GUEST PERSPECTIVE: Footsoldiers on the Frontlines

Over the last three weeks, we’ve seen a lot of familiar (and famous) faces walking the picket lines and supporting the writers: Sandra Oh, Steve Carell, Alyson Hannigan, Paul Haggis, Jesse Jackson, Katherine Heigl, Alicia Keyes, Greg Daniels, Tina Fey.  And while it’s great to see the A-listers out there fighting the good fight, the truth is: most of the people on the frontlines aren’t top-shelf writers, producers, and showrunners.  Many are normal, middle-class writers fighting to put food on their families’ tables.  But even more are struggling writers who don’t work regularly, who live paycheck to paycheck, and for whom losing even one of two months of work can be disastrous to a hopeful career.

These are the people we rarely hear from.  Their lives aren’t glamourous.  They don’t live in million-dollar houses or condos (most don’t own homes at all).  Their agents aren’t calling every twenty minutes.  They’re still pounding the pavement, hoping for a break.  And while the outcome streak may not affect them immediately, they’re still there– side by side with the big-guns– fighting for the rights of writers everywhere.

Today’s guest perspective comes from screenwriter Charlie Stickney.  You probably haven’t heard of him… yet… but when the strike’s over, and you get that next residual check, you can give him a bit of thanks…

Heart racing, the alarm jolted me awake.  Five A.M. W-why?  What would possess me to set the alarm for… oh right, time to go walk the line.  I threw on my good jeans – only one hole in the knee – and stumbled down to my wife’s 87 Nissan (my car doesn’t run anymore, but that’s a sad story best left for a guest blog on Car Talk) and motored over to Fox.  I grabbed a picket sign and started marching. The crisp 58 degrees made me shiver, my LA acclimated skin betraying my New England roots. One of my fellow marchers muttered out loud the question that I’m sure was going through all of our collective heads – Why are we putting ourselves through all this?  For me, the answer is simple, I’m a screenwriter, a WGA member and I’m on strike.

Oh the strike, it’s quickly becoming a four letter word around town. The AMPTP would have you view the (insert favorite explicit adjective) strike as a battle between the billionaires and the millionaires.  Why? Public relations.  Because it’s hard for most people to have sympathy for someone fighting to be able to afford a summer home in the Hamptons, or make sure that their 10 year-old can get unlimited texting on his 8 gig iphone.  The baseball strike of ’94 made it abundantly clear, no one likes to hear rich people whining regardless of how just their struggles are.

Well, I’m a working writer and as it turns out, no matter how much my wife wishes it were the case, I’m not rich.  I’m not a billionaire, I’m not a millionaire, or even *sigh* a thousandaire. Not through lack of trying mind you, but regardless of what you’ve seen WRITTEN (subtle, no?) in the movies, it’s not always that easy.

I wrote a feature that was set up with an independent film company in Europe.  They convinced my manager that they had the money to go into production in about a month…  that was two years ago. Unfortunately for me the commencement of payment coincides with, surprise, surprise, the commencement of shooting.

I worked in children’s programming where I created an animated series that’s been and still is shown all over the world. But unlike regular television where this would have netted me a small fortune, most daytime animation isn’t covered by the Writers Guild, thus doesn’t pay any of those magic residuals everyone’s fighting for.

I even worked with one of the struck AMPTP companies.  A script I wrote was optioned and developed by Sony through Revolution Studios.  Then Revolution hired another writer to develop it further. And then another.  By the time the final draft was turned in, the script was unrecognizable, unproducible, and Revolution was spiraling out of business.

The truth is it’s really, REALLY tough to make it as a writer in Hollywood.
It’s also just as true that I haven’t had healthcare in two years… that I’ve made less than $10,000 writing in the past eighteen months… and that I have had to take time off of my part time job just to walk the line. 

I want this strike to be over as much as anyone.  A month before the strike I met with an A-list director, in a meeting set up by an A-list producer with the intention of the two of them packaging a script I wrote and taking it one of the studios for an A-list deal with an A-sized budget.  While not a lock, in the biz this is about as sure as a thing gets.  But it was all put on hold until the strike resolves.  And if the strike goes on for too long, who knows if the director or producer will still be interested in the project, or when I’ll ever get a chance like this again.  Still I feel the same now as when I voted for the strike, we need to see this through.

And the truth is seeing it through is tough.  I’m a writer without a nest-egg. I have a part time job that barely pays the bills. And these residuals that I’m fighting for, I may never get even if we win the strike. See most screenwriters make the bulk of their living doing uncredited rewrites of other people’s scripts for studios. Getting your own script made is the dream, but that rarely happens.  And unless you get credited on a script that’s produced you don’t qualify for dime-one in residuals.

So why am I out here walking the line?  Why am I not sitting at home working on a spec that I can hopefully sell once the strike resolves?  Why am I not letting the “millionaire” TV writers who stand to benefit most directly from the strike do the heavy lifting? Well, because of people like Ned.

Let’s go back to 6AM this morning, when I was shivering and doubting myself.   A tow truck with a gray BMW SUV perched on the back pulled up to the Fox’s delivery gate. A hand-lettered slogan on the side of the cab read “Ned Never Says No.”   Turns out “never” meant except for that morning.  See the driver (I’m gonna call him Ned) wouldn’t cross the line.  He parked his truck on Pico and sat in the turning lane for over two hours.  Inside the lot I’m sure some executive was fuming that his BMW wasn’t delivered on time.  Perhaps he called the company that Ned worked for and demanded Ned get fired.  Maybe Ned lost his job later that afternoon. (I hope not) I’ll never know… the only thing I’m sure of is that Ned understands unions.  He understands how important solidarity is and what it means not to cross the line. He knows that when we show a united front, that even the giant corporations behind the studios get nervous. 
The truth is while Ned isn’t going to be affected by the outcome of the strike, he put his job on the line for it. And while I may or may not ever make money from internet downloads, they definitely won’t help Ned put his kids through college. The only real question that I should have been pondering pre-sunrise was if Ned and the many teamsters like him are willing to stand up for us, how can we not stand up for ourselves?
So over this Thanksgiving weekend, I am grateful that the sides have agreed to meet again. I’m hopeful that we will be able to come to some quick accord and that everyone can get back to work.  But mostly I’m thankful for Ned who’s shown me that we’re all in this fight together. And if Ned’s willing to say no, how could any of us ever say yes.
Charlie can be found most mornings walking the line. He hopes that when (yes, when) this resolves,
the writers don’t forget all the teamsters who have stood with us. And, if they ever need our help, that we remember solidarity over the solitary life of a writer.

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