Revolution #115, January 13, 2008

Film, TV and Radio Writers on Strike: Why It Matters

Lately, if you turn on your TV to watch your favorite shows, all you get is reruns. The creative minds that write these shows and their union, the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), have been on strike since November 5, 2007.

The WGA went on strike because they felt they were not getting a fair contract from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents the six major studios: Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros.  (These studios are owned in turn by even bigger corporations.)

At the heart of what the WGA is fighting for are residuals. These are payments, on top of the salary they receive for their scripts, to writers when the movies or shows they helped create are re-run on TV or are sold to the home video market (VHS tapes or DVDs).  Currently, writers get residual payments of about four cents per DVD, which they want doubled to eight cents.

More importantly, the WGA wants residuals for “new media”—payment when shows are streamed over the internet or downloaded onto computers and iPods. Currently, writers receive nothing from this.

Some WGA writers really make a lot of money. But the majority of them don’t—most are middle class, and it is not uncommon for them to go without work for a year. The WGA says that 46% of writers had no work last year—their entire income for the year came from residuals.

Feature film writer Erich Hoeber (Montana, Whiteout) told Revolution at the picket line outside Fox Studios, “Most of us are essentially freelance [writers] in a very difficult business where we’re always looking for our next job, and it’s these little things like residuals and health care that make it possible to do this as a middle class person.”    

According to the WGA, of those who do work, 25% make less than $37,700 a year and 50% make less than $105,000 a year. Over a five-year period of employment and unemployment, a writer’s average income is $62,000 per year.

The “New Media” and the Same Old Scam

The AMPTP argument against paying residuals for new media is that the technology is still too new and changing rapidly and, therefore, it is too early to determine what amount they can share with the writers.

There is uncertainty over how much the Internet will actually replace TV and how this will impact the industry. But heads of some of these studios and CEOs of some corporations that own them have been hinting to investors—in some cases outright bragging—about the large profits they see in the not-so-distant future.

While on the Charlie Rose Show, Rupert Murdoch, Chairman of News Corp., said that the digital revolution meant an era filled “with golden opportunities.” On CNBC, Bob Iger, President and CEO of Disney, said they already make $1.5 billion a year in digital, and Sumer Redstone, CEO of Viacom, has said his company will double its revenues from digital this year.

The AMPTP used this same excuse against paying writers residuals during the ’80s when the VHS tape (or the home video market) was something new.

The WGA went on strike then as well, but writers returned to work after five months, after agreeing to a tiny residual. The home video market then grew tremendously and became the biggest revenue stream in the industry. Last year there were $9.5 billion in theater tickets, but $16.3 billion in DVD sales and $7.4 billion in DVD rental revenue, almost triple the revenue from movie sales. (“Digital media won’t be a sideshow in the future,” Joseph Menn, Los Angeles Times staff writer, November 19, 2007) According to the WGA, the cost to writers since the time of the 1988 agreement is around $2 billion.

Changing Technology and the Anarchy of Production

In a video on YouTube, Phil Robinson of the WGA notes that technological advancement has regularly led to big changes in the entertainment industry. When sound was first developed, movies could no longer be shot based upon a skeletal scenario “written on the back on a napkin.” Developed screenplays written by skilled professionals were now required. Hollywood had to hire writers who were accustomed to being credited and paid for their work. Appalled at how they were treated, writers decided to form a union, which took a nine-year struggle to create.

The next big change brought by technology was television. Now it was easier for something to be shown repeatedly. Initially, there were no residuals at all for repeats of movies and shows. WGA negotiated an agreement in which they gave up being paid residuals for television and movies produced prior to 1960 in order to get a pension plan. 

Then there was the development of home video in the late ’80s, and the resulting strike which many in WGA saw as a failure. (In one WGA video, a striking writer notes, “They really raked us over the coals in ’88, and we don’t want that to happen again.”)

This illustrates the point Karl Marx made—how the anarchy of capitalist production (the competition between different concentrations of capital) creates a constant push towards technological advancement. The new technologies can then trigger the need for adjustments and restructuring, and not just in particular companies but in entire industries, which then have ramifications for the productive relations in those industries.

Now, there is the “new media.” Companies see a huge windfall coming of billions of dollars per year—not only increased sales but also through decreased expenses. And they are demanding that none of this be shared with writers—a potentially devastating blow to writers if, as many think, almost all television content will come over the internet within five years or so.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, told Revolution, “The fact is, with the internet residual package they are offering us, a lot more people would become not just lower middle class, but actually poor. Writing would become an untenable venture as a career.” 

At the same time, one Wall Street analyst stated that even if the WGA got everything it is asking for in a new contract, it would have a “negligible” impact on the bottom line of the companies. The writer’s blog Hollywood United noted that, “The potentially small financial impact suggests that studios (AMPTP) are more concerned about setting a precedent in new-media revenue sharing.”

The movie and television industry faces real uncertainty around how these transformations in technology will affect them, while at the same time they remain driven by the need to constantly expand their profit.  They look to the music industry, which is being thoroughly shaken by the sharing of digital media, and want to ensure the same does not happen to them.

Each new development in technology in the movie and television industry brought forward new possibilities for creativity—and at each step of the way, this potential has been lashed to the needs of capital. And if the WGA is defeated in this strike, the chains will just get tighter, and all of society will suffer.

What’s at Stake

The WGA is mainly saying the strike is about “fair pay,” about the writers getting fair compensation for their work. And many of the writers echo this—one Black writer said he was striking for “forty acres and a residual.” Some talk about the need to take action now and be willing to sacrifice so that future writers will have health care, pensions, etc.

At the same time, others talk about how the strike reflects and is connected with bigger questions, about the role of artists in society, and how their work is restricted, manipulated, and conditioned by the needs of profit every step of the way.

Writers often talk about how they chafe under this system. Ben Edlund (creator of The Tick, writer for Firefly) told Revolution, “We don’t really make revolutionary TV where we come from—once in a while we slide something in.” He went on to say that the studios have an “inhuman agenda,” and that “Corporations are not human beings. They are treated like human beings in our country, treated as human citizens. They’re from another planet, some kind of jellyfish-group-creature-who-eat-people planet. It’s really like an alien takeover.”

Joss Whedon put it even more sharply in a blog post where he stated that the strike is an issue which “will affect not just artists but every member of a community that could find itself at the mercy of a machine that absolutely and unhesitatingly would dismantle every union, remove every benefit, turn every worker into a cowed wage-slave in the singular pursuit of profit. (There is a machine. Its program is ‘profit.’ This is not a myth).”

Some writers see the strike as part of the battle against the kind of world the Bush regime wants to bring about. In a column for the L.A. Times, Jay A. Fernandez wrote: “In interviews over the last month or so, producers, writers and managers have been musing that the debilitating battle between the writers and their corporate employers mirrors the liberal citizenry’s frustration with what they perceive as the condescending paternalism of the Bush administration. In this model, what the writers object to is a business and political culture that increasingly seeks to disenfranchise them from having a say in huge decisions about their industry’s future, and thus a measure of control over their own professional identities and livelihoods. ‘Trust us,’ the companies seem to be saying in a dismissive echo of Bush policy, ‘we know what’s best for you.’”

Fernandez cites an unnamed executive quoted in Variety recently: “For them [the writers], this is not a writers strike. It’s about changing society…We are so frustrated. We’re dealing with people who don’t care about this community. They [the writers] care about making social change in America.”

There are many progressive and radically minded people working in Hollywood. Though there are an awful lot of movies and television shows which reproduce the worst of society, or are just lowest common denominator pablum simply created to make money, there are also a lot that challenge dominant ideas and oppressive relations (including ones that are openly critical of the government, like the recent movies challenging the U.S. war in Iraq (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition,and Redacted). And these works have an effect on society and are an important part of creating an atmosphere in which the direction of society and the world can be challenged.

Think of some of the shows and movies you’ve seen. Those which challenged the way you look at yourself and the rest of the world, that provoked you to think in new ways. Think of the ones that spoke in moving ways to your life and experience. Or ones that let you enter a world very different from your own, to meet new people, new places. Think of ones which confused you, challenged long-held assumptions, and got you into wild debates. Think of scenes which made you cry, or which crack you up even now when you remember them. Think of the ones you saw with friends that just provided a shared, pleasant experience. Think of the movies you took your children to which left them excited and talking a mile a minute about what they saw.

Think about all of this and of how it all has so much to do with what it means to be a human being. Then think of how ludicrous and obscene it is that this creativity and imagination is thoroughly chained to capital and the need for profit. In a very real sense, writers have capital and its representatives looking over their shoulder at everything they write. And not just looking over their shoulder at their work, but sitting on it, controlling it, and many times censoring it. (For just one example of this, check out Redacted...and Banned” Revolution #111, December 9, 2007.)

The Future Society and the Unfettering of Imagination

It doesn't have to be this way. Human creativity and imagination need to be unfettered, and they can be—in a new socialist society under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Such a future society will to the maximum degree possible open up space for intellectuals and artists to develop and produce their work, while increasingly bringing the masses into the realms of art and culture so that they are contributing to this process and becoming part of it—engaging, learning, criticizing, and creating.

Under capitalism there is a big gap between mental and manual labor, where whole sections of society are locked out of the realm of “working with ideas.” Such divisions provide the material basis for intellectual elitism, privilege, and notions of ideas as private property. And in turn, such thinking reinforces the gap between mental and manual labor. An important goal of socialism is to transform this, to increasingly narrow this gap, for example creating a situation where the masses can work with ideas and participate in and contribute to intellectual, scientific, and artistic endeavors. At the same time, intellectuals and intellectual ferment, including in the realm of arts and culture, can really contribute to the dynamic wrangling that needs to characterize socialist society overall.

Socialist society, including in the realm of arts and culture, must have an atmosphere of dissent, ferment, critical thinking and the wild contestation of ideas. And think about the role of art in society where there is a tendency to look at things in new ways, to question the way things are, to take wild, creative and fresh approaches to problems in society. Under socialism this must be appreciated, given scope and developed as part of debating and thrashing out how to build a new society. Movies and other artistic expressions that criticize, raise questions, critique and oppose the revolution and its leadership should not only be allowed but funded. In arts and culture, as in society overall, there must be an atmosphere in which the masses of people are increasingly and ever more fully participating in the whole process of understanding and transforming the world. This means thrashing out and figuring out the direction of society in every realm of life, including culture. In socialist society, artistic works, like movies and TV shows, should confront and criticize those things in society—including things in the state, the party and the leadership—that stand in the way of advancing society toward the goal of emancipating all of humanity. And there should also be works of art that uphold, extol and popularize those things that do represent the way forward, including important advances and new things in the socialist society.

There will never be a cultural utopia in which every movie and show gets produced. Under socialism and even communism there will be certain necessity constraining which movies and shows are produced. But there is a way to handle this contradiction that is infinitely better than what we have now, that is freed from the suffocating constraints of capital.

Movies and TV shows (and various art forms) play a very important role in society today, so there should be no reason to think they wouldn't play a crucial role in rebuilding a new revolutionary society. Knowing and changing the world, figuring out how to emancipate humanity, includes the need to dream, to imagine, to be awed, amazed, and to be able to see or do things just as recreation.

Think of all those movies you've seen that explore love or friendship, that make you laugh or cry, those that just trip you out and leave you with a good feeling of confusion when you leave the theater. And then imagine TV and film writers being able to create such works in a whole new situation where “the bottom line” doesn't determine everything—and even more fundamentally where such artistic endeavors are seen as part of a society-wide process where there is a back-and-forth dialectic of people transforming their world outlook as they in turn change the world.

Imagine creators bringing the masses more and more into this realm so that they are engaging, learning, criticizing, and contributing to this process and becoming a part of it. And at the same time, allowing creators with interesting ideas to just go off on their own, or with others, to produce their ideas. The tremendous resource for society of human creativity—which is shackled and smothered under capitalism—would be fully unleashed to play a crucial role in the wild process of getting to communism.

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