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The Scribblers Strike Back

By Marc Norman
Sunday, November 11, 2007

So here are the film and television writers, squaring off against their corporate masters in a labor dispute. Haven't we seen this movie before? As in the strike of 1960? And of '73? And '88?

Not really. The script is different this time, and I'll tell you why.

The relationship between moviemakers and writers has been a marriage of the Bickersons from the start. It went sour almost as soon as the moguls of the 1920s started bringing (mostly) East Coast writers west to fashion their screenplays. For those early writers, film work was slumming. Movies were still working-class entertainment, the narratives usually off-the-rack, white hats and black hats. The industry ranked in the national culture where wrestling or roller derby might today.

For the writers, movie work was big, easy money in a pleasant seaside town, a vacation before they got down to the novels and plays inside them. They weren't reluctant to let their bosses know what they thought of the occupation -- Herman Mankiewicz called his screenplays "tripe," and Ben Hecht once said, "I am a Hollywood screenwriter. I go to work, I take off my hat, then I take off my head."

Movies started getting better in the '30s -- especially as sound came along -- largely as a result of those early moguls' elbowing and elevating moviegoing into America's prime entertainment pastime. And as the moguls grew in stature and clout -- and their industry became a major cornerstone of American business -- they never forgot the stings of scorn they'd felt from their scribblers.

Working conditions for the early screenwriters were pretty lousy. Not just that their bosses slunk up and down the hallways listening for the clacking of typewriters. They were stiffed on their pay -- some low-rent studios would fire their writers on Friday night to avoid a Saturday payment and then rehire them on Monday morning -- and stiffed on their screen credits, those scalps that writers needed to get promotions.

There had been a Writers Guild of sorts going back to the 'teens -- D.W. Griffith helped found it -- but it had no teeth, and the studios ignored it. When screenwriters first considered organizing, the studios responded with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The outfit that hands out the Oscars was originally dreamed up by MGM's Louis B. Mayer in 1927 to solve labor problems by keeping them inside studio walls and leaving them up to "the honesty and sincerity of the parties involved." The academy had a writers' branch, but it failed to find honesty or sincerity in any screenwriter complaint and nothing changed.

When writers, encouraged by the National Labor Relations Act, finally founded a union in the mid-'30s, the studios created a rival union, the Screen Playwrights; its members pledged to be docile and tractable and were rewarded with better jobs and better seats at the studio commissary. When the Screenwriters Guild finally won jurisdiction in 1938, the studios still refused to recognize it and fought it in the courts until the writers threatened a walkout in June 1941. That, and World War II, finally gave writers their union.

And it hasn't been easy for movie writers -- and the television writers who joined them in the 1950s, when the union changed its name to the Writers Guild of America -- ever since. The companies have never given anything away. Residual payments, a pension plan, a health plan -- the guild won them all either by threatening to strike or by striking and suffering the consequences.

And here we go again.

In 2007, the major issue dividing the parties is New Media, the fact that in the not-too-distant future, all recorded entertainment that some writer dreams up will be delivered to you over the Internet. The implications are mind-boggling.

Imagine the $100 laptop with the solar-panel lid that wealthy foundations may eventually hand out to villagers in Africa. A continent with 680 million new Internet-savvy customers, all wanting to be entertained, and all willing to pay for it or to watch commercials from advertisers that pick up the bill.

Then imagine India. Toss in China. The companies that own the copyrights to the scripts that we movie and TV writers write -- and these are huge conglomerates now, GE/Universal, Viacom, Time Warner -- will reap an entirely new El Dorado, wealth beyond avarice.

What the writers are saying is: You pay us a little bit in residuals when you show our stuff in syndication or on cable, and that pays for our houses and our doctor bills. Pay us the same way for this new platform.

What the conglomerates are saying is: No.

But the current strike is not a tussle between aesthetes in their bathrobes and morons in their Mercedes-Benzes. The writers, to their never-ending mortification, took a poor deal in 1985 when the companies were first deploying DVDs. They cost so much to make, the companies complained. We don't know whether there's a market. Cut us a break -- take a tiny taste and we'll revisit the issue the next time your contract comes up.

Bait-and-switch. The issue was never revisited, and the companies have held on to 98 percent of their DVD bonanza for the past 20 years. Fool me once, shame on you Writers aren't buying that argument this time.

Here's what's different about this strike: The writers perceive the fortune that lies on the Internet as clearly as any of the CEOs arrayed against them. After all, some of those writers were discovering the power of the Net when they were teenagers, before some of those CEOs even knew what it was.

Movie and television writers are no longer temperamental naifs. They're entrepreneurs, the very same animals as their CEO bosses, aware that if they come up with the right entertainment idea -- the showbiz version of the killer app -- they can market it across platforms and around the world.

The struggle between writers and their employers may still be David vs. Goliath. But in this case, both the big guy and the little guy come from the same tribe.

This time, they're both capitalists.

Marc Norman won two Academy Awards for co-writing and producing "Shakespeare in Love."

He is the author of "What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting."

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