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Strikers trying to rewrite history

CHANNEL ISLAND

Volcanic rhetoric. Heroes with provocative flaws. Plot twists that hinge on issues no one completely understands.

I tell you, this writers strike has something for everyone. It’s like “Lost” with labor law thrown in!

We all understand that the Writers Guild of America strike has something to do with residuals. Beyond that, though, the daily back-and-forth between the guild and the studios is, after just two weeks, congealing into a toxic sludge of accusation and counterattack.

It’s certainly good preparation for the ’08 presidential campaigns. The public is for now lining up with the writers against the studios, although next week’s return to the bargaining table could spawn another round of chest-thumping rhetoric on both sides.

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According to a Pepperdine University online poll conducted this month, 63% said they supported the strikers, while one-third weren’t sure (only 4% -- true contrarians! -- dared take the side of the mustache-twirling villains at the studios and networks).

But oftentimes even the writers are a bit confused by the finer points. Last week I logged time with picketers and found no shortage of TV writers who’d collected residual checks, for amounts they said ranged from a few cents to $20,000. What I didn’t find is anyone who knew breakdowns of where this money had come from or who had seriously questioned whether the figures, which the guild monitors, were even accurate.

“It’s all on faith,” said guild member Rina Mimoun, who seemed relatively serene for someone who usually works indoors but suddenly had to spend hours pounding a Burbank sidewalk outside the Walt Disney Co. in unseasonable 86-degree heat. “We put our trust in the guild.”

“We have to,” added her colleague Josh Reims.

Mimoun and Reims are not yet household names such as Steven Bochco or Dick Wolf, but they’re pretty high up in the TV writing echelon. Mimoun is a former showrunner for “Everwood” and before the strike was working as co-executive producer on ABC’s new drama “Pushing Daisies.” Reims is the executive producer and showrunner on ABC’s new prime-time soap “Dirty Sexy Money” and previously supervised ABC’s “What About Brian?” and has a writing resume that includes “Everwood,” “American Dreams” and “Felicity.”

These kinds of credits inspire more than a little envy among less-fortunate colleagues. As Reims was trying to reel off by memory some of the percentages involved in the residual payment system -- while conceding he wasn’t 100% solid on all the revenue streams that make up the checks in green envelopes periodically cluttering his mailbox -- a fellow picketer muttered, “I would love to have 5% of Josh Reims’ salary.” This provoked a hearty chuckle but no comment from Reims.

If the elite TV scribes don’t understand all the issues involved in their own strike, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Well, as a public service, this column can simplify everything for you. Or try to, anyway.

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Here’s the situation in a nutshell. Back in the 1980s, the guild (yes, the same one that the writers say they now are putting their trust in) made what looks like in retrospect a horrible deal. The writers agreed to take residual payments -- which have existed in various forms since 1953, around the dawn of commercial TV -- worth 0.36% of the studio’s take on home video sales. (Residual checks also include money for things such as foreign TV telecasts and airline entertainment.)

Why such a paltry amount? Because the studios told the writers, in what sounded reasonable at the time, that the video market was in its infancy and that no one knew how big it would be or whether it would be profitable long-term.

We all know how this tale turned out. DVDs came along and the home-video market was transformed into a nearly $13-billion-a-year gold mine that’s given millions of consumers well-stocked movie and TV libraries and has, yes, propped up the studios’ fortunes.

The residual deal, meanwhile, was never renegotiated and kept looming as a flash point in contract talks (the five-month 1988 writers strike was primarily about residuals for one-hour shows and foreign telecasts). The writers’ share ended up being worth between 4 and 6 cents on every DVD sold -- the same as what directors got. The Screen Actors Guild and IATSE, which represent movie and TV crafts people, respectively, negotiated DVD deals worth several times as much (although the IATSE money is paid into a health and pension fund, not to individual members).

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The writers, to put it succinctly, got pasted.

And this is why they’ve now declared jihad over the issue of residuals for material that’s delivered over the Internet or through digital downloads. In fact, developing a clear set of rules for websites and download residuals has turned into the major bone of contention between the writers and the studios. The writers don’t want to repeat the same mistakes again. They’re in no mood to see studio bosses shrug and say, “New media -- who can fathom its subtle mystery? It’s kind of like trying to understand French film criticism.”

The writers’ frustration is well taken. But it’s not just studio moguls who are skeptical of their arguments. Some analysts are too.

For one thing, the new media are a lot more complicated than DVD and video sales. No one knows what distribution format consumers will favor, how much they will pay or how much support advertisers will provide. And the money is still piddling, in corporate terms. Tom Adams of Adams Media Research estimates that today’s total digital download market for films and TV shows is no more than $100 million annually. It’s going to take years for that market to turn into something decent -- although, again, it’s understandable that writers want to reserve their place in line now, not later.

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More to the point, writers may be aiming their rage cannons at the wrong targets. Any reader of In Touch or Us Weekly knows that compensation for the top stars has soared in recent years. Many movie stars insist on “first dollar gross” deals that translate into tens of millions of dollars before any other soul sees one dime. And some of the TV stars who’ve been photographed carrying picket signs lately also happen to take home paychecks that would make their network bosses weep with envy.

Adams puts profit participation deals alone at $3 billion in extra costs for the studios -- enough to dip the companies in red ink as the DVD market flattens out.

“The top 1% are getting hugely rich while the residuals amount to a tiny sum,” he said.

Uncomfortable truths, to be sure. But then, in some respects that’s what a Hollywood strike is for. It blows away some of the B.S. that typically governs this town. Not all of it, but some.

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Out-of-work showrunners such as Reims and Mimoun aren’t necessarily worrying about such things, however. They’re too anxious about the fates of their shows, which they say are “very expensive” and therefore subject to termination if the strike lasts a long time.

Reims, who looked like he needed a good shave, pushed the baseball cap back on his head and predicted a long stalemate with the studios. And if experience is any guide, no one will be able to craft a mutually satisfying ending.

“They’re not going to be happy, and we’re not going to be happy, when the strike is settled,” he said.

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The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins@latimes.com


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