Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Tuesday, 7PM: Open for Business

As of 7PM yesterday, the WGA strike is officially over. This is great news—nay, fantastic news—and deserves some closing remarks.

Why did the strike happen at all? How could it have gotten so bad that writers thought their chances of getting a better deal would require walking out on work altogether? Why did the AMPTP offer so many rollbacks and no residuals on the internet before the strike, only to cave at the end of the strike?

Here's what I think...

Hollywood moguls were under pressure with their Wall Street investors to perform financially. The AMPTP was watching an emerging new media—the internet—where they they had been labeling webisodes and mobisodes as "promotionals" to encourage viewers to get hooked on a given series. Once a full episode had been broadcast, it was cheaper to re-broadcast those episodes and also label them "promotionals". Because webisdoes, mobisodes, and full-episode internet broadcasts were considered promotionals, aka "freebies", nobody can be paid from them or the AMPTP loses money.

Since the writers went on strike in 1988 and were convinced then to accept a debilitating residual rate on video rentals for VHS (the AMPTP's tack then was, "we don't know yet if there will be any money in home video rentals or DVD sales, but don't worry, we'll take care of you next time..."), the AMPTP thought they could pull the same stunt again. After all, the WGA is a guild, i.e., a loosely knit, geographically decentralized group, not like a company of workers, so if a strike occurs, it should be easy to whittle down the writers' collective resolve as the months would drag on. And to remind the writers on who's the boss, the AMPTP would start by offering writers 34 pages of rollsback on pension, health care, etc. so writers have to claw past all those rollbacks first and not have enough gumption left over to dispute the Big Kahuna, internet residuals. Essentially, divide & conquer.

What they didn't count on was:

  1. Writers have a long-term memory. The DVD medium for digital entertainment is already on its way out, soon to be replaced by the internet, and writers haven't forgotten how they got screwed the last time around with the residual rates for home video rentals and DVD sales. Like an abused lover, writers grew some self-respect since the last strike.
  2. Writers had the high moral ground. Writers weren't asking for a lot, just to receive residuals as authors of their work as if they were book authors and songwriters. Even then, they weren't asking for a set fee, but a percentage of profits—"If you don't get paid, we don't get paid." Writers slept the sleep of The Pure; their resolve was absolute.
  3. Writers are writers. The AMPTP might have waged an effective war in the trade magazines, but writers make their money with words, so over time, the court of public opinion swayed in their favor. It's kind of absurd for the AMPTP to tell Wall Street investors they expect to make tons of money off new media but tell writers there's not enough money to pay residuals fees to compliment meager upfront costs.

The strike's over. United we stood, united we won.

Every battle has its compromises and some items were left on the table. The WGA wanted to bring reality TV writers under the WGA umbrella, but had to cut that lifeline, for now. Most of us would assume reality TV shows don't even use writers... I mean, it's reality TV—what's there to write? While that's true to an extent, the AMPTP does hire "Consulting Producers" or "Story Editors", which is basically the AMPTP trying to give a title to these people which doesn't include the word "writer" for fear the WGA would try to have them covered, which means the AMPTP would then have to pay benefits, pensions, meaning less profit. But what does a "Consulting Producer" or "Story Editor" actually do? They create situations (scenes), they might help cast talent that best interact with each other (character creation), and develop each episode's rough storyline (story arcs). So in many respects, these people are a new breed of writer.

Thus, they also ought to be covered by the WGA.

But you can't win them all. Looking forward to 2011...

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