You may not notice much of a difference for a while. Other than a few more reruns in your TiVo playlist — late-night talk shows, mostly — it’ll pretty much be entertainment as usual over the next couple of months. Fresh episodes of Heroes and Ugly Betty will air as originally scheduled and new movies like I Am Legend and The Golden Compass will arrive in theaters right on time, as if nothing unusual had happened in Hollywood on Nov. 5. But, of course, something did. Some 12,000 film and TV writers walked off their jobs, leaving the whole town at a loss for words. Literally.
Labor disputes in Hollywood may not inspire the sort of tingly feelings of fraternal solidarity with the common man associated with, say, an uprising of mill workers. Some of the writers’ demands — keeping their names on movie posters, for instance — wouldn’t lure Norma Rae to a picket line. But make no mistake: When the Writers Guild of America announced that its members would be folding up their laptops until further notice, they picked a fight with producers, studios, and TV networks that could turn this town inside out over the next several months. And perhaps even alter the balance of power of the entire entertainment industry.
As always, the argument is over money. The writers want more. Twenty-five years ago, when video — the kind that came on magnetic tape — first started raking in millions, they were left with residuals of less than a nickel per copy. They’re determined not to let that happen again. They’re demanding a slice of the profits whenever their dialogue is downloaded from the Internet — say, when you watch The Office on your iPhone, or stream Desperate Housewives on ABC’s website. ”We’ve been in this situation before,” argues Patric Verrone, the former Tonight Show scribe who’s now leading the writers as president of the WGA West. ”The producers told us in the early 1980s that was a new medium, that they needed to study it. But we don’t want a study. We want a percentage. If it turns out to be eight-track or CB radio, then nobody gets paid. But if [online profits] are what we think they’re going to be, we want a share.”
NEXT PAGE: How concerned are studio execs about a lingering strike? Says one, ”We’re not going to be the ones who lose our houses.”