Thursday, November 29, 2007

A cause worth dying for

A man without a cause worth dying for is not fit to live.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've been trying to put into words, succinctly, exactly why the WGA strike is a battle worth fighting. It becomes especially difficult to justify when you see people losing their jobs because of the strike. Worse, they're usually not even writers, just innocent victims caught in a crossfire.

And then I read this bit by John August and I felt he had reached into my body and strummed a perfect harmonic (boldface and italics are mine):
I got an email yesterday from a friend (and USC classmate) who works as an editor on a TV show. He was upset that in my blogging about the strike, I hadn’t talked about the many below-the-line crew members who have lost (or will soon be losing) their jobs as a result of production stopping.... many of the non-writing, non-acting folks who are integral to making movies and television feel that the WGA was cavalier in calling the strike.

The thing is, we’ll never know.... The better question — the question I asked my friend the editor — is whether there’s anything he’d strike for, even knowing that it would (at least in the short term) hurt him, his colleagues and others inside and outside of his industry. If the answer is “no,” that a strike is never an option, then he should be prepared to lose his health, pension, and other benefits. Because that’s how they were won.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Back on Track

Thanks to weeks of backchannel phone calls by some big name Hollywood agents, it looks like the WGA and AMPTP are going to meet up after this Thanksgiving holiday. This is great news, but... everything else in this business, one's expectations can be summed up in two words: "We'll see."

Friday, November 16, 2007

Meditations on French words

The word for "working" in English is "to run".
The word for "working" in French is "marcher"... which also means "to walk".

The word for "female spouse" in English is "wife".
The word for "female spouse" in French is "femme"... which also means "woman".

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Creative Interviewees

I nearly hit my teeth on the desk this morning while laughing and reading Yahoo's article today about Use Cleverness with Caution in the Interview.

The group of 150 senior executives offered several other examples of candidates going too far in their attempts to stand out:

* "One candidate said that we should hire him because he would be a great addition to our softball team."
* "A candidate sang all her responses to interview questions."
* "One individual said we had nice benefits, which was good because he going to need to take a lot of leave in the next year."
* "An applicant once told me she wanted the position because she wanted to get away from dealing with people."

Monday, November 12, 2007

P.O.V. I.S.P.

This chant heard today at NBC's picket line:
"On an Internet download where if a writer doesn't get paid, it's called PROMOTIONAL.
"On an Internet download where the studio doesn't get paid, it's called PIRACY."

From the Horses' Mouths*

* no WGA writers were used to script the following interviews.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Scabs are Writers, too

I think this shovel belongs to you.
—"Few Clothes" Johnson, Matewan

One of the reasons I hate strikes is the peer pressure to keep scabs from crossing picket lines. People cross picket lines because they see opportunity to work, they need the money, and probably because they think it's madness to walk out on an employer.

The thing is, scabs are potential union members. Thus, as contradictory as it might seem, a union is best served if they can convince scabs to join the union, too. In the words of Matewan's Joe Kenehan, "You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker. Any union keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a goddamn club."

How do you convince a scab not to be a scab? They usually have their reasons, and from their perspective, they're good reasons. Perhaps they risk severe litigation for breach of contract. Perhaps their career is on the line. Perhaps they're teetering on the brink of personal bankruptcy. All good reasons. How can a picketer reasonably ask someone to set those considerations aside, and let them be superceded by a strike's uncertain future?

Yesterday, I posted that the WGA suggests their members, "report to the Guild the name of any non-member whom you believe has performed any writing services for a struck company and as much information as possible about the non-member's services."


So that "the Guild can and will bar that writer from future Guild membership. This policy has been strictly enforced in the past and has resulted in convincing many would-be strike breakers to refrain from seriously harming the Guild and its members during a strike."

Okay... that's the stick, but where's the carrot? What incentive would a scab have to join a union other than this brutish iron gauntlet? What can they take home with them as comfort that they actually did the right thing because they chose to, not because they were forced to?

If I were running the WGA, I'd delete that "or else" clause from the strike rules. If people want to cross the picket line, let them—it's their choice. But if they did cross the picket line, I'd immediately dispatch my hand-selected PR rep (probably a nice old lady whom everyone would immediately respect and want to agree with) to gently convince them—one at a time—that the Guild will never sanction a scab for crossing a picket line and that the WGA will still fight for their rights as writers. And that the union is stronger as a group. And that they can continue working if they want and the WGA won't ever judge them. Finally, most importantly, the door will always be open to them.

Remember Aesop's Fable of The Wind and The Sun?
The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said: "I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger You begin." So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.

Kindness effects more than severity.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Which pencil goes down?

Writers can write spec scripts, but they have to be truly spec scripts—outside of any contractual relationship, expressed or implied, with a producer. —WGA spokesman Gregg Mitchell

In the midst of this writers' strike, many writers are still unclear what they can and can't write.

Take this L.A. Times article:
"Surely, we can write a spec, right?" asked Tim Fall, another WGA screenwriter and actor....

A few minutes later, Fall [had] resolved the spec issue, sort of. "My lawyer e-mailed me," he said, holding up his BlackBerry. The verdict, he said, was that writers "are not enjoined" from writing spec scripts, but that it was nonetheless "potentially a gray zone."

Great. Big help.

What are the guidelines in this new war zone? For starters, the WGA has drawn up its own Strike Rules:
  1. Stop writing for all struck companies immediately.
  2. Do not deliver or submit any literary material or any documents to a struck company.
  3. Do not negotiate with a struck company.
  4. Notify struck companies to return your literary material.
  5. Do not discuss future employment, sales or options with a struck company.
  6. Do not negotiate with a struck company to obtain financing for development or production of a project.
  7. Honor all Guild picket lines and do not enter the premises of any struck company.
  8. File with the Guild copies of all unproduced literary material written for a struck company ("script validation program").
  9. Inform the Guild of the name of any writer you have reason to believe is engaged in any strike breaking activity or scab writing.
  10. You have the obligation to picket and/or perform other strike support duties.
  11. Do not attempt to negotiate a settlement of the strike with any struck company.

That sounds to me like WGA writers are still free to write whatever they want as long as it isn't intended to be for pay. You can write a spec screenplay for yourself, but—for the duration of the strike—not with the intent to sell that spec to anyone in particular. Obviously, that's cold comfort to serial TV writers, but feature writers can dig out their wildest script ideas and go crazy. These scripts might get sold one day, but they're not being written to be sold. A hazy difference, perhaps, but an important one. Writers have writing in their veins... telling a writer not to write at all is like telling the sun not to rise.

The WGA also has this to say about non-members:
The Guild does not have the authority to discipline non-members for strike breaking and/or scab writing. However, the Guild can and will bar that writer from future Guild membership. This policy has been strictly enforced in the past and has resulted in convincing many would-be strike breakers to refrain from seriously harming the Guild and its members during a strike. Therefore, it is important for you to report to the Guild the name of any non-member whom you believe has performed any writing services for a struck company and as much information as possible about the non-member's services.

In a union-happy town like L.A., having your WGA membership barred is pretty bad news. Some writers are cavalier about crossing the picket line, which is highly risky, because if the WGA doesn't unconditionally and indefinitely welcome them into the picket line (as wise strikers would do), it's career suicide.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Spin That Promotional

I was once watching late night TV and saw two men sitting at a table, the one on the left interviewing the other on the right. The man on the left had a nice shirt and tie, and suspenders. In the background, an outline of a world map was composed of many light blue lights against a dark backdrop. Sound familiar? It looked like Larry King Live.

In fact, I thought, "Okay, this interviewer must be a stand-in for Larry King. So who's being interviewed?" The setting and dress lended the authenticity of Larry King... but it wasn't Larry King. And so I listened to this dude being "interviewed" about an amazing memory system he had devised. They spent many minutes touting the usefulness of the system and they had done such a great job of it that near the end of the program, I wanted to buy their memory system. Until the words flashed on the screen "PAID ADVERTISEMENT". It had been a sham. All the legitimacy I'd lent it because it looked like Larry King had been completely false. The interviewer was not a fact-finding journalist, but a paid actor.

Some years later, I heard a telemarketer talk about this approach as "framing our product in an environment familiar to the viewer". As he said that, I smiled as I heard in my mind comedian Bill Hicks:

I suppose the telemarketers who made that Larry-King doppelgänger can live with themselves by "framing" truth so they can better sleep at night, but all I see is a deception, an un-truth, a lie. In common parlance, it's referred to as a bait-and-switch.

And one such deception is "framing" web-based entertainment as "promotional". If you call a show a "promotional", the logic must go, it suddenly becomes something used to sell a larger product, so the writers and actors and crew members get paid nothing. If you you point a camera at Matthew Fox and broadcast that recording on TV with commercials, or sell it on DVD, writers get paid money. But if you broadcast the same thing online—and show advertising(!!!)—writers get paid nothing because it's "promotional".

Yeah. Sure. Sounds totally fair to me.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Why Writers Must Strike

WGA member Harold Gould explains, without hyperbole or venom, why writers must strike:

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Red Shirts & Picket Signs

Well, it's official—the 11th hour talks with the AMPTP broke down and the WGA is walking the picket line.

That means I'm officially closed for business; let's all hope the negotiations continue and the strike has a swift resolution so we can all get back to work.

Monday, 12:01 AM: Closed For Business

As I type this, negotiators for the Writers Guild of America sit opposite negotiators for the American Motion Picture and Television Producers. Their meeting will hopefully avert a crippling industry-wide strike. We'll see how that plays out.

I hate strikes. I do. I loathe them. In my experience, strikes usually incur an unreasonable degree of collateral damage to the faultless public. No matter how you slice that, strikes typically fuel a venomous word of mouth from which few participants ever totally recover. On top of that, strikes have always felt to me like a legal equivalent to bullying... and blackmail. And I'm not even a dues-paying WGA member, so this writer's strike doesn't really affect me. Or does it?

I do get offered film writing gigs of all sorts.

Thus, after having studied what writers are fighting to achieve with this strike, I can't, with a clear conscience, accept any writing contracts from producers for the entire duration of a WGA strike.

Writers are not asking for the moon, and it seems like they've taken every step to appeal to the AMPTP's common sense. However, when logic fails...

Pencils down means pencils down.

Respectfully, then, this is for all producers out there: for the duration of a WGA strike, I cannot accept any writing work for motion pictures, including: script & story consultation, feature script writing & rewriting, outlines, treatments, log lines, dialog polishes, character bios. Nothing. My writing factory will be closed for business until further notice, which is a polite way of saying, "Please don't ask me to do any writing work." It will just result in an awkward conversation as I offer a ham-fisted explanation why a non-WGA member is essentially joining a WGA picket line.

Perhaps my response would be this simple: one day I will be a WGA member and on that Day of Days, I couldn't proudly stand beside my WGA colleagues with the knowledge that, in their greatest hour of need, I was a scab undermining everything they risked their livelihoods to secure. Most important of all, one day, all the benefits the WGA are fighting for now, will benefit me, so accepting work during a writers' strike would be like shooting myself in the face.

If this morning's negotiations fail, the WGA's strike is scheduled to begin Monday, November 5, 2007 at 12:01 AM.

Friday, November 02, 2007

On Writers & Strikes—Mining gold?

In Jonathan Tasini's article, Greed Is Good: How Big Media Wants To Steal From Its Workers, he makes a point that rings true, even if not backed up by cold hard facts:

While the media titans like Murdoch and Iger run around crying poverty, out of one side of their mouths, and an inability to pay writers, they run to Wall Street, investors and media analysts and speak a different tone: they claim, individually, that their company is on the leading edge of new media and can be counted on to continue to capitalize on the explosion in new media uses...and, therefore, the Street, investors and analysts should have great faith in their leadership...and value their stocks accordingly. They sell advertising based on flogging their companies as the leaders in the business. So, in one place they cry "uncertainty"—when it comes to paying writers their fair share—and in another forum they cry, "we are future-looking geniuses cashing in on the Internet gold." Link.

I'd really like to see are the balance sheets of all the Big Media companies. If they're really keeping 99.7% of the the pie, where in the hell is it going? Into an ING savings account to weather this uncertain future they keeping talking about? Into the pockets of the CEOs? (Quoting a Forbes article, Tasini reveals the average 2006 annual income of CEOs at Time Warner, Disney, CBS, and New Corp. is $20 million. That's average.)

So which is it, AMPTP? Are you mining gold or not? I have yet to hear the AMPTP's side of the story. Somebody please help me out here.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

On Writers & Strikes: Richard Cox reply

Over on Myspace, fellow novelist Richard Cox posted this response to last night's blog about the WGA strike. I had a lengthy reply I'd prefer to not get lost in the Myspace ether, so I'm reposting here for posterity.

Richard's reply:

Even after reading your blog I'm not sure I understand the situation well enough to comment.

However, as a novelist, I don't incur any risk when selling my novel to a publisher. The publisher shells out the money to print the book and market it (although in my case, they didn't shell out much for marketing, haha.)

And yet I am still paid for each book sold, assuming I earn out my advance.

It boggles my mind that you could write a brilliant screenplay or teleplay and be paid a flat fee no matter how well it performed.

From my uneducated position, writing suffers when you treat it as a commodity. I realize producers believe they can take any high-concept piece of junk screenplay and, with the right actors and director, turn it into a moneymaker.

But why don't they learn from the lessons of really awesome movies that are well written that become juggernauts? Why do they accept mediocrity?

And then there is the whole argument of how a brilliant screenplay becomes a lump of generic mashed potatoes after studio people muck it up with test screening results. In trying to minimize risk, they ruin the chance to make a mint. And the original writer probably doesn't want to claim those mashed potatoes, anyway.

Posted by Richard on Thursday, November 01, 2007 at 8:00 AM

And my reply:
I did gloss over a few points to make the issues more palatable, but the gist is there. Perhaps the most important point I did not make is that there isn't One True Way to offer financial remuneration from producers to writers—there is only precedent, and precedent is always rooted in historical and cultural contexts. In Europe or Asia, they may treat this issue in an entirely different way. Nevertheless, all that is really moot: what matter is what has been done in the past and how the present deals on the table relate to past precedent.

In the past, writers have been offered what's called "scale", or a salaried pay, which is agreed upon three years advance in a document called the Schedule of Minimums (which you can find online here). Much like an advance for novelists, it has to be done this way because what happens if the final product, for whatever reason, does not get produced? At least the creator's time has been appropriately reimbursed. Writers do get residuals from DVD sales (see the car/idea analogy above), but writers feel like they got screwed 20 years ago on that deal. Internet residuals are on the table and they're not making the same mistake twice.

However, producers paying scale mean they're shouldering the cost and that means financial risk until the product makes money. For novels, there is relatively low cost incurred compared to films because a publisher can issue multiple prints to gauge market interest whereas only one film or set of TV episodes is "published" at once. Movie producers have a lot at risk, financially speaking, and when money comes into the picture, people tend to get gunshy. (The solution here is obvious: make all writers producers by forcing them to invest their own money up front. That would change their toon pretty bloody quickly!)

Novels are also a low collaboration medium, compared to movies. As Orson Welles said, "A poet needs a pen, an artist, a brush, and a filmmaker—an army." So the payout structure for films calls for a lot of employees to make the product, whereas with a novel, you need three people: the novelist, the publisher, and the printer; in some cases, the novelist is even the publisher, too. It would be pretty cheeky for a publisher to pay a novelist $100,000 for a novel and then make $10,000,000 without any kind of royalties since the novelist is the TOTAL creator of his medium. Comparatively, a screenwriter is just a blueprint maker, since actors, directors, and even producers can add their 2 cents along the serpentine path to the movie theatre. Should the actors, directors and producers then receive a residual based on their input? It's a slippery slope.

The answer to your question about why producers don't learn from the lessons of well-written films is simple: it's about money. Producers want to make hits, so their initial intent is to make the next American Beauty, but along the way, producers (or more accurately, producers' employees) have second-thoughts—what if the script I'm gunning for doesn't do well?—and thus the truly original writing self-selects out. In this respect, literary writers will always hold a trump card over screenwriters. If a novelist or journalist fails, they wipe egg off their face, but if a screenwriter fails, their producer's very career is at stake.

Thanks for posting! It's good to have another writer's perspective. I neglected to mention that the National Writers Union ( recently supported the WGA strike; they are a "United nationwide local of the United Auto Workers representing (at this point) about 2000 freelance journalists, book authors, PR writers, etc."