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Years before a hero appears on the big screen at a star-infested movie premiere, a writer sat down alone and started to write. This writer labored for months or years, creating the characters, tweaking the dialogue, researching the setting, lining up an agent—all in anticipation of the moment when the screenplay is sold and the writer is left behind, usually without any creative say over how the movie is changed and the script is rewritten. By the time the film premieres, the writer is usually forgotten—the anonymity of writers at the Academy Awards stands as proof.
With a writers’ strike deadline looming at midnight Tuesday, America’s movie and television industries have been forced to confront the legitimate demands of screenwriters for a greater stake in the entertainment business. A different industry merits a new contract, and we support the members Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) in their demands for a fair share of revenues as well as additional credit and creative control. Though the industries have thus far expressed little willingness to compromise, in the interests of consumers and of the many others employed by Hollywood who will be hurt by a strike, we urge the networks and studios to change their minds.
The entertainment industry has vastly changed in recent years. Television advertisement costs have tripled over the last two decades; movie production costs have plummeted. And yet the formulas used to decide the “residuals” that fall to writers have not kept up. When the residual formulas for basic cable networks were drawn up in the early 1980s, cable companies were in their infancy. Today, over 70 percent of American households have basic cable, and five major cable companies now out-profit the small “weblet” networks—UPN, Fox and WB—but the residuals for cable companies remain at a reduced rate. These weblets have also experienced vast increases in their advertising revenues, but these profits have not been shared with the writers.
Though the industries might have changed, the importance of writers’ contributions has not. More consumers than ever now benefit from writers’ work through the expansion of cable as well as videocassette and DVD sales, foreign television success and the Internet. Though more Americans pay for their entertainment, American writers see little of the profit. The industries owe their writers fair compensation for the greater profits their work now creates.
There are also reasons for consumers to support the guild. Writers will never replace directors in supplying the creative vision for a movie, but allowing the writers to take greater part in the collaborative movie-making effort will make movies less formulaic and place more emphasis on well-written films rather than cookie-cutter entertainment. Writers in all fields deserve more credit than they currently receive, and the last writers’ strike in 1988 failed to achieve these goals. A stronger emphasis on good writing will lead to better movies.
Though we agree with the demands of the WGA, we worry about the possible side effects of a strike. Thousands of people are employed by the entertainment industries—cameramen to costume designers, electricians and dolly grips—who would be severely hurt by a prolongued strike if a contract cannot be negotiated before tomorrow’s deadline. We are also concerned about what the studios might do in the event that their writers are gone; after all, there are only so many “Survivor” imitations we can stomach.
Yet it is the screenwriters’ legal right to strike, and when the WGA’s demands are reasonable, the onus falls on the studios to work toward compromise.
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