Screenwriters of the world unite! The WGA go on strike.

Fred Rowson 15 November 2007

Money is, once again, the motivating factor behind this strike, as in 1988 the writers walked out (or shut up, or put the lids back on their pens) over the then new area of video, which at that stage was an unproven market. Now video has changed to DVD, which is the primary source of income for studios, meaning that the .3% revenue that writers negotiated in 1988 is starting to look a bit silly.

Thus, the WGA is up in arms about their residual income from the sale of DVDs, and the income they believe that they should be receiving from the mystical area that has been dubbed “new media”, which essentially compromises the showing of material on the internet, mobile phones, and its transferral to any other kind of format.

So to what extent does this affect our beloved Motion Picture Industry? Well, at the time of going to press, not a great deal – films currently in production no longer need any input from their scriptwriters. The greatest threat to the silver screen is the expiry of the contracts of the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America, which is due to happen in July next year. If by this point the WGA is still dissatisfied, then the three guilds could unite to form an industry wide strike. Watch out summer blockbusters of 2009. But until this veritable apocalypse occurs, this writer shall step out of the role of Nostradamus and into that of a mere fairground fortune teller.

Given that the strike is currently at a standstill, the greatest damage will be to the television industry, as many American TV writers are also showrunners. A showrunner is exactly what it claims to be and more: a writer, who oversees the production, direction, casting and distribution of a television show. In America this is somebody like JJ Abrams, of Lost and in Britain, this is somebody like Russell T Davies of Doctor Who. Following a letter from Shawn Ryan, showrunner for The Shield, showrunners have now begun to walk out on all of their duties, not only that of writing, despite the fact that the WGA specifies that only the writing is required to be abandoned. For the foreseeable future, American television and its import into the UK is set for a decline.

While it is easy to be cynical about the WGA strike, it important to understand that the media portrayal of Hollywood writers as millionaires is grossly unfair. Aside from those such as Abrams, many writers often struggle to make a living in an industry where periods of unemployment are common. After all, these are people who are only asking to be paid for the work they perform, which regardless of earnings is surely a fair request.

The details of this case are worth understanding, as the negative portrayals painted by the studio bosses and the efforts of Arnold ‘we’re doing everything we can to help, but I’m obviously biased towards Hollywood’ Schwarzenegger often cloud what is an obviously unfair situation for those who lay out the blueprints of our popular culture.

Fred Rowson