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November 19, 2007

The Writers’ (WGA) Strike

This seems rather an obvious solution to me — but I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of it, so there must be some defect in my reasoning that I’m sure somebody will point out to me…

What would be the downside of the writers asking that their payment for a script be increased 30%, or 50%, or 100%, or whatever the appropriate figure might be, and then the hell with the residuals? It comes out to the same money and they’d have it in-hand, and no worries about what the studios claim they’re making money on, or their creative accounting techniques, or new technologies that nobody is anticipating yet (“Oh yeah, we agreed to pay you 6 cents for every DVD sold, but the contract says nothing about holographic presentations”)

I can’t imagine the studios agreeing to this, because it would eliminate some of their potential to screw over their creative people, but still…

There are two inarguable facts: With a long-term contract in effect, new technology will always benefit the studio, because they have physical possession of the completed work; and studio executives have an inherent advantage over writers because the studio executives know business and contracts and the writers know punchlines.

This is by no means a criticism of the writers, of course: Business is easy, comedy is hard.

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15 Comments »

  1. […] Blog News & Amazing News – Blogger Trail added an interesting post today on The Writersâ (WGA) StrikeHere’s a small reading […]

    Pingback by Movies and Film Blog » The Writers’ (WGA) Strike — November 19, 2007 @ 6:07 pm

  2. […] Check it out! While looking through the blogosphere we stumbled on an interesting post today.Here’s a quick excerptThe Writers’ (WGA) Strike Filed under: Bill Bickel, Hollywood, WGA, Writers’ Guild of America, entertainment, movies, scriptwriting, television, writers’ strike — Cidu Bill @ 5:58 pm This seems rather an obvious solution to me — but I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of it, so there must be some defect in my reasoning that I’m sure somebody will point out to me… What would be the downside of the writers asking that their payment for a script be increased 30%, or 50%, or 100%, or what […]

    Pingback by Iguanaz » The Writers’ (WGA) Strike — November 19, 2007 @ 6:11 pm

  3. Well, I’d say the problem there (besides, as you pointed out, the fact that the studios would never go for it) is that it doesn’t take into account the long-term success of the show. People are still paying to run I Love Lucy, and Gilligan’s Island and what have you. Shouldn’t the writers of those shows be among the people getting a cut of that money?

    Comment by Count Shrimpula — November 19, 2007 @ 6:24 pm

  4. I don’t think either side would like that solution. The studios don’t want to pay up-front. The writers would feel much more screwed if they didn’t get ongoing money for a script that’s successful in years of syndication.

    I assume that’s why residuals came about. Studios wanted to pay later. Writers saw someone profiting for years on scripts they parted with for single payments.

    Comment by DPWally — November 19, 2007 @ 6:24 pm

  5. Count, there aren’t many I Love Lucy’s out there, so on the whole the writers would be better off with the money upfront. And in the case of an obvious hit… Well, I doubt the writers on Friends were making union scale after the first season.

    Some writers would come out behind under the up-front plan: writers on shows like Star Trek, which was a ratings failure at the time and then ended up running forever in syndication — but logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

    Comment by Cidu Bill — November 19, 2007 @ 7:04 pm

  6. Why do we need writers in the first place? Most movies and tv shows could be written by chimps. They are worthless, despicable crank machines.

    Comment by Francois Tremblay — November 19, 2007 @ 8:25 pm

  7. Leaving aside whether this would be fair or not, I don’t see how it solves anything, negotiation-wise. The basic issue is that the writers want more money, and the studios don’t want to give it to them. If the studios don’t want to give it to them in form X, they’re not going to want to give it to them in form Y.

    Comment by Autumnal Harvest — November 19, 2007 @ 10:00 pm

  8. AH,

    Its not exactly accurate to say the writers want more money. It’s that the studios have figured out another way to profit from the writers’ work (i.e. distributing it on the internet and selling ads adjacent to the programming) and the writers believe they should share in that additional profit – especially as the potential arises for programming to shift completely away from traditional media.

    Comment by Robverb — November 19, 2007 @ 10:43 pm

  9. Robverb, I think it is accurate to say that the writers want more money. They’re interested in residuals and internet rights for the money these rights generate, not in and of themselves. You’re saying that the writers have a particularly good rationale for why they deserve that money, which is true, but in the end, they want money.

    My point is that it’s all about money in the end, so substituting the form of the money doesn’t particularly help negotiations. If I’m striking for health insurance, I should be happy if my employer, instead of giving me health insurance, gives me a raise sufficient to pay for equally good private health insurance. But if my employer doesn’t want to give me health insurance, he or she isn’t going to want to give me the equivalent raise, either.

    Comment by Autumnal Harvest — November 19, 2007 @ 10:56 pm

  10. Francois — find me a chimp who can write English and I’ll make a lot of money, but it won’t be with TV scripts.

    Comment by Powers — November 20, 2007 @ 9:30 am

  11. The residual system/structure came about for one reason: to reduce front-end risk. Producing movies and TV shows has always been expensive. As a producer or studio, how do you reduce this risk? By paying talent NOT up-front but by giving them a percentage of your eventual profit. This is why the residual system has always been attractive for the studios: writers get a small up-front fee and they get more later ONLY relative to the eventual success of the project. If the project flops, you have less to pay and your loss has been minimized.

    Writers would not mind getting more money up-front. The studios would never agree to this because it would dramatically increase the cost of making movies and TV shows. The multinational corporations that own the studios would never agree to increasing their own exposure to risk. This is how the residual system evolved: to minimize the financial risk undertaken by the studios.

    Comment by Robb — November 20, 2007 @ 12:25 pm

  12. Excellent explanation, Robb.

    Comment by Cidu Bill — November 20, 2007 @ 5:10 pm

  13. AH, Ironically, I wasn’t precise in my wording in that what I was trying to say is that your wording was imprecise. While it is technically about “more money,” the source of the money is key. I don’t think the writers guild would take accept, say, higher residuals on traditional media as compensation for giving up on their request for compensation for internet re-broadcast. There is a very real risk that in the not-too distant future there will be a major shift in revenue streams which would make such a deal very disadvantageous.

    Robb is correct about the rational for and history of the current system, but the statement that writers would not mind more up front and studios would not agree, is not precisely accurate either. The actual problem is that the the degree of variablity in the risk factor from any one work to another makes it impossible to even guess at the net present value of residuals. The amount that the producers would willingly give upfront in order to keep a higher percentage of subsequent profits would, out of necessity, be substantially less than all but the absolutely most risk-averse writers would be willing to accept. The amount that the writers would need to compensate them for giving up the chance for their “golden ticket” would be far more than it would make sense for the studios to come forward.

    Comment by Robverb — November 20, 2007 @ 5:38 pm

  14. I wasn’t being imprecise a much a trying to oversimplify the matter.

    It has come to my attention, since I wrote those original paragraphs, that the option of “give us more money upfront in lieu of the later payments you’re going to try to screw us out of anyway” did in fact come up, and by the studios.

    Comment by Cidu Bill — November 20, 2007 @ 6:18 pm

  15. I think I’m the one that Robverb is saying was imprecise. Which I agree, I was. I was just trying to not be too wordy, since all I was saying was that this isn’t a solution, since it doesn’t make it any easier for the sides to come to an agreement. Actually, looking at Bill’s original post, he seems to say as much himself, so I think he means something different by “solution” than I do?

    Comment by Autumnal Harvest — November 20, 2007 @ 8:07 pm


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