When Words Fail: Writer's Pens Still Down

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Words Fail Me - Screenwriters' Strike     
by Ed Naha
With stories of war, governmental avarice and global calamities hitting the news cycles hourly, sometimes a story slips by that, while important, doesn’t have the immediate sting of a catastrophic event.
One such story is the ongoing strike by the screen and television writers of America.

Go ahead, snort and roll your eyes. Get it out of your system. According to a lot of media reports, these writers are greedy Hollywood types; you know: lazy, over-paid, latte swilling, no-talents who aren’t content with having two Porsches in their driveways and a yearly paycheck of $200,000! Heck, even I wouldn’t have sympathy for those pinheads… and I am one!

Having been a member of the Writers Guild of America for twenty (fairly) odd years, I’m amazed at how the reporting of this strike resembles something concocted by Lewis Carroll on acid. When the strike began, a month ago, ABC ran the following headline on its Internetz site: “Inside the WGA – Even at $400k a Week, A Million Insecurities.” Had they tossed in references to Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith, they would have won the TMZ trifecta award for Hollywood hackology: bling, bad girls and big boobs go wild! (Or go on strike.)

(For the record, if you are the one writer making $400k a week, adopt me.)

What astonishes me about the strike coverage is that, since the vast majority of writers are middle class folks who are lucky to make one sale a year, the media powers-that-be have seen fit to “jazz” up the event by just making stuff up. Even the basic storyline is twisted.

First off, this strike isn’t the writers vs. the producers. It’s the writers vs. the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the AMPTP). This is the organization that represents the major TV networks and movie studios and, most importantly, the multi-national conglomerates that own them. Many of the members have as much to do with hands’ on producing as I do levitation.

This latter point (excluding my levitation skills) was underscored a week or so ago, when a group of eighty “independent” producers took out an ad stating, in regards to the AMPTP, “it serves the studios’ interests to pretend to represent individual producers instead of corporate entities…Creative producers are not directly involved in this dispute.”

Vance Van Petten, executive director of the 4,000-member Producers Guild of America, agreed, stating that it had been years since producers ran studios. Today, he said: “producers are relegated mostly to employees or independent entrepreneurs who are out there trying to put things together.”

Okay. So, now we know it’s the writers against the networks and the studios. Why are the writers’ whining? I mean, the AMPTP says that the average working writer makes $200,000 a year. Oy! Where to begin? Let’s say you have ten people who are teachers making 30k-40k a year in a room. Then, Oprah Winfrey walks into the room. Now, what’s the average income of the eleven people in the room? Wow, look at that average skyrocket! I bet those teachers didn’t know they had it so good!

Neither do most writers. If you take into account that nearly half of the WGA is unemployed, the average writer makes about $5,000 a year. If you remove the unemployed, the average writer makes anywhere from $30k-50k. There go the Porsches!

Before I go into what a working writer experiences in his or her lifestyle, here are a few things to consider. Fiction writers are inventors, of a sort. They create characters and stories out of nowhere and put them down on paper. Were it not for writers, Clark Gable would have turned to Vivian Leigh at the end of “Gone With the Wind” and said: “!” Judy Garland would have summed up her arrival in Oz with the exclamation: “?” And “CSI” would offer nothing but shots of test tubes. Okay, even MORE shots of test tubes. You get the idea.

So, how are writers rewarded for their inventive skills? Well, on a DVD version of his or her work, a writer earns fewer than four cents a shot. If the writers’ work is purchased and downloaded via iTunes or other Internet services, they make 1/3 of a cent of the profit. (This is not as bad as it sounds. You can do a lot with 1/3 of a cent. For instance, you can make a down payment on a penny!) Recently, and this is at the heart of the strike, those frisky conglomerates have found that they can stream entire TV shows on their web sites with advertising embedded in the shows. You can watch these suckers for free! As long as you don’t mind watching the ads. Ads that the networks/studios make money from.

What do the writers’ make?

0/0 of a cent.

In other words, a writer can make more money turning in a soda can than having their work streamed on the Internetz.

The studios say that writers don’t have to be paid for their work because these streaming freebies are not broadcasts. They are “promotions.” You know, like the promotions you watch on TV for hours on end every night.

In the near future, it’s pretty likely that more and more consumers will be turning to the web, in its various formats, for entertainment. The people who write that entertainment would like to be paid in something more than wampum. Although we appreciate the colored beads and trinkets offered to us by the AMPTP, it’s very hard to get change for a beaver pelt at a 7-11.

Now, a lot of people argue that writers shouldn’t see profits from their work after the initial sale. The standard argument is “If a plumber fixes my toilet, I don’t pay him every time I flush my toilet.” No, but if your plumber invented the toilet, he’d get a piece of every toilet sold…and he probably would become so flush that he’d quit being your plumber, Nimrod.

Writers who pen books get royalties depending on sales. Writers who craft screenplays and teleplays get residuals based on revenue. It’s not a bonus. It’s a deferred payment. It’s that simple. The studios/networks/conglomerates want to pay the least amount of money to the folks who invented the product. Why? So they can make a bigger profit. It’s standard operational procedure. Believe me, if Fox could outsource writing to India, they would.

Another bomb lobbed in the writers’ direction is what they’re paid. The Guild minimum for an original screenplay is slightly over $106,000. That’s a lot of money. However, you don’t get that money all at once. You get it in installments, based on work completed. If it takes a studio three years to get your script done to their liking, you earn about $30k a year, less agent, lawyer and manager fees.

I once sold a script to a major studio that I wrote in two weeks. It took me three years to UNwrite it to their liking. By the time I was done, even I didn’t recognize it. It was never made. I went five years between jobs.

A TV writer earns about $20k for a prime-time comedy and $30k for a prime-time hour drama. But, again, if you make one sale a year, that’s it, folks. This is why residuals are so important. A lot of the time, they pay the rent and tuition. And it was the members of the WGA who fought long and hard for residuals over four and a half decades ago. The writers who put the words “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do” into Desi’s mouth and allowed Bogart to intone, “Here’s looking at you, kid” never made a penny in residuals.

There seems to be two trains of thought running through a lot of the reporting on the WGA strike: one is an anti-union bias (a lot of the editorials against the strike regard unions as being a thing of the past); the other is an anti-“Hollywood” attitude.

The anti-union riff is prevalent in this country, right now, and it should alarm EVERYbody; nurses, teachers, autoworkers. Make no mistake about it, if the conglomerates manage to steam-roll the WGA, it’s really going to be open season on all unions…if it isn’t, already.

The anti-“Hollywood” routine would be amusing if it wasn’t so lame. Hollywood (as seen on TV) doesn’t exist. The myth of Hollywood was created by publicists years ago and encouraged by old time studios, to manufacture a glamorous place of Mount Olympus proportions in order to sell movie tickets and fan magazines. It’s pretty much the same, today. It’s a façade spruced up for gala events to titillate the tabloids both televised and in print.

And it’s a helluva target.

Last weekend, when fires destroyed over forty homes in Southern California, Reuters ran a headline: “Wildfire destroys homes in ritzy Malibu.” Um, excuse me. Ritzy? If you’re hit by a car does it matter if it was a Corvette or a clunker? It still hurts. (Just a thought. Had those homes been owned by conservative Halliburton honchos would they still be considered ritzy?)

Most writers are about as glamorous as a member of the old High School AV club. We don’t hobnob with the stars. We can never find our glasses. We traffic in index cards, not caviar, and our offices usually resemble a mass sticky note suicide. (Note: and our offices, usually, are the only room in the house with a carpet that hasn’t been cleaned in ten years.)

Yet, when the writers’ strike started, “The New York Times” actually ran a news article “critiquing” the strikers! “For a time, the pickets’ chants were drowned out by the roar of the crowd that was assembled for the ‘Today’ show across 49th Street,” the reporter sniffed. (Actually, it took three reporters to write the article. I guess one was in charge of nouns, another verbs and the other attitude.)

After stating that all the trappings of a union protest were there (thanks, guys), the article went on: “But instead of hard hats and work boots, the people on the pickets had arty glasses and fancy scarves.” (Arty glasses? Are we talking Elton John, here?)

Later, one of the investigative journos became upset that picketers on the West Coast were walking in silence. “Why wasn’t anybody chanting union slogans or even, for that matter, talking to one another? As writers, why didn’t they come equipped with witty sound bites?”

Bite this, ace. Suddenly, the NYT’s love affair with Judith Miller makes sense.

Reporting like this is very close to the erudite: “Why don’t yooze guys get real jobs?” so popular on anti-WGA blog spots. I wish Samuel Gompers were still around.

For the record, writers don’t use jack-hammers, welding materials, cranes or forklifts in their work. (Unless they are very bored.) However, the product writers create is just as integral to American society as anything you can purchase and hold in your hand and, probably, break. Think of all those widescreen TVs being sold this Christmas. Now, imagine them all with nothing on the screen. Picture going to the movie theater just for the popcorn. We fill those screens, big and small.

One criticism of the writers’ walkout has been something along the lines of “If you’re so good, how come so many TV shows and movies SUCK?”

I will now reveal a secret, a secret so shrouded in darkness that not even “Access Hollywood” has dared to shine a light upon it.

99% of writers do not control what the finished product looks like!

There! I’ve let the cat out of the bag! Ahahahaha!

It’s true. You can work and slave on a script of your own and produce “The Mona Lisa.” Once your masterpiece is purchased, however, you are likely to get notes along the lines of “can you give her bigger tits and have her play a lot of volleyball?”

I once wrote a science-fiction comedy script that, basically, concerned world peace. It was bought. Swear to God, the studio exec beamed “I laughed my ass off. I loved it! Can you lose the world peace angle?”

Writers get notes like “make it funnier,” “make it bigger,” “try something else” and “a 400 foot wasp wouldn’t do that.”

We have the shelf life of an unwrapped slice of bread. (Most writers over 40 have other jobs. A lot of older writers, myself included, take an early retirement to pay the bills and, yes, keep writing.)

We’re pretty solitary.

We have no job security.

We live from gig to gig.

So, why don’t we just give up and get a real job? Why do we still want to write?

Beats the hell out of me. Why do musicians play? Why do actors act? Why do painters paint? It’s something that has puzzled parents, wives, creditors and mewing children for centuries.

Personally, I wanted to write since I was a kid. Even before kindergarten, I’d pencil in my own “thought balloons” in my Little Golden Books. If it was a Mickey Mouse tome, I’d sign my own name right under Walt Disney’s on the title page. When I was older, my parents made me go to a teacher’s college so I’d “have something to fall back on.” I worked full-time for years, writing at night. Books. Features. Newspaper columns. Then, I thought I’d give screenwriting a shot at the advanced age of 32.

It sort of worked out.

No one on the picket lines is enthused over this strike. It’s both a financial and personal hardship. I know it is for me.

Ironically, in the last two years leading up to this strike, I managed to fall in with an independent film company filled with the kind of people I’ve wanted to work with for the last twenty-five years. They’re dreamers. They’re risk-takers. They love making movies as much as I love writing stories.

And that’s what this strike is about, really.

It’s about thousands of dreamers who love corralling their dreams onto paper and risking everything to share them with other folks. We want to make you laugh. We want to make you cry. We want to scare you. We want to inspire you. We want you to dream, too.

If studios can make a profit from our dreams – that’s great!

But they should never forget where the dreams came from.

They should never forget how the words got on the page and who put them there.

Yet, they plead poverty. The writers are the greedy ones. Who needs writers when there’s reality TV? They insist that TV audiences won’t mind sitting through a TV season resembling a collision between “American Idol” and “Pimp My Ride.”

How can anyone wrap their head around that sort of logic?

Words fail me.

And will continue to do so until the AMPTP acknowledges the contribution of writers and treat us fairly.   

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