On Strike! WGA vs. Show Business

by Christopher Heard

Long-time contributor Christopher Heard is the author of Mickey Rourke: High and Low, Johnny Depp Photo Album, and is currently working on his latest TV show, Scene & Heard.

The strike called by the Writer’s Guild of America is now well into its second month as picket lines went up on November 5, 2007. Over 12,000 members of the WGA have been pounding the pavement and speaking out against their main target – the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. What is at issue here is money (what else is always at issue in labour disputes between unions and powerful companies or associations?).

But unlike the last big writers strike in 1988, which lasted just over five months and crippled episodic TV, games shows, and talk shows and had an effect on feature films (that strike cost the industry an estimated half a billion dollars) – the issues are not so clear cut.

Now there are electronic media revenues, ancillary software revenues and the threat of union-less “reality” shows that have flooded the airwaves since that last nasty strike. The stakes are not higher this time around they are just different. But there is a cold stubbornness to this one – the WGA people have said they are prepared for this strike to be a “marathon” which means long and hard and painful – while Nick Counter, one of the head negotiators for the AMPTP said that no new serious negotiations will begin, “while the picket lines are up – that would be like negotiating with a gun to our heads and that would be just stupid.”

In ’88 the main challenge was from VHS and Betamax – but since that was considered at the time an “unproven market” there was very little that could be done in terms of determining what the future value of such home entertainment offshoots would be. Well, in 2008, the value of home entertainment arms of studios and networks is undeniable and obscenely lucrative. What is at question now is new media (Internet downloads, IPTV, streaming, smart phone downloading, direct to Internet content and other on demand distribution methods as well as cable and satellite TV on-demand sources).

While that is a big part of the current proposal the real sticking point is the WGA’s demand that their residuals from DVD sales be doubled from four cents to eight cents per DVD unit sold. The AMPTP reacted with vociferous outrage to that demand citing that DVD revenues are the only things left that makes the enormous cost of producing features and high end TV shows worth the risk. In a sign of union weakness that doubling of the DVD residuals demand was taken off the table the night before the picket lines went up – which caused vociferous outrage from the WGA members. Now it seems that that demand has been thrown back into the soup once again.

The WGA now says it would settle for a 2.5% cut of all revenues from distributors of new media methods of distribution – the AMPTP shot that down with a counter proposal saying they would include some new media methods of distribution in the same kind of deal that presently exists on DVD sales – but as for streaming arrangements, even for profit ones, they say that that falls under the definition of promotion and thus no residuals can be paid out for that. The WGA immediately responded to that by saying, “It would seem the studios would rather shut down than deal with us fairly.”

That’s the nuts and bolts of it – but my feeling on this is mixed. I have been a professional writer for fifteen years so I certainly understand the anger and the disappointment felt by writers when they create something from nothing and then see actors and producers and studio people all made fabulously wealthy if it turns out well while the writer, the initial creator, is thrown crumbs, and usually has to fight like hell even to get those crumbs.

So a more equitable distribution of profits should be looked at fairly, but there is another side to that coin. I also have some experience in the other side of film and television so I know that it simply makes no sense for companies to risk large sums of money on projects that even if they turn out to be wonderful successes end up not being profitable because all the money coming in is going to this actor, that writer, this director, and that actress. If the actors and writers and directors wish to share in the profits from successful ventures, should they not be expected to share in the burden of a failure as well?

In the 80s and 90s a little production company called Orion became very successful by backing such small budget films as Platoon. As the profits and the Oscars rolled in they grew and grew and wanted to keep basking in the glory – they gave big chunks of the profits of films like Dances With Wolves to Kevin Costner, with Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Demme taking vast chunks of the profits from Silence of the Lambs. But Orion also had some high profile duds as well that they could not compensate for because all the money from their very profitable films went to residuals and profit participation deals with stars and directors and writers – thus they collapsed under the weight of their own success.

A similar scenario played out recently when Paramount Pictures cancelled their high profile production deal with Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner. Films starring Tom Cruise are big films, big attractions – with budgets that regularly top a hundred million dollars, with marketing budgets in the seven figures on top of that. Cruise would get up front fees that ranged from $25 million for War of the Worlds to $32 million for Mission Impossible III – he would also get a dollar one profit participation deal that not only cut him in on the profits of the films but on the home video unit sales as well.

All of a sudden Paramount started looking at the situation carefully – MI-III under-performed, War of the Worlds was spectacular entertainment, but it also failed to live up to expectations – so Paramount spent an enormous amount of money up front and Tom Cruise ended up with the lion’s share of it – when the profits didn’t roll in as planned – it was Paramount that was left bruised and battered while Cruise and Wagner were off negotiating their next lucrative deal without looking back. Paramount cancelled the deal with Cruise and it was a smart business move on their part. Cruise and Wagner are now running United Artists – so they are now on the other side of the equation – let’s see how they like it, how they conduct business.

There are always two sides to a dispute like this and both sides in this one have reasonable arguments. The fact that talk shows are now cutting side deals with the union (as is reportedly the case with Cruise’s United Artists as well) is a sign that the WGA is not as strong as it should be and needs to be to be victorious in this action. Likewise the side deals indicate clearly that some shows and companies are feeling enormous pressure to do something, anything, to keep the flow of original material coming.

Writers are always last on the list when it comes to glory or dough in film and television – it has been that way since movies and television began. But ultimately it is the writer that has the most power – without the written word, without that initial spark of creativity being translated by a writer into a viable fleshed-out idea, what is left? What is left are reality shows and reruns. The writers should be cut in fairly on profits because the other members of the creative teams are always given more credit and are generally more vastly compensated – so it would only seem fair. The crucial word here, the crucial notion here is – fair. The way this strike is going, the anger and the combativeness that it is producing on both sides seems to leave little room for that term, that notion, to be realized.

Television has not been entirely crippled by the strike yet, but it has certainly been hobbled with signs of full paralysis certainly showing – and feature films are still okay as the films that will be released in the next several months to a year are already written, shot and in post production. But beyond that… films will suffer badly. All writing and rewriting has stopped. So many films that were half written or in the process of being polished up are now sitting dormant waiting for the strike to end. So in 2009 you will see the big screen effects of this strike – there will be fewer big, grand films – and several films that look like they should have been developed a bit more before being put in theatres – all this once again points to the value and ultimate power of the writer.

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