WHY WE STRIKE: PART 1 – IT’S NOT WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
December 29, 2007.
Since the Writer’s Strike began a couple of months ago I’ve heard from several people outside of the Industry who feel the writers are being greedy and selfish to demand higher wages. Most people would be lucky to even have such a job. Why aren’t they grateful? Why do they jeopardize their own livelihoods and those of countless other people to ask for financial figures that, to most, seem absurdly high in the first place?
The Writer’s Strike is not just about, or even mostly about, higher wages. It is a forward-thinking attempt to harness what is becoming the next great entertainment medium: the Internet and other new media. Back in the days when VHS and DVDs were considered the new media, the corporations- who own all of the studios and production companies that create our entertainment- negotiated a contract with writers that called home video an “unproven market.” We all know how that turned out. Corporations convinced their own stockholders to invest in home video while simultaneously brokering deals with writers to keep them out of the playing field. Now the Internet and cell phones are the unproven market and writers are not going to make the same mistake twice.
Imagine being the creator or writer of a show like Friends. It is your imagination, determination, and talent that wills the show into existence. You’ve learned the art of comedy, you understand how to write likeable characters, and you respect your audience. You’ve put in years of hard work and disappointment to get to the place where you are living your dream to write for a mass audience. A good show doesn’t write itself and it certainly isn’t written by corporations whose bottom line is always, always the almighty dollar. You watch as a corporation walks away with billions and billions of dollars thanks to your talent. You watch as that corporation continues to thrive off your talent long after you ceased to receive any monetary compensation. And then you see it happening all over again on the Internet.
Anyone who says that a writer is selfish to demand a percentage from Internet viewing of their product is, in effect, saying that they would rather the money go to the corporation who owns the show than to the writer who created the show. That person sides with commerce over art. One is not necessarily better than the other (although I am biased). But the question to ask yourself is, “On the seesaw of equality and power, to which side should I lend my weight? Who needs it the most?” Writers do not work for a lone “boss” who pays them a decent wage and gives them holiday time and praises them for a job well done. They work for multi-billion dollar corporations who can, at any time, put them out of a job if they don’t bring in the sales. To bring in sales a show must be popular enough for a large audience to consistently tune in. That encourages advertisers to pay for commercials in the show’s time slot and ad sales are where the money comes from. If AT&T isn’t happy with how many people are buying cell phones, the show is finished.
Unions are not the enemy. Entertainment unions were created because, like every other industry, artists were being exploited. And I use that term literally. They endured the same godforsaken hours and working conditions as every other labor force that found its relief in unionizing. Today Hollywood continues to feed off of non-union talent who will work for pitiful wages, poor treatment, no insurance, and no perks just for the honor of doing what they love. Every artist’s ambition is to get into the union because that is how you make a decent wage, obtain healthcare, get fair treatment on set, and work twelve hours a day instead of 20.
There must be some fantasy floating around that writers are rolling in the dough. These are the actual numbers published by the Writer’s Guild:
46% (of writers) did not even work last year. Of those who do work, one quarter 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.
Artists work longer and harder hours than a lot of other professions. A typical day starts at 4:00 or 5:00AM and doesn’t end until twelve, fifteen or 20 hours later. There is no such thing as an eight-hour workday in entertainment. Sometimes there is no such thing as a break. People eat standing up and on the run. Everyone is devoted to the work and the work takes precedence over comfort. The work itself can be very physical and tiring. The artist must be on her game at all times because huge amounts of money and time are depending on it. Imagine the pressure of having to write, week after a week, a show that caters to millions of people. Imagine the pressure for an actor having to turn on, at a moment’s notice, full emotional expression while tons of technicians and equipment surround him and depend on the actor hitting his marks so they can hit theirs. Artists spend years handling poverty and rejection just to prove that they are capable of working at a professional level.
That is why there is no complaining in Hollywood about the Strike. The complaints come from people who have no idea how the Industry works or how hard artists have to fight to maintain some balance of power. Without the artists, Hollywood has nothing. Sooner or later the Strike will be resolved because, at some point, the corporations will want to stop losing money. Yes- the writers, actors, technicians, designers, carpenters, producers, casting directors and so on are all losing money every day. But it’s a sacrifice worth making. Take any non-union artist off the street and ask them if they would like their dream job handed to them on a plate or if they would rather pick up a sign in order to secure their future spot in a union. Everyone I know would take the sign.