Dec 8

 

Because I'm not a huge television fan (love the sports, Boston Legal and Law and Order are cool, throw in a concert from London or something once in a while and I'm all set) the Writers Guild of America strike hasn't really been on my radar screen, and it appears I'm not alone; most people seem to have barely registered the news, and those who have seem mostly confused by the whole thing.  Ostensibly the strike is about distributing DVD revenues and (most importantly) online content; the writers want a piece of the pie, the studios claim the pie might taste terrible and even if it's good, they might not have enough to go around if the writers take a bigger piece.  (It's not the most inspired analogy I've ever come up with, but I happen to like pie.)  The financial ramifications are real, but it's hard to build a rallying cry around the idea of "we write the online stuff too." If you've got one, let me know; so far the best I've been able to come up with is

What do we want?  Money from YouTube!

When do we want it?  Now!

I don't see Joan Baez tackling that in an impromptu concert anytime soon.  Anyway, the point is that this isn't really a "sexy" strike, for want of a better term; it's not an easy conflict in which to pick a side.  And it probably doesn't help that the writers themselves, being writers, aren't really clear about what the hell they're doing either, or have decided to pass the downtime by making fun of themselves.  Former Simpsons writer Larry Doyle may summarize the prevailing attitude the best: "We are artists. We may not dress all cool like artists, or get chicks like artists, and none of us are starving, quite obviously, but Hollywood screenwriters are certainly artists, perhaps even artistes, and we suffer just the same… We suffer as we slave over our screenplays alone, staring into blank laptops, often blinded by pool glare."  It's funny, sure (I mean we pretty much knew he could write already, right?), but it doesn't exactly conjure up images of a holy fight against a Dickensian owner to improve hideous work conditions.  And if the writers don't take their own strike seriously, why should the rest of us?

But of course, that's the whole problem, you see: from the writers' point of view, the general public doesn't take them (or what they do) seriously enough to begin with.  That might explain why ninety percent of the pictures you'll find from this strike are of celebrities "showing their solidarity" with the writers, not the writers themselves (and by the way, they have to be the happiest looking bunch of people on a picket line I've ever seen).  And with good reason: do you know who the hell writes Boston Legal, or Grey's Anatomy, or Law and Order (without Googling, now, you're not fooling anyone over there!)?  I sure don't.  And since we don't know these people, the studios figure they can squeeze them a bit without worrying about the public relations hit they might otherwise take.  What's worse (from the writers' point of view) is that a combination of reality shows, sporting events, and reruns can go a long way to tiding the American public over, especially during a holiday season when people expect (and want) a lot of classic shows and movies anyway (if the studios ever lost A Charlie Brown Christmas there'd be hell to pay, though), and film scripts are set through early '09.  In other words, there's no public pressure for a resolution to the situation (Schwarzenegger doesn't count, unless he comes in like this).

Just like everyone else, I'm not entirely sure where to go on this one.  I'm a writer, I belong to a union (the AAUP), and I don't trust the large studios, so I guess my tendency would be to side with the WGA…except that I write books, not television scripts or film screenplays, and thus I, like most writers, am a free agent.  It's true that a vast number of film scripts come originally from books (that's why film options are getting picked up on anything that can keep a plot line together for a few pages these days), but very seldom are the original authors hired to write the screenplay.  WGA people tend to do that, and since they tend to make a lot more money then those of us in the "free agent ranks," it's hard to feel devastated about their situation.  You could even make the argument that a strike helps the up and coming author, since (if it were to last long enough) it would force the studios to look farther afield to find their new crop of writing talent.  Would I cross a picket line, even if I weren't in the union in question?  Probably not, but it's a measure of how poorly the WGA has made its case that I'm even a little ambivalent about the whole business.  Where's the inflatable rat when you need it?

Ultimately I think the WGA is right, the studios are wrong, and the creative talent (writers, actors, and directors) ought to get the lion's share of the money from all of the revenue streams, online or otherwise.  I'm always in favor of giving the greatest financial reward to the person making the greatest artistic contribution to a given work.  But so long as the union continues to let its members joke around about what they're doing, or let the Ben Stillers of the world stand in for the Larry Doyles, I can't blame the general public for approaching the whole mess with a collective yawn.  Pool glare blindness just doesn't seem like that pressing a concern, even when it's accompanied with a lot of self-deprecating irony.

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