Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Dispatches From The Line

What The WGA Strike Is About...And Then Some.

If you didn't already know, I suppose I should tell you—that when I'm not doing the nine-to-five gig to pay bills, I have been known to collect a check or two as a professional television writer. I've had a hand in writing seventy-plus episodes of television programming, so you'd be correct in assuming that the present Writers Guild Strike hits not just close to home, but square in the middle of my living room, with blast and singe marks reaching well past the kitchen, and knocked not a few tiles out of the ol' bathroom wall.

As I'm on the East Coast, the tangible effects of the strike are not as visible as they are on the left coast. The two big studios here—Silvercup and Kaufman-Astoria in Queens have got picket lines up. Go to the West side of Manhattan and you'll find a few folks going up and down in front of the CBS facilities and downtown a piece at Chelsea Piers where they shoot the “Law & Order” interiors. Tina Fey of 30 Rock was out in front of the actual 30 Rock today in solidarity with her writing staff, which is kind of cool considering how quick show-runners are to ditch their writer hats when the poop hits the fan. But the real action is out west, where you can't go a mile from Hollywood Boulevard in any direction without hitting a major facility with thirty to forty strikers angrily pacing in front. From Sunset-Gower, to The Lot across from the Formosa Café, to the massive Sony/Columbia'MGM complex in Culver, they're (we're) out there.

My writing partner from the coast has checked in with me with some on-the-scene updates.

What he saw?

James Brooks, of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, “Broadcast News” and “The Simpsons” fame was out on the line at FOX's soundstages with his gang from “The Simpsons”.

Lots of action at the CBS Radford lot (Where the classic MTM shows, “Gilligan's Island”, “Gunsmoke” and even “CSI:NY” have been lensed) in Studio City. My co-hort noted that this lot had the most people of color on the picket line—mostly African American women...but as he also pointed out, this is the lot where they shoot the CW's “Girlfriends” and “The Game”. Both are Black-centered, Mara Brock Akil productions—one of TV's most powerful Black women (including “Grey's Anatomy's” Shonda Rhimes), thus the reflection on the line (which is actually quite rare, sadly enough). Folks out there are quite heated according to him. A picketer had his foot driven over by an angry, anxious suit impatient to leave the facility, and ironically enough—or maybe not so ironically—the strikers are wearing red shirts as they pace the studio gates.

Can't help thinking about the blacklisted “Red” writers from the McCarthy era—the ones like Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr. who didn't have strong union protection when they were forced out of their jobs because they wouldn't fold under studio and government pressures and “name names”. Interesting, to say the very least.

The strikers are apparently taking the picketing pretty seriously too, as rather than leave the line for bathroom breaks, my buddy took great pains to tell me about the spring water bottles neatly placed at the side of the stidio gate...filled with pee from people wanting to staying close at hand to the protest. Ick.

But...let's deal with something a bit deeper here. As in what this strike is about. If you're reading and listening to the news, the angle you'll get on it is that it's about a greedy, viral mass of unwashed nerds “always after the networks greenback-laden' 'Lucky Charms'” or something. And you'd be right to think that based on the coverage—for the news you watch and read is often wholly owned by many of these entertainment megalopolies. The talk for years has been about how entertainment divisions have bled over into news divisions at these companies.

Do you think for so much as a millisecond that NBC-Universal is gonna let the “news” division run stuff that might damage the parent network's bargaining position with labor? Would CBS's? ABC? Fox?

Got an idea now why the coverage is so damned skewed? Good. Now we're beyond the epidermis on this.

The WGA's issue—at least as far as the rank and file goes, is the matter of what I'll call here “secondary distribution channels”. You sign a deal memo for a show, or sell a script, and your boilerplate play-through media is gonna be broadcast television. It's been like that for years because that's all there was. From the day Philo Farnsworth got TV cracking technologically in the forties, up till the early 2000's, the venue you got paid for was what came down through the rabbit ears, or through the coaxial or via the whirring projector—and you got residuals, or secondary payments for X number of times the piece you got a credit on was repeated. Those residuals are nothing to fucking sneeze at. What few people understand is that at any given time, upwards of 60% of the WGA membership/workforce may be out of work. It may be during summer reruns. It may be due to a particular network's bed-shitting creatively and dropping an entire sked, thus putting a multitude out of work. In recent years, the issue has become the dramatic increase in reality shows, which don't need writers per se', and are thus a financial boon to networks because they can duck paying Guild minimum rates to a passel of people, still get programming on the air to fill the slots and maximize cost-to-profit ratios.

In fact, a couple of years ago, a bowling league was formed in L.A., with teams consisting of nothing but out-of-work-due-to-reality-TV writers—just to keep morale up and give these folks an outlet to still network and have some fun instead of stuffing rags at the door-cracks of the garage and running the car exhaust while Flavor Flav disses New York...a-fucking-gain.

There are only so many jobs to go around at any given time, so for many of these people, that second, third, fourth and fifth play residual money is what pays the mortgage if you're on the skids for six months. It covers the COBRA benefits for the family when the regular income's drop moves them off the health plan. The other thing about residuals is that it is a back-end compensation for the level of creativity that goes into screen or TV writing. Yes, I know much of it is more “Small Wonder” than it is “Arrested Development”, but at the core of both poles of relative quality is an undeniable truth.

In the end, there is nothing without the word.

What a writer does is come up with the space/time continium that characters move through. A writer gives them scenarios, and situations. A writer gives them words and silent thought that you the viewer can grasp. The writer gives them emotion, and moves them from point A to point B by giving them a reason to make the journey. The writer is a god with a small “g”, because without expending that thought about what will happen, who it will happen to, and what that happening will bring, guess what?—Nothing happens.

The lines we throw around casually in conversation—the ones that have become simply part of the culture: “We don't need no steenkeeng badges!”, “Make it so!”, I am master of my domain!” “We're gonna need a bigger boat.”, “Man the fuck up!”, “Hug it out!” “You can't handle the truth!” were all heard in some scribe's head first as the characters called it out to them from somewhere deep within. They were vetted, tweaked, tested for rhythm and logic and plot momentum and then...put on paper before anybody ever spoke 'em. Before they became the catch-words we all use so giddily and without a thought as to their provenance.

Residuals are oftentimes the acknowledgment of additional compensation for the studios/conglomerates milking those words for extra profits when a production is repeated again and again. Now, every writer who writes doesn't end up with a rerun-fueled check in the mail every five months —unless you're a show creator, in which case, you get dough every time that “created by” credit rolls, or the show/episode(s) you worked on lives on forever in syndication. Your show goes away like most of 'em do, so too do the residuals. End of story. Eve Plumb, Barry Williams and Maureen McCormick stopped getting residual money from “The Brady Bunch” some time in the late seventies because of the way AFTRA contracts are structured. “X” amount of reruns and the money is done, son. Writers had to fight that battle out well into the late eighties, so many scribes pre-1990 are as ass-out as the actors like those Brady Bunchers who have seen their “images” since used for anything the rights holders deem fit. And think about it. Jack don't happen till a writer creates it, and yeah, just as you see it joked about, they get treated like cocktail frank and Muscatel aroma'ed hoboes by the suits...constantly.

What the studios are playing hardball about is that thing I wrote about up-piece—namely, those “secondary distribution channels”.

Those channels consist of DVD sales and of course, the internet. The networks and studios are spasming with the same seizures of paranoia that the RIAA and radio networks like Clear Channel are—as more and more ways to market content spring to life, they fight more and more to control those methods and the profits from them. DVD revenues are an unmitigated cash cow for these companies. Sales of DVD box sets of pre-new media shows like M*A*S*H, and Star Trek-TOS, and The Rockford Files make the studios and entities that own the properties a hefty hunk 'a dough. Beyond the outlay to restore the source material, packaging and mastering (shows featuring popular music cost more due to musical licensing fees, like WKRP in Cincinnati), there's almost NO compensation to the actors (as those rights were signed away under old contracts) and NONE for the writers.

Now, you can't unshoot a gun. Those old contracts are what they are, and because of the studios' “we own it all” wording in those deals, they're locked in. What the WGA is going for is getting language in the new deal that acknowledges the companies actively marketing of these post-new media shows for near-immediate profit in these “secondary distribution channels”. Shows come out, a year later, that season is marketed in a boxed set—and the writers get close to nothing from that second bite at the profit apple. Studios are saying that yes, the writers deserve nothing, or next to it because of the “risks” they take in investing in producing these shows in the first place—floating the old “profit math” dodge that enables them to make something that is profitable appear to be a break-even or money-loser, alá the incredible accounting skullduggery that made Eddie Murphy's “Coming To America” appear to be a bust with no profits to be shared when a lawsuit settlement required a share of the profits be given to the late columnist Art Buchwald for it being proven that work he'd done wound up in the film uncredited to him.

The “risk outlay” bullshit.

The networks more than break even on the ad packages sold for the TV shows. Ratings impact a show down the road a piece, but for the most part, the advertising is sold, and the profits pretty much guaranteed shortly after the “up fronts”—which is the network show spring preview for advertisers to “buy in”. Shows get cancelled when bad ratings don't bring in the predicted numbers touted in the “up fronts”. And when a show is cancelled, guess what? As there should be, there are no residuals for something that doesn't get shown repeatedly. That's the writers' penalty. Don't get re-shown? Don't get no dough. Instead it seems, the conglomerates want to penalize them for creating something profitable. Where's the fairness in that? Especially when the windfall is so immediate and so ultimately one-sided?

And dig on something an entertainment lawyer friend pointed out to me—you may remember that Jesse posted about the greedy bullshit that NBC pulled when they yanked all of their programs off of iTunes, ostensibly under the guise of upset with Apple over Apple's not raising the sale price of the downloads, and thus NOT increasing NBC's profits. Said friend noted that Apple's involvement also brought another thing into stark relief. That thing being the ability for auditors to track the number of online sales of NBC product via iTunes (and potentially use that number to calculate residuals), without NBC's being able to fudge 'em or massage 'em. Taking that now-linited content distribution back in-house (and locking it in there for free viewing—Hey! What about that whole “we ain't gettin' enough profits” shpiel?) gives them more control of the pipeline and the numbers the pipeline reflects. Hello “Coming To America” number-fucking again, should audit time ever come. Get it?

But back to the writers themselves. People I know. You don't see him or her—they're pretty damned anonymous, but some shlub or shlubette sweated the scenarios, the situations, the words and momentum of these scripted shows and movies you watch and sometimes enjoy. The studios would have you, the public believe that that process is this easy thing that just happens, and people are paid handsomely for that perfect 52 page sitcom or 117 page screenplay they walk in with one day and right out the door again, having “nailed it” in one. It's a lot more complicated than that.

Believe it or not, your ego is on the line every day as a scribe. In the writers' rooms and production offices, the head writer, executive producer, director and even the actors can tell you to your face “this shit sucks” about your work, and if they really sell it—even if it doesn't really suck, you still have to go back and somehow de-suckify it. If a studio suit has an issue with the word “ain't” and doesn't like to see it used in scripts and shows—they can exert pressure to where you won't get a script approved that has the word in it—even if it's in perfect context. You'll be told to go out of your way to write around functionally illiterate talent—you'll have to trade off quality just so the poor bastard can get through the shoot day saying simple words he can identify by sight, but not actually read.

Producers and show-runners will try to force their Cousin Seth, their ne'er-do-well Brother-In-Law Howie, or Serena—the chick they're trying to fuck in as “writers”, knowing full well that they aren't capable, but it beats making 'em producers (and giving them real credit clout), and it's an easy way to get 'em in “the biz” with a credit. This in spite of the way it cheapens what real writers actually do. Cousin Seth cracked a good mother joke just before lunch break—“that's his contribution”. Where's Seth for the second half of the day's shoot? He's off for the day. He's got shit to do. You? You're gonna be there until midnight coming up with a one-syllable word for “podium” for the aforementioned “Mr. Functionally Illiterate”. Woo-Hoo.

And the way management is playing this strike is pretty shitty, too. As I said, a large part of the union rank-and-file is out of work for long stretches of time. The big-name, money-makin' scribes are gonna be alright for awhile. It's the out-of-work folks, and more importantly the supportive craft unions who are going to have flaming hell touch down on the back of their necks the longer this plays out. Management is counting on the lesser compensated crew-folk's mounting level of upset as they miss their checks with the shutdown of everything and them putting pressure on their writing labor brethren. Grips, gaffers, hair and makeup, costumers, set builders and camerapeople—all of those other professionals are effectively being used as a fulcrum against the WGA. You know what? It just might work. That's a lot of people not getting a check outside of the writers, and as labor is so fractious in America post-the PATCO Air Traffic Controllers Strike, ain't the days of John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther any more.

I leave you with this. There is a moment in my life...a moment I'll never forget for as long as I live because as mundane as it was, it was the springboard for a lot of success in my life. One night, I was sitting on the Fourth Avenue elevated subway platfrom in Brooklyn in the early nineties. I was on my way to a meeting with some folks about a television series they were producing a pilot for, and I amongst others was being counted on for material for said pilot. This thing was gonna sell the series and I was sitting there fumbling about in my mind for an idea for this son-of-a-bitch. I let four trains go by as I was trying to jog something free.

And then, a kernel of a bit came. I began to think a little more, and the main scenario came to me...then the middle “hinge” moment, and quickly, the ending. I was then on the train scribbling furiously, and eight stops later, it was 95% done. The characters spoke to me in my head and walked around in my brain and blocked out the moves. I typed it up later that night after pitching it, turned it in the next day, and hot-damn, it made the pilot's cut. Weeks later, at a soundstage/theatre Uptown, I sat in my seat as a live audience looked at the set that was built for my piece. Actors had learned the lines, costumes picked, action diagrammed, and here we were—seconds away from shooting as the lights dimmed. One actor sat at one end of the set, and his creepy protagonist appeared at the other end. And as I'd intuituively sensed, the laughs came pealing forth from the audience from the “Uh-oh” set-up I'd built there at the piece's beginning.

It killed. It fucking killed. That moment of validation is something that'll stay with me forever. And then, that time on the train platform where I came up with a situation, words and emotions, a climax and a denouement comes rushing back. That thing that just happened on stage?...I wrote that. I created that world from my mind—and it just got up and breathed, and sweat, and Goddammit, spoke out loud.

It was NOT easy. It took work. Trust always takes work.

And we just want to be compensated reasonably for that “secondary distribution” that we contribute mightly to via our creation of the laughs, emotions, situations and worlds when we pull these things out of our heads.

It is really...only fair.

ED. NOTE: Edited to fix a syntactical/shorthanding glitch that made a point within the post unclear—Thanks, Bruce! And “Live Long And Prosper!”