My father was a high school teacher in downtown Oakland, California. One of my earliest memories is of my mom putting me in the car every day and driving us down through the in-those-days scary streets to bring my father lunch. He was on strike. I'm not sure how long it lasted or how many visits we made down there that year, but my father would eat his sandwich on the trunk of the dirty little two-door gunmetal green Toyota as his fellow teachers held signs, smoked cigarettes, and walked in circles outside of the school they loved. Because they were offered a contract they could not accept. It was one of the bleaker scenes I witnessed in a childhood not unfamiliar with bleakness, but there was also something about it that stirred me and filled me with pride. Because I sensed they were doing the right thing. And that the right thing sometimes sucks.
Last night I went to the Convention Center downtown for the Writers Guild of America’s general meeting about the strike possibility. (The meeting can be read about today online almost everywhere. Nikki Finke's spin is pro-writer. Most others are pro-The Six Giant Corporations Trying To Stop Paying Writers Residuals, which is only surprising to the most Polyannish out there since the media outlets are mostly all owned by said Giant Six.)
The meeting was standing room only and was quite inspiring. They lead us through negotiations to this point in a very sane and clear manner and the guild members cheered and applauded and groaned and displayed a good deal of solidarity—solidarity I’ve never gotten to feel with fellow writers since I write alone. The meeting gave me confidence in the leadership of the guild in a way I hadn't had before. Sure, seeing such well-known figures as showrunners from Lost, Desperate Housewives, The Shield, and CSI up on the dais helped, but I also walked away impressed by the heads of the legal and negotiating committees, as well as Patrick Verrone himself (who does not draw a salary for his tireless work, by the way).
Look, unions are on the way out, and I believe that’s bad for America. Corporations have been picking them off like snipers, and now they’re trying to do it to us as well. And it’s hard to arouse much sympathy. We’re a white collar union. The guy who created Two and a Half Men will never arouse the sympathy of plucky "Norma Rae" standing on a manufacturing table holding a union sign. We're not coal miners. But the bottom line is that a vast majority of union writers are just middle class folk trying to get by in a crazy-making industry where finding yourself out of work for years at a time is the norm. And it is during those times where the residual system allows many of those writers to be able to make the mortgage payments.
Well, the studios are engaged right now in a plan to do away with that system. It's very simple: we made an extremely shitty deal years ago on VHS tapes because they said, "Well, it's a new technology. Let us pay you 4 cents per tape because manufacturing costs are so high and we don't know if it'll even catch on. And then we'll renegotiate after studying the issue." So we took the deal. And do you think they ever renegotiated? Even when manufacturing costs came way down? Even after the price point dropped from 75 bucks per tape to 10? Even when far-cheaper-still-to-make DVDs were invented and then exploded as a business? Even when television shows became wildly popular on DVD, thus eroding the syndication market? Hell no. After fucking you once, Big Business certainly isn't going to suddenly grow a conscience and un-fuck you years later out of the goodness of their heart. And that's exactly what they're trying to do right now. Fuck us hard. Not only are they refusing to renegotiate DVDs (claiming giving us 8 cents per DVD instead of 4 would make them too sad), they're trying to jam all "new media" like streaming and digital downloads under that same equation; they have actually refused "for overriding business reasons" to negotiate at all over new media. (Streaming video would be completely unpaid, even if it's ad-supported because they claim all streaming video EVEN IF THEY SHOW THE EPISODE OR FEATURE FILM IN ITS ENTIRETY is "promotional”. Seriously.)
Here's why this is a blatant attempt to get rid of the residual system: once we accept the digital download rate of "DVD shitty" and the streaming rate as "fuck you you get nothing," that's it. That’s never going to change. But what will change? Over the next however many years, we will all be watching television as digital downloads or streaming video. Thus, as Broadcast and Cable distribution goes away, so do the hated "residual" rates they have to pay writers (and actors, and directors) for first run and repeat shows over the television airwaves and cable waves! We’re back to the days before we got residuals at all. Defacto 100% rollbacks! Union busted! Rupert Murdoch gets to buy another island! Huzzah!
The studios claim we should accept shit and let them "study" new media for the next three years and THEN we can negotiate a fair residual rate. In other words, they think we're idiots. And why shouldn't they? We took it 20 years ago on VHS. They claim they have no idea how to monetize new media, yet at the same time they turn around and sell ads on their video streams, sell their shows on iTunes and Amazon Unbox, and tell investors how they have this awesome new revenue model that's going to keep them healthy for decades to come! (Especially if they can stop paying the content creators a fair wage. Boy oh boy.)
So basically, it's genuinely now or never. We make sure we get paid for when our product is delivered via the new delivery systems NOW, or we give it up forever. Professionally, I'm happy to and ready to strike; I will spend my fall walking back and forth with a sign in front of the studio lots, waving to the executives and producers I know as they drive past. But personally, I'm crushed and depressed and scared. This happens to be a weird watershed insane moment in my career where I have 4 television pilots going at the same time, including one very high profile pilot I'm doing at ABC with a couple of sitcom heavyweights already attached. And I'm dead scared the projects will all go away. And that in three months I won't be able to make my mortgage or my car payment. Pam is on the only real breakout hit of the new season and sort of this weird oasis of hope for television comedies, and its momentum could be stopped dead in its tracks if the strike lasts. It's terrible. I only wish we were the fatcat dickheads some of the media is trying to present us as. I wish it were true. But it's not. We don’t want to strike. It could bankrupt us. But at this point we have no choice. Basically: If not now. Then never.
TV veteran Ken Levine has a really good entry with his thoughts on things. Wish us luck.
Edited to add: someone posted this in the comments on one of Nikki's Finke's updates and it cracked me up:
Last night at the CC was a trip. Kinda like the big opening scene in the 'Warriors,' ‘cept with a bunch of nerdy TV staffs. "Look! The guys from Two and a Half Men are here! And Samantha Who. Crazy, man!"
"Can you dig it?'"