Tuesday, August 28, 2007

In the Beginning was the Word

And the Word was Story
or The Writers v. the Producers 2007

Sofia Coppola's Academy Award winning Lost in Translation is my third-favorite movie. Opinion is split roughly 40/40/2o of the people whom have seen it: Given 100 people, 40 adore it, 40 despise it, 20 are indifferent. My mother and my daughters fall in the indifferent category confirming for me the movie speaks powerfully only to those in the middle of their life. What it says, depends on whom you are and what stories you listen for.

If you're in the 80% it reaches, Sofia's movie moves people to tears or upsets them because it tells a particular kind of story. Lost in Translation is Art with a capital A. From before the beginning, literally some of us say, everything is created in story. All of this, whatever this is, everything which exists, exists in language, in story told by a speaker and listened by a listener, all invented in a shifting tale by a storyteller.

A big fight is gearing up. You should know about it. If only to know that the people who invent the stories which create the ever-present background context encompassing and giving rise to the media culture you and I live in -- the writers -- are in a fight with the people who control the money, networks, and airwaves -- the producers. It is not a fair fight. The last few times this fight has been had the writers got their asses whooped. Producers negotiate for a living. Writers... well, writers aren't especially social at the best of times, most of them. Frankly many writers are a bit weird and many dress slightly funny or look a little off which is more of an issue than you might imagine, especially in beauty-obsessed Hollywood. But ultimately, none of that matters. The problem the producers have is, no one else but real pro writers can write. Writers are experts not just on dialogue and character. Much more importantly, writers know bone deep what story is, how it works, how to bring it forth from nothing, how to mold and shape story into that which moves people -- to the point where they'll kick in $10 bucks a ticket to watch the movie twice and bring their kids, or watch for an hour every Thursday night at 9 pm. The problem the writers have is, the producers control the money and access to talent. Plus writers have to write. They must.

Fifty-thousand scripts a year are registered with the Writers Guild of America, but only 4,400 writers a year get hired to write television and movies. That's it. That's how many writers, year after year have got whatever combination of talent, skill, weirdness, connections, and guts to keep bashing their head against the wall that it takes to make it, when your family and friends keep telling you to get a real job. The odds are very much not in your favor when it comes to writing in film and television professionally.

Most movies fail. Most movies lose money. Movies and television that make money -- and no movies make money according to Hollywood accounting unless they are enormously successful -- start making money with DVD sales. TV makes money with advertising, but where it pays off is when a show gets to 100 episodes and sells into syndication. Although now with the power of The Long Tail, TV shows of even one to two seasons can sell DVD's (think Joss Whedon's Firefly) and make decent money.

Pay attention now: Regardless of if a movie makes or loses money, a writer gets paid residuals as the negotiated equivalent of royalties. Residuals aren't bonuses. Residuals aren't salary for writing. Residuals are what writers get in exchange for the studio being allowed to exploit the work the writer created. Period. The fight this fall is over how much money the producers have to pay the writers in residuals per DVD sold. Not to mention how much per internet sale (currently none) and other new means of distribution.

One possibility is there will be a strike. Another possibility is the fight will get bumped three years into the future when everyone is more clear precisely how the internet will impact distribution. The thinking there is, better for everyone to suck it up with a poor deal now, than to get screwed with a bad deal now (and no one is quite sure who would be the screwer or the screwed.) Three years from now much should be clearer. The third possibility is the writers try to bump things forward to the future, but the actors (SAG) come along in their contract negotiations and set a new deal on DVD residuals... and that becomes the new standard. The odds of a strike happening this fall are higher for the writers, because the writers don't want anyone else determining their destiny.

I've written a screenplay and am working on another. Writing is damned difficult. My heart lies with the writers. Hollywood accounting is designed to confuse and befuddle, to allow the studios to take costs from their failures and dump them on other people's winners. The producer's financial game is a con.

Without the writer who creates the story there is nothing. "Writing is easy, all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead." -Gene Fowler

Every movie you love, every television show you enjoy -- all of them were written by a writer. This fall they'll be fighting for their fair share. Don't let anyone fool you (for example the NY Times who got it completely wrong.) What the average WGA writer is paid today in comparison to what the other main creative talent makes is a joke. Directors, actors and producers all make enormously more than the writer. But without the writer there is only a blank page.

As we approach Labor Day let's hear it for the union of professional writers, the Writers Guild of America. Go Union Go!

Want to know more?

WGA v. THE STUDIOS: Unspinning The Spin

The Average Writer's Non-Biased Guide to The Upcoming WGA Negotiations

The Economics of Screenwriting

Screenwriting blogs: John August, Wordplayer & The Artful Writer