"It's affected readers, agents, even this psychiatrist I know," says Richard Kramer, screenwriter, ("Kent State") of the ongoing strike by the screenwriters' guild. "All of his patients are either writers or actors. Now nobody can afford to pay him."
The crowd used to start forming at the NBC television studios early in the afternoon, when groups of tourists and locals begin lining up for their free tickets to that day's taping of Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show.
But last Wednesday afternoon there wasn't any such crowd. Another, different line formed at noon and stretched in a long, quarter-mile oval down the street in front of the building. Its members all belonged to the Writers Guild of America, and they were picketing NBC just as they had picketed 20th Century-Fox earlier in the week and would be picketing other television and film studios in coming days. Because of that line, Johnny Carson wouldn't be taping today, or tomorrow or any other day until the strike ends.
At issue here is the same subject that sent the actors out on strike last year: their share of the revenues in the expanding pay television and videocassette/videodisc markets. The producers offered the screenwriters 1.5 percent of the gross revenues on pay TV and video sales, after each program meets a minimum number of showings or units sold; this fits the writers' traditional share, which is one third the royalty rate given to actors. (The actors were given 4.5 percent under the same formula last year.) But the writers say the actors' deal was unfair and demand a different formula, pointing to the producers' refusal to bargain as proof of the extreme importance of the pay TV and video markets.
So while Carson changed his normal weekday routine and stayed home, several hundred writers disrupted their own routines to carry picket signs on the Burbank sidewalks in a surprisingly harsh midday sun. Standing back behind an information table and surveying the picketers' slow march, longtime Bob Hope head writer Gig Henry shook his head and commented, "I'll bet this cuts down on the lunchtime crowd at Du-Pars today."
That San Fernando Valley delicatessen isn't alone. From beginning screenwriters to Henry and his well-known, highly paid colleagues like Richard Maibaum -- who postponed a trip to London, where he was due to write his 10th James Bond movie -- the strike has changed the schedules of the Writers Guild's 8,500 national members. And as the prospects for a protracted strike grow, so will the lines in lots of different places: temporary help agencies, bookstores and wherever else writers travel to pick up some extra money.
Not all of them have to worry. Henry says he's working on other projects with Bob Hope; his friend Mort Lochman is even more cavalier. A writer for shows like "All in the Family," "Archie Bunker's Place" and "Red Foxx," Lochman laughs when asked how much the strike could hurt him. "Oh, I'll probably have to drain the water from my swimming pool," he says. "And I might take down the tennis net. We're ready for a long haul."
For these guys, it's a pretty good-natured battle; they firmly believe in holding out until they negotiate a better deal than the striking actors recently received, but nobody's forced to look for other work. There's even time for consorting with the enemy: When an NBC producer walks out of the building, they call him over and trade jokes. The producer squints into the sun, points at one of the picketers, and asks, "Who told him he could write?"
"Oh, don't worry about that," says Lochman. "If you had to prove you could write, half these people wouldn't be here."
The strike is more threatening to other writers, particularly as the studios report a stockpile of scripts that may last until summer (when the Directors Guild could itself strike and shut down an industry the writers can menace only indirectly). But if the studios have that much material stockpiled, so screenwriters have that much money set aside?
"Absolutely not," says television writer Meredith Brody. "No, no, no. You just can't. When you work in television you get paid in large sums so you have a tendency to commit yourself to large bills. You buy a house and end up with a nice big mortgage payment. If you work for a network, you can collect unemployment, but if not, you'll have to get another job."
Michael Silverblatt and Susan Baskin are a case in point. A screenwriting team, they'd just received word that a name director and two stars were interested in a script of theirs. Until the strike began, it looked to them like their first major screen credit.
"It hit us where we live and where we work," sighs Silverblatt. "The first thing that happened was that I was laid off from my job reading scripts. Lots of other screenwriters have part-time jobs related to the industry and they're going to lose those, too." Says Baskin, "It'll hit everybody, down to the people who Xerox the scripts."
"We should be tense and excited that a script we worked on looks like it's going into production," said Baskin. "Now that's all on hold. And we were writing another screenplay when the strike started. Normally, we'd be shopping for a developmental deal to get enough money to tide us over while we work on the script. Now, of course, we can't do that -- we'll have to keep on writing, but submit it on speculation when we finish."
And in the meantime, they'll need part-time jobs. Like most Writers Guild members, they can't support themselves on writing alone, and without his reading job, Silverblatt's got to look outside the industry.
"I'll bet the lines are 10 deep at every bookstore in town," he says. "I'm seriously thinking about going back to be a desk clerk in a hotel, which I haven't done in years." He grins. "I have this recurring vision of trying to sell vacuum cleaners to incredulous housewives."
"My vision is of me behind the checkstand of a supermarket," says Baskin. "It's times like these when you find yourself thinking back to all the practical jobs you had when you were going to school and wondering which fields have the highest personnel turnover."
Ann Biderman and Richard Kramer have similar worries. "I can't see being a waitress," says film writer Biderman. "I've done that and I'm not going to suffer through it again." But the strike came at a bad time for her: gShe'd just taken 18 months off to write a script, only to find that her sabbatical will last far longer than she expected. "It's risky to take a year and a half without income, and now with the strike, it's awful. I'll just have to rewrite my script and get to work on something else, so maybe I'll have two things to sell when this ends."
Richard Kramer finished and sold one script just before the strike deadline. But he also made another deal he'll now have to abandon until a settlement is reached; he figures he'll need a job "to keep me in enough money to put food on the table."
"The problem is that writers basically can't do anything," he laughs. "We'll all be fighting for the same part-time bookstore jobs. But I think the hardest part is really the psychological part. All of a sudden, all our markets are closed off to us, and it's because of our own vote. We're powerless to do anything with our work. It's a funny feeling to be all psyched up and ready to work on a project, and then to find it completely gone, and gone for a reason that you really believe in. It's going to take me a few weeks to readjust."
But there's another factor in the layoff that everyone talks about, that just might be the best thing to happen to screenwriters in a long time. Now that they don't have to talk to the studios -- now that they can't talk to the studios -- screenwriters may work on their own ideas, not those that emerge from a round-robin of story meetings and business luncheons.
"Sometimes you get the feeling that you're writing for them, says Kramer. "You work on the projects they pick and make the changes they want to get the check they send out. There's an endless series of compromises that can erode your belief in your own talent. Maybe now people will start writing for themselves."
"Some people might use this as the chance to finally work on that dream project they weren't brave enough to find before," says Susan Baskin. Michael Silverblatt adds, "Now that nobody can pitch stories, they might readjust their sights and go to work on those subtle, wonderful ideas that they figured would never go over in a story meeting."
So just maybe, about a year after the strike ends, we might see a market glutted with high quality movies?
"You just might," says Silverblatt. "And in the meantime, you might see the studios sticking with movies they'd usually give up on because they have so many other projects to push. Just think, 'Melvin and Howard' might be able to play for a full year in every city. It could be the neatest thing ever to happen to the movies: a whole year without any new releases."