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net.wars: Strike

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 November 2007


The newly minted Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing has advised writers to remind themselves: "Without me the literary industry would not exist: the publishers, the agents, the sub-agents, the sub-sub-agents, the accountants, the libel lawyers, the departments of literature, the professors, the theses, the books of criticism, the reviewers, the book pages – all this vast and proliferating edifice is because of this small, patronised, put-down and underpaid person."

Wendy M Grossman

TV and movie scriptwriters are usually better paid than novelists, but - if you read William Goldman's several books about screenwriting - the general position of the writer in Hollywood is somewhere beneath contempt ("Did you hear the one about the Polish starlet who was so dumb she slept with the writer?").

Bad casting can break the finest scripts (think Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan in Casablance). But casting can't make a dud script shine. Without writers, nothing.

There's no doubt that the TV studios are in a stronger position than they used to be. Current trends like reality TV, talk shows, game shows, and sports (televised poker, anyone?), plus the ever-increasing back catalogue of movies and shows, mean that the seemingly infinite number of TV hours can be filled somehow. The audience, long-term, seems secure: broadcast TV has ease of use.

But the studios are also in a weaker position. The mass audiences once commanded by the Big Three US networks are splintering into myriad smaller channels. Two decades of home video sales and rental have also demonstrated media companies' ability to turn apparently threatening technology into large, new revenue streams. And the writers' position is simple: if you're going to go on making money off my work for a century (as the term is under current copyright law), I want some of it.

The Internet is also catching the studios in a new kind of bind previously experienced primarily by politicians. In 1988, the last time writers went on strike, it was still possible to say different things to different audiences and not get found out. It was before a lot of media concentration, there were more companies involved, and fewer of those companies were public. Today, we find it easy to follow the difference between what big media companies are telling the courts ("file-sharing is bankrupting us") Wall Street ("digital media are growing like crazy and creating new revenue opportunities, if not streams") and what they're telling the writers ("no money, sorry"). Fan support for the strike is also much easier to organise and much more visible.

The late British journalist John Diamond once set off a small firestorm in the Fleet Street Forum by arguing that writers shouldn't be paid royalties – after all, he said, you don't pay your plumber every time you use the bathtub he's put in – but should be well-paid up front. I understand that this is a variant of an analogy made famous by Lew Wasserman, who originally said it of toilets.

Diamond held that this remained true even if your plumber installed a bathtub so fantastic and elegant that you were able to charge money for tours through your home for people to look at it. My own belief is if the plumber were that good he'd be mounting his own exhibitions and pocketing the ticket revenue.

But writing isn't like plumbing, in that if you know how to install a functioning toilet the chances are very good that you can keep installing them, year after year, in a reliable fashion, for enough money to make a living.

Writing, by contrast, can be a completely freakish business, subject to luck, timing, and accident: you can write a billion-dollar hit one year, and then spend the rest of your life unable to write anything else that anyone wants to read or see. Participating in the profits of your work, therefore, is compensation for the high-risk nature of being a creator of any kind. It's the same trade-off as putting your money in a savings account earning a modest 4 percent per year versus buying tech stocks.

That said, Diamond was primarily talking about journalism. It's not so long since journalists by default retained the right to resell and exploit their work. Periodical publishers began to shift in the 1990s to all-rights contracts that included electronic media. Young freelances often don't know any better than to sign these contracts; older ones trying to argue can find themselves out of work. It's been bad enough in journalism, where freelance incomes haven't budged in 20 years, but at least journalists can keep working, like plumbers. A Hollywood writer's employment is far more fragile.

In an honest world, I think publishers in the 1990s and studios now should be able to say something like: "We know these new media are going to be big winners for us. But we don't understand the business model yet, and we don't know where the revenues are going to come from. Give us a five-year moratorium while we figure things out, and then we'll negotiate in good faith to ensure you get a fair share."

That no one can say this and be believed is Hollywood's own damned fault after decades of "creative accounting" to ensure that big hits are never profitable enough to owe creative artists their cut.

Time to pay up.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).