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Why We Want Our Words' Worth

by Michael Winship

Groucho Marx said, "Who needs writers? Give me a competent director and two intelligent actors, and at the end of eight weeks I'll show you three of the most nervous people you ever saw."

Groucho got it. The Hollywood studios and networks apparently do not.

And so we, the screen and television members of the Writers Guild, East (of which I'm president) and the Writers Guild of America, West (of which my colleague Patric Verrone is president) are on strike, our first in nearly twenty years.

(By the way, Groucho didn't write the lines quoted in the lead paragraph. They were crafted for him by the now 88-year-old Hal Kanter, a proud Writers Guild member. This is why the business needs us.)

The last few weeks leading up to this remarkable and avoidable strike have been unlike any in my life. To be at the center of a major news story as a participant, instead of a journalistic observer looking in from the periphery, is unsettling.

I arrived in Los Angeles for the final negotiations before our contract expired at midnight, October 31, and was quoted in the New York Times describing those last days of formal talks as akin to "jury duty in a bullring." By which I meant long hours of tedium and waiting interrupted by occasional high drama and flashes of fancy capework. And, of course, a lot of bull.

Over the next three days my negotiating colleagues and I found ourselves in such disparate locales as the nondescript meeting rooms of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the office of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and an arena at the LA Convention Center filled with more than 3000 cheering writers. All part of trying to make a deal and all quite bizarre.

There was and is a staggering amount of misinformation. Second-guessing. Spin. And outright lies. Rumors become fact. The simple end of a meeting is characterized by the other side as a walkout and then reported as such in the press. Truths are distorted, reshaped. Phony theatrics abound, gorilla dust is thrown. There was a heated argument about the number of chairs in the meeting room, a trumped up hissy about when the strike was supposed to begin.

Another mindboggling revelation is the depth of the lack of comprehension by studios and networks of how the creative process works. At a level far worse than I imagined, they can't seem to fathom what it takes to write a script, reacting just a few evolutionary notches above the lowest common denominator viewers who think the actors simply make up their lines. No wonder they seek to pay us so little.

Screenwriter Marc Norman ("Shakespeare in Love") has written a new book on the history of the screenplay craft titled "What Happens Next." It demonstrates that not much has changed in studio attitudes toward scenarists since the days Jack Warner would walk by his studio's writers building to make sure he could hear typewriter keys being hammered. The dreaded Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures used to do the same thing, but as he heard the sound of typing would snarl, "Liars!"

At one point during negotiations, it was seriously propositioned to us that writers who base their scripts on history or contemporary real life events should be paid less than those who create an original story because they don't have to use their imaginations as much. I am not making this up.

I was reminded of the old joke about the logic of civil engineers: if it takes a woman nine months to have a baby, they're convinced that gathering nine women together will produce a baby in a month. Come to think of it, studios often throw endless numbers of writers at movies like the Irish were hurled at Scottish warriors in "Braveheart" (written by Guild member Randall Wallace) -- all in the hope of getting birth to a single, "Titanic"-like smash. The success rate is about the same.

The crux of what we're striking for is a fair and respectful contract that allows us to share in current and future revenues from the Internet and other new media. They tell us that this cannot be done, that it's too early to have a business model, that they have no idea if there is money to be made.

But money is being made. They simply don't wish to share it any more than they wished to share revenues from VHS tapes or DVD's. They told us then there was no business model, too. Fool us not just once but twice, okay, shame on you. But fool us a third time -- on new media -- shame on us. Big time. We can't let it happen again. Our future livelihoods depend on our success. And so we strike.

What we're down to is a package that will cost the studios and networks around $150-160 million, spread over the three years of the contract. That's about twice what Viacom paid Tom Freston to buy him out as its CEO. A little less than what Merrill Lynch is paying Stan O'Neal to retire as its chairman and chief executive. Less than what Citigroup was paying incoming chairman Robert Rubin. As a consultant.

Some believe the studios and networks are out to destroy our union, that we are as vulnerable as the rest of organized labor has been since the Reagan years and especially since the tenure of this Bush White House. They seek to portray us as overpaid and self-indulgent, when in fact at any given time, half our members are unemployed. Most of us are part of the middle class that labor fought so hard to build and which others now shortsightedly seem bent on destroying.

And so we turn our pens to picket signs. We march and chant and even have the inflatable giant rat now so familiar at the site of labor protests. We must win, not just for ourselves but the future generations of writers to come. And I find myself saying to myself, as Gregory Peck yelled at David Niven in "The Guns of Navarone" (scripted by the late Writers Guild member and blacklist victim Carl Foreman),"You're in it now -- up to your neck!"

Help.

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.

copyright 2007 Michael Winship

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