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The WGA Strike: Striking Back at Writers and Producers

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Say what you will about this strike, the validity of the demands, the inflexible stance of the management, but right now both sides are childishly stamping their feet because they didn’t get a pudding for desert. My difficulty is not over the issue, money, but over how each side has been trying weasel their way into it. It’s like both sides brought a seven layer dip of stupid to the party.

I’m no expert when it comes to the contractual dealings, negotiating profit sharing, settlements or Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) rules. I’m looking into this problem with the eyes of the audience they produce for. And I know it’s a lot to ask that common sense be used in such a situation but there are plenty of lawyers involved so things could get a little sketchy.

The writers are complaining that they aren’t getting their fair share of profits from the shows they write, particularly from DVD sales and Internet broadcasts. Since producers haven’t sufficiently appeased them, they’ve gone on strike, which they have been announcing for the better part of a year. Producers, who have been enjoying a renaissance of television popularity, want to maintain a stranglehold on the profits even though DVD sales and Internet distribution have come into their own, so they didn’t cut the writers into Internet broadcasting or up the writers' take of DVD sales.

I agree that the writers should get paid a fair share, and perhaps even be given a bonus if the show is a hit, but demanding that this money come from DVD sales and Internet broadcasts doesn’t jive with me. As an analog consider the following. An amusement park hires an engineering firm to build them a new roller coaster. They agree on a contract, sign off, and the coaster is built. Now, the ride becomes a success and millions of people are going to the amusement park for this particular coaster and buying pictures of the terrifying final dive as souvenirs. Does the amusement park owe the engineering firm a slice of admissions or picture sales generated because of their roller coaster? No, but maybe they do.

To my knowledge, the writers already get a slice of the DVD sales. Considering that this market has recently helped some failing shows gain an audience and even resurrect shows from the grave, they seem to have a point if it comes to an ethical point of view, but contractually, they’ve sold their work and they’ve been paid the amount agreed upon. As brutal as that sounds, they have a union to negotiate terms of contracts and extras to keep their paying members from being exploited.

The WGA isn’t some penny-ante union, they own Hollywood! Neither of these media have just popped up, both have been viable means of distribution since the turn of the millennium. They’ve had seven years to come to terms with this problem; what’s the deal?

Though Internet broadcasting may be uncharted waters, isn’t the value of the show derived from how much sponsors or advertisers pay? What’s the obstacle to applying such a system to Internet broadcasting?

But this is hardly a union-busting article; the producers are just as poorly organized. They are the gate keepers when it comes to the money. They’re in the game to make as much as they can but we’re talking about amounts of money where a transaction of plus or minus a couple million dollars doesn’t shift profit margins by 1%. Why not take that 1% of the money and satiate your employees so they don’t halt production? Of course the reason they don’t is that they only have to fulfill their contracts, and while it’s not wrong it’s far from equitable.

It’s also unbelievable that the producers are acting like it’s not their fault that the union went on strike. Who else is to blame? The writers for feeling underpaid as studios pull in billions of dollars of profit annually? If the producers are vehemently against showing flexibility to a new profit structure, why not go outside the union and hire other people? It’s not like the studios are required to employ union writers.

It seems to me that both parties need a kick in the pants, even though they both have legitimate claims. Fence sitting is a precarious position, but that’s where I am about this ordeal. I say ordeal, but really it’s just an inconvenience.

There are scheduled meetings after Thanksgiving weekend, but since there is no real rush to get back to work, neither side is going to budge. Viewer complaints to the networks will probably get this ball rolling, but since there is a backlog of scripts and plenty of shows being filmed, it may take a while.

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About Danny Smooth

  • Andrew

    I agree on some of your points, specificaly that both sides are not acting in the best manner to resolve the issue at hand. However I do feel that the studios were given ample time to make some kind of negotiation and prevent the Strike. However from what I have observed it appears they did not even take the threats seriously mostly because of the last time the WGA threatened a strike and did not do so.

  • http://scottpeterson.typepad.com/ scott

    As brutal as that sounds, they have a union to negotiate terms of contracts and extras to keep their paying members from being exploited.

    Right. And when that union isn’t able to get a deal it considers fair–and keep in mind that this is all happening now because their current contract was up as of Halloween–then it calls a strike. As it has.

    If the producers are vehemently against showing flexibility to a new profit structure, why not go outside the union and hire other people? It’s not like the studios are required to employ union writers.

    And who’s going to act? The Screen Actors Guild has supported the WGA and its strike one hundred percent. In fact, one reason so many shows ceased shooting so much earlier than anticipated was that even though the producers had stockpiled scripts, as soon as the writers called a strike, many of the actors refused to cross the picket line.

    Because they get exactly what this is all about. It’s hard not to. The writers want an increase in royalties per DVD sold, since the previous rate was set back in 1988, when home videos were new (and expensive), and the writers agreed to a cut-rate percentage, in an attempt to help grow the bidniz.

    Now, it’s safe to say, watching videos at home is pretty securely established. So the writers would like a tiny bit more reward for their hard work.

    All the way up to eight cents per DVD.

    That’s right. A whopping eight cents per DVD.

    Heavens to Mergatroid! $.08 per DVD?! No wonder the studios are freaking out!

  • Seth Winston

    Please do not write columns about subjects you know absolutely
    nothing about. “The WGA isn’t some penny-ante union, they own Hollywood!” I’m a member of the WGA. Not only do writers not own Hollywood, we don’t even own our own screenplays. We cannot sell a screenplay or get paid for it without first signing a contract that makes the studio the LEGAL AUTHOR of the material we have written. This standard contract also states, and I am not making this up — They own the screenplay in perpetuity, in the known and unknown universe, and in all media (which they list), or any media which will ever be
    invented.

    Secondly, we are not asking for eight cents per DVD, we are asking for FOUR cents per DVD. We are currently getting two cents per DVD.

    And your roller coaster analogy does not apply here. In the music business, any time a song is played or used, the writer of the song receives royalties. In book publishing, the writer receives a royalty based on the number of books sold. And so it is the same with movie and television writers. And, I might add, with movie and television actors and directors. An amusement park operator only receives money when people come to the amusement park. Studios and TV networks have many, many different outlets to make money off their movies and shows. They make money off their product all over the world, and will continue to make money off these productions for many years to come. So, please, sir, kindly refrain from analyzing a very unique and specialized business that you do not understand from 6,000 miles away.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    The longer your article went, the more accurate your line “I’m no expert…” became. One example:

    “The WGA isn’t some penny-ante union, they own Hollywood!”

    If they owned Hollywood, they would set the terms, not have to fight for them.

  • Peter

    Congratulations Dan! In the many, many blogs, articles and postings I’ve read about this subject, you have managed to come across as the most ignorant, ill-informed and yet judgemental. It’s hard to know where to begin in commenting on your comments, suffice to say that I reccommend that before your next rant, that you go and find out what residuals are and why they exist, what the core dispute is about (new media, not DVD sales) and the logic of your ludicrous analogy about amusement parks. And as for your point ‘Isn’t the value of the show derived from how much sponsors or advertisers pay?’, this is the very fight the writers – those people you hilariously characterising as ‘owning Hollywood’, – are having! No doubt your response to my points would be ‘Hey, I’m just speaking the mind of the average viewer.’ But if you read into recent polls (obviously you haven’t) you’d know that 69% of viewers were on our side and, I would guess, a bit better informed than you. We have an expression in my home country, the UK: ‘Engage brain before putting mouth in to gear’. PS, yes, I’m one of those pesky ‘Hollywood-owning’ writers, still ‘childishly stamping my feet’ for more than a zero share of the money made from sale of the work that I create.

  • http://www.marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    since the writers are being backed by the actors, it seems that at some point, concessions will have to be made.

    it seems fair to me. i mean, just look at how the execs have crowed about the future of the internet for their distribution..how it will mean millions (if not billions) of dollars. then, when the writers say they should get a cut of internet distribution, the response is “oh no, this is just promotion”. right…but then when somebody downloads their content it’s ‘piracy’.

    they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth here.

  • http://www.lifeartlovegod.blogspot.com cory

    Wow. No personal attacks people.

    Seriously though, the article displays some serious lapses in knowledge. Television is hardly experiencing a renaissance. Some television stations are experiencing a year-on-year negative growth as high as 9%.

    Other people have mentioned your obvious ignorance of how royalties/residuals work. I won’t go into that here.

    Perhaps the average viewer doesn’t understand the intricacies of the strike issue, but the average person can understand that the $.03 – $.05 per DVD that writers are earning seems rather out of whack. That doesn’t even begin to cover the mess that comes out when we look at the fact that writers make nothing from online downloads and streaming.

  • Sir Momo

    The roller coaster example doesn’t work. Here’s why:

    Firstly, writers create intellectual property. So they aren’t just the builders.

    So let’s say you mean architects. No, you don’t get some money every time someone uses this ride. But if they sell off your design to make the same roller coaster in every theme park in the world I think you deserve some compensation for those new roller coasters.

    In the same way, writers don’t get some money every time someone watches a DVD but every time a new product is created from their creation intellectucal property they deserve to be compensated.

  • bliffle

    Maybe if the writers wages were raised significantly we would get better TV programs. As it is, the story is often so lame that one ends up watching the pretty pictures, on HDTV anyway, otherwise hit the OFF button.

  • http://draven99.blogspot.com Chris Beaumont

    It will be interesting to see how far this strike goes. There is talk that SAG will strike when their contract is up next year (July?). Imagine if both were on strike at the same time? There is the possibility it could go that long.

    FWIW I am completely on the side of the writers.