Writers’ value in Hollywood

IN HOLLYWOOD folklore, the writer is forever the weakling, the wimp, the man without the power. He’s the loner, the speccy, dateless geek who hums with resentment at his lowly ranking in the pecking order, which persists despite the centrality of his labours to the filmmaking process.

By John Patterson (Life)

Published: Mon 12 Nov 2007, 9:05 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:29 AM

It’s a cliche, of course, and, unless there’s a miracle before this morning, we shall see that cliche eviscerated by another Hollywood writers’ strike, the first since 1988. That strike lasted almost six months and changed television forever (then, as now, the issue was residual payments from emerging markets —writers want eight cents from every DVD sale, up from four). That 1988 walkout cost the industry almost half a billion dollars. As it bit more deeply, the networks, including a fledgling Fox TV, fell back on unscripted programming such as Cops and America’s Most Wanted, from which the notion of reality TV would later evolve. At the same time, the networks’ percentage of US audience share dropped from 90 to 65, and the viewers who fled to cable have never returned.

As the 2007 strike loomed over the summer, the studios shifted to a production schedule akin to that of armaments manufacture in wartime: working night and day to get scripts completed before the pickets assemble. The writers are solid and united this time, while word has it there’s a schism among the studio heads between hard-liners at Fox and NBC, and moderates at Dreamworks and elsewhere. (Some of the more messianic moguls would apparently be happy to write off the lacklustre new autumn TV season altogether and blame the Writers Guild of America.) Better yet, Hollywood accepts the notion of “pattern bargaining”, meaning that standards established with one guild are deferred to in negotiations with others. The writers know this, and have usually been the groundbreaking union that wins for everyone else. No wonder the suits despise them so.

The results of any strike will be immediately noticeable. The late-night talkshows, which are written the morning of broadcast, will immediately go jokeless; half-hour comedies, written on a short lead-time, will go the same way; daytime soap operas will have no plots within weeks; and if the strike lasts long enough, the episodes of nighttime dramas studios have prepaid for and banked in anticipation of a strike will run out, and the evening schedules will become Gameshow Nation. Film production will be affected, even though films have been fast-tracked to ensure a steady flow of product. And the ancillary businesses of Hollywood, from dubbing studios to talent agencies, limo services, high-end bakeries, flower vendors, escort agencies, even the taco stands outside the studio lots, and God knows what else, are all about to feel the pinch.

It’s terrible folly for the moguls to mistake the Writers Guild for wimps, but 19 years is an eternity in forgetful Hollywood. Even more thoroughly forgotten is the fact that the Writers Guild is the oldest union in Hollywood, that it paved the way for collective bargaining within an anti-union industry head-quartered in a notoriously open-shop city, and that the studios tried to strangle it in its cradle, even packing it with conservative writers in the 1930s, the better to sabotage it from within. The studios were heavily invested in the McCarthy witchhunts, not because of commie-phobia per se, but because it gave them a perfect patriotic cover for more union-busting. And still the WGA stands.

Remember, most of the Hollywood 10 were writers, many of them founders of the WGA. When they went to prison for their political beliefs, and thereafter into exile for decades, people called them lots of nasty names, but no one called them wimps.

© Guardian News Service

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