When autoworkers go on strike, the assembly line stops and all work ceases. When writers go on strike, the same thing is supposed to happen, but the brain isn’t as easy to turn off as a production plant. Mind control, it turns out, is one power that neither the Writers Guild of America nor production studios have. ”Nobody can stop you from thinking about a project,” says ER executive producer David Zabel.
So as entertainment’s imbroglio enters week 3, Hollywood’s scribes face a dilemma: Do they continue to work on assignments privately or leave those projects untouched — and face potential career ramifications when they eventually return to work? After all, studios will be hungry for scripts the second this affair ends.
The WGA takes a predictably hard line: Writers aren’t allowed to work for targets of the strike. Fair enough, but other rules are more difficult to enforce. The union has asked members to submit nascent scripts so that it can monitor any unauthorized progress made during the strike. For a writer, this is the equivalent of voluntarily walking into a police station and telling an officer you’re about to drive 80 mph in a 55-mph zone.
This stance may be due to the fact that the union is up against some pretty aggressive tactics: ABC Studios sent employees a pre-strike letter detailing how to ”resign their membership” and get back to work. As of press time, not many people have taken that advice, except for some renegade soap scribes who are possibly fearful that a prolonged walkout could be fatal to the genre.
Others are just trying to stay occupied any way they can. ”The irony of being prohibited to do my work [is that] I am liberated to do other writing,” says Zabel, who intends to work on a play if the strike drags on. Comic books, websites, magazines (want to write for EW, Marc Cherry?), and novels are all fair game for WGA members. Before the strike started, one TV scribe had figured it would give her some unpaid downtime to work on a pilot she sold for fall 2008. When the strike started, though, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. ”It became real,” she says. Still, she and thousands of other writers are finding that union loyalty comes at a price. ”When you’re out there screaming your lungs out and you’re cold and you wish you could be writing, you’re thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing on a picket line? I became a writer so that I didn’t have to go outside.”’