Strike Drama in Hollywood

Television watchers be afraid: The striking hour is almost upon us. The Writer's Guild of America Friday announced that its members, roughly 12,000 television and movie script writers, will officially strike beginning Monday. After months of arguing and a long week of serious negotiations, the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers could not agree on what compensation writers should get for material shown on the Internet and residuals from new forms of video likely to emerge in the next few years. "Every issue that matters to writers, including Internet reuse, original writing for new media, DVDs, and jurisdiction, has been ignored," the WGA said in a statement.

If WGA carries out its threat, Monday would see the first Hollywood writer's walkout since 1988, when scribes were off the job for five and a half months. One study estimated that strike cost Southern California, and company town Los Angeles in particular, more than half a billion dollars. Although the WGA has not ruled out continuing negotiations through the weekend, no sessions are planned and the Guild has instructed writers to clear out their desks of personal items at studios and has called on its strike captains to begin mapping out walking shifts for members.

Hollywood movie writer Craig Mazin says the action is long in coming. The writer of several movies including installments of the 'Scary Movie' series, Mazin says he compared to what the movie studios make off of his work, he feels short changed by the cut he gets off video sales. "The [movie] companies screwed us in the 1980s and we've been living with that legacy for 25 years," says Mazin, who writes about such issues on his popular blog, "Now we're on the verge of setting another precedent."

Establishing that new precedent has produced more than a Meryl Streep movie. For the past two weeks, the WGA has made little progress in its showdown with the AMPTP. Central to the rift is the WGA's demand that writers get a bigger cut of residuals. "All we're asking for—it's a very simple idea—is that if they get paid, we get paid," says Bill Condon, a member of the WGA's negotiating committee and the writer of "Chicago" and the writer-director of "Dreamgirls."

The AMPTP argues against a large increase saying that, among other things, it is impossible to come to a fair agreement while a new marketplace for movies and television via the Internet and other formats is still emerging. "On the digital side of things, this comes at a particularly awkward time, because nobody knows" what the model is going to be says one high-ranking network executive who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak about the strike. "There needs to be a study."

Either way, it's a potentially complicated exercise. But the writers say what they get now is simply too little, based on the profits the studios make. "Right now I get .3% of home video grosses, and that was reduced in the 1980s from 1.2%. I know some people are looking at 2.5%, and it's probably not going to be that much, but my bottom line is we've got to do better than what we're getting now," Mazin says. Patric Verrone, President of the Writers Guild of America West, says that the studios underestimated the writers' willingness to strike so soon. "I think there has been a sense of complacency that the writers would work without a contract," he says.

The AMPTP, for its part, says that it has for months been preparing for the possibility of a strike and that, while inconvenient, the television and movie seasons will go on. "When it comes to the audience, every movie studio and every television network has a contingency plan and the screens will not go dark," says Barbara Brogliatti, a spokesperson for the AMPTP. Movies have stepped up their production schedules and studios have stockpiled scripts in hopes of getting all critical work done. More worrisome are scripted television shows, which are filmed with shorter lead times--potentially bad news for millions of "Grey's Anatomy" or "Desperate Housewives" or "Lost" fans. Still, many of the top 10 television shows each week are unscripted reality-type programs whose writers (Yes, so-called reality shows have writers.) are not covered by the Guild. Television executives say that if an immediate strike is called, viewers will likely see more prime-time news programs, sports and already-released movies as early as next year. But according to Condon, the affects may be even sooner than that. "To say that a strike wouldn't affect the viewer seems like a bit of posturing to me," he says, adding his belief that after about six weeks, all of television-watching America will start to feel it.

Like many of his peers Mazin, the movie writer, doesn't like the prospect of putting off work. But it's not as bad, he says, as accepting the AMPTP's current terms. "It's like saying, 'No, I don't accept your offer to commit suicide'," he says. "But it's going to be a difficult formula to arrive at."