Writers Guild Strike: Another Perspective

Shawna Benson wrote a lengthy comment on my previous post — and in many ways a better argument than Douglas McGrath made in Newsweek or Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post. I’m going to highlight it as its own post.
I’m dismayed that so many people lack understanding of the issues involved. I am a conservative living in Hollywood, an aspiring TV writer, and believe me, I’m no union lover. But, consider the following:
* Not every writer sells work every year. Yes, there is the MBA (Minimum Basic Agreement) for works sold to studios, and many writers make more than the MBA on a screenplay sale, but often that screenplay is the result of a year or more in writing. The contracted minimum for a screenplay today is between $53,000 and $99,000. TV writers, who often only write one or two scripts in a season, can make up to $30,000 for an hour long episode (story and teleplay). Because staff writers are on salary, this is often counted against their salary. Meaning, that in order to make more than $50,000 a year, you’d have to write at least 2 TV scripts in full. Usually the only people making more than the minimums are the head writer (showrunner) who is also a producer and a handful of the exec-producer or co-producers.
* If a songwriter sells a song or a novelist publishes a book, should they not be compensated based on the sales of those works? TV and Film residuals are no different than the royalties other writers receive for their published works.
* Many TV shows today do not get re-run. ‘LOST’ episodes don’t re-run well, and so the network has decided to run the episodes consecutively with no repeats. Without a repeated episode TV writers are not compensated as they used to be.
* Recording a program on a VCR is NOT like downloading or streaming on the internet. The networks sell the broadcast programs for advertising. Those advertising dollars are then used to pay the writers, actors, directors. The studios are selling advertising on streaming video and are selling shows directly to consumers on platforms such as iTunes. The writers receive NO COMPENSATION from these methods of sale. In short, the studios are keeping all of the profits from these distribution methods and are not paying writers at all. Nick Counter, the lead negotiator for the studios stated at the end of the contract talks that shows streamed online or available through paid download services were considered “promotional” and therefore not subject to the residual formulas for DVD, and they do not know how profitable the internet will be for them. By the studios own talking points to their shareholders, however, they sing a different tune.
* The $200,000 average is a misleading indicator of most writers. There are 12,000 Writers Guild members (and I’m not one of them), The MEAN income of a guild member is $4,000 a year. Yes, that means there is a very large distribution. There are the A-list writers who make a lot of money, there are writers making the minimum, and there are writers who aren’t getting paid at all because they sold nothing in that calendar year.
* You may not watch a lot of scripted television today, but consider that the DVD formula applies to older shows you may watch and enjoy. 4 cents for every DVD sold. And that’s for films. TV is an even more convoluted formula. Ken Levine, a writer on MASH and other shows, stated the following on his blog: “The producers say we already receive royalties from DVD sales. There are no less than fifteen box sets of TV series with my scripts in them. I haven’t received a dime. I have gotten $0.19 from American Airlines for showing eight of my episodes on maybe 10,000 flights.”
Sorry for the long post, but this isn’t a Dem vs. Republican issue. And it isn’t a ‘big evil corporations’ issue, as some would frame it. The business model is changing, and what you are seeing is an industry that is grasping desperately at the remains of the old way of business. As far as the new way go, they fear making a deal with talent to share the wealth, because of uncertainty as to how much wealth they will have. The writers are looking at this form a standpoint of “Won’t Be Fooled Again.” In 1985 the studios pleaded with the unions that they didn’t know how much money was to be made from home VIDEO. They promised that if the guilds agreed to a lower residual rate on video, they would ‘make good’ on it at some point in the future. 20 years later, the writers, actors and directors are still waiting.
I have a few points to make in response. Writers earn their living in a free market, and so of course compensation will have a large distribution curve. Show me an industry where that does not apply for those who work in free-lance markets. If the compensation for the work truly does not match the labor, people wouldn’t take compensation risks to enter the market.
We still have not heard what the residual rates are for other participants, and how they relate to the writers. One commenter says that the cast gets 12 cents per unit to split among them, which makes the four cents for the writers’ split seem rather reasonable, since the performers are also selling their likenesses — and with most casts, the individuals will likely get less revenue than the individual writers on a show.
That being said, I agree that writers for TV and film should have some participation in secondary publication of their work. I also believe that they have the right to organize to secure better working conditions (including compensation), and that they have the right to strike when they feel that they need to do so. However, I’m having a great deal of trouble sympathizing with either side of this dispute, considering the volume of revenue this industry generates now and will in the future. It seems that neither side has reasonable people working on a rational method of compensation, and the strike is a failure by both sides to split an avalanche of cash.