Friday, November 09, 2007

Writers on Strike

A peculiar spectacle in Hollywood and New York, and everywhere else TV shows and motion pictures are being made, is before us. The writers are on strike. Of course when one thinks of workers on strike it usually calls up images of beefy scary looking truckers or other threatening masses of mostly men picketing outside factories and the like, daring anyone dumb enough to even attempt to break through their lines. This is not the case as mostly scrawny looking men and women, clearly of the nerdy variety, march around with bland (ironic for writers) signs and lame unionist chants. At stake? Contracts with TV and motion picture producers over royalties from DVD and other "new" media, which has grown by leaps and bounds since their last contract.

This is a very legitimate issue which any producer of intellectual property (in this case scripts, screenplays, etc.) should be properly concerned with. The problem here though, and it's a problem which exists for the entire industry, is why writers (and I mean good and exceptional writers) would ever want to tie themselves to unemployed, mediocre, or otherwise bad writers under the same contract. The advantage for the sub-par, or even par, writers is obvious. A share of revenue they would otherwise either never get or would only get on a very lucky day. The talented writers, however, have no such advantage. In fact, even a much better contract than the one they currently have is likely to be inferior to a contract their abilities and value could net them were the writing labor market a free one. This is a demonstrably true (both in economic theory and in practice) proposition, and thus puts a strike against the age-old idea that economic interest alone determines one's actions. So why do the talented ones "go along" with this (for them) waste of time and hit to their pocketbooks?

One reason is ideological. Hollywood and the acting/producing community in general has staid remarkably true to its unionist heritage while much of the rest of the economy has moved very quietly and successfully away from unions. Even the best and most talented writers take pride in their belonging to a "guild" of craftsmen, much like their medieval forbears upon which their organization is based. Of course, laws back up this activity (writers are legally able to collectively quit their jobs temporarily without any repercussions other than an obvious lack of pay) and thus add a coercive element that would otherwise be entirely lacking. And it is well known that, as a group, actors, writers, producers, directors, etc. are a very liberal group of people among whom a pro-union proclivity is a sine qua non of their culture.

Another reason is fear. Standing against ones peers on an issue like this is a scary prospect on many levels, not the least of which is the deserved reputation for violence which striking mobs of workers have gained over the years. Not only that, but if you are not confident in your moral right, as a talented individual, to not be shackled to the dead weight of your inferior colleagues, you're hardly likely to put yourself forward to suffer the abuse which would be inevitable. Also, anyone in such a community who asserted their superiority and thus their ability, desire, and right to make as much as that ability allowed them (far above their less talented fellow writers) to, would have aspersions like "selfish," "individualist," "greedy," or that horrible appellation given to any who is thought to work for themselves amidst a strike "scab," attached to their careers and reputations. Such a person would soon find themselves blacklisted by their industry and by their guild. This is ironic given the myth that Hollywood survived persecution and is anti-blacklist (they just did not like the criteria for the movie studio blacklist from the 40s and 50s).

Perhaps another reason is economics. Some successful writers, not particularly confident that their abilities will be around forever, may reason that sticking with the union contract, as opposed to being paid what they are worth as an individual writer, is the safer and, in the long-run, more profitable path. These people, while successful now, are thinking as if they were one of their more mediocre colleagues. This reasoning betrays a lack of confidence in their talent common among today's successful people in all fields of endeavor. It is actually portrayed today as a virtue to have confidence "issues" or to display humility, anything to avoid the appearance of arrogance: arrogance taken to mean a grand view of one's talents and worth and a willingness to boast about it. The actual meaning is something closer to a deliberately invalid and inaccurate view of one's talents and worth and a compulsion to boast about it. One would just be dishonest to not give an accurate appraisal of their virtues and faults, abilities and deficiencies, pros and cons; dishonest with others but also, just as important, dishonest with themselves.

So while the writers march, with signs which belie their craft and chants which demonstrate why they are not orators, and as our favorite programs go into reruns and we begin to grow frustrated and angry with the whole mess and look for people to blame we should remember some things. The producers, faced with the demand to pay all writers a minimum amount in media royalties, even to inferior writers, were correct to refuse. If the writers wish to operate as a guild and negotiate collectively, they must realize that the market price for most of their mediocre membership is going to be quite low. Among those same writers though, it is the talented, the able, the good, and the great among them whose fear, ideological wrongheadedness, or lack of confidence (or all of them working together) which has given this movement any strength at all. Were they not willing to support their inferior colleagues then their strike, their guild, and the coercive laws which support them against aggressive anti-union measures from the producers (i.e. hiring outside writers) would collapse or be on a much shakier foundation than currently buttresses them.


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Ramin Oskoui said...

I enjoyed reading your piece on the writers strike.

Perhaps its important to Keep in mind that Hollywood's relationship with the outside world is tenuous. It's a self-absorbed community and its politics are skin-deep, serving functions within the industry that aren't always obvious to outsiders.

Strikes happen as a result of “asymmetric information”—one side knows more than the other about the real economics (your favorite word)of the situation.

This strike revolves around the issue of residual payments owed to the writers. Isn't a residual really a deferred payment against the lifetime value of a script?

It's not a bonus.

That's why it's called a "residual." The word means "left over."! It's the left over part of the compensation the author agrees to wait for. It's not money for nothing. The word for that is "commission."

A residual isn't a handout or an allowance or Paris Hilton's trust fund. It's not a lottery payout, or alimony, or an annuity from a slip and fall accident at a casino.

A residual is a deferred payment against the lifetime value of a script.

It's not a perk.

Bottom-line: The writers are entitled to residuals.

Alexander said...

Interesting point, however my point was not that all writers did not have a point in contract negotiations. A contract is a very important agreement between two (or more) people/entities to establish what services or products will be produces for what compensation. The point I was making was that it is ridiculous for the writers to band together (meaning the most talented writer is shackling himself with the guy writing "Head On" commercials) and then demand everyone is worth a certain amount. Some writers are worth what they are asking (some are worth much more) and many writers clearly are not worth anything near what the guild is asking for.

To say the writers are entitled to anything is nonsense, they are entitled to nothing for which they do not have a contract and have no more right to extort money out of people or companies than anyone else. The only thing which allows this labor collusion on the part of the writer's guild are laws which put the government's monopoly of force behind the guild and do not allow the procurement of non-guild writers.

Ramin Oskoui said...

Thanks for your response. You make some valid points in your argument. You mentioned the possibility of talented writers being shackled up with less than talented writers (such as your Head On comment). However, writers for commercials, sports programs and reality TV, are not covered under the guild contract.

I respect your stance on the topic that writers are not entitled to any compensation unless they have a contract. However, do you object to the notion that if you come up with an idea, and you've written on that idea, and get a credit on the movie, and it comes out on DVD, you're getting the same formula that was offered to you in the mid-1980s, at the advent of VHS, under the auspices of, 'This is a temporary model until we see how this we industry does'? It's absolutely ludicrous for the studios to talk about Internet downloads as if it's some time in the future when a huge portion of the population is watching, on a daily basis, movies on their television that they downloaded from the Internet.

Think of your favorite living novelist. Someone who wrote a book that means a great deal to you. Do you feel that this writer is entitled to share in the profits when copies of his books are bought off the shelves of Barnes and Noble? Yes they are entitled...they get royalties. The person who invented and patented the chair you’re sitting on right now gets royalty payments every time a retailer sells one off the floor.

When a writer is hired to pen a script for a studio, they get a fee. The studio then owns copyright on every word they scribble. They're effectively purchasing the writers work as they create it. If a script goes into production, when the movie or television show comes out on DVD, writers get what's called residuals. Every time a DVD is sold featuring material based on their work, they get an additional payment of four cents. Not a great deal of money. But it can add up.

Just as DVD supplanted VHS a decade ago, the Internet is now set to supplant DVD. So instead of popping in that DVD of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, you'll click your mouse and download it straight to your TV. This delivery format is referred to as "New Media." And the studios don't want to pay residuals on it.

Therefore, 'contracts' as you mentioned, apply to everyone who was entitled to residuals in the past.

Alexander said...

Your novelist comparison merely proves my point. Novelists aren't part of a novelist guild, they compete for readers by their merits alone and negotiate their contracts with publishers individually based on their own talents. Screen-writers should do the same.

If the writers are upset because they are being compensated under an old contract which does not take into account new technolgy, the fault lies in the inflexibility of the process of having to negotiate one contract for all writers, whether they be great, good, mediocre, or awful. Residual payments, like all royalties (as well as any other compensatory payments), are a function of the marginal value of the product produced. This is easy to compute or anticipate for any one writer, but not for all of them many years into the future, which is the sort of irrational contract structure the writer's guild (in reality its a writer's cartel backed by the force of the state) insists upon.

Ramin Oskoui said...

Really, what are your thoughts on the Nuclear issue with Iran?