Striking Movie Writer Makes Case

When the Writers Guild went on strike last week, I promptly received an e-mail from my cousin John, who wondered how the writers would be able to hold their picket signs with a decaf skim latte in one hand and a BlackBerry in the other. John, who works for some outfit on Wall Street, sent this message, irony-free, from his BlackBerry.

There is some idea going around, obviously started by someone who doesn't know an average writer, that the average writer is rich. I guess people think that because we work in the entertainment industry, where George Clooney also works, we must be rich too.

Certainly some writers do well for themselves. But it is not the norm: at any given point in a year, a little more than half of all film and TV writers are unemployed. Some of these writers are unemployed because they're not very good. But even for good writers, with track records and connections and the appropriately hip eyewear, there are many obstacles to financial comfort. There are long gaps between jobs; no one buys the movie you spent six months writing; you're a sitcom writer and the public's taste favors police procedurals—or vice versa; or you finally get a show on and you're scheduled opposite "American Idol." This is all part of the game, and no one expects it to be any different. The thing that gets you through these fallow periods is the residual.

A residual is like an author's royalty. We are paid them whenever our work is shown on TV. They are a key part of how a writer survives between jobs, and it is an eminently fair idea: when the network (or studio) makes money off our work, so do we. If nobody airs your show or reruns your movie, there is no residual. If the network isn't making money off it, neither are we.

The residual has been established practice since 1960, when the Writers Guild first went on strike for it. Before that no one was given residuals. The writers of the imperishably entertaining "I Love Lucy," a show that has run without stop, making hundreds of millions of dollars for its owners, have never received royalties for that work. Nor have the writers of that other masterpiece of '50s home life, "The Honeymooners." The networks argued then that there was no precedent for it, that the medium was too new. To the studios the idea of equitable payment for writers always seems new.

But peace was made, after the sacrifices of the dedicated people in that strike, and a formula was set that worked for a long time. When video came into being, a new accommodation was made, allowing a small residual for tapes and then DVDs. I am not being hyperbolic when I say "small." For a DVD sold for $19.99, we are paid 4 cents. To put that in perspective, that means that to pay for one tank of gas, a writer needs to sell 1,500 DVDs. To put it another way, it's a penny less than if we returned an empty can of Coke.

We negotiated this formula for DVDs back in 1988, and I think most members of the guild agree that in terms of desired do-overs, it ranks with President Bush's decision to award L. Paul Bremer the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We had been asked by the studios to take a smaller share than we wanted because the video market was new and uncertain and our doing so would help grow the industry. (It sure did. That sector of the industry has boomed, helping many studios coast through bad years on the strength of their video libraries.) To redress what most writers feel was a bad deal, we have asked in this negotiation for 4 more cents per DVD—requiring only the sale of 750 DVDs to fill our gas tanks.

But there is a much bigger issue at stake, because it concerns where the future—and a good deal of the present—is: the Internet. The studios can now sell you a movie, or an episode of a TV series, or a whole series of series, right over your computer. Not only is it convenient for you, it has dramatically reduced the studios' costs: they need not make a videotape, with its plastics and tape and spools and boxes. They need not print and package a DVD, with their team of overzealous shrink-wrappers that make your average DVD harder to get into than Princeton. They have no shipping costs, no storage costs, only the movie or TV show that already exists.

With their costs substantially reduced, this would be the right time to correct the old imbalance of the DVD rate and give writers a share more fairly in line with the level of our contribution. But the studios are not looking to find a more equitable residual rate—it seems they are hoping that the new media will allow them to do away with the idea of residuals altogether.

Right now, if you go online and watch a streaming version of a TV show, the company that owns that property is getting paid by the advertisers whose commercials appear at the top of it. Just like TV, but with one difference: the writers are paid no residual, not even the four cents. The companies say they don't need to pay us for this: it's "promotional." By that I suppose they mean that it promotes the size of their earnings from smaller to larger.

The companies keep saying, "We don't know yet what the new media is." But the concept is very old: movies and TV shows will appear on a screen of some sort (TV, computer, iPod, phone) and people will pay to watch them, either through a direct downloading fee or by watching ads. The companies will make money doing it; otherwise they will not do it. If the companies really thought there was no money to be made in "new media," they'd give us a percentage of it. (Anyone who doubts the companies' faith in the money-making opportunities of the Internet should go to YouTube and look at "Voices of Uncertainty," a pricelessly droll exposure of the way the moguls say one thing to their stockholders and another to us.)

Some friends have asked me, "You'll still have your residuals from TV—isn't the Internet just extra?" But that's the sleight of hand at work here: because of the Internet, networks rerun shows far less often than they used to and put them on the Internet instead, where they can be streamed and bought. There is no contract or definition yet of how we should be paid for that.

We know that the economic boundaries of the Internet are not fully known. That's why we're asking for the simplest and fairest thing, a percentage of what the companies make. If they don't make anything, neither do we. But if they get paid, so should we. It's not a matter of pride. A residual is the difference between solvency and panic for a lot of families: it helps us make our rent, car payments, tuition and health-care costs.

The support within the union for protecting our residuals is very deep. The marches and rallies in L.A. have closed the streets, bringing out thousands of writers. In New York, where I live, the community of film and television writers is much smaller. We have more like a hundred or so people marching each day.

I was marching at Rockefeller Center last week, and two ladies from Indianapolis asked me what the strike was about. I told them. On learning that a lot of our writers were from tony comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show," one of the women asked why our signs weren't funnier. Her friend, who was eating a pretzel she'd bought on the street for a price I'm estimating at 100 times our current DVD residual rate, understood why. She said, "Because this isn't funny."

Douglas McGrath is the writer/director of "Emma," "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Infamous" and the co-author, with Woody Allen, of "Bullets Over Broadway."