Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Wading into the Red Sea

Look, I don't talk about it much, because to do so puts me at risk of vilification, but I'm not a liberal. I'm even right of center, though on many issues, you'd know I was not part of the evangelical right wing. But here's the thing. We, as writers, need to engage this vast population of conservatives to help get the message out. Republicans tend to be anti-union, pro-big business, but they are also about questioning and repudiating patent unfairness (hey, if you disagree with this, don't bother to tell me why, I don't want this to degenerate into a political discussion, necessarily). So, it occurred to me, that no one is making this case to the red staters and really getting the Average Joe Republican on our side. I found that a very widely read conservative blog had a lot of misinformation about the strike, so I responded in the comments in a very civil tone to try to correct some of the misinformation. If I got anything wrong, please correct me and I'll go amend my post on that blog, because the last thing I want to do is spread more misinformation.

Anyway, if any of you think you could possibly engage the right-wingers in a civil tone without hatred or spittle, you can use my approach as a guide. It's important to get these people on our side, as they are the ones who will be fervent supporters. Also remember, the union is not made up of 100% Democrats. There are conservatives in your midst who adamantly support the strike. I think there's a way to bring both sides together on this issue.

Here's my comment on the Captain's Quarters blog:

I'm dismayed that so many people lack understanding of the issues involved. I am a conservative living in Hollywood, an aspiring TV writer, and believe me, I'm no union lover. But, consider the following:

* Not every writer sells work every year. Yes, there is the MBA (Minimum Basic Agreement) for works sold to studios, and many writers make more than the MBA on a screenplay sale, but often that screenplay is the result of a year or more in writing. The contracted minimum for a screenplay today is between $53,000 and $99,000. TV writers, who often only write one or two scripts in a season, can make up to $30,000 for an hour long episode (story and teleplay). Because staff writers are on salary, this is often counted against their salary. Meaning, that in order to make more than $50,000 a year, you'd have to write at least 2 TV scripts in full. Usually the only people making more than the minimums are the head writer (showrunner) who is also a producer and a handful of the exec-producer or co-producers.

* If a songwriter sells a song or a novelist publishes a book, should they not be compensated based on the sales of those works? TV and Film residuals are no different than the royalties other writers receive for their published works.

* Many TV shows today do not get re-run. 'LOST' episodes don't re-run well, and so the network has decided to run the episodes consecutively with no repeats. Without a repeated episode TV writers are not compensated as they used to be.

* Recording a program on a VCR is NOT like downloading or streaming on the internet. The networks sell the broadcast programs for advertising. Those advertising dollars are then used to pay the writers, actors, directors. The studios are selling advertising on streaming video and are selling shows directly to consumers on platforms such as iTunes. The writers receive NO COMPENSATION from these methods of sale. In short, the studios are keeping all of the profits from these distribution methods and are not paying writers at all. Nick Counter, the lead negotiator for the studios stated at the end of the contract talks that shows streamed online or available through paid download services were considered "promotional" and therefore not subject to the residual formulas for DVD, and they do not know how profitable the internet will be for them. By the studios own talking points to their shareholders, however, they sing a different tune.

* The $200,000 average is a misleading indicator of most writers. There are 12,000 Writers Guild members (and I'm not one of them), The MEAN income of a guild member is $4,000 a year. Yes, that means there is a very large distribution. There are the A-list writers who make a lot of money, there are writers making the minimum, and there are writers who aren't getting paid at all because they sold nothing in that calendar year.

* You may not watch a lot of scripted television today, but consider that the DVD formula applies to older shows you may watch and enjoy. 4 cents for every DVD sold. And that's for films. TV is an even more convoluted formula. Ken Levine, a writer on MASH and other shows, stated the following on his blog: "The producers say we already receive royalties from DVD sales. There are no less than fifteen box sets of TV series with my scripts in them. I haven’t received a dime. I have gotten $0.19 from American Airlines for showing eight of my episodes on maybe 10,000 flights."

Sorry for the long post, but this isn't a Dem vs. Republican issue. And it isn't a 'big evil corporations' issue, as some would frame it. The business model is changing, and what you are seeing is an industry that is grasping desperately at the remains of the old way of business. As far as the new way go, they fear making a deal with talent to share the wealth, because of uncertainty as to how much wealth they will have. The writers are looking at this form a standpoint of "Won't Be Fooled Again." In 1985 the studios pleaded with the unions that they didn't know how much money was to be made from home VIDEO. They promised that if the guilds agreed to a lower residual rate on video, they would 'make good' on it at some point in the future. 20 years later, the writers, actors and directors are still waiting.

I hope I did right by us. Again, I think it's important to get people on both sides of the political discussion engaged in this debate.

UPDATE: My comment got moved into its own post on the site and there were about 45 comments on it. I'm feeling like I actually made a dent and got some conservatives to think. I did see some solid support and those on the fence. There's still work to do.

Part of convincing people is to acknowledge that the world is changing, and that we are well aware of it. As writers, we want to take advantage of the new opportunities available to us in the online space, but we also don't want the studios to become a barrier to that by not paying us fairly for work needed to be performed.


Anonymous said...

You GO Girl!!!!!!! And where did your World Without Writers Video from YOUTUBE disappear to????

Josh said...

Sounds like you covered just about everything. Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

Shawna, nice post, but this statement is incorrect: "Usually the only people making more than the minimums are the head writer (showrunner) who is also a producer and a handful of the exec-producer or co-producers."

Anyone with a story editor title or above is making more than the weekly MBA minimum. (Except, I guess, for writing teams who are splitting a story editor position.)