On Monday morning--after nearly a week of promising to do so--members from the Writers Guild of America walked out on their jobs and formed picket lines at major studios in New York and Los Angeles. For now, the 10,000 or so members of the WGA are not allowed to pitch to or negotiate with a struck company. They may not provide any writing services, and they may not sell or option literary material to a struck company. Writers, directors and producers can continue to do their jobs, but they can’t do it with any new words.
Why has the WGA called this strike? Last Wednesday at midnight, the Minimum Basic Agreement between the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers expired. That contract sets the minimum standards for compensating writers. The two groups were unable to compromise on about two dozen areas of contention. But the central sticking point boils down to one general area: nontraditional media. The studios are making a killing on it, and the writers want their cut. In the past couple of decades, the movie industry has moved far beyond traditional theaters as a primary revenue source. We now have DVDs, cable TV, satellite transmission, broadband downloads, iPods--so many new ways of absorbing media it’s hard to keep track of. In many cases, these new forms of media aren’t part of the decades-old MBA contract. DVDs, for example, are covered under current home video residuals. However, in recent years, DVD boxed set sales of TV series have stormed up the charts, providing a windfall for producers. (Universal, for example, set a studio best this quarter, selling 700,000 units of the $60 Season One set of “Heroes.”) Writers, however, see only a tiny fraction of this money (about 5 cents per unit in most cases). By way of comparison, novelists receive about 500 times what TV and film writers get off sales of their books.
Although DVDs are relatively ingrained in modern media, burgeoning fields like cell phones, online streaming and video-on-demand are just now being born. They may not be turning a huge profit right now, but they could in the future. Any time a new method of distributing films comes along, it must be worked into the contract, otherwise compensation doesn’t trickle down from producers to stars to directors to writers. There’s no telling what sort of new technologies will crop up in the coming decades, and the WGA wants to make sure its members get paid for their work, whether it arrives via high-def DVD or nuclear brain implant.
Sure, sure, writers should get their fair share. But what does all this mean for us as consumers? Well, depending on the length of the strike, it could have quite a noticeable impact. The first, immediate effect consumers will see is that scripted, live or live-on-tape shows will vanish. “The Tonight Show,” “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” are, for now, off the air. Reruns can take their place for a week or a month, but topical shows like that will soon wear out under the weight of untimely reruns. (Robin Williams plugging License to Wed? Who wants to relive that?) By the end of the month, daytime soap operas will run dry, forcing them to rerun old episodes as well.
Primetime television is in a slightly better place. Most scripted sitcoms and dramas have at least eight or 12 completed episodes in the can. The networks have been extremely hesitant to cancel underperforming shows this season and have even stockpiled a few as “midseason replacements.” (ABC’s “Cashmere Mafia” and FOX’s “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” are waiting in the wings to take up the timeslots of their fallen comrades.) Basically, primetime viewers have until early next year before they feel the heat from the strike and start drowning in a sea of reruns.
Movies are harder to figure out. The studios have fast-tracked as many productions as possible, hoping to build up their inventory before the shutdown. (That’s one reason a dozen films are shooting in Albuquerque.) Preproduction on next summer’s blockbusters is normally going on right about now, and Hollywood has raced through those films at warp speed. Studios always have plenty of extra films in the vaults that don’t get a fair shake at the box office. From the looks of it, we’re covered through the end of summer. At the worst, we’ll see a bounty of independent and foreign films being promoted come July, which isn’t such a bad thing.
The last time the WGA went on a full-fledged strike it lasted from March 7, 1988, to Aug. 7, 1988. It’s estimated that the 22-week strike cost the TV and film industry a collective $500 million--a figure that would run into the billions in today’s economy.
At this early stage, the WGA and the AMPTP seem awfully far apart in their negotiations, meaning this strike is likely to last for at least a little while. Some say the 1988 strike delivered a blow to ratings and revenues from which the industry has never fully recovered. If this strike lasts more than four months, it will have a profound effect, flooding the second half of the 2007-2008 TV season with reruns and reality shows and noticeably hampering production of Christmas 2008 films. If the strike drags on, you can fully expect consumers to lavish their attentions on other forms of entertainment (like the booming video game industry, for example). By the time the strike is over, many Americans may be too mired in “Halo 3” to care.