to 0.6% on the first $1 million in reportable gross. Anything over $1 million, the WGA is asking that the fee increase from 0.6% to 0.72%.

In other words, as I read (and calculate) this, on a $1 million dollar DVD gross, the writer would be paid $6,000. On a $2 million dollar DVD gross, the writer would be paid $14,400. Of course, consider for the moment that this residual money doesn’t come all at once. It may take a year or two for that money to arrive, so divide that money by 4 or by 8 and you have an idea of the kind of paltry residuals that trickle in.

But this formula applies IF the AMPTP accepts the WGA offer, which thus far, they have vehemently refused to, sticking instead to the old formula of 0.3% for the first $1 million gross and an increase to 0.36% over the $1 million gross.

Bear in mind that the original formula is taken from an old agreement between the AMPTP and the WGA back when videocassettes were just starting out as a new income stream for studios. Of course, everyone knows now that home video has been supplanted by DVD and the costs of manufacturing and distributing films in this format have become negligible resulting in a high profit margin for the studios. Back then, the studios expressed that they “needed more time” to study this new business model so since then, nothing’s been adjusted. That was a long time ago.

How long, you ask?

22 years.

Think about that. 22 years ago, Ronald Reagan was serving his second term as President, Phil Collins and Huey Lewis were on top of the charts (along with a new singer called Madonna) and Oprah Winfrey was still just a local talk show host. I’m talking a long time ago, folks.

22 years…That’s enough time to have a baby, watch it grow up, attend all of its schooling and graduate. Hey, guys, are you through studying that new business model yet?

And still, the producers and studios are complaining about this increase.

But it gets worse.

You’ve heard of this thing called the Internet? Of course you have. But listening to the AMPTP, you’d swear the Internet was invented yesterday because, believe it or not, Ripley, they want to use the old 22 year formula of 0.3% to apply to all new media including the Internet and cellular technology. Mind you, that’s what the AMPTP is proposing.

As of now, writers earn a grand total of zero dollars on any movie or television show that is downloaded or steamed across the Internet.

Meanwhile, according to studies done by the WGA, the studios have generated billions in revenue from downloaded and streamed films and television shows.

The WGA is countering with the very valid notion that, for all intents and purposes, the Internet is television, which means that the rules of the Minimum Basic Agreement (or MBA) for pay TV and basic cable should apply to content that is either streamed or downloaded over the Internet. Translated, the WGA is asking for a residual payment of 2.5% of the distributor’s gross for any theatrical film or television show, that is streamed or downloaded via the Internet or through cellular technology.

Again, the producers and studios are balking.

There are other issues on the table, but these two seem to be the thorniest ones in the side of the AMPTP. They refuse to budge but so do the WGA and its membership. Salvos have been fired by both sides; the WGA claims the producers are taking advantage of them while the AMPTP fires back that the “average” writer makes well over $200,000 a year.

What does the average producer make, I wonder? I know for a fact that I don’t make nearly that much and I have an income tax return to prove it.

By making such outrageous (and unprovable) statements, the AMPTP is really showing their ignorance but what I believe is really on their minds is something more nefarious. By denying residuals (which makes up anywhere from 30% to 50% of a writer’s income), they are eliminating the writer’s middle class, and creating a caste system in the Guild that may one day become the real dividing line of haves and have-nots. I’m sure they would love for that to happen resulting in a broken Guild.

Let’s face it. There will always be the very successful screenwriters and television writers who can command high salaries. And God Bless ‘em for it. That leaves the rest of us who can eke out a living doing what we love most and hope that one day we can join the ranks of our more successful brethren. But in the interim, we need that residual income to get us over the periods of inactivity or unemployment.

What’s Really at Stake

This brings me to what may be, as Don Henley once sang, the heart of the matter. I was once told by a respected screenwriter that a producer wouldn’t dare tell a cinematographer how to do his job, or a production designer, or an editor, or even an actor.

But he has no qualms about telling a writer how to do his job because hey, even a producer knows the alphabet.

Writers are respected everywhere except in Hollywood. Playwrights, novelists, essayists, even film critics get more props than screenwriters. I don’t know why because the craft of screenwriting is difficult; it’s not easy to connect the dots in a three-act structure and come up with charismatic characters reciting believable dialogue, all wrapped up in a story that will hopefully entertain and engage millions of moviegoers.

But in today’s age with special effects replacing dialogue, where “MTV-style” has actually become an acceptable part of the editorial lexicon, and where it’s considered passe to put a camera on a tripod, is it any wonder that the old-fashioned notion of telling a story through character and dialogue has become, well, outdated? The writer and their screenplay have become just a mere blueprint on which to hang more style and a lot less substance.

Is it really a mystery then why producers want to pay writers less for their work?

To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, a good writer is hard to find. And most of us like to think we are good; maybe we aren’t all the millionaires that the producers and studios make us out to be. But we deserve better and we deserve more. Not a lot more, mind you, just a small sliver of that profit pie that has made the AMPTP the fat cats they are.

What does the strike mean to you??

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Re: What does the strike mean to you?? 13 Nov 2007 02:21 #16533

  • Ken Layton
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It means that it's time to move production to Mexico and hire all non-union people.

The studios are balking because the unions have been taking too much away from everything to make it unprofitable. I think this is the straw that broke that camel's back. Besides the writers are cranking the same tired old crap and remakes of remakes anyway.
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Re: What does the strike mean to you?? 13 Nov 2007 02:25 #16534

  • slapintheface
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more reruns on tv ..short term good for movies...
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Re: What does the strike mean to you?? 13 Nov 2007 11:32 #16535

  • rodeojack
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I've got to admit I don't know much more about this stuff than what I'm seeing on TV. Considering that the writers' residuals were developed pre-DVD and internet, it doesn't seem unreasonable that they be fairly compensated for their work. I find interesting the formulas that pay these people less per item when they write something really successful. Seems like something's wrong there. In any case, if DVD and internet sales aren't included, as the stories I hear indicate, an update seems reasonable to me.

On the other hand, the stagehands' deal seems out of control to me. How do you justify a situation where a fixed number of people are required at a production, regardless whether there's actually work for them to do? A story on the news last night said that the AVERAGE salary for a stagehand is $150,000 per year. Granted, that may be in New York, where the money might be worth half that, but GEEZ! No independent employer I know would stand for a situation like that. If this is what it means to be a union shop, I can see why there's so much grief over there.
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Re: What does the strike mean to you?? 13 Nov 2007 15:33 #16536

  • Avco
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Not because of this strike. But the studios are set to lose around $2 Billion, because of costs of production now. Everyone want a bigger cut of the pie.
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Re: What does the strike mean to you?? 13 Nov 2007 20:45 #16537

Then they better start making bigger pies!
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