Pen is mightier than Hollywood

Late night talk shows and awards ceremonies fall flat as Hollywood writers strike work

Nishi Malhotra Washington  

In a land that thrives on film and television entertainment and provides a good deal of it to the rest of the world as well, the film and television writers' strike in Hollywood which began on November 5 2006, has almost crippled the prolific industry, not to mention the media boomtown of Los Angeles. As a result, hundreds and thousands of props and costume companies, make-up artists, small and big actors, studio workers, caterers, etc., are out of work and forced to survive on their savings. Christmas 2007, hard enough for most Americans with the shadow of a recession looming over the economy, was made more difficult not just for the 12,000 striking writers but all the other entertainment hacks thrown out of jobs because of the domino effect of the strike.

American television audiences, holed up at home this cold winter, have been surviving on a fare of re-runs of popular shows and DVD rentals for two and a half months now. And let's face it, the politics of the country isn't the same either with late night show hosts Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan O Brien, to name just a few, left dumbfounded without their writers, unable to come up with wisecracks about the Democrat and Republican contenders for the primary races, or putdowns about their favourite whacking boy, George Bush. Take away the smart, creative writing that goes into getting laughter and tears from the audience and the show hosts are no more than shifty-looking anchors making desperate attempts to ad lib — delivering, most of the time, off-centre jabs rather than knockout punches.

So what is it that the writers want and why aren't they getting it? The Writers' Guild of America East (WGAE) and the Writers' Guild of America West (WGAW) are two labour unions representing 12,000 writers who write for films and television and radio shows in America. They are striking against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a trade organisation that represents the interests of 397 American film and television producers, chief among which are such hallowed entertainment names as — CBS Inc., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, NBC Universal, News Corp/Fox, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Walt Disney Company and Warner Brothers. 

Every three years the Writers' Guild renews or renegotiates the basic contract under which its members are employed by these companies. An impasse occurred during the last round of negotiations with the AMPTP in November 2007, as a result of which the Guild authorised its members to go on strike. The key points of contention boiled down to three issues: DVD residuals, union jurisdiction over reality and animation programme writers, and compensation for media content written for or distributed through new digital technology over the internet.

The issue of DVD residuals is linked to the last strike by American writers which took place in 1988 and lasted 21 weeks and 6 days, costing the entertainment industry an estimated $500 million. The issue at stake was the then relatively small home video market. The entertainment companies argued that home videos were an unproven market with expensive videos selling for $40-$100 a tape. So the writers accepted a formula whereby they'd receive a small (0.3) percentage of the first million of reportable gross (and a tiny bit more, after) of each videotape sold, as a 'residual'. Once the home video market surged and manufacturing costs of videos dropped dramatically, the writers began to feel they had got the raw end of the deal. DVDs entered the market in 1996 and replaced videos as the dominant format sometime around 2001. But the previous 'residual' formula continued to apply to the DVDs as far as the writers were concerned. The DVD market is a huge source of revenues for movie-making companies, more so than the box-office, with earnings from DVDs and home videos reportedly totaling 4.8 billion in 2004 versus 1.78 million of earnings at the box office. The WGA writers are arguing that 'residuals', or profits made from subsequent sales of films and re-airings of programmes, are a necessary part of writers' incomes because typically, writers are unemployed for long periods between jobs. Hence, they want the amount of money they currently get, about 4 cents per DVD sold, doubled to 8 cents.

Although reality television has existed since the 1980s in the US, the real wave happened only recently as it did all over the world. The AMPTP feels that reality shows are not scripted the way usual television shows are and hence need not be covered by the WGA contracts. The WGA writers are insisting that creating scenarios, going through raw material to shape stories which have conflict and character, constitutes 'writing' and the people who work on these shows for the purpose be given designations like 'story producer', etc., and be covered by the contract. The issue of animation writing, on the other hand, has more to do with two different unions fighting for jurisdiction over the same kind of writing.

However, at the core of the strike is an extremely interesting situation created by rapidly evolving technology — the 'new media'. The internet has revolutionised the world and things are changing so fast that neither the writers nor the film producers even expect DVDs to be an issue three years from now. Everyone is trying to be as far sighted as possible to extract the best deal that will see them come out on top in the face of oncoming changes. Writer Howard Gould, a moderate who slowly came around to agreeing with the WGA, got a standing ovation the night before the strike was announced when he said: “Soon, when computers and your TV are connected, that's how we are all going to watch. Okay? Those residuals are going to go from what they are towards zero if we don't make a stand now…”

What Gould was talking about is basically the two new ways in which media content is being sold on the internet right now. The first is “electronic sell-through” or 'Internet sales” by which films and television shows are sold online — customers download them from sites like iTunes and Amazon Unbox and watch them later at their own convenience. The AMPTP is willing to negotiate with the writers to apply some sort of formula similar to DVD residuals for these sales as well (although the WGA is a little jittery, given memories of being shortchanged on video almost 20 years ago). But the other method of distribution — streaming video — is where the talks are really stuck. In this method, consumers watch real time television programming, which is supported by advertising, and digitally streamed to the viewer's computer on demand. However, it cannot be saved on the user's computer. Examples of these shows can be found on websites of major American TV channels — abc.com, fox.com, nbc.com, etc. Everyone expects that in the not so distant future, this is going to be the way all media content will be distributed to televisions and computers in homes via media distribution devices like TiVo; it is expected to supplant DVDs and home videos as well.

How writers should be paid for content distributed through 'new media' is a question that no one has come up with a convincing answer for — at least not convincing enough to make the 12,000 picketing WGA strikers back down and return to work. And so, this winter, in a season usually known for glamorous awards ceremonies and beauty contests, the Golden Globe Awards were the first casualty. No Hollywood actor was brave enough to invite the wrath of the writers and agree to use his own jokes to host the show — the Billy Crystals and Robin Williams of tinseltown stayed quiet and the awards were announced by B-grade entertainment channel journalists in a non-descript ceremony.

In the latest move, the AMPTP has reached a new contract with the Directors Guild of America (DGA) which had raked up several problems similar to what the writers are encountering. It is widely believed that this deal may act as a template for completing negotiations with the WGA, along similar lines, as well. In the meantime, the WGA may well use a temporary contract (as it did with the David Letterman show a few weeks ago) to work with the Recording Academy during the Grammy Awards coming up next.

One would think the threat of the writers' strike spoiling the hallowed Oscars would have Americans up in arms. But, believe it or not, Americans are not quite as spoilt as the rest of the world thinks they are — on websites and blogs and in comments left on the Internet about news stories to do with Hollywood, the most common sentiment expressed by this country's people goes more like this: “Hey, let's chill and not fight about such petty things. We've got a war going on in Iraq, man!”