Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Writer's Strike - A Union Man's View

I originally posted this as a response to a comment posted by Buffalo, a great guy and blog bud. (If you're unfamiliar with Buffalo, I recommend you check him out at Buffalo's Ruminations)

After I finished, I realized, that while it rambles a bit, it pretty much sums up the way I feel, so I decided to use it as a post. I welcome all comments on this, both pro and con. It might also offer a little peek "backstage", so to speak. So here we go...

Buffalo's comment:
It (the strike) will be settled when the suits have enough write off.

Here's the problem, Buffalo, in my humble opinion. The producers have enough new product stockpiled to last quite a while. All of the episodic TV shows for the upcoming winter season have all of their episodes in the can already. Anticipating a strike, the producers also pushed hard last spring and summer to get as many features done as possible. In order to make an impact, we are going to have to weather the storm until the next Fall season rolls around, when the producers will be forced to air re-runs or more reality shows. As for features, it takes much longer to do a movie than a TV show, so they will feel the bite first. The pictures in release now and those about to be released finished principal photography months ago. Hell, I worked on Disney's Enchanted back in 2006 and it only came out this past Thanksgiving! The point is, in order to have product for the summer season, films need to start now. A search of IMDbPro, (subscription required), shows that many films are scheduled to begin shooting in March, but...and here's the rub, while the scripts have already been written, many, many re-writes are required before a shooting script can finally be generated. Who's going to write them?

Add to this the fact that the Director's Guild, which includes Production Managers, Assistant Directors, Location Mangers, etc., and the Screen Actors Guild also have contracts coming up for negotiation and you can see why the Producers are determined to hold out as long as possible.

Originally, the writers were going to wait for the Director's Guild and SAG and everyone would walk together, creating the "Perfect Storm". By striking now, the writer's hope to settle the issue early and get everyone back to work as soon as possible. Since the Unions and Guilds follow a technique known as Pattern Bargaining, whatever the writers get, the others will want (and get), as well. (My union has a clause relating to new technology that guarantees us whatever benefits any of the other Entertainment unions or guilds secure for themselves.) So the producers are facing a very long stretch of no new product if they remain obstinate. The writers are the most powerful union, in my opinion, because until they script it, none of us can build, paint,light, prop, direct, shoot, or act in it. Kind of like trying to build a skyscraper without blueprints. It simply can't be done.

Just this morning I found a new website, Fancast, which allows viewers to stream complete episodes of their favorite TV shows, such as CSI and Law & Order, complete with commercials! It isn't a stretch to see 10 years into the future when our cable boxes are replaced by computers and any show can be streamed at any time, with, ofcourse, commercials. This isn't just a different slice of the same old pie for the producers, it's a whole new pie! Just as Free TV is going the way of the dodo, so will the way we watch TV and movies go in the near future. Meanwhile our residuals will plummet as advertisers flock to the "new" medium and the advertising rates for "conventional" TV fall.

While I grouse and bitch and moan because two of my jobs are on indefinite hold, I and many, many others who are currently unemployed, (and our bills keep coming in, depleting our savings, btw), realize that we are in a fight for our futures, and in a way, the futures of all working, legal American citizens. And it is a fight that must be won - a fight to the finish. Someone has to take on the greedy corporations that have outsourced our jobs and insourced, cheap, illegal labor, (to replace those of us who work in fields that can't be shipped offshore). For as long as I can remember, the trades provided the ladder by which Joe Sixpack could achieve upward mobility by providing a means for his children to go to college and do better than their parent's did. That has always been the American Way. No more.

My neighbor down the street is a small General Contractor who, while non-union, has tried to provide a decent wage for his employees and hoped to offer benefits as his business grew. Not anymore. He recently confided in me that he may have to abandon his company and seek work himself. He simply can't compete against other, unscrupulous Contractors who use illegal labor. And it's not just Mexicans we're talking about here. It's Irish and Asians and South Americans as well and it's tanking our economy.

The Writer's strike is a microcosm of what is happening everyday, every place, in the United States of America as corporations do all that they can to break the Unions and control the labor market. So it's much more than just a bunch of pampered, Hollywood elites bitching and moaning. It means something here to note that while some writers, like some Contractors, do earn fantastic amounts of money, the majority of writers, like workers everywhere earn an average income. And unlike workers everywhere, very few writers and others of us employed in "Show Biz, have a "full time job". We are constantly looking for work. The only thing that keeps us going is our love for the business, although, lately, I've been thinking of taking early retirement and getting a job as a Nauga breeder. (I'm told it takes thousands of those lil varmints to fashion just one hyde!)

So the write off the producers may gain will most certainly be offset by the losses they face should they stick to their greedy guns. And while it's true that in today's world, films can be made anywhere in the world, they can't be made without writers, and I seriously doubt that any of the producers is willing to trust his lucrative American market share to "creative writers" from India, (have you ever seen an Indian film?). At some point, the producers will have to return to the bargaining table and take the hit or the whole business will go to hell in a handbasket. All of the modern studios are owned by major conglomerates like GE and Sony, and while they could simply divest themselves of their Entertainment Divisions, the lure of enormous profit potential should discourage them from doing so. Compared to the profits enjoyed by the Media Conglomerates, what we are asking for is less than peanuts. This strike is the result of an arrogant corporate mentality supported by a big business owned and operated government who wants it all and to hell with the average guy trying to support a family. Somebody has to draw a line in the sand somewhere - other than George Bush, that is. It also means something here to note that back in 1987, with the emergence of the then "new" cable market, the Writer's Guild voluntarily gave up 80% of it's residuals in order to help the producers transition to the new medium. It is now 21 years later, cable has all but taken over the home entertainment market and it is time to bring everyone up to par. Based on this history who can blame any of us for asking for something from the next "new" media that we have already earned.

Thanks for the comment and your support Brother.

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Motion Picture Studio Mechanics
Local #52
New York City

For continuously updated information regarding the Strike, visit United Hollywood

(The opinions expressed above are solely those of the writer and in no way are meant to reflect the positions of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, it's Locals, Officers or other members.)

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