Business

Who strikes?

Today, writer-producer Craig Mazin and web entrepreneur Matt Edelman discuss the traditional view of labor as it applies to writers. Later in the week, they'll discuss why writers should or shouldn't be given special consideration with royalties, new media, the tactics of the two sides in the strike and more.

'Labor' because studios say soBy Craig Mazin
Dear Matt:

I haven't been allowed to write a word since Nov. 1, so forgive me if I seem irrationally exuberant as I put words to paper.

As you know, I can't do my job right now because there's a strike. I abide by those strike rules because I'm in a union — a real union, the kind federally certified by the National Labor Relations Board.

And the NLRB only certifies unions of bona-fide employees.

This is one of those hard-to-challenge facts, like the wetness of water. Maybe that's why I'm so puzzled when people suggest writers aren't really labor and management isn't really management.

Sure, it's easy to see that we writers aren't hospital workers or janitors or any other employee normally associated with the word "labor." We don't punch clocks, we don't work shifts, there's no factory floor and a surprising number of us not only don't wear uniforms, but occasionally forgo pants when plying our trade.

All irrelevant.

The United States features a lovely quirk of copyright law known as "work for hire." The work-for-hire doctrine states that employers may commission employees to create certain works of intellectual property while still retaining authorship.

In other words, when I write a screenplay in France for Canal Plus, I'm the author. When I write a screenplay in the United States for Universal Studios, Universal Studios is the author.

The companies who employ us are very insistent upon this. Indeed, in every contract I've ever signed, there's a cute little dichotomy enshrined in the legal arrangement. The employer makes me swear that I'm definitely the writer of this original work, and then they make me swear that they're actually the author.

The companies don't do this to be cute. They do this because the movie business is most accurately described as "the intellectual property exploitation industry." The companies we're currently struggling with are experts at mining intellectual property and then squeezing every ounce of juice out of it through movies, home videos, televised rebroadcasts, airplane exhibitions, merchandising, theme park rides, novelizations, soundtracks, sequels, breakfast foods, home pregnancy kits, space-based missile defense systems, et cetera.

So when people ask why we writers call ourselves "labor," the easiest answer is that we don't — the companies do. They demand that we be employees so that they can reap the full benefits of copyright exploitation, and that's fine. Honestly.

As long as they treat us fairly.

Because we're employees, we have to ask for residuals. We can't negotiate royalty rates. That's what non-labor does. We have to band together in unions of employees to collectively bargain for fair compensation for the reuse of the fruit of our authorship.

So if you're fuzzy on who's labor and who's management in Hollywood, here's a simple litmus test. If someone controls the copyright in a piece of exploited intellectual property (or represents the companies that do), they're management.

Everyone else?

Labor.

Just the way the companies want it.

Craig Mazin wrote and produced the hit comedies "Scary Movie 3" and "Scary Movie 4," and recently wrote, produced and directed the feature film "Superhero!," coming next spring from Dimension Films. He served on the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, west from 2004 to 2006, and he runs the popular screenwriting blog The Artful Writer.


When a writer becomes a producerBy Matt Edelmen
Craig, first know that I applaud your irrational exuberance and appreciate the pent up desire for expressing yourself through your craft. I thank you for taking on the first topic with such vigor. I must confess, though, that I see some aspects of your position falling more under the irrational than the exuberant.

Divisions between labor and management are not as cut and dry as you've described, either in entertainment or other industries. As it relates to entertainment, perhaps most off target in your comments is the alignment you've drawn between copyright "ownership" and management. That just does not tell the whole story.

Let's take another look at part of the question: "How can Ellen DeGeneres be a scab when it's her show?" The answer is that because Ellen created the show, Ellen sold the show to the studio, Ellen runs the show creatively, Ellen stars in the show, Ellen makes all final decisions about the show on a daily basis, Ellen qualifies undeniably, 100% as management. Yet Ellen does not own her show.

Ellen = talent.

Ellen = management.

Ellen ≠ ownership.

(It's worth noting that Ellen is doing more than most creators during this strike to address these responsibilities because she appreciates this complex set of roles).

Studios hire the top creative talent in Hollywood (and pay them extraordinarily well) to deliver a creative product. Part of delivering the product requires management responsibilities. Part of the high fees top talent such as you collect — and part of your residual payments — are in exchange for performing such responsibilities (this model is more applicable in television than in film when it comes to a writer's role, but the model still applies). I'm sure you would acknowledge that if the most senior creative authority on a project (most often a writer in television and a director in film) did not "manage" the project effectively, the project would be a disappointment to all parties and ultimately to the viewing public.

Further, the desired career path for most writers is to add the term "producer" to their credit. That credit — and the role that it is supposed to represent — allows a writer to feel that he or she has transcended the ranks of the writing middle class and has become one of the elite. That prized credit raises a writer's theoretical minimum fee (or "quote"), raises their profile, allows them to get a better agent, increases the size of the font used for their name on the screen and means they get more frequent accolades than when they were just a plain old writer.

While the role of a producer and the award of such a credit is often debated, a true producer is and represents management, not labor. So every writer that is also a producer has an obligation to feel schizophrenic during this strike. A creator who is a writer who is a producer who therefore is a manager — and who gets paid to be a manager — either must honor their management role or accept less money, less responsibility, less control . . . and lower residuals. Labor.

Best,
Matt

Matt Edelman is the CEO of PeopleJam (www.peoplejam.com), a lifestyle web site designed to enable people to make better life decisions through video, discussion forums and social networking. He has been a producer and executive in the film, television, Internet and mobile industries, where he has developed scripted, reality and interactive projects in live-action and animation.

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