Well, there you have it.
The negotiations between the Writers’ Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers finished on All Hallows Eve, and the WGA Contract has expired.
So what the hell does that actually mean?
It’s like this.
The WGA is the union for screenplay writers in the United States. As well as having a fairly decent healthcare plan (essential if you live in a country without a National Health Service), the WGA organises a pension plan, negotiates a minimum wage, and collects money on behalf of its members for the re-use of their work.
This last is what the big fight is about. They’re known as residuals, and are pretty much what you live off. At any given time, about half the members of the WGA are in work.
The rest – while they may be writing – aren’t paid for that writing. It’s not like turning up at the office and getting a salary. The median income of a WGA member from their writing work is $5,000 a year.
Residuals are how you make a living as a writer. It’s a damn precarious living, but a living it is.
You get a residual every time your work is re-used. So if a TV programme or film that you wrote is shown on TV in Germany, or Australia, or Darkest Peru, you are issued a check. Could be a few dollars. Could be a few thousand. But you have an income.
So a few years ago, it came time to renegotiate the contract. At that time, there was this new-fangled technology on the marketplace. Not many people used it, It was unreliable, expensive, and – frankly – weird.
So the AMPTP said: Tell you what. Let’s investigate this new technology a bit before we start negotiating about your level of residuals on it. Do some tests, see how it all turns out. Might just be a flash in the pan. Seem fair?
This new-fangled technology was known as Home Video.
And, it turns out, was quite popular.
In fact, DVD income is the main income source for studios these days. Let’s just have a closer look at these figures:
In 2004, the income from DVDs was $21 billion.
In 2004, the income from Cinemas was $7.4 billion.
And thanks to a bad decision made all those years ago, this new-fangled-whoah-nelly-let’s-see-if-this-works-out technology pays writers a very small amount indeed.
Have a quick guess how much a writer earns from each DVD sold. Go on, just take a moment to think about it. DVD of a new film goes for, what, ten, fifteen quid? How much do you think the writer gets of that?
Tuppence. Two shiny pennies. Just enough to pay for a fare across the Styx.
(And to put that figure in context – the cost to make the shiny disc, print the packaging, and stick it in that little plastic case comes to around 25p out of the cost you pay for the DVD.)
It’s fair to say that writers feel that 2p per DVD is on the low side.
But that’s not all.
The AMPTP also seeks to apply the same formula to Internet downloads. And they are refusing to talk about this.
So, the frankly risible formula for the technology which now forms the cornerstone of studio profits is to be applied to Internet downloads. Which don’t even cost 25p to package and are likely, in the future, to become the predominant means of entertainment delivery.
The AMPTP say they will not budge on this issue. Which means, sadly, that there’s no other option left.
A strike has been called. It just needs to be confirmed by the WGA board, and no new writing will be done.
The first casualty will be scripted daily comedy.
Because topical comedy can’t be written in advance, Late Night with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Saturday Night Live, and the Colbert Report are expected to go dark within the next couple of weeks.
The season’s new dramas have somewhere between five and nine episodes written right now. We can expect those to burn out within two months. Then the schedules are likely to be filled with Reality TV, news, and repeats.
Make no mistake, this strike is going to hurt everyone. Studios, producers, and writers alike.
But unfortunately we have no choice. The “proposals” that have been placed on the table by the AMPTP were – literally – laughable. And there has been no movement on them.
Oh yes, I almost forgot, there was one proposal they’ve taken off the table. The one that said “Writers shouldn’t get residuals for anything at all any more.”
You can imagine how grateful we were for that enormous concession.
And that’s why we have to strike.
The exact timing will be clarified today, but it seems likely that writers will stop work on Monday.
This may be a long haul. And I wish it didn’t have to happen. But if the person on the other side of the table isn’t prepared to negotiate, sometimes you simply have to walk away from the table.
For more information on the strike, try the following websites:
The Artful Writer
Craig Mazin disagrees with me on the possibilities for negotiation. However his points are well-argued and well-sourced, and he allows open discussion in his comments section.
Deadline Hollywood Daily
Good news source about the strike from LA Weekly journalist Nikki Finke.
Blog by some of the Contract Captains – they’ll be the ones organising the picket lines.