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The Writers' Strike

The Writers' Strike

The reason no US talk shows have been on TV recently…

Total Film

February 2008

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This month: the reason no US talk shows have been on TV recently…

On one side stands the Writers Guild Of America and its 12,000-strongmembership, demanding a slice of the digital pie. On the other, an alliance of Hollywood studios, TV networks and their affiliated producers (represented by the Alliance Of Motion Picture And Television Producers). What’s it all about? DVDs and the digital revolution.

All creative talent – writers, actors, directors – get residual payments for films and TV shows after they’ve concluded their first run. The writers’ deal was struck in the ‘80s when video was king. The shift to shiny disc poured more money into Hollywood coffers (DVDs are cheaper to make) but left screenwriters with the same sliver. The real flashpoint, though, is content streamed onto mobile phones, computers and iPods. The WGA wants a share of that burgeoning pie, while the moguls insist there are no profits yet and it’s too early to predict what the future might hold (a different tune from the one they croon to investors, who hear the internet will be the industry’s saviour).

Talks crumbled in late October and now both sides are playing hardball. The moguls are in no mood to budge, while screenwriters have downed tools for the first time since 1988 – and descended on YouTube to attack “corporate greed”. America’s TV schedules have been decimated: Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show all came off air; new seasons of Lost, CSI, Heroes and The Office are in jeopardy; and Fox has pulled 24’s seventh season.

Meanwhile, WGA pickets hold banners with slogans like “Pens Down!” and bellow embarrassing chants (“We write the story-a, for Eva Longoria”). “I’m all for the writers,” mused actress Jamie Lee Curtis. “My beef is that their slogans are so poorly written… Will writing a better slogan constitute scabbing? I hope not.” And forget red-carpet premieres: the WGA picket line is the hot hangout for publicity-hungry starlets and C-listers, as the likes of Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria and William Baldwin turn up to show solidarity.

With the entertainment industry pumping $30 billion a year into the Californian economy, Schwarzenegger has urged talks while keeping his distance, the WGA eyeing his anti-union stance with suspicion. “I’m talking to the parties involved,” he growled, “because it’s important we settle this as quickly as possible.”

But Hollywood moguls are in no rush. For one thing, they’re using the strike as a chance to sweep out barren deals and cut head count. Further muddying the waters is the fact that contracts with the Directors Guild Of America and the Screen Actors Guild are also up for renewal in June 2008. Rather than negotiate one peace treaty only to have to settle two more, pundits predict the moguls will sit tight.

But however much it hurts, the screenwriters aren’t likely to blink first. “The studios are asking writers to take a gigantic step backwards,” says Knocked Up writer/director Judd Apatow. “If you watch shows on the internet, then writers should get paid an amount equivalent to what they normally get. Anything other than that is a money-grab by the studios.”

All of which will leave us deprived of our favourite US telly in the short term – and a diminishing supply of multiplex fare in the long run. Hollywood’s movie backlog should keep us going through 2008 but after that, all bets are off. British screenwriters, who don’t fall under WGA jurisdiction, could find themselves courted by Hollywood to fill the void, and one UK producer whose film has just been accepted into Sundance told Buzz he expects this year’s festival to be picked clean by studios desperate to stock up before the famine.

If the strike lasts into spring, the Oscars could be asking comedians and actors to scrawl their own material for the telecast, as happened during the last writer’s strike. That was the year the ceremony famously went without a host and Rob Lowe’s dance routine with Snow White brought a new nadir in Oscar history. If a repeat of that fiasco doesn’t strike terror into Hollywood’s greedy heart, nothing will.

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