Producers are full of reasons for not giving scribes the revenue share they deserve — and all of those excuses are ludicrous, says our columnist
Writers Guild of America Awards
Credit: Reed Saxon/ AP

Strike: Why the writers are right

(This is a column about the writers’ strike, so some full disclosure is in order. Anyone who wants to call me a tool of management should know that Entertainment Weekly is fully owned by The Man, a.k.a. Time Warner. Anyone who wants to call me a tool of labor should know that I am married to a WGA member. And anyone who wants to split the difference and just call me a tool is welcome to do so on the message boards, where I always enjoy your kind words.)

The Writers Guild of America is a hard union to love, even for many of its members. Anybody who has spent time in a roomful of writers knows that getting them to agree on anything is a fool’s errand. Fill that room with 12,000 people, and you have a fractious alliance that has, at times, barely been on speaking terms with itself. The WGA, long known as the guild that can’t even unite its East and West coasts, has always been something of a mess, and its handling of the run-up to the strike that started on Nov. 5 has been met with some justifiable criticism. It’s not easy to reconcile the needs of TV showrunners (who are essentially both labor and management), movie screenwriters (who are pure labor), young Daily Show writers, old hands living off residuals, a few people who make a great living and a lot of people who don’t, all within the scope of a single contract. And this year’s WGA negotiating team started off on a bad foot, packing 25 years of resentment about lousy deals to which their own predecessors had acquiesced into a list of new demands meant to rectify old injustices.

While they were doing that, the producers, with breathtaking dishonesty, worked a press corps that remains all too willing to live in their back pockets, portraying writers as ungrateful millionaire princelings. As this nonsense was taking root, the WGA bobbled any real chance of coordinating its efforts with other guilds, spent months talking tough while making it easy for the networks to live without writers by helping them stockpile scripts, and failed to make their own strong case to journalists until they hit the picket line. As negotiators and strategists, they’re not geniuses. Many commentators have compared the WGA to the Democratic Party, and like the Dems, the Guild is a loose coalition of people whose shared interests are only occasionally strong enough to counterbalance their sharp internal divisions. But (also like the Dems), they’re capable of summoning a surprisingly united front in the face of a common foe. They’ve now done just that.

It’s a shame that the WGA so neglected its own image in the weeks leading up to the strike, since it has led too many observers to embrace the laziest kind of neutrality — a position that sneers at the hyperbole of both sides, and in so doing suggests that the writers and producers are somehow equally far from reason — that a magical midpoint of compromise could be found if everyone would just calm down. That’s not what’s going on here. The writers may be conflicted and prickly, but they’re also right. The studios and networks are wrong. And yes, when you strip everything else away, it really is that simple.

Complaints about tactics, timing, and the problematic personalities at the negotiating table shouldn’t obscure the fact that the position of the AMPTP (the producers’ negotiating alliance) has been, and remains, ethically indefensible on the two issues that matter most — residuals and new media. Let’s look at residuals first. Currently, for every dollar spent on a DVD, writers receive about one-third of a penny. They would like, instead, to receive about two-thirds of a penny. The AMPTP’s first response to this was to waste weeks by advocating a complete abolition of the residual system. Why, they argued, should writers get paid anything for their work after it’s released? Studio chiefs who are smart enough to know better even hauled out a tired old maxim attributed to the late MCA titan Lew Wasserman — ”My plumber doesn’t charge me every time I flush the toilet” — and repeated it in perfect Karl Rove everybody-stay-on-message lockstep.

Ugh. Lines like that give you a taste of what the entertainment world will be like if management ends up doing its own writing. Not to belabor an already disgusting analogy, but writers — and directors and actors, who have their own renegotiations coming up — aren’t the plumber: They’re the water. Without them, nothing goes anywhere, and you end up with a toilet full of…well, let’s just say ”reruns.”

In making this why-should-we-keep-paying argument, the AMPTP blithely ignored a century of copyright law that grants creative writers in every other field — novelists, composers, lyricists, playwrights — ongoing income from their work based on its sales. The studios and networks claim that the difference is that writers for film and TV don’t hold copyrights to their own work. That’s a fair legal distinction, but a morally illegitimate one, since writers for movies and television do the same kind of work, face the same kind of chronically unsteady income, and depend in the same way on income from good years to tide them through bad ones.

NEXT PAGE: ”Corporations are fond of reminding their employees that they’re all a ‘family’ during tough times. But when families sit down to dinner, Dad doesn’t get to say, ‘I’m gonna eat until I decide I’m full, and then we’ll see if there’s anything left for the rest of you.”’

If you run a company that produces written entertainment, you either believe that writers have value, or you don’t. If you do, the only decent thing to do is to recognize the legitimacy of paying writers a percentage — yes, a whole two-thirds of a penny — as long as the companies that own their work continue to derive income from it. What’s not decent is to have spent valuable negotiating time floating a specious theory of big-picture bullcrap about how the residual system is ”antiquated” without offering any alternative compensation in its place. (Since the producers abruptly dropped this idea, one has to wonder if it was ever raised as anything other than a thuggish scare/stalling tactic in the first place.)

Oddly, the same executives who speak with absolute authority about the horrifying injustice of paying residuals seem to turn into bewildered children, lost in a fogbound forest and helpless to see even two feet ahead, when they confront the other big issue: income from streaming video, new media, and the Internet. Writers, like everybody else with a brain and a computer, have figured out that this is where a large chunk of the future of movie and TV revenue resides, and they want a piece of it. To which the producers have essentially responded: What’s this newfangled Interweb you’re talking about? We don’t know how it works! Are you sure there’s a way we can make money from it? What a silly thing to even talk about! What next, flying cars?

Never mind that these same executives have, for years, vigorously pursued deals to put their content on the Internet, acquire websites, and sell advertising for both original and repurposed programming. (Why? To make money, in case anyone is unclear.) Suddenly, when the people who write that material ask for a share, they go all fuzzyheaded. One of AMPTP’s demands has been a three-year period to study the economic viability of new media. You read that right: three years. If any studio honcho can keep a straight face while uttering the phrase ”three-year study,” I’ll fork over…at least two-thirds of a penny. What’s the breakdown — one year to figure out the cash flow, one year to count the money, and one year to decide which lie to tell the writers?

The problem with this position is that writers deserve a share of revenue for material they help to create. Not a share only if the revenue is really, really a lot. A share, period. If it turns out that streaming video is a goldmine, then both sides will get a lot of money. If it turns out not to be, they’ll get less. Corporations are fond of reminding their employees that they’re all a ”family” during tough times. But when families sit down to dinner, Dad doesn’t get to say, ”I’m gonna eat until I decide I’m full, and then we’ll see if there’s anything left for the rest of you.” The right of a writer to earn money from work that continues to generate revenue cannot be dependent on how comfy studio and network heads are with the fullness of their own coffers.

The producers’ alliance disagrees. They’ve put their game faces on for a months-long strike that could devastate the economic lives not just of writers but of any workers whose jobs vanish when a lack of scripts shuts down the production that employs them. AMPTP’s position is that it can outlast the writers, and it probably can. But why should people in the business of making and selling creative product evince such contempt for the people who make that product possible? Do these gentlemen, some of whom are active and vigorous fundraisers for the Democratic Party, know what the Democrats think of corporate fat cats that try to starve out unions? In this strike, management may yet get what it wants — but only by pursuing it with callousness, greed, and disdain for the people who create the work without which their companies wouldn’t exist. It’s hard to respect anyone who wants to win that way.

Whatever else happens, it’s time for both sides to start talking again. Nikki Finke, who has covered the negotiations with more zeal and specificity than any major media outlet on her Deadline Hollywood Daily blog, has recently suggested that the level of acrimony between the negotiators has never been higher. If it’s true that the people on either side of the bargaining table are now so at odds that dialogue is impossible, then they should step away and be replaced with people whose interest is not in posturing or bullying, but in negotiating a fair settlement. And the first move ought to come from the producers: As always in a labor dispute, real negotiations begin only when management commits to the principle of treating its employees with respect and fairness. If the producers can’t do that, then the future that the studios and networks pretend is too murky to discuss is going to become a lot clearer — and a lot uglier.