Writers Strike Back

Everybody knows about it, either by hearsay or because it has affected one’s favorite TV show. The members of the Writers’ Guild of America are on strike. This not only means that they’re not working. They’re also disrupting the whole media/entertainment industry, one of the biggest moneymakers in the United States and the cornerstone for social peace.

So what many people wonder is, why, why are they doing this to the poor audience? Why must we now suffer the cancellation of shows, painful reruns and the proliferation of reality TV? As a filmmaker, a writer and part of the consumers enduring the strike, I’ll try to shed a little light over the issue behind these guild wars.

First off, “guild wars” is the best possible description of the situation. The entertainment industry, as important as it is, also boasts of being the most syndicated. Every type of job in the media has a guild of its own. However, there are four that run most business: the producers’ association, those who control the money; the directors’ guild, those who get the material done; the actors’ guild, those who perform and get all of the fame; and finally, the writers’ guild, those who come up with and develop the ideas for stories and programs.

When the writer’s guild went on strike, the industry lost its creative side, meaning no more new shows. Actors and directors supported the move as well. Basically, all the guilds joined against the media empire of producers. What’s the conflict? Money is; the root of all evils. The contracts of the guilds are antiquated, from around the 1980’s, before ubiquitous use of the internet and the explosion in the home entertainment market. The contracts were being renegotiated back in July and two big issues were found that had to catch up with our present: revenues and new media technologies. The revenue issue is about who gets how much from what the movies and TV shows make through their regular broadcasting, theater running, and hard copy selling of tapes and discs, besides the basic initial payments for the works. We’re talking about the royalty payments.

The 80’s deal was that the writers would accept a very small cut, along with the other guilds, so that the prices were not too high for the public and the market could grow. More exactly, writers get a little less than 10 cents from that 20 dollar DVD at the store. So do the actors and directors except in special cases. Producers get more than 15 dollars from this deal. Part of the old contract was that the cuts would be increased once the market was deemed “profitable”. With 96 billion in revenue last year, despite piracy issues, it could be assessed that it is profitable. Yet, during the contract negotiations, the producers insisted on keeping the status quo. What people don’t realize is that these ten cent payouts are what the average writer or actor actually has to live on. Only the select A-list people get million-dollar checks.

The second issue, new media technologies, is stirring things up even more. The old contract reflected the reality of the 80’s: tapes and discs. Today these translate into discs and digital formats. Media is being distributed in all new ways, especially over the internet. But not much has changed in the producers’ minds. They’re refusing to pay the due cuts from digital broadcasting and its advertising. They’re refusing to change the phrasing of the contract too, thus preventing it from modernizing or adapting to the times of digital-everything. From here springs the writers’ claim that they’re being ripped off and plotted against. The writers’ contract was going to be the first renegotiated, with the directors’ and actors’ being scheduled for the same this month and the next, respectively. This is why they all backed each other up.

So what’s the strike’s toll so far? First came the debacle of daily shows, since these live out of scripts written off whatever’s “hot” in the moment. Next were the cancellations and suspensions of some movies and TV series still in production. This includes new shows and the usual prime-timers that got axed due to lack of scripts. The solution, and threat from the producers, was to fill up airtime with reruns and develop more mind-numbing reality shows, which require no guild talent. This produced a joint counterattack. Directors and actors helped boycott the Golden Globes awards ceremony, depriving the public of the best chance to see drunk celebrities. The move worked. The producers recently made a nice deal with the directors, before they too went on strike, and the negotiations with the writers are back in session.

In the end, after months of conflict and several significant casualties, it appears that the guild wars will come to a conclusion satisfying enough for all parties involved. There’s enough money for everyone anyways. Nonetheless, time is still needed to solve this unfinished business and get things back to normal. Hopefully it will happen before the Oscars get shot down in the crossfire…

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of “A Modest Proposal”, the student opinion publication of the University of Texas at Dallas.

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