Writing Off Hollywood

December 20th, 2007

Why Jack Bauer won’t be saving you this January

By Joseph Puralewski

There is no “Jay Leno”; there is no “Conan O’Brien.” “Desperate Housewives,” “30 Rock,” “The Office” and “Grey’s Anatomy” have all wrapped up their final shows. “24” is on an indefinite hiatus. And now, big budget Hollywood movies are feeling the pressure of the writers’ strike; “Angels and Demons,” the next Dan Brown feature film, has been pushed back to a May 2009 release as a result. It’s an odd thought that when America turns on their televisions come January they will tune in to primetime reruns and reality shows, but as the strike continues to hold strong, it’s slowly becoming a viable possibility.

On Nov. 5, after days of negotiations, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) walked out of studios and began to strike. The WGA’s contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) — the trade association that is responsible for representing and negotiating contracts on behalf of over 350 motion picture and television producers in Hollywood — expired on Oct. 31. Tensions rose for months all around Hollywood prior to the date. Most knew the strike was inevitable; there was even a list of movies that had been rushed to preproduction to be scripted out of fear.

However, the strike is not over a measly manner. The reason: the writer’s residuals on DVD and all forms of digital media. Currently, a screenwriter will make four cents worth of residuals for every DVD sold. And on all forms of online streaming and Internet downloads, writers currently receive nothing. As screenwriter Howard A. Rodman puts it, the current rate for DVDs and Internet media was written into contract back when “cassettes were in their infancy… when the Internet was still ARPANET and closed to commercial interests.” For this, the writers are now walking out, asking for a four-cent raise on DVD residuals and almost anything on Internet media.

Many mock the strike; political cartoons sneeringly ask if the writers will drive to the strike in their Corvettes or limos. However, the façade that all screenwriters are rich is a misinformed one. More often than not, the average writer is the most underpaid part of Hollywood productions. The median income of Guild members from screen and television writing is $5,000 per year, considering that half of them receive no income from Guild-covered employment. However, that is not to say they aren’t getting paid in other forms, such as residuals. But often, what is collected in residuals is not enough.

Julie Blumberg, assistant professor of screen and television writing in the Park School and Guild member herself, argues that one should recognize the importance of DVD and Internet residuals. These days, she says, “more and more television shows and films that don’t do well when broadcasted, or in theaters, are finding second lives in DVD and over the internet. As the digital age progresses and we don’t make residuals from these formats we will be losing more and more of our income.”
“There is a huge misconception of writers who are wealthy,” says Blumberg. “Due to the nature of the business, successful writers may sell three or four screenplays… You live off residuals. You’ll make money, when employed, but most often you’re [unemployed]. Residuals are really, really important.”

Her fear, like many others, is that broadcasting will soon become passé. “At some point there won’t be broadcasting. We’re talking possibly, [in] five years… it will be all streaming,” she says. While the market is not huge today, — $20 million last year in movie downloads versus $9.5 billion in theater revenue — by 2011 analysts say the Internet market may reach $1.8 billion in revenue for streaming, none of which writers will receive.
However, to many producers and media executives, the strike seems, as former Disney CEO Michael Eisner puts it, “stupid.”

“For a writer to give up today’s money for a nonexistent piece of the future — they should do it in three years, shouldn’t be doing it now — they are misguided they should not have gone on the strike. I’ve seen stupid strikes, I’ve seen less stupid strikes, and this strike is just a stupid strike,” said Eisner at the Dow Jones/Nielsen Media and Money conference on Nov. 8. Many media execs tend share the viewpoint, as online media hasn’t been fully tested and is relatively new. But one wonders if it really is too early, especially when analysts predict a boom in streaming media.

The writers clearly don’t think so. They’ve been hearing argument like this for long enough; similar issues led to them strike before, back in 1988. The strike lasted for 22 weeks and cost Tinseltown approximately $500 million. However, the strike was ultimately unsuccessful. When writers go on strike, they can only hold out so long unpaid. “Last time we couldn’t take it,” Blumberg says. “People were selling their mortgages. That’s the big fear…the studios can stand the financial loss, the writers can’t.”

Producers believe this too, expecting the writers to turn on one another as they did last time (the first to return to work were the writers of soap operas, as they lost literally eight million viewers, which they were never able to retrieve). However, several things have changed between now and then. This time the show runners themselves are joining the strike — Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien have already hit the picket fence. “John Stewart is actually paying his writers while on strike,” Blumberg says with a smile.

Another big difference is the expiration of the Director Guild’s of America (DGA) and Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) contract next June with the AMPTP. If the writers can hold out that long — roughly 30 weeks — then all three unions can strike as one. The effect on Hollywood would be unimaginable; it would virtually halt business and billions would be lost. If all three were on strike, then the AMPTP would be forced to succumb to the wishes of the guilds. Again, that’s if they can last that long. “People are praying the writer’s last that long,” Blumberg adds. “Then, the balance of power will shift.”

In an age where digital media is ubiquitous and grows more dominant daily, it’s urgent that writers receive payment for their work. It’s unfortunate that many believe writers to be “rollin’ in the dough,” when more often than not they’re living off that one screenplay that helped them succeed. When the average Hollywood writer can go nine years without selling a screenplay, its inherent that writers be rewarded for their work on all fronts.

So no, Jack Bauer won’t be saving us from terrorism this January. Nor will J.D. provide quirky narrations of his life at Sacred Heart, nor will Meredith Grey be there to sap up our lives, nor, ironically enough, will Tina Fey continue to attempt to write sketch comedy on “30 Rock.” Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. When suddenly all of America is stuck with “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Seinfeld” reruns, maybe the producers will begin to realize the true value of their writers. Maybe then screenwriters will receive the credit they have long deserved. Or we can just watch reality TV until the end of time. That’s always fun.

Joseph Puralewski is a freshman writing major who, despite this article, is moving to LA to become a screenwriting scab. Email him at jpurale1[at]ithaca.edu.

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