Misconceptions and Misinformation About "The Strike" on The Movie Blog

by Paul William Tenny

John Campea, the guy behind The Movie Blog made a pass at trying to boil down the potential coming writer's strike for his readers and the public in general, and got practically everything wrong in the process. His post, "Understanding The Coming Hollywood Strike" blows it from start to finish, and rather than write my own explanation of the issues and the background that led up to current fight over residuals, I'll give it all context by printing his take, and then correcting it from top to bottom with reality.

I bare no ill will towards John or his site, but this kind of misinformation can't be allowed to sit out there unchallenged.

Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTA)
The Writers Guild of America (WGA)
The Screen Actors Guild (SAG)
The Directors Guild of America (DGA)

While the DGA's contract expires in 2008, just like SAG's does, if my memory serves me correctly, the DGA has never struck in their entire existence and are the weakest of the three "big" unions, even more so than AFTRA who seem to constantly be undermining SAG whom they are supposed to be allies with. They haven't been a player for a long time, and don't figure to be this time around either. Lumping them in with the WGA and SAG, the former of the two having the most significant gripes and the most militant stance is misleading at best.

The current collective contract of the WGA runs out on October 31st. However, the Writers Guild has decided to postpone taking any action until the collective contracts of the SAG and DGA also run out in June of 2008. This is CLEARLY a co-ordinanted move in order to give all three unions a stronger bargaining position and leverage. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, the agreements that currently exist for the WGA, the SAG and the DGA will expire at the same time... JUNE 30th 2008. At this point, all three entities can (and will) call upon their membership to strike unless new agreements are reached before that date.

As I said, the DGA isn't going to strike. Most of the big players in the DGA are feature directors while most of the writers in the WGA are television writers, and the big fight between the WGA and AMPTP is over television issues primarily. There is no guarantee that SAG will strike in unison with the writers this time around when they clearly abandoned them during the previous negotiations, sitting down and hammering out a new contract before the previous one was even due to expire.

The threat of a unified strike is far more effective and far more likely than an actual coordinated strike.

1) The WGA wants provisions for internet distribution in any new contract
This is understandable for the WGA to want. As things stand, Studios are selling their product through the new medium of the internet for which there are no provisions really in the current contract for writers to be compensated for. However, the AMPTA is wanting to put off the issue of the internet for 3 years because "it's a new avenue" and they're not clear how it will work. I can understand their apprehension to commit to something that may just die in 18 months... but at the same time there is no denying they are making money off the internet right now... and therefore it is totally reasonable for the WGA to want their agreement to cover that NOW instead of 3 years down the road.

The studios want to hold off on inking new deals for digital media because in three years, it will allow them to claim that digital media is subject to the old contract terms which would pay writers residuals under the VHS/DVD formula while getting rich off the growing market. Nobody on either side thinks digital media is going to do anything other than explode in the next decade, which is why the writers are pushing hard for an equitable deal now, and the studios are pushing their new fall show pilots onto the 'net before they even air on broadcast television. This in addition to having the entire season of Lost available for free on the 'net at one point during the past year.

Does this sound like a group of companies unwilling to embrace an uncertain market to you?

WGA, through weak management and lack of foresight have been screwed with the deals made for VHS and then DVD residuals to the tune of making an average of five cents for each DVD sold. Any claim by the studio that writers are out to put them out of business should be immediately dismissed as a dishonest non-starter.

What you see in the above passage is essentially correct, but missing the background and giving too much credit to the silly studio claims that a projected exploding market is "scary" and therefore must be "examined" for a couple of years before any decision is made. They've been saying that for years about VHS and DVD and the only result has been trillions in profit for the studios, while writers have gotten precisely crap.

2) The AMPTA wants to withhold royalty payments until the Studio makes back its investment
Under the current agreement, royalties are paid on project right away. The AMPTA want to change this to a more fair system where royalties only begin to be paid out after a project has recovered its investment. In other words, if a movie cost $53 million to make, then royalties on that movie will only be paid out after the producers have made back their initial investment. This is totally reasonable and the way things should be. Those who risk are the ones who should reap the rewards. The WGA risk nothing, and therefore it is reasonable that a Producer should at least make back their investment before handing out additional royalties. This would mean a serious thrid party accounting system would have to be put in place to protect the WGA from studio accounting misconduct, but it is still the right way to do thing nonetheless.

First of all, Hollywood writers don't get royalties, they get residuals. Royalties are what you get when somebody uses or performs material that you own the copyright to, whereas residuals are a negotiated payment for the rebroadcast and reuse of material you sold the copyright to.

Second, residuals are part of the deal where studios get ownership of the property in the first place, that was what was negotiated in their favor. They want to do away with the payment while retaining the spoils of it from their end, which is not only unacceptable, it's downright laughable. Let's be exceptionally clear on this point and John Campea shouldn't feel too bad, the New York Times made precisely this same mistake in early August: residuals are not ancillary payment, like a bonus, they are fees in exchange for something, which in this case is the transfer of copyright. Writers as a whole will quit the industry en masse before they give up residuals, or allow them to be paid only after a profit is shown. *See the tail end of this section for a note on this, trust me, you'll get a good laugh.

Writers aren't getting this as blackmail, they gave up something in exchange for giving up copyright, and now the studios want to take it away while sacrificing nothing on their end. Nobody in their right mind would give that up unless they are a born sucker.

While it is true that "those who risk are the ones who should reap the rewards", those who risk are not the ones that should have an infinite and free right to resell, relicense, and re-perform a project based on something a writer made possible without further compensation, unless the studios are willing to give up ownership of the scripts. The way things are, are just barely the way they should be, seeing as how residuals are pathetically low and now the studios want to eliminate them altogether.

What writes risk isn't relevant here, because they are rejected by the system as equal partners in the production process, and we're not generally talking about production here anyway. When TV shows or movies are put into syndication on TNT or HBO, everybody gets a cut of that, and writers are absolutely no different.

Who is right on this issue? Unquestionably, unless you prefer people getting screwed, the writers come out on top. *Let's also not forget that the studios have been claiming to be losing money by the bank vault for years and years, but have yet to show the actual numbers to the WGA or any other guild for that matter to prove their case. Accusations that the studios cook their books to make every show and film look unprofitable have been flying for years, and while there is nothing definitive to prove that one either, for what it's worth, the studios are claiming that even The Simpsons is still losing money.

To be clear, and this is one of the things I'm talking about when I say misconceptions are bountiful, nobody takes the studios serious when they say they want to eliminate residuals, or push them to the back end. They made that argument in a press release rather than at the negotiating table and everyone saw it for what it was from the outset: a simple negotiating tactic. You demand what you know you'll never get so that when you come down from your horse, you look like you're compromising when in fact all you did was come down to what you wanted in the first place. This was never a serious demand.

3) The WGA want reality and game show writers covered under the new agreement
This one is absolutely ludicrous and I'm not going to waste any time writing about it.

Declaring your position to be the right one while refusing to defend or explain it is a sure sign of having a losing argument in virtually any situation. In this case, the issue with covering reality television is not a black and white one. The jobs that editors do on reality television is similar, if not identical to that of what executive producers do on dramas and sitcoms on a daily basis. The argument can and probably should be made, but the push to unionize that talent was unquestionably FUBAR'ed.

The fear was that if the attempt to organize those editors wasn't done now, it would be too late in a few years, and that's probably 100% correct. That philosophy doesn't give any thought as to whether or not it should be tried at all, and therein lay the reason for the screwup.

There is little to no doubt that editing a show is writing without paper, something most of us are capable of doing. If you can tell a story in your head and rearrange it into a different cohesive story, you're a writer, and that's precisely what reality editors are doing - mostly under ridiculous conditions for substandard pay and unacceptable hours, with no health coverage or minimum wages.

The only real question isn't whether or not they need to be organized, but who should they organize under. A number of them chose to stick their necks out and organize under the WGA, and had it not been for incompetent leadership on that issue, they might have succeeded, and I have no problem welcoming them under our tent.


I don't have anything against John Campea personally, and the fact I'm taking the time to respond to his misconceptions actually says a lot about what I think of him and his site. The fact that I read his piece to begin with ought to tell you that I do indeed read his site on a regular basis. That I took the time to correct most of this nonsense should tell you that I've taken the time to engage his thoughts with mine, which is no small act coming from me.

However, he got virtually every single thing wrong in that story, and it is fighteningly common. People in general and even people that are supposedly interested in and familiar with the industry seem about as clueless as the NY Times schmuck that got schooled by Craig Mazen. If you want to see a really bad beating about precisely these same issues then head on over to "The New York Times Blows It" at The Artful Writer.

Part of this I think is the fault of the Writers Guild for not clearly explaining the problems it faces and its stances on the various issues to the public, which should have been done quite some time ago. Otherwise, people just need to research this stuff more before trying to explain it to others. Mistaking residuals for royalties? Come on.


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