A strike of 12,000 writers in Hollywood under the jurisdiction of the Writers' Guild of America (WGA) is resisting the corporate greed of the large film and television studios. The strike is now in its second week, and is continuing to gain momentum.
Already, the strike has had a considerable effect on the industry, with production of some top-rating programs, such as 24, postponed indefinitely. Other programs, like Desperate Housewives, have been delayed and have run out of scripts. The potential economic impact on California, which is dominated by Hollywood, is considerable.
Strikers are demanding a share of subsidiary revenues from so-called new media — the digital broadcasting of programs. Studios currently scoop all revenue from advertising that runs alongside online broadcasts of programs. While writers, directors, actors and producers receive a small sum from other subsidiary outlets, such as DVD sales, they have been excluded from the residual payments from internet broadcasts.
In other words, when consumers buy an episode of their favourite TV program from iTunes, stream TV content onto their mobile phone or download a movie from Amazon, the production studios refuse to pass on any percentage of the profits to the workers involved in the production process. It's estimated that studios will earn US$2 billion over the next two years on internet downloads.
In response, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) has asserted that writers already receive some payment from digital downloads, with a representative quoted in the November 8 Hollywood Reporter as saying that writers were asking for "future, non-existent revenue" that would strip the industry's ability to develop economically.
Although the WGA negotiates for writers only, the outcome of the strike will have an important impact on future negotiations with other industry unions, such as the Actors' Guild of America. AGA-negotiated contracts expire in June 2008, with another wage battle expected then. Writers are not just acting on their own behalf, but in the interests of all workers in the entertainment industry.
WGA has already made a major concession to the studios — initially, the union demanded a doubling of residual payments from DVD sales as well as royalties from digital media, but
retracted this demand on November 4. WGA has also expressed concern over the drop in unionisation in the industry — in the mid-1980s, 95% of hired workers were covered by WGA, but this has dropped to 55% with outsourcing to other entertainment companies (such as animation) and so-called reality TV (which has less demand for screenwriters) being big factors.
Hollywood remains deeply divided economically. A recent WGA study of members on the US west coast found that 48% were unemployed. By contrast, CBS President Les Moonves made $24.5 million last year.
Hundreds of prominent actors have pledged their public support to the strike, refusing to cross picket lines. Actor Jenna Fischer, from The Office, explained her reasons for striking in her Myspace blog on November 7, citing the high rate of intermittent unemployment in the industry. She explained that many successful shows, such as ABC's Lost, had ceased showing repeats on TV at all, replacing this with ad-supported streaming videos on their websites.
"If you're a Lost writer, or actor, or director, or a teamster, that's no residuals at all for that show, and that's a big pay cut. We all count on the extra income ... as it can help us through a slump in our career. It is our safety net. In 10 years I may need those residual checks to cover my electric bill. You never know. Hollywood is a fickle town."
She pointed out that if "everything is rerun on the internet, the current union contracts say the studios don't have to pay us a dime."
Writer/director Joss Whedon, creator of the cult success Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has publicly supported the strike — attending the picket line outside the headquarters of Fox Network despite the fact that his newly commissioned series on Fox, Dollhouse, is affected by the strike. In a post on Whedonesque.com on November 6, he commented on how gratifying it has been to see actors from Buffy on the picket line supporting the writers.
Not all members of the industry have supported the strike. WGA issues a statement on November 9 condemning comedian Ellen DeGeneres for continuing to produce her show without her writing team. "When shows refuse to stand with us they create huge revenue streams for the companies and that prolongs the strike for the thousands of staff and crew members who are noble enough to honor our picket lines. We find this situation hurtful to those people ... The writers did not cause this strike. The companies' greed caused this strike and it could end tomorrow if they were finally willing to negotiate a fair deal."
[Visit <http://www.fans4writers.com> for more information about the strike.]