Perhaps its appropriate that this week is Writers Digest's official “Script Notes” kick-off, because it coincides with what hopes to be a new era for Hollywood screenwriters. Changes beginning this week affect every working screenwriter, director, actor and producer in modern entertainment… as well as aspiring screenwriters across the country. For those of you who aren’t sure what I’m talking about…Tomorrow—Monday, November 5, 2007—marks what will most likely be the first day in almost twenty years that Hollywood’s working TV and film writers have gone on strike, shutting off the spigot of scripts that feeds Tinseltown’s creative machine. That’s right… beginning tomorrow morning, unless there's a miracle, writers all across L.A. and New York will refuse to show up at their offices, instead joining picket lines outside every major network and studio, leaving virtually every major TV show—from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “All My Children” to “The Daily Show”—with no incoming scripts to shoot. They’ll also leave every major movie studio with a stack of unfinished projects.
The writers haven’t struck since 1988, when they shut down Hollywood for 22 weeks and inflicted close to $500 million of damage.
So why are they upset? What’s got them so angry they’re willing to shut down the industry? And why should you care?
Basically, the writers' contract with networks and studios expired last Wednesday, which means it's time for the WGA (the Writers Guild of America, the union representing all 12,000 of Hollywood's TV and film writers) to negotiate a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the organization representing Hollywood's multi-billion dollar networks and studios.
And because it's time for a new contract, writers have certain points they'd like to renegotiate. After all... nothing happens in Hollywood without writers. Actors have no lines to say. Directors have no shots to compose. Studios and networks have no products to sell. Yet writers continue to get paid far less than actors, directors, and-- of course-- networks and studios raking in billions of dollars a year.
There are 26 main points the WGA is attempting to negotiate, ranging from profit participation in DVD and download sales to fair working conditions in reality television.
The 5 biggest of these points are: internet residuals, original online content, streaming, home video/DVD residuals, and reality TV.
Here’s a quick primer on each of these issues…
• INTERNET RESIDUALS. Writers want to be paid larger “residuals,” or re-use fees, for movies and TV shows sold over the internet. Networks and studios estimate they’ll make almost $350 million dollars this year by selling TV shows and movies online. But right now, if a writer writes a movie or a TV episode—whether it’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “CSI”—studios don't have to pay him/her anything to re-distribute it online. In some special cases, studios have been paying writers 1.2$ residual of whatever the movie/episode makes online. But that’s it: 1.2%... and not everybody gets it. The writers want to make sure everyone gets paid, and they want the payment to be 2.5%. Studios are refusing.
• ORIGINAL ONLINE CONTENT. Writers also want to get paid for online content like the webisodes of “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica,” or the mobisodes (cell phone episodes) of “24.” But studios say these pieces are merely promotional and writers should write them for free to promote the original shows. Studios have, in a few instances, paid the writers... like the $800/two minutes paid to the writers of the "Lost" mobisodes. But in other cases-- like when "The Office" writers created a whole mini-season online last summer-- studios don't pay a dime.
• STREAMING. Writers want to be paid each time a studio streams a movie or TV show online… just like they’re paid when a network reruns an episode on regular television. But networks and studios claim they don’t make any money from streaming TV shows or movies… even though they charge advertisers thousands of dollars to place ads in them.
• HOME VIDEO AND DVD RESIDUALS. Writers want to double their home video/DVD residuals from .3% to .6%. In other words, they'd like a raise from the 4 cents per DVD they currently make (yes, you read that right-- 4 CENTS) to 8 cents per DVD.
• REALITY TV. Right now, there’s no union protecting “writers,” storytellers, and producers on reality shows… which means there are no pay minimums, no regulations on working conditions, no overtime, etc. It’s not unusual for reality workers to work 20-hour days with no overtime and no scheduled meal breaks. They also remain the lowest paid of all TV’s writers and producers… despite the fact that many primetime reality shows have profit margins far greater than those of scripted shows. Writers want to unionize reality to install fair and regulated pay scales, and decent working hours and conditions. Studios refuse, saying that paying reality writers and producers fair wages, including overtime, will make reality series too expensive to produce.
Although talks have been going on for months between the WGA and the AMPTP, the AMPTP refuses to even discuss any of the WGA’s main points. Networks and studios won’t even entertain a conversation about why these issues are upsetting writers.
So starting tomorrow morning, all across Hollywood, networks and studios will find themselves with no new material until they come to terms with writers’ wants.
Even if you’re not a Hollywood writer, the strike and its repercussions directly affect you, your family, and friends. If you’re an aspiring writer, it’s your future and livelihood on the line; you may not be in the Guild yet, but these writers are out there fighting for you.
If you’re not a writer at all... if you're just someone who enjoys movies or TV... you’ll feel the impact in your favorite kinds of entertainment.
Daily shows, like talk shows and soap operas, will feel the sting first. New episodes will cease to air almost immediately.
Primetime scripted shows, which have several un-shot scripts waiting to be filmed, will run out of episodes early in 2008. They’ll be replaced by news shows like “Dateline” and "20/20," as well as easy-to-produce reality shows.
Movies will be able to hold out the longest, as most studios have shelves of un-filmed projects.
SO GET INVOLVED! You are not a passive observer here. Whether you're someone who wants to create movies and TV shows... or simply someone who loves watching them... this fight is about protecting you, your work, and the mediums you love!
Here are three great websites to help educate yourself, your friends and families... and to help you join in the fight to get writers their hard-earned rights:
THE WRITERS GUILD- wga.org
UNITED HOLLYWOOD - unitedhollywood.com - This is a terrific site that gives you more info on current negotiations, negotiations of past years, and how you can show your support.
NIKKI FINKE'S DEADLINE HOLLYWOOD DAILY - deadlinehollywooddaily.com/urgent-wga-strike-update-coming-up - Nikki does a wonderful job of providing almost hour-by-hour upd
ates of what's happening inside negotiations.
If a strike happens—and most people are certain it will (although hey… anything can happen in Hollywood)—I’ll also keep you updated on progress in negotiations, interesting articles and links, and what you can do to voice your support.
In the mean time, thanks for reading… keep writing... and I’ll be in touch.
This article was written by Chad Gervich, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.