Chasing Norma Rae

While I'm not a member of the WGA, I want to take a moment here to address the current plight of Hollywood’s writers.
First and foremost, I want you to know that I support you 100%.
The way that things have progressed in our technology-driven society, the salary compensation deal you had been operating under is not only antiquated but flat-out ridiculous. Above that, the fact that the production studios have been fully profiting from all the new forms of media and distribution rites and using the letter of the law found in your previous agreement (which was signed in 1988, and only provides verbiage to ensure residual payments owed for distribution and sales of VHS tapes) is nothing short of a slap in your face.

For those who might not know -- the Writers Guild of America is striking against the television and movie studios that employ their services to protest what they feel is unfair treatment in terms of residual compensation for projects they work on. Basically, the writers want a better guaranteed percentage of media profits made from retail and Internet resources than they've been getting so far.

In other words, when people buy DVD collections of TV shows or download episodes of their favorite programs on iTunes, the profits from those sales is split up and distributed to the producers, directors, and in many cases the actors on the show -- but the writers behind the scripts are hardly getting anything at all.

Royalty payments are in many ways the lifeblood of the entertainment industry, partially because in today’s world they literally never stop coming, but also because the shelf life of a writer in Hollywood is never guaranteed. For example, lets say you were paid an agreed on price to co-write two or three episodes of CSI but weren't kept around to be part of the normal staff -- according to your union contract you (rightfully) get a slice of any DVD sales that include your product.
The problem is, with the current deal the writers only get about four cents a unit.
Anyone who's ever bought a TV show DVD collection knows that these things can run anywhere from 30-50 bucks a pop -- and therein lies a big part of the problem.

But when you factor in the rise of Internet media sales -- where people can watch movies on Netflix or download episodes of their favorite TV shows from places like iTunes. Even though you only pay a couple of bucks for this kind of service, the licensing fees these outlets pay in order to distribute these services can range into the millions. Under the current union agreement the WGA has with the studios, the writers have no official claim to that revenue whatsoever.
This is the real sticking point.
The problem is that the studios are using the current union contract (written when none of these things even existed) to justify keeping the writers from getting a piece of this pie. It's almost like they're standing in front of a stack of money and holding up the contract saying, "You didn't say you wanted any of this money, so we're not gonna give you any."
Which when you think about it is kind of a dick move.
The fight over these issues has actually been going on for a while -- with the bigwigs standing firm on their non-sharing stance and the writers threatening to walk out and shut down production on all sorts of programs, essentially crippling the industry -- which is exactly what happened earlier this week.
But there's a problem:
Sure the writer's guild is a big union. They're well-represented and exceptionally unified considering the fact that as of right now none of them are pulling a paycheck at all. But the people they're fighting are backed by some of the biggest corporations in the world, corporations that do more than just make movies and sell DVDs.
Look writers, I feel your pain and support your position. But if you think companies
like Time Warner and Sony don't know how to break a picket line, you're dreaming.
From American Idol to Dancing With the Stars, almost all of the top shows on TV right now don't have writers at all. This whole reality show explosion (which when you think about it has been going on for almost a decade) was a gambit by the studios to defend against this sort of walkout. Not that writers aren't important to making a good show (Lost, Heroes, Sopranos, etc.), but that when marketed properly to the right demographics -- the studios can (and will) get by without them.

In other words, nevermind worrying that scabs will cross the line and get your jobs -- those jobs have already been given away, obsoleted, downsized, whatever. Instead of piling up scripts to make sure that they were ready if you guys ever decided to walk out, they jumped the train and created a whole new market that you guys have no claim to whatsoever.
It's almost like you guys brought a knife to a gunfight.
The writers will argue that the rise in reality and non-written programming like game shows is exactly what is driving their demands for more revenue. As writing jobs continue to disappear, the need for the writers who remain to maximize their earning potential (especially considering the cost of living in places like LA) is almost essential to surviving week to week.
The studios look at the advertising and secondary media returns for American Idol -- and they don't care.
Left with no other options, the WGA finally decided to walk. Had they done this 5 years ago when they first threatened to do it, TV would have become an utter wasteland of reruns and whatever, and the studios would have been screwed trying to sell advertising. But back then most writers didn't have the money saved up to survive an extended break without pay, and the guild worried the picket lines wouldn't hold. They threatened a walkout, but didn't pull the trigger.
Lesson #1 -- If you're fighting a guy who's bigger and stronger -- you have to land the first punch. Winning a fight like that is all about stunning the other guy into not swinging back. Knee him in the shin, kick him in the crotch – get him where it hurts quick, because if you don’t – he’s gonna lay you out for sure.
I've belonged to two unions in my lifetime -- the Stagehands union and a Teachers union. One of them kicked ass and the other one sucked balls (guess which). I believe in my heart that both of them were necessary entities, and I generally support the idea of labor unions -- but there are ways to handle things, and there are ways to screw things up even worse than they were before you started negotiating, and my concern is that the WGA isn't thinking the right way with this thing.

When you strike against management there are two basic goals. First -- to shut down production through your refusal to work to illustrate your specific value in the production process. A move like this is the backbone of hardline labor negotiations -- which is why guys like Jimmy Hoffa and the UAW swear by it. If trucks don't roll or assembly lines aren't manned -- nothing gets done. If you've got no product, you can't make sales. No sales, no revenue -- no revenue, no profit.
That's how you get a 40-hour work week.
That's how you get equal pay for women.
The second goal is to get the public behind you. Picketing workers draw news coverage, and news coverage means exposure for your issues. It's kind of a whiny move, but that doesn't make it any less effective. So if you're a public school teacher who's getting boned on health benefits and the city government won't budge, you get on TV and tell mom and dad that all you really want is a decent salary and the chance to see a reputable doctor and dentist once in a while, and isn't that a small trade-off considering all I do to help your children get ahead in life?
The problem here is that I'm not sure this particular strike accomplishes either of these goals.
TV writers won't deliver new scripts? -- You mean there's a chance I won't have to sit through another insipid episode of CSI: Miami? You mean that there's a chance Two and a Half Men won't be on the air? Oh, all I get to watch are re-runs of Leno, Letterman, and The Daily Show?
They sell previous seasons of The Daily Show on DVD. People love re-runs of that stuff.
Fact is, there's enough non-scripted shows on TV right now that unless you're locked in to certain programs, you might not even notice the gap at all. Sure the programs might not be as good as the ones you liked before, but if there's one thing we've learned in this age of 500 TV channels, satellite programming, and whatever is that if you take steak off the menu, people will buy Quarter Pounders.
But the real problem here is the public image problem this whole thing suffers from.
First and foremost -- you've got to get control of your ranks. I know you want news coverage to expose your grievances, but having recognizable actor/writer/producers standing there telling me they're not getting paid enough will not do anything to get regular working people to empathize with your plight.

Julia-Louis-Dreyfuss may be outraged at the compensation she's receiving as a writer on The New Adventures of Old Christine, but all people see when she's being interviewed on the picket line is Elaine from Seinfeld, one of the cast members who were pulling close to $1 million an episode during the heyday of that show (btw -- while all her WGA residual checks have been frozen by the studios for her refusal to report to work, none of the royalties she continues to collect as an actress and co-producer have stopped at all).
This is incredibly bad PR.
Movie stars picketing for more money dredges up about as much sympathy as professional athletes holding out for better contracts. Seriously, I'm supposed to believe that people like Tina Fey, Seth MacFarlane, and the current cast of Saturday Night Live are just scratching by month to month? What about the guy two picket signs back who is calling his parents on the cell phone again to ask for help with the rent?
That's who you need to hear from. That's who needs to be on the camera explaining the issues.
Not that Tina Fey isn't getting screwed out of money for a product that couldn't exist without her input -- but that in order for me and the rest of the regular schlubs out here to understand and actually sympathize with your plight, I need to feel like you're getting screwed over by the man -- instead of the way it seems right now, where a bunch of people who are making a living doing something they love and pulling $70,000 a year are cheesed off because they aren't making $100,000 a year (or more).
If all of this sounds familiar, it's because it's the exact same
thing Metallica was bitching about when they shut down Napster
-- and just think about how well that went for them PR-wise.
Lets look at this another way: A couple of weeks back Prince got on YouTube and did a search for his own name. What he came up with were a bunch of his music videos posted on there without his permission. Not that he's hurting for cash, but Prince gets paid whenever his videos show up on TV, just the same way he earns a songwriters commission from publishing houses like BMI and ASCAP whenever radio stations play a song he wrote. More importantly for Prince -- he's responsible for paying a bunch of people (musicians, producers, etc.) residuals for their contributions to those specific pieces of art.

Prince's point in doing this (which is strikingly similar to the principle that the writers are fighting for) is that the studios aren't doing their job. The studios are supposed to be managing the distribution of the artists’ product so that they are properly compensated when people pay to see or hear it.

Prince wants people to have opportunities to hear his songs, Prince wants people to like his music -- that's not his problem. What Prince, Metallica, Tool, the writing staff of Late Night with David Letterman, and all the people on those picket lines are demanding is that if the work they produce is going to be distributed all over the place by known entities like YouTube, iTunes, or Netflix -- they should get compensated for it by the studios just the same as if people bought the CD's, DVD's, or tuned into the shows that companies pay to have their products advertised during.
This is the part that makes sense.
The record company Prince has a contract with (and more importantly the corporation that owns it) is supposed to make sure that unless Prince himself gives specific permission for these songs to be on YouTube -- those songs won't show up there. Because if they do, it means the songs are essentially being distributed by individuals that Prince does not have a contract with, offering him no chance or right to demand compensation for work that he actually produced.

And you can't blame the viewers or netsurfers here. I mean, if people can get things for free, of course they're gonna go for it. It costs how much money to get into the Louvre (not counting the cost of the plane ticket to France)? -- well what if you knew a guy who could get you in there for free, through a secret door that led right to where the Mona Lisa was hanging -- and could help you skip waiting in line, what kind of moron wouldn't jump at that chance?
Or to put it another way: How many people paid absolutely
NOTHING to download the new Radiohead album last month?
Of course, Radiohead can afford it. And besides, any money they lost in that venture can easily be made up in appearance fees, merchandise and concert ticket sales, and (insert the magic words here) ROYALTY payments from their past albums.
Like they say -- The first taste is always free.
The problem is that Prince took it too far. I mean, number one -- he's frikkin' Prince. It's very hard for a star like him to make a case that anything hurts his pocketbook. But worse than that, he found videos on YouTube that featured his music and he lumped them into his complaint. Specifically he noted that there was a video of a baby dancing to his hit "Lets Go Crazy" that he wanted immediately pulled from YouTube because it violated his agreement with his record company.

The video itself was posted by some housewife who's kid apparently has great taste in dance music. And while it may be true that said housewife did not ask Prince or Time Warner's permission if she could use the song in this manner -- that didn't make it look any less horrible when under pressure by Prince’s lawyers YouTube not only pulled the video, but immediately suspended the housewife's account for violating the terms of her membership agreement with the site.
If all of this sounds familiar, it's because it's the exact same thing
that happens when the MPAA takes teenage girls and old ladies to court
because they downloaded a bunch of NSYNC songs off the web back in 2001.
Prince wasn’t out to get that housewife. Prince was trying to prove a point to the record company. But there’s no way you can go after the end user like that and not look bad.

This is the lesson that the writers have got to figure out, and quick. Their fight isn’t with the people who are posting episodes of The Simpsons on YouTube without permission. But that’s the way it’s starting to look. That’s the way it’s being played on CNN and Fox News.
CNN owned by Time Warner, Fox News owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Both entities who run Hollywood studios that are currently being picketed by WGA members.
Writers -- You want to win this thing? Get off the news. Get back to the negotiating table and start offering real solutions. The studios won't like it, and they're likely to try and stand their ground, but there's tons of money out there to be had, and it's just a matter of finding a way to secure a more realistic percentage of the profits without painting yourself into another corner. The public doesn't understand your issues, and frankly isn't all that interested to begin with.
Take your fight to the people who matter, and stay with it until you get what you're worth.

[Listening to:    Kings X"Dogman" ]